Take 77 lady riders with varying degrees of experience in riding fast races, add a pile of crazy drivers (with questionable, varying degrees of experience), toss in a vast desert full of sand, throw in some fast horses with varying hardness of mouths and varying degrees of brakes, shake it up with an air-full of dust, then bake it at 35*C, then finally stir it up for 90 km, and you have the Dubai Equestrian Club Endurance Challenge for Ladies.
"It's gonna be crazy!" Shaikha Madiya accurately predicted before the race.
Some of you may remember a Ladies' race from last year, when Steph climbed aboard a crazy horse, had a Crazy Ride for a short distance, in which the record books show her elimination as "Rider Fall Down." There does seem to be a lot of chaos in Ladies' Races here. To participate, confidence is important. Humor is paramount.
Madiya didn't feel she had a horse from her own stable that was ready for this race, so she was going to ride a gelding from Shaikh Hamdan Al Maktoum's Seeh Al Salam Endurance stable, trained by Ali Al Muhairi. She'd tried him out a few days before on a training ride, and he seemed fine - steering wheel, brakes, the main things. Of course, a horse is always different at an endurance race. A little more excited usually.
Despite her predictions of a crazy ride, Madiya didn't look nervous before the ride, and in fact she slept like a rock the night before.
The start of the ride at 7 AM didn't look TOO chaotic, most everybody away at a fast steady clip, except for the one or two loose horses right at the beginning. At least one of them was caught and the rider got back on, but I'm not too sure about the other one. The orange sunball rose over the horizon as the 77 riders galloped along the 30-kilometer first loop - less the 4 who were eliminated "before the start" or "before gate 1 - did not complete loop." Already the air was thick with dust from the approximately 164 vehicles (I figured, 2 crew cars per rider and about 10 VIP cars following the race) (1 of which was us, though we weren't VIPs, we were just following one). Our driver was zooming along the sand like everyone else, and then we caught up with Madiya and her horse Fenwick Cadenza. The horse was very strong, pulling, and pulling, and pulling. Madiya had a wrestling match on her hands with a horse who had a long, ineffective martingale, a hard mouth, and clearly bigger and grander ideas than the 24+ kph pace he was already going.
Madiya was always on the verge of having a runaway horse, and at some point, surely she had to be getting tired. I've been on a runaway before and I lost my strength (and nerve) and it only took about 30 seconds. Finally after about 10 km of his trying to break into a run, and throwing his head straight up in the air (trying to imitate a camel), Madiya pulled him off the track, circling him away from going straight down the track, so he'd slow down. Her crew jumped out and ran to her and re-snapped the reins onto the leverage point of the Kemberwick bit.
It didn't help. She took her horse back onto the track, and immediately he launched back into a gallop to try to catch the horses in front of him. Again she circled him; the boys jumped out again, and tried to shorten the martingale. It wouldn't go any shorter. Madiya turned the horse back onto the track again, and again, he launched into a gallop. He pulled and pulled, threw his head down, yanking her out of the saddle, grabbed the bit, and kept fighting to go faster. You have two choices in this case: keep fighting the horse to slow him down in which case he wastes a lot of energy, or let him run as fast as he wants, in which case he'll burn himself out and waste a lot of energy. I would have chosen plan B, retire "before gate 1." What would be the point?
The point is, Madiya is not a quitter. Quitting is not a word in her vocabulary, in any aspect of her life. They gave her a horse to ride, and she was going to ride it. One wonders if she sometimes gets such horses to ride to make her wimp out, to prove Arab women really don't belong in this sport of men. I'd have wimped out, I have no problems with that. Madiya kept riding, and she did a great job of doing it.
A couple of times the horse was galloping 40 kph to catch up with other horses. Even when he caught them, that wasn't enough for him, and he kept going. 40 kph when you're in control and it's your idea is agreeable. 40 kph when you are not in control is not so comfortable. The two crew cars following her kept stopping and the boys jumped out to hand her water bottles, but she'd yell, "La! La!" No! No! Not about to take her hands off the reins and release her hold to pour water on her horse!
