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Windsor 2* ride review


I have done Windsor twice now, both with experienced horses coming back to a big ride after a competing break. And both times not with good results. Of course, there is always some (bad) luck involved in bit rides, but most of the time there are lessons to be learned from mistakes. They are lessons, not nit-picking or putting myself down. We all make mistakes, at any level of competition, or as a coach, the trick is to learn from them (after a moment to overcome the disappointment of course). Evaluation is vital to get better and learn more about yourself, your horse and how to do this challenging sport together.

Let me start with the events leading up to the ride.

Watt (and me) had had a year off in 2020, my husband is a professor of infectious diseases and he made it pretty clear that not much would be going on for us. For me it was a good reason to stop giving myself pressure to perform, it had been a few hard years so a break was much needed. Watt did not mind either way, but if I was having a break, so was he. It was a good chance to finally let him cover 2 of my mares to see how he would breed (without the added stress covering in competition season would give). So Watt was allowed to get muddy and I got fat....

With the start of 2021 everything seemed a bit more hopeful for competitions and I was asked by the new Dutch ched d'equipe if we would possibly work towards the European Championships in the Netherlands. I had sort of decided to give up on FEI and do some of the big challenging national rides, but it seemed a good idea to try, as I had such fun returning to Ermelo in 2019. Covid and Brexit were a "challenge" in all of this of course so time would tell if it was possible at all.

But there were more challenges:

We started our fittening program, I don't call that training yet, but conditioning: a sort of pre-training to prepare the whole body for the more strenuous work that competing will bring. Watt had not worked for a year, but he lives out 24-7 in a track system so that left him with a reasonable residue of fitness so the focus was on preparing for the different demands riding would bring.)

The ride calendar was slowly emerging and I started planning which rides we would do, and what FEI 2* I would work towards so I could combine competing Watt with the 4 (!!) foals that were due this year. I started out with a perfect plan, but ride after ride got cancelled and it looked like nothing big was on until summer. At some point ride-plan H seemed to be the way we could go, though that did include some rides near due dates and was lacking a more competitive note in our prep but it was all we had to work with.

Another challenge was that for some reason I had lost my confidence riding a while ago. The second half of 2020 was spent working on that with a very good friend. I have a long upper body and short little legs, so I quickly feel I am out of balance when a horse swings sideways. Watt is a super brave horse, and very easy to ride but he has a low centre of gravity and he drops and turns when something in his vision "jumps up" around his front legs. I can tell you, tricky to sit to for me! Training alone is therefore sometimes a bit scary, and I really needed to push myself and be brave to go out there and do it.

When we were started adding a little bit of canter and hill work into the conditioning program, Watt had a bad choke, needing the vet to clear. When he was young he had had a bad choke, leaving him with some scar tissue in his oesophagus, which was now very sore again after the tubing. He made the connection between eating, choking and the pain and refused to eat for a few days. This then brought on a bad bout of ulcers, making him even less enthusiastic for food.  I had planned to do our first 40k ride 2  weeks after the choke to see how we were. It was 2 weeks of trouble eating, losing weight and me stressing like mad, and we nearly did not go as Watt was not eating the morning of the ride. I took him off the lorry, put his rugs back on and he started eating! 

 Endurance horse!

When your horse is not happy about life, you seriously wonder if you should continue doing endurance. It is such a huge responsibility to keep our horses healthy and happy. But when Watt saw he was at a ride he was thrilled! This really is what he loves, and even though I was worried about him eating, spooking and if he would behave at his first ride after covering mares, Watt was happy cruising round and having fun. It was a huge mental booster and relief!

Slowly the ulcers got more under control, he started eating better and we could start working on getting on with real training. This meant a more lively horse so my confidence got a few dents and I needed to make sure I would combine "ulcer-healthy" training with "Esther-happy" training. I can tell you, not overly easy if we throw a few menopausal hormones in the mix but we did what we could.

