Next up on our calendar for the year was one of my favourite tracks – Biggenden. The ride has never been run over the exact same trail, every year is new! What did Sue have in store for us this time? The last thing our horses wanted – a bloody big hill…
Here at home we don’t have hills. Not real hills, they’re more like gentle slopes really, so our horses tend to struggle on the hillier tracks and we have to slow down a good deal and take care of them through the tough parts. Most of the Biggenden track was undulating and good under foot which is a lot like what we train for, but that hill – oh lordy that hill…!
We had four horses in the 80km – Jasmine riding her horse Hala, Adriana with Sam, Erin on Koda and myself with Milton. We also happened to meet a new rider in our area who we managed to help along to the ride with her horse – her name was Kat and her little mare is Vegas. They were entering the 40km so we would begin a bit earlier.
Before we vetted in, Adriana and I clipped Sam and left a snowy patch of white hair in his yard which Revan (my dog) found to be such fun to play in. After a quick brush we vetted in and decided to go on a quick pre-ride. It was a lovely afternoon, Spencer and Erin’s dad, Craig, got the fire going and we all huddled around before heading off to the Biggenden pub for our customary pre-ride dinner.
The next morning we rolled out of bed in the dark to the thrilling rustle of horses hooves and the clinking of saddles and bridles. It was foggy and freezing! Adriana, Erin and I were all rugged up – gloves, light jackets, face masks, anything to stay warm! No one really takes notice of one another as we saddle up, its usually so cold you can only focus on your task of getting your horse ready to go and trying to remember where you hid your gear to save it from the dew. Once we’re all aboard and a little warmer and awake we start to pay a little more attention and one thing that got us all gasping was Jasmine in her t-shirt! We all had a laugh and tried to convince her to put on her jacket, but she insisted she was fine and we all shuffled away giggling in the darkness with Adam waving us off.
In those days, with novice horses and novice riders to take care of, we would wait until the front runners were well and truly gone before we trotted out of the gate. Milton’s owner, Rob, was there cheering us on as we buzzed out. We were all eager – it was Erin’s first 80km and Adriana’s last novice (she had completed an 80km in between Biggenden and Blackbutt) I was quietly stewing about the hill we had been warned about at pre-ride talk. Hills were not Milton’s strong suit at that point!
We got a good rhythm going, jogging along nose to tail like we did in training in the order we knew our horses to be most comfortable – Jasmine out front, then Adriana, followed by Erin and then myself at the back where I could keep an eye out on the juniors. We were making a decent time, the track had a couple of boggy crossings that had us laughing as Milton minced through them trying to avoid getting his feet wet! It was not long after we had hit a turnaround point that a story we have re-told many times since occurred which included a random bush dunny – I was not busting enough to use it, but one of us was, I won’t say who…!!
After much laughing and hysteria and shrieking we were once again on our way and after passing a distance marker we all clicked that “the hill” must be coming up soon. We spotted the bent up and twisted gate that the cows in the paddock had blasted through while the track was being marked – a sure clue to how close we were to “the hill” – Rob had been part of the track marking team and had told us the story so we were fore-warned.
Then it was in front of us. Adriana and I had been singing at the top of our lungs, sufficiently embarrassing Jas and Erin enough to keep our moods up, once I saw the hill I was on enough of a high to think ‘hey, it’s not as big as Sue said!’
It was. At least I was sensible enough to have kept Milton behind because he would have slowed everyone back to a walk within the first ten metres if we had been in the front! As it was, Hala and Sam were seasoned vets and jogged up the hill steadily and cautiously enough, Koda was smart enough to bound up after them like a little deer – skinny legs springing left and right. Then came Milton, lumbering up and slowwwwwing dowwwnnnn. It was a long hill rather than a steep one, so we climbed and climbed and climbed steadily as the other three horses bounced up ahead of us.
The downhill was much easier, but just as steady as some of it was quite steep. Watching Koda scooting around I thought to myself that she was coping very well – I wondered what she would think when she got saddled up again for a second leg, it was going to be a learning curve for the perky little miss! At least she wasn’t throwing her back end at every horse that passed by now, she was learning.
