The Trail Blazers

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It’s the Formula One of the equestrian world and one of the ultimate tests of the bond between horse and rider. We got an exclusive glimpse into the awe-inspiring art of endurance riding at the 2012 Longines FEI World Endurance Championships.

Photography MICHAEL HEMY Text SUSANNE MADSEN / The Horse Rider’s Journal No.6

There isn’t a tailored show jacket, Swarovski-encrusted browband or top hat in sight when we arrive at Euston Park in Suffolk for one of the most illustrious events of the equestrian calendar. Instead, the English landscape is awash with horses in rave-worthy neon-coloured bridles and start numbers spray-painted across their hindquarters, while riders are rocking Lycra and running shoes. In the central crewing area, hundreds of water- and feed-buckets are dotted among hordes of team members. And at the start and finish gates, horses are cantering in from the first phases of the event – a mounted marathon across endless acres of ancient woods and arable lands belonging to the magnificent Euston Hall and Estate, the resplendent country seat of the Dukes of Grafton for more than 300 years.

This is endurance riding, a captivating discipline unlike anything else in the horse realm. One hundred and fifty-three of the top international endurance riders have gathered to compete in the 2012 Longines FEI World Endurance Championships, which takes riders on a cloverleaf-pattern course broken down into five loops of various distances, each posing their own difficulties with sharp turns and natural water obstacles. Endurance is currently gaining major momentum: At present, it’s the second biggest equestrian discipline and fastest growing sport within the FEI.

“Contrary to what some people might think, endurance is not like hacking around the countryside!” notes British rider Alice Beet when we catch her between loops. To begin with, there’s the distance: The World Championships ask an astounding 160 km of horse and rider, which doesn’t just require insane fitness, but also brains. Regardless of the level of event, strategic riding is essential for endurance, and the marked route has been available to download in advance to help with this.

Pro-active horse care is also vital: Chefs d’equipe, helpers, vets, rider physiotherapists and farriers keep the teams running, even meeting them en route to hand bottles of water mid-canter to riders who pour them over their horse. Spurs and whips are not allowed, but riders can dismount during the race, as demonstrated by a female rider who casually gets off and runs 30 km alongside her horse – as you do. Loops are divided by rests and vet checks, where a hawk-eyed team inspects the horse before it is allowed to continue. For the last two loops, they’re inspected twice.

“There’s been a saying in endurance for a long time: To finish is to win. Which is very different from dressage and showjumping. And to get your horse through 160 km, with all the vet checks – to finish really is to win,” comments Ian Williamson, Director of the FEI’s Non-Olympic Sports Department. As we walk around the crewing area – darting in and out between the scurry of lithe horses being doused in water, walked and fed at the same time – it becomes very clear that endurance is the Formula One of the equestrian world. Every second at the pit stop counts, before the break is over and it’s off to the start gates again, horse tails at full salute as start officials yell, “Go, go, go!” Remarkably, many endurance events don’t even have prize money. “People do it purely for this unique experience. It’s you and your horse, together,” Williamson notes, looking out across the crewing grounds.

Everywhere you look, dark, wide-set, almond-shaped horse eyes survey you from heads so finely chiselled you could cut carrots on them. There’s no mistaking what horse this is: The Arabian. And endurance is the president of the Arabian fan club. The Arabians are built for speed and stamina, exuding athletic power with every fibre of their skinny yet fiercely strong bodies. In the afternoon, as riders in the lead set out on the final loop, some are still having a tough time holding back their lean, mean running machines at the start lines. Obviously, 160 km is a walk in the park for these power engines – more often, it’s the riders that have to mentally and physically push through that invisible marathon wall.

Endurance riding first became a competitive sport in the 1950s, and was approved as an official discipline by the FEI in 1982. “When endurance first started, it had a reputation as being a bit of a tough kid on the block, and you’ve got to be pretty tough to ride these distances,” comments Williamson. “At the time, there were around 85 competitions. This year, we’re doing 900.” So what does he think is the main allure of endurance? “What’s unique about it is that the sport always changes. Here, riders are going across traditional English countryside. In October, they could be in Dubai, riding through sand dunes in the desert. Next, they could fly off to do a course through the pampas of Argentina. As you go around the globe, the sport itself changes. None of the other disciplines do. Endurance provides an incredible opportunity for people to travel the world.”

At an endurance event, the truly nail-biting action happens off the course, in front of a team of stethoscope-wielding veterinarians. Heart rate, blood pressure and hydration are meticulously examined and gut sounds assessed, followed by a trot-up to check for lameness or other complications. There’s rapturous applause from the sidelines whenever a horse passes with flying colours. “The vet team’s main purpose is to check that it’s safe for the horse to continue. And anything that gives them concern; that the horse isn’t firing on all cylinders will cause them to pull it out of the competition,” notes head FEI equine vet Dr Kieran O’Brien. In endurance, horse health is everything. The morning after the event, vets will re-examine horses that have completed the course and award the Best Conditioned Horse. Determined by a combination of speed, vet scores and weight carried, it is the ultimate accolade for an endurance rider.

