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15 September 2014

Learning to Crew or Being thrown into the deep end

By Carola MacCallum

 

Someone once told me that the great thing about working with horses is that you never stop learning.  That, as I have learned (here's the word), is especially true when it comes to our wonderful sport.  So when my poor horse was out of action this spring, I decided that rather than feeling sorry for myself I could do precisely that: learn more about my sport.  It started with offering to help at all the rides I was meant to have been riding at (ok still feeling a tad sorry for myself) and not just to go for the 'easy' jobs but actually try as many different jobs as possible.  So, at Dunecht when no timekeeper could be found I decided to try it myself.  Leon and Ruth kindly gave me a wee training session and off I went, it really is not difficult and it's actually become my favourite job at a ride because firstly you get to meet every rider who has come to the ride and you can say a quick hello before they set off and secondly, well, it's quite a power rush!  No seriously, as long as you refuse to be stressed and tell riders to wait - because they will insist on all coming in together at the finish - it's really not so scary!  Anyway I digress, I then tried out the job of vet writer at Corrachree where, I must admit, my heart sank when the vet greeted me with 'you'll keep me right, won't you'.  Oh dear!  Anyway, I tried to look professional with my fancy almost waterproof clipboard and told him about the ABC's, some of which I have now learned should have been 123's.  So apologies to everyone who has ABC's on their vetsheets where there should have been 123's, it's my fault.  Luckily the lovely ladies in the caravan knew what it meant and all turned out well in the end, and I now know what a mucus membrane is.  Result!

 

The next thing I wanted to learn more about was crewing.  When I mentioned that casually in the caravan after the Corrachree ride Lorna said: 'Oh you can crew Marco and me at Burgie if you like.' I was keen as a bean!  The weekend was in my diary anyway (as I was meant to ride at Burgie ...) and I thought it would be nice to see everyone competing there.  All I knew about crewing so far was that you had to meet the rider along the road, pour some water over the horse and see if it wants a wee drink.  It can't be that difficult now can it? Well, there's a whole lot more to it than that!   what I've learned from my weekend as rookie crew is that a good rider and crew are team that is so efficient and so organised it would put the SAS to shame - and they could probably survive a lot longer in the wild than said SAS with all the stuff they carry in their crew car.  But let's start at the beginning.  Lorna, knowing that I was enthusiastic but totally clueless, had written a few notes for me about what happens at a crew stop, a vet gate (already learning a whole new terminology), which bit of kit is in which box and, most importantly, reassuring me that I wouldn't have to make any management decisions with regards to Marco as she would keep me right on that.

 

On the morning of the ride I, very un Germanic, arrived 20 minutes late at Lorna's house and very promptly learned an important crewing lesson: Never ever do anything that could stress your rider.  Well, I had just failed on that one, big time!  I felt bad and was determined to try my best to do a good job the rest of the day.  It was all very relaxed when we arrived, Evelyn Frame was there to help Lorna trot up Marco and Joan Austin had just arrived with coffee and maps to help me with the navigation.  As we did not have time the day before to 'reccie' (more new terminology!) I didn't think I could make it to the crew stops in time having to drive and navigate at the same time.  It felt a bit like rally driving as Joan was giving me directions while I was driving as fast as legally possible.  Great fun! It still took us a good 30mins to get to the first crew stop as it was a long way round while the riders cut across country.  Some crew were caught out as the first group of riders had been going faster than anticipated.  What a spectacle to see a group of horses and riders coming into the crew stop at high speed, followed by total mayhem for all of 20 seconds while the horses, who fit and raring to go, are being sloshed.  Then they all go cantering off again at high speed, slosh bottles flying everywhere.  Wow!  What excitement!  By now it began to dawn on me that crewing for an 80km race ride was not for beginners, the other crews were experts, well practised teams who did not only work on helping their the horse and rider round the route but they had a strategy and they were working to get their rider to win.  The speed, efficiency and calm with which they work is awe inspiring.  Lorna, who at that time was riding with Katie and Jane, came in a few minutes later and had a quick slosh, told us all was fine and trotted away again.  Well, all was not fine on our end.  During the mad rush of crew cars arriving to catch the first group of riders one of the other crews had driven past our car too close and cleanly taken off the cover of the back lights.  Oh sugar!  This was Lorna's car and I was in charge of it and now it was damaged, so much for doing a good job.  While I was panicking Joan took charge: 'Nevermind, the car is still roadworthy, let's just crack on and deal with it later.  And we will NOT tell Lorna what has happened until after the ride.' So we set off again at a mad rush.

 

As Lorna was riding with Jane at the time, Douglas, who was crewing her, became our mentor, he gave us handy bits of advice like 'catch a nap while you are waiting', unwrap all snacks before the rider comes in and hand the slosh bottles to the rider with the handle facing them.  Totally obvious but, never having been crewed myself, I would never have thought to do that.  Like I said, enthusiastic but clueless, that's me.  With each crew stop we were slowly getting into the swing of things, Lorna and Marco were happy and making good progress, I was handing the slosh bottles up the right way round, the sun was starting to come out - all in all this was good fun.  That was until we reached the first vetgate.  During our drive up to Burgie I had asked Lorna if she had ever had any problems crewing with a road car instead of a 4x4 and she assured me that she was just careful to choose her crew stops and that the vetgates were usually fine.  Usually, but not today!  The steep and very stoney track up to the vetgate should have been an indicator of what was to come.  We had to drive very carefully and very very slowly so we wouldn’t belly the car and thus it took us a long time to get there.  When we saw the field I was not happy.  The vetgate had been set up at the bottom of the hill.  My gut instinct told me not to go down there.  Time and logistics, however, told me that I didn't really have a choice.  Lorna would be arriving in the next 5 to 10 minutes and we simply could not carry all her stuff to the bottom of the hill and later back up again, so we drove down.  The ground was dry and hard so I was still hopeful that with some zigzagging we might still make it up the hill afterwards.

