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[RC] Egypt: Grass Roots Endurance - Stephanie Teeter

Grass Roots Endurance Riding in Egypt

After four years of watching FEI and UAE style Endurance Racing, a
group of riders decided that there has to be something
different. Maryanne Gabbani lives in Egypt, having married an Egyptian
man whom she met at UC Berkeley over 20 years ago. Egypt is her home
and horses and riding are one of her greatest passions. She helped
organize the first Endurance Rides in Egypt four years ago, and then
watched in horror as the emphasis on racing and prize money took away
everything she originally loved about Endurance: Spending many hours
with your horse and your friends. Riding for miles and miles and
discovering new trails. On a horse that you cherish and hope to keep
riding for a long time. So this year a group of like-minded
equestrians decided that they would try something similar to our
(AERC) style of riding - low key, relaxed pace - and show the
disillusioned riders that there was an alternative sport: Endurance

The Egyptian Equestrian Federation (EEF) is the Egyptian parallel to
our United States Equestrian Federation, the governing body for Equine
sports, the Federation which is recognized by the FEI. The thing that
has been missing in Egypt is an organization like AERC, an Endurance
Riding 'club' where the emphasis is on horse welfare and riding for
the pure pleasure of sharing the trail with your horse. Currently the
EEF is not tolerant of any other organized Endurance sport in Egypt,
but this group of grass-roots endurance riders has formed the Egyptian
Endurance Riding Association. They are doing their own thing,
following rules similar to AERC, and avoiding conflict with the EEF by
not granting placement to the riders based upon the finish time. It is
a non-competitive event. (at least on paper). They are riding for fun,
with the emphasis on caring for and preserving their horses.

The Dahshur Dawdle was to be a club ride, a 40 km (25 mile) event,
open to anybody that wanted to ride for pleasure
(non-competitive). When I got the opportunity to go to Abu Dhabi to
crew for Leonard Liesens at the President's Cup, the idea of being
this close to Egypt (where our son Destry was spending the winter) and
not going to visit was too much to bear. The timing was perfect to
coincide with Maryanne's fun ride, and the chance to ride, and be part
of such an event was the final straw. I quickly booked a flight. (and
then so did Jackie, Merri and Tracy... but that's another story). I
arrived in Cairo (and that's yet another story!) and was quickly
embraced by this wonderful country. No time to rest, as I helped
Maryanne set up her new household and make preparations for her
ride. Jackie, Merri and Track arrived the next night, and Maryanne's
new (still being finished) house was filled to the brim with dogs,
people and boxes. And energy!

The morning after they arrived was the day before the ride. From first
cup of coffee (on the roof, looking over the countryside, hearing the
morning call to prayer, watching the men, women, donkeys and water
buffalo begin their morning chores) to the last sip of wine before
bed, we never stopped. We spent the morning helping Maryanne and
meeting her friend Pal at his horse farm. Pal is a Norwegian National
living in and loving Egypt, totally immersed in his farm and
horses. Maryanne took us for a ride in the country, which was
absolutely incredible - people, animals, noise, farms, tombs, ranches,
subsistence living, nice villas surrounded by filthy canals and
hovels, a strange beauty. Absolutely intriguing.

Later in the day we piled into Maryanne's Bronco, and Morad and Pal
into Morad's Jeep and we scouted the course for the ride (the day
before the ride, no problem, plenty of time), Maryanne drove us
through the desert near the Dahshur and Sakkara pyramids, the Sun
Temple, the Step Pyramid, the Melting Pyramid, the Bent Pyramid and an
assortment of other ancient assemblages (and yes we turned right at
the sarcophagus), through the fence, along the army compound with
holes and mounds created by previous artillery practice, and finally
over to the date palm groves of Dahshur where Maryanne has purchased 5
acres of grove and hopes to someday build a home and stable.

