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  • Writer's pictureEmmelia Potts

Popping the Horse Riding Endurance Cherry

Updated: Dec 11, 2023

Horse riding endurance race
Riding in my first endurance race attempt

What happens when you have never ridden further than 15k in one go and sign up for a 40k race on a horse you have never ridden? Thrills, spills and an unexpected ending!

I had always figured that endurance racing would be something I only saw on social media after crewing for the Irish teams at the Golden Horseshoe event. After all, my Dillon would never sacrifice a cosy stable, short hacking schedule and a full haynet for an intense 40km around the countryside. It was therefore a discipline that was never really on my radar.

After a navigation training day with On the Hoof, I took the plunge and asked if they knew anyone that would have a horse to ride at an endurance event to get my bum used to longer distances than the 10km sponsored rides. Praise the endurance Gods, it was a yes after the wonderful Maggie asked around the Endurance GB community.

Fast forward a few weeks and I had a full Mongol Derby training weekend featuring 40km endurance race booked in.

Day before the race:

Arriving at Maggie and Shelly's On the Hoof yard, foals cuddled and horses sorted it was time for a warm-up ride.

Maggie's beautiful horse, Pablo, was waiting for a hack around the Surrey roads. Part of me was concerned that I was riding someone else's pride and joy, especially a horsewomen of Maggie's standing. What if I didn't ride him how she liked? What if I ruined him!? Stupid thoughts I am aware but I have always had slight imposters syndrome when it comes to riding, yes I can ride, but no I do not class myself as fabulous or neat.

Hopping onto this stunner of a horse it was clear he was a cool customer that was going to give me a nice pre-race day warm-up.

After a delightful ride it was time for a briefing on tomorrows race. Sitting in a lovely village cafe Maggie, Shelly and I discussed the basics of endurance racing and how to pace yourself. We also went over the route map and discussed general map points of reference, gradients and scale. All very helpful, not only the next day but for Mongolia.

Reading maps
Map reading and pacing training underway

Back to the yard, tent erected, Mongol kit run over, quick Mongolian language and cultural lesson, BBQ eaten, wine drunk and it was time to get some shut-eye for tomorrows race. I was pleasantly surprised to find that my sleeping bag and sleeping mat for Mongolia were in fact pretty comfortable. The sleeping matt even comes with an inbuilt pillow, how posh!

The only downside of this day was I found out that tomorrow I would be riding on my own as Shelly's horse was no longer able to compete in the race (Shelly was a previous Derby competitor). I had lost my riding partner, who I was slightly depending on to show me how to pace myself. My teacher for the day was gone, bugger.

Race day:

Arriving at the Polesden Lacey Endurance event I was filled with nerves due to riding someone else's horse. There was a lot to take in, a new discipline with new rules, new procedures to pass such as vetting and a slightly different way of warming up and prepping before the event start. Pacing, heart rates, hydration, map reading, kit carrying all on top of riding a new horse were whirling around my head. However, above all this, I was so excited to get going and see what this Endurance racing was all about. After all, in a few weeks I would be doing this all over a much longer distance on feral horses so best to practice in a safe environment with a safe horse!

Rocco, my wonderful steed for the day arrived and his very trusting owner Iwona introduced me to him. A beautiful flea-bitten grey Arab, he was somewhere between the alertness and stamina of a racehorse in training and the reliability of my Dillon. He was so wonderful. Acquainted with Rocco and signed in, it was off to the pre-race vet check. All horses that compete in endurance racing are checked over to make sure they are fit and healthy before competing. Poodling down to the vet check Maggie and Shelly offered me advice on what to do and what to look out for.

Horse trot up for endurance
Trotting Rocco up for his vetting

The vet checked Rooco over and took his heart rate. A solid 40s. If the heart rate is too high, your horse trots up lame or the vet is concerned about your horses' welfare you do not even start the event. Something that I think should really be adopted in all disciplines. Rocco followed me (somewhat reluctantly) along the trot up line and we were passed by the vet to compete.

In endurance, you have a crew that meets you at certain points around the course to offer you and your horse food and drink as well as a cool down. I was so lucky to have Maggie, Shelly, a fellow Derby competitor Seb and Rocco's owner as my crew team. A wealth of knowledge and help for the day! They tacked up Rocco for me whilst I threw my rucksack on and got ready. Drink and food consumed I mounted with Maggie running over important reminders before we left.

