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Forces wives take on Ride to Freedom challenge

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Steph Quintrell tells us more about an ambitious horsey adventure she’s planning to take part in this June

On 26 June 2023, alongside a team of seven Forces Wives Challenge (FWC) ladies, I will travel to France to begin an exciting, slightly scary and all-round epic journey. We will spend five days riding on horseback across the Pyrenees tackling the challenging terrain surrounding the World War II (WW2) freedom trails. The plan is to ride until we cross the border into Spain, as many did before us under very different circumstances. The WW2 escape lines were made up of numerous mountain passes, used by airmen who had been shot down while flying over occupied France and needed to escape the country. Alongside Jewish refugees fleeing for their lives, they made this arduous and dangerous journey to safety.

The horses

We’ll be riding one of the two native breeds of the Pyrenees, the Merens horses. These beautiful, kind horses have a striking resemblance to the British Fell pony, with their jet-black coats and shaggy manes and fetlocks. They’re a versatile, hardy breed, who are sure-footed and brilliant for endurance riding, making them the most perfect breed for carrying us on our journey. The horses we’ll ride belong to Govan, our guide, who will lead us on our trek. Govan took over his father’s farm when he passed and, just as his father before him, he uses the practice of pastoralism to keep his horses. This means they live in freedom in a semi-feral state on the mountains, rather than being kept stabled or in a fenced paddock. He currently has a herd of around 50 horses, all bred and trained by himself.

The riders

Our team is made up of nine Forces wives, all members of FWC, with eight team members going on the expedition and our fantastic reserve Emily supporting us. FWC is a not-for-profit organisation that believes in the power of adventure and seeks to provide outdoor challenges and adventures for female spouses and partners of military personnel (both serving and veterans). The women of FWC are united by a passion for adventure and a shared purpose to foster friendships, boost confidence and build resilience. This enables us to tackle the challenges that military life presents and, most importantly, we can face them together. We’re a group of strong and brave women who actively push ourselves out of our comfort zones, support each other to overcome obstacles and achieve anything we want.

The challenge

This Ride to Freedom (R2F) expedition will challenge the team both mentally and physically, with long days in the saddle and technically difficult ascents and descents. We’ll cover 130km over the five days and will spend nights either camping under the stars or in basic mountain accommodation/bunkhouses. There is an added layer of challenge and complexity for the team because I’m physically disabled. I rely on a wheelchair full time and have complex health needs. I’m a competent and experienced para rider, but with only the team helping and supporting me throughout the expedition and a packhorse carrying my wheelchair alongside our other essential kit, the challenge will, of course, be greater for me. Some may view it as an impossible journey for me to attempt, but there’s no one I’d rather attempt this incredible adventure with than my R2F teammates.

Team tactics

Currently, with just over 12 weeks until the start of the expedition, we’re all busy training to make sure we have the correct level of fitness and stamina to physically cope throughout the journey. With our team members dotted all over the country, we rely heavily on virtual team meetings to build bonds and forge friendships. We met at Larkhill Saddle Club in January for a full day of team training and earlier this month, we spent the weekend together in Tidworth. We were hosted by the Armed Forces Equine Charity at Tedworth Park Community Hub for an afternoon of good, old-fashioned team building activities which were, of course, military style! We completed command tasks together, learning so much more about each other, while some friendly competition added to the brilliant atmosphere of the day. On day two, Tedworth Equestrian Centre welcomed us to the yard, and we rode out together on its lovely horses and ponies on a hilly route that gave us a taste of the demanding mountains we’ll be faced with every day in the Pyrenees.

Our team bonding will continue now with regular virtual meetings right up until we set off for France, and there is a flurry of excitement growing among the team as we head rapidly towards the expedition. We each have our roles within the team, focusing individually on a different aspect of preparation. We’re using our existing skillsets, as well as making the most of the opportunity to push ourselves out of our comfort zones and enhance our knowledge and skills. There are also some mini training sessions planned when a couple of team members will visit me at the yard where I keep my horse and pony to practise lifting procedures for getting me mounted and dismounted from a horse. I’m incredibly fortunate to have my mare, Bubba, who stands like a rock and will even step in with an encouraging nudge if she thinks the girls aren’t in the correct position to support me getting into or out of the saddle!

All for a good cause

Through our Ride to Freedom expedition, we’re raising money for the incredible Armed Forces Equine Charity. The charity supports the military community in several ways including equine-assisted recovery and rehabilitation programmes for those recovering from physical injuries, mental health conditions and addictions, as well as those experiencing grief, domestic abuse and isolation issues. It also supports people through equine-assisted learning programmes for children and adults with special educational or sensory needs, equine recreation and sporting opportunities to contribute to mental and physical health and wellbeing for those in the military, their families and the local community of the centres.

Here’s a short video that introduces the team and the challenge,

To support the R2F team in their fundraising effort, please donate here.

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