Race report - kings forest

Where to start for this race report?! It feels so highly unusual to be analysing and reporting back on a successful race! Yes successful – on so many levels! And not just because we actually won the 80km CER (CEN) at Kings Forest but my leg held up remarkably well, I rode in long boots for the first time and didn’t have a melt down about my feet (if you know, you know) AND Chippy was barefoot. Added to this, we haven’t actually done any great distance since Windsor July 2021 – pre-accident. There were quite a lot of personal ‘tests’ to run through for this 80km. So whilst it’s only an 80km – it felt like a big one!

Starting with the obvious, my darling left leg. If you don’t know, I partially detached my calf in a riding accident off Spice last August resulting in a three-week hospital stay and 4 surgeries! The rehab process has been quicker than everyone imagined but for my impatient being, it’s been far too slow. The longest training time in the saddle that we did in the run up to Kings was only 4hrs of which not all of that was at canter/trot. The most continuous work we had done was only 2hrs. Given the early season status of Kings, my plan was 16kmph as I knew this should be a comfortable pace for the both of us… meaning 5hrs riding time. Honestly, I didn’t know which way my leg was going to go.

I gym, cycle and even run quite a bit and my leg has been brilliant. Progress has been largely linear and I’m grateful to say I’ve had very few setbacks from my own training perspective. However, riding is different kettle of fish as my leg has to take the direct pressure of the stirrup leather, saddle flap and knee roll as well as being used for actually staying on the horse! And Chip sure is spooky!

A lot of people assume that it’s actually my skin/the scar that get’s sore but it’s not. It’s the actual muscle, or indeed lack of, that gets painful. It can just feel permanently bruised sometimes. And worse of all is the compensatory pain that I get on the outside of my calf and hamstring.

Since picking up training this spring I have played around with different riding tights (different knee pad locations) and different socks. I worked out the worst combination at the 32km pleasure ride I did in February – so knew not to repeat that. It seems that less pressure is best so choosing the thinnest socks that are also as loose as a riding sock actually can be seems to work well. Also knee pads that don’t break halfway across the scar are infinitely helpful.

Established with the right riding tight/sock combo I felt as prepared as I could be for supporting my leg but it was going into the unknown. I really didn’t know how it would be.

The next consideration was the riding boot situation. I’ve ridden in trainers and long socks for near on a decade. This set up is what the majority of endurance riders around the world do in some form or another. However, even though my accident was a freak one, I can’t help but feel that boots may have just reduced the damage slightly. I say slightly as actually the scar starts above the inside of my knee and boots don’t come up that high! It’s also worth pointing out that of course we can’t ride in full armour and there’s nothing to say your horse won’t stand on another unprotected body part but I guess it’s a simple swap to help reduce the chance of further damage to the left leg at least.

However – I have a real thing about my feet. It’s odd I know, but if you’ve read any previous race reports you’ll know I usually change my trainers and socks every single loop. I can’t bear wet feet and usually they soak up sweat off Chip’s sides as we’re going along as well as getting inadvertently sloshed on course and then truly soaked when we come into the vet gates and start the cooling process. As a result, the bottoms of my feet feel gross and verge on painful – like pins and needles sensation. Essentially, I can’t stand having wet feet.

The thought of riding in sweat-inducing leather didn’t appeal to me and I had my trainers packed. That was a scary idea too though as I have been riding and training in my boots since I first got back on a horse in November. I didn’t know at all how my leg would feel up close and personal with the saddle if I did need to ride in trainers and long socks.

The next worry which perhaps should have been top of the list of worries was Chip’s barefoot status. I touched on this briefly in my last blog and I’ve had so many questions since I’ve decided I will write a separate blog about it so as not to make this one too long. Kings offers such perfect good going I was largely confident that he would manage well but it was still a ‘not been done before’ concept for us to test out.

And the last, but certainly not least, worry was the very quiet entry list and the possibility that we might have to ride alone. After Windsor, I think I’ve become extra sensitive to this. It’s kind of funny given just how much training we do alone! Nonetheless, in my new found frame of mind and approach to endurance – I want us to have a fun time! Riding a switched-off, handbrake on vibing pony is not fun - for either of us. And I so desperately wanted us all to have a fun time.