Now here is where things got scary. It wasn't the driving that scared me (I learned once a long time ago when my driver in Sri Lanka was intent upon killing us all, to look out the side window, and suddenly things are tranquil, whereas when you look out the front windshield, you are terrified, looking to witness the exact moment you will die). It wasn't when our driver flew down a steep dune onto the driving 'track' and WHUMP! crashed into the bottom, ripping the bumper off. (He stopped, climbed out, fetched the bumper, and stuck it in the back seat, no big deal.) It wasn't even so scary that Madiya was fighting for 30 kilometers with her near runaway.
Madiya looked over her shoulder to make sure no vehicles were coming, and she started to circle her horse again. We saw her and slowed down. Another driver behind and to the left of us saw her. He did not slow down. In fact, he passed us, and as he clearly saw Madiya, he GASSED IT, RIGHT AT MADIYA. A collision was inevitable.
I am pretty sure I screamed. I looked away (tranquility) but had to look ahead (terror), and at the last second, the horse saw the car and miraculously had the split-second wherewithal to leap sideways, and just missed getting hit. The driver sped on, never slowed down. My heart was slamming in my chest and my hands were shaking after that.
And Madiya just carried on, back on track, and her horse took off again. Finally two of the boys jumped out of the car and ran alongside the horse for a while, until the horses immediately ahead of him were out of sight. Then he simmered down some, and with about 4 km to go into the vet gate, he settled into a controllable hand gallop. At the vet gate, despite all the stop-run-fight-fight-fight-circle-run-fight, Madiya's horse had averaged 24.45 kph and pulsed down in 2: 31. They were in 21st place. But how much had all the fighting/running taken out of him?
Twelve horses were eliminated at (or before) gate one. The hold was 30 minutes, barely enough time to sit down before Madiya was back in the saddle for the second 28-kilometer loop.
One would think the horse would be a little more settled on the second loop. He was... for about 5 km. He was in a nice strong, agreeable canter, not pulling, until one particular gray horse - who was trying to run away with his rider - came alongside him. That got Fenwick Cadenza all stirred up again, and here we go again, another wrestling match, horse's head up in the air, no mouth, fighting to run off again. Madiya got in with a group of 5 or 6 horses and Fenwick was all hot and bothered.
Every 5 or 10 kilometers, there is a little 'oasis' water stop - a fenced in area about 25 yards in diameter with a tree or two and water tubs for the horses to stop and drink or splash with water (if they aren't getting enough of the water bottles that are constantly passed to them by the grooms as they canter by). Madiya and the group cantered into the oasis, we drove around. 5 riders cantered out - and one loose horse. Who was it? We looked at each rider on the horses - no Madiya! We looked back, and the rider on the ground by the gate was Madiya!
Four cars whipped around and skidded to a stop by the gate. Madiya was already up on her feet, the horse was gone in a cloud of dust. Madiya jumped in a pickup, insisting she was all right (if her head had fallen off, she would have jumped up and said she was all right). "Follow my horse!"
Our driver jumped back in the car, turned around, and off we raced in the dust after the racing vehicles and galloping horses. Chasing Madiya's horse. We thought. But after our driver broke speed records passing several horses and cars, and more horses and cars, covering some 5 or 6 km, some of us knew the horse could not possibly have run this far. But our driver, swept up in the speed and dust and excitement, kept racing forward.
Now, here's where things got a little comical (well, a little scary too, but comically scary.) Finally, we convinced our driver that the horse was somewhere behind us, and we had seen the black pickup turn off the trail into the dunes (way back there, shortly after the oasis). Our driver consented to stop and wait a bit, while all these horses and cars we had whipped past raced past us again.
Then we saw a black pickup coming from a different direction to join the race. Our driver took off after him. It was another several kilometers of racing at warp speed in heavy dust and swerving vehicles in slippery sand, trying to catch up to this black pickup. It occurred to me that Madiya would not be in this vehicle speeding toward the front of the pack - she would be in her crew's car way behind us if she wasn't riding, or more likely she would be back on her horse, way behind us.
Finally we caught up with the black pickup, and got that driver to roll down his window, and as he did, we saw his pickup had no passenger (surprise!) "Where is Madiya?" "Who? I think she might have fallen off her horse way back there." Wrong black pickup.
