Nelson Endurance Club celebrated 25 years of competition at the weekend with an anniversary ride in the Eighty-eight Valley. Anne Hardie talks to a Nelson couple that devote their spare time to getting their horses fit for events that will test the stamina of both horse and rider.
Finding long rides to keep horses fit for endurance events is no problem for Alison and Phillip Higgins, who are surrounded by 1400ha of rugged countryside that forms Twynham Station.
Five kilometres of gravel track and impossible-to-avoid potholes lead away from the public eye along the road between Kawatiri Junction and St Arnaud. The track hugs scrub-covered hillsides before opening up to a long sweep of valley that holds much of the productive land for the station.
Above the manuka-clad hillsides, the tops are naturally shaved off to form plateaus where lush green pasture makes a surprise appearance.
It's great riding country. Alison has various loops worked out around the station, and these form the basis of her training, often working four horses a day at 30km each so that by the end of the day, she's travelled 120km on horseback.
That's serious riding but, like any athlete, it's necessary to keep the training up or lose the fitness. Plus, she has a horse that she believes has the ability to make it to the world championships in Kentucky in 2010, so she has a clear goal.
Closer to home are the Nelson Endurance Club rides. Last weekend, the club celebrated 25 years with an event up Eighty-eight Valley that took horses and riders over farmland and through forests from 20km through to 100km.
It's a sport that sees participants take part in rides of up to 160km throughout the region, including Twynham Station, and venture around New Zealand to test the fitness of their horses and see a variety of countryside.
Not that the long-distance riders see much of the first part of a ride. It's normally 1am when the first riders head out on a journey that will take them until about 6pm that night, when crossing the finishing line is not enough and a horse's heart rate can still disqualify them.
"You've done all that riding, but can you pass that last vet check?" says Alison. "That's the nerve-racking part. Your horse is knackered and three vets watch them trot out and trot back. When they say yes, it's yee haa! Hugs and kisses are going around, and also the tears.
"You're shattered but you're on cloud nine."
Alison has been an avid endurance rider for a few years, starting out on an arab mare that became the first horse to complete a 160km ride in New Zealand "barefoot", without the protection of shoes.
Now only one of the Higgins' endurance horses is shod because he has softer hooves. The rest have hooves that keep getting tougher without shoes.
After daughter Kirsty joined the ranks of endurance riders, Phillip decided that he might as well follow suit, even though he had an aversion to horses most of his life.
"I thought I couldn't beat them, I might as well join them."
So he jumped in boots and all, attending a Ken Dromgool course on natural horsemanship and then using his new-found knowledge on a stallion they'd just gelded.
Now all three members of the family are open endurance riders, which means they have each completed at least two 80km rides. Now they have to check the calendar of events to work out which two horses they will take in the float to each event.
"It gets us away as a family," says Phillip. "Otherwise, we'd just stay here."
The furthest ride they tackle with their own horses is near Kurow, and a favourite is Mt Torlesse Station behind Springfield in Canterbury.
"I've done that ride four times now, and I just love it," Alison enthuses. She has twice won the best condition award, which is basically given to the fittest horse.
"You know at the end of the day that your horse has performed well, and that's the ultimate prize, I like to think."
With two family members riding, the third becomes the strapper at each event to help out at the breaks between each loop of the course. These allow the horse a chance to recharge with food and water while giving its heart rate a chance to slow down so it can pass the stringent vet checks.
Then it's back on the next leg of the ride, with the philosophy "maintain a pace and maintain a gait". That means trotting pretty well all of the 160km, with a horse averaging about 12kmh.
At a trot, horses are still working aerobically, Phillip explains, while a faster pace turns it into an anaerobic workout and harder work overall.
The last leg of a ride is the hardest one for horse and rider to head out on, and younger horses that are newer to the game can often be reluctant to push themselves further. That's where the arab's stamina makes them ideal endurance horses.
The Higgins now have 18 arab horses or their "derivatives" on the station, including brood mares and young stock, bred specifically for endurance riding.
"They're the desert horses and have the stamina, so most endurance horses have 50 percent arab in them," says Phillip. "But they're quite highly strung and clever, so you've got to be one step ahead of them.
"They'll give you 100 percent every time," adds Alison.
Last year she represented New Zealand in Australia at the Transtasman Challenge, an annual event between the two countries, leasing a horse for the event.
Next year there's the possibility of the World Endurance Championship, but at this stage it's touted to be in Malaysia - and if that's the case, there's no way they'll take their own horses, because of the high humidity.
In 1998, New Zealand won the gold medal in Dubai for the endurance team, which had to work together to get to the finish line.
"If one horse starts to get tired, you nurse it along," explains Alison of the team approach. "The horse that is leading is working harder than those behind. It's easier for the riders behind, too, because it's a little bit like orienteering, and the one in the lead has to look for the next marker all the time."
Right now, her aim is to complete a 160km ride on day one at the national and South Island championships, followed by a 100km ride the next day. That means more training around the hills at Twynham Station to keep the horses in peak condition. But in country like this, it hardly looks like a chore.
- © Fairfax NZ News