200km, three days

The largest endurance ride in the world is held each year in the small Free State town of Fauresmith. The 34th championship in July drew a record entry of 376 riders. As Greg Miles reports, the race demands much of both horse and rider.

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Each year the Fauresmith showground, the national mecca of endurance riding, is the site of a pilgrimage of faithful endurance riders. Campsites buzz with heated arguments about tactics and the finer details of Arabian horse breeding, while fires keep the trademark cold weather at bay. And every year the numbers keep growing. “This is one of the fastest-growing sports in the world,” says former president of Endurance Ride Association of South Africa (Erasa) Robert Lord. “It grew by a staggering 20% last season.”

Subaru SA, the race’s main sponsor, helps cater for the increasing numbers by supplying horse ambulances and vehicles for officials. All the riders and horses at this event have already proven their mettle by successfully completing three 80km rides within a certain time. This is to ensure that the horses have reached the level of fitness needed for the gruelling ride. In the past riders had to qualify on specific horses, but this year that consideration was dropped, dramatically increasing the entries. But the fact that many riders had mounts they had not ridden before was one of the reasons for the high number of eliminations, according to the race’s chief vet Henk Basson.

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Luck of the draw
For this three-day event riders are placed in groups of 15 and departure times are drawn the day before. The starting time is important, because the later a rider leaves the warmer it gets, and riding in the heat of the day is far more demanding than in the early-morning cool. On Tuesday morning, from as early as 5am, horses are walked on the track in front of the pavilions to loosen them up for the gruelling race ahead. The route for Day One is 74km. The first vet check is on the farm Metz after 23,5km, the second is on the farm Grapfontein 26,5km further on, while the final leg back to the showgrounds is 24,2km, where the final vet check of the day is done. At the vet checks the horses are inspected for motion (lameness), dehydration, pulse and respiration, with the wellbeing of the horse regarded as paramount.

Most serious riders know the real crunch comes on the second day, when the riders ride the first day’s route in reverse. Those who manage a time on Day Two similar to their first day’s time are in contention for prizes, but the others will fall by the wayside. On the evening of the second day, the results are posted on the office window and riders and grooms flock to see their standings.

Leaders on Day Two
At the end of Day Two, with only the final day of 53km to go, Winston Sloan on Rusha leads the respected heavyweight category with a 6,5min lead over Pieter Grobler on Azurite Wulfenite. Chris Roelofse on Jothan DT is in third place, a further 6min behind. In the standard weight division, Suerita van Wyk on Dube has a 9min lead over Christo Human on Rakib Marco with Shanie Bosch on Gitan lagging by 5min. In the lightweight division, Eileen Pearson on Arion holds a 1min lead over Thia van Niekerk on Izra Tendulkar, with Vicki Terblanche on Azak trailing by 9min. In the junior division, Suerita Janse van Rensburg on Rocky has a 7min lead over Simone van Zyl on Wildhorse Rosmerta, followed by Gerrie Vorster on Smokey with a deficit of 10min.

As Day Three dawns, it is clearly going to be a very stiff day of riding with only seconds separating many challengers. Drawing a good departure time is now absolutely crucial, as riding in the heat of the day could just tip the scales in your competitors’ favour. Back at the showgrounds, where horse and riders will make their final entrance, grooms anxiously scan the mountain from which the last sprint to the finish line will be made. Suddenly the shout goes up, “They’re coming!”

The winners
First into the stadium is Pieter Grobler in the heavyweight division. With 200km behind them and the inspirational tune of Chariots of Fire blaring from the loudspeakers, riders and horses seem to forget the hardships of the past three days and perk up for a final lap around the track as spectators cheer the exhausted competitors home. In the heavyweight division, only just over 38% of the entrants managed to finish the gruelling race, with substantially more than half the contestants being pulled. In the standard weight division 54% of the contestants finished, and 77% in the lightweight category. In the children’s division, 63% of entrants manage to complete the race.

Chief vet Henk Basson described the race overall as “a very successful ride with no serious injuries”. “None of the horses treated for fatigue were serious cases,” he said. “While the number of horses that fell out was much higher than usual, this can be attributed to the cold weather before the ride and the fact that horses were not exercised enough. With high-protein diets and little exercise there were more cases of azoturia [muscle cramping] than usual.”

Random tests for prohibited and performance-enhancing substances were carried out. The results will be released later. That evening the awards ceremony and celebration party were held. This year was special, as Len Dekenah, secretary of Erasa, proudly announced that the leaping springbok emblem had finally been registered with the Department of Heraldry and now becomes the official symbol of local endurance riding. The celebrations continued into the early hours of the morning.

The team system
Each endurance union enters a team of four riders (three riders in the junior section) that compete against each other and against the Erasa team, which is selected from a shortlist according to their performance prior to the nationals. Members of the Erasa team in the standard weight section who finish in the top 10 are awarded national colours.

Fauresmith legends
Sixty-nine-year-old Oom Ami de Wet (left) completed the race for an astonishing 26th time this year on his horse Shaheer Morocco, and was awarded the trophy for the most senior rider to complete the ride for the third time. Ami has taken part in 33 Fauresmith rides, and to date has completed a staggering total of 19 594km in his endurance-riding career. But it’s also a family sport for the De Wets. Ami senior’s eldest son, also Ami, groomed for his father and offered his farrier services to riders along the way.

Ami’s second son Hannes was in the winning North Cape team. His daughter Annelie Putter and his son Tjaart, who has frequently represented SA in endurance riding, and his two grandchildren, Jan Louis and Abrie Bezuidenhout, also competed in the race. But Oom Ami faces some serious competition in the form of the renowned Appaloosa breeder and endurance rider from Ladybrand, 62-year-old Claire Amm. Although, unfortunately, Claire did not complete this year’s ride, she and Oom Ami now jointly hold the record of entering 26 completions at Fauresmith. “We always joke about the competition between us,” Claire laughs. “We say only four things can happen – we both complete the ride, Ami falls out, I fall out, or we both fall out. In the latter case, with the weather being so cold at Fauresmith, we’re both off to the Bahamas to lie in the sun!”