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[RC] Malaysia in New Mexico - Steph Teeter

I think that with the entire group in attendance, there were close to 40 Malaysians that came to the Las Cruces, New Mexico ride. I saw a lot of closely folded arms, some shivering and some very wide eyes. But I never heard a whimper from the riders. Not a single complaint. There was a flurry of shopping after they arrived and realized just how cold it was going to be - lots of Under Armor and fleece and gloves. But nobody complained (at least out loud).

After the successful WEC trial event at the Sultan's Cup in November (it seems so much longer ago...) the 2008 WEC effort began in earnest. Plans began for hosting the event, and plans began for qualifying a team to enter the event. Between the Malaysia Ministry of Sports, the National Sports Institute and the Malaysia Equestrian Federation (Endurance division), there was unanimity in the importance of, and commitment to, doing everything possible to insure that Malaysia would be well represented at the 2008 WEC.

The Sports Ministry determines policy for all sports in Malaysia - from Badminton to Dressage - this is where policies are formed, and regulation is enforced. The current policy in Malaysia is to further the growth of Equestrian sports. Growth in all equestrian sports (including team sports such as Polo) is to be encouraged. Endurance is just one of the sports, but as a relatively new FEI sport, and with the 2008 WEC looming in the near future, it is important. The National Institute of Sports is the governmental body with the responsibility for actually building the sports (all sports) nationally, and also supporting and fielding teams to compete internationally (e.g. Olympics). Between all of these people and policies a determination was made to appoint a group whose purpose was to
1. Build the sport of Endurance in Malaysia - for the long term as well as the short term, and
2. Identify and qualify a group of riders to represent Malaysia at the 2008 WEC.

And to show their unity, and their support these 40+ people travelled together to this ride. The Deputy Minister of Sports for Malaysia, the director of the National Sports Institute of Malaysia, the Malaysian Ambassador to the USA, the Consul General for Malaysia in the USA. All of these people came to Las Cruces to show their support for the Malaysian effort, and their reverence for their much loved Endurance riding King!

So - to build the Malaysian Endurance Team, an initial group of riders was selected, based on rider ranking points and experience. And the first step towards qualifying them was to send them abroad to compete. Mohamed Din Mat, YM Raja Mahmood Raja Hussein and Dr. Bashir (DVM) were to lead the government financed effort. They would take a group of riders to Uruguay, a group of riders to Chile, and a group of riders to the USA. They would compete on leased horses, and if the rider finished and qualified at the foreign ride, the horse could be purchased with the goal of having the rider finish yet another ride - and be qualified for the WEC. His Majesty Tuanku Mizan was able to make plans to join the group that would travel to USA. I was at both the Uruguay and Chile rides to watch their progress and cheer from the sidelines. Two Malaysian riders finished in Uruguay (7 started), one rider finished in Chile (8 started) and one rider qualified in USA (6 started). Hmmm.... seemed like such a good plan, but obviously it was not going to be so simple.

Completion of a 100 mile ride requires just a little bit of magic and a little bit of luck, in addition to skill and preparation and a brilliant equine athlete. The more 100 mile rides one enters, the more one realizes this. Anything can happen - a bad step, a missed turn, a 95 mile spook, a girth rub, a lost shoe... a single error in pacing. So although one might expect better odds than 4 in 20, - after factoring in horse and rider 'chemistry', course difficulty, and all those little things that can happen during a long long ride on an unknown (leased) horse, over an unknown trail, in a foreign land - perhaps there were more obstacles to success than initially anticipated.

I had decided a couple weeks before the event to ride with the group on my seasoned horse Jaziret. My only goal was to help the group get through the ride as well as possible. Jaziret was not peaked or really prepared for the ride, but I thought he could (with luck) do a 12 hour 100 - which was the goal of the Malaysian team. I've ridden enough in foreign countries, on new horses, that I thought many of them would be anxious, and I could offer a little support on the trail. And as soon as we started out on the trail at 4:30 AM, I was really really really glad that I chose to ride with them.

All of the riders, including His Majesty, had been out to Flight Leader Farm to try their horses. There was a bit of swapping around between riders, to find the most suitable mount, but eventually it was settled. Even so, only His Majesty and 2 other riders had the opportunity to try their horse outside of the arena, so there was still a great deal of unknown. Honestly, it is a little nerve-racking to start a ride (in the dark!) on a fresh horse that you know - imagine starting a ride on a fresh horse that you've never really ridden!

I had set my alarm for 3AM, but at 1:30 I was wide awake, already feeling the nerves and excitement of the ride. I was fairly comfortable with the trail, with the ride plan (15km/hr) and with the safety of the other riders, but anything can happen! A million things rattling around in my head as I tried to stay quiet and focused. We had selected the mare Dashing Lady for His Majesty - she had a good record, and a good mind. In addition to a probably completion, a safe ride was of utmost importance. And she was a perfect lady. We all warmed up in the big arena where the crewing and vetting would be. I was also a little anxious about Jaziret - he's a seasoned competitor - 13 yrs old and over 3000 miles, but he can be a real handful. He was also perfect - I think he somehow understood that this ride was about something else, something bigger. I kept an ear on the start ( it was too dark to see!), and kept track of the time. We waited until the other riders had left, and then headed out on the trail. I led with Jaziret, His Majesty behind me, and the other riders filed in.