Once our driver realized this, then he got it in his head that he had to race back along the track looking for Madiya. This he did. Not on the far outside, but aiming straight for the center of the wall of cars in thick dust coming at us. AHHHH! Three of us were pointing and yelling "Outside! Outside!" before our driver realized it was maybe a better idea not to head for the center of the oncoming traffic.
Then we convinced him to just stop, right here, outside the fray, and wait for Madiya, because Ali Khan had called one of our cell phones and said Madiya was back on the horse.
Eventually, out of the dust came a one tired chestnut, no longer pulling on the reins to catch up with anybody. We kept pace alongside Madiya, not having to race along - and then we got stuck. You do have to drive a bit fast in the deeper sand, and this time, we weren't. We had to wait for a big tow truck to come pull us out. Then of course, we had to race like bats outta hell to get back to the venue.
Madiya's horse, despite the Rider Fall Off interlude was now in 14th place. (15 more horses eliminated at gate 2.) Madiya laughed off her fall. She had gotten squeezed in the 'oasis' between water barrels, and instead of stopping, her horse kept going and leaped the barrel. And not being in a comfortable saddle she was familiar with, Madiya came off. The second horse jumped over her as she fell. Jerry, a shoer from Kentucky who works here in the UAE said, "You win the Bounce Award!" Jerry was sure Madiya had been kicked in the helmet by the horse that jumped over her; another person was sure she had been stepped on. Madiya didn't remember either of those things happening, and the only thing that she could feel from her episode was a stiffening thigh. She felt fine, but she didn't want to sit down during the 30 minute hold. She said the only thing hurting were her hands, blistered from the reins. "This horse I need to wear two pairs of gloves!" (And by the end of the day, the backs of her legs were rubbed raw from the saddle.) Jerry also said the horse ran off for 10 km, and they brought him 10 km back. Maybe it wasn't quite that far, but the horse logged some extra mileage in the deep sand. He was headed for the Persian Gulf Coast, having had enough for the day.
Loop 3, 21 km: Predictably, the horse was pooped. "My horse is running out of petrol!" Madiya called to us in the car. No more of that runaway hand galloping, he was sustaining a slow canter, and slowing to a trot when the boys handed water bottles off to her. Then, another rider came up from behind, one from the same stable, and together they picked up the pace, giving each horse a little more interest in going together, finding a little more gas in the tank after all, but definitely less than the 24 kph she'd averaged the first two loops.
Madiya yelled, "Put on some music!" We put on some Arab music, full volume with the windows down, and as the hot dusty Arab desert air blew our hair into stiff wire brushes, and sand scoured our faces, and the crews for each rider leapfrogged ahead in the cars and jumped out to hand off water bottles, the two girls cantered alongside each other, heading for the vet gate.
As we were approaching the vet gate, we started meeting other riders - and drivers - going out on this loop 3 - YIKES! I definitely looked out the side window the rest of the way back, so I wouldn't see who or what we were going to run head-on into. (And don't forget, there's always people to dodge - crews jumping out to hand off water bottles, and running back to their vehicles, dodging oncoming cars that are racing by, sliding back and forth, and can't stop or go slow in the sand.)
Madiya's horse passed the first vet inspection at gate 3, but upon the recheck, the horse trotted out lame. Hallas. Finished. He was definitely a strong horse - just think what he might have done if he'd been content to pace himself. But, that seems to not be the name of the game here, and in many other endurance races around the world. You go out fast, with guns blazing, (whether you want to or not), and if your horse lasts, you might win, and if he doesn't, you don't win, or you don't finish.
A total of 33 horses finished the race. World Champion Maria Mercedes Alvarez Ponton, in front the entire race, and averaging 27.41 kph, was the winner on Antares Sauveterre, a 12-coming-13-year-old son of the great French stallion Persik.
While the men dominate the racing here in the UAE, I'd have to say it's the women who are the amazing riders. Many of them don't have the experience of riding in many endurance races, and often they aren't always familiar with the horses they are getting on, and yet they go out there and do it, when they know just about anything can happen out there.
I couldn't do it. I'm not so young, I'm not fearless, I've already learned I am not invincible, I have no problem being a quitter. Call me what you like. : ). That's why i'm a photographer, and a pokey endurance rider, not an endurance race rider. I leave that to the youthful, the crazy, the brave, and the professionals.