Race report: Windsor

Whenever I sit down to the write these blogs, I always wonder where to start exactly. I often think it’s not really a true reflection of endurance riding to talk singularly about the race, it’s lacking a great deal of context. Afterall, we all know how much investment (time, financial & emotional) goes into simply getting to the start line. It feels somehow incomplete if I missed out 90% of the story that is in the months leading up to the race.

If you’re short on time, I will add a ‘start here’ below for when I actually start talking about race day but first I want to share a bit about the prep.

Being in lockdown at the early part of the season meant I actually didn’t start training until much later on into the year than I normally would. My October 2020 concussion put me into my very own mandatory rest period from riding until January. I found that 3 months out of the saddle and the realisation as to just how serious my cycle accident in August 2020 had been, had really knocked my confidence. It’s actually odd writing about it now, as of course I just don’t feel like this anymore, but it was so very real at the time. My youngest sister very kindly lent me her very safe horse to ride in January a few times to get my confidence back up. Though I had been exercising gently throughout the winter, I needed to get my riding fitness back up too. My responses needed to get sharper and my seat strong again. Absolutely crazy but I really was at the lowest point of my riding career ever. I was genuinely worried about riding Chip and if I’d be able to stay on him.

Next, I had yet more saddle dramas (honestly story of my life) so it wasn’t until early February that I actually got back on Chip and started picking up the work after buying saddle number 9! I should add that he wasn’t turned away completely over the winter, we’d been doing a lot of ground-work. I didn’t feel it was necessary to start him back to ridden work too slowly and by March I think we were up to cantering and schooling with a bit more intent. My ridden confidence returned slowly but surely too.

April came and went and the beginning of May saw lots of riders having a jolly good time at the 80km CER at Poplar Park. I dearly would have loved to have attended too however it was just that bit too early for us. We hadn’t yet got in the continuous canter training that I feel is so important for the speeds I want to race at, so we gave it a miss and set our sights on a new competitive ride at Avon Valley, for the end of May.

Luckily Avon is only 45mins up the road so I took the opportunity to have a route reccy 3 weeks before. Sadly the ride proved to be too slow going for what I wanted to get out of the race. I felt quite strongly that Chip was capable of a 160km at Windsor at a good pace but I needed an equally good paced 80km training run in order to do it. So I pulled out of Avon and instead went to my favourite Kings Forest for training where the going is super reliable.

The last weekend of May I got my new car (Alice the Audi), rode 80km around Kings Forest at about 18kmph and crewed my friend at Avon in the 80km CER on the Sunday – where I was very surprised at the speeds achieved. As it turns out, a number of the gates had been opened and a few of the road sections diverted onto parallel field margins – but then I wasn’t to know! It was a busy weekend for me but I was happy with my decision to take Chip to train rather than race so I that I had control of the conditions on his precious legs. We had company for 60km of the 80km and he pulled and pulled for all of it so I was confident in our prospects for Windsor.

The other two training session following the 80km also went rather swimmingly. I went to the gallops with another friend and put in some decent work in hot weather (27C), his recoveries were phenomenal and he was brilliant in his attitude – going away from the other horse and joining up again multiple times. Once again all the signs were positive.

The final training was an easy 40km at Kings 10 days before. I always aim to do around 1/3 of the distance at race pace 10 days before and of course Chip found this tremendously easy as you’d expect. However, I did feel he’d run up a bit in the following days so now I wonder if I should re-consider this ‘10-day rule’ and push back to 14 days? I also wonder if I even need this last session, what is it achieving? The 80km 5 weeks before is actually the fitness push. The gallops session and the 40km isn’t really adding anymore as the speed and distance had already been set and achieved. This is something to consider for future training plans. He’s not an inexperienced horse anymore and I don’t even feel that I particularly need to ride him much to keep his head sane. Groundwork seems so much more of a valuable use of our time and contribution to his physique and soundness. In fact, I didn’t actually ride him between the 40km and getting on at the start of the 160km. I just did in-hand poles and lots of stretches to ensure that his body was as optimum as I could possibly achieve.