We skirted the lake, which was currently mostly dry and populated by
cattle, sheep, goats, camels and the Bedouin herders. Every fall the
government fills the lake from the Nile, and then drains it again in
the spring. We followed a nice trail around the lake and onto the
village access lane that goes to Maryanne's grove. It was a nice shady
lane to ride on, and Maryanne was hoping that bringing the riders to
her grove for a vet check would be a good opportunity to show them
that there are nice places to ride - other than just the desert. The
population density in the Cairo area is tremendous, and foreigners or
vehicles or recreational riders can quickly draw the locals out to
gawk and pester (money madam? money for me?) and many of Maryanne's
riding friends don't enjoy riding in the country for this reason. But
she is constantly scouting and finding nice relatively quiet places to

With the course settled upon, we quickly (very quickly...) retraced
our path across the desert, stopping for photos and discussions, and
stopping to watch the sun set behind a pyramid, and then to the farm
of Ali Abdel Rahim. The previous FEI races have been staged from Ali's
place (a beautiful beautiful Arabian ranch at the edge of the desert)
and this ride was to also start and finish from here. Earlier in the
day there was a meeting of some of the club members at Ali's, with
discussion of logistics for the next days ride. There would be a
banquet for the riders after it was over. An 8:00 start (which meant
that hopefully they could -really- start by 8:30, a 20 minute vetcheck
at Maryanne's grove, and then back to Ali's by noon. They still don't
consider taking 6 hours to do a 25 mile ride though - even though this
was to be for fun, the last riders would finish by noon, a 3 hour 25.

We went back to Maryanne's to finish up the paperwork. Tracy was to be
ride secretary and was focused on printing entry forms and timer
sheets and organizing things for the ride. She would manage the
registration in the morning and assign numbers to the riders. Jackie
and I were to help with the start and vetting in, and then the three
of us run the vet check (oh what an adventure that was!). Merri was to
ride in one of the rigs following the riders and be official ride
photographer. As well as help crew, and whatever else came up.

Since there were to be no trail markers for the ride we asked Morad if
he could draw a map that we could print and annotate and hand out to
the riders. He must have a very photographic mind, and quickly drew a
very accurate map of the course on sheet of paper. The riders would
basically follow the leaders (tracks in the sand, riders on the
horizon) and have their maps for backup. Maryanne would bring up the
rear, and make sure everybody got to the right place at more-or-less
the right time following more-or-less the same course. So we were
pretty much set for the day. Mohamed (Maryanne's' driver) would drive
us (and gear) to the vet check, the vets would follow Mohamed and
drive their car, and anybody else that wasn't following the riders
through the desert could follow as well.

Up early, to Ali's for registration and start. Riders there don't have
horse trailers (very rare) so those that wanted to participate had to
ride their horses to the start, or have their grooms ride them
over. Some from a fair distance away. The horses started arriving,
some relaxed from their ride over, some excited from their ride over,
but most overly excited because they were stallions and there were
other stallions and mares in close proximity. Geldings are very rare
in this equestrian neighborhood. The vets managed to get all of the
horses vetted in, Jackie and I were vet secretaries and watched in
amazement as they tried to get a stethoscope on some of the horse's
ribs for even a few seconds, much less a full minute. Cap refill, jug
refill, straight trot-out... perhaps.

I had planned on a ride meeting before the start, having everybody
assembled... but the excitement and energy pretty much changed my
mind, and I tried to catch groups of riders before they started and
explain about the vet check, 20 minute gate-into-hold,
etc. Whatever.... off they go. I watched from the edge of Ali's grove
as 30 riders fanned out across the desert, the air misty and cool,
with a rising hill of sand and three pyramids as a backdrop. It was

But no, waiting around- off we go to the vet check. The riders only
had 20 km to go, and there is no such thing as an 'easy' drive to
anywhere. Small single lane roads (with random 2-way traffic, donkeys
and carts, water buffalos, camels, children, trucks) are the main
travel mode, and we had a 30 minute drive under the best of
circumstances. We had to take a side trip to help a lost/forgotten
rider retrieve her car so she could follow us and participate at the
vet check. It cost us precious time, but oh well... in Egypt time is
relative.  Mohamed is an incredible (and safe!) driver and managed to
lead the caravan safely and successfully to Maryanne's grove. We had
just a few minutes after arriving to start setting things up before
the first riders appeared. We decided to stage the vet check along the
lane rather than down the trail in Maryanne's grove. It was nice and
quiet and shady. (at least until the locals started wandering over to
watch, and the donkey carts started coming through, and the trucks
loaded with brick and sand came rolling by, and everything else that
we simply couldn't have imagined would appear on a nice quiet shady
lane). Plus we hadn't really accounted for the extra space that 20
stallions might need in order to relax and eat and drink. It's a
little different over there... perhaps our choice of vet check could
have been better.

