Red Dragon: a first timer's perspective

Having never ridden Dragon you can imagine how excited I was when Lou (Louise Rich) suggested that I could ride Oakleaze Farm Cziko in the two day 80km back in August!

So on Friday the car was packed, and I set off to the Royal Welsh Showground. The traffic was awful so arrived a lot later than planned which meant it was pitch black by the time I got to the venue. For those of you that haven’t been to Dragon, the parking is spaced out on lots of different level. With no signal or internet connection it took quite a long time to find everyone!

We woke up on Saturday to see not a lot, as the rain was coming down and it was very dull and grey. Luckily it was showers of rain rather than continuous so we picked our moments when getting ready in the morning to stay as dry as we could. The vetting was different for me as it was in a cattle barn on concrete. Normally our trot-ups are always on grass and the sound is so loud inside, there’s no way you could get away any slight gait abnormalities because you could hear it. I was pleased to have a mature horse who wasn’t bothered by being inside as a number of younger, more inexperienced horses were quite excited by being inside the cattle barn with all the smells and had elevated pulses because of it.

The ride itself was difficult and certainly not for the faint hearted. That said, a lot of the going conditions were hugely affected by the weather, which can’t be helped of course. There were a few lovely grassy stretches were you could canter with caution but the rest of the loop on day one was a lot of muddy and slippery sheep tracks through the moors.

At times you could ride along in the heather to avoid going in the mud, which was quite deep in places, but most of the time you had to stick to the track. One of the trickiest things was just simply keeping up right and picking your way through it all as swiftly as you could. I was so grateful to be riding Cziko for my first Dragon because you need precision riding to be able to move from track to track to find the best ground to ride on. I found I was checking my garmin constantly to keep an eye on the time, because it was so hard to ride at a consistent pace. We had to use the stretches of road work to make up time which is the reverse to many rides I normally do. Despite the challenging conditions, I still really enjoyed it. It was tough, don’t get me wrong, but it was a challenge and with the right horse it was great. We finished the loop almost dry as it had stopped raining and we’d all started to warm up. We cooled the horses off in the vetting area, like you would do in a vet gate I suppose, as the venue is so spread out you couldn’t possibly get back to your trailer and cool your horse and vet within the half and hour. Cziko flew through the vetting with a final pulse of 44 so couldn’t be happier with him, giving us a grade 2.

The second day we decided to do the 36km loop instead of the 42km. This was so I could ride a different part of the mountain as the 42km would have been the same loop as before. Sunday was a different day all together, with the sun shining right from first thing. We vetted slightly earlier on Sunday than Saturday which meant we were able to get the coolest – rising out of the clouds – photo on the top of the mountain. The 36km loop was far more enjoyable, with a lot more opportunity to canter and so less pressure to be looking down at the garmin checking for time. The weather was amazing and with the skies being so clear I was actually able to see the views, which I’d missed the day before due to the thick cloud and rain showers. We would have been considerably faster on Sunday, but unfortunately a rider in front of us had fallen off with suspected broken collar bone so walked with her and a large group of horses and riders to the next check point which was about 4km away, so dropped our average speed down quite a lot. I was really sad to finish the loop on Sunday, I’d been having such a wonderful time! A highlight was seeing a large herd of wild ponies!! We finished and vetted with a final heart rate of 42 so even better than the day before. I was so thrilled with him!

I definitely want to do Dragon again. I feel that you need an experienced horse to do Dragon, certainly if you want to do multiday or bigger distances. You need a horse that you have really good control over and can ride safely without risk of tripping and slipping too much, because it would be easy for a horse to pull a muscle this way. A number of riders and horses did fall over the duration of the weekend, by slipping/tripping over the deep sheep tracks that are just that bit too narrow for the horses hooves in places. Luckily for me, Cziko is really sure footed and incredibly balanced so we didn’t have as much trouble as a lot of the horses I saw out there.

The other thing I would do differently at Dragon to other rides is to wear brushing boots and overreach boots to protect the horses from knocking themselves and to help stop them from pulling a shoe. Cziko always wears brushing boots so this is no different for him, however, by the end of the second day the overreach boots had rubbed his heals even though he’d had Sudacreme put on them. So I’d probably try the overreach boots that have the sheepskin rims on them to prevent this as well as event grease. I’d also avoid wearing pads because the most of the ride really doesn’t require them and they just contribute to slipping and sliding anyway on a course like Dragon.

And I would 100% wear a breastplate, I do this already, but to anyone thinking about going then it’s a must! The hills are just so steep in places, even if your saddle fits your horse perfectly, there will be a degree of movement going on. I also found I needed to ride a hole shorter than I normally would to account for the hills. I ride quite long and usually I do a steady canter for the majority of my rides. However, it’s not possible to do that at Dragon, and you need to be able to stand and get your weight out of the saddle for the uphills and for all the trotting that you need to do. So from a rider perspective, I’ll start training with my stirrups a hole shorted than normal about a month before.

This was my last UK ride this season sadly. I’m crewing next weekend at Royalties then off the Bulgaria the weekend after for a CEI1* and a 40km qualifier and then that’s it for 2016 :(

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