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Operation Desert Storm: A test of endurance or patience?

Aimee Tschiffely: A remarkable Long Rider.

Aimé Tschiffely: A remarkable Long Rider.

The legendary equestrian explorer, Aimé Tschiffely, who rode 10,000 miles from Buenos Aires to Washington DC in the late 1920s, faced a myriad of challenges, but perhaps none more so than the prospect of crossing a stretch of Peruvian coastal desert called Matacaballo – the Horse Killer.

The Swiss-born Argentine professor knew it was a high-stakes undertaking and planned carefully. He decided against carrying water for his magnificent Criollo mounts, Mancha and Gato, rightly believing it was a race against time in the scorching heat, and they needed to travel light.

In his famous book, Tschiffely’s Ride, he recalls how he withheld water for a day, to ensure Mancha and Gato would drink well before he set off as the sun was setting, giving way to a moonlit night. The sands, shining in the moonlight, radiated heat as the trio pushed into the desert.

At times, he was able to descend from the dunes to the firmer, wet sands of the beach, where he pushed the duo into a gentle gallop. He was forced to halt before dawn, as clouds covered the moon and reduced visibility to nothing.

As dawn broke, it was apparent the day would be a scorcher. “The horses plodded along as if they realised that they were in the midst of a serious test,” he recounted.

Shortly after noon, in the stifling heat, Tschiffely saw them lift their noses to the air and felt them quicken the pace.

“I was wondering why the horses were so keen to hurry along. Within an hour, I knew the reason, for we arrived at the river, and I am certain that the animals had scented water long before I could see it.”

It was a bold and magnificent piece of riding from a man who knew his mounts intimately and was acutely aware of their capabilities. Their very lives depended on judging this ride to perfection.

The sport of endurance, at its pinnacle, relies on just such a relationship. The top riders will know their mounts intimately and be able to carefully judge their performance across the many challenges presented in endurance races of up to 160km. It is not the kind of discipline required for dressage, but I don’t doubt it requires skill in equal measure.

I believe it is a sport that appeals to the basic instincts of good riders, which is largely responsible for its significant global growth. Rider and horse as one; a feat of endurance and overcoming challenges.

The publicity this week around video footage of Sheikh Mohammed Bin Mubarak Al Khalifa’s win in the recent King’s Cup ride – the most important endurance championship of the Bahrain season – is concerning on several levels.

The most obvious, of course, was the intervention of a pair who would appear to be support crew, one of whom appeared to strike the 14-year-old Anglo Arab mount, Tarabic Carl, on the rump with an object to push him along to the finish line.

It seems inconceivable to me that any ground crew would think it was a good idea to leap from a pickup truck and strike the rider’s mount. What kind of mindset does that suggest?

That is bad enough. But the video footage that emerged of the last stages of the 120km race provides other serious elements of concern.

There is the veritable fleet of gas-guzzling vehicles cruising alongside the course. Some presumably contain support crew for the riders; some may well be spectators. Such support is outlawed under endurance rules, but it has been a feature of Middle Eastern endurance racing for years.

As Al Khalifa approached the finish line, a cacophony of horns from the fleet of vehicles accompanied him to the finish line. The horse, presumably, was too tired to be much concerned.

vetting-endurance-featuredThe reality is that endurance as a sport faces an uncomfortable truth – that the more aggressive form of endurance racing that finds favour in the Middle East is not necessarily a comfortable fit with what I am told is now called the classic form of endurance.

The FEI was urged into action last year following growing unease voiced by some national federations over concerning fracture rates and the high level of doping infractions dealt with by the FEI Tribunal, centred on Dubai, Bahrain and Qatar.

The disciplinary decisions from the FEI over the last eight years provide a sorry litany of drug infractions in endurance, with a solid majority originating from the Middle East.

It has unquestionably been a blight on the growing status of the sport.

The figures suggest that endurance would actually have a cleaner slate than dressage, had it not been for the Middle East’s sorry record.

The FEI organised a round-table summit and appointed a planning group, which is now finalising its proposals after a meeting of interested member-nations in Lausanne, Switzerland, last weekend. Unfortunately, no FEI Group VII nations – of which Dubai, Qatar and Bahrain are members – attended.

What does that demonstrate? Could it be contempt? A lack of interest? Was it a snub? It was certainly not an encouraging development.