My own training also went just as well as Chip’s. I was strength training 3-4x p/week and cardio training a further 3-4x each week with a couple of yoga sessions added in for good measure! I started training with a PT and followed a strict exercise and diet regime to make sure I was a) the right weight and b) fit and capable of riding 160km.

In that last week he also had another physio session, a saddle fitting and new shoes. I wondered if the ibex pads and packing had been a contributor to his lameness at Lavenham in September 2020 so made the decision this time to not pad up. I knew there were some stones at Windsor but no worse than Euston and we’d never padded up for that either.

The saddle fitting appointment wasn’t the best – in fact the saddle was the worst fit it had been since I bought it in February (arghhh)! My saddler had to work to get it as good as we could but it wasn’t perfect. We figured this was due to him running up a bit after the 40km and therefore a change in his templates behind (T16 area). I had to use some shims to sort out the balance but with less than a week to go it was too late to try to find an alternative. When it came to packing I did put a spare saddle in but I realized it was actually useless as it was too light and I needed my dressage saddle (9kg) to make weight. After probably the easiest training leading up to Windsor, it was beyond frustrating to have a saddle worry at this last stage.

The saddle not being quite right also flagged up a sore back on Monday’s physio appointment as well. Not horrendous but also not perfect, which is really what you’d want to be starting on. My new physio did a fab job of clearing a lot of this tension and also used a H-wave machine which gives long lasting muscle relaxation. With the new shim set up and his back now significantly better I just had to hope that we’d done everything we could and that would be enough.

I started packing for Windsor the weekend before. Working full time and keeping three horses is time-intensive and I decided that sorting kit nice and early would be a good way to manage my stress. As I hadn’t been to so much as even a pleasure ride this year, it suddenly hit me all the things you have to remember and my packing list kept getting longer and longer as I remembered what we actually needed on race day! Though I don’t regret not riding myself at Avon, I do think I should have gone to at least a 40km somewhere just to remind myself on the process. However, it’s hard to justify potentially compromising quality training for a practice run for myself. As I said before, Chip is an experienced horse (and I am a very experience competitor) but it was probably worth a small run out even for us!

It hit me hard that we hadn’t done a 120km since August 2019 and we hadn’t actually done a competition since September 2020 (where he had been lame). That last week, to the few days before the race, is always the point at which I struggle the most mentally so these thoughts confounded an already doubting rider knowing the saddle wasn’t optimum. Talk about a confidence crisis.

At this point I haven’t even mentioned the financial strain and worry of how much goes into getting to the start line. I began to think “why am I even doing this?”, “is it even worth it”. The crushing weight of the stress was taking its toll. And not only on me on a personal level, but all those around me. The race becomes all encompassing. I think it’s a coping mechanism, after all, there’s only so much space inside your head and my relationships suffer because of it.

It was in this very, very low point that I decided I’m not doing this again. My mental health is worth more than this. My horse’s happiness is worth more than this. Bless the boy, he never ever questions me. How many stretches can one horse actually do? Seriously, it’s ridiculous.

The financial and emotional investment for one day, where his back would probably get sore and we’d have to pull. No thanks, not again. But we were too far down the road at this point. I decided I owed it to myself to give it a good crack and hopefully (hopefully) retire from FEI competition on a high, with that oh so desired 160km completion. Making all of this somewhat more worthwhile.

Once the decision had been made I was flooded with relief, tinged with sadness. Terribly sad actually. I cried quite a lot on Tuesday. My epically cool 12yr old, at the prime of his career, to be retired from FEI competition because his rider didn’t have the mental capacity to cope. But my relief outweighed this sadness. At the end of the day, horses are just horses. They have no concept of what’s around the corner. They don’t know their own potential or destiny. They’re really rather happy being provided with friends, forage and freedom. Of course, with addition of a doting mid-twenties girl I’m sure life is really rather dandy.