As soon as we got to the first turn, the first section of trail past the venue, I realized we were going to be in for a real challenge. There is so much that John and I have learned (through trial and error) over our years of managing rides, and one of those gems of wisdom is that blue glowbars on a cold night are almost impossible to see. I think that those 15 miles out there in the cold and the dark were the most stressful 15 miles of my entire career. I was so glad that I was there to hopefully lend a little confidence to the Malaysian riders. We did have the benefit of some tracks to follow (human eyes couldn't discern them, but the horse could (I hoped)) so I tried to let Jaziret make a lot of the decisions about where to go. With a snorting puffing steaming group of 6 horses directly behind him, my big horse did an admirable job. There were quite a few quick - oops - turns, a few back tracks, a few grunts and groans from behind as the horses were trying to keep up with the moving target in front, a few thorn bushes encountered as we made quick decisions about which way to go.

At one point we came across all of the other riders milling in the dark, confused by visible markers for the return trail (we were still going out). I knew exactly where we were, and which way we were supposed to go, so called out to the group, and eventually we were all headed down the right trail again - but now we had lost our 'last rider' status and the horses were bunched and more excited. Eventually we sorted out again and settled into a steady pace. As we headed back to camp for the final few miles of the loop it became even more difficult to follow the trail. The glow sticks were dim and not very plentiful, and the lights from the venue at the fairgrounds were blindingly bright - even at a distance - and the trail was not very obvious - with so much bare ground all around (this is the desert) it was very difficult to identify where the trail was - bare spots and bushes - where in heck is the trail?? Also, we were close enough to camp that I couldn't really trust Jaziret to strictly follow tracks left by other horses. The temptation and opportunity to take the most direct path back was too strong, even for a horse on his best behavior :)

But we made it, and everybody survived. The crews met their riders as we came in - John and Clydea were there to meet me - and I was enormously relieved! The first thing Jaziret did was lunge for water - but there was ice floating on the top of the trough and I remembered stories of horses cramping after drinking ice water and didn't let him drink. That may have been a mistake. There were only 2 vets taking the 100 mile riders and we all spent most of our way- too-short 20 minute hold waiting in line. With a 25 mile loop next, and basically no time to eat or drink or rest, I had my first sinking feeling about the day. We were looking at 40 miles of trail (a 15 mile loop followed by a 25 mile loop) with essentially no hold time. But hey, this is endurance and we deal with it and off we go again.

Everybody had passed the first vet check and we went back onto the trail as the sky was starting to lighten. Our first loop was slower than planned because of the uncertainty of the trail in the dark, and the need for safety - 13km/hour was our pace, and the goal for the entire ride was 15km/hr. I figured that we could make some decent time on this loop. There was enough light, the horses were warmed up, it was the loop with the best footing. So we headed out at a steady pace, trying to keep it around 16 or 17 km/hr on average. We had a minor incident a few miles out, one of the horses spooked their rider off and ran off into the brush. We all stopped, stayed calm, and eventually he returned, walking right up to his rider. This horse eventually vetted out for lameness, with a thorn in his pastern being the most likely cause - perhaps he ran into a mesquite bush as he fled, maybe a little bad luck.

It was actually quite pretty in the desert on this loop - the red and gold glows from the winter sun in the morning. I kept checking on the riders, and on His Majesty, to see how they were doing. At one point I was riding beside His Majesty on the road, all the other horses chugging along beside and behind us, and he said 'this is beautiful, it is so vast...' . I felt so grateful to be there riding with this group - and that His Majesty could appreciate the moment, the opportunity to experience this oh-so-vast landscape on horseback, a landscape as different from his tropical homeland as could be possible. Almost always, at some point during any ride a moment will possess us - the worries and stress and exertion subside, and we feel the immediacy of the steaming breath of the horses, the golden glow of the cold winter morning, the rhythm of the stride, the land stretching for miles and miles... this was one of those moments - this becomes the moment that we will remember, to sustain us until we are fortunate enough to experience that Endurance Nirvana moment again.

And then that 'other moment' sometimes occurs. We were headed back in, after an absolutely perfect stretch of time and trail, and I thought I saw some irregularity in Lady's gait. Very slight, slight enough to think maybe it was my imagination... when we met the crew at the water point I asked the vet to check her interference boots, check her shoes, etc etc. Everything checked out ok, we started out again and I was thinking I must have imagined it, she was moving well, but after a few more miles I looked back and His Majesty looked worried - he shook his head, he could feel it, something was not right. We were close enough to camp at that point that we didn't stop, we'd have to deal with it when we arrived.

Jaziret was still very strong on the trail, and he pulsed down reasonably, but when we presented to the vet his pulse went back up. I took him back out and checked again... 60, then checked again ... 74. We spent an extra 10 minutes with him - he wanted to eat, and he drank some from the icey tanks, and when we went to the vet again his pulse was within criteria, but still bouncing around. Something was bothering him. We were ok'd to continue, all the other parameters were good, although his skin tenting was not as good as it should have been - for him.