"Remember to drink and eat"

"Have you drunk enough before you start!?"

"Just keep moving forward"

"You need to go left out of the gate, do not get lost"

"Follow the blue arrows on the floor"

Iwonas departing advice was "Rocco can be a bit spooky but he will look after you".

Warming up in the carpark, walking around on a loose rein we were called up to the start line.

"3, 2, 1, go!" said the startline marshal in a very chill manner, off we trotted and not 10 paces in Rocco started to spook at some tape. "oh dear feller we need to make it a bit further than the first field!" I laughed.

"Do not get lost, do not get lost, follow the blue arrows on the floor, just keep trotting, try not to walk" this was on loop in my mind for the first kilometre or so. Rocco knew exactly what he was doing. Ears pricked, he trotted with enthusiasm wherever I asked him to go, he was thoroughly enjoying himself and so was I!

It materialised once we joined the roads that Rocco did not enjoy blue arrows on the floor. Whilst looking at my map to ensure we were on track, Rocco darted to the left nearly putting us in a hedge. "What on earth was that about?" Looking at the floor there was nothing but the blue arrow. We continued making headway down a narrow path and he did the same over another floor arrow. "ah you don't like arrows on the floor, oh dear boy this could be a long ride for us both if we are going to do that at every arrow". We stopped, turned around and went to re-visit the terrifying arrow that was destined to consume all horses across the globe. Rocco snorted, lowered his head, sniffed the sprayed grass and then carried on as if it was not even there. "no excuses now for all the others Mr Rocco" I said giving him a quick pat. I have never been one for telling horses off when they spook or bolt, I find a bit of compassion goes a long way.

Somewhere in amongst arrow gate, I committed the cardinal Endurance sin. I got us lost.

Checking my Garmin watch I was at 20 minutes, I should have been at checkpoint 1 by now but alas I was not. We trotted on down the narrow forest trails. "Argh!!!" I exclaimed as low tree branches slashed into my face despite my attempts to dodge it by laying on Roccos neck. It was clear this was no happy hack or sponsored ride with nicely cut hedges and wide pathways. On the other side of the trees I felt lighter. "MY GO PRO! NO!" It had been eaten by the forest. Unable to turn around due to being on such a narrow pathway with barbed wire on one side and solid overhanging trees on the other i made the quick decision that it was not worth trying to find. "RIP Go Pro" I whispered and then decided to tell Rocco all about how Mongolia was going to be filmed on that and now I would have no fun footage. Rocco carried on trotting not caring about the Go Pro or the trees bashing me in the face for the duration of the pathway. He was in full competition mode, ploughing in a pacey trot without any let up.

Shortly after we caught up with two riders, one of which I recognised from the Golden Horseshoe race. "HI KATIE"! I said a bit too excitedly. It was so nice to see another human, let alone one you recognised and one that was a seasoned pro at the sport. We followed Katie for a bit with me thinking "We must be doing well to have caught up with Katie! Shes amazing! Go us!!!!!" premature pats to Rocco all round...

Rocco was so excited behind Katie and her horse to the point he was actually getting unbearably strong, we overtook Katie and he chilled out. I was feeling a mix of amazing for being up at the front with the experts, yet worried I still had not come across check point 1. Open fields awaited and off Rocco went, cantering happily as a child on Christmas Eve. This is amazing I thought, I have found my equine niche, just a shame there are not a few jumps!

Riding through the Surrey hills
Having the best time on Rocco

Whilst prematurely celebrating my new found equine discipline Rocco eased off cantering through the field as we approached a gate. Thinking nothing of it, I opened the latch and guided Rocco through. Greeting us the other side of the gate was a blue arrow on the floor. Rocco clocked the sneeky arrow, darted to the right and caught my leg on the gate post. Being such a forward and honest horse he continued to go through the entrance and my stirrup got caught on the gate post. Through the gate, past the arrow and i was one stirrup lighter. I looked back. It was hanging from the gate, in the latch. Rocco not wanting to stand still jogged around on the spot desperate to get going. "I am afraid I need that stirrup Rocco we can not leave with out it, its not mine to loose"

Just as I was contemplating getting off, Katie and her riding partner came along behind me and helped to keep the gate open whilst I unlatched the stirrup from the gate. "Thank you so much" I exclaimed. "Now just to attach the thing back to my saddle whilst on a horse that it pulling my arms out to keep up" i thought. Not an easy task it turns out, but thankfully whilst Rocco was keen he was sensible. We continued to follow Katie.

