Race report: Lavenham CEI3*
Apologies for the delay in getting this blog out! For those of you that don’t know, we vetted out lame on re-exam VG2, 66km into the CEI3* 140km at Lavenham, Suffolk. However, I felt that I couldn’t really publish the blog without knowing the full story and the full story required waiting for our visit to the vet today, nearly two weeks later.
Also too, the way I’ve felt about the race has peaked and troughed over this last fortnight as I’m sure one can appreciate. Initially I wasn’t at all disappointed, to the extremity of defiantly not disappointed. Odd, right? I pour my heart and soul into the sport and I am so very thorough and dedicated to having success on the day you’d think I’d be pretty crushed. And yet, somehow I wasn’t, and to a degree I’m still not. Of course I am a little upset about not getting the result. Once the implications of failing that 3* truly sunk in I began to feel quite a lot more disappointed and upset. No championships for us in 2021. Another year wasted. However, I know that I really couldn’t have done anything differently going into that race to change the result, and so that gives me a great deal of solace.
Our preparation was seamless (though I do say so myself) running up to the event, his feet where the best they’ve been for at least that last three years, his back the best it’s been for several, his movement the most free, balanced and strong. Saddle fitting a few days before confirmed a great fit and some minor flocking adjustments for perfection we were ready to go. Training went well. He didn’t struggle once, it was all very easy. At times it just felt like going through the motions. Ticking off distances, speeds & recoveries like it was second nature.
The thing that let us down was the thing that I (nor anybody else for that matter!) have control over - the weather. More specifically, the lack of rain and consequent hard ground at the race. It really was like riding on concrete, the strain on the horse’s joints was audible. I knew this was a risk going in, but my ‘Great Debate’ blog explains why I decided to take a chance on even going to Lavenham, because it really wouldn’t be the type of course I would ordinarily take Chip to.
In training, I am meticulous about the ground conditions. I avoid roadwork a lot, if I have to go on the road I only ever walk. If the ground is hard, I walk. If the ground is slippery, I walk. You get the idea. I will only do faster work on perfect ground conditions and mostly that means I have to travel to use all weather surfaces whether that’s an arena, gallops or traveling 2.5hrs down the road to Kings Forest to play on the sand. Lately, I’ve also included water treadmill sessions to freshen up our training routine and add a further dimension to my focus on strengthening. I don’t even really hack out at home much at all. We live on a massive network of bridleways but I just don’t like the thought of concussing my horse’s legs up on the clay soil. So our work from home is very much limited to small, no-pressure (to me not really training) hack outs and schooling/lunging in the field (which is limited to 40mins schooling, 20mins lunging).
It’s fairly well documented that injuries on race day are reflections of injuries incurred during training. And that is why I am so very, very careful about the training I do and where I do it. So whilst I sit here and analyze my result, why would I even consider cantering on the ground at Lavenham, let alone attempting 140km, when I wouldn’t do more than walk on the same ground conditions at home?!
What does this mean? Should I have trained more suitably for the ground conditions? Should I incorporate some more hard-going into my routine? Should I have done a rain dance about two weeks before the race to hope for some softer ground? I’m not sure. The notion of training on sub-optimal ground doesn’t appeal to me, nor does racing on it, nor do the long term consequences of hammering horse’s legs on that type of terrain. But equally, it’s not feasible to only go to perfect races. And what does that mean for me as a trainer, rider, competitor, hopeful senior Team GB rider?
That aside, that race simply wasn’t for us. I knew going into it that it might not be for us. I knew on Saturday with the high attrition rate for Day 1’s classes that it wasn’t likely to be for us. But I had to give it a go. The decision, and hefty deposit, had to be made back in August and how could we have possibly known what the weather was going to be like. We’ve got to be very grateful for the opportunity to have even given it a punt in the circumstances this year.
Anyway, enough analysis – let’s get onto the granular detail of the race. Blow by blow.
Our start time was set to be 5am Sunday morning. There was some back-and-fourth on whether it would be staggered, which group we would start in (and at what time) and then finally back to a mass start. Pre-ride vetting on Saturday was published for 3.20pm so I wanted to try to get to the venue for lunchtime in order to set up in plenty of time to get an early night ahead of the very early start.
I took the Friday off work to pack and it took a lot longer than planned. It doesn’t matter how many times you do it, or how many lists you write, the fear of forgetting something important never fades in pre-race build up. We were camping and Chippy had both a stable and a coral to pack for. As well as the crew car kit and hold items. No less than two trunks of kit, an 85lt ice box, a camping stove, camping box, tent, four sleeping bags (because I need to sleep inside two as I get so cold), two airbeds, human food for three days, horse food for three days plus vet gate horse food tubs, haylage, 12 slosh bottles, mucking out equipment, coral posts and tape, energizer, disinfectant for the stable, limestone, electroyltes, energex syringes, traumeel, five numnahs, five girth sleeves, two curb sleeves, spares kit, five pairs of trainers and socks etc etc etc. The list goes on and on. The car was literally packed to the ceiling and the other side of the trailer bungeed down with kit. The ride info also told us there was limited water at the venue so we packed a full seven 25lt water containers with us too. All great stuff for the MPG of the car!
