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Sunday 11 December 2016

Ireland slays the distance dragon

Irish win Celtic Challenge title as endurance riders make mark

Published 09/11/2011 | 06:00

If you were asked to name the single most challenging equestrian discipline, what would your answer be? For many people, the answers would include puissance showjumping or three-day eventing.

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But what about the sport that one of the top event riders in the world, Mary King, described as a huge challenge?

Imagine riding 160km (100 miles) across all types of terrain and in all weather. It is your sole responsibility to navigate and negotiate your route, calculating speed and distances while at the same time monitoring your horse's heart rate and hydration levels throughout the ride. Your horse must pass stringent veterinary inspections before, during and after the competition or you will be disqualified. Welcome to the world of endurance riding.

This sport is not for the faint-hearted and is certainly not for those who do not enjoy spending long periods of time in the saddle.

While endurance riding is still a minority sport here in Ireland, our riders are punching way above their weight in international competition. Last month, the Irish endurance riding team beat some of the best horses and riders from all across Britain to win the Celtic Challenge for the second time in three years.

As Irish Long Distance Riding Association (ILDRA) PRO Kirsten Conly and Chef d'Equipe Cora Roche explain, the Red Dragon Endurance Ride, held in Builth Wells, Wales, is traditionally the finale of the endurance year in Britain and Ireland.

"The Red Dragon is a challenging course with enough fast going to trap the unwary into excessive speed and sufficient hills to tire even the most agile equine athlete," says Cora. "This ride is generally regarded as a premier test of endurance ability."

So it was with some trepidation that ILDRA learned this was to be this year's venue for the Home International and Celtic Challenge competitions. These two competitions cater for all endurance classes, from novice and juniors through to top-level races.

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Toll

Competition for places on the Irish team took place throughout the season, with both human and equine injuries taking their toll in the eventual selection process. Among those losses was Home International team member Robyn Catterall, who suffered a bout of glandular fever and took the difficult decision to step down from the team.

The Celtic Challenge team consisted of Helen McFarland riding J St Jake on the Red Dragon 160km race over two days, Sancha Talbot and Just Calypso taking part in the 80km Little Dragon endurance race, Jenni Cunningham and Kilgarry Breeze and Tasha Anderson and Ellanora riding in the 80km Dragon's Egg race over two days, Brona Kearney and Charmer taking on the 50km ride and Gillian Moody and Pepperjack tackling the 42km event.

The Irish team for the Home International competition consisted of Belinda Stewart and Just C'mall riding the 160km Red Dragon over two days, Thomas Roche and Bluebell tackling the 120km Dragon's Tail over two days, Kate Russell and Diamond Spike riding the 80km Little Dragon endurance race, Jane Bruce and Holy Smoke in the 80km Dragon's Egg over two days, Hannah Catterall and Holly tackling the 50km ride and Emma McCarthy and Sox taking on the 42km event.

Both teams travelled over there several days before the competition, to allow the horses time to recover from the journey and to enable crews and riders to learn the route.

"Much of the work in an endurance ride is done by active crewing to keep horses cool, hydrated and fuelled, so the crews have to meet riders en route and anticipate equine and human needs," explains Kirsten.

"Crewing was even more vital than usual for the Red Dragon because Wales was hit by soaring temperatures that weekend.

"Horses who had spent the summer working in average temperatures of 10-12°C were suddenly being asked to climb mountains in a heat wave of up to 30°C," she recalls.

Given the heat, the Irish teams sensibly adopted a conservative approach and dropped their speeds to aim for steady completions.

The weekend's events began on Saturday, with the longer distance race riders (100 miles, 75 miles and 50 miles) setting off early in the morning, followed by the shorter distance riders who were aiming for optimum rather than fastest time.

Sadly, the Home International team suffered an early setback when Kate Russell and Diamond Spike were eliminated from the 50-mile race at the first vet check.

Their loss was followed by two further eliminations later in the day when Tasha Anderson, with Ellanora, and Jane Bruc, riding Holy Smoke, found the heat an insurmountable obstacle to getting their horses' heart rates down after 25 miles. This meant Jenni Cunningham, on Kilgarry Breeze, was the sole Irish survivor in the two-day 50-mile ride.

Debut

However, Sancha Talbot, making her racing debut on Calypso, and Thomas Roche, on Bluebell, both finished the 50-mile race in good form. Helen McFarland, with J St Jake, and Belinda Stewart, on Just C'mall, also completed the first half of the 100-mile race without any problems.

The following day was the real test for the two-day riders and here Breeze, Bluebell, Jake and C'mall proved their mettle -- and the effects of their crews' hard work overnight -- by trotting up sound at the pre-ride vetting and setting out on course to tackle another hilly ride.

"Fortunately, the weather was kinder, with some cloud cover for the riders on the exposed mountains," says Kirsten. "The shorter distance riders benefited from these conditions, with Hannah Catterall on Holly's Dream Flight the only casualty of the day due to a stone bruise."

Emma McCarthy, on Sox, and Gillian Moody, riding Pepperjack, both successfully completed 25-mile rides, followed by Brona Kearney, on Charmer, who successfully finished a 30-mile ride. Thomas Roche, on Bluebell, achieved a good finish in the two-day 75-mile ride.

By Sunday afternoon, the tension was beginning to mount at the Builth Wells showground. Team scores were painfully close, particularly so in the Celtic Challenge, and the results went to the wire.

"The outcome was not determined until the two Irish 100-mile riders, Helen McFarland, on J St Jake, and Belinda Stewart, on Just C'mall, crossed the line and successfully passed the final vetting," says Kirsten.

Their successful finish resulted in an Irish win in the Celtic Challenge competition for the second time in three years, with Wales, Cornwall and Scotland taking second, third and fourth places respectively.

Ireland also took third place in the Home International competition, which was won by Wales, with England in second.

"None of these results would have been possible without the efforts of the ground crews and other helpers," insists Kirsten. "A total of 31 people travelled to Wales from Ireland as part of the team."

Ireland is to host next year's competitions at Donard, Co Wicklow, on July 21-22.

The ILDRA, a cross-border organisation, is always keen to introduce new team members, whether they are riders or crew, to the sport. For more information on the sport, go to www.enduranceriding ireland.com.

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