Former international pony dressage rider Katy Willings’ latest update on her progress training for the Mongol Derby
Sunday saw my endurance riding debut at the Black Knight ride, organised by Endurance GB South East Group. Thanks to the combined efforts and unstinting generosity of Maggie at On the Hoof, Caroline Cowley, who rode with me and showed me how it’s done, and her dad Chris Baker, who lent me the beautiful and arrow-swift Mirage (pictured above) despite having never even met me, I was able to get my first taste of what you might call “race pace”. And, no mistaking, it’s fast! I learned so much watching Caroline and trying to emulate her, and over the course of 24kms and about 90minutes (16kmph), gradually put some of the dressage rider to bed and learned to consider aspects I would not need to in the dressage arena.
I started off with Mirage on a contact, trying to set the rhythm and generally interfere, as she felt like she was running and out of balance. Normally I am thinking about balancing the horse all the time, making corrections, having an input in every footfall. I quickly learned that she needed no such help from me. On a loose contact, with me attending to my own balance and leaving her to handle her own, she was more than able to sit and half-halt where she needed to, and crack on in a huge-striding trot or a flowing canter which we sustained for the whole ride. This is by far the most efficient way to cover long distances. My running and triathlon experience would definitely support this approach, as I know how hard it is to keep changing rhythm and sustain your speed. So a constant clip ought to beat a galloping horse which needs to stop and walk every few miles.
A lot of the principles of dressage still apply though; the importance of working both sides of the horse and considering the symmetry of their development, for example. I scored brownie points for changing diagonal regularly and was amazed at how this refreshed her later on in the ride. I have no idea if rising trot will even be an option on the wild steeds on the steppe though.
I came home filled with admiration for my new Arabian friend — her intelligence, quality, appetite and stamina. I can’t wait to go again next weekend. Caroline is vying for a team place this year on Mirage’s daughter Mistral, and we made a very glamorous foursome on our two grey mares. As we prepared to set off, me attaching Camelbak, sponge on a string, map and all sorts of other sundries I would never consider useful for riding, Caroline was focusing on the true essentials. “Lipgloss?” she proferred. Damn right! I estimate a slick of gloss increases ground speed by c.5%.
Maggie ‘crewed’ for us, although with no vet gates this was more of an academic exercise for my benefit. The recovery rate of these horses was remarkable, with Mirage back to 45bpm while mine was probably still in hamster mode.
The burning question, clearly, is what I am going to do underwear-wise. Big pants, said Maggie. No pants, said Caroline. Not these pants, said my backside, as I was legged up onto Ella, final lot of the day, on Sunday evening. Further experimentation required on this front, I think.