The human condition is remarkably resilient……The 120K international competition in Norfolk for Talisman and I came and went and I have been pondering it ever since, noticing how my thoughts and feelings about it before, during and afterwards have swung from one extreme to the other. Overall, I’d say it was a success and we ended up 3rd out of some 15 starters, only a third of whom finished.
In my first season competing Talisman which was last year, he was very difficult. He hadn’t long come from France and had various issues. He was extremely stressed at competitions and, at times, dangerous to ride. A horse that’s super-talented counts for little if you don’t have manageability and rideability! Even so, he successfully completed his first international 80K with me and was placed but I really didn’t know if he’d manage more or how he would come out this season. The aim is to qualify for possible team selection but it was always going to be one step at a time. Super long distances at speed are a very big ask for a horse so, for me, if they cannot do it comfortably in all respects then I don’t think it’s fair to compete at top level.
Fitness training had gone well since last December for both of us. I am probably unconventional in that I don’t believe in including long distances in the training, from a wear and tear point of view, so I have been experimenting with plenty of shortish, high quality sessions including hill work and canter intervals. As a result, I didn’t know if it would be enough.
During the week before, I rigorously thought through every last detail of the requirements and kit needed for travelling, stabling, crewing, feeding, rugging, the race, compulsory holds as well as all my meals, so I could pack efficiently and also give clear instructions to my two helpers, Miranda and Rosie, neither of whom had crewed at international level before – show jumper Rosie hadn’t even been to an endurance competition. I also had a technical hitch with the pads in Talisman’s new shoes a few days before we left which required a last-minute visit from the farrier. During this time, I questioned if I wanted to continue in the sport. ‘Endurance by name and endurance by nature’ sums it up! But that’s not new, I have the same thought before every international!
Talisman had had a few trips out in the trailer prior to the competition and was drenched on arrival each time. Not great! However, in the last month he had been on a course of homeopathy and I have to say, the improvement was noticeable. He travelled five and a half hours to Norfolk without sweating and munched on his haynet too. He was calm being hand grazed for hours after we arrived, vetted sweetly with a very low pulse (I have struggled on occasion to get his heart rate under the maximum allowed which is 64 beats per minute, at the pre-ride vettings in the past, when he’s been super-stressed). He also stabled well that night, eating and drinking plenty.
I was up before the birds at 3.30am the next morning, as the race started at 6am. Talisman ate his breakfast to my relief (that doesn’t always happen) and was happy to be walked around in the dark before being tacked up. He was a complete pain in the arse, though, after that! My plan was to set off with the group and see if he would settle – he’s difficult in company, wanting to be ahead – plunging, pulling and leaping, foaming up as a result. So I tucked in behind the front-runner and put up with his testing behaviour for 10K, during which time I thought I would never be able to get his mind under control and this would be his last endurance competition! I decided to bite the bullet and put him in front, partly because I didn’t want to risk a rubbed mouth at this early stage and also because his behaviour was jarring old injuries and making it uncomfortable for me.
It was a good plan as he cantered easily on his own opening up a lead of several minutes, until the fourth of five ride loops. Unfortunately, I made an error of course and had to retrace my steps plus the new stopwatch didn’t work properly, so I wasn’t sure of his heart rate which slowed our presentation times to the vet while the clock was still ticking. I was thrilled that he was full of running, obviously fit enough and plenty motivated being on his own. All his training is done on his own but I didn’t know how brave he would be in a competition. So while he was cantering along beautifully, I indulged in the fantasy of winning and whether we did or not, I felt sure he had a win in him at some point, which excited me!
I caught up the two horses who were now ahead of me but decided to let them go on as they were cantering a few notches faster than Talisman’s natural canter groove and we had a double vetting to get through at the end of that loop. Pulling up to let them go out of sight was not an easy task and it took a while to settle again after that. The last loop was the shortest, just 14K but I made another error of course where a marker on the ground had disappeared as a result of horses riding over it. This was at a critical point where the track crossed itself on a figure of eight. So I went round the first part almost twice and probably added 6 or 8K to the 120K! The minute I realised my error and turned around, Talisman got a ‘second wind’ and stormed home. The vet commented he was the freshest looking horse in the race and in the same breath announced we had drawn the short straw and Talisman had been randomly selected for a dope test.
FEI drugs tests have to be done but I think it’s unfair on a horse that’s gagging for food and drink having just galloped 120K, to be carted off to an empty stable and held for half an hour (to the second) in an attempt to make him pee, which probably isn’t going to happen as he’s dehydrated. There must be another way?! I couldn’t wash him off or do his legs properly, or take my own time-sensitive recovery drink which eliminates stiffness. Talisman didn’t pee, so had to have a blood test instead which involved six samples being taken.
We eventually got back to the hold where I could make him comfortable and he was hand-grazed by Rosie while Miranda and I we moved all the gear back to the trailer. I got to the B&B around 9pm. What a great team effort it had been. Miranda and Rosie were saints, especially to put up with me barking instructions in the hold when the pressure was on. While we all had specific jobs to do, there is an amount of improvisation given circumstances on the day and we got slicker as the competition went on. It was another early start for me the next day to pack the trailer and give Talisman a leg stretch before the long journey home.
Driving home was the first time I allowed myself to think about the whole experience. I was surprised to feel excited by what we had achieved which was a significant improvement, in many respects, on last year and I marvelled at how quickly I had forgotten the extreme effort of months of training, the intensity of preparation and packing, the long drive, the perpetual motion of the last few days and the stamina required to stand up in the stirrups for 75 miles, concentrating every stride of the way. The human condition is remarkably resilient and it amazes me our capacity to forget pain and discomfort when it is no longer there! I believe Talisman has a win in him at this level and that he might make the Championship distance of 160K.
Since we’ve been home, his recovery has been fantastic. He’s bright (last year after a long race he was lifeless for a week or so, which I don’t like to see) and his legs haven’t been filled at all. I think Talisman enjoyed the experience, he was certainly more calm than stressed on balance throughout the three days so, for now, he still has a career in endurance and we will be aiming for our second (of three) international 2*s this year, in July.