Saturday July 28 2007
Every year since 1926 the Libramont Fair has been held in the southern Ardennes region of Belgium, an area of dense forests and rolling hills. The forests much resemble the Pacific Northwest rainforests in the US – thick, bright green, and wet. The idea of the first Libramont fair was to promote the Ardennes draft horse. Named after this mountainous French-Belgian border region, the Ardennais originated centuries ago. It was used until the 1800's for draft work and riding; it was used in wars as a draft horse by the military up until World War I. Today the Ardennes draft horse is still used for work in the forest – where the hills might be too steep and slippery for a tractor, the draft horse is safer and more efficient.
The second Libramont Fair in 1927 had 160 horses, 3 exhibitors and 10,000 visitors; today the Fair has some 750 exhibitors, 3500 animals, almost 170,000 visitors. In addition to agricultural, livestock and forestry industry exhibits and animals, the Fair holds equine events such as breed shows, jumping competitions, pony games, driving competitions, draft pull competitions, and endurance.
Coinciding with the Libramont Fair for the second year was the Belgian Junior Championship 126 km ride, plus an open 126 km ride, and a 109 km ride. I'll skip all the ride details – you can see that at endurance.net, but I'll sum it up in one sentence: think wet, mud, gray skies, rain, and more rain – endurance in Belgium!
I'd come to the ride with Belgian endurance riders Barbara and Robert, friends of Leo's and Caroll's. Leo and Caroll left for the ride in Malaysia, so Robert and Barbara picked me up on Friday evening, and early Saturday morning (after a record 2 ½ hours of sleep), we made the start of the rides. It had started raining during the night, and was still raining steadily; already the dirt tracks were muddy and the grass tracks were soggy. The heavy gray skies made the start look less like morning than it did dusk-to-darkness. Riders were hunkered down under their helmets and in their raincoats on their horses. In Malaysia I had met Dutch endurance rider Jeanne Linneweever from the Netherlands, and I was going to be leaving Libramont with her on Sunday. She was riding the 109 km, but in the dark and rain and with raincoats and helmets, I didn't even see her on her horse.
The weather didn't seem to affect the participants however; horses were amped and riders were cheerful and optimistic as they left the grounds following a lead car out on course. Horses all wore a timing band on their leg, which Chronorace used to electronically track the horses in and out of the vet gates. Not everybody's stayed on... Jeanne found one in the mud on trail.
As the day went on, and the riders went out on their loops, everything and everybody got wetter. It got a little cool with the strong breeze at times, if your raincoat was soaked through. Which mine was. My “rainproof” Aussie hat is not Belgian rainproof. I think it held more water than my shoes. But nobody really looked like they minded the rain – it is Belgium after all, and most of the people there were used to it, and to me, it's just like 'home' – Seattle, rain rain rain, you just go on doing your thing, it's just a part of everything. And people were quite friendly, always a smile, always a hello. They seemed to enjoy being there, even the crews for the frontrunners throughout the day. The tracks for the horses, however, got worse and more treacherous as the rain continued.
Jean-Louis Leclercq, the French Chef d’Equipe, said much the same thing. “Strange weather,” he said. “This is the second time this year I've been to a ride in Belgium, and it's the second time it's been like this!” He was at this ride with 7 junior riders. “You have to ride a ride like this differently. The trail is very treacherous and slick, with holes under the mud.” Leclerq likes to see his team riders stay together for the first 2 loops, then continue on according to their horse's ability for that day. With so many good French horses being sold after rides to the Middle East and other countries, Leclerq is finding it a little hard picking enough rider-and-horse pairs for the European championships, which will be held in Lezirias, Portugal on September 8th. If the French keep selling all the good ones, the French team might be in a little trouble for good horses for themselves in the next few years. “We'll see,” he said, “it might be interesting.”
The first crew point we went to on the first loop was at a place where riders crossed a set of railroad tracks. Some horses spooked as they came to the wood and rails crossing the paved road; some slipped on the wet greasy wood, and some horses leaped in the air – as if they were electrically shocked. They were! If a horse stopped on one of the metal rails at one spot, he got a good shock, figuratively and literally!
The rain stopped around noon, and blue skies even punched a few holes in the clouds, but not for long. The clouds came back, though the rain held off. That didn't dry the track out any, however. Each loop horses dropped out due to lameness.
The finish of the Junior 126 km ride was an exciting one with 3 French juniors duking it out, 3 across the finish track at a gallop. I totally missed seeing all the 109 km riders, since Barbara and Robert and I followed the course of the 126 km ride. Jeanne Linneweever was in the lead coming in off the third loop, when her horse Ricki's Macho Man vetted out lame. He'd slipped and pulled something in his shoulder. It was only slight, and it was only the second time in his career he'd vetted out. She said later this might have been the toughest ride she'd ever done due to the wet, slippery conditions. It certainly made for a different kind of challenging endurance ride.