I checked my watch again, 25 minutes and still no check point 1, what on Earth was going on?

"Katie, how far to check point one do you think?"

"It was ages ago, we are not far off Check point 2 now..."

"Crap" I whispered "Crap, crap, crap"

"I think I've gone wrong and missed check point 1. What do i do? do i go back or do i carry on?"

"Oh! I am not sure, we really are not far from check point 2 now, maybe call Maggie and see?" Katie shouted as she dissapeared off on her horse.

I called Maggie, I called Shelly, I called everyone and no response meant I was all alone. Looking at my signal less phone, I had to fend for myself. "Best get used to this, I will be on my tod in Mongolia" I mused. Rocco, blissfully unaware that we had gone wrong, continued full steam ahead trying to catch up with Katie. "okay lad, lets just keep going after all this is meant to be a learning curve not an attempt to win". I silenced competitive Emmelia and decided that I would just carry on.

"Emmelia, where are you we are at checkpoint one" Seb had managed to get through to me. After explaining what had happened he said that they were going to meet me at check point 2 and to just carry on. Now mourning the confidence I had 20 minutes ago and feeling a bit useless, Rocco and I jogged on past Katie and caught up with someone else further up the field. They appeared to be having speed issues.

"I am local and my horse thinks she is going home and nearly done" said that lady.

"No worries just follow me!" I replied feeling useful and using it to take my mind off the mess I had created so far.

The lady was in the none novice class with Katie and was in 1st place so far. I decided to stick with her for a bit to pick her brain on endurance.

A lot of chatting and a lot of trotting later we came across check point 2. No crew.

"The roads are closed around here so people are finding it hard to get to crew points by car" the steward exclaimed.

"Sorry Rocco no water" I patted him and spat some water over his neck from my water bladder to cool him down. "Hopefully we will see them at check point 3"

I figured at this stage that if things do not go as expected in endurance you just carry on. So we did, keeping my eyes peeled for any ponds, rivers or lakes for Rocco to have a drink. We continued to stick with the leading lady from the open class. Through forests, beautiful scenery and some dodgy footing we progressed. I felt good giving the expirienced women a lead and I was beginning to enjoy myself again. "Do you mind if i come past? We are going too slow and i need to make up lost time" the lady said.

"Of course you can". I thought i had been going the speed of light, but apparently not and i had a bit to learn about pacing still!

I latched on to the lady like a limpit, Rooco still impossibly keen in behind, we continued behind her for a few miles to see what I was getting wrong. The pace felt so quick where i was used to short quick stints on racehorses or bombing ponies around and then poodeling after. Trotting full pelt for miles on end was a new feeling entirely.

We took it in turns to lead once i figured out how quick we needed to go to keep the horses motivated. The ladys horse kept slowing down in behind and having Rocco in front helped her keep pace. Something worth keeping in mind for Mongolia i thought.

"check point 3 shouldn't be far we are around 5 miles away"

"HA i love that this is classed as not far." i chuckled.

Whilst thinking about being happy to see my crew in a few miles we came across an unmarked fork in the pathway.

"This way!" the lady shouted at me

"Urm i don't think it is, that's far too narrow, it looks like a footpath and i am not sure well get the horses down there"

Too late she had vanished. I stood still for a second and wondered what to do. This women was well versed in endurance, knew the area and had been a huge help with learning how to pace. Did we really want to loose her now? Rocco was not pulling to follow which I figured was not a good sign.

"This way!" I heard in the distance through the trees.

Well she seems to be okay so it must be fine, I squeezed Rocco on and we battled through all the foliage down an impossibly narrow pathway. A few minutes later and I heard a scream and a huge rustle as if a tree had fallen down. Not able to turn around due to lack of space we carried on towards the noise. The lady stood at the end of the pathway covered in blood, she had gone through a bramble hedge and was pouring with blood from her arms and face. A little bit shocked at the state of her, i checked she was okay and then caught a glimpse of an arrow on the floor.

"I am fine, I've had much worse" she smirked, and with that off we went following the arrows once more.

After this I decided to use my map a bit more rather than rely on someone else for directions "You can not rely on anyone else for navigation" Maggies words of wisdom echoed in my brain.

