Sunday May 13 - Monday May 14
This region here, the Hawkesbury district of New South Wales, an hour or so from Sydney, is for horses and horse farms like the Santa Ynez Valley in California, or Lexington in Kentucky. Lots of horse people, lots of horse farms. While staying with the Males, I had a few quick visits to 3 farms near Ron and Val’s place.
Ningadoo Arabian Stud is owned by Justine Blunt and her daughter Claudia Reid. Justine and her husband Gaire, (who passed away 2 yrs ago), bought a place a few kilometres down the Colo River from Ron and Val’s. Justine thought it would be a great getaway, a place to have nice picnics in the summer. They had no intention of having horses, until they met Ron and Val (not so surprising!). Gaire, always game for a go at something new, decided they’d all do a 40 km training ride. They rode down the road to Ralvon, where the ride was taking place, and they couldn’t figure out why there were so many buckets out everywhere. They hadn’t even brought halters along. After the first 20 km loop, Justine’s and Gaire’s horses vetted out - all of them, horses and humans exhausted, and Claudia didn’t think she could possibly do another 20 km by herself, so she talked a neighbor into floating her back home (just down the road!).
That was their first introduction to endurance riding - and that might well have ended their foray into endurance. But they kept at it, got hooked, and eventually decided to start their own stud in 1989. At one time they had 50 horses on the place - stallions, broodmares, horses in training; but now since Gaire died, they’ve scaled back to 22 or so horses, with two stallions, an Aethon son Koda, now 25 yrs old, and Nangadoo Taban, now 12, who’s still competing in endurance. He was 3rd in the 2004 Quilty, and Best Conditioned. They consistently sell good horses to the UAE, and Claudia herself has competed successfully all over Australia, and in Tasmania and Abu Dhabi. They have a lovely little stretch of valley right along the Colo River, lush green pastures and leaves turning golden on some of the trees.
They are used to foreign buyers coming to look at the horses, so one day when someone rang and said they were coming to look at horses, it was routine as usual on a horse farm; Claudia had been out taking care of a horse who’d cut himself up. She had just returned to the house covered in blood, when this man came to the door, “Hi, I’m the Sultan (now King) of Malaysia,” he said more or less. Claudia said, “Nobody told me the Sultan of Malaysia was coming! I couldn’t have been any filthier if I tried!”
Next was Ray and Kerry Smith’s River Oak Arabian Stud a few kilometres down the road in the other direction. Ray worked for Ralvon Arabians for 10 years, and Kerry also worked there as a secretary. Ron said that during the time Ray worked there, they’d had some 200 horses on the farm, 4 employees, “everything full on,” with work, breeding and broodmares and horses in training or showing, and they’d still find time to sit and talk and laugh about old times. Ray had some broodmares and would breed a few on the side for free and sell them for $15,000, $20,000 dollars, so “that was a good bonus for him,” says Ron. “We couldn’t have gotten where we did without him, and he couldn’t have gotten to where he did without us. It’s been great for both of us.”
Ray remembers his first endurance ride many years ago. It was 75 miles, and he was whooped, and he thought, “Why am I doing this!?” But as we die-hard endurance riders tend to do, he continued on to finish the ride, and naturally got hooked. He’s finished a couple of Quilties, and also had numerous champion show horses of his own breeding. They’ve got some 65 or so horses on the place now, 7 or 8 stallions, including the beautiful black River Oak Tabu, who’s by Arabian Park Egyptian Magnetic, sire of Trevor Copland’s black stallion Egyptian Harmony, and Ningadoo Arabian’s Ningadoo Taban, who I’d just seen. Tabu consistently produces successful halter and performance show horses, and his get are also doing well as endurance horses in the Middle East.
A few years ago Ray was diagnosed with cancer, so he’s been out of riding for 20 months, but he’s now healthy and in remission, and ready to start riding again. They’re quite busy now, as they’re having an ‘Open Barn’ on the weekend where many horses are for sale,
Next was Mark and Lesley and son Brody Freeman’s Cedar Ridge Arabians. They got started breeding Arabians just for fun, to have a nice horse or two for their kids to ride in the pony club - and if they were going to breed Arabians, might as well be some nice ones. One day neighbor Peter Cole, owner of Chip Chase Sadaqa, invited Mark to ride with him. Mark wasn’t sure which of his horses to ride, maybe Cedar Ridge Rob Roy. Peter asked the breeding of the horse, and when he heard his breeding (Flash Design out of one of their first broodmares, Stoodleigh Nikia), Peter said, “That’s a nice horse, you should do endurance on him.” Mark said, “What’s endurance?”
Mark started riding with Peter Cole, and eventually did his first ride on Rob Roy. Mark and Rob Roy’s 3rd ride (and completion) was the Quilty. Mark was addicted! Over Rob Roy’s endurance career, he accumulated over 9000 endurance kilometres. After finishing the Quilty, he started winning rides; he finished his first 20 rides in a row in the top 5 without a pull. He was the first horse to win at all distances: 80, 100, 120, 160, and 400 km. He holds the Shahzada record of 26 hrs and 42 minutes, and he won it twice.
The Freeman’s son Brody was the one who had the idea to turn their endurance hobby into a business. Now Mark and Lesley don’t ride so much (they have about a dozen Quilties and a dozen Shahzadas between them) but they enjoy strapping, and the breeding end of the business. They currently have over 100 horses, and sell all their horses to clients in the Middle East, because there’s no profit in selling them locally.
They lost their house in the 2001 bush fires; they brush it off as if it was nothing, but it had to have been terribly traumatic. It happened so fast they didn’t have time to think what to get out of the house - they lost all their horse papers, photos, everything. They had 5 minutes to jump in their car and leave; a friend who was also fleeing the area stopped by and asked what she could grab. Mark and Lesley told her to grab what she thought they’d want, and she thought to take their Quilty buckles and endurance trophies on the way out the door. Luckily there were only 2 horses on the place - the rest were on their other farm 2 hours away - and someone picked those two horses up in a float on their way out.
For a while, their street was lightheartedly - but with some truth - referred to by Mark as “the endurance center of the universe” because between him and Lesley and Peter Cole, and other endurance neighbors on the road, they’d had a lot of wins and miles, Quilties and Shahzadas, between them.
They have a beautiful place with a view on the back porch to the forest below and beyond, some of it National Park. You can’t see any trace of the fires anymore; the eucalyptus have quickly returned. When they first moved to their place many years ago, there were only 2 houses. Now they’re surrounded by houses, and they no longer have direct access to the forest land trails - they have to haul a short distance away to get to the good and long training trails.
I’m certainly not doing any of these farms justice with just a quick visit; they’re just a sample of the tip of the iceberg in Australian endurance.