Monday, April 16, 2007

Castlebar Endurance

Thursday April 12 - Monday April 16 2007

Castlebar Endurance - Further, Fitter, Faster

From the some of the smaller, more casual breeders/trainers/riders (I believe we are humbly known as "Dregs") in New Zealand to the big operations: first stop is Meg Wade and Chris Gates' Castlebar Endurance in Victoria, Australia. Meg is one of the world's top riders from Australia, and Castlebar Farm is one of the leading breeders of top endurance horses.

Near the little town of Walwa (about an hour from Albury), they have three farms of over 2500 acres, with some 300 horses, more than four breeding stallions, 25-40 foals a year, and horses in all stages of training and endurance racing. Meg trains for Sheikh Mohammed of Dubai, and has done so for about 12 years.

The hobby of endurance racing turned into a business when Meg and Chris found that they couldn't find enough good endurance horses to buy just anywhere, so they started breeding their own. There's no doubt that the UAE is driving the market for endurance racing - it's a prestigious sport that the shaikhs can participate in themselves. The Middle East desire for endurance has created this huge market where Australian breeders (and other countries) can't meet the supply. Sheikh Mohammed is a leader in the endurance industry as well as the Thoroughbred racing industry, with stables in both sports all over the world. He once said, "Horse riding is more than merely sitting on a horse's back. It is nobility and chivalry.”

A number of racing and breeding stock at Castlebar belong to Sheikh Mohammed. Of those owned by Castlebar, Meg and Chris keep the good ones, or the ones they think will be good, campaign them, and sell the rest. Those that don't work out to be top endurance horses, they sell. Those that don't fit into their breeding program, they sell. The mares that successfully compete will be retired to their broodmare band if they fit into the program; the others are sold. If the horses don't work out in endurance, they are sold or given away. Meg and Chris have a variable number of stallions they use, all depending on the mare and the combination of bloodlines that they think will work best, always working toward breeding the best heart. It's like the breeding adage in any discipline: breed the best to the best and hope for the best. The stallions that they are actively endurance riding, they breed AI. All the stallions I've seen here are very quiet and well-behaved. Some stallions they have frozen semen stored for future use. They have mostly Arabs, some Anglos, a little bit of stock horse blood, but always at least half Arab. Sometimes they'll cross a full Arab back to a Thoroughbred line to get a little more size.

I was put up in the Staff House at the Glen - a nice old farmhouse with about 30 bedrooms. Well, maybe it was only about 10 bedrooms, but I could get lost in there. Right now over the Easter holidays, there's 3 people living there, Jude, Anna and Jeremy. Jude is from Christchurch, New Zealand and has been working here for 3 weeks. She started riding when she was 8 years old, where she participated in Pony Club, and she worked on the racetrack with Thoroughbreds. I asked her if she did the Mounted Games, and she said Yes! Loads of fun! Anna is from this area, used to work for Chris and Meg when she was 15, went off and rodeo'd around Australia, worked for a big racehorse trainer, has broken and ridden lots of horses. She loves her quarter horses - give her a quarter horse any day - but likes working here riding the Arabians. Jeremy is a young shoer from France.

There's always new and old staff coming and going, but mostly people stay on a while, or they go away to another life then come back. Meg and Chris are well-liked and popular to work for. Several more employees came on during and after the Easter holidays: Shelley, Jessica (former strapper for a big Thoroughbred racing stable), Christy, Asher, Amily. It's mostly girls - Chris says girls are, in general, just better with horses. I agree. Guys just naturally tend to be more heavy handed, though you find exceptions in both cases.

A typical day on the farm is: feed all the stalled and paddocked working horses morning and evening; there's about 40 scattered all over the main farm. The stalls get cleaned 3 times a day. About 3 sets of horses are put on the walker, which holds 10 horses at a time and takes at least 30 minutes to load (gather the horses, many of them fetched on the quad), then maybe an hour on the walker (20 minutes of walking, 20 minutes of trotting one direction, 20 minutes of trotting the other direction), then about 45 minutes to unload (bathe the horse, then return them to their stall or paddock). Usually two sets of horses get ridden, one in the morning and one after lunch, and sometimes a third set goes out. This is when there are more than 3 girls working. Normally there's 6 to 10 workers, which makes the days go quicker and smoother, and more horses get ridden. After an endurance ride, the horse will get a few days off; then he'll go back to being ridden, or exercised on the walker every day.

This is a typical day, but those are really rare. Something unusual usually happens. One morning the neighbor shows up to say 10 horses got out into his paddock, Paul radios to say some cows got out onto the road, and the construction company arrives at the same time an 18-wheeler full of feed arrives at the same time you find out UAE visitors are coming to look at horses for sale and horses must get shuffled around. But nobody gets overly excited, and things get chipped away at until they are done, and Meg comes and goes in her helicopter.

I've gotten to ride every day I've been here (the Raven had his first ride in Australia! ), and am impressed with the beautiful countryside (and the abundant wild parrots! ) everywhere we go, despite the dull brown colors from lack of rain, and the smoke in the air from controlled burns. It's a great area for training - hundreds of miles of eucalyptus forest land to ride in, and good tough hills to climb.

Tomorrow: a long scenic ride for some of the horses going to an endurance ride this coming weekend! (I believe the Raven will accompany us.)

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