Next on the list was an 80k ride to get that distance covered in our work towards a 120 at Windsor. Planning wise it was the safest option to do a graded 80k at Foremark, I'm not a massive fan of the graded rides because I would probably have to ride alone and my confidence was not massive. The day before this ride my first foal came, perfect time of the day, leaving me some sleep. Hubby would come during the day to help, and on the ride day I found lovely company to ride with. Conditions of the ride meant we went slow, Watt got a little bored with a lot of roadwork, but we did the 80 no problem, albeit with a slow speed.

More cantering was needed to remedy the slow 80 and a combination of cantering slow inclining hills at Wyre forest (a type of interval if you like) and some sessions on the gallops got us up to speed. My confidence was improving as well, Watt was eating well (nearly too well ;) ) and the time came to taper. In our taper time 2 more foals arrived, all healthy but with their own little worries and stress, we had a bit of a loose shoe issue (timing for shoeing for big rides is always a thing) so perhaps we did not quite do as much in our taper period as we should have. Tapering is odd that way I find, and it still is always something I find difficult to fine tune.

The last foal to be born was due around Windsor. So besides the usual tension of getting crew, finding places to stay, checking the rules a few more times after not competing and now adding Covid restrictions as well, I had to think of a foaling back up plan. A friend nearby had kindly offered Moragh could come there on Wednesday which was a great relief as she seemed to be slow to get ready. Not anymore though when  I arrived at the yard Tuesday morning, Moragh was showing definite signs of a foal ready to come out! Of course I was happy, if the foal would come tonight that would be brilliant. The day was spent was packing, checking, a few hours home to eat and get stuff to sleep over, and back; lets go!

But the mare and foal had other plans. Moragh was laying down several times during the night, I was on "here we go" mode virtually the whole night, but no foal. Next day she was calm but it was clear she wasn't really in any condition to be moved, plus I knew that it might upset her to be stabled and away from her friends. I hoped she would foal at dusk like 2 of my other mares had done and I could get some sleep. During the day I packed, got as much ready as possible. A quick dash home for the last of my stuff, a quick bite of dinner and rushing back in case I was needed.

A second night with fits of sleep and nightmares about losing my mare, foal or both. When I checked around 2 I saw that Moragh was getting more restless. Typically, when I had just made my cup of tea I did not see her walking around anymore and thought I better check, and yes, she was down. It is always super scary when they start, and with her previous foal one of the long legs of the foal got stuck so I was a little worried. It took her a good while but finally there was a little hoof.... And thank god the other one a little later, and a muzzle. All good then. She foaled at 3, needed a some food and a good while to rest, knowing I would take care of her huge colt. He stood after an hour, Moragh had gotten up again by that time as well. Next checks before I could rest were suckling, the afterbirth and the first little poo, so no rest for me yet.

Suckling and afterbirth were good within the 2nd hour, I had made an enema (which he did not appreciate haha) to help with passing the meconium so I could have some rest. You'd think at 5 in the morning you would fall straight to sleep after not sleeping much, but adrenaline is a funny thing. But eventually I did sleep a bit. At 8 I was feeding, checking, moving mare and foal to a secure paddock where a friend would come and check on them a few times a day. Last of the packing and my god, time to go to Windsor!

Windsor time!

It's funny how doing something completely different can revive you, the drive to Windsor was fine and it was amazing to be back at a big ride again. Seeing all the familiar faces, the flags, everything we had missed for such a long time. Watt loved it, on full-ride mode he did not blink about a huge black mat with disinfectant at all, was a good boy with taking his temperature and settled in his stable nicely. My crew was a mix of lovely people that had crewed me before and hadn't. Finding people that are willing to help and make the long days with (and for!) you is not always easy and I am super grateful when crew are willing to give up their free time to help me.

Pre-ride vetting went well, and being back in the big ride hubbub made me forget all the stress and lack of sleep leading up to today and tomorrow. The sensitivity test gave a new load of stress however. This test is new at FEI rides and it checks if horses have been nerve blocked. A little device that gives pressure of some sort that will make the horse lift its legs. Watt is rather stoic plus all my horses learn that if we are being vetted they stand still and behave. So he didn't move a muscle.... But this time he needed to! Would we be spun without getting to start after all I had gone through?? The president of the ground jury was called and thankfully Watt got a little fed up with all this malarky and moved his leg at some point within the range. But I knew he would probably not do that during his vetgate rests as he switches off then. Surely this could not be the desired effect of this test? 

