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Endurance in Malaysia - Preparing for the 2008 WEC

By Steph Teeter

I'm here in Malaysia once again, at the invitation of Edaran Digital Systems Berhard, to experience Endurance riding in the tropics. The Edaran Endurance Classic is one of the first Endurance events in Malaysia. Tansri Tajuddin, owner of Edaran Digital Systems has a long tradition of supporting all Equestrian events and his dedication to promoting and supporting the sport of Endurance has been very important to the development of the sport in Malaysia. The first Edaran Classic was held in 2003. In 2004 they achieved FEI status with a CEI2* FEI event and in 2005 Edaran hosted a CEI3* 160km event, which was attended by riders from Bruneii, UAE and USA. This year Edaran Endurance Classic 2006 offered a CEI3* 120km event, and also 80km, 40km and 15km Young Rider events.
The history of Endurance in Malaysia is fairly short, but the country has demonstrated that they are capable of organizing and hosting first class Endurance competitions; adherence to FEI rules of conduct and fair competition, first class stabling and trail conditions, safety,and concern for the welfare of the horse. In 2005 FEI granted Malaysia the 2008 World Endurance Championship, to be held in the sultanate of Terengganu, on the eastern coast of Malaysia, under the patronage of HRH Sultan Mizan Zainal Abidin of the State of Terengganu. Sultan Mizan will be Malaysia's next King, to be inaugurated by the year 2007.

The Sultan is an Endurance rider himself, with a stable of Endurance horses in training, and total commitment to promoting the sport in Malaysia. He is overseeing the construction of a world-class Endurance Center in Terengganu. Terengganu will host several CEI3* 160km pre-ride demonstration events during 2006 and 2007 to test the course and facilities, and to fine tune the special needs and circumstances of hosting Endurance in the tropics. Terengganu is a costal sultanate, with stretches of sandy beach along the China Sea. The terrain in Terengganu is generally flat, and has some sandy areas. The selection of trail for the WEC course is based on understanding the challenges of Endurance riding. Since the climate presents it's own challenge because of heat and humidity, the challenges of the terrain will be minimized, offfering good footing and easy navigation for night time riding. The opportunities for crewing will be maximized, to help riders and horses cope with the conditions.

I hope to return to Malaysia, for the CEI** 160km ride hosted by Terengganu - this will be an opportunity to view the course and facilities in the early stages and learn a little more about the overall ambitions of this small but brilliant country. The next two years will be very celebratory for Malaysia. 2007 is the 50th anniversary of independence. Malaysia was a British colony until 1957, at which time it was granted independence as a soverign nation. Malaysia is also working toward International status as a 'Developed Nation' - with 2020 as the goal toward acheiving this status.

During the past two decades, the previous prime minister - a man of great vision and ambition - launched Malaysia into the ,modern world of commerce and technology. Government incentives for higher education have produced a highly educated and modern class of engineers, scientists, medical experts as well as creating an atmosphere for innovation. Malaysia (and also Singapore) is unique in all of Asia in this respect. As a British colony, Malaysia became an English speaking nation, allowing it to become more quickly and thoroughly integrated in all aspects of World commerce.

2007 is being designated as 'The Year of Malaysia' - the year of Independence. 2008 will be designated 'The Year of Terengganu'. HRH Sultan Mizan will be in his reign as King of Malaysia, and Terengganu will be celebrated as the reigning Sultanate. The 2008 WEC will be an integral part of this celebration. A world class Endurance Center is being constructed to host the event. All transport and travel expenses will be provided by the Terengganu venue: a potential of 200 horses, from over 30 Federations will be brought to Malaysia. Accomodations will be provided beginning 30 days in advance of the competition, allowing time for horses to acclimate to the climate and conditions. In addition, competitors will be granted the opportunity to train in Terengganu several months in advance. Expenses for advance accomodation will be covered by competitors, but the costs are minimal in Malaysia. This is an incredible opportunity to 'level the playing field' - a chance for foreign horses to become fully acclimated to the climate, and better prepared for the terrain and conditions.

This was my second opportunity to compete in Malaysia, and I am convinced that this is a fair and reasonable venue for a World Endurance Championship. The temperatures between 5pm and 10am are not extreme. I was actually chilly during the night this time (although the rain we had was far greater than usual). Even during the 'dry season' in Malaysia afternoon and evening rain is not uncommon, and it is actually quite welcome.