Map reading at endurance event
Shelly explaining the route and where I had gone wrong

Looking on the map we didn't have long until cheak point 3 at all. I was so excited to see friendly faces and to debrief about all the mistakes so far. It seemed as though we were trotting up this never ending hill before i saw Maggies bright red trousers. "HELLO!" I yelled when i caught a glimpse of my crew. Suddenly, all hands were on deck helping get Rocco fed and watered and offering me snacks. Shelly explained where I had gone wrong with missing check point 1 and that the organisers said i can add the loop on at the end to make up the distance. It would make my race slightly longer but it meant i would get to do the entire distance. She was going to meet me near the finish and explain where to go to make up the distance up.

Once Rocco was fed and cooled down, there was no hanging around. Maggie shooed us off, urging us to keep going and to keep pace. Rocco and I made our way down the hills, back through the villages, past fallen trees and had a generally amazing time. Rocco was still in strong, eager mode and I was loving life. it was so refreshing being on a horse that was keen but that I felt 100% safe on.

Nothing of much note happened in the second half of the race. My knee started to hurt a bit and my feet went numb. Other than this the second half was great and I was learning lots about pacing which was key.

Near the finish I clocked Shellys car. I said goodbye to the lady I had been riding near and thanked her for her knowledge. I was then sent off on my own to do the first loop of the race that I had missed, alone.

Rocco was not impressed by being ridden past the finish line turn off. He slowed right down and had lost his spark. "We just have to get to check point 1, see Shelly and then we can come back boy".

A lot of pats, a fair bit of walking, a lot of questioning my navigational skills and an hour later we reached check point 1. "Horrah!" I shouted at Shelly on seeing her face. "nothing like doing the first check point last" I laughed. However, it was no laughing matter my pace had dropped significantly and we were no longer averaging 9km/hour. I was not sure we were going to make the cut off with the added distance.

"You can easily finish in the time" Shelly wisely advised "keep at a steady trot and you will do this"

Surely enough Rocco trotted on like the trooper he was. It was clear he wasn't overly happy to be out on his own but he continued to stay with me. Riding alone in unfamiliar surroundings was harrowing. I was constantly second guessing myself especially with navigation. This happened to the extent that we doubled backed on ourselves a couple of times to check the arrows we had ridden past.

Another hour later and I could see the finish line field not too far ahead. Rocco clocked it too and his pace quickened. Before i knew it we were crossing the finish line with my crew stood cheering. Huge pats to Rocco and a very happy rider, Maggie reminded me that we needed to get to the vet check in 20 minutes. No rest for the wicked!

I hopped off and helped get Rocco untacked and ready for the vet check. Maggie checked his heart rate for me and advised when was best to take him in.

"How do people do this after longer than 40km, my legs are all wobbly!" I thought. However, a last burst of adrenaline and the trot up went smoothly, fortunatley there were no face plants.

"A heart rate of 38 and the soundest rider trot up of the day" the vet exclaimed.

I could not have been happier. We had finished in the time, we had clocked some extra distance on the 40km and Rocco had been returned in peak condition. A wonderful day on a wonderful horse. I was so so happy!

The day only became better when we were leaving the event and one of the organisers collard Maggie to ask if her competitor had picked up their prizes.

"She has won something?"

"Yes she won her class!" the organiser smiled.

Hopping out of the car I went to collect my prizes. A beautiful rossette, a goodie bag and vouchers to spend with On The Hoof!

Winner rosette
Wonderful Rocco with his rosette

SO many lessons were learnt on this day.

  • When things go wrong, chin up and carry on!

  • Do not rely on anyone elses navigation

  • Keep drinking and re fueling both you and the horse. Do not wait until you are hungry or thirsty and keep offering the horse sustinance.

  • Endurance pacing is much faster than normal riding around. It will feel like you are rushing a lot of the time if you are not used to it.

  • If your horse wants to canter, let them, they will preserve energy and so will you rather than attempting to hold them back

  • Do not just blindly follow other riders

  • Trust your gut, if something does not feel right or you think you have gone wrong chances are you are correct.

  • If you horse is worried about something, allow them the time to absorb and process.

  • Change your riding position when you start to ache. Even something as simple as leaning forward more, or moving your leg position slightly can help.

  • The endurance trails are not always well ridden paths, there will be terrain to test you and your horse.

  • A good crew is so so important

  • When you have finished riding, do not chill and relax. Jump off and sort out your horse to ensure you pass the vet check. The race is not over until your horse is cleared.


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