Rule reforms are only months away, but one has to wonder whether they will make a difference. It is unlikely that some national federations will sit back quietly and accept ongoing indiscretions in the Middle East.

Take, for example, the comments of the Swiss Equestrian Federation president, Charles Trolliet, and a board member, Peter Christen, in a letter to FEI Secretary General Ingmar de Vos late last March, as the issue was coming to wider public attention.

The pair said the Swiss federation could not accept the situation any longer, citing animal welfare concerns and the fairness of competitions.

“This critical situation … is of the highest potential explosive relevance,” the letter said, “putting at risk the image of all other FEI equestrian disciplines.”

The Swiss raised the prospect of an international movement of riders, trainers and officials being created who were no longer willing to accept the situation.

It raised drug concerns and discussed “tremendous” fracture rates, noting that, from 2010 to 2012, 41 endurance horses were found to be positive for banned substances.

By comparison, the discipline of jumping, which had 31,064 registered horses – more than three times the number registered for endurance – recorded 19 infringements in the same period.

Notably, the letter said, 82.9 per cent of the cases in endurance originated from the FEI’s zone VII – the United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Qatar, and Jordan.

The letter asserted that such breaches indicated “a clear disrespect of certain riders, trainers and veterinarians concerning the welfare of horses in sport and the FEI code of conduct”. It even suggested a system be introduced allowing for the temporary exclusion of nations with a poor doping record.

The whole issue must, of course, be uncomfortable for the FEI’s president, Princess Haya, whose husband is Dubai’s ruler, Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, himself an accomplished equestrian who found himself on the receiving end of an FEI ban in 2009 when his endurance mount, Tahhan, tested positive for the banned anabolic steroid, stanozolol.

Trainer Abdullah bin Huzaim, who admitted giving the horse drugs before the desert races in Bahrain and Dubai, was handed a one-year ban. Under FEI rules, the person riding the horse in an event is responsible for any drug breaches, although other support personnel may also be held accountable if circumstances dictate.

The evidence would suggest that endurance in the Middle East remains of considerable concern. The absence of the Group VII nations in Lausanne last weekend may be a harbinger of things to come, and must ultimately raise some doubt as to whether proposed endurance reforms represent a truly global consensus.

British journalist Pippa Cuckson has been in the fray this week, having been one of only two journalists to attend the Lausanne gathering.

Cuckson is to be congratulated for her determined coverage of wider events around equestrian sport. With few exceptions, the global equestrian media is somewhat under-resourced in my view – lacking in horsepower, so to speak.

The contributions of writers such as Cuckson are vital to keeping the debate in the eye of the equestrian public.

It seems certain that the last chapter in this endurance saga has yet to be written.

It is nearly 100 years since Tschiffely ventured into the Horse Killer desert. I believe the true sport of endurance keeps alive that same spirit of horsemanship. Had Tschiffely been accompanied by a fleet of gas guzzlers across the sandy wilderness of the Matacaballo, his ride would barely have rated a mention – anywhere.

Those interested in reading Tschiffely’s Ride can purchase copies here.

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  1. CuChullaine O'Reilly FRGS says:

    Those of us who love horses must thank the publishers of Horse Talk for having the wisdom to contrast, Aimé Tschiffely, one of the greatest equestrian heroes of all time against the unscrupulous knaves who have once again brought the sport of endurance riding into further disrepute.

    In 1925 Aimé set out to ride 10,000 miles alone from Argentina to the United States. For the next three years Tschiffely and his two Criollo geldings, Mancha and Gato, survived a litany of hardships unequalled in equestrian travel They escaped quicksand, fought off vampire bats, eluded bandits, swam across rivers, climbed over mountains and travelled through jungles. http://www.aimetschiffely.org/

    After three gruelling years in the saddle Tschiffely was greeted in New York City by the only ticker tape parade ever given to a Long Rider. He could have strutted like a peacock and allowed his ego to dominate others. Instead he stunned the world by ignoring the lure of fame and picking up his pen. His book, Tschiffely’s Ride , remains the most influential equestrian travel book in history.

    Nearly 100 years after he stepped down from the saddle, Tschiffely’s legacy still lives. Hundreds have been inspired to become Long Riders thanks to his example. The latest is Filipe Leite, who is riding 10,000 miles from Canada to Brazil. When Filipe was a child, his father read Tschiffely’s Ride to him at night. Years later Filipe is riding in the hoofprints of the Swiss Long Rider. http://www.outwildtv.com/expeditions/journey-america/posts

    In a recent interview with the press, Filipe made an important observation about the equestrian explorers represented by the Long Riders’ Guild.

