As I stand in the middle of a field at around 5 am I wonder, for the millionth time that minute, why my mother hadn’t chosen a normal hobby to pursue like golf, bowls, jogging or something vaguely sane compared to endurance racing. International endurance riding. "This is the top!" I try to convince myself. "You’ll be famous." My teeth continue chattering.
Around me people busy themselves in getting their riders and horses ready for the 5.30 am start. I desperately look round, trying to find my father in the fray. Not succeeding, I make my way over to the stables where he is standing with Just Paddy, my mother’s horse. Paddy takes delight in defying all stereotypes of endurance horses. They are 15.2hh Arabs, with striking colours and features, smooth flowing gaits and agreeable personalities. He is a 14.2hh cob, of Heinz 57 breeding (described by some as the Irish Bogtrotter), a dull chestnut with an ugly face and a Roman nose; a peculiar gait that reminds one of an oversized crab and a wish to bite everyone and everything in sight. However, these qualities prove to be quite successful, as Paddy has many career miles to his name.
The race starts and I am dragged to the car by my father. The international hi-tech crewing equipment consists of old milk cartons which are filled with water and known as "slosh bottles" and 5 litre water carriers. However, even these get priority over me when it comes to the seating arrangement in the car, and so I find myself doubled over with my head touching the ceiling, on top of a box of slosh bottles and what feels like the corner of the grooming kit. At the crew points, the wait is long and tedious, with grown ups talking of times, vet gates and whether they have enough water.
In the meantime, it has started raining. When the first horse comes past, stop watches are taken out with every crew timing exactly how far their rider is behind him or her and how many minutes/hours/years/centuries it will take to catch him or her up. I am busy trying to work out where on earth my waterproof coat has got to, and whether I actually took it out of my school locker at the end of term. And the race goes on.
By the time we get back to the venue for one or other of the many and compulsory vet checks, it has already turned into a mud bath, with horses, riders and crews alike having a large wallow. Paddy is left in my charge in front of a bucket of sugar beet with added electrolytes for energy. He happens to be a messy eater, and before long I am covered in beet water, molasses and other disgusting and unknown substances. I don’t enquire what they are, it’s probably best if I don’t know.
By the next crew point, the fact that I missed my Weetabix in the morning is beginning to show. However, when I excavate the car for food, all I can find are half eaten bananas - my mother’s favourite energy food - and disgusting brown liquid, sometimes known as Isotonic Energy Drink. My dad promises to stop off at the pub sooner or later, that is, if we have time.
Endurance races are fast and furious, and for a crew to miss a meeting with their rider is a fatal mistake. Therefore, I reserve judgement on this hastily made promise.
Back at the venue at 75 miles or so, the mud is up to my knees. I curse myself for wearing my old trainers instead of my knee-length riding boots.
My mother is firmly established in around 5th or 6th place, my job now is to cram the rest of the energy food into her to keep the morale high. Paddy, meanwhile, is getting a free massage to make sure that his muscles don’t stiffen up. The large score board has finally been updated to show that there are only 10 competitors left in the race. With final encouraging words, they start off on the last leg. Only 25 miles left. And the cold is setting in.
At the finish, the natural light has failed, and artificial lights guide the horses home. A quick slosh - not too much in case the horse stiffens with the cold - and then the final vetting. This is the decider. Even if you have made it this far, yet don’t pass, you have failed. Nail biting seconds pass and then we’re through! A cheer goes up from spectators, which is quickly stifled by the officials, who remind us that there are other competitors yet to vet. And then what? In the midst of my jubilation, I feel a lead rope being thrust into my hands with the instruction that I am to graze Paddy until the grown ups come back from the pub. The feeling is automatically extinguished.
Endurance racing, like the more traditional horse racing, still gets its share of the great and the good, for example the Sheikhs of Arabia, although the difference is that in this sport they are competing rather than simply acting as sponsors. However, the only time I have met Sheikh Mohammed, the greatest of the great, is in the middle of a field in Wicklow - that is, I was knee deep in mud in the middle of the field stuffing bananas into my mother, while he was sitting in a hugely expensive furnished and heated lorry with his crew attending to his horse. But yet I love endurance, I love the atmosphere of it all, the adrenalin rush, the feeling of triumph at the end of a long day. And all the memories I have of cold Saturday mornings, muddy feet and soaking clothes, well I wouldn’t part with them for the world!