And the ride ... it was hot and humid and fairly difficult, with a trail designed to challenge the rider, quite technical actually. And imagine a city of half million people, Alor Star, the central city for the state of Kedah, taking part in a national celebratory event, as well as the birthday of their Sultan, and a chance to see their new King, not just sitting, ceremonially, but on a horse, racing through the town and country side. I think the entire population of Kedah was out to watch the race. At every street interection, hundreds (thousands?) of cheering clapping waving smiling men women and children. At every house and hut, along the paddi fields, following on bicycles, scooters. We rode much of the first loop just behind His Highness, and rode his wake of cheering throngs. Malaysians truly revere their royalty. While the King does not have direct government jurisdiction, his opinions and philosphies and vision greatly affects the nation's policy. And the people truly love him. The yellow carpet which is laid out for the royalty procession doesn't seem token here, it seems to sincerely honor.
The 80km and 120km events started together at 5:30. Still the heat of the afternoon, and the daytime temperatures were above normal, even for malaysia. This is rice harvest season, typically hot and dry, even dusty. And it was hot. I was to ride one of the newly arrived horses from Australia. Peter Toft had been approached by Dr. Bala (vet for the Royal Stable) about the possibility of shipping horses over, to ultimately stay in Malaysia, and to begin the process of observing the ability of horses to adapt to travel and competition - a condition which will be further tested in November when Terenggannu will host the 2008 WEc pre-ride.
Peter and Penny selected six horses to ship. They were not in peak training condition, in fact most of the horses were in a lay-off period. But the horses had a good base, and some had already successfully competed 160km distances. I was to ride Grace. A 9 yr old mare, with 4 successfull 160km rides, and a record of 27 starts and 27 finishes in her career. Very Very nice mare. built narrow and flat muscled, light bone but well conformed. I rode her for an hour with Penny and Peter, liked her fine, seemed very sensible and forward. She had a good base, but wasn't in peak condition, just coming off of a 3 month lay-off, so I would ride her slowly, just 'get around'. And with only 3 weeks in the country they were just recovering from quarantine and travel stress. A slow and steady ride would do.
I planned to ride with Peter and Penny. Peter was on a less experienced mare, and Penny was riding Chantelle, the horse I orginally picked out, before I found out that Ar Raudah had already selected Grace for me to ride. One of their more promising new horses, they trusted me to ride her sensibly. I was quite touched at their trust in me. So much of our 'successes' and 'failures' are simply good or bad luck. I had a good ride, and good luck, and a good horse, last time I rode in Malaysia, a success. I figured Grace would be a little peppy at the start of the ride, but by mile 2 realized that she was a little more than a little peppy. I was riding one of Ar Raudah's (new) wintec saddles, pretty comfortable actually for an english saddle, and had thin rubber 'bumpy' reins. Plenty of grip when they're dry, but with the first douse of water the wet reins were worthless, I felt like I was gripping a squid. I had a very hard time rating Grace.
My hands weren't strong enough and the reins were slimey, I tried wrapping them around my hands, not good. Finally Peter suggested I tie knots in the reins. Great idea. A challenge to pull off while trying to rate a very animated trotting not exactly smooth mare who was determined to pass everything in site. But somehow I got knots tied in each rein and it helped a lot. Still the reins were rough and not very kind to my wet hands, so I plugged Grace's nose right behind Peter's mare and kept here there. I still had to rate her enough to keep her from running right over the very patient horse and rider, but it was much better and I just resigned myself to this rookie tactic. I had chosen to ride without gloves, John suggested I might need them but, naaahh, we're just goint to take it easy and 'get around'. But all the horses were pulling strong, it was a pretty fast loop.
We arrived at the first vetgate just as it was getting dark. It was pretty chaotic. Timers were new on the job, directions weren't clear. We flustered through though - John (saint John) was going to crew for me all night. A tough job, especially in an all night ride, on a hot humid ride. He was wonderful. Penny withdrew Chantell after the first loop. She was lagging behind, not enthusiastic about the competition, and Penny couldn't see any reason to take her back out - too much to lose, nothing to gain. She would stay and crew for Peter. They are a very good team. This is the first time I've really gotten to know them, very professional, very capable. Very dedicated to the horses.
