Having never visited Romania before, I was really excited to be invited to ride Elsa Del Azahar in the CEI1* 80km race on the 3rd June in Salcioara, Romania. Elsa is based in Bulgaria with her owner and trainer Katherine Mills who is a British expat. Kate was also riding one of her other horses Arco in the 1*.
I flew out to Bucharest on Friday arriving in the afternoon to make it in time for the pre-ride vetting at 6pm. Sadly, Kate had been held up at the border crossing between Bulgaria and Romania and then had tried to go the venue but had ended up on the wrong side of the river, with a 35km route round. So I ended up getting picked up at about 5.30 with a one hour drive ahead of us to the venue! Anyway, eventually we did make it to the venue and luckily we made it in time for pre-ride vetting and so we were allowed to start. The horses started on a perfect score despite being on the road in the heat for the whole day! After we vetting we set up a coral so the horses could mooch about and stretch their legs and then when and set up a hold area. Annoyingly there were loads of mosquitos so I got bitten really badly which proved to be very painful on ride day! In the briefing they told us that the start time had moved to 30 mins earlier to account for the hot weather forecast and also that there had been lots of rain so the tracks were deep in places. We then went off to find some food and then got to bed around 11.30 in the end.
We got up at 5am to feed the horses and to all have a chance to get ready. It was nice and cool and I have to say I was glad we would be getting a whole loop done before it got hot. Having never ridden Elsa before it was entertaining to get on, all 14.1hh of her! I don’t think I have ever raced a horse so small! We set off at the front of the pack but the start was on a stony track and so straight away the first three horses went ahead but we didn’t want to throw away the race by going out crazy at the start. We kept up a consistent pace throughout the first loop of around 15kmph. The last 30mins of the ride there was a huge thunderstorm and it absolutely lashed it down! So we were all soaked through but luckily it had eased up by the time we reached the venue for vetting. We untacked swiftly and both horses heart rates were down and so we went straight into vetting. For some reason, Elsa decided to tow me up the trot-up before we’d even had her HR taken and then got herself really wound up and wouldn’t stand still. The 40km race was started just at the wrong moment too so it was all rather frantic. Her HR was in the 80s so we had to leave the vetting area and given the opportunity to re-present. This made Elsa even worse because then Arco was still in the vetting area so she was getting anxious about where he was. When Arco and Kate came out of their vetting we stood them together quietly for a few minutes and decided to try again with Elsa. Kate and I both went in this time, whilst our crew, also called Kate, held Arco just outside the vetting area. Elsa got herself all hot and bothered again with her HR displaying 117! By some miracle we did manage to get her to stand still long enough for her HR to drop to 63 – phew! All As otherwise so we were allowed to continue, all be it now 12mins down on our ride time putting our average to 14.8kmph for loop 1.
The first vet gate seemed to go quickly and we were soon back out onto loop two. This was the same loop as before and both Elsa and Arco were not so keen as the first loop. Following the torrential downpour the tracks had become incredibly slippery and combined with the rising heat of the day we decided to drop the speed a bit and just ride them carefully. We wanted to maintain our position in the rankings but we knew we couldn’t catch the first three after the slow presentation time in the vetting. On return back to the venue we took our time to go to vetting, to ensure Elsa didn’t get wound up again. Elsa has also annoyingly not drunk a thing on the second loop so I was concerned about her dehydration. That said, due to our slower pace, she hadn’t actually sweated! Anyway, her HR was fine, and though she scored a 2 for her dehydration and mucus membranes she scored 1s and As for everything else with a far lower second HR too so otherwise I was happy with her. My bites on my legs were really starting to aggravate me by this point and I think this was because it was so hot so they were swelling up and constricting my knee!
The last loop was a 22km and both horses left with vigour. Elsa decided she was thirsty afterall at the first water point and after that drank at every opportunity so I was so pleased with her. Both horses flew round the last loop and were much more content to be going somewhere different than the red loop again. The ground had dried up so fast with the heat that it was riding really well too. We came across the line in 4th and 5th place and again took our time to vet to ensure Elsa didn’t get too excited! HR51 and all As and 1s to finish I was ecstatic! Super proud of this clever little pony! Despite her vet gate antics! Kate finished 4th on her lovely boy Arco so a great result for the team! Kate sure knows how to train her horses, both were looking amazing after the race and the next day!
Overall an amazing experience with lots learnt. Romanian endurance is really cool. The route was nice, the marking was amazing. The venue facilities were really good and there was a huge prize giving and celebrations in the evening. Everyone was friendly and it was just such a nice weekend! After crewing Bobby in the CEI2* a fortnight ago and now riding Elsa in the CEI1* I’m getting a serious soft-spot for ponies!
Many thanks to Kate for giving me the ride on her and other Kate for exceptional crewing! Two horses to one crew is a serious task!