We got stuck in the rest of the prep routine, and then went for a lovely meal together. Early to bed to finally get some much needed sleep. When I finally fell asleep I had a few hours, but then I woke and the merry-go-round of my mind started up again. It is what it is, I am a bad sleeper and I'm reasonably used to compete with little sleep. A cup of tea when dressing, and then to the venue to see Watt and get going. He ate super overnight and even ate his morning meal, which really pleased me and took away some of the worries I had about his tummy.

When stressed (and I was stressed), the time before you get on board is always tense, the whole atmosphere on site was different than the day before, everyone felt the same. Finally the time was there to get on board and warm up. I am always so in awe when I see Watt at big ride mode. He is the best-behaved horse, he really loves the big venues and seeing the flags at the start mades him want to rush to them, to then be disappointed that he had to move away again as we were not starting yet. He loves his job so much and that filled me with the joy of doing endurance I have missed for such a long time.

The ride itself

I had been looking at the riders that would do the 2* in the weeks leading up. Looking at previous speeds, seeing if I had ridden with them before and what I thought they might do on this ride. I really did not want to ride alone, as I was not sure the lack of sleep and possible spooks from Watt would combine well. To my surprise, after the start we had a big group of about 9 riders in front. No riding alone then! I was very happy about it, and Watt was too. All horses and riders were happy to be out, the going was super (though I did notice some treacherous soft bits in the grassy parts where the rain of previous days had affected the ground).

We were riding fast, faster than I wanted, and perhaps not at the steady pace I had wanted to ride at and had trained for. Of course, we had worked to accommodate some pace variations, but combined with the adrenaline of being back in a ride and going fast in a group (which we had not done for 2 years!) we had to be very careful not to bust too big a dent in our glycogen reserves.  I did wonder what was best, to stay in this front group, which gave me reasonable security of having company in the next loop(s) as well or pull up, have a fight with Watt (costing precious energy) and go slower on our own. Because the route looped back at some point, I could see there were 3 riders behind us, but it was a huge gamble. So I stayed in the front and tried to ride as steady as was possible with an exuberant steed.

It's odd how training and big ride fast riding can make a difference. Canter training for 50 km gave me no problems, but after 20 km of riding with a strong pulling horse I felt a rub in my left knee starting. I also felt I was actually really tired so I needed to be extra focussed. I drank and ate when I could and was happy the weather was (still ) cool, though humid. The other focus was to tried to keep Watt as settled as possible. I was glad to see the venue after 36 km's. It's always good to change from riding to vetting, but the vetgate can give a huge reshuffle of the field depending on presentation times.

The first sign not all was as I wanted it to be was when Watt took 4.5 minutes to present. He's usually very fast, but I hoped it was the adrenaline and the pace that caused it. He ate reasonably, though not too much roughage. I ate and drank and pretty soon it was time to go out again, we presented as second out, but soon I was caught up by some others again and we rode in a big group of about 7 (I think) again. Speed was fast, pace was better but Watt did not drink at the first crewpoint... What to do? At a waterpoint, I saw a rider behind me pull up her horse to see if it would drink, I wanted to as well, but would have to turn Watt around and I was not sure if he would drink at all when he saw the other horses go on without him. I would also lose a lot of potential companions, vs just one. Split seconds to think and decide and a horse takes a few strides in those split seconds. We stayed with the group....

In the 2nd vetgate Watt needed a bit more time to present. I decided to slow down, perhaps go alone but not be carried away in the group anymore. In the 3rd loop I went away alone but was glad to catch up on another rider for company. Watt was cantering along nicely, but I noticed his breathing had changed a bit, which indicated that he was feeling his tummy. When it got really hot all of a sudden we both started to struggle. I was dressed too warm for this sudden change, I by now had a massive raw patch on the inside of my left knee and I was so tired. Watt feels when I'm struggling and he really really wanted to eat grass. The last section to get to the vetgate was tough. We passed some riders walking beside their horses, so it was not just me who was feeling it. We made it to the vetgate but Watt was fed up. I decided I would retire at the 100 km if we would pass, as the odds were stacking up against us.

