About Endurance riding
It is 6 on a Saturday morning. There is a chill in the air, but the equine chatter adds to the already palpable excitement. The announcer broadcasts your number, indicating that you have 5 minutes before the race begins. Your stomach churns from either excitement or stress, you are not sure which, before you and your horse set out on an 80 kilometres trip.
You double check your horses tack. My horse, Amor, an Arabian mare, is restless and rearing to go. She does not take well to waiting and it therefore proves quite a challenge to mount a horse that only provides you with a three second window! It appears as though Amor also awaits the announcers instruction. Once my number is called, she immediately sets off at a rapid trot. She is exclusively focused on the road ahead, with mission number 1 being the completion of the first leg of approximately 30 kilometres.
Amor usually settles about a half hour into the ride, giving my poor arms time to relax and assisting my body to adjust to the rhythm of her stride. Every ride is unique. Sometimes you are awed by the extraordinary views from the hill tops or simply struck by the beauty of riding through a forest, over a dam wall, through a river or a field of maize. At other times however its just plain boring. With its ups and downs, I am always aware that I have the privilege reserved for few of experiencing this sense of harmony between human and horse in Gods majestic nature.
If you are fit enough to endure this far, you may thankfully spot the distant check point. Nerves again start twitching. Have I been riding at the correct pace? What is my horses pulse? Has she had enough liquids? Did she perhaps strain a muscle trying to rapidly circumvent a corner or rocks? All these questions are however addressed when your horse is tended to by the vet. I jump off my horse and loosen the saddle at the checkpoint. I am given 20 minutes to cool Amor down before presenting her to the vet. This is always a tense moment, especially early in the season when the horses are not yet at their maximum fitness. I can relax though. We breeze through the examination.
Finally we can unwind, but only for a meagre 20 minutes during which we both have a bite to eat and take in some well deserved fluids.
The trick is that horses are not extremely fit creatures by nature and therefore need to be exercised on a regular basis and for long periods of time. For runner horses, the same principles which apply to marathon athletes are used when training for long distances. The horses are exercised around 3 to 4 times a week by riding about 15 kilometres per session. Each session and the exercise type will vary. Instead of riding, or sometimes combined with riding, the horse may be lunged (trotting a horse in a ring for about 45 minutes with no rider on the horses back). Flatwork is also crucial which entails dressage lessons ensuring balance and the necessary muscle development. Early on weekend mornings, groups of riders often go on 30 kilometre excursions with their horses which are known as outrides. During these long rides, we exchange stories and simply enjoy the fresh morning air.
But, back to reality! My 20 minutes is nearly at a close. It is time to saddle up and begin the second leg of the endurance race, a further 30 kilometres. Amor is unimpressed and after some strong motivation, her focus quickly shifts, her ears prick up and shes back to her old self, full of energy and ready for the stretch ahead. What I really enjoy about endurance rides is the camaraderie. You can always find company in riding with old or new friends.
Something which I had neglected to mention, every 5 or so kilometres, water points are provided as it is of the utmost importance that your horse remains hydrated. These water points also offer riders an opportunity to give their horses a breather. In fact, some riders even walk or trot next to their horses to give them a short rest.
At the end of the second leg, the vet check is repeated, after which a short repose is gratefully accepted before tackling the last 20 kilometres, otherwise known as the graveyard shift.
This last leg is always challenging. The sun is hot, the road dusty and neither you nor your horse has managed to hold on to the initial surge of excitement. Your weary bones have long ago screamed out, Youre too old for this. You dig deep to keep your spirits up and, if you are unfortunate enough to find yourself unaccompanied on this stretch, it becomes virtually impossible. However, with the companionship of a riding partner, before you know it, the end is in sight!
You have not however successfully completed the race until your horse has passed the final veterinary examination and the brutal reality is that, even though you have completed the 80 kilometres, due to your horses heart rate or a limp, you may still find yourself disqualified. This is not the case today as my horse mercifully receives the all clear.
On the way to camp, I offer Amor a hug and a kiss for her loyalty and exertions. She gives me an exasperated glance, her way of saying, So, where are my carrots! At the camp, I willingly hand over her vegetable trophy, giving her a moments peace to rest and enjoy her favourite treat. Exhausted, but enlivened by our success, I slump into a chair in which I intend to stay for a few hours yet!