So once I’d made up my mind that this really would be it, I found a new inner peace. There was suddenly no pressure because now I needed to actually make the most of it. Be so so grateful for even being here. Getting to this point. Riding across that start line. Enjoy every moment. Ride every loop like it was my last FEI loop. Soak up the atmosphere. Overdress for the pre-ride vetting. Be there and be happy.

Start here okay, now that the scene has been set I feel I can actually talk about the race. Pre-ride vetting was set for Thursday at 2pm. Given my propensity to break down in multiple cars I asked my best friend Shez, and crew for the weekend, if she’d follow behind me in her car. In the event of a breakdown, we could simply say ‘au revoir’ to Alice, hitch up to her car and carry on with our journey. As it turned out, Alice didn’t faulter and we made it to Windsor just before midday. Between us we managed to check into the stables, remember nearly all our forms and get a little bit more set up and ready to go. The afternoon was really rather muggy and humid so I waited until the very last moment to get changed into my white jeans and shirt. Pheobe, my sister and second crew member for the weekend had already plaited Chip for me in the morning before we left so we were soon ready to go to pre-ride vetting.

Last minute flick over and I felt we were as ready as were ever going to be – our last FEI pre-ride vet. Shez offhandedly suggested that we pick out his feet (good job too!) as we discovered that he had two nails twisted on his near fore. Luckily the shoe hadn’t moved but we had to go and find the ride farrier to get this sorted. Rather embarrassing that I hadn’t actually checked his feet before we left! I was just so worried about breaking down on the way that I wanted to get there and do all the other checks once we were at the venue. Luckily for us, the vetting got pushed back to 2.30pm which worked well as it gave us time to sort out his shoe.

As it turned out, we ended up vetting in first! So at least we have the privilege of saying we got the first trot up at Royal Windsor Endurance of 2021. I also got complimented on our attire and making so much effort for the pre-ride which was nice 😊 After vetting, Shez and I had the fairly labour intensive process of setting up the hold area which involved many trips back and forth from the car to the hold area as we weren’t able to drive down directly. By the end of Thursday I had clocked up nearly 30,000 steps!

Phoebe arrived just after 6pm and we headed out into Old Windsor to an Italian to get some carbs in for the big day ahead. I worked quite hard with my PT to plan out my food and drink both in the run up to and on race day as well. So the plan was to consume at least 3g of carbohydrates p/kg of bodyweight on Thursday evening.

With the alarm set for 4.45am to give Chip his breakfast, we all got an early night, each sleeping in our cars. Alice has the space for a double-bed so another little bonus of this car! I slept surprisingly well for me and actually only woke up at 4.30am rather than a restless night of endless wake ups worrying if I was going to sleep through the alarm.

Chip disappointingly hadn’t eaten much dinner overnight, however had drank and eaten up his forage fairly well (choice of haylage and soaked hay). We had to get our transponders at 5.30am so we started hand-walking at around 5.10am and did our classic set up of putting a few pieces of tack on at a time, split out with a lap of the stables. By 5.40am we were tacked up and had our transponder on. I got on at 5.45am and began warming up. With only 8 horses in the class it was a very relaxed warm up and Chip managed to keep all four feet on the ground! What a joy to finally not feel scared of my horse!

Part of my prep had been looking at the other competitors’ results to try to work out what speeds they would roughly be travelling at as well as how quickly they would present to vetting each time to get a gauge on who might be ideal to ride along with. I’d decided that Nikki Malcom and Lauren Mills would both likely complete at similar speeds to those that I was aiming for so I endeavored to stick with them. Chip actually settled really well into the loop and I was feeling quite content with our pace and his focus. Sadly, the same cannot be said for the riders as the three of us missed a turn! By the time we’d reaslied this and had to ride back to complete the then extra loop we’d added on 6km! Annie Joppe also made the same mistake so we were in good company. Very aware that we had a long day ahead of us and none of us wanted to end up alone we rode quite sensibly but with a bit of intent to slowly but surely work our way back into the middle of the pack by the time we were approaching the venue.