It may seem extreme to be riding a horse across distances of 160 km, but as Dr O’Brien points out, endurance horses have one up on many other horses: “If you compete on a regular basis, your horse is checked constantly – much more so than most horses. It’s a sustained attention. The negative is of course that it’s a lot of miles. And just like with human athletes, that’s a big ask.” Keeping the horse cool and hydrated is a major part of managing an endurance mount; it can lose up to 100 litres of sweat during a race like this. “People have an exciting array of cocktails for their horses. They’ll often have seven buckets of different things, and various types of water, sweetened with sugar beets to encourage the horses to drink. These horses are effectively waited on hand and foot,” comments Dr O’Brien. For riders, endurance offers the ultimate escape. “Endurance is about coming back to nature. When I feel under pressure, it’s the only thing that works,” reflects Mohammed Esse Al Adhab of the United Arab Emirates team, adding: “You just put the saddle on and go – in my home country that means out across the dunes and into the desert.”

The United Arab Emirates team are endurance legends, led by His Highness Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, an avid horseman who says he only competes “because I enjoy taking part in endurance. I don’t go out to get a result, I go out to have fun. I don’t try to change position, but ride my own ride”. Sheikh Mohammed has been instrumental to the evolution of endurance. When he hosted the 1998 World Endurance Championships, he even covered air fares and accommodation so riders from all over the world could participate in his beloved sport. Out on the course, we see the Sheikh and his team approach a river crossing. He rides Madji du Pont, a gorgeous 12-year-old French-bred chestnut gelding in a bright orange bridle, with steady speed and precision in baggy desert trousers and a white long-sleeved T-shirt. A fleet of white Land Rovers pull up. It’s the United Arab Emirates crew and entourage, out to cheer their team on. Among them is Sheikh Mohammed’s son Sheikh Hamdan. He had his horse taken out of the race earlier and has gone out to help the crew instead.

It has started to rain, and spectators are huddling under chic blue Longines umbrellas as the sound of distant thunder is heard from the neighbouring county of Norfolk. Longines, of course, is the patron saint of equestrian events. From the legendary French races at Chantilly to the hallowed English showjumping grounds at Hickstead, the Swiss watchmakers have been timing horse sports since the 1800’s and have recently brought their elegant timekeeping skills to endurance. “Endurance is still a new discipline to us, but one we are very excited to be part of,” notes Charles Villoz, Longines’ Vice-President of Sales. “Across all the equestrian disciplines, the grace of the horse shines through, and we feel the classic and understated elegance of equestrian sport is a perfect match for us.” Villoz has also attended endurance races in Dubai. “There, spectators can go to different viewpoints along the desert course to see the horses go by. Some even go out in their helicopters!”

Despite its royal connections, the Dubai glitz and a World Championship’s start list that also includes kings of Bahrain and Malaysia, you don’t have to be titled to get into endurance. “It’s a relatively easy sport to get into at an entry level, and I think that’s one of the reasons why it has grown so quickly,” notes John McEwen, First Vice-President of the FEI. In addition, you can compete for as long as you like, with many riders continuing well into their seventies. And while it may not be immediately evident as you see riders trotting past with long reins and elbows and toes sticking so far out any pony-club instructor would wince, dressage is increasingly being used by endurance riders in their daily training. Dr Kieran O’Brien is a firm advocate of cross-training horses. “A properly balanced horse with good core stability can meet all those unexpected corners and rough, slippery ground you weren’t expecting on a loop.”

The next morning, we gather in the beautifully manicured gardens of Euston Hall to congratulate the winners. Team silver and bronze goes to France and Oman respectively, while Sheikh Mohammed does a little celebratory dance on the podium before taking home individual and team gold. When Madji du Pont raced across the finish lines in seven hours and 45 seconds, he was deemed perfectly fit to continue at the last vet gate. And as the teams mount their horses on the pristine lawn, brandishing handsome steel and rose-gold watches from Longines’ 180-year anniversary collection as their trophies, neither men nor horses look like they’ve done anything but a leisurely hack the day before. No less than 73 riders completed the course in total – an incredible feat for a challenging four-star event. “A few of our riders were sadly pulled out, but not completing is the nature of the sport,” notes British rider Tricia Hirst, who came 15th individually on her talented grey, Madjin des Pins. “I really wish everyone would try endurance. We’d have a lot more people hooked on it.” •



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