All systems shut down...

It was hot, I got rid of my jacket, and the crew started cooling Watt, the water of course was warming up as well. Watt was taking a while to drop, and with a shorter time to present it was important to keep an eye on the time. While checking his heart rate, I felt my blood pressure dropping, I struggled to fight it and the heat to stay with my horse but could not stay up anymore. Cold sponges and lying down with legs up did not help and I felt myself losing consciousness. I had to give in (not easy for a bit of a control freak...), let go and let my crew take Watt to be vetted, which I feared would be a fail because of high heartrate, though I had no chance to check that the last 5 minutes that we had left.

So there I was, lying semi-unconscious in the middle of the crewing field, being looked after by strangers (thank you!) Pretty soon the medics were there, asking all sorts of questions, trying to keep me awake, and trying to move me to the shade, which did not work as I was not able to get up without collapsing. It took a while to get me to the medics tent, it took quite another bit of time to move me to the shade of my lorry. Because everyone thought I suffered from heatstroke I got soaked with water and as my blood pressure was so low I now needed to get warm again. It took 2 horrible hours to be able to get up and wander around a bit again. Something I hope will never happen again.

Watt was being looked after very well by my crew and the vets on site. It was clear he did not need any treatment other than eating and drinking, which he did. His heart rate was lowering again and he was looking happier. It always feels so awful to see your horse unhappy, but I was glad all it was was his upset tummy. It was exactly the same as 3 years ago at Kings, so that was a thing I needed to figure out (even) more. Evaluation needed to wait until I got home which was delayed because of my condition, I was not fit to drive home so I stayed another night. The next day, with some delay of "sod's law/Murphy" (fuel cap lock broke, of course....) we got home again. Watt and me could see his beautiful son again and I had time to relax and think about what went wrong.

A huge lesson to be learned: 

Both me and Watt were not ready for the conditions and decisions of the day. As endurance riders we often worry more about our horses than ourselves, so I was very happy that Watt was fine after a couple of hours and the main culprit was an upset tummy, something he is prone to have. Could we have avoided that? Perhaps, time will tell as I make adjustments.

My health was a little worse than Watt's, my low blood pressure is always a thing but the combination of hardly any sleep over 3 nights and a fairly large amount of stress caused my blood pressure to get real low for at least 2 hours. It was scary to lose the control I value so much and I'm not sure how I'll deal with all this mentally as I already have some issues about training on my own. 

I found Windsor amazing to ride, the organisation was super, the route was amazing (and perhaps a little too inviting for speed) and I hope someday we will come back and succeed here, having learned from the lessons of this year. I had the most amazing crew that looked after Watt and myself so well, and the team spirit was lovely. After 2 weeks, Watt and I have rested up and I have been checked over by my GP. Besides low blood pressure all was well, but the margin is small so I have to see how we go with that. Watt is fine, and we shall play again together soon.

What is next?

We are nominally entered for the European Championships. It is what we worked towards, but there are still a lot of bridges to cross. Money will be a serious issue, as I have hardly had any income over the last 1.5 years. Brexit and all the stress it will give to see how and if we can travel plus added cost is a massive hurdle. Covid is not making things easier and then there is both our little health issues: Watt's tummy and my blood pressure (and a little bit of mental health as well). I have been struggling with training on my own the last few years, and after what happened at Windsor there is now another worry to add to riding alone, so I will have to figure that out in the coming weeks. 

There are a lot of hurdles to take, and it is a big financial sacrifice for a "pat on the back" to represent your country, though 2 years ago it was an amazing feeling to be part of your national team! So who knows.  Whether we do the Europeans or not, I need to learn to enjoy (endurance) riding again. Maybe this year, and otherwise next year, I'll see how we'll go. 

European(s) dilemma

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