Writing these reports is tricky, what to include, where to start, how long to make it! Do people even care? I’m never sure but anyway here goes.
I’ll start at the logical beginning of the trip which saw my sister (number one crew) and I getting up at 5.30 to make our plane to fly out to Pisa on Thursday morning. I had an awful nights sleep, not an uncommon occurrence for me, but I did arrive in Pisa feeling slightly jaded. Stepping off the airplane you could feel the immense heat and humidity. Even though we’ve been having abnormally hot weather at home, it just isn’t comparable. The only way I can possibly describe it is that the air felt thicker and just standing still breathing felt more labored than normal. Kate, the owner of Taifa De Arcos, the horse I was to ride, picked us up from the airport and we went straight to the venue to exercise the horses. I have ridden Arco once before in an 1* in Bulgaria in 2016 but even so it was nice to have a little ride out before the big day. It was so hot, peeling my shorts off and trying to pull my riding tights over my legs was hard work! We had a 30min ride of walk, trot and canter and both horses felt great. Arco is lovely to ride and really uses himself properly so even though he is much smaller than Chip he still feels like a little powerhouse.
Pre-ride vetting was at 17.00. There were 530 horses in the competition on Friday so the queues for vetting were quite surreal, and definitely not something we experience in the UK very often. Arco was super chilled in the queue and behaved perfectly. When we got into the vetting area, he and the horse that Kate was riding got terribly upset about being separated but we did manage to pass the vetting. Arco always finds the trot up very exciting and he did some leaping and bucking but nothing that I haven’t dealt with before. The problem arose once we had to leave the vetting area. He turned into a maniac pony, kicking out and bucking and rearing up and was really quite dangerous. He managed to double barrel me clean in the stomach! Which, I won’t lie, seriously hurt! But I had to hold on to him and try to get him back to the stables without actually kicking someone else which was problematic. European venues are so spread out it took about 10mins to get to the stables (it felt like ages) but we did manage to not actually kick anyone else! I thought I might throw up but luckily not and after a couple of hours I began to feel a bit more normal. Laughing was a bit painful and apparently I was very pale but it was soon forgotten. Oddly, I only have bruising on my hip bones and it didn’t cause me any bother on the ride day luckily.
The briefing was short and sweet and then we left the horses for the night and went into Pisa to have the obligatory photos with the leaning tower and had a yummy Italian meal. We were staying in the horse lorry about 10mins away from the venue but we still didn’t manage to get there until nearly midnight. We all got eaten alive my mosquitos overnight and woke up for the 5.30 alarm covered in bites! Our start time was 8am so we got to the venue for 6, found a small amount of breakfast and got tacked up and ready to go. They asked everyone to be on the racecourse (where the start was) 30 mins before so they could check everyone’s numbers and transponders. So at just before 7.30 we got on and walked onto the warm up track. The YR 120km was supposed to start at 7.30 so we were waiting for them to go so that we could go onto the racecourse. At 7.33 I heard them start and thought how strange it was that they started three minutes late and wondered how my garmin had got out of time! At 7.50 we still hadn’t been allowed onto the track and everyone was wondering what an earth was happening. There were 130 horses in my class and we were all around the gates waiting to go to the start, it was quite a confined space! We kept walking up the track to get away. Eventually, we found out that a groom had been kicked on the track and an ambulance was there so we couldn’t start yet. Poor guy! At 8.05 we were allowed onto the racecourse and found out that the start was going to be at 8.15. I did feel so bad for the horses as we had been on for 45 mins by this point and it was of course so hot it just felt like wasted time on their backs.
The actual start went off really calmly and we just went out at a lovely steady canter and some trotting and everyone was nice and calm. We were about half a kilometer in when I heard thundering hooves and looked back to see a loose horse without it’s rider come flat out galloping past! Luckily, Arco was a very good boy and didn’t react. In the first 10km a further two loose horses came past me! In all my rides I’ve never had that, and to have three only 10km on I was thinking this place is mad! Anyway, each time Arco was really good and we stuck to our aimed speed of 15kmph for the first loop. There were lots of water points on course and Arco was super at stopping and drinking and stayed drinking even when other horses cantered off. The going was more technical than I anticipated with lots of deep sand, which is just energy sapping! Also, unlike at home, the route was really straight, going for km after km without a single turn. More like Dubai and South American courses than a European course. At one point I think we went straight for 5km! But it was lovely and inside a national park so really beautiful.
