This was my most difficult and so far most exhausting endurance ride. While we had spent the Christmas break on our farm in Australia, there had been some good rains in Namibia. The pastures were lush and green, the horses round and naughty. Two months holidays in the herd had done Zaïda good and her glossy coat fitted her tightly. All in all we had only eight days for training. Zaïda should have still been relatively fit, as she had been top fit at the end of last year. In the beginning she was very frisky and naughty, bucking in the canter for sheer joy of life. After a few rides she had settled down a bit and I was quite pleased with her. So I registered us for a 40 km ride. Friends said that Zaïda would be fit enough for a 60 km ride and since there is so much mucking around for a ride I decided to sign up for 60 km so that it would be worth the while.
On the afternoon before our departure Zaïda had suddenly developed a swollen eye. Oh no! I called Clara, a young medical student who also lives at Krumhuk. She came over quickly and helped me to rinse Zaïda’s eye with a mild saline solution made from boiled water. I had spayed on iodine before that. Later, Clara’s mother Christiane joined us. In the meantime I had called the vet and he recommended a cortisone injection, after he had made careful enquiries about the eye to exclude poisoning from the spitting cobra. A spitting cobra will squirt her poison right into the eyes but with the right treatment the blindness is only temporary. Clemens had to drive back into Windhoek to fetch the injection. We also cooled the eye with ice cubes wrapped in a cloth. The injection was given into the neck muscle. The horses don’t even flinch if you are not too hesitant. Slowly, the swelling subsided and Zaïda opened her eye again. When we cooled it she kept very still, she knew that it was good for her. Later, Marita, our neighbour, came over too and we all had supper together. It was good for me to be in the company of lovely people. Christiane recommended smearing a little honey on the eye, as pure honey has very good healing properties. My sister had brought some Manuka honey from New Zealand that we used now. Before I went to bed, I applied honey again and by next morning the swelling was completely gone.
Johan Esterhuizen arrived with his trailer and Zaïda went in without a fuss. We had practised loading her using his trailer after she had totally refused to walk into a closed horse trailer. Last year in June she had suddenly freaked in Raik’s box and had dashed out backwards and badly scraped her nose. Back then that had been the end of that ride before it had even begun. What a disappointment after all that training. She had been totally fit and I had been fit as well. It would have been her final 80 km ride to complete her novice time. It wasn’t meant to be. With a lot of patience Johan had finally succeeded in getting Zaïda to walk onto his trailer. In his experience a horse that had had a bad experience in a closed horse box, will walk much easier onto an open trailer. It is also a disadvantage that Zaïda mostly travels alone. Clara and Christiane only ride on Krumhuk and there is no trailer here to practise loading with. Zaïda made no fuss when the netted face protector was put over her head. We didn’t want any of those big, fat Namibian beetles to hit her eyes.
We had dense Friday afternoon traffic on the road to Okahandja, but it’s only 70 kilometres from Windhoek. The registration and setting up of the grooming area went like clockwork as we are a well-oiled team by now. This time Zaïda had a really good large stable with built-in concrete feeding cribs. Unfortunately, the entire club area was very dusty and the many cars arriving stirred up big dust clouds. Later I took Zaïda for a short ride around the place to show her the start and finish situation. We did a few eights around the trees to stretch her. Then I let her eat grass on the lead. In her stable she would only get hay but is used to fresh green grass from the paddock at the moment.
