Trip of a lifetime – YR European Championships

I thought it might be a good idea to give a full write up on my adventures in Portugal, for anyone that might be interested anyway! I rode Eskar, the 16 year old grey gelding owned and trained by Kirsty Wiscombe. My crew consisted of Kirsty, my Dad and my two sisters Amelie and Pheobe. Our management team was Jo Chisholm, Tom Eaton-Evans, Lee Clark & Glynn Trundle.

A good starting point would be with the qualification process. For those of you that don’t know, the rider must complete a minimum of three FEI 2* or higher competitions and the horse must complete at least two to be eligible to compete in a championship. The final criteria is that the rider and horse must have completed at least one of the 2* competitions at over 14kmph as a combination. The only exception to this is if the rider is an ‘Elite’ rider, meaning that they have ridden 10 2* races, then they can ride any qualified horse at the championships without having ridden it before. Anyway, at the start of 2015 the qualifications still eluded me after retiring from my first attempt at a 120km 2* at Keysoe in July 2014 as I felt the horse wasn’t 100% and then getting eliminated at Barbury Castle in September 2014 on Eskar for lameness. So April 2015 was to be my third attempt at a 120km and to say I was nervous was a bit of an understatement. Eskar was to be my steed, and I suppose looking back I didn’t know him half as well then as I do now. We completed the 120km only to be eliminated at the end! So fast forwarded to May 2015 and I tried for the fourth time to complete my 2* with a different horse, Yawl Hill Maverick. We were successful, at last, and though this was Maverick’s first attempt at the distance and he was never intended for the championship, it was my first qualification and what was needed to get started. My second qualification was back on board Eskar, we travelled to the middle of France with the development squad to Madine in October as the last competition of the season for us last year. As one of the toughest courses I’ve ever ridden you can manage my surprise when I actually passed the final vetting!!! And took 2nd place! So a huge success and my second qualification in the bag! My third and final qualification was at Fontainebleau, France in April this year. As this ride really needed to count, I had to ride over the 14kmph speed requirement. Luckily we cleared that easily riding safely over 15.5kmph for the ride. So that was the qualification process, it took a while, but we got there in the end! So to reiterate it took a solid two years of trying to get qualified, the amount of time, energy and resources invested in getting to this stage was immense.

So the next hurdle to getting to the championships was the travelling. As a team we started looking into this at quite an early stage, as it was a whopping 1200 miles trip! And we were all very aware that the heat during the journey would be a further challenge. We planned to travel the three horses down in two Equitrek trailers. The trailers had electric fans fitted which turned out to be the best investment of the entire trip as despite travelling in 36C heat, the horses hadn’t even sweated up. Another problem was the sheer number of hours the horses were expected to be standing still in the trailer for. We divided the journey up into four days, one day in England getting to Dover, one day from Calais to the south of France, another day to Palencia in Spain and the final day arriving at the venue, 20km south of Lisbon. We stopped as many times as we could during the journey without adding on too much time to delay the travelling days excessively. We also made sure the stops we took we used efficiently, allowing the horses to walk around and loosen up as well as get their heads down to try to clear their respiratory tracts as much as we could. Despite the significant challenges the travelling presented all three team horses arrived in really good shape. I gave Eskar Equiform’s ‘Travelwell’ paste every day and I think this really contributed to his super arrival at Rio Frio on the Monday before the race.

Over the first few days we didn’t ride the horses as we felt they all needed to have some chill time and an opportunity to rest. We did however have corals, which though there wasn’t any grass in them, we were able to put the horses out to at least have a little bit of more exercise than just being in their stables. We also hand-walked them morning and evening which gave us a chance to see bits of the route and look around the cross country course – it’s a really good one! By Wednesday evening, we decided to take the horses for a 30min ridden walk out preceded by a 30min in-hand walk. All went smoothly and all the horses still looked brilliant, if a little excited. On Thursday we rode in the morning for an hour, incorporating 10mins of trotting. Once again, the horses were fine and seemed to be coping with the heat really well.

On Thursday evening there was the opening ceremony. I’ve attended a few before but this has to be the best so far. Our Chief D’Equip, Jo Chisholm, organised our uniforms from the official Team GB supplier Toggi so we all had our matching polo shirts on, riders, crew and the management team. It was a spectacular affair with lots of spectators out to see us and all the other participating countries parade down the streets and stand on stage for our national anthems.