We were soon into the first vet gate and it was a bit chaotic. We had to borrow a HR monitor and some random people helped poor water on. Arco’s HR was 61 so I said let’s go in. Because the vet gate was so busy our cooling lane was near to the entrance of the route rather than the vetting area. As it was so hot, by the time we had walked from the cooling lane to the vetting area, the horses had got hot again. By the time we reached the vetting it was 67 but dropping until Arco suddenly spotted his field mate and started calling putting his HR up to 67 so we had to represent. We didn’t have time to trawl back to our cooling lane so Pheobe and I stopped at the top. We didn’t have any water or a HR monitor and I was at a bit of a loss as to what to do. So we wasted a bit of time trying to cadge some water off some non-English speaking Italians. Eventually, I decided enough was enough and went to F3 and said please help us. So Arco went into their cooling lane and all their crew team starting throwing buckets and buckets of ice onto Arco and their lead crew took his HR and said 61 and we said okay let’s go in. We wasted so much time here! Anyway, HR57 and a straight A card we got through in the end.
Into the VG and we were still a bit disorganised. I had to walk back to the lorry to get my hold bag which has my essential change of socks and trainers. I cannot cope with wet feet, the skin on the bottom of my feet just feels like it’s peeling off and I can barely put weight down if I leave it so I have to change in every VG. We didn’t have any hay for Arco in the VG either and only grass nuts but he eat those and drank well. The hold time flew by, and there was nothing to eat for humans either so I just drank water, but I felt totally fine.
The next loop rode a lot better than the first I felt and we made up a bit of lost time from the represent on the first vet gate. Arco felt great, and was really keen still and drinking really well at every opportunity. Into the next vet gate and this time we were all more organised and we presented in 2mins 25sec with a HR of 57. Oddly, his HR went up to 64 after trotting and he only scored a B for guts but we knew that he hadn’t had any hay in the last vet gate and we were ready this time to rectify the issue. There was a compulsory represent in this VG so we used out time wisely and made sure Arco ate and drank as much as he could. Whilst in the hold we kept checking his HR incase we needed to cool him more as it was of course so hot and it did seem to fluctuate a lot but he was eating. We went to the re-exam and his HR really fluctuated. We had to use a second machine and it was 61 which we both were worried about because Arco has a really low resting HR. After trotting, his HR went up again and he still only scored a B for guts and a 2 for dehydration. Kate and I were both not happy with that because that’s not normal for Arco. Even though we technically passed the re-exam and could have gone back out we both decided that was definitely a bad idea and so we retired there and then. We took Arco straight to the clinic to have fluids because this would make him feel better more quickly. The vets were happy with him and he really perked up within 10 mins. Our crew bought over the hay bag for him and he tucked in so well so I think he was just really hungry.
We know that a lot of people would have carried on and perhaps decided to just ride the last loop slowly. With 500 euro completion money on the cards I’m sure a lot of people would have risked it. But to us it was absolutely not worth it. Arco is aimed at his first 3* this year and this was only a training run for him. He has already completed a 2* and showed his capability over the distance. For the sake of a completion risking him over a further 22km with the weather conditions was a pointless exercise. Arco looked totally happy a short while after and we took him out onto the racecourse for some lush grass (they sprinkle it with water every night) and hand walking in the evening.
I feel so lucky to have got to participate in the biggest race in Europe. It was an amazing atmosphere and all adds to my experience and learning. Arco is a fabulous horse and gave me a blissful 60km without a single buck, spook or pull. Pure fun! I am really looking forward to crewing him in his first 3* later on this year! Many thanks to Kate for letting me ride her super boy!
Our flight home on Saturday was at 6.40am so we had to be up at 5am to get there in time. Annoyingly, our flight was delayed for hours and we eventually got back home at 1pm! I had a planned 20km with Nahdia to do so I had a quick lunch and then went out the house to catch up on the chores of three days and ride. I then packed the car and trailer for Sunday and went to get fuel for the car so eventually got home at 8pm! I was so tired! Sunday saw me drive Chippy to Kings Forest for a 40km canter. We were lucky to have some company for once and had a really nice training session. It was cool at 20C and drizzling and it was pure bliss to not be overheating! I got back home last night just before 7. I had a nice bath, applied anti-itch cream to all my bites and went to bed at 9! Certainly a busy few days but totally worth it! Endurance is absolutely the best!