In my starter group were only top riders who always ride very fast. For the first five kilometres I stuck with my group to get through the loops along the railway line safely. If a train comes, it is easier for horses in a group not to freak out with fear. After that I continued on my own. Stupidly I took a wrong turn and rode in the wrong direction and had to ride at least 5 kilometres more this way. I should have studied the route maps that were displayed at the club more carefully. Since I had ridden at Okahandja several times already, I thought I knew everything, but sometimes they change the routes a bit. On the other hand I do not know enough Afrikaans to really understand what is being said at the ride briefings. Changes and peculiarities are mentioned at the briefing. I was somewhat miffed about my stupidity. Shortly after that some riders came up to me from behind. That was the 30 km group that had started an entire hour after me!!! Rudolf said: “What are you doing here? Why are you so slow?” “Zaïda is lazy today and I took a wrong turn.” Many horses don’t run well alone and this is extreme with Zaïda. Even though I always have to train alone on the farm, I never noticed it so much. At home it usually went quite well. At home or on a ride, that is a big difference. All those little vices Zaïda has, that I didn’t eradicate sufficiently, had blown up to a hundredfold on this ride. At least I had company for the last 15 kilometres on this first leg and Zaïda ran well and wanted to take up the lead, but I let her follow for now. The others were allowed to canter across the finish line, but Zaïda and I still had one leg to go and the rules demand that you get off BEFORE the finish line and lead your horse the last meters. All the other horses were running and Zaïda ran with them. I managed to stop her just before the tent with the time keepers so I could finally dismount. Another incident that showed how much discipline she lacked. She can be quite stubborn, but it is my mistake not to correct this timely.
Cooling down at our grooming area went smoothly as everybody knows what to do. While taking Zaïda’s pulse I miscounted many times as I was too nervous, but I wanted to avoid going to the vet with a pulse that was still too high. An endurance friend of mine once got disqualified because of that. A bitter mistake after you have ridden 80 km. So I counted again and again to be sure and it took me a full 11 minutes which is quite long. Most riders only need 3 to 8 minutes. The time before you go to the vet still counts as ‘riding time’. Your time is stopped once you are at the vet gate. The clock for the 45 minute break is already ticking. Zaïda had very good pulse values with 50/52. As always the break just flew past, but I had time to put up my feet briefly. Clemens had everything prepared for Zaïda and me: a beaker with tea, another beaker with an electrolyte drink, hay, water and carrots in the small hold we had set up for Zaïda. Soon it was time to saddle up again to start on the second leg. Up to the start line Zaïda walked well behaved and normally. Then she stood rooted to the ground like a donkey. That was pure and simple cheekiness on her part.
So I had to get off and pull her on the reins behind me the entire length of the track out of sight of the riding club. How embarrassing! Asjas used to do that at times to Piet on the third leg. He often had to lead her out on the trail. I always thought the reason for that was that Piet rides a lot faster than me and Asjas was tired or not motivated anymore. In any case she had never done that to me. After a while I could get on again and we continued, but slowly. A young woman cantered past me, but even this did not motivate Zaïda. The entire 2nd leg was another catasthrophe. At each junction she wanted to take short cuts, cheat and run back to stables on the shortes way. I had never before experienced such stubborness with her. At all the junctions where the routes crossed over young women were positioned with their cell phones. At one of the water points a woman was taking endless pictures of me and Zaïda. The snarling sound of her cell phone irritated Zaïda so that she didn’t relax to drink and I asked her to stop taking pictures. Later I understood that this was how the club monitored the riders so that no one would cheat. The club could also let the women know via sms when the last rider had been through so that they could pack up and go home. At times I was really frustrated so that I even shouted words like ‘abbatoir’ and ‘horse salami’ at Zaïda. All my kicking with my heels didn’t help if she didn’t feel like going. Still, we had some good canter stretches and I knew that I had to hurry up a bit. If you fall below 10km/h you will be eliminated due to slowness. Never had I thought that I would come close to this rule. I had asked Rudolf, when the cut off time for a 60 km ride was and he said, 7.5 hours which would be 13.30 with a start at 6:00 o’clock. He had added two breaks but a 60 km ride has only one break of 45 minutes. My maximum time was therefore over at 12:45! Until then I had to cross the finish line. Luckily my brain that is never very mathematically tuned was not able to think logically any longer and I also believed that 13:30 was my cut off time. Two long distance flights shortly before this ride across various time zones, in addtion to stress and heat had left some skid marks in my brain.