We maintained a steady trot as we came in and smiled for the camera off to the side of the track – Kevin Coppalotti is one of my favourite photographers of all time and he took some amazing photos of us at the ride. My most cherished one is of Milton and I at Biggenden coming in off Leg 1 – my mum says I look like someone from S.W.A.T on a horse, Spencer says I look like we’re going to rob someone…
Leg 1 was finished in 3hr 38min, a sound 11kph which I was quite happy with. All three of the horses vetted through nicely and our strappers did a fantastic job. After a break and feed, we were all ready to saddle up and get back out. I would say “poor little Koda” but she didn’t seem at all worse for wear!
The second leg was the same loop we had already done, but the day was getting warmer so we tried to put a little more speed on – we didn’t dare push though, as much as we wanted to be out of the weather, we wanted to be sure of our horses more. It was uneventful until the hill rolled around the second time. I got off and led Milton for much of it and at the top I remounted. We had the opposite issue with Koda – she got to the top after bounding up and pooping herself out and then refused point blank to go back down! I think her little mind was ticking and she was not at all sure whether she would be expected to go out again. “Just in case,”she said, “I’ll wait here and you can collect me on your way back around!” Of course, that was not an option, so Erin dismounted and led her down a part of the way until Koda perked up and we continued.
The stall had made me worry though. I don’t know if Erin realised it or not but my mind was racing in a mad panic, watching Koda’s every move as she jogged beside Hala and the two riders laugh together – while Adriana and I rode behind, silently looking back at one another as unsure as ever if that was a hitch in Koda’s step we were seeing..
If there was anything, Erin wasn’t noticing it. She may have been new to endurance but she’d spent enough time on Koda to know when something is up with her. The fact that she wasn’t commenting on anything made me mentally tell myself off for stressing. I knew what the real issue was – my brain was cued onto Bart, this was my own little horse in her first 80km and my heart was in my stomach with worry for her, regardless of the fact that nothing at all seemed to be wrong with her.
We pushed on, it was getting hot and we were all starting to wilt in our saddles – there was the finish line. We jogged in, just like we always did in training, rode straight up to our strappers and weighed in. We dumped our saddles to be retrieved later and walked “calmly” to camp to strap and everything became a blur. Adam helped Jasmine, Craig helped Erin, Spencer was going back and forth between Adriana and myself as all four of us called for the heart rate monitor, the hose, towels or what ever else our horse needed. We must be an interesting group to watch, I wonder what we look like – I know what it feels like. It feels like fluid motion. We all know what our job is, what the goal is, what to do to achieve it and we just make it happen. A team.
I lost track of everyone, but at some point I know Jas and Erin left to vet in. We still had time and Sam was ready to go in but Adriana didn’t want to leave me as Milton’s heart rate wasn’t quite right. It took me a minute, but I realised he needed to pee. We whistled and walked him slowly but he was determined to hold it – time was up, we had to vet in. I walked beside Adriana to the vetting ring, Rob was waiting for us and as I explained that Milton desperately needed to pee so his heart rate would drop, he finally decided to do it – how weird are we endurance riders, worrying about whether our horses will pee! Rob patted me on the back and sent us in while he went and stood with Yvonne to watch us.
Milton’s heart rate had dropped and while the TPR’s did their checks I saw Koda and Hala trotting out and vetting through. It was a lift I needed – the last hair raiser for the ride was about to come. I walked up with Milton, the vet asked how we had gone and did his checks. We trotted up sound and as the vet gave us the all clear I turned around to see Sam jogging in with Adriana – and we were in complete shock as Adriana was asked to trot out again.
She was in a panic, worrying for her horse and stressing that Yvonne was on the sidelines watching too. She trotted out again, but her hand was too tight on Sam’s lead and he was sluggish – once more the vets wanted to see a third and final trot out, only three can be asked for. I took Sam’s lead and waved it at him to stir him a little. He wasn’t lame – but he was lazy! I ran beside him, clicking to him as I went. It wasn’t much better, he was determined to be stubborn, but the vets passed him and we went back to camp with raised heart rates of our own!
Yvonne laughed when I talked to her about it later. Sam is a smart cookie and had quickly wrapped Adriana around his little finger – that day put the fear of god into her, she wasn’t going to let that happen again!
We were very happy with the end to our Biggenden Adventure in 2015. Kat had completed the 40km with Vegas and all four of our own horses had vetted through. Jas and Erin had completed equal 9th Juniors and Adriana and I were equal 10th Lightweights, not that any of us considered numbers to be above the achievement of successful completions. It felt like something wonderful, being a part of a team that all worked for the same goal and helped one another along the road. Endurance can be as much a solo sport for anyone, but when you’ve had a team alongside and behind you – there is nothing quite like it.