We had a great drive up on Saturday and though a warm 22C Chippy travelled well and we arrived in good time at around 13.15. We set up the coral first and popped Chippy straight out. He lives out 24/7 at home in the summer so I was keen to keep him out for as long as possible. FEI rules that horses have to stay in the stables overnight so he had to go in before the stables closed at 21.00. This rule is not new so I was fully aware that he’d have to stand in overnight but I guess I hadn’t put too much thought into how Chippy would feel about it. He’s such a good boy these days at the venue and so well behaved in the stables you wouldn’t really know he was bothered. But he was so unimpressed with the tiny temporary stables, I can’t even describe it. His face was quite the picture and in a mini-protest he didn’t eat and drink as much as he normally would. I waited until it was just getting dark to take him from the coral but he still wasn’t all the impressed by the situation. He’s in overnight in winter anyway and very chilled at home but he has a large airy stable with a really deep bed of Blue Ribbon Bedding so I guess a far nicer experience at home.
Between myself and my super crew of sister Pheobe and her boyfriend Cam, we managed to get everything set up in good time and before we knew it, it was time to go to pre-ride vetting. We started on straight As (of course) and a nice low HR of 40. No stress.
Once pre-ride vetting was done it was simply a matter of finalising the hold area, getting the crew car ready and everything sorted for the early start. We decided to get an early night and by 20.30 I was changed into my loop 1 outfit, bib included, and in my sleeping bag. I don’t normally sleep in my clothes but I decided it would save 15 very precious minutes in the morning. Insomnia is something I struggle with generally, let alone when I have a something important coming up so I needed to maximize my chances of sleeping. I had to take sleeping pills from Wednesday onwards in the buildup and I took some again Saturday night too. They didn’t work so well and I think at most I got probably 3hrs sleep. The alarm went off at 3.30am and I had Chip’s breakfast made up ready to go, so the first thing I did was go and drop that down to him so he had a chance of eating it.
For safety, our mass start was set across the road and we’d been told to gather at the bottom gates for 4.50am so that we could all go across the road together. Which meant tacking up at 4.30am for a 4.40am get on. In-hand walking started at 4am and we all took it turns to walk him around the stable area so that he had chance to stretch his legs and start warming up before we even got on. I decided to start with a quarter sheet on too as though 14C there was a damp and coolness to the air.
I was so very impressed with Chip’s attitude at the start. He was so very cool and collected about the whole affair. Luckily, we have done lots of riding in the dark, both when at university in Sheffield across the Peak District and since at home schooling in the field in the dark and by head torch. However, riding alone in the dark and riding in a group in the dark is a different question and I really didn’t know how he would settle in a pack situation.
We started behind a lead car which was also a new experience for Chip. I decided the safest place to be was upfront because we certainly didn’t want to be in the middle of the pack with his legs flying in all directions so as the 10 second countdown began, we were poised at the front of the start line alongside Harry Ingram. The start was actually the calmest start I’ve ever had on Chip – ever. If there is nothing else to take away from this race, we can now assuredly take on a mass start in the dark. Myself and Harry rode behind the car in a steady trot with a good 20-30m gap behind us where the remaining competitors were in a tight bunch. This was perfect for us as Chippy wasn’t at all stressed about all the lights behind him and just focused on riding along with Harry. It gave us a really good opportunity to warm up gradually but after about 20mins of trotting I was starting to want to canter – Chip is not a trot horse! It was so tricky because we all needed to stay together in order to find our way around. It was challenging to pace ourselves as a collective. The route was marked with glow sticks but honestly I’m not sure we wouldn’t have found our way around without the pace car.
We did get a couple of steady canters in before we made it to the first crew point which in all fairness was probably quite ideal. This was in a farm yard and we had to ride in to meet our crew, and then ride back on ourselves to go out towards CP2. At this crew point the only objective was to take off the quarter sheet, we didn’t slosh or offer Chip anything to drink because we knew he wouldn’t want anything at this stage or need any water on. We then had the difficulty of reversing back out of this crewpoint which turned our lead order on it’s head. We came out of the crew point at the very back. Not that I’m racing at all, the position wasn’t my concern, but it meant that Chippy’s full-scale antics came out to play. Legs akimbo. He doesn’t like being behind. This side loop was around 10km back to that same crew point so we very gradually, paced ourselves for steady overtakes all the way back to the front. It wasn’t actually about getting to the front or being in the lead, simply trying to limit him wasting energy with all his bucking, leaping and arguing about being in the lead. It took the full 10km to get back with the front runners and just as we were coming into the crew point we were finally in a settled canter and his legs were back on firm ground.