    “There is no competition,” he said. “The horse unites us.”

    This is one of the critical differences between Long Riders and equestrian contestants.

    While Tschiffely’s bravery is well-known, what is seldom remembered was that he was militantly modest. Aimé was never deceived by his fame. He resisted the temptation of believing the image of himself created by the press. It is his anti-heroism which makes him a champion in a century obsessed with instant fame and addicted to celebrity.

    Sadly, the latest Horse Talk article forces us to face another heartbreaking example of the win-at-all- costs culture which has infected endurance racing, followed of course by the FEI’s familiar litany of disingenuous indignation.

    The dastardly actions which just occurred in at an endurance race in Bahrain, when members of a support crew were filmed hitting a tired horse with sticks, are only the latest examples of what happens when competition, nationalism and commercialism rule supreme. In such cases the horse is reduced to nothing more than a disposable commodity which is used to glorify individual human egos.

    This is a tragedy on many levels. It betrays the courage of the horse. It throws light on the character of an entire sport. It proves that no matter how far some people ride, or how many trophies they win, their greed for glory renders them spiritually blind.

    The Long Riders’ Guild represents a tribe, encompassing certain singular individuals, whose mounted exploits set them apart from the majority of the modern horse world. One of The Guild’s primary purposes is to ensure that the travelling horse is never deliberately abused, for as any Long Rider knows, to break the trust of a horse is to invoke a curse.

    The rest of the horse world may do what it likes.

    Members of the Guild collectively believe that no religious, political, medical, cultural, financial, sporting or personal goal grants a human the right to abuse a horse during a journey. Long Riders are committed to protecting the welfare of their animals.

    Because the Guild will never turn a blind eye to abuse, it has created a strict code of equestrian ethics. http://www.thelongridersguild.com/ethics.htm

    When a rogue injures or kills a horse during a journey, then this person’s name is placed in the Guild’s Hall of Shame. http://www.thelongridersguild.com/shame.htm

    Tschiffely still serves as a beacon of modesty, strength, resolve, iron will, courage and dignity. That is why Long Riders realize that the goal is not to “beat” Aime in terms of riding as many miles as he did. The true goal is to strive to be like him.

    CuChullaine O’Reilly FRGS
    Founder – The Long Riders’ Guild

  2. Filipe Masetti Leite says:

    Dear Mr. Neil Clarkson, Thank you so much for this great piece! I was astonished at the recent news coming out of the endurance world and will do my part in sharing this article in the hopes that international attention will help to change this current reality. So sad to see these amazing horses suffering at the hands of such fools blinded by their shiny coins..

    I would also like to thank CuChullaine O’reilly’s comments above. I look up to CuChullaine and Basha so much for everything they have done for the Long Riding community and horses in general. It is thanks to their wisdom and advice that I have managed to travel more than 9 000 kms through 7 countries in North and Central America with the same ponies! Through many emails and skype calls, these two Legendary Long Riders guided me like my own parents and prepared me for this Long Ride from Canada to Brasil.

    Your words on my hero, Aime Tschiffely couldn’t be more accurate Mr. Clarkson. I grew up listening to my father read me “Tschiffely’s Ride,” and later treated the book as my bible. It was Tschiffely’s love for Mancha and Gato which influenced me to jump into the saddle and begin my Long Ride home.

    It wasnt how many rivers he crossed or how many kilometers he rode that mattered. What captured my heart and imagination was the fact that Tschiffely made it to the USA with the same two horses he rode out of Buenos Aires on.

    For the past year and 7 months I have tried to treat my ponies with the same respect and love Mancha and Gato were treated! It is only after Frenchie, Bruiser and Dude eat that I eat. It is only after they have drank that I begin to search for my own water. It is only when I know they are safe and full that I begin to think about where I will sleep that night.

    This is how Tschiffely traveled and this is what is expected from all Long Riders. The Long Riders Guild never turns a blind eye to horse abuse and that is what makes me so proud to be carrying the LRG flag with me. This is not a world built on money nor ribbons. It is about man and horse becoming a team together. Learning from one another and from their surroundings.

    My humble opinion is that every child who wishes to become a horseman or woman should read “Tschiffely’s Ride.” I suspect there would be a lot less horses suffering in the world.

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