Ride report - Haywood Oaks
It’s been a little while since I last wrote a ‘ride’ report as opposed to a race report! In fact, the last GER I took part in was March 2020 – pre-pandemic! Because we’ve had such irregular competition calendars the last two seasons I have been prioritizing my CEIs with Chip and so we haven’t attended anything else. The younger horses also haven’t been ready to compete in GERs either.
Traditionally, I never use rides as training events and I would certainly have never bothered to go to a ride that didn’t ‘count for anything’. So actually attending Haywood Oaks was quite the novelty for us!
My big issue using rides for training is the risk with the route. I know I’m a bit of control-freak but when you go training on familiar terrain you can choose the best routes, know exactly where to canter and where to walk, set your own pace and not get pulled along or influenced by others around you. At a ride the route is set and often you don’t know what you’re going to get until you’re there and riding it! To ensure I can achieve the distance and speed I want to in training, I always go to gallops or to Kings Forest (sandy and flat). This way I know I can undertake continuous canter training – undisturbed by gates, road work, hard tracks etc etc.
Of course, training isn’t just about fitness but also training to do the job so this principle shouldn’t be so regimented for young horses who actually do need to practice vettings, riding in groups, settling at the venue etc. but for seasoned horses, they know what’s expected of them - they don’t need ride experience and often just need fitness maintenance training. Therefore, taking away any ‘risks’ by an unknown routes has been my strategy for a number of years.
Then, to talk about the aspect of ‘rides that don’t count’ and by this I mean qualifications. Now obviously, Chip is qualified for 3* so he doesn’t ‘need’ to do any national qualifiers anymore. Assuming we maintain his FEI status, he can continue just competing in CEIs.
There are few trains of thought regarding the qualification system and the route to take with young horses. Some people do the bare minimum rides needed to ‘fast-track’ to CEIs without any ‘unnecessary miles on their legs’. Other people do the regimented full novice season, open season, advanced season. And of course, there are people in the middle that do a little bit of both.
I like to think I did do a ‘little bit of both’ in the past but with the pandemic I really did streamline where I was going and what I was doing. However, in doing this, I have missed out on a lot of rides over the years and a lot of fun too!
This approach has also meant that I can feel somewhat out of the swing of things when I get to a ride. In 2021 I only attended one event with Chip – the CEI3* 160km at Windsor. We didn’t even get out to so much as a pleasure ride beforehand! Now that’s all well and good, and fitness wise he was great but for my own preparation I felt I was starting on the back foot.
Also too, because it was the one and only ride of the year there was a heck of a lot of pressure surrounding it and I ended up not enjoying the buildup or even the race itself in the end. I really contemplated retiring from endurance altogether last season and I’ve definitely never felt like that before.
As most people know, things went from bad to worse when I then had a pretty serious riding accident on my younger gelding Spice just 6 weeks after Windsor. My 3 week stay in hospital last year definitely made me reconsider how I prioritise my time and what truly makes me happy. I realised that since my teenage years I had been living for race days. Everything I did, all the decisions I made, my social calendar, my calorie intake, my finances – literally my life was about racing.
And that’s all well and good when you’re racing regularly but when you’re only going to a handful or even only one race a year the pressure for that or few days is beyond anything I can describe. Doing those few races is completely justifiable when you love it wholeheartedly and it’s what makes you happy but it wasn’t doing that for me anymore. I loathed it and how it made me feel so completely inadequate. I realised that I was expecting the same results of myself as when I was working as a professional rider for professional stables.
I hadn’t accounted for the fact that I’m doing this alone. Completely self-funded with self-produced horses. There’s not a money tree in the garden and I can’t afford to go to the best races in Europe and have a spa at home or grooms to share the workload. I definitely hadn’t been giving myself enough credit for what I had achieved.
Laying in hospital, wondering if my leg could be saved – well it all hit home.
I am a believer in fate and in the phrase ‘everything happens for a reason’ and well, as awful as the whole accident and hospital experience was – I think I needed it. It was a horrific jolt to the system. Initially it sent me spiraling into a very deep depression, which did take quite some time to claw my way out of. But I came back stronger. Determined to never allow myself to feel like that again.