 

The whole vetgate stop was fraught.  Just as Lorna arrived the heavens opened.  For a split second the thought popped into my head that I should perhaps try and get the car up the field before the grass got wet but Lorna needed all hands on deck to get Marco vetted quickly and we also needed to get all the stuff that could get wet back into the car - a mad rush and the car was forgotten about.  Marco vetted fine and Lorna sat down under the hatch back door of her car to have her lunch when she suddenly noticed the damaged lights.  So much for keeping this from her until end of the ride.  She was not a happy bunny.  It was an uncomfortable half an hour, we were all drenched and stressed, struggling to keep Lorna and Marco warm and all their stuff dry.  I still was not really sure what I was meant to be doing and Marco was merrily pulling Joan across the field to join his friends who were leaving the vetgate.  We finally managed to set them off and then we had to think about how to get our car back up the field.  With growing dread we were watching the 4x4s struggle to drive back up.  The heavy rain had transformed the short grass into a green ice rink, the surface felt like jelly.  We tried everything, unpacking the car and pushing it, then zigzagging, then reversing up the hill.  All to no avail.  All my rally driver fantasies were quickly turning into a nightmare.  All I wanted was my own trusty landrover and some diff locks.  Then one of the vets offered to pull us up the hill but apart from not being able to locate the tow loop at the front of Lorna's car, his jeep was starting to slip and spin as well and we knew that there was no way he could pull us up.  This was getting serious, by now most people had left the field and there we were still stuck at the bottom.  Just then the local farmer arrived with an argocat.  He greeted us with 'What were you thinking taking a car down the field?' I felt that now was not the time to try to explain to him the fineries of vetgates and race ride crewing so I just, for once, kept my mouth shut.  Not easy.  He then explained to me that if he agreed to pull me up he would not be responsible for any damage to my vehicle.  I agreed.  The next 20 minutes or so were downright scary.  The farmer had attached the cable of winch to the tow bar of Lorna's car and was now pulling me up the hill backwards.  I couldn't see where I was going as the view out the back was still blocked by stuff, the driver's side window would not wind down and I was being pulled up so fast that every corrective manoeuvre resulted in the car sliding and slipping.  Neither could I communicate with the farmer nor could I see where I was going - a recipe for disaster.  Finally Joan ran up to the farmer to tell him to slow down and then, through the passenger window, gave me directions on how to steer to get through the gate.  Phew!

 

Shaken and stirred we drove to the next crew stop, where we had to endure the other extreme of crewing - waiting.  I am not very good at waiting and I was still full of adrenaline from our adventure down the hill so I decided that this was the time to refill our water containers in the stream with my coffee mug.  That passed the time until the riders arrived, the field was starting to split, Jane had managed to save a lot of time at the vetgate so she was catching up with the front runners.  Lorna and Katie were still riding together and both horses were going strong.  Wisely we kept our tales of our recent adventure to ourselves.

 

At the next vetgate we had arrived in plenty of time and we felt proud to have everything properly prepared before Lorna and Marco came.  Evelyn had joined us again and took charge of Marco with the assistance of Joan.  So I was free to look after Lorna.  I went into full mummy mode, offering various foods, snacks and drinks, enquired whether she was warm enough and so on.  Another friend was busy stirring Lorna's pot noodle.  All this was watched with great bemusement by Brenda and Roger Searle who had come up to check out the route and vetgates in preparation for their attempt of the ride in August.  After a while Roger wondered out loud how many people it took to crew an endurance rider? Lorna answered dryly: 'you can always use another one' and promptly handed him her mapcase so he could turn over her map for the next loop.  Much laughter ensued.  The atmosphere at this vetgate was a lot more relaxed and everybody felt very proud when a well fed Lorna and a bright looking Marco set off for their last loop.

 

They arrived at the finish just as relaxed and bright as they had set off but the minute they were over the line the atmosphere changed to what I can only describe as 'quiet determination'.  It's easy to forget that in endurance riding the ride isn't over until the final vetting is done.  Both Lorna and Evelyn were quietly and calmly working on Marco while I just tried to get the balance right between staying out of the way and being useful by holding things and tidying stuff away.  Marco passed the final vetting with flying colours and everybody felt happy and proud.  Hugs all around!  More hugging also for Katie and Jane who had also completed successfully, with Jane even managing to work her way forward to be placed in 4th place.  Now that the hard work was done I was handed Marco to feed him and make him comfortable.  Well, I hope Lorna will forgive me for saying this but watching Marco eat is hilarious, he eats like more like a hippo than a horse.  He puts his whole head into the bucket of sugarbeet, tries to lift it or tip it over, he slurps, splutters, blows and snorts.  I was in fits of laughter but then I am used to my Arab who will daintily nibble on his peeled grapes with pursed lips but only after I have been pleading with him to eat.  Well I am pleased to report that Marco finished ALL his different buckets - it seems that endurance horses are fed buffet style - only then to continue eating after he was put in his corral.  And he so deserved it!

 

The next day, after a very wet night, Lorna rode the 30km with Marco and I crewed her again, this time alone but following Evelyn's crew as Lorna and Evelyn were riding together.  It suddenly was all so easy.  I had learned what it means to be a crew!  I felt very proud and very useful.  And, just last month I had a crew of my own for the very first time and it was fantastic! Everything had come full circle and I feel that I understand a little bit more about our great sport.