When an Egyptian friend of mine, Gamal Breesh, dropped the idea in front of me, I said, "No way." But then, after walking around with it for a couple of days, I began to warm to the idea: to compete in an 80km endurance race. In four weeks. In Egypt. On a strange horse.
Never mind that I'd never ridden in an endurance race before, or that I'd hardly been riding my own horse lately because a rainy December had made California's central coast trails too muddy. No, these details were not going to stand in my way. The ride appealed to me as a way to take a measure of myself as much as to sample a new life experience. At the very least, I figured there'd be stories to tell ... and I'll take any excuse to spend time in Egypt.
Still, I had a shopping list of worries. Was I fit enough? Was I a strong enough rider? Could I figure out how to get through the vet checks and holds? And another thing -- I don't just love the look of myself in breeches. But one nice thing about being the publisher of this magazine is that I have a lot of contacts. So I thought, why not ask a couple of experts for advice?
I started with Julie Suhr, who has 25,000 miles of endurance competition behind her. "What about the start?" I asked her. "I bet standing starts can be terrifying." "Everybody worries about the start," she said. That was comforting.
"What about my fitness level? "If you ride 20 miles when you're in Egypt without any problems, you're fine," she said. "First of all you're going to have a desire. A mental picture of what you want to do and so you'll go after it. I've always said the Tevis is a mental game. People aren't sure they can do it. Once you do it you KNOW you can, and you go back with all the confidence in the world."
I asked Julie about the 'must haves' to take along on the ride.
"Equifleece tubing to pad the English stirrup leathers. Or half chaps," she said. "And electrolytes to pour in your water bottle. They really help me when I start to drag. And moleskin for spots that are rubbing."
A few days later, an envelope arrived in the mail from Julie: some packets of Emergen-C and bandages.
Matthew Mackay-Smith, DVM, medical editor for EQUUS magazine and an avid endurance rider, had this to say: "A couple of things I see people run afoul of. One is, they try to ride the horse. You want to get yourself in a very comfortable position and just sort of mind the horse's speed as much as is needed, and let him decide where he's going to put his feet. People who are accustomed to equitating often get very tired.
"A lot of people get tired because their stirrups are too long. It makes them use their back muscles more and their back gets very tired. Most of the people I see who are getting tired are standing over the horse rather than sitting on the horse. Don't worry about getting up out of the saddle when going uphill. Just keep your weight balanced over his center as well as you can. Less work for you and the horse because you're right where he expected you to be instead of going off to some other place.
"Another thing that most people get bothered by is chafe. Most first-timers do well to put on about three very thin layers. The friction takes place between the layers of cloth. Many people wear two pairs of pantyhose and very light breeches.
"Drink before you go. Don't be afraid to get off and relieve yourself.
"Don't eat a lot of things that are likely to stir up your gut.
"Don't get tense. Relax, particularly in your shoulders and upper body. Just go with the motion. Ride one mile at a time. If the trail is marked with mileages, just ride to the next mileage marker. Or just ride to the top of that hill, and you ride along the ridge for a mile and a half and then you ride down the hill. It's over in no time. If you can ride five miles you can ride 50 miles. You can ride 100 miles in a day if you don't get tense.
"Pretend you're sitting in an armchair that is somewhat animated. If you're not reading a book, read the countryside. Don't get preoccupied with the trail; your horse will be paying a lot of attention to the trail. Enjoy the view. Identify the flora and the fauna as you go by. Don't take it too seriously."
Then I said to Matthew, "You really love endurance riding, don't you?"
"I love being on the back of a horse no matter what the excuse is," he said. And that pretty much summed up why I loved the idea of this ride. My rides at home are never long enough or fast enough. There's never enough time in the day or enough land to ride on. But on my biannual trips to Egypt I find both: a day and a horizon stretched out in front of me. Add to that Arabian horses and like-minded companions and it's as close to perfect happiness as I've ever known. The competition adds just the edge to spice things up a bit."
So off to the airport I went, duffel bag bulging with ride supplies. Of course the security guard goes through my bags -- I always seem to fit the profile -- and he says to me, "Looks like you've got everything but the horse."
"What was your first clue?"
"The electrolytes." Those new federal screeners are really on the ball.
I read Donna Snyder Smith's book, The Complete Guide to Endurance Riding and Competition, on the plane, and by the time I landed in Cairo 24 hours later, I was fully aware of how ill prepared I was.
Later that night I reached FB Stables in the village near the Great Pyramids of Giza. There, my friends Gamal and Karim Breesh greeted me and took me to meet my mount, Sanora. I stepped into her stall and my heart sank. She was small and thin, with an air of indifference about her. I doubted that she'd make it past the first 30km loop. But my friends were insistent, saying she'd top-tenned in the 130km international ride with ease under Karim. I decided to wait and see what the veterinarians thought of her in the pre-vetting, though I confess, part of me hoped she wouldn't pass, so nervous had I become about what lay before me.
Over the next three days I took easy get-acquainted rides on Sanora. She revealed herself to be willful and high-strung. But each day she listened a little more to me and I felt I could deal with whatever she threw at me. I loved her gaits -- she was so forward -- and she certainly didn't move like a small horse. I was further persuaded by Gamal's encouragement (there's nothing like hearing a friend who knows how you ride say, "You can do it and I'll be with you"), and his uncanny knack for matching the right horse to the rider's abilities.