Anyway, with a new set of priorities and a fresh outlook on life I decided to make 2022 different. I needed to rediscover my love of the sport (or not). I found I actually didn’t mind if I didn’t do endurance anymore.
I found fun in other things. I always knew I was a bit of exercise addict but I found myself actively choosing to go to the gym, go cycling, running or play netball etc. instead of riding. I rekindled friendships with non-horsey friends and I made time for my family. I guess overall I just found a better life-work-horse balance. And in doing so, I reminded myself that I love horses way more than I love the sport. I found huge joy in learning new tricks and making myself a better horsewoman.
Suddenly, and almost without realising, I was looking forward to training again. Genuinely. Really. It’s been fun. I set myself a chill goal of doing the CEI1* in April at Kings Forest knowing that I wouldn’t have to do any serious training until February. No grueling sessions in horrible weather for us. Nope – not doing it. Don’t want to, don’t need to.
And when I say chill goal – I mean it. I didn’t set myself a 6 months out plan and schedule in every second of my days/weeks/months leading up to it. I put in some ‘key training dates’ which had flex to them. No biggie if the weather wasn’t on my side or a better offer came up – I’d shuffle some things around and the world wouldn’t end.
And to that end my usual regimented 10 day out 1/3 of the distance at race pace training – I’m not doing it. Yes you read that right. Why? Because I’m working away this week so it doesn’t fit my work schedule. Since I am a career-driven-independent-woman now I decided I wanted to work away more than I wanted to do that training. And I’m not even stressed about it. I’m so excited to go to the Scotland for the first time!
Instead, I decided to do 40km last weekend and I’ll do some canter work next weekend. I’m sure that will be just fine.
And so it’s in this mindset that I decided to enter Haywood Oaks. I realised it would be infinitely more fun to go to a ride – a ride that I didn’t count for anything – a ride that I couldn’t control the terrain – but go to an actual ride nonetheless. Do a vetting, pack the car with all the ride kit, have crew, catch up with LOADS of friends – you know ENJOY an endurance ride!
I found myself getting super excited again. School girl excited. Ridiculous really. I did not write out a three page essay of crew notes. I packed the car the night before. Shock horror – I didn’t even clean my saddle. Afterall – it was only a 40km!
Okay I did get there really early to do my 1hr walk warm-up (some things are too ingrained) and I did make little crew point QR codes and I did put in a kit box and spares pack – but on a Bella-scale it was the chillest event ever – Shez my crew can corroborate.
I didn’t even plan my speed. But to this end there was a specific reason – Chippy is barefoot. Shock. Horror. You read that right.
Don’t worry I have not become a fully-fledge hippie (yet). I am not a member of the barefoot brigade. I still think shoes are cool. But they’re just not working for us right now.
I first took Chip’s shoes off in March 2020. The pandemic offered a perfect opportunity to try to work on his contracting heels – something we’d been struggling with for quite a while. When Lavenham CEI3* 140km was on the cards in September 2020 I knew that he’d need shoes on again as we’d never raced without shoes before. My farrier and I decided to go with wide-flats along with ibex pads and equi-pack.
Unfortunately, Chip drew up lame after just two loops. The ground was exceedingly hard that day but in hindsight and after consulting a few other farriers we think that the packing we used was too firm and actually further increased the concussive forces through his feet.
He had his shoes off again for the winter as I really liked how much better his hoof conformation had become without shoes.
Then we had Windsor CEI3* 160km coming up in July 2021 and again I felt that I couldn’t race him without shoes. We did an 80km at 18kmph training (alone) in June barefoot and he was great but I still felt that as he’d always been shod for races so we needed shoes to race. However, this time around I opted to just go for wide-flats and no pads. I didn’t want a repeat of Lavenham. I knew that Windsor had the odd stone but so does Euston and we’ve never padded up for Euston in the past either.
Once again his feet where our issue as he got a flint wedged between his frog and his heel at 140km in and he was out hoping lame. Once we removed the stone he was completely sound but it was the most frustrating vet out of my entire endurance career.
The shoes came off again in August 2021 whilst I was in hospital as I knew our season was over.