So there you have it, an insight into my specific lists of worries and things that could have gone wrong. Despite this, I was really looking forward to the race. Chippy had been feeling great. My leg was coping well with the more intense training, the riding boot/sock/riding tight combo seemed to be sorted. We had managed rather well barefoot at the significantly less barefoot-friendly track of Haywood Oaks just two-weeks previously. Okay we might end up alone but we will just have to manage with whatever happens. That’s the thing with endurance, you can never second guess your competitors or know how the day is going to play out…

Knowing that the 80km CER would have a relatively early start time I decided to travel up the night before so that Chippy would be rested from the journey (just 2hrs for us) and that we all wouldn’t have to get up at ridiculous-o’clock and start race day exhausted.

I use the park and ride facility at Wideham Farm quite often so I didn’t hesitate to contact Jane about booking Chip into a paddock. The beauty of entering the national vs the FEI classes is being able to stay off site until the morning of. This meant that Chippy could be out and stretching his legs and we could stay at an Air BnB rather than camping in -2C! FEI events you have to stable and since Chip lives out 24/7 at home, it was the infinitely preferred option for him to be out in a secure paddock. If you corall at the venue then you have to stay with them too which is fine in the summer, I’m not adverse to camping, but it was too cold to be enjoyable for anyone.

The money I saved on entering the national vs the FEI I repurposed on the AirBnB fees :D

Chippy was noticeable more settled in the paddock vs the stable. Obviously Wideham is much quieter than the busy venue too. One of our big challenges staying away with Chip can be getting him to eat. He’s not an outwardly stressy horse so to look at him over the stable door at a big venue you’d think he was cool as a cucumber but he’s definitely an internalizer. Represented through his lack of appetite. It’s quite frustrating and despite taking about 8 different feed choices with us sometimes he won’t eat his dinner/breakfast before the race which doesn’t set us up well for getting As for guts in VG1 or indeed properly fuelled for the big day.

However, in the paddock he ate both his first tea and his late night tea with gusto! Just like he would at home! I couldn’t quite believe it. He’s corralled before at venues and been the same as in the stable so I think the key here was actually not being at the venue. A pleasant discovery 7 years into his endurance career ahah but a frustrating one given that we have to stable the night before/after a 160km 3* - such are the rules.

Saturday morning soon came around and we were all set for a quick load up to travel the 10mins down the road to the venue. All hands on deck with my crew Shez, Pheobe and Cameron to help set up the vet gate and for us to get through pre-ride vetting. The start was 8am and vetting was at 7.30am. We arrived to the venue for 6.45am so that we could get Chip’s hand walking in before vetting/start.

It was a cold start to the day (though as it turns out not as cold as the Sunday morning start!) but still we were walking through frost to start with. We tacked up swiftly after vetting so that I could get on and start warming up properly. Chippy definitely needed his Eqco exercise sheet on to start the day!

With just three in the class, it was a sedate start and I let Chippy settle in front early on to avoid having my arms pulled out and him throwing himself around on far less than four legs. It seems Chippy passed the baton of ‘rodeo pony’ to Alice’s horse and she pulled back early on. This left myself and Gemma to ride together for the remainder of the first loop.

Chip and I set the pace as Merlin was happiest following behind and that suited us just fine. It was most certainly the sedatest first loop of a race we’ve ever ridden. Chip only bucked once on the whole loop! Crew points were effortless with super crew and in what felt like next to no time we were coming back into the venue.

1:50 recovery we were in for a 56HR and a straight A card. My boy’s still got it :D

We were now some 4 mins ahead of Gemma to leave for loop 2 and so ensued a little discussion with my crew team on the strategy. Old Bella was panic stricken. New Bella thought she might like to rise to the challenge. My crew team were adamant that we were all for team new Bella on this race and I was to go out alone. I could do it. Worst case scenario, if we really switched off, we could slow down and let Gemma catch us up.

As always the hold time disappeared before we knew it. Ice boots on and off, traumeel on, fresh numnah and girth sleeve, a new pair of socks for me (just to satisfy my own habits). Chippy picked at his feed slightly but mostly enjoyed the abundant grass the vet gate had to offer – I was happy enough with that. One Energex in and we were set for loop 2.

Chippy left the vet gate without looking back and we benefited from seeing a few horses starting their GERs ahead. Whilst everyone else was on the blue loop and we were now onto the red so we were alone for the whole 30km. However, the routes criss-crossed enough that we saw company periodically and that kept us both going.

