26 February 1999

From Cornish farm

to burning desert sands…

IN the truly amateur world of endurance riding it was the rain-washed tracks around a Cornwall farm that prepared Jane James and her horse, Alfy, for a 100-mile world championship race across the desert, reports Tamara Farrant.

Endurance riding is growing in popularity, with most riders aiming for the more modest 25-mile rides. Jane started endurance riding nine years ago at the age of 31. Before that she had just competed at local level in hunter trials. Within four years she was representing Britain in the European Championships and was part of the gold medal winning team.

Despite endurance ridings reputation for attracting part-time riders, it is a sport that requires a huge amount of training for horse and rider. Jane has to fit her training in around her job, working for social services, and the calls on a farmers wife.

The spring is particularly hard. She may be up through the night assisting with the calving of the 40-cow suckler herd. She then starts her social services rounds at 8am. The advantage of an early start is that work usually finishes by 1pm, giving her the afternoon to build up the stamina of her two horses and herself.

The training programme starts in January with an hour to an hour-and-a-half walking on the roads. Short trots are introduced after four weeks. This is slowly built on until the first competitions at the end of March.

&#42 Young horse

Janes team horse, Alfy, now 11, is young for this sport. His first 100-mile event was the British Open Championships three years ago when he was sixth. These 100-mile races, which take nine to 10 hours, are closely supervised by vets, and the feeding and cooling techniques are well-proven.

All text book advice is thrown away on race day. Horses are fed ad-lib and given water and a mouthful of feed at every opportunity. At the four vet gates about 1kg (2lb) of food is given and Paul, Janes husband, aims to meet her every five to six miles with water.

"A mouthful of feed is given and we canter off! On a 100-mile ride we use a lot of electrolytes and gallons of water," she says.

The day before the event Paul and Jane reccee the course and agree suitable sites to meet. This can often mean Paul in his Land Rover is under as much pressure as Jane to reach the next rendezvous in a given time. There was one fateful time in this years world championships when the support crew became stuck in the desert sand, leaving horses and riders to stagger through the deep sand for 20 miles. To make matters worse, when the team left at 5pm it was light, but as darkness came down they were left to stumble through the dunes and tussocks with no lights to guide them.

"After about 10 miles the Belgians, who had left after us, so had attached lights, caught us up, and we rode with them for a while," explains Jane.

&#42 British survival

Incredibly the British team survived this stage, but other teams had to drop out. At every gate, and at the end, the horses heart beat has to drop below 44 beats a minute. "We all keep a watch on the horses pulse rate, and anyone would stop if it goes up to 150. Within five minutes of finishing the race in the desert Alfys pulse was down to 40!"

The first endurance world championships, held in Dubai, really did show that mature years can be a help. The gold medallist was a 51-year-old woman from the US, and the winning team from New Zealand had an average age of 53! The relative spring chickens in the seventh-placed British team averaged a mere 40.

For the first few years Jane ran half marathons to ensure she was fit. But she now contents herself with riding for two to four hours a day – and running around the farm on everyday tasks.

Endurance riding

Endurance competitions are essentially races. The distance covered varies. Courses are designed to test the fitness and ability of the horse. Quality of horsemanship and training are crucial for success.

The welfare of the horse is paramount. Veterinary inspections are thorough – before the ride and at regular check stops.

A coveted Best Condition award is presented to one of the top 10 finishers. In addition to the compulsory vet stops, there are optional points along the route where "crews" can tend to any requirements. For further information contact the British Endurance Riding Association (01203-698863 Fax: 01203-418429).

Jane James (far left) exercises Rowengay Garnet in the desert.