After only a few training rides with Sprite the date for my first endurance ride drew closer and with it my nervousness. Much later I found out that this is rather normal and all the build up of adrenalin is quite useful during the actual ride. As my rides with Raik on his Sham El Manne and me on Sprite had been only 12 to 16 km long I was really worried if I would last the distance of 36 km at Okahandja. It was officially a 30 km ride, but depending on terrain the legs can vary and for a novice like myself 36 km really seemed daunting.
At the time we stayed in an apartment where 19 steps led down to a swimming pool and I started to jog up and down those steps in order to get fitter. The thing is that you do not only train your horse but should also embark on your own fitness training. For some people the training rides are enough if you are fit to begin with. Be honest with yourself so you can enjoy your rides and do not suffer due to lack of fitness. I was anxious about my level of fitness and rightly so. In the end I did not even ride Sprite as Manne got lame and Raik needed his second horse for himself. Frankie put me up with Ajsas, the mare of another endurance rider who did not have time to ride himself. Asjas was top fit as she had done several 120 km rides so a 36 km ride would be just a warm up for her.
Here is my account of my first ever endurance ride at Okahandja on July 2, 2011.
Never mind the flu or lack of fitness of course I went with Frankie to the Okahandja endurance ride. This chance was too good and exciting to miss out on. Frankie and me were going to be riding buddies and just wanted to see if we could make it. Frankie had been a top endurance rider in her younger days, but three hip operations do throw you back a bit. You have to get your horse across the finish line in a fit and healthy state too, not simply crawl in. There are vets who measure your horses pulse, and check if it is lame or even near lame. If your horse is not in a good condition you will be disqualified and lose out. I think it is a good way to make sure people train their horses properly. Well, my Asjas was certainly fitter than me. She is used to run 120 km in a single day, with breaks yes, but still. Asjas was truly wonderful to ride, smooth and well behaved but frisky as an Arab should be.
In the end we came 3rd in our ‘No weight’ category and I was very happy with this result. One must never forget the motto of endurance riding: To finish is to win! First you must finish the ride, not be disqualified because your horse is lame or shows other signs of problems, only then comes the placing. The 30 km rides are also called ‘Joy Rides’ as they do not count on you km-counter if you join the sport properly later on.
Asjas was in top form and knowing the course very well, she took off with me when she knew exactly that we had done more than half the distance and she got ambitious and keen to get back to the stables. She simply took of with me and zoomed up a hill over rocks and stones. Namibian horses can handle a fair bit of those and are usually shod, unless they are from the dessert. It was speedy and also a bit frightening, as I noticed that instead of proper leg muscles, there was only jelly left. However, I managed to turn her onto a bit of open space and slowly got her to stop and wait for the others. As is often the case it had been my own fault. Debbie had been riding next to me on Phoenix, Frankie’s mare and we had been talking without paying attention to what our horses were up to. They had decided to start a little race between them. Debbie was doing a 60 km ride and left us soon after as she needed to ride a bit faster.
Frankie and my only goal were to get ourselves with our horses across the finish line in one piece and that was what we accomplished.
One of the best parts of the ride was the feeling of electric excitement before the start, early in the morning at the stables as riders and horses got ready in the freezing darkness before dawn. I could hardly make out some of the black riders; just saw a horse walking along a whitish rope hanging in mid-air. It was a joyful excitement and there was no shouting or kicking, everybody was full of positive energy, raring to go. Once I had Asjas ready, pulled on the bright red bib with No 65, my starting number, heard it being called up and rode through the barrier, I knew there was no going back now. The starter had been calling out the last remaining minutes to the start, then the seconds and finally came the shout: “You’re off!” and “Lekker ry!” which means “Have a nice ride” and the bulk of riders took off in a fast trot.
After five kilometers I thought, I would never make the entire distance. After fifteen kilometers I felt that I began missing body parts, such as legs. Frankie was just saying: “You wouldn’t think we’re on a 5000 hectare game farm. We did not see one animal!”, when a Kudu antelope dashed across our track and disappeared into the thorny shrubs. This lone Kudu and a small frightened mongoose were the only animals we saw on that morning. We enjoyed the sun rise from beyond a mountain range and later enjoyed magnificent views when we had reached the hill tops. You do get to ride through wonderful scenery but the main prize is getting your horse and yourself home in one piece.
At around twenty kilometers I got off for a pee in the bushes at a water trough and my legs nearly buckled under me. Getting back up on a horse that is very eager to run was tricky and I stopped drinking for the rest of the ride. After she bolted with me later, I hit a brick wall of tiredness. To get through this, I tried to switch off my body, put on auto-pilot and focused on Asjas, so she would not bolt again. She is a very good horse, easy to ride but also eager to move and perhaps trained to win. When I passed the thirty kilometer mark I felt elated, thought I could now simply gallop to the finish line. A few minutes later, tiredness came back but I trotted on behind Frankie’s horse now, so Asjas stayed put. A little mongoose, frightened by all those riders, dashed back into the safety of the bushes and made me laugh and cheered us up. Finally, only a few kilometers remained and I only wanted to get in without my horse getting hurt on the final meters.
Compared to the usual speeds in Namibian endurance riding we were rather slow with just under 12 km/h in 3.04 h over 36.2 km and a pulse of 56. The good thing with endurance riding is that everybody can follow her or his very own agenda or goal. For Frankie it was to see if she could still do it, and for me basically the same but coming from the other end as a novice.
I felt very exhausted but still trotted Asjas myself in the vet gate for the final check. After this I was totally buggered with too much dust in my throat and only jelly left in my legs. When I was leaning against Asjas, because I was dehydrated from not drinking enough out on the trail, my vet Shepard Sageni instantly saw what was wrong with me and signalled to another vet to quickly bring some water. He is not just a very good vet. After drinking some water I felt much better right away. Asjas and Frankie’s quarter horse Poco passed the final vet check with flying colours and with this we had achieved what we had set out to do. We both qualified ourselves and our horses on third and fourth position in our ‘No weight’ category.
The main adventure is however to discover your limits and learn how to push them with the help of others who are in the same situation. It is a great sport and the endurance people are a friendly mob, considerate and always ready to lend a helping hand, especially to a greenhorn like myself. It was worth all the sweat and anxiety, just for that moment of sheer happiness when Asjas carried me across the finish line.