Sanora hailed from Egypt's Nile delta region. A "baladi" horse -- meaning local-bred, mostly or all Arabian blood but not registered -- she was bred to be a dancing horse, but was too nervous so she was sold as a riding horse and eventually ended up at FB Stables. Her temperament made her unsuitable for most riders, so Karim took her on as an endurance horse.
The afternoon before the ride the veterinarians and ride organizers came to the village where several of the entries were stabled. There in the street crowded with donkey carts, camels, and taxis, the pre-vetting took place. I sat on a bench and watched the action, waiting for Sanora's turn. A groom brought her out and she stood calmly for the examination, oblivious to the chaos around her. A good sign, I thought. When the number was drawn on her hindquarters I knew there was no turning back. I would start.
At 5 a.m. the next morning we loaded the horses into the van and followed by car along the Mansoureya Canal at the edge of the desert. There was a faint light on the eastern horizon and I could just make out the silhouettes of date palms. At the ride base, where farmland and desert meet, horses and riders were milling around in the early morning mist, the full moon setting over the desert.
One by one, each of my worries resolved themselves. The start was as sane as 25 riders taking off at a gallop could be. But soon Sanora was really pulling on me. I knew I didn't belong with the front-runners, but Sanora believed she did. It was ten kilometers before I could slow her to a trot.
The course, laid out in a cloverleaf with three loops of 30, 27, and 23 kilometers, covered mostly flat terrain with some long and gentle elevation changes. For the most part the footing was firmly packed sand, inviting speed. And indeed, eight riders were pulled after the first loop.
Near the back of the pack I galloped along with Gamal, who was riding Sanora's stablemate Badaweya. The two mares were well matched, galloping together stride for stride. Every few kilometers we'd trot for a while, but it seemed the mares were more comfortable galloping. I marveled at how far they could go like that without tiring.
The miles went by and I hardly noticed -- I was awed by the landscape, the freshness of the horses, and how good it felt to be alive enjoying this day. Dark clouds filled the sky, and occasionally a shaft of sunlight would break through and illuminate a pyramid in the distance, turning it golden; lighting it on fire. At every turn of the course the views were spectacular as we headed toward the Dashur, Sakkara, or Abousir pyramids.
But Sanora was starting to worry me. She wasn't drinking. It was still cool and I noticed the other horses weren't drinking either. At the third water stop it seemed to me that she didn't know how to push the floating sponges out of the way so I hopped off to move them for her. She took a shallow sip, then wanted to get going, so much so that she didn't want to wait for me to get on. She and I had quite a discussion about that. "See if I get off again!" I told her.
At some point during that first 30km loop I felt my confidence building and I realized that it mattered a lot to me that we finish.
At the first vet check Sanora impressed me with her excellent recoveries and lively trot-outs. As a result, we were cleared to go three minutes before my friends. This panicked me because I really hadn't been paying attention to the course markers. Sanora calmly munched on fresh berseem clover while I nibbled on dates and pita bread and tried to relax until our time was up.
"Don't worry, we'll catch up to you," my friends said. But this wasn't much of a comfort as I cantered off alone onto the second loop. It wasn't long before I was overtaken by four riders on strong horses. Sanora wanted to go with them and this time I didn't argue with her. After a few kilometers she relaxed into a trot and in no time at all my friends caught up.
By now the sky was clearing, the air had warmed, and Sanora started drinking. All was well as Sanora settled into a strong trot alongside Badaweya. We moved easily through that spacious panorama, at one point galloping down a sand dune. It was like flying, or floating on clouds. I laughed out loud.
For 50 miles neither mare put a foot wrong or took a lame step. But on the final loop with just 7 kilometers to go, Sanora told me she was tired and I didn't have the heart to push her. I urged Gamal to go on without us--Sanora and I could do the rest alone. I babied her a little and we just walked along. It was pleasant then, to be alone in the desert enjoying the vastness, the quiet. I listened to Sanora's soft footfalls, and the sound of the wind moving gently over sand like a whisper. We passed a desert fox sunning herself outside her den, the black kites wheeling on the thermals overhead.
We climbed the last hill, bringing the thin ribbon of green into view; there was the ride base, and the end of ride. How could it be that I wanted to turn around and do it all over again? As we approached the finish line, I fished around in my pockets for my rider's card needed to clock in, wasting precious seconds, then to find out that I'd completed 43 seconds over the allotted time for the third loop (a minimum pace of 12km per hour). Strangely, I couldn't have cared less. To me it was a finish, and the day had been the biggest thrill of my life. Of the 25 riders who started just eight completed, so my unofficial seventh place brought a deep sense of satisfaction.
By the time the last rider came off the course it was dusk. There was a little awards ceremony of sorts, ribbons and plastic trophies to the top finishers (where the promised prize money went is another story). We loaded the horses and drove back to the village. The gang from FB sat out front of the stable, sipping mint tea and reliving the ride. Karim had finished third, Gamal sixth, and except for my failure to earn an official finish, everyone was quite pleased with the results. Better still, all three horses were in fine shape.
By the end of the evening I realized that my little gray mare had reminded me of something I tend to forget: that the outside of a horse doesn't tell you what's inside. I left with this too: we can never guess what we'll find when we say "yes" to challenges. After all, life is too short to say "no" to.
A couple of nights later, sitting with friends on the stable roof, Karim looked at me across the fire and said, "Mabrouk, madam." Congratulations. That was everything.
Denise Hearst is the Publisher of Arabian Horse World, a magazine devoted to the promotion of the Arabian horse -- through education and entertainment -- to new levels of appreciation and usefulness. For more information about Arabian Horse World, visit www.ahwmagazine.com.