Tuesday, 20 November 2018

Biggest ride of my life

Biggest ride of my life

A WOMAN who has been riding horses since she was a child is to compete in her first race at the age of 54.

Alison Lees, from Stoke Row, will be taking part in the British Horse Society’s inaugural charity flat race at Newbury racecourse on Thursday.

She is one of 10 jockeys from around the country who will be riding a mile-long straight section of the course on a thoroughbred.

Her rivals include Alan Hiscox, the society’s director of safety and a former mounted officer in the Met, event rider Simon Grieve and BBC sports presenter Lizzie Greenwood-Hughes.

In order to qualify, they all had to pass a gruelling selection process to test their fitness and raise at least £2,000 for the society’s Changing Lives Through Horses programme, which helps disadvantaged teenagers to get back into work or education.

Miss Lees will be cheered on by her partner David Watt and about 20 friends from the Black Horse pub and stables in Checkendon, where the couple keep their 23-year-old mare Tilly.

She said was nervous about the race but hoped to channel that into her riding so she does well.

“I want to do the best possible job of it,” she said. “The difficulty isn’t just the race itself but getting safely to the start line and to the paddock afterwards. Your body gets completely taken over by the adrenaline and I’m sure I’ll be exhausted as soon as I finish.”

Miss Lees signed up for the challenge in June after reading about it in the British Horse Society’s monthly newsletter.

In order to make the final 10 riders, she had to attend an all-day assessment of her fitness and riding skills at the British Racing School in Newmarket.

She prepared for this by going to the gym at The Club at Mapledurham, where a personal trainer devised her a fitness regime.

She also began riding racehorses with a trainer based in Compton, near Didcot, three days a week, riding on five different horses. She learned to stand in the stirrups at speed and wasn’t put off when she suffered an ankle injury during one of the sessions.

Miss Lees said: “You have to be fit because the horses are incredibly strong animals that just love running. They’re always keen to get going and you’ve got to be strong enough to stand in the stirrups for a couple of minutes once they’re off.

“It’s absolutely exhilarating to ride at speed but not without its hazards. You’ve got to be totally focused on what you’re doing at all times because horses are very flighty.

“They can be fine one minute then suddenly spooked by a dog or even a piece of debris on the wind, so you can never be sure what’s going to happen next. It’s certainly well outside of my comfort zone compared with the riding I’ve done before.

“The hardest thing is the early mornings. I hate getting up in the dark and my joints are always sore because I’m no spring chicken!”

To pass the fitness exam, Miss Lees had to complete a number of tasks including a sprinting test, squats, press-ups and holding a “plank” while in the the press-up position for four minutes.

She said: “It was absolutely horrendous. I was worried that I was going to fail but was determined to succeed. The work at the gym really paid off and David kept cracking the whip whenever I had my doubts. He wouldn’t let me off the hook and said there was no point backing down because I’d regret it if I didn’t see it through.”

Miss Lees also had to prove she could tack up her horse and warm it up before performing a six-furlong canter along a course.

She said: “It was a long day and I was so glad to get through it because not everyone did. It was particularly hard for the people who passed the fitness test then failed the riding test as they had put in a lot of effort.

“The following day I was sore in places I didn’t know you could be sore in and it was even worse the day after that.”

Miss Lees was eight when she learned to ride on her family’s farm in Fife in Scotland and then worked with horses at a trade yard as a teenager.

After finishing her education, she worked as an agricultural secretary for several years before deciding to train as an air traffic controller as her father George had taken up gliding in his retirement and her brother David was working as a private pilot.

She moved south with Mr Watt in 1988 while she trained on the south coast and they settled in Remenham in 1992 when she took a job at the London Air Traffic Control Centre in West Drayton.

The couple bought Tilly as a yearling from a friend in Scotland in 1996 and Miss Lees rode her for leisure for many years as well as competing at showjumping events at the Henley Show and the Goring Heath horse trials.

She took voluntary redundancy in 2013 but continued riding Tilly until two years ago when the horse was not longer up to it.

Miss Lees then rode Tilly’s offspring, a male named Bob, until earlier this year when he died of an illness, aged 12.

“Horses have always been part of my life,” she said. “I can remember learning to jump all sorts of things as an eight-year-old, including all the fences that I wasn’t supposed to jump and the obstacles I would set up in my garden.

“I did Pony Club activities and later got involved in point to point racing on my own horse, who was a very laid back mare and the complete opposite of a racehorse. She was happier eating than running!

“I enjoyed competing with Tilly whenever I was able to fit it around my work commitments. It’s beautiful around here and I love just being out and about riding in this stunning countryside.”

She said that preparing for the race had been a big commitment.

“Most of the people who are taking part in the race have jobs and I couldn’t have done this without having the spare time as it isn’t easy learning to ride a race horse,” said Miss Lees.

“This has taken over my life and once it has finished I want to go back to Scotland and visit friends and family. I definitely want to keep my fitness up afterwards as I’ve come so far and it would be a shame to let it slide.”

Miss Lees has already exceeded her fund-raising target and said: “People have been so generous and their donations will do a lot of good. For teenagers who haven’t had the best start in life, working with animals can be that important first step in rebuilding their confidence. As long as you respect them and show affection, they will always return it and that can really give people a more positive outlook on life.”

To sponsor Miss Lees, visit www.justgiving.com/fundraising/AlisonROLees

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