Into the first vet gate where the second mistake of the day was made. Chip has good recoveries, it’s not something I ever worry about it. I always say “go” when his HR is 75 in the hold because I know by the time I walk to the vetting, stand in a queue for 30 secs or so and actually get into my lane it will reliably be lower than 64bpm. For the first time in Chip’s career this wasn’t the case and we had to represent as his HR was 67! I hadn’t accounted for the lack of queue due to the ride being so quiet of course! I however was convinced that he must be lame as his HR never ever sticks. Between me and Pheobe we trotted him and deemed him sound so quickly but more conservatively re-presented. It was also our first VG of the year and I think I should have just given ourselves 30 more seconds before going in and it would have saved the day. Hindsight being a wonderful thing, we then ended up set to go out around 3 mins behind Lauren and Nikki but still a good 10 mins ahead of the next group of riders behind us.

The hold time itself went well and we were soon cantering back out onto the blue loop (34km). Chip was a very good boy and got on with the job but we sadly couldn’t quite catch Nikki and Lauren so frustratingly ended up riding the whole loop alone. In fact, we ended up further into no-mans-land with Nikki and Lauren extending the gap in front and us extending our gap from the riders behind us. Into VG2 we had a much more Chip-like presentation with a 2min recovery but to our surprise a whole host of Bs scored against his metabolic parameters. He scored ‘A’ for gait, back and muscle tone which was what I had been worrying about, metabolics isn’t usually our concern! We worked hard in this vet gate to ensure he was eating and drinking well which he thankfully obliged.

Pheobe and Shez gave me a good pep talk in VG2 as I was wondering what my next tactic should be – whether to continue alone or hold back for Annie and Vicky Ham who were about 20mins behind us by this point. We agreed Chip was all good and looking completely refreshed after re-fueling well in the VG and to get on with it, ride to the plan (which was 17kmph). So we went out the VG with good purpose and I rode positively with a fresh horse underneath me. He felt wonderful and I was positive going back onto the red loop again (36km) and confident I knew where to not turn this time!

The first 8km or so went fine but we soon had an energy sapping 4km of riding - 2km in one direction to a steward and then having to turn back on ourselves and ride all the way back again. Chip and I found this demoralizing on loop 1 with company, let alone on loop 3 by ourselves. After that I felt Chip start to not feel quite so chirpy and I too began to wonder where was the fun in this – we hadn’t seen any company for hours and hours. The first crew point was 10km into the red loop and it was massively heartwarming to get cheered and supported by so many other crew teams as the 120kms crew were also there at the same time. It really picked us both up but Chip still didn’t have his usual vigour.

After a while of cantering but feeling like we weren’t really travelling (I’m sure people know what I mean by this), Laurence Ridgeway who was in the 2* caught us up and Chip picked up beautifully. He was suddenly back to 100% uphill feeling, a horse back in the bridle and feeling totally perfect again. What a relief, as I had really started to worry if he was okay! Sadly, it was short-lived as our two loops diverged after 3km or so and we then had to head further from home again alone.

By this time in the day the sun had come out and it was very humid too. Funnily enough, I don’t really remember acknowledging this at the time but looking back I can see why we started to struggle. We’d been alone for so long, repeating the same tracks over and over again. Chip was switched off. I was switched off. This was a totally new sensation for me. Chip is always so forward thinking, he’s never turned off like this before – but then again we’ve never been alone for so long before either. Not even in training do I ask him to do this much alone.

It all felt so labour intensive and I decided I didn’t want to go on. I also kept thinking surely Annie and Vicky will catch us up soon! I kept on having little walks to try to eat into that gap and pray that they would come around the corner at any moment. In the end I gave up waiting and decided to retire. I cried, quite a lot actually. I couldn’t believe it. This wasn’t ever what I worried about. Chip has never said ‘no thanks’, he’s never felt so disengaged or bored. This wasn’t how I wanted his last FEI race to be. I called Pheobe and told her I’m retiring. I was off at this time and hand-walking Chip in the shade of the trees. The signal was surprisingly bad and the phone call kept dropping out which was even more frustrating. We discussed the lack of company and how it was most likely all that the problem was, but I’d simply had enough.