With blissful ignorance about my time limit getting very tight, I allowed Zaïda to unhurriedly trot along until we were about 5 kilometres away from the finish. There was one more junction and now the route was exactly opposite to the finish for about one kilometre. There stood my donkey Zaïda stiff as a brick under the burning sun. I would have pulled my hair out, but I was wearing a helmet. So I got off again and dragged her along. Finally we reached the railway crossing and now the direction of our route suited Zaïda again too. She cantered along happily as if nothing had happened before. Now my cell phone started to ring. Clemens worried about were I was. Cantering in the midday sun I could not read the display and probably pressed a few wrong buttons. At least Clemens could hear the sound of us cantering over the squeaking sand. Usually, I enjoy to canter the last kilometres – the professionals canter the entire distance – but now I noticed that Zaïda was genuinely tired. I let her trot slowly towards the finish and thankfully I did not realise that I was only minutes, even seconds away from being eliminated due to being over the maximum time limit.
Finally, we crossed the finish line and I took the time slip without even glancing at it. Cooling her down and then off to the last vet check. For the final check you have 30 minutes and I took 22 minutes until I was satisfied with her pulse. I checked again and again to avoid making a mistake now and enter the vet gate with a heart rate over 64. In the end she had 60, so my long waiting time was right and also a sign that she was tired. Still, she passed this last examination very well. The heat during midday of around 36 degrees had troubled many and all in all most riders finished with lower than their normal speed. Normally, I try to avoid rides during this hot time of the year, but Okahandja is close to Windhoek and if you have to rent a horse box, this is an important point. Apart from this I had assumed to be finished by 11 or 11:30.
After Zaïda had received what was due to her now and was peacefully enjoying hay in her small hold, I tried to eat some lunch but it did not work. My system had to settle down first. Very refreshing were the grapes and water, water and still more water to drink. One must not underestimate how much you dehydrate on such a ride. The horses will drink a lot of water after a ride, 20 to 40 litters are nothing. On the ride I had taken off my helmet at the last water troughs and dunked my head into the water. That felt so good! Side by side my mare and I were drinking out of the trough, as my little water bottle was long empty. I use a back backpack with water, the Camelbak, only on the 3rd leg of an 80 km ride. This time it would have been good too.
A good hour I sat with Zaïda at her hold in my camp chair and relaxed. Then I wiped off all the sweat and dust with a rag and water, checked her feet again and put her in her stable with plenty of hay and water. Her stable neighbour was a dressage horse from the Okahandja Reitclub. Wonder what they talked about?
We drove over to our B&B just around the corner. Into the pool to stretch the weary body, shower and bed. Clemens slept for two as we had got up at 4:30; 1.5 hours before the start. As usual I could not go to sleep, but relaxed and enjoyed that it was all over and done with. Then my thoughts about the maximum time returned. Why did I have 7.5 hours? Where was that last time slip? When I finally found it and looked at the numbers on it, my heart fell right to the ground. Riding time: 6:01 !!! One minute over the allowed time, that meant I was out, eliminated due to being too slow. My throat tightened and I grabbed my cell phone and crept out of the room. Outside I called Rudolf, our president. “Only just looked at my time slip now, am I out?” I took a deep breath. “No, we have decided that you are in.” Hurrah and another hurrah! I thanked him and went back to bed. It was just a small club ride, so they were generous with only one minute over the time. Just for my personal comparison: in April 2015 I rode Zaïda over her first 80 km in 6:07 minutes. The professionals pull that off in around 4 hours, but then I’m not one of them.
In the evening after the prize giving everybody was sitting under the shade roof on the veranda of the Okahandja Reitclub, when suddenly a horrendous noise came from the stables. It sounded as if a horse had seriously kicked into a car. I jumped up and ran, just like everybody else, in the direction from where the noise had come. This time the horses were completely innocent. A huge branch of a camel thorn tree had fallen onto a Bakkie. That Bakkie was a goner, the cars left and right got some dents and scratches. A riding couple, who usually had their tent and car right at that spot, had luckily set up camp elsewhere this year.
