This time I was more than nervous if I would be up to this endurance ride. For two years I had not ridden the 80 km distance and had only done two 80s so far. Those I had ridden with Asjas to complete my own novice qualification. Since mid-October 2014 when the season here finishes, I hadn’t done a single ride and that’s quite some time. In 2014 Zaïda had sprained a front fetlock for unknown reasons and had to rest three months to cure this. Thus we had missed the opportunities to complete the mandatory two 80 km rides in addition to the two rides between 40 and 60 km. Unfortunately, I had not taken a picture of her fetlock at the time. On the Sunday before the competition I had my last training ride with Zaïda, because the training is finished and during the last week before the start the horses are resting which is good for all their tendons and ligaments. We did one short evening ride of only 6 km. All of a sudden her left fetlock appeared to be larger than the right one and the worries started. With rubs of Arnica Ice I hoped to get on top of this. Now a photo would really have helped, because perhaps I was just imagining things and the fetlock had always remained slightly larger. Friends had a very close look at Zaïda and declared her sound.
So we decided to go and if anything were not right with her she wouldn’t make it past the first vet check on Friday afternoon. So much time goes into the preparation and training that a problem or only an imagined problem with the horse leads to considerable frustration. But this is also part of endurance. Luckily Okahandja is only 70km on a good tar road from Windhoek, so not such a big risk.
Clemens went to collect the trailer, here simply called horse box or just box and I packed all the things one needs for such a ride or I thought we might need. We had booked rooms in the guest house ‘African Dreams’ which are really quiet. In Okahandja you often get the noise from the railway and/or the bypass. We were only two minutes away from the Reitclub, where the horses slept. In the evening we all ate dinner in the club house, the grooming area was ready, at the start and finish the tent had been set up for the time keepers and the vets.
My usual pre-ride Friday stress level had significantly increased. Total nonsense as it’s supposed to be fun. It is fun too, but not Fridays before the ride when the tension is high. Zaïda passed the first vet check on Friday with flying colours and the vets confirmed: ‚ the horse is sound, there’s no problem with her‘. During the short test ride on Friday afternoon to get Zaïda a bit acquainted with the start and finish area and the first kilometres of the trail, I noticed from her prancing gait that her batteries were fully charged. That was good because she would need it for the 80 kilometres.
Our starting time at 6:00 am was humane. Get up time therefore at 4:30 so we would have enough time to get ready and not get the horse unnecessarily nervous by being hectic. The last grain meal was given on the evening before and Zaïda had access to plenty of good hay and water all night.
Together with Leon and Claire we were again a lively round during dinner on the club house veranda, but shortly after 20:00 h (8pm) we all went to find our sleeping quarters. The night would be short. Of course I woke up all the time, but at some stage I did fall asleep only to sit up in panic. You feel right away that the night is over and morning has arrived. Now in autumn first light is only just after five. One look at my watch – 5:10!!! Just mild panic set in because I knew we’d make it if I’d quickly jump into my clothes and off we’d go. Luckily I always lay out all the clothes I will wear during the ride before and in the order they go on my body. No washing or any beautification – after 80km through the mid-day heat it would be useless anyway – only sun screen in the face and on the lower arms and I was ready to roll. Zaïda wasn’t groomed much either, only brushed off where the saddle went, rather using the time to walk her warm quietly. Thursdays before a competition is always the horse ‘beauty’ day before travelling and she had been washed and groomed carefully. All was ready and soon the starting time was there.
The pros line up in front and dash off in a fast trot or canter, after the minutes and then the seconds are counted down and finally the call ‚lekker ry – good ride’ resounds. As a rider of a novice horse I rather keep to the back. Zaïda’s nerves were not strong, she only saw horses taking off fast up front and wanted to follow. That was not allowed and she grumpily trotted off, bucking a few times and was almost cantering on the spot. First we had to ride the blue leg clockwise, the yellow leg the same route but anti-clockwise and finally the red leg: 30, 30 and 21.5 km exactly. The blue route had a turn after only 5 km taking the direction back to stables along a very wide sand road. For a short while I could not stop Zaïda from taking off in a brisk canter as she thought we were already going home when two young women thundered past me … what I did not know then: one of them was my competition and would soon be disqualified with a lame horse. The other young lady became my companion to the end of the ride because she was also riding under novice rules, ie, was not allowed to go over 16km/h overall speed. You can still do 80 km in a slow canter and not be too fast. Now the direction of our route changed again and was running parallel to the railway line and Zaïda saw her first long freight train. There was no shying, nothing. She behaved perfectly well. On a competition everything is different. I praised her well for her braveness in face of the freight train.