The pre-ride vetting was on Friday at 3pm. I decided not to ride Eskar in the morning and just to hand walk instead. To ensure that Es was completely warmed up and we passed the pre-ride vetting my super crew, Amelie, walked Eskar for two hours before the vetting. As you can imagine it was mid 30C heat at this point in the day so it was a bit of a feat in itself. Despite my concerns and worry we passed pre-ride vetting with a straight A card but a slightly high pulse of 48. We decided that this was due to the heat and the amount of walking beforehand. After vetting, it was a bit of race to get a hold spot and a crew spot. The organisers said that no-one could set up their crewing areas after the last horse had vetted, but this was changed to 4pm and 3.45pm people had already begun fighting for spaces. Despite this, we did manage to get a reasonable amount of space in the crew area and plenty of shady room in the hold area. It took a fair amount of time to get all the crew and hold areas set up but we wanted to ensure we had plenty of water and ice chests ready to fight the heat the following day.

Race day came along all of a sudden and at 4am Es was given his breakfast. At 5.15 Amelie took up her position of walker whilst Pheobe, my other sister and crew member, and I got my tack all sorted ready to go. We have a system that we tack up piece at time between laps of walking to get him warmed up. So after about 6 rounds he was eventually tacked up at around 6am. At 6.15 I got on and Es was feeling very up for it! It was pitch black and there was a massive atmosphere at the event as you can imagine. We were all told to ride as team but in the dark I couldn’t even see Caitlin or Charlie. At about 6.20ish I did see them briefly but we managed to get separated just before the start again. As Eskar is very strong, I really didn’t want to get caught up in a huge mass start as I didn’t really trust my breaks. Despite my best attempts to avoid a crazy start, all riders were told to go into the starting field where all the horses were cantering around in a 50m circle waiting for the countdown! I did manage to get Es to walk/jog off in the opposite direction and find a bit of space so I had some hope of control. At this point I had a little cry in the dark on my own, like you do, but I soon got over it as I heard over the speakers that we had 30sec to go. After the countdown, the horses went out at quite a pace and I was really impressed I managed to keep Es moving calmly forward towards the start without being tanked off with. Just as I was about to cross the start line I noticed one girl struggling to get her horse to go forward out onto the track as her mare seemed frightened by the whole scene so I did a circle back to give her lead out which worked so we ended up riding across the start together. It took about 3-4km for me to find my team mates, Caitlin and Charlie, but after this we did manage to stay together to ride as a team. One of the strangest things about a championship is that despite the fact that we were travelling at 16.5kmph we were in dead last position on the track. The loop went really well, I was so pleased with how Es was going and the speed we went at. We slowed up for the last 1km too to ensure we entered into the vet gate nice and chilled. In hindsight, we probably slowed up a bit too much as Es’s heart rate was 49 the moment we put the monitor on. We went into vetting first of all our team mates as we agreed we should all vet as soon as we could and then regroup in the hold area. Rather guttingly the vet asked for a re-trot. Es was looking great in himself so I was disappointed that he didn’t trot up with his usual enthusiasm. Sadly, after a re-trot for a three card trick, we failed on gait. Though I was of course upset that my ride had been cut short, and what I had been working towards for two years was over in a matter of minutes, I had a lot to be happy for. It was such a huge accomplishment to get to there, to get qualified, to make all the arrangements, to travel the horses there successfully and to ride to our plan. I couldn’t have asked for a better first loop so I’m happy that I did the best I could. Equally disappointing news was that Caitlin’s horse had also failed on gait in the first vet gate! And by the next vet gate Charlie’s horse also failed on gait. So there was to be no British finishers in the race.

Riders and crews took the rest of the day to start getting packed up and spectating what was a really great event. The horses began their journey home, along the same route, with the same stops, on Sunday morning. The fit to travel inspection was a bit satisfying because Es was still only slightly lame and was certainly no worse than on race day. I’m sure he will be sound very soon. I had to fly home on Sunday evening as I’m the organiser of Hanslope endurance ride this Sunday 11th. Sadly my return journey hadn’t gone as swimmingly as the journey out I ended up getting to my home on Monday morning at 3am. Anyway, that’s sort of the end of the story with Portugal as the rest of this week has been all about Hanslope! Es arrived back in the UK last night and will be back out in his paddock on Thursday morning.

Looking forward to the future I would definitely like to ride at another championship for Team GB and I do still have another year of young riders. The World Championships for Young & Junior Riders is being hosted in Italy next year, so brilliant that it is in Europe and one day less journey than getting to Portugal. Equally, its 5-10C cooler so will be less of a challenge than this year.

Finally I want to say a big thank you Kirsty Wiscombe for letting me ride Eskar and to my sponsors that have got me to this point; Equiform Nutrition Ltd, Rowen Barbury, Cold One, Noble Outfitters, Torq, Just Chaps & Equilibrium.

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