This ride had become a true endurance ride for me, more exhausting than an 80 km ride. I have learnt a lot and started to work on Zaïda’s discipline on Sunday evening after our return home. She knew that she’d go back to the herd and was moving eagerly. This time I carried a crop and I made her stop three times, turn around and go a short distance in the other direction. With Zaïda you do not have to use the crop, just need to have it along and do not allow her any misbehaviour. She knew that I would not tolerate anything from her now. On the rides spurs and crops are not allowed, but for now she had to learn better manners.
So I turned her out into the field where I thought the herd would still be. Christiane did not know any different and the herd had not been in there that long. I took her saddle off and I waited at the gate for Clemens, who would collect me and all my tack to drive me home. We were only about 3 kilometres from our house. Zaïda stayed close and began grazing. Then I heard the other nearby gate rattle. That was strange. There was no sound of an engine, but it must be Clemens coming through that gate. Zaïda raised her head and appeared to be a bit nervous. No Clemens came. Dusk was setting in. Then he called: “There is a dead zebra lying in front of the gate, I can’t get through, I’ll drive around the other way.” Immediately I called someone at the farm, so that the zebra could be slaughtered. This did not happen, as the meat was supposed to be ruined right away. Strange since only minutes had passed.
By now it was pitch dark and I assumed that a leopard had killed that zebra. I didn’t really feel comfortable anymore and by now Zaïda had also left in search of the herd. Finally my home transport arrived and we had a look at the zebra. A young mare had broken her neck at the gate that was usually left open. The gate had a big dent in the middle. This was the second time in my life that a wild animal had broken its neck while I was close. Back then it had been a big hare that ran into a tree while fighting with another male over all the girls. I had been out riding my pony in drifting snow flakes and had popped the hare behind my saddle and had taken it home as my bounty. We had slaughtered him and he had tasted really good. Martina will surely still remember this.
The following day I had sore muscles in my shoulders and my legs too, but not too bad. I wanted to take it easy and drove to the field where the horses were to look for Zaïda’s nose or feed bag that she had lost there while Clemens had fed her during my absence. She had run off with the nose bag on after some horses that had just been brought back from the farm. Luckily they had soon seen Zaïda on the other side of the field without the nose bag. So that’s what I was looking for. I had pulled on my cooling vest, the Camelbak on my back and off I went. Starting point of her little stampede had been the dam, where the horses drink. When I got there I saw to my horror that it was bone dry. There were no spoor from cattle or horses, no fresh droppings. So I wandered back and forth through the midday heat. Just as I thought I’d rather find my horse than the nose bag, I found the latter. Finally, I gave up but left the gate to the neighbouring field and water open.
In the meantime I had found out where the herd was, and went again in the evening with Clemens to look for Zaïda where I had taken her. Before it was completely dark, we drove over to the field, where the herd was. There was my Zaïda standing with the other horses and I was utterly relieved. How she had managed to get there? Nobody knows. Zaïda knows the entire farm very well from our training rides and some fences on Krumhuk have seen better times. Unfortunately, one of the other horses had a long wound on its shoulder, definitely caused by a wire. The wound was later treated of course. Zaïda was happy in her herd and could now enjoy at least a week long holiday.
For the future I will remember: small misbehaviour in a horse can quickly become serious misbehaviour if you do not stop it right away. The horse must be sufficiently fit and not just look fit. You have to really take the weather into account. Cold, heat, humidity all are factors that have a big influence on horse and rider. So, nothing new really. Riding slowly is a good thing in the heat, but just not too slow. For the next ride, another 80 km, I will get her top fit and a lot more disciplined. At least that’s my plan. Oh yes, during prize giving in the evening I had been given 1st place in my ‘no weight’ category, as the competition had been eliminated. When Peet handed me my certificate I said to him: “I don’t really deserve this.” “You finished the ride, didn’t you?” True, the motto in endurance riding is: “To finish is to win!”