The legendary equestrian explorer, Aimé Tschiffely, who rode 10,000 miles from Buenos Aires to Washington DC in the late 1920s, faced a myriad of challenges, but perhaps none more so than the prospect of crossing a stretch of Peruvian coastal desert called Matacaballo – the Horse Killer.
The Swiss-born Argentine professor knew it was a high-stakes undertaking and planned carefully. He decided against carrying water for his magnificent Criollo mounts, Mancha and Gato, rightly believing it was a race against time in the scorching heat, and they needed to travel light.
In his famous book, Tschiffely’s Ride, he recalls how he withheld water for a day, to ensure Mancha and Gato would drink well before he set off as the sun was setting, giving way to a moonlit night. The sands, shining in the moonlight, radiated heat as the trio pushed into the desert.
At times, he was able to descend from the dunes to the firmer, wet sands of the beach, where he pushed the duo into a gentle gallop. He was forced to halt before dawn, as clouds covered the moon and reduced visibility to nothing.
As dawn broke, it was apparent the day would be a scorcher. “The horses plodded along as if they realised that they were in the midst of a serious test,” he recounted.
Shortly after noon, in the stifling heat, Tschiffely saw them lift their noses to the air and felt them quicken the pace.
“I was wondering why the horses were so keen to hurry along. Within an hour, I knew the reason, for we arrived at the river, and I am certain that the animals had scented water long before I could see it.”
It was a bold and magnificent piece of riding from a man who knew his mounts intimately and was acutely aware of their capabilities. Their very lives depended on judging this ride to perfection.
The sport of endurance, at its pinnacle, relies on just such a relationship. The top riders will know their mounts intimately and be able to carefully judge their performance across the many challenges presented in endurance races of up to 160km. It is not the kind of discipline required for dressage, but I don’t doubt it requires skill in equal measure.
I believe it is a sport that appeals to the basic instincts of good riders, which is largely responsible for its significant global growth. Rider and horse as one; a feat of endurance and overcoming challenges.
The publicity this week around video footage of Sheikh Mohammed Bin Mubarak Al Khalifa’s win in the recent King’s Cup ride – the most important endurance championship of the Bahrain season – is concerning on several levels.
The most obvious, of course, was the intervention of a pair who would appear to be support crew, one of whom appeared to strike the 14-year-old Anglo Arab mount, Tarabic Carl, on the rump with an object to push him along to the finish line.
It seems inconceivable to me that any ground crew would think it was a good idea to leap from a pickup truck and strike the rider’s mount. What kind of mindset does that suggest?
That is bad enough. But the video footage that emerged of the last stages of the 120km race provides other serious elements of concern.
There is the veritable fleet of gas-guzzling vehicles cruising alongside the course. Some presumably contain support crew for the riders; some may well be spectators. Such support is outlawed under endurance rules, but it has been a feature of Middle Eastern endurance racing for years.
As Al Khalifa approached the finish line, a cacophony of horns from the fleet of vehicles accompanied him to the finish line. The horse, presumably, was too tired to be much concerned.
The reality is that endurance as a sport faces an uncomfortable truth – that the more aggressive form of endurance racing that finds favour in the Middle East is not necessarily a comfortable fit with what I am told is now called the classic form of endurance.
The FEI was urged into action last year following growing unease voiced by some national federations over concerning fracture rates and the high level of doping infractions dealt with by the FEI Tribunal, centred on Dubai, Bahrain and Qatar.
The disciplinary decisions from the FEI over the last eight years provide a sorry litany of drug infractions in endurance, with a solid majority originating from the Middle East.
It has unquestionably been a blight on the growing status of the sport.
The figures suggest that endurance would actually have a cleaner slate than dressage, had it not been for the Middle East’s sorry record.
The FEI organised a round-table summit and appointed a planning group, which is now finalising its proposals after a meeting of interested member-nations in Lausanne, Switzerland, last weekend. Unfortunately, no FEI Group VII nations – of which Dubai, Qatar and Bahrain are members – attended.
What does that demonstrate? Could it be contempt? A lack of interest? Was it a snub? It was certainly not an encouraging development.
Rule reforms are only months away, but one has to wonder whether they will make a difference. It is unlikely that some national federations will sit back quietly and accept ongoing indiscretions in the Middle East.
Take, for example, the comments of the Swiss Equestrian Federation president, Charles Trolliet, and a board member, Peter Christen, in a letter to FEI Secretary General Ingmar de Vos late last March, as the issue was coming to wider public attention.
The pair said the Swiss federation could not accept the situation any longer, citing animal welfare concerns and the fairness of competitions.
“This critical situation … is of the highest potential explosive relevance,” the letter said, “putting at risk the image of all other FEI equestrian disciplines.”
The Swiss raised the prospect of an international movement of riders, trainers and officials being created who were no longer willing to accept the situation.
It raised drug concerns and discussed “tremendous” fracture rates, noting that, from 2010 to 2012, 41 endurance horses were found to be positive for banned substances.
By comparison, the discipline of jumping, which had 31,064 registered horses – more than three times the number registered for endurance – recorded 19 infringements in the same period.
Notably, the letter said, 82.9 per cent of the cases in endurance originated from the FEI’s zone VII – the United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Qatar, and Jordan.
The letter asserted that such breaches indicated “a clear disrespect of certain riders, trainers and veterinarians concerning the welfare of horses in sport and the FEI code of conduct”. It even suggested a system be introduced allowing for the temporary exclusion of nations with a poor doping record.
The whole issue must, of course, be uncomfortable for the FEI’s president, Princess Haya, whose husband is Dubai’s ruler, Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, himself an accomplished equestrian who found himself on the receiving end of an FEI ban in 2009 when his endurance mount, Tahhan, tested positive for the banned anabolic steroid, stanozolol.
Trainer Abdullah bin Huzaim, who admitted giving the horse drugs before the desert races in Bahrain and Dubai, was handed a one-year ban. Under FEI rules, the person riding the horse in an event is responsible for any drug breaches, although other support personnel may also be held accountable if circumstances dictate.
The evidence would suggest that endurance in the Middle East remains of considerable concern. The absence of the Group VII nations in Lausanne last weekend may be a harbinger of things to come, and must ultimately raise some doubt as to whether proposed endurance reforms represent a truly global consensus.
British journalist Pippa Cuckson has been in the fray this week, having been one of only two journalists to attend the Lausanne gathering.
Cuckson is to be congratulated for her determined coverage of wider events around equestrian sport. With few exceptions, the global equestrian media is somewhat under-resourced in my view – lacking in horsepower, so to speak.
The contributions of writers such as Cuckson are vital to keeping the debate in the eye of the equestrian public.
It seems certain that the last chapter in this endurance saga has yet to be written.
It is nearly 100 years since Tschiffely ventured into the Horse Killer desert. I believe the true sport of endurance keeps alive that same spirit of horsemanship. Had Tschiffely been accompanied by a fleet of gas guzzlers across the sandy wilderness of the Matacaballo, his ride would barely have rated a mention – anywhere.
Those interested in reading Tschiffely’s Ride can purchase copies here.