Going the distance on 4 legs

Going the distance on 4 legs
Participants of the 2016 HH Sheikh Mohammed Rashid Al Maktoum Endurance Cup racing in Dubai.
PHOTO: The Straits Times

They are subjected to strict medical checks throughout the gruelling race in the desert and have a team waiting to massage their feet and fetch buckets of cold water to refresh them, while electric fans are brought out to keep them cool during the intermittent breaks.

While this sounds like a typical scene from a marathon race involving elite athletes, there is one telling difference.

These competitors run on all fours. Meet the stars of the equine world of endurance racing.

Nothing is spared to keep these horses - mostly Arabian-bred and famed for their stamina and durability - comfortable and in the best physical shape, explained rider Prutiratr Serireongrith.

Volunteers line the dusty circuit with plastic bottles of water in hand, passing them to the riders who rarely take a sip but empty the contents onto their mounts to keep them hydrated.

"The horses are the No. 1 priority. No one really cares about us, the ones sitting on top," chuckled Prutiratr.

The 59-year-old Thai was one of 227 participants, representing 41 countries, invited to compete in the Sheikh Mohammed Rashid Al Maktoum Endurance Cup held at the Dubai International Endurance City last Saturday.

The US$2.6 million (S$3.75 million) race covered a distance of 160km, consisting of five loops starting from 40km, 35km, 35km, 32km and finally 18km.

For the second straight year, it was won by Dubai's Crown Prince Sheikh Hamdan Mohammed Al Maktoum, himself a two-time endurance horse racing world champion, aboard the 15-year-old chestnut mare Ajayeb.

Unlike thoroughbreds whose peak age of racing is usually between two to five, horses used for endurance races tend to be much older and leaner than the muscular and explosive thoroughbreds.

This is because it takes longer for them to mature and it is a slow process to train one to be able to handle a 160km race (usually the furthest covered in a single day for a championship event), said Slovakian trainer Valdimir Pazitny, 48.

"The earliest they can start competing is at five years old and even then not more than 40km. The fitness increases bit by bit. You cannot expect the horse to run 100km at the beginning."

For races like the Endurance Cup, held across the sand dunes of Dubai's outskirts, the welfare of the horses are paramount, said Laura Masuet, 39, a field vet at the Dubai Equine Hospital.

The Spaniard and her colleagues are in ambulances - outfitted with equipment ranging from ultrasound machines to suture kits - stationed at various points to ensure medical aid is readily available should there be any mishaps.

The horses must also pass a mandatory veterinary inspection after each loop when they return to the stable, where they are fed hay and fluids to replenish their strength.

Following a stipulated period of rest, their vital signs are measured and they must pass a gait assessment by the assigned vet before they are allowed to continue racing.

Last weekend's Endurance Cup saw only 81 finishers complete all five loops, with the remaining 146 barred from continuing at various stages after failing the health screenings.

The safety of horses, particularly in endurance riding, has long been a controversial topic with on-course fatalities occurring in the past. Such incidents have decreased as the International Federation for Equestrian Sports (FEI) has tightened regulations monitoring the horses' condition.

In the meantime, the sport's popularity has increased, particularly in the Middle East. Dubai will host the Endurance World Championships in December, the third time it has staged the prestigious event after 1998 and 2005.

Said Mohammed Essa Al Adhab, 40, general manager of Dubai Equestrian Club: "Horse-riding is very much part of our history and heritage. We hope to continue developing the sport, not just here but across Asia."

Endurance riding - which traces its roots to the mid-1800s in the United States - is the fastest-growing FEI discipline, with a 300 per cent increase in the number of events since 2004 (now over 900 each year).

It made its debut at the 2006 Doha Asian Games as a discipline of equestrian and the Asian Equestrian Federation is lobbying for its return and inclusion at the 2018 Asiad in Indonesia.

To be successful in this sport requires the rider to develop a strong bond with their mount, said Slovakia's Lucia Starovecka, 37, who has won her national championship twice and finished 27th at the European Endurance Championships in 2013.

"If you do not respect the horse, you cannot win. In many ways, the horse is your only team-mate out there and you have to respect each other to survive."

This article was first published on Jan 17, 2016.
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