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Endurance.Net Home 2008 Dundlod India

Raring to Go

by Anand Sankar / New Delhi February 03, 2008
Original Article, India Business Standard

In the cold rajasthani desert, the marwari horse shows its mettle in endurance racing.

The moon is still high above the horizon in the wee hours of a freezing winter morning.

I stagger out of my tent to see a fully suited rider warming himself in front of a roaring fire. His mount has already been exercised and is raring like him to head out into the darkness. The day promises to test their skill to the limit.

Horse racing is definitely the pinnacle of equestrian sport and draws massive attention worldwide. But within horse racing there is a niche called endurance equestrian that is the realm of only a few chosen mounts and their riders.

There was a chance to witness this very specialist sport at the recently concluded National Endurance Championship in the shrublands of Dundlod, Jhunjhunu district, Rajasthan.

Preparations had begun months in advance, and finally the stables of Dundlod were ready to host the championship. For the five riders who rode into the darkness, a gruelling 25 km course awaited, which they had to lap four times.

It was quite a sight to watch the riders set off, and to follow them in the numbing cold down the track that wound along unpaved roads, sandy tracks, gravel and fertile agricultural lands. It made one appreciate the toughness of the sport.

Endurance racing traces its history to the age when horses were the only means of transport over vast distances. But today it is considered the most strenuous form of horse racing, requiring both horse and rider to compete at the peak of their ability. As one of the judges at the championship pointed out: “The rider must not tire as he will tire the horse, and if the horse tires the rider will tire.”

Standard distances at an endurance meet are 60, 80, 100 and 160 km, which are rated one-, two-, three- and four-star races respectively. In general, the horse and rider to complete the ride in the shortest time are classified winners.

But between laps and at the end of a race the horses undergo a medical examination for which their heart rate must be lowered to 64 beats per minute, and they must pass a check for soundness and dehydration. An unfit horse is eliminated.

Preparation for the race begins very early. Horse and rider build their stamina gradually through hours of practice. The rider must master the art of pacing his horse, and learn to understand his mount’s condition to watch out for tiredness.

In between each lap there is a 30-minute break, and it resembles a pit stop in a Formula 1 race. While the rider refreshes himself, the horse is cooled down, massaged, fed and watered and made to pass the medical examination.

As always, there is plenty of drama. Of the five riders who set out, one has to call it a day after the first lap as his horse injures its ankle. Another horse succumbs to tiredness by the halfway mark and in the final lap it’s a head-to-head contest between two horses while the last contestant staggers in exhausted just two minutes before the race closes at 5 pm.

This edition of the national championship is special because all the horses except one thoroughbred of the Indian Army are of the Marwari breed. The stable at Dundlod, owned by royal scion Kanwar Raghuvendra Singh, is famous for its pioneering efforts to resuscitate the bloodline of the Marwari.

Predictably, it won the championship’s signature 100 km race. The last edition of the Asian Games in 2006 at Doha featured endurance riding for the first time and predictably again, it was the Arabian breeds that dominated because of their “incredible stamina and natural endurance”. But Singh has high hopes for the Marwari.

The Marwari horse has been a favourite of the warrior classes in India for centuries. A stocky and powerfully built horse, it has starred in many previous editions of the national endurance championships.

Its main advantage is the ability to adapt to most environmental conditions, and Singh says with selective breeding and sustained complete nutrition, his horses have sometimes reached a proportion of 17 hands (the height of the horse at its shoulder).

“We are working for the promotion, preservation, conservation and more international recognition of the Marwari horse,” says Singh.

“Even foreign riders have shown their confidence in the horse’s endurance ability. Yes, with the right kind of support, we believe this breed can one day challenge the supremacy of the Arabian horses.”

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