I've ridden in other hot climates, including United Arab Emirates and Egypt. I've also experienced the heat and humidity of the North America and South America in the summer months. It (160km endurance) CAN be done, but riders have to adjust their expectations of speed. It is a very 'technical' challenge. Speed is no longer the most important ingredient in winning the race, the ability to pace and adjust the work load of the horse is all important.

I had the opportunity to speak with Paul Brown - a trainer from Australia who is now working for the Royal Stables in Terengganu, in the acquisition and training of Endurance horses. He has been here for 6 months, and believes that while the climate presents a challenge, the sport can be conducted here, at the WEC level, safely and humanely. According to Paul it is all a matter of pacing - steady progress, with careful monitoring of the horse's core body temperature. Horses that are best suited for the sport here are generally smaller and of lighter body type - long flat muscles, and limbs that are not excessively heavy.

Paul also spoke of adjusting some of the traditional race formats. His belief is that the loops should be shorter, with more opportunity for veterinary control, shorter times out on the trail, and more opportunity for cooling the horse during the holds. He suggested that spreading the competition out over 7 phases, rather than the traditional 6 phases, would be an improvement. This is something that will be tried over the coming year.

There is also some 'talk' of shortening the championship level course to 120km instead of 160km. There are pro's and con's to this idea; consideration of the tradition of Endurance (100 miles - 160km), consideration of the element of speed and pacing, consideration of the time necessary for completing the course,etc. In Malaysia, the winning speeds are generally between 10 and 15 km/h - much slower than other WEC venues, which have more recently been won in the range of 16 - 20 km/h. This means winning times of 12 to 15 hours, overall competition time approaching 24 hours. Much more in keeping with the original Endurance competitions such as Tevis, Florac, Tom Quilty. The question will ultimately be answered by FEI: do we shorten the course to make it 'easier'? - (on competitors, horses, officials, media, etc) - or - do we keep to tradition? - 100 miles in 1 day - real Endurance: hours in the saddle, hours on the ground, the ultimate challenge...

A few more thoughts about the state of the sport, the direction it seems to be going in - and Malaysia's bid to hold the 2008 WEC.

First - the state of the sport - my own observations-

I believe that those of us who view the current state of the sport - FEI Endurance Racing - as undesireable - a less technical sport, too fast - too flat - have to stand back a little and look at it from a global perspective. There are currently 30+ Federations, nations, which participate in FEI Endurance in some form or another. A few of these nations have vast lands, temperate climates, networks of trail, where traditional endurance events can be conducted - horse and rider against the trail, against the elements. USA, Australia, Europe - we can still stage endurance rides over technically challenging courses. But we are not alone in the sport - we may have 'started it' - but we are no longer the only players.

There are many countries which may still have access to trails and technically difficult courses but the climate itself becomes a limiting or challenging factor. These countries are actively participating in Endurance - they have adjusted the sport to meet their needs. (night riding, flatter courses, better crew and veterinary support, better horses)

And then we have countries without the possibility of offering technically difficult or challenging courses - only flat terrain, but with great ambition and drive, and power.

The Arab Gulf countries embraced Endurance in the 1990's - starting with marathon races (Qatar was the first) and gradually evolving to FEI Endurance. And to these countries the sport became very important, it became a sport in which the wealthy and powerful participated, and this ultimately helped shape the 'flat track race' variety of Endurance, where 160km races are regularly won in 7 - 9 hours. Arabian horses are part of the heritage of these countries, as vehicles for wartime and nomadic travel - and the romance of the sport took hold. As did the did the desire to win, the desire to be the best in the world. After a decade of buying the world's best horses, hiring the best trainers and veterinarians, studying and optimising the performance physiology of the horse - the United Arab Emirates has emerged as one of the top players in FEI Endurance. Their performances and lobbying within the FEI have resulted in a sport where the ultimate emphasis is speed - how fast can a horse cover a 100 mile distance.

During this decade, the FEI has imposed new rules and qualification criteria. Some of these are based on speed, and more significantly speeds which can only be obtained over courses with a reduced level of difficulty (technical trail, or hot and humid conditions). In order to compete Internationally, horses and riders must qualify by completing 160km's in 13 hours or less. The Tevis has never been won in 13 hours - 15 hours is the norm. There are no FEI requirements regarding the course - (other than safety, water availability, crew access) - only championship level speed requirements.