All of the other Malaysian riders were still good to go, Dashing Lady vetted ok, there was some speculation as to what the problem had been on the trail - they removed a thorn from her leg, loosened the breast collar, massaged her shoulders, checked feet and legs - wait and see how the next loop went. I was 10 minutes behind the riders at that point, but they were all doing well, most of the trail was repeat at this point, they were much more confident about what to expect, so off they went. About half way through the 10 mile loop I came upon His Majesty. He and one of the other team riders (Mohd Apandi bin Muhamad - 'Penn' ) were at a walk. I asked how the horses were - Dashing Lady was lame, His Majesty would ride her in at a walk. Penn thought maybe his horse was not right, he would ride in with His Majesty and retire from the ride. Oh, soooo sad.... I rode with them for a bit, and then went on. They were only a few miles out, the sun was warm, they were ok.

A mile from the vet check Valerie came cantering past me, I assumed she was an entire loop ahead of me (I hadn't heard about her interesting start yet). She was concentrating very hard on riding that big grey. He looked mighty fresh still...

That was our final loop. At the vetcheck Jaziret's pulse was still bouncing around. I honestly had no regrets about pulling, other than having to abandon the Malaysian team. My wonderful horse had had enough, that's all there is to it. I didn't have any goals other than to help the Malaysians. Hopefully we accomplished a little of that. Three of the Malaysian horses were eliminated at that 50 mile point - Y Bhg Dato Hj Abdullah Bin Taib's horse Ferrari was lame (perhaps the thorn...). There were three Malaysian riders left - Che Ahmad Yusri bin Muhamad, Ahmad Azura bin Ab Ghani ('Joe') and Abdul Halim bin Alihan. Joe and the fiesty little mare Ruletta were eliminated at mile 75 for lameness. Yusri and Tyson made it to mile 90 where Tyson's pulse didn't come down to criteria in time. It was bitter cold by then and there was a slight wind. Too cold? Too hot from the layers of blankets? Too tired? A very tearful rider and groom took Tyson back to his stall.

And that left Halim and Federalee to go out alone. The spunky rider from Japan, Kiyoshi Ozawa, was close enough in time that they decided to go out together. David got permission from the FEI officials to follow the last three riders, including Alexandria Kirkland, and make sure they could follow the track. Again the blue glowsticks were dim in the cold, and the riders and horses were tired enough that nobody wanted to risk lost riders. I gave Halim all the extra clothes I could find before he left. His eyes lit up when I handed him the bundle of extra clothes, but again, not a whimper from him, or any of the riders about the difficulties, just a willingness to do their job, regardless.

His Majesty stayed at the ride to support his team until it got too dark and cold, and everyone insisted that he go back. I know he was immensely disappointed but he never showed it, and he spent the lingering afternoon smiling and talking with people and expressing his appreciation for the ride, and the experience of riding in such a different land. Malaysia has perhaps the most polite and genial people I've ever known.

As Halim and Federalee trotted off into the dark starry night, the rest of the group piled into the crew rig and headed out on the trail to meet them. One remaining rider, and he would be treated as royally as the rest. He and Ozawa and Alexandria finished to a cheering and shivering group. They were the last riders, finishing 7th, 8th and 9th. That was it for the first CEI*** in Las Cruces . Much to learn from this ride.

During our dinner at the Flying P Ranch a few nights earlier, I spent a fair amount of time talking with Dr. Ramlan (the director of ISN - the National Sports Institute). We talked about the urgency of the short term WEC goal, but also about the longer term goal of building the sport of Endurance in Malaysia. And a significant aspect of building the sport is acquiring experience - at home, and abroad. I have no doubt that all of these riders, and team mangers and crew and support staff - all of those people that travelled to this ride, and to Uruguay and to Chile - gained invaluable experience! In order to compete at the world level, one must learn about - and experience - the rest of the world. The mental toughness that comes from challenging one's self, the strength and confidence gained from throwing a leg over a fit endurance horse that you don't know, in a strange land.... the pressure of representing your country, of living up to the honor granted to you. These things will ultimately benefit the effort. Short term failure... maybe. But every stumble will result in a sharpened focus.

These are a clever and determined people. This alone has always impressed me. But they are also compassionate and caring. Coming in to that last hold, I could see that His Majesty was more concerned about the horse that he was riding than he was about anything else. There are a variety of riders, and a variety of goals among the Endurance community in Malaysia, as is true of any group of people, in any country. Many of the people I've met in Malaysia I would define as 'true horsemen' - they deeply care about the horse. His Majesty is among them.

I'm not sure what the next game plan is for Malaysia. More rides, more travel, more attention to rider training and fitness - an important part of the success in this sport. I know that a lot of blood sweat & tears, a lot of heart, a lot of 'giving your absolute best shot' is being poured into this effort. That alone is an amazing story. We'll see how the rest of it goes as this next year unfolds. They spent almost 2 years proving to the world that they could host a safe, world class WEC. They don't have quite as much time now to prove that they can also compete on the world stage... but they will certainly give it their best shot. Of this I have no doubt!



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