To be honest, I was just so impressed with how upbeat Chip was to do this alone. Compared to Windsor I felt like I was on a different horse. But then again, I am a different rider. I actually wanted to do this, I was having fun, the chance of a mental breakdown on this ride was practically non-existent. Loop 2 was fun, Chippy ate up the ground and we increased our pace to come into second VG.

1:45 recovery for a HR60 all As again. Nice one Chip. We had extended our lead by approx. 10mins now so we were well clear and I felt enthusiastic and confident to go out for a fast last loop. We were a team of happy campers actually. We’d all found our groove and happy vibes were bouncing off all of us. It was such a lovely day spent all together – I can’t repeat that enough.

Chippy always finds his appetite after two loops so was eating up well. Another Energex and we set off for the last loop of 20km with serious intent. I knew we’d be alone and I was ready to ride it. I realised that our first proper win was within our grasp and after all I’ve been through over recent years I wasn’t all that willing to let it go.

Pacing at 19kmph Chippy was eager and feeling great but the early season ride and purposeful light training I had put in for Chip meant that I knew my tank was getting low. That’s the beauty of a 7yr partnership, I know him so well. To look at, I don’t think anyone could question his reserves but I could feel the subtle changes. The ever so slightly less reactive bouncing off the turn. That bit more support from me needed to ride the canter corners. I knew that we had a good lead on the others and realised we had nothing to prove by holding that pace for the last loop.

We planned ahead to support him with Energex at the last crew point. This stuff is magic by the way. So we stuck to that and before long the finish line was in sight and I was more than pleased with 17.5kmph for the last loop.

The walk back from the racing finish line was plenty long enough to go more or less straight into vetting. A hair-raising re-trot since the first one was sloppy, we passed the three card and we had done it. We’d won! At bang on 5hrs 0 mins – exactly 16kmph. If that isn’t riding to plan then I don’t know what is!

The 80km was definitely the right choice for Chip. The 100km would have been one loop too many for him. I purposefully didn’t put in a lot of training this spring – I couldn’t face it. Or maybe I just didn’t want to.

2020 and 2021 I trained both times for early season 160kms that didn’t come to fruition because of Covid and I just didn’t want to put myself and Chip through that again. Training in the crappy months is gruelling and distinctly not fun. I made a resolution a long time ago to give ourselves an easy start back to endurance and be bit kinder to myself and the left leg. So, I’m very pleased with the 80km decision afterall.

Also too, all my worries were unfounded. My leg held up remarkably well – I feel quite strongly that it was a mind over matter situation. I am quite determined it’s not going to hold me back. In fact, I am so determined to make the most of having two legs that I have entered a 164km cycle race in May and I’m entering a full marathon in June!

Fresh socks each loop worked just fine with my riding boots too. My caveat on this however was to note that it was a cool day and the jury is out on how good they are going to feel on a hot day - but we will just have to see how that one plays out.

Riding alone for 50km was also absolutely fine! Chippy and I have in the past gone training at Kings quite a lot and whilst I worried that this might go against us however I actually think it worked in our favour. He knows all of these tracks mean continuous canter. So it felt at times like riding on autopilot. He knew steady canter is what we do there and so he just kept doing it – without hesitation!

I’m so proud of our early season performance. It was lovely confidence boost and the whole team had a fun day – it was just what we needed!

I usually give 2-weeks off after an 80km but I am working away at Badminton Horse Trials for the duration of the first week of May so Chip is actually going to end up not coming back into ridden work until w/c 9th May. There seems little point doing one week of training followed by another week off. Living out 24/7 definitely has it’s perks and he should be able to pick up his work again easily enough after Badminton.

I will also book in an MOT with our vet before we attempt the 160km. I usually do this at the start of the season but having visited the vet so frequently with Spice this Spring I felt I didn’t really want to take Chip at the same time. It would have been overwhelming. The sloppy trot was less than satisfactory at the end and whilst the second trot was fine it was still a B. That’s unlikely to fly on a 160km and it’s a risk I’m not going to take.

For my own training I’m continuing to work hard at the gym and on my cardio. As mentioned above, I’ve booked myself in for a couple of endurance races of my own. After the 80km my left hip, left hamstring and both lats were a little tight the next day so these are my focus areas for the next 10 weeks.

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