EXPLORING THE SPECIAL BOND BETWEEN HORSE AND RIDER IN ENDURANCE EVENTS
Fresh air and sleeping under the stars. Life doesn’t get much better – or simpler – than that.
And the opportunity to be involved in the enthralling challenge of endurance horse-riding was an offer too good to pass up.
Here was the chance to better understand the remarkable bond between horse and rider.
To see the love and trust that is forged between them over the many hours needed to complete the course.
And that’s the challenge – to complete the course while ensuring both horse and rider stay fit and healthy from start to finish.
It was overcast on the Saturday morning with some light rain as I drove out from Queensland’s Sunshine Coast to the Mary Valley and Stirling’s Crossing Equestrian Centre at Imbil.
Three weeks previously the Stirling’s club had hosted the restart rides after four months of lockdown throughout Australian states due to the Covid-19 pandemic.
This weekend, it was the Stirling Classic. Six events over the Saturday and the Sunday, ranging from 10km to 120km.
It was a welcome chance for riders and horses to progress to higher categories. At the same time, providing an opportunity for riders to build a more intimate knowledge and emotional connection with their horse.
The challenge is for the rider to establish an effective use of pace and thorough knowledge of their horse’s capabilities over varying terrain.
At all times, the welfare of the horse and the skills of horse management are paramount.
In Australia endurance distances vary, offering a level to suit most riders.
These can be from 5km and 10km rides, allowing families to escort their children, to social rides of 20km progressing to intermediate rides of 40km. An endurance ride is a minimum distance of 80km and extends to marathon rides of 400km over five days.
The penultimate championship distance is the one-day 160km event.
Endurance Australia advises riders and horses must progress through novice levels to achieve qualified endurance status.
Endurance rides are split into two or three legs, which are also referred to as loops or phases. At the end of each leg there are compulsory veterinary checks where the horse is assessed for his recovery and fitness to continue.
The vet checks are followed by a ‘hold’ time in which horses and riders may rest and recover.
The skies had cleared by the time Saturday’s 10km, 20km and 40km events started at 1pm.
The track through Imbil State Forest was in great condition, softened by the overnight showers yet firm for the horses not to lose their footing.
And the night was going to be cold – perhaps down to six or seven degrees – so good performances were expected in the 120km that was to start at 2am Sunday.
The event attracted riders from throughout South east Queensland and Central Queensland, as well as the South Burnett.
Showing how much a family event it is, I catch young Imbil local, Bella Pshunov, riding Lolly. She is completing the 10km ride with her parents Kaylea and Akhmed.
“How old are you?” I shout out as the group make their way down along the fenceline to the final vet check.
“Six,” she replies, holding up her fingers to show me.
Akhmed rode Anglesea Gabriella and Kaylea was on A’Landell Challenger.
Later I met four-year-old Harrison Grogan, who completed the 10km event on Cajun, and who rode with his mother Saasha on Halo Rhapsody In Blue.
It was his first endurance ride and that night his sister, Taylor, who is seven, completed her first 80 km ride.
She rode Dee Dee while her father Mark rode S’Shaada Zephyr.
Taylor’s ride started at 2am on Sunday, so the long ride in the dark was a challenge for the seven-year old.
It’s a beautiful setting at Stirlings Crossing. Lush grassland river flats with a creek at the southern end and ringed by low mountain ranges.
Over the next few hours the rest of the 60-plus riders in the different categories make their way in.
Horses are fed and watered, riders head off for a warm shower as the sun slips behind the western range.
Colours of the setting sun catch the slopes and are reflected on the clouds.
Horses for Sunday’s events stand quietly in their areas, between the variety of floats, trailers, caravans and utilities.
They are rugged up against the cool, night air.
Camp fires are burning. Riders are grabbing a meal while strappers tend the horses.
A sense of calm has descended across the camp but it masks the rising excitement and anticipation that is being felt.
There’s time for something to eat and a hot drink.
Keiran Rowley is throwing the rug on Rhythm Dancer after enjoying an easy day on the 40km. Dancer is a triple crown champion that has not been vetted out of an event in more than 1700 hours of riding.
Sonya Ryan had an incredible story to tell about Gindie from Goondiwindi, a lost dog that went on an amazing journey.
There’s time to grab a couple of hours’ sleep in the back of a goose-neck horse float.
The sky is clear and the temperature is dropping.
The lighting in the arena has been shut down and the camp is quiet.
There’s no breeze. A light fog had started to settle into the valley early.
With my head on the pillow and a blanket pulled up high, there’s so much to think about but mostly how beautiful life can be when you get back to the simple things – cut out the complicated stuff.
It was maybe eight to nine degrees at first but by midnight there was a light cloud cover across the near full-moon. As a result the temperature was about 11-12 degrees.
The lights came on about 12.30am, ready for riders and horses to head out at 2am.
One of the riders, Scarlett McQueen, asked if I would hold Stirling’s Genevieve while she adjusted the saddle.
It was a wonderful opportunity to get up close with the horse and gave a much better understanding of the bond that is created between the two.
Such a beautiful temperament. So much trust. Truly noble creatures.
Suddenly it’s time for the circular warm-up work. Amid the whinnying and neighing of horses, the excitement builds as they prepare to head out.
Then it’s time. Shadows on the landscape as they pass between the gateposts and past the signature tree silhouetted by the spotlights, and with the smoke of two score and more campfires drifting across the night sky.
The prime ride on the weekend was the 120 km Stirling’s Classic. The perpetual trophy is awarded to the first to finish irrespective of rider divisions.
This year it was junior rider Georgie Barber from Daybro riding her mare Concerto.
Concerto received the award for best conditioned horse in the ride. Their riding time was 7 hr 14 minutes.
Another junior rider, Noah Hoogland, was only two seconds behind Georgie.
Next over the finish line was Matthew Sample, winning the middleweight rider division, and Renee Kelso, winning the
lightweight rider division, in a time of 7 hrs 24 minutes.