So here we are, Spring 2022 and I can’t help but feel that his feet are the bain of my life. We just can’t seem to get it right. I’ve changed to a trimmer as opposed to a farrier now and Chip’s feet have never been better in the 7yrs I’ve owned him. I don’t profess to know a great deal about foot conformation, but he has a proper bevelly foot now, nice short toes, awesome breakover, proper heels. Truly, I think they look like decent feet.
So back to the original point of not planning my speed at Haywood Oaks – this was a test! A test of the barefootness. Other people do it I know but I’m not other people. And in the past I’ve also been a fairly unlucky person.
The world champions are definitely not barefoot. But then again they’re also not riding in wool flocked saddles. They also (to refer back to my earlier point) have all the means in the world to perform at that level. And I’m not trying to do that anymore. It’s unfair on myself.
As it turns out, the barefootness was just fine. More than fine, I’ve noticed significantly less post-ride fluid in his legs since taking away the shoes.
Haywood Oaks is actually pretty stony. I vaguely remembered this from riding it in years gone by. I definitely always padded up before. But this time I knew that I wouldn’t have extra concussion from steel or the too-hard packing and a stone definitely couldn’t get wedged in his foot against a shoe. So the ride plan was “I’m going to go as fast as I can”. Isn’t that everyone's ride plan?
Fast as I can - meaning very much I will canter everywhere possible and take it easy where I have to. The main thing I noticed was that Chip’s stride was much shorter over the stony ground compared to shoes. Anywhere that wasn’t stony and also on the road he felt completely normal. Since being barefoot his soles have become so hard he sounds like he’s wearing shoes on the road anyway!
There’s one quite long stoney track section on the ride so I got off and ran this bit. All my extracurricular fitness activities paid off! Chippy and I used to go running together in the early days when he wouldn’t hack alone so he was quite good at tailing me like he used to do when he was a baby. The rest of the ride was mostly good going with a few other sections that were stony that we were able to pick our way through.
We completed the ride at 12.2kmph. So it was slow. By my textbook this was bad training. We didn’t get to do nearly enough continuous canter work. I risked bruising his feet extensively. It won’t have contributed to his fitness at all. He didn’t need this ride experience – he was quite underwhelmed by the lack of racing. It also would be impossible to compete FEI rides this slowly and impractical for me to have to get off and run during a serious race.
BUT – we had fun. I got to see lots of people. We got to have a low-key run through of what to do and made the most of the lovely weather. I got an extra little piece of reassurance that he’s sound and well. It was just a nice ride on a nice day with a cool horse. I enjoyed it immeasurably.
I also enjoyed getting home at a reasonable hour. And having plenty of energy to go for a 10km run in the evening. I enjoyed only have to wash one set of numnahs/girth sleeves. I could get used to the one-loop life to be honest haha.
So what next? Well, I already mentioned the CEI1* at Kings. Kings is one of our favourite rides and I knew considerably kinder to barefoot with no stones or hard tracks to worry about.
Uplifted by Haywood Oak’s joy I went to enter the 1* the very next day. Obviously, it’s been on the cards for a while so it was just a matter of actually putting the entry in. Crew had been organised and we were set to go.
Imagine my surprise when I discovered the FEI classes were taking place on Sunday and not Saturday!? What? How did I miss this? Uber-organised, obsessive Bella managed to get the day wrong! Rather funny given the context! Well, my crew couldn’t do Sunday. What to do?
Chip doesn’t actually need to do the 1*, his 3* qualification is valid until 30.06.22 it was a ‘just for fun’ race and another opportunity to try out our hippie barefootness. Looking at what else was on offer, I saw there is an 80km CER on the Saturday. What’s 20km between friends. Yeh – why not ? A whopping £110 saving on the entry fee too. No temp checks or extra FEI shenanigans. And actually, Chippy and I have NEVER done a national race before because it was ‘wasted miles’. So, we’ve gone for it :D
It feels much more friendly to my new ‘let’s be kind to Bella’ approach to life. 80km is a walk in the park for us (or at least it definitely should be). We can go and race - actually let the breaks off and see what happens. Something else I’ve never done before because I’ve also been saving him. Saving him for what I don’t know. But he’s 13 this year, it’s our last FEI season. Why not go and see what happens!
With any luck his feet will be up to the task. We’ll all go and have a spot of fun in my favourite forest and that should set us up nicely to tackling the big one in June – fingers crossed!