In the end, the signal was so useless I hung up and said I’d message instead. I told her to get the horse ambulance to the second crew point (sounds dramatic but it’s just a horse taxi really with extra mod cons inside if needed) and I’d meet her there as I was only a couple of kms away. But like angels sent from heaven, Annie and Vicky came cantering up from the rear and both stopped and asked me if I’d like to get back on. I was beyond grateful and said yes, I had to give it a go. Afterall, it had been quite the journey to get to this point. Also, if he didn’t want to go that was fine because as least I could say I’d tried and could still stop at the crew point if I wasn’t happy. Well, blow me, but Chip turned back into the happy canter pony I know and love and was delighted to have some horsey friends. He felt perfect and upbeat again but of course I was still worrying if he was truly okay or not.

Within 10mins we were at the crew point and I once again had a long deliberation with my crew. I explicitly said that I didn’t want to the be the person that rode their horse into a metabolic failure in the vet gate. But in fairness, Chip actually looked really perky, bright eyed and content. I stuck with Annie and Vicky for the rest of the loop and he rode in just fine. We stopped at every water point and took our time to cool the horses and let them have a drink. The loop speed was slow, and much slower than my planned ride speed or indeed my training but I was focused on not asking Chip to go alone again or putting us in that position of doubt any longer. I asked Annie what she would do if he were her horse (as Annie is vastly more experienced than me over this distance) and should I retire but she said no, he looked absolutely fine in company and just to keep going steadily.

Into VG3 (110km) I was of course very careful with his recovery and ensuring he was okay. To my surprise he scored very well metabolically (As) and his gait, back and muscle tone still scored well (As). The vet commission had imposed an additional compulsory re-exam in VG3 which I was actually grateful for to have that second check to ensure he was okay. More As across the board and he was actually looking really chirpy and upbeat. I was feeling much more at peace with it all knowing that it was company that we needed more than anything else. Chip presented to vetting a lot faster than Annie and Vicky so were due out ahead of them but I decided we’d walk out of the vet gate and let them catch up.

The fourth loop was the blue (again) so yet more up and downs of avenues and repeating the same tracks. Chip was very happy bobbing along behind but still didn’t want to leave them which was fine by me. Annie and Vicky did quite a bit more trotting than I would usually do and this started to take its toll on my knees – I guess because I never trot in training! Each crew point and water point Chip drank well and Pheobe and Shez took mash out on course so we could let him eat if he wanted as well – which he did. This was a really different crewing style for me. I’ve trained with the UAE and in France, crew points are usually running sloshes with one designated for letting the horses drink but even then it’s a quick ‘stop and go’ process. This felt odd to be taking so long at each crew point but it felt the right thing to do.

Heading back to the venue and going up and down the long walk for the 4th time!!! Annie’s horse Chi, had decided she’d had enough and wasn’t going to ride away from the venue again. I truly sympathized with Chi and I even had a moment where I considered doing the same and just calling it a day there and then too. Was it really fair to ask our noble horses to keep riding past the venue time and time again on a hot and humid day? Despite this, I knew at this stage in the day that we were going to get this done. We only had one more loop to go. The horse underneath me was confused by the slower speed, the leisurely crew points and my sanity in asking him to keep repeating tracks over and over again but I knew in my heart that if I asked him to do that last loop he would. It was tough to leave Annie there whilst Vicki and I rode away from the venue again to go and complete another 2km before coming back in. I felt like we were losing a team member.

Into the 4th and final vet gate, I knew again that we had time to present and didn’t need to rush since I would definitely want to ride with Vicky again and would wait for her anyway to start onto the last loop. Taking our time, we still had a 4min recovery which at this stage (146km done) you can’t really complain. Into vetting for As gait, back and muscle tone, and mostly A’s for metabolics. I could see he was tired but we passed the vetting in the knowledge that we had a nice long hold here (50mins) so lots of time to recover as well as the compulsory re-exam to ensure that he was truly okay.

