Gosh, horses have such a habit of changing your plans from one minute to the next. I was all set to have another attempt at Chiara’s second two-star qualification as the last ride of the season, but now I have just completed my last ride of the season and it wasn’t with Chiara!

I was still worried that Chiara wasn’t quite right. I had the wonderful Nicky, our physio, out for a check up and massage and Chiara was a little sore just behind the withers and didn’t look 100% level when trotted up, interestingly on the other front leg.

Then we had the amazing Nina, the saddle fitter, out to check her saddle and it is apparent that she has changed shape so much that it simply doesn’t fit anymore. That, coupled with having her pads removed and feet checked, which revealed no problems, made me decide not to compete her this season and get her thoroughly checked out and purchase a new saddle so that she will be absolutely perfect for next season (touching lots and lots of wood!).

An early start

Back to Fantom then. He was duly entered for the national championships and I had some very exciting training sessions on the hills, particularly when he realised, after having cantered up the same hill a couple of times already, that there was a wind turbine in the field next to him. I had visions of rolling all the way down the hill either with or without Fantom as he proceeded to attempt a sky dive from the top.

Before a competition I always keep a close eye on the weather forecast for the area we are going to. This time, as it was in the middle of Wales in the mountains, I was not surprised to see that it was to be very cold at night but, on the other hand, it was forecast to be bright and sunny and quite warm in the day on the Saturday. With this in mind, I dusted off the clippers and attacked Fantom while he was dozing in his stable; job done.

Warming up for the ride

The venue for the championships is the Royal Welsh Showground and the Red Dragon ride has been held here every year for many years. It is an excellent venue with lots of facilities and is always a well run competition. We arrived in good time for the pre-ride vetting and had the benefit of a corral and a stable for Fantom which really covers all bases. The national championships/Red Dragon is a two day 160km race ride over the Welsh mountains with 80km run each day and an overnight hold at the end of the first day.

Crewing on the ride

The evening before the ride I went with my crew, husband Robert, Anderijn (Kiwi) and Marco, who had travelled all the way from Holland to crew us, to a local pub for some essential pre-ride carb loading. We were chattering away together in our usual rather fluid way and a lady came up to us and said “I have never heard so much nonsense talked in my whole life, keep it up!” Well, that floored me; I know we can be a bit random flitting from topic to topic, but nonsense? Never that, it all makes perfect sense to us!

After a night of shivering in the trailer, it was time to get ready for the start of the race. It all seemed quite leisurely as we started behind a pace car who escorted us to the foot of the first hill. It is important to take it easy up the first hill, especially for Fantom with his history of tying up, but it is also important not to let anyone get too far ahead. This was generally achieved and we had a most amazing first loop with five of us riding together. I have been to the Red Dragon several times, but it has never been in such perfect weather and we have never had such good going; the beauty of the mountains never ceases to amaze me.

On to the vet gate, which is sited out on the course (unusual these days, as there is now a tendency for a central vet gate with each loop fanning out in a clover leaf pattern). Fantom was ready to present straight away so we set off on our own but took the next hill at quite a leisurely pace and were caught by the other four. I must point out that this type of race is very different from the competitive FEI flatter races in that riders tend to work together, taking it turn to go in front and opening and closing gates.

After a beautiful second loop we were back in the vetting again for another speedy presentation. Again I set off ahead and this time managed to take a wrong turning so had to retrace my steps and then catch the others up (note to self: look for the orange markers not at the wild ponies!). Riding up the last serious climb I looked down — we were high as a kite; in fact there were red kites circling just below us. Back down the steep hill to the venue for the overnight hold.

On course

We had a much earlier start the following day as we had a trot up before being allowed to start, but it was light by the time I headed out for the second day with a six minute lead. Again I used this lead to allow Fantom to take his time up the first couple of serious hills before being caught by the others (now only four of us). It was much harder on this day as horses and riders were feeling it a bit, which is where working together really comes into its own. We were slower but not by much and we had such a lead over the other competitors that it really didn’t matter. Unfortunately we lost another competitor at the last vet gate and the three of us set off for home together.

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Closer to home tactics come into play. I knew that Fantom does not have a very fast sprint finish, so I had to try to make a break for it. Unfortunately one of the others had the same idea so then there were two!

OK, I lost the sprint finish but am so proud of Fantom who did his very best and the greatest achievement was to win the best condition award. I was also delighted to find that our team of four had won the Dragon Team Trophy.

Well that’s the end of my competitive season, and Fantom and Chiara will have their holidays and, after I’ve had mine, Dilmun and Wizard won’t know what’s hit them!

Annie

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