But we muddled on, lavishing extra smiles and attention on the
bewildered riders to compensate for the complete chaos. Very patient
and tolerant people though, and determined to view the ride as an
adventure, for fun. Several actually did comment later on how much
they enjoyed the relaxed atmosphere of the vet check (go
figure). Compared to the UAE/FEI vet checks, this was a
picnic. Finally the last riders came through, with stories of the
water crossing adventure (the first in the history of Egyptian
Endurance!), of losing the trail, and then finding another trail, and
generally having a good time.

The vets were fantastic, very patient, and a great sense of
humor. They were weaned on Endurance as vet students with the first
FEI riders, and quickly got into the spirit of this ride. They were
tolerant and communicative with the riders, but always attentive to
the horse - making sure there were no horses that might be showing
signs of heat stress or fatigue. But other than a few minor lamenesses
and a few that took 10-15 minutes to recover, there were no
problems. The lame horses took a short path back to Ali's through the
country lanes and around the village rather than going back through
the desert. (remember, there are no horse trailers). The horses that
were slower to recover spent extra time at the grove relaxing and
eating and drinking. All was well.

We sent the last riders off to finish the course, packed everything
into the rigs (again Mohamed was wonderful!) and worked our way back
to Ali's. We had to stop at one point for several minutes for a
funeral procession, a hundred solemn men walking down the lane,
bearing a coffin. Plus there was a large herd of water buffalo moving
through the village that occupied the lane for a while. Eventually we
made it back, and set up to wait for the riders to finish. The first
(Morad) was in around 11:30, and the rest came in over the next hour
or so. There was one lameness, and a couple horses took the entire 30
minutes to recover to 60, but the grooms and riders were diligent,
with plenty of water and shade, and eventually all the horses were in,
and recovered, resting and eating. (and ready to be ridden back to
their stables).

There was a lovely banquet for everybody, wonderful Egyptian food,
rugs and blankets laid out under the palm trees, tables and chairs
with umbrellas. Very nice. We were all a little dazed, laughing at the
mishaps, wondering how to do it better next time. Yes, the next time.

The week after the ride, before I left to return to the US, we went to
the lovely home of Mohamed Kharma for a small party (pizza and beer)
to talk about the ride, and answer many of the questions that the
riders have - how we do things in the US. Feed, training,
electrolytes, etc. It was fun to share knowledge and swap
stories. Towards the end Jackie and I were asked 'what would you
recommend to us?'. Jack gave them a nice description of how we do our
rides, and how riders carry gear with them and learn to be self
sufficient. My answer to the question was that they should expand
their horizons, consider different trails, different locations. Up
until the lane to Maryanne's grove, everything has been in the desert,
only sand. This led to Maryanne insisting that there were wonderful
places to ride in the country, she know ways to avoid the villages and
traffic. Well, ok - they'd just have to try it then.

We then started talking about multiday rides in the US. A horse can
ride 80km per day, for five days??? The same horse??? Amazing. Then
talk of the desert, the stars, and Ali's wife mentioned the beauty of
the White Desert east of Cairo, where the stars shine brilliantly
enough to light the night. Then talk of a beautiful lake east of
Cairo, and yes, one could probably ride around it - oh, probably 70 or
80 km to ride all the way around. And then we could ride the other
direction the next day. And we could hire Bedouin to feed the horses,
and we could set up tents and camp, and somebody had a contact in the
Army so they could arrange permission ... and wallah! a multiday in
Egypt has been planned. The best time would be next November, after
Ramadan, when the temperatures are cooler, and the sky is clear and
the days are beautiful.

And this, is the spirit of Endurance Riding :)


I still prefer what it is that BH100, Tevis, The Duck's Soup of Endurance,
etc. has to offer...but, to see a horse canter over sand for those
distances...Good Lord, it humbles me.
~  Frank Solano

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