Chip ate like he’d never eaten before and re-fulled like the champ he truly is and was looking absolutely brilliant by the time our re-exam came around. I was so confident, he really did look great and we knew we had over 2.5hrs to complete the last loop if we really needed it. (Cringe at even thinking like this but at this point in the day it was just about getting it done).

Into the vetting and then disaster struck – lame! Pheobe was trotting him for me as my knees were very sore by this point and she stopped running, we both knew. I didn’t ask for a re-trot he was obviously lame. What a sad, sad end to the day. Lame on his FR, which was a new leg for him to be lame on and a bit odd. Though thinking about it, he had been less keen on his right lead canter for the last 10km or so of that loop. I really hadn’t thought anything about it other than of course he was starting to tire and that it wouldn’t be unusual at this late stage in a ride for a horse to dominate one lead over the other. I mean, some horses don’t even start out cantering evenly or straight, let alone this far into the race.

Tom, the treatment vet came over to see us and had a look. Immediately identifying a huge stone wedged between his heel and his frog on his RF. It was only at that moment that I cried. In fact, we all cried. We’d let him down. This was pony club level – pick your feet out! How did we forget! Only two crew & one tired rider, such an easy mistake to make but one we WON’T be making ever again. Our day ended because of a stone ☹ Unbelievable really.

Should I have padded up? But then would that have created more concussion like we assumed it had done at Lavenham? Pad without packing? But would little stones get inside there? We were just really really unlucky? We’ll never know but jee to get so far, overcome so much and to be eliminated because of a stone – not cool!

I felt deflated and dejected. My pony had carried me 146km, a mentally tough 146km at that, to be eliminated for a stone. However, every single other person in my class had been eliminated too. In fact, no one went out onto the last loop. There was some solace in that, it wasn’t just us and we had to be proud of how far we’d come and how much we overcame.

I guess I shouldn’t have ever thought that a 160km would be easy but I genuinely didn’t think it would be that tough either. However, looking at it from start to finish (the proper start – January 2021) I think I can fairly confidently say that my head messed up a lot of that performance. My mind was our greatest limiting factor to success. I didn’t start out believing. I doubted loop after loop after loop. Where was my trust in my homegrown athlete of a horse? Where was the trust in my own experience and knowledge to get us through? Who switched off first? Me or Chip? Because my money would be on me…

So what next? Where now? How do we pick ourselves up from here? For one thing, we are bloody well not ending our FEI career on a race as shoddy as that. Forget what’s on paper, I’m not ending it all on a race that felt like that. Chip’s better than that and I am too. We can do better, that much I am sure.

First and foremost I’m going to seek professional help. I need to work through whatever it is that’s turning my brain to mush (I can’t blame the concussions forever). Poor Pheobe and Shez having to give motivational talks as well as crew a 160km!

Chip’s earned himself a 6 week holiday. Then, we’ll dust ourselves off and try again. It might not be this year, we’ll have to see what opportunities present themselves. In fact I’m okay with it being next year. I might prefer that, time is a healer after all.

We live to fight another day. Perhaps the third time will be the charm?

I just want to say the biggest thank you to my brilliant support team. Pheobe and Shez were not only crew on the day but they are my biggest support team at home. My day to day sounding boards that go along with all my crazy plans. I can’t thank them enough for always being there. My farrier Phil Pearce, saddler Ruth Wyatt, vet Ed Bret, PT Rachel Boddington and physio Charlie Coyle all deserve a mention for keeping us on the road. Extra thanks to Rachel actually, because I didn’t have any DOMS at all & my muscles were perfect the next day! My targeted plan for my own fitness definitely paid off!

One things for sure, I am blessed with an extremely talented horse who I simply adore. I am so lucky to have such a strong bond with Chip. Windsor proved to me that he is a 160km horse, he can certainly do it. We just need another opportunity to show it!

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