Horse and Rider: A Relationship Like No Other
The night was clear and still. The stars as bright as you could expect.
The temperature was quickly dropping … to about one degree centigrade I was told.
And I felt so alive.
It was just before midnight in the thick of winter in Queensland’s Mary River Valley.
The frost was just forming on the grass. Camp fires still blazed in the grounds at the Stirling’s Crossing Equestrian Complex at Imbil.
Excitement and nervous apprehension filled the air as riders and horses prepared for the start of the 2018 Queensland Endurance Riders Association State Championships.
The 160km event would take them through the diverse forestry terrain around the Stirling’s Crossing complex.
To see the bond between riders, horses and their handlers was like looking back in time.
Looking back to a time about 5000 to 6000 years ago when the people of the steppes of Europe and Asia first created a relationship with the wild horses of those vast plains.
That’s where endurance riding has its links. From those horse people who stamped their name in history, sweeping from the Eurasian steppe to invade parts of Europe, the Middle East and China.
David Biello outlines the development of the relationship between horse and man in Horsemen of the Steppes: Ancient Corrals Found in Kazakhstan.
They domesticated the horse around 3500 BC, vastly increasing the possibilities of their economy and culture.
Through time they emphasised horse breeding, horse riding and pastoral activities. As a result they developed the chariot, wagon, cavalry and horse archery.
It was the cavalry and the long rides needed in times of battle that spawned the modern-day events.
Endurance riders have the utmost respect and admiration for their horses, I am told, as the sport is only suited to horses that have exceptional athleticism, intuition, intelligence and a very competitive nature.
The course sees riders return to the complex for vetting every 30-40 kilometres so vets can check on the horses’ wellbeing and ensure they are in a good condition before they set off on their next leg.
The briefing at 6.30pm had outlined the event – the requirements, the formalities, the process.
Then it was time to grab something to eat and maybe catch a few hours sleep before the 160km event was due to start at midnight.
The 80km would get under way six hours later, just as the first hint of day appeared behind the ranges to the east.
I was sharing a tent with two others but they were already in their swags.
So I quietly got in the makeshift bed on the ground, fully clothed and with the blanket pulled right up against the chill of the night air.
The camp was quiet. There are about 180 riders here and at least two or three others to help each of them, care for the horses, lend support.
One of the blokes in the tent was snoring. The other kept answering his phone. Was it his girlfriend or his mother?
Just letting them know he’s OK.
I doze. Like you do on an airplane. Adjusting the blanket to the cold.
What of me? Do I snore, talk in my sleep?
The women in the next tent finally stopped talking. I must have slept.
The sounds of horses woke me. Neighing, snorting. And the sound of voices. The camp was coming to life.
It was 11.30 and the high-powered lights in the covered arena were on. It was to be used for the vet checking station throughout the event.
It’s time to go to work. So I slip out, not waking the others. They must be part of the 80km event.
Time to get the camera out, the phone and the iPad to record this part of the weekend.
Horses and riders are starting to circle in the open grassland near the gate and the landmark tree.
Calling their numbers to the stewards, checking their tracking devices are working so officials can provide updates on their progress around the course. Yet also ensure no rider or their mount is in trouble.
Riders are categorised by weight classes as well as into senior and junior divisions.
I catch up with Stirling’s Crossing Endurance owner Matt Sample who has been working flat-out to get the course ready for the event.
Rain early in the month had made it difficult but the winds in the days beforehand had helped dry the ground out.
The cold, still weather conditions would make for good times and favourable conditions for the horses.
Matt said he was delighted that the venue had won the bid to host Australia’s most prestigious endurance event, the Tom Quilty Gold Cup, in 2019.
“The Tom Quilty is the biggest national championship endurance ride in the southern hemisphere, spanning 160 kilometres and attracting over 300 riders from across Australia,” he says. “We’re thrilled to be hosting it in Imbil for the first time in 2019 and expect to have horses and riders travelling from all corners of the country to compete.”
“It really is an iconic event steeped in history since it was established by R.M. Williams in 1966 and the original gold cup still has pride of place in the Stockman’s Hall of Fame in Longreach.”
Matt won the Tom Quilty Gold Cup in 2009 and his family has a long history in endurance riding with him, his brother and father having collectively taken home 33 buckles for successfully completing the gruelling ride. Between the three riders they have taken home the Gold Cup more than any other family accumulating nine wins over its 51-year history.
Over a cup of hot chocolate I talk with vets Ben Reynolds from Maitland, NSW, and Julia Tanner of Beaudesert, Queensland.
They are minding a working-bred border collie Kip for fellow vet Stacey Crawford of Chinchilla.
They just love the atmosphere of endurance events.
“Everyone is nice and inviting,’’ Ben tells me, “it’s a great experience … a stunning venue.’’
That’s what Boonah vet Harry Wever also says.
“It’s a fantastic site, an amazing set-up for us to work under the lights
“Endurance is a great community of people. I love the attitude … the people.
“It’s not like nasty, competitive. Everyone is interested in looking after the horses, each other.