Claire and Leon were pushing their novice horses close to the 16km/h limit and from the second leg onward Megan and me rode somewhat slower, as we both really needed to finish this ride. My first leg during the cool morning hours was my fastest with just under 16km/h, the second a bit slower and we took the third leg very slow because I knew that this leg was quite rocky. The red leg was like a lolly-pop loop and halfway through we saw a rider coming towards us in a canter, but at the fairly steep rise he got off and walked uphill to save his horse. When we returned we did exactly the same. I had trained Zaïda to quickly grab a bite of grass along the way in passing. This can make a big difference when the horses have to go five to six hours to avoid that their stomach runs on empty. Horses evolved as grazing nibblers and they cannot really cope with huge meals in one go as they have a small stomach with a capacity of about four litres. During the two breaks I always feed her after the vet check. I had filled the pre-measured grain meal in bags and Clemens, my hard working groom had always soaked the meal beforehand. I mix the grain meal with finely chopped hay, so her belly is full but not loaded with too much grain which would only be extra weight on the next leg. The soaking provides extra liquid and also helps with digestion so the horse has always enough energy available. If they run at very high speeds they quickly get from the aerobic into the anaerobic state and have to use their energy reserves which can mean game over at the next vet check.
At the start to our last leg I still felt quite ok, but somehow these last 21 kilometres did not seem to end. It was past midday and really hot – perhaps just under 30 degrees – but it felt like more. Even my young companion was complaining about the heat. But everything is easier when you’re with two people and the horses also run better. Alone with Zaïda I might have had some problems and I rather waited at the start of the last round for Megan so that we could ride together.
Finally even the last kilometres were done and only one last vet check had to be passed. Our vets are really good and they know what they are doing. Sageni from Zimbabwe had told me on the last but one check that 80km is the benchmark, often make or break, so better ride slower. Now all was well with Zaïda and I was asked if I could do the test for „best conditioned horse“ right away. This is done from 80km upwards. I had never done this before but it is easy. You trot a figure 8 with your horse, just as in the rider’s test for motorcycles and two vets watch instead of one. There are certain standard criteria the horse has to fulfil to be awarded this distinction, the gold medal so to say. Now Sageni told me that I was alone in my category, ‘you are competing against yourself’. That’s when it dawned on me that there was no more competition in my weight class, all the others had been pulled and were out. So I automatically received 1. place because I had finished and had no competition, but the ‘best conditioned’ award was genuine and not just luck because the others were lame! I am really proud of this. I did this ride with maintaining horse soundness as my priority in order to finish, never mind if I’d been last or not, because the motto is: To finish is to win! At the end of the ride the horse must be deemed fit to continue down the trail and not be totally exhausted.
Very happy we set off for home after a leisurely breakfast on Sunday morning. Zaïda had given us some stress when loading in the horse box. Up to now she’d always gone in like butter. This time it was a different box and she was stubborn. An experienced horse woman finally managed to load her, after making Zaïda run in a circle and making her work if she refused to go in. A power struggle with a stubborn horse that is very fit and feisty. In such cases the horses are never hit, but shown very firmly that they will not get away with it. That takes time and perseverance which are worth the while. We have a lot to practise before the next ride. Now Zaïda will first enjoy two weeks of holidays and yours truly is in bed with a gastrointestinal virus, which will pass. One thing I know for sure now: spending a night hanging over the side of your bed aiming for a bucket is far more exhausting than riding 80 kilometres.
Zaïda might appear slightly tired on the photos but this stretching of the neck is clever as it saves and relaxes the back muscles.
Unfortunately, my super groom team (KLM) was not with me this time, so Clemens had to work for three, what else could he do?