We did the whole ride, loop by loop. dark of night, straggling crowds (His Highness pulled after loop 3, his horse tripped on the rough section and skinned his knees) still cheering us on, but eventually wandering off to bed, especially since their chances of seeing the King again were nill. A long long night. Peter's horse was getting tired, she was less fit and was tiring so we did a lot of walking, stopping to grab bites of grass, extra time at the water stops. Towards the end of the 4th loop Peter told us (me and Jenne, the woman from Holland) to go on. His mare was tired and he was going to withdraw when he got back in.
Jenne and I trotted off, both horses still strong. We took a look at the time and tried to figure out if we had enough time to finish. A 10.4 km/hr minumum time to complete the 120km (approx. 75 mile) ride. Cut-off was at 9:10. we would have a little under 2 hours ride time to finish the last 2 loops total of 25km, around 15 miles. Sure, but no time to waste. The mares (Jenne was riding a very nice gray mare who had done well on several 80km rides, but had not yet done 120km) pulsed down quickly, vetted through with all A's, looked great, we decide to pick up the pace and get it done. It was still hot, though the late night/early morning was much cooler, and we had the long stretch of technical trail to get through... we left for the 5th loop at a trot, still dark, we hit the rough hilly section at a fast trot and just bullied through it.
A little moonlight, a little luck, and we cruised through the 5th loop at 15km/hr, in the dark, across the rough sections, through the villages, along the straight stretch. I was having a great time, finally moving out, and the mares were enjoying it too. We picked up a canter the last 7 km in, vetted through quickly, horses looked great. John took care of Grace, I ate and drank a little, but mostly stayed cranked, ready to tackle the last 10km and finish! We had a great last loop, still lots of horse, fast trot and canter, daylight now - through the villages, along the road, through the woods, around the lake, and done! Vetted through fine, but Grace was tired now, ready to be done. What a great mare - this is a good one - lots of heart, lots of ability.
I had originally planned to ride the 80km, or maybe even 40km (gasp) since I'm not in the best shape, I hadn't even sat on a horse in 6 weeks (too much computer!) but the lure of the ride was too strong, and although I was hurting a little, and not very strong/graceful in my mounts and dismounts, I'm glad I toughed out the 120. Grace is now 28 starts, 28 completions.
My strongest memories and impressions of the ride are of the humid warm night time air, the cheering crowds of people, yelling encouragement, snapping photos with cellphones, using all the english words they could muster as we rode by. Conversations with Peter, the excitement of picking up the pace for the last two loops in order to finish in time (just in time), walking along the ride paddies, watching John (and Leonard - whose horse was eliminated early in the ride for lameness - and Caroll) take care of the horses, helping, while I rested and ate and drank and contemplated the miles to go..., the vets and stewards and timers and ride organizers, watching the night unfold, the horses and riders coming in and out, evaluating the event, apoligizing when things went wrong, taking comments gracefully... it's our sport, the same everywhere really. cold, hot, wet, dry, still a challenge, still hanging on every step of the horse, every trot, every trot-out, every mile's challenge - pavement, hill, forest, sand, rock..., we ride it step by step, Still trotting in our sleep well after the ride is over.
One thing that occured to me after this ride is that we (the sport, the FEI, the AERC, the AERA, the riders and owners) have developed strict veterinary controls to protect the horses DURING the competition, but after the final veterinary inspection there is no oversight, and this is when horses will often develop problems from heat or dehydration or exhaustion. The FEI has a 2 hour mandatory recheck - which is enforced in varying levels depending upon all of the circumstances of a ride. Our local rides (e.g. AERC) have no post ride veterinary requirements. People will often put the horse in the trailer and pack up and go home right after the final vet exam, or perhaps after the awards. I have heard of several occasions where the horse developed problems on the way home. But somehow I'm thinking the sport needs more work regarding post ride horse oversight. Riders and grooms are tired, generally not thinking realy clearly, and it's very difficult at the end of a ride and during the hours following the ride to assess the horse's condition.
So another ride, I seem to be accumulating more miles across the oceans than in the States. Still a ride on a horse on a trail. that's the essence.
Next, New Zealand, Horse of the Year Event (I'm doing Endurance.Net, not riding) Will be another adventure,