“It’s a nice feeling.’’
I remember what Matt Sample told me earlier.
“The motto in endurance riding is ‘to complete is to win’ as even those who take out the
championships will spend at least 10 hours in the saddle to complete the 160km ride.
“It will give riders the opportunity to take on a great challenge while bonding with their horses.’’
Stirling’s Crossing Endurance Club president Kim Moir says a 160km ride requires incredible commitment.
“Endurance riders have the utmost respect and admiration for their horses as the sport is only suited to horses that have exceptional athleticism, intuition, intelligence and a very competitive nature.
“The course sees riders return to the complex for vetting every 30-40 kilometres so vets can check on the horses’ well-being and ensure they are in a good condition before they set off on their next leg.”
And at 2.30am the first rider comes into the vet station. It’s Renee Kelso, a local rider from Gympie with her horse Bonnie Doon Ashquar and she’s making good time.
The horses are fed and watered then checked by the vets for heart rate, temperature and a run-through the arena to check their gait.
I work with my iPhone to capture the moments. There’s no flash for the camera so as not to spook the horses. Besides, it helps build trust with the riders, the strappers and the horses.
It allows you to capture that intimacy … the sweat of the horses, the look in the eyes, the unabashed admiration from the riders.
Others start to come in … ones and twos then bigger groups and the vets are loving it.
I talk with Gordon McQueen of Kyogle, northern NSW, who is there for his girls, his wife Debra and 16-year-old daughter Scarlet. Both are doing the 160km event. His other daughter Hannah, a horsewoman as well, is helping as a strapper.
Sandy Little is a chief steward, up from Victoria … from a little place just outside of Ballarat.
Trawalla, he tells me, near Waterloo and that was once the biggest town in Australia … during the gold rush in the 1860s.
During the night I also speak with Andy Davies and Lee Bradford from Noosa. They are both in the hospitality industry and helping with the food for some riders and administration team members.
Lee tells me she is originally from Tooraweenah in Central NSW, near Coonabarabran, and that both her father and grandfather completed the Tom Quilty at various stages of their lives.
“It’s a family of horse people,’’ she says. “My grandfather was very strong on it.
“I never competed, just trained the horses.’’
But a chance encounter, a comment over lunch, has seen Lee get her opportunity.
Imbil event camp boss Jim Green and head of marketing Denise Green went into Ricky’s restaurant at Noosa Heads, where Lee works, and it just went from there.
In February she was invited out to Imbil for a 10km social ride on her birthday and became addicted.
Now Lee has completed a 40km event and looking forward to doing an 80km ride.
It’s interesting how people find their passion in life, often through no sense of reason and at the most unpredictable times.
Perhaps that’s what I’m doing here. Who knows what tomorrow may bring.
By 3.30-4am most of the riders are through the vet check. Not much use going back to bed, may as well stay awake until the 80km riders head out. Besides, the adrenalin is too high.
I share a coffee with Kristie Sheehan, another chief steward who is down from of Edmonton in Far North Queensland, and she is feeling the cold after the tropics.
Seven layers of clothing, she tells me.
Kristie has been involved in endurance riding for nearly 30 years. Her father and grandfather were involved as well.
Her attraction with horses started with stock horses while she was growing up.
“When dad met mum he started riding. He’s a steward now as we do not have enough up north.
“He did it for me.’’
Is that why you do it?
“No,’’ Kristie replies. “My daughter is a dancer and my son is into athletics.
“I just love them. I have grown up around them and couldn’t imagine life without them … they’re so smart.
“There’s a beautiful bond between horse and rider.’’
About 4-4.30am you notice the change in the night. It gets colder and the sky takes on a greyer, more icy colour.
Time to have a bowl of muesli and some fruit. Have a wash of the face and pull some dry boots on.
The 80km riders start making their way to the marshalling area.
Then it’s time. They set off into the darkness, just the flashes of light from their torches to guide them and the distinctive sound of the horses hoofs on the roadway as they head towards the first creek crossing and the forestry.
As first light breaks across the ranges the leaders of the 160km event start returning for the second vet check.
It’s a beautiful sight as the sun catches the ranges on the other side of the valley, turning the forestry only the colours of the Australian bush … purple, blue, pink, red then golden.
The smoke from the campfires hangs in the air like a soft fog.
Horses and riders glide across the frost-covered grassland.
When they enter the vet station, for the second time, I am presented with the most amazing sight. I didn’t expect it but felt I needed to stay awake to understand the sense of why they do it.
As the riders and strappers ran the horses through the arena, the sunlight streaming in behind them created a wonderful image.
The warmth of the horses and the breath of the riders against the chill of the morning air brought about the most intense silhouettes. The steam from their bodies rising, billowing, spreading over all. Like that from a steam engine or perhaps an ancient bath house.
With most of the riders out on the course it’s time for another coffee.
I think back on the night. Those moments looking into the flames of the camp fire, sparks dancing like a spirited horse, turning the pages of history through my mind.