Former international pony dressage rider Katy Willings’ latest update on her progress training for the Mongol Derby

Bit of a setback this week; I have been struck down with swine flu. Or, if not swine flu, some other random virus which is making me sweaty of forehead, racing of pulse, intolerant of food, ulcerated of throat and generally a bit pathetic. I am writing from my bed in Stockwell, in the middle of the day, which is unusual, both because I never get sick, and because the wireless internet doesn’t ever reach my bedroom.

Derby training has therefore been worse than sparse. I am losing weight (see above re food aversion) but I think I am dissolving hard-won muscle, so doubt Bruno will be applauding when he sees me next.

I did manage a good six hours in the saddle at the weekend before the symptoms took hold, and was able to test-drive the new pants kindly sent to me by Mary at Carrots UK in response to an earlier post. I am pleased to say they passed muster with flying colours, and will definitely be coming to Mongolia with me – thank you Mary, and nice work Carrots! I will also be ordering a few pairs in flesh tones to go under my competition breeches in the meantime…

Maggie had arranged for me to ride with another of her On the Hoof Distance Training protégées, Karen, who has a small dynasty of very beautiful Arabs, and several thousand acres of Forestry Commission land on her doorstep. Even better, she has herself just returned from Mongolia where she completed the Brook Animal Hospital charity ride, which covered part of the Derby course, and so was able of offer a wealth of useful information about the horses, the riding, equipment and environment.

We did a 3¼ hour training ride together, as ever looking for the optimal rhythm in which the horse can flow forwards in balance and conserve energy. Karen’s horses go beautifully, always thinking forwards and concentrating on the lie of the land in front of them. I was also lucky to ride Kelly in a Barefoot saddle, which is what we have been provided with for the Derby. They are treeless saddles, and incredibly lightweight and flexible, and I found this one fantastically comfortable which is a huge relief. We come back fresh as a daisy.

Karen was very encouraging about the Mongol horses. Having been fed a few horror stories about ribby little ponies buckling under the weight of hefty Westerners and all their electrical gubbins it was a relief to hear her account of fit, workmanlike and enthusiastic (and yes, little) horses, who really were as tough as their formidable reputation would indicate. They are intelligent enough to rest, eat, drink and get comfortable when they are not working, but always ready to work when commissioned into service. She found that some were happier in a swinging trot, whilst others preferred to be in canter, but that the principles of good riding applied there as anywhere else in the world, and they went well for a rider with feel who could work with what they were sitting on. She was quite starry-eyed when talking about her trip, which I always think is a good sign.

My other steed this weekend was Ella, who has turned into quite a safe conveyance out hacking in her old age. Gone are the days when she would spook so violently she would fall over on top of me and then trample all over me, and then run off home, or dangle me off the motorway bridge rather than walk across it, or shin up a bank and into a ditch, or put me through a hedge, rather than walk another step forwards.

In the 10 years we have been devoted to each other she has finally grown up, just as I am entering a strange second childhood, spending my savings gallivanting across far flung wildernesses, accumulating tall stories, dubious-looking musical instruments and assorted dents and scars. Luckily I will be indestructible in my new super-pants. I should probably put them on now actually….

Nauseously, Katy x