Saturday, May 12, 2007

Endurance: Riding or Racing?

Saturday May 12 2007

I had some interesting conversations with many people in my New Zealand-Australia travels about the sport of endurance riding. Or, maybe it should be, the leisurely hobby of endurance riding, and the sport of endurance racing.

One breeder I spoke to was amazed that America is not a leader in international endurance breeding and winning, and contributing to raising the level of the sport. She was adamant (in a cheerful sort of way) that unless you race and win, endurance riding is pointless. "What's the purpose of endurance riding, if you're not out to win?" she asked.

I said (also merrily) it wasn't pointless at all - my idea of endurance riding is going to a multi-day ride, and having a fun social time riding over beautiful country and visiting with good friends and camping out (and maybe trying to stay on your horse in a windstorm without losing your temper, or dodging lightning bolts). Sure, riding a fast horse once in a while is fun (especially if you can actually control the horse), but it’s not my absolute yen.

She’d used the term endurance riding, but I said “No, you're talking about endurance RACING; I am talking about endurance RIDING.” She said it's the same thing, but I disagreed. I guessed that at least 80 percent of endurance riders in America are out to endurance ride, not race, and I heard that same rough figure quoted several times in New Zealand and Australia. There are those endurance riders, that will go to 50-mile (or 80 km) rides to race and win them, but many of them aren't aiming for 120 km or 160 km (100 mile) FEI international competition - they just have a horse who can go out and win, and they enjoy it.

She was frustrated that America doesn't have breeding programs to improve the sport (faster times, lower heart rates, faster recoveries), and by doing so, make these great horses available to everybody. My response was, why should I pay (or how could I pay) $50,000 for a well bred horse to do endurance when I can get a decent horse for $3000 (or free), one that will last me 10 years and do 10,000 miles? I'd much rather have that horse than a fast one for one season that I could sell. Her contention: Why would you want that when there are all these good horses out there to ride, especially your homebreds? I agreed that would be nice, raising your own foals, breaking them in, and having champions that win international rides. But, who can afford that? Think of not just the cost of starting a breeding operation, but, the time. When your first crop hits the ground, you may not find till they are 9 or 10 years old if they are really any good.

Her reasoning: But if you say that you can't afford it, you will never improve the sport. But, said I, a majority of us don't want, or have a need, to improve the sport of endurance riding, or racing. I also didn’t think many people could afford to endurance race their horses and go through them like this - always have another good one in the stable. I'd guess a majority of our riders have houses and mortgages and kids and board their horses away from home, and have to pay trainers to train them while they themselves work to afford them. And I'd say that the majority of endurance riders (not racers) wouldn't want to sell their horses anyway. We get too attached.

Her case: Wouldn't you want to be the best of America and represent America in the endurance sport? You could be the best you'll ever be, representing your country in international competition, with a stadium full of cheering people!

Me - um, well, no. Maybe I wasn’t the one to ask that question, as I really don’t have a competitive bone in my body. (This perhaps comes from my high school basketball years: my Junior year 2 wins, 21 losses. My senior year we greatly improved - doubled our wins! 4 wins, 19 losses. I learned that winning wasn't everything. We still had a great time playing while getting our butts kicked.)

Her conclusion: That's the problem! Though to me it wasn’t a problem, because the racing scene really doesn’t apply to me. Although, I would not turn out the chance to ride a good fast horse in a 160 km ride, just to experience it, and report on it, of course. Though I’d probably be just hanging on, with my eyes closed half the time, and going too fast to take pictures. J

I’d asked Meg Wade about the 2 aspects, and she agreed there is a difference between endurance riding and endurance racing, and she doesn’t see a conflict - to each his own, there’s a place for everybody.

Peter Toft agreed also. His passion is 160 km rides - he doesn’t particularly care to go out and win 80 km rides because his goals are the 160’s. But he thinks it’s great that other people want to do other things, stick to 80 km or 40 km rides, occasionally try the 160’s. The people that are out there to camp and socialize and have fun, great, good on ’em, they support the endurance industry too. He sees the need for both endurance riding and endurance racing, not one or the other. He respects the riders and horses that do the endurance rides, and those horses that reach 3000 miles and over, and he is quite interested and active in getting young people interested and participating in endurance.

In the endurance racing world, there’s no doubt that the Arabs have had a big influence in getting the sport going in the direction it is now: they drive the market. They are big clients of both the big breeders, and some of the backyard breeders, who come up with a really good horse once in a while, and maybe sell it to the Arabs for enough money to pay for their endurance activities for a year or two. In the casual endurance riding world, we really aren’t affected much at all - when someone wins an international 160 km ride in 8 ½ hours, we’ll still be happily poking along looking at the scenery in our backyard forests or deserts, socializing with fellow pokeys.

I met plenty of New Zealanders who wish they had a choice of not having to be part of FEI because of the plentiful rules (which aren’t always strictly followed everywhere for every ride) and especially the increased fees. One person said that while you may not like the increased fees, they’re necessary for insurance purposes, though I’m not sure why that is so. The foreign veterinarians add to the cost, though in Australia the ‘foreign’ vet can be from another state, and in New Zealand, he or she can be from the other Island. More rides are going with sponsors anyway to help defray the costs. One Australian rider thought that going by FEI rules for all rides in the country was a good idea - better for the horses when you’re talking about the vet gate into holds, but also didn’t think the higher fees were necessary. I think Aussies and Americans are quite happy to have the choice, some of us in both worlds never intending to cross over into the other.

Either way, I say pick your sport and enjoy it. That’s what it’s really all about, right? If you don’t like it, there’s always the Mounted Games to try!

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