Meet Ali Dane and join her on her journey as she embarks on a great challenge to learn how to race ride in time for the Champions Willberry Charity Race at Cheltenham on 20 April 2017
The past two years of my life in the saddle have been spent working on lengthening my little legs, deepening my seat, keeping my wandering hands still and straightening my poor crooked back. Changing disciplines from eventing to pure dressage was, as I expected, a challenge, and Lord knows I love a challenge. I have scars on my legs from riding in endless circles with no stirrups. I’ve had a lot of physiotherapy to help my hips move more easily with the horse. My instructor’s voice rings in my ears each time I pick up the reins: “DO NOT PULL! SOFTEN THE CONTACT!” It still makes me quake a little just thinking about it.
In short, I’ve literally bled to become a half decent dressage rider. I’m not a natural, but I am obsessively imperfect, as well as being seriously competitive.
And now, again, because I apparently love a challenge, I’ve got to learn to do the exact opposite of everything I’ve worked so hard to perfect. And, I’ve got to learn it all within the next 60 days. Then I’ve got to perform in front of more people than I’ve ever had to before.
It seemed like such a good idea at the time, and the chances of actually being chosen to ride in the Champions Willberry Charity Race at Cheltenham on 20 April 2017 (www.championswillberry.org.uk) were so slim. But then I received a phone call asking me if I’d like to take part and as I mentioned before, I like a challenge, so I eagerly agreed.
Later that night, the enormity of what I faced hit me: I had to get fit enough (and brave enough!) to ride a racehorse, in a Flat race, over a mile and five furlongs, against 11 other people. Having flopped on the sofa with a glass of wine and an alarmed expression on my face, my partner cajoled me into making a plan of action. Conveniently for me, he, Alan (Arthur) Daly, is an ex-Flat jockey, and I live just 10 minutes from Lambourn, Valley of the Racehorse. Alan was on the phone for much of the evening, calling in favours from various racing folk. Within hours I had a trainer to ride out for, an Equiciser session and instructor at Oaskey House booked and Alan had been into the loft to get all his old racing gear down for me.
The following day, I ventured down to Woodlands Enterprises in Great Shefford, which is run by dear friends Candy and Billy Morris, to purchase some actual racing stuff. I had considered riding out in my Pikeur breeches, but when I attempted to bend my knees past a ninety degree angle in them, I realised that proper racing breeches would be required for riding out, as well as some white breeches for the race. Furthermore, I knew Candy would soothe my nerves, and tell me that I’d be fine.
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I’d usually pick out a size 8-10 in breeches, or a small, or a 26”-28”, but Candy looked at me up and down, and declared that she’d try and find a large pair of white breeches for me to try on… I think I just about managed to stop the horror from showing on my face before I realised that, on balance, I am a hell of a lot larger than most jockeys. Then I got another shock; the white “breeches” I’m expected to wear in the race are as thin as tissue paper, about as see-through, and absolutely no give in them whatsoever. Oh, how I longed for my high waisted, figure-hugging, ‘hold-everything-in’ dressage breeches. As I stared forlornly at myself in the mirror, in my large pair of tissue paper breeches, I remembered the part in Clare Balding’s book “My Animals and Other Family”, where her breeches split up the back while she’s racing.
So my apprehension at this precise moment isn’t about raising enough money, whether I’ll find companies to sponsor me or even which poor horse will eventually be lumbered with me. I’m not worried about my fitness or my riding. I can control most of those things…
My primary concern, and the subject of a few anxiety dreams, is whether or not my see-through breeches will survive the trip.