As an actor, I spent over two years in the National Theatre West End production of War Horse. I was part of the puppetry team that portrayed Joey, the main horse in the show. Being in the show was an incredible experience, I was there when it opened in the West End and did somewhere around 600 performances, in front of a full house every night. It’s an important story to be told and in my opinion is a magical piece of theatre.

I first saw the show at the National Theatre when my best mate, and Mission Performance Associate, Paul Chequer was playing the character of David Taylor. I was completely blown away by the whole experience. Swept up by the emotion of the journey and most of all mesmerized by the horses. For those who haven’t seen it, the show uses life-size horse puppets that are puppeteered by teams of three people. It’s difficult to explain just how realistic the horses are – you have to see it to believe it.

The puppets are for me the greatest theatrical invention I have ever seen. The Times described the show as ‘The theatrical event of the decade’ and it is in no short order down to the realism with which the horses are portrayed.

How does this in any way relate to cycling?

Well, ergonomically being in the horse just simply isn’t good for you. Especially in the position that I played (The Heart) where for 2 hours each show you’re undertaking incredibly detailed specific movements whilst carrying two-thirds of the weight of the puppet. Which is also sometimes being ridden by an 11 stone actor. Different people’s bodies respond to this strain in different ways, but I can only speak from personal experience. The injuries that I went through on the show were numerous and pretty nasty. There were the normal aches and sprains that you would expect when doing something physical but added to this were some more serious things. A months worth of hyper sensitive shin splints, a misaligned pelvis and two vertebrae that shifted to the left pushing four ribs out of place. This happened frequently towards the end of my time in the show.

I left the show roughly 5 years ago but the remnants of the injuries are still there and it turns out never more so than when cycling distance. As I start a ride things begin to ache but in a very particular order. By about 10 miles my right arm is aching and I have pins and needles in my right hand (having read a bit I think this is pretty common), at any point after that my lower back, particularly on the right side starts to seize up. At about mile 30 my right foot starts to ache followed by the right knee. My upper vertebrae then start to feel it, followed by right shoulder and then neck.

No one is to blame

I’m not attributing all of this to War Horse in any way. I’m sure that there is a lot of this that is born out of a bad cycling position and frankly just getting used to and fit to ride distance. What I do know however is that the right side of my pelvis is slightly out of place and that I had a dominant lead leg whilst in the horse – my right leg. So I imagine this is all connected.

A chiropractor or physio or horse psychologist would no doubt have a field day with this and I should probably get it all checked. At the end of the 60-mile ride, I did last week, I was simply hanging on. Just trying to block out which bits hurt the most. My recovery time between rides seems to be pretty good, but immediately getting off the bike at the end of the ride reminded me of some of the really tough nights being in War Horse. My aim at the end of this week is to ride 70 miles. The same will, of course, happen then, as it will on the day for 100 miles

So here is my advice

Don’t be a horse and then try and cycle long distances – or just give yourself more time to prepare than I have.

Written by
Matt Burgess

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