Back through the crew point this time for a running slosh. 500m on from the crew point Chippy pulled onto the long grass – classic Chip – he needed a wee. So I stood up in my stirrups and watched every single person that we’d taken so much careful time to overtake come past us. One. By. One. And when the final dribble came out we were back to last place. And the antics began all over again just for a few moments before he settled nicely alongside Sue Box. Through the third and final crew point on this loop, my crew were quite panicked to see us at the back. Pheobe thought I must have fallen off! Which let’s be honest, wouldn’t have been out of the ordinary for me and Chip. I assured her we were fine, explained the desperado wee stop, and that I was happy with our speed, knowing we were doing around 15kmph.
Into the first vet gate, in last place, we had a pretty slick team effort and we were into vetting in 2mins and 2 secs, overtaking five others to put us back into the middle of the pack. I was so very aware of the long day ahead of us and didn’t want to be on my own at the back all day with no company so mid field was perfect for where I wanted to be. Without electronic timing I didn’t know definitely what our average speed was for the first loop but it’s since been published as 14.9kmph. An ideal speed for our first 3* I felt.
Chippy rarely eats and drinks at this early stage but as we all know him so well we didn’t worry too much. We gave him an Energex and 5ml of an electrolyte syringe (so around a teaspoon amount). I never use the full amount in one go because it’s so bad for their digestive system and they definitely haven’t sweated out that many electrolytes either. Typically, I’ll use one full electrolyte syringe over the course of an entire race. I find the Energex tends to spark their appetites too so Chip did have a nibble before we were tacking up to go back out onto the second loop.
There were quite a few of us going out close together, spread out only in 30 second intervals at most, so this was a nice position to be in going out onto the loop. Off we went in a nice canter, this time heading out of the venue in a different direction to complete the western loop of 33km. Chip was lovely and settled and in no time at all Nikki Thorne had caught us up and we then rode the remainder of the this loop together. This was quite a ‘bitty’ loop with lots of repetitions. V – CP5 – CP6 – CP6 – CP5 – CP6 – CP6 – CP5 – V. It was a lollipop x2 loop effectively and we were cruising quite effortlessly to complete the first complete lollipop. The front riders were in our sight the whole time but Nikki and I both discussed our speed and agreed that we should settle down a bit. I think we did the first complete lollipop at 17.5kmph which we really didn’t need to do that early on in the day.
When we turned back to go around the lollipop for the second time I could tell Chip wasn’t all that impressed but he carried on anyway and Nikki and I took a decided pull to slow it down. Chippy is not a trot horse and I felt he really switched off at this point. We kept cantering and trotting and trying to break it up but mostly I felt Chip wasn’t enjoying the repetition, the hard ground and not cantering as much as he normally likes. He also took me onto long grass as if he needed a wee again but then wouldn’t do it! He did this around half a dozen times and each time wouldn’t go! Nikki was fab and kept stopping with me and I whistled loads but to no avail. Chippy was drinking brilliantly at every opportunity on this loop but I still wasn’t sure it was enough for him to need a wee so desperately when he’d already done one on the first loop?
As we turned back up the ‘lollipop stick’ part of the route for the home run he really perked up and I decided it must just be the repetition that had switched him off and we cruised into the venue without issue. Another slick team effort and we were into the vet gate in 2mins and 10 secs this time. Average speed 16.5kmph for the loop. HR54:50 – but a B for action! He trotted like a waddling duck is my best description – really odd and not at all like him. I discussed with the vet that I wasn’t happy with his trot and we both agreed to have a re-exam. 'A's for everything else but seriously that was a very unusual trot for Chip. And he wasn’t impressed. His facial expressions told me everything I needed to know – retirement was on the cards…
As we were leaving the vet lanes he stopped and did the world’s biggest wee! Ahhh that must be all that it is! He must have been holding it and holding it, hence the weird trot and less enthusiastic loop – I was sure he must be feeling so much more comfortable now! Back to our hold area feeling relieved that that’s all that it was. Chippy tucked into his food like normal and Pheobe and Cam were super and getting everything sorted. Ice boots and massage pad on. Clean numnah and girth sleeve sorted. Bridle cleaned. Dry trainers and socks. We’re good to go.