Maybe we've reach the limit now (7 hours) in terms of physiological capability of the horse- maybe training techniques and breeding have peaked. Within a moderate range of temperature and track conditions, the race is now based on physiologic and mechanical (they still have to remain sound) superiority, and heart. This is not that much different from the flat track racing - thoroughbreds and arabians - where the track or course conditions are standardized, and margins of victory are small, and with the exception of a few freaks of nature, the outcome - the winning times - are fairly predictable.

Where do we want the sport to go? What do we want the sport to be? The 2006 WEC venue, in Aachen , Germany, has been described as very technical - abrupt changes in terrain - pavement, trail, wooded path, forest road - which will reduce the absolute speed, and require more horsemanship from the rider - more thought, planning and strategy. Even though there won't be mountain trails, rocks, natural hazards to test the rider's skill, there will be enough of a challenge that absolute speed will not be the only factor.

The 2004 WEC in Dubai was primarily about speed - groomed courses - pacing and strategy requirements based primarily on physiological factors of the horse, very little variety in terrain. The temperatures during the day required consideration and adjustment, but it was primarily about the horse as a racing machine.

And what about 2008? The expense of hosting a WEC is enormous, and the reality is that not every Federation has the venue, or the financial means to hold a WEC. The 2010 WEC will be in the USA, in Kentucky - it will probably be a fairly technical venue, a little more 'traditional', as well as hot and humid, and a challenge which will require pacing and strategy - but - the costs of attending will have to be covered by each Federation. The USA will not pay for the other 30+ Federations to travel and stay in the USA. Attendance will be mostly limited to riders who can pay their own way.

The two bids which the FEI received for the 2008 WEC were from Malaysia and from UAE (Dubai) according to what I have been told. Both Malaysia and Dubai offered to cover all expenses for the other Federations. The bid went to Malaysia, conditionally. Malaysia still has to conduct test events, and prove that the tropical heat is not a prohibitive factor - that horses can in fact compete at the WEC level in this climate.

Endurance in Malaysia is not about speed. It is about pacing. The Edaran Classic is also about strategy and toughness. The terrain is varied and challenging - it is actually quite difficult terrain. Riding in Terengganu were the WEC is to be held? - I don't have any first hand experience there yet. I've been told it is flatter, and also sandy in places. Technical terrain- strategy - may not be a significant factor. But pacing - restraint - will be. In conditions of heat and humidity, the horse simply cannot compete at speeds of 15-20 km/hr.

I have heard a fair amount of opposition to hosting a WEC in Malaysia - viewed by many as a primitive, 'developing' nation (these people need to experience Malaysia first hand - it is a very modern country, probably the most modern and advanced in all of Asia). The travel challenges will be enormous, especially from North American and South American countries - where the transport of horses will probably require 30 or more hours of shipping time - from barn to barn. The need to adapt to the time change, recover from travel fatigue, and adapt to the climate will be a challenge. As was the case with the 1998 and 2004 WEC's in UAE. These are known challenges, which all of the world will face to varying degrees. They are not prohibitive challenges. And Malaysia is giving competitors the opportunity to train and condition and acclimate for whatever period of time they desire. The OC will pay for one month, any additional costs will be covered by competitors, but board is inexpensive - this is very do-able - and should be seriously con sidered by competitors.

My personal opinion: Given the choice between a tropical venue and another consecutive flat desert race with 7 and 8 hour winning times, I would like to give Malaysia a chance. I don't have any particular 'missive' - this sport is now big and complex and global - our choices in WEC venues are limited - and we have to be realistic. I would love to see the FEI level sport become more technical - hills, mountains, rivers - and hopefully we can keep the FEI pointed in the right direction - to prevent FEI Endurance from becoming simply a longer version of flat track racing. But - meanwhile - we have to make choices based upon real options.

In all honestly - there is still a very real question to be asked:

Can a WEC can be conducted in this tropical climate, 200 horses competing for medals, without undo danger to the horse. Is it simply too hot? The jury is still out, Malaysia will have to answer this question with demonstration rides, and completion rates.

In my opinion - I believe it can be a reasonable venue. Hot? yes. Possible? yes. Fair? yes. Difficult? yes. Slow? yes.


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