However, I was feeling a bit de-motivated. It was like my adrenaline had really dropped. I couldn’t believe how tired I felt so early on into the day – sleep deprivation hitting in already! I really wasn’t enjoying the course. And I was really worried if Chip was enjoying it too. It’s so very important to me that he loves his job and loop 2 had felt so flat I was still thinking retirement would be a sensible choice anyway. Regardless, deliberation time is short when you have a re-exam 15 mins before departure and so we decided we’d let the vets help make the decision. With only 1 person allowed into the vet lanes we decided that Pheobe would be best to go in with him whereas I usually always trot him.
Watching from the side lines it wasn’t long up the lane before I shouted ‘stop’ – very lame! 2/10s in fact. My poor baby. I had to sign paperwork to agree I didn’t need a ‘three card trick’ but there was no way I was going to subject him to further trotting. What happened?! How he did he get so lame!?
We waited our turn for the treatment vet, Tom, to come and look at him. It was his near fore. The same leg as the overreach – would it be too easy to assume it was the quite significant overreach sustained just 9 days earlier? It was also the same leg he’d nicked on loop 1 – a small amount of blood and a little raised section mid-cannon. But most notable of all was the filling just above the fetlock region on the outside. On inspection, Tom decided it was definitely the fetlock joint, and we assumed some jarring from the very concussive ground. Instructions to take him off for ice and bandaging and bring him back if anything changes or before we want to travel.
So at just after 11am our day was over, only 65km covered. So not the day we’d planned by any means. The entry fee working out at £10 per kilometer! Eeek! But also an odd feeling of relief at not having to go any further on that concrete ground! After some sitting around, followed by several hours of packing e v e r y t h i n g up, we were pretty much ready to go home. Back to Tom for a fit to travel inspection and he was more or less sound! Good, very pleasing in fact, it’s certainly nicer to take a sound horse home than a lame one. Though mildly frustrating that he’d been quite lame and then really quite sound in such a short time. It doesn’t make for good investigation with the home vet if there’s nothing to block!
The journey home was as good as the journey there and we were home for early evening. Chippy trotted around his field to tell Fern and Spice all about it. Looking really, really excellent!
Obviously I’ve been thinking a lot about what else could have happened to influence the outcome. We padded up with Ibex in an attempt to help reduce concussion but now I wonder if this were counter-productive? Did they in fact send more force up through the feet? In addition, we used concave shoes rather than our usual choice of wide-flats. This was in case of rain to help with traction. On loop one the dew on the ground did make some part slippery so I’m glad I had them. We couldn’t have safely run with wide-flats and pads on grass anyway but I do wonder if the reduced surface area on the ground made a difference – surely it must. And then there is the over-reach. In any other year I wouldn’t have risked it. Sound or not, I would have pulled. But this was the single only FEI ride in the UK in 2020, it was a risk we had to take. I don’t think the over-reach itself was the problem but I do wonder if it made him load differently. It he compensated somewhere else.
Anyways today’s vet visit gave us some solace. My main concern was if there was any soft tissue damage. One would expect him to still be lame of course if this was the case but even so, the filling really concerned me. Suspensory doom and gloom thoughts played in my head! I called the vet the Monday after the race but with soft tissue injuries it’s best to wait 10days-2weeks for the filling to go so that you can get a nice clear picture so I had an agonizing 12 days to wait and ponder. Good news today though! As (kind of) expected, Chippy was 100% sound in walk & trot. Straight line. Circle. Flexion. More specifically flexion of the fetlock joint and fingers stuck in various points of his suspensory. Sound. Great that he’s so sound but also more tricky for pinning down the exact cause for lameness as there’s nothing to block. A quick chat with my super vet about whether to leave it there and wait for our annual pre-season MOT or to perform x-rays and scans today…. a no brainer for me. I simply had to know!
In true Chippy star fashion, nothing to worry about. X-rays on par for a horse of his age, and clean ultrasounds. Whilst I very much hate to blame the professed ‘unlucky stone’ that so many people talk about, or the ‘he just took a wrong step’ in this case I do fear that actually that kind of was the case. Not seriously, there weren’t really any stones on the course but I am certain the hard going had an impact (literally) and quite sure the over-reach let us down somewhat. In most race situations we can never be 100% certain of what caused the lameness, and we can’t for Lavenham either but at least we can have a pretty good guess now.
The more endurance I do, the more I realise just how much luck comes into the game. Even when training and preparation couldn’t be better, and your horse looks insane, you need an element of luck for all the components to come together on the day. We weren’t lucky with the weather and we weren’t lucky with the uncharacteristic overreach 9 days before.
For a control freak like myself relying on luck just doesn’t sit well. But this is the game. The sport I chose. It’s tough. Grueling. Time consuming. Heart breaking at times. Yet it’s rewarding too. So very rewarding, because every now and again, if you’re ‘lucky’, it all comes together on the day. The magic happens. And your partner in crime will carry you for hundreds of kilometers without a falter. We’ve done it before, and we’ll certainly do it again!