Saturday, November 15, 2008

Endurance: Qatar Style - Maggie Mieske

November 15 2008

Since arriving in Doha, Nelson and I have searched endlessly for the endurance people here. The horse people we found kept referring us to the local riding club for lessons, which is not what we were interested in doing. Finally, after 3 months, we made multiple contacts in one weekend which resulted in our attendance at our first Qatar endurance ride yesterday. It was an experience. I decided that the best way for me to summarize without pontificating is to simply compare and contrast endurance here with endurance in the U.S.

How is endurance the same here as it is in the U.S.?

1.. The people. Endurance people are as willing and friendly to help you, answer questions and befriend you as they are in the U.S. As a result, we made too many friends to count. We hung out with the farrier (Dormell is Nelson’s new best friend. He has promised to let Nelson ride along and see what a Qatar farrier’s life is like) and we hung out with one of the treatment vets. Both of these men were so warm, welcoming and encouraging that I cannot explain how much their new friendship with us means.. We also hung out with Dormell’s friend, George, from Arizona! See, home is never very far away! We met the two Avrils, two women from Ireland who discovered endurance later in life as many of us do and are taking the plunge. Avril #1 rode yesterday and we pit crewed with her husband along one loop. We also met some of the Al Shaqab Team, the silver medal winners at this year’s World Endurance Championships. I teased them that I wanted to try out for their team and they thought I should. They were kind and very funny young men.

2. The horses. There is nearly the same hodgepodge of horses here as in the states, all colors, all sizes, but of course, all Arabian or Anglo-Arab (about 20 of the 50+ entered). Some are quite robust and some are a bit thinner than I’d like to see. But, they smell and sound like horses to me! That in itself was a tremendous pleasure!

3. Beet pulp. I never saw very much (not in the quantities we use in the U.S.) but I smelled it in a bucket and someone said, oh, yeah, that’s beet pulp.

4. Family friendly. I didn’t bring my neighbor with her young son because I wasn’t sure how family friendly the sport might or might not be here. I saw lots of kids and even a couple of small dogs. Many of the horses are owned (if not ridden) by sheikhs and their families, so they come out to watch and soak up the atmosphere. It’s the same kind of atmosphere really.

How is endurance different here than in the U.S.?

1. It’s fast. Very fast. It’s flat.. Very flat. It’s racing, pure and simple, although my new friend, Avril #1, made a plan for herself, pacing herself for each loop, stuck to it and, when we left, was running about 22nd place in the 100 km which started with around 50 riders. The 80 km junior ride had nearly the same number of riders. This is another astonishing difference to me.

2. They have rides which are only for junior riders. They do not ride with an adult sponsor as they do in the U.S. However, they have a pit crew near them at all times, so it is like having an adult with them anyway. Which brings me to pit crewing….

3. The trail is essentially a “track.” There is a 30 km loop and a 20 km loop. Pit crews can and do ride alongside their riders during the ride. They may speed up to get ahead and get things ready at the water stop (every 5 km) for their riders, but essentially, they are right there the entire time. It is against the rules to hand off water from a moving vehicle, but in the dark, who would know? And our crew didn’t carry a tank with water. They bought bottled water (1.5 liters) for pouring on the horse and for the rider (1/2 liters). Bottled water is cheap here. I am not sure what other crews do as we only went out on one loop and it was dark. BTW, the track appears to us to be graded to keep it flat. It’s too bad it was at night because I think the nearby dunes would have been beautiful! In addition, the trot out lanes at the vet check (there were 20 lanes) are graded and leveled and packed down. I can’t count how many times we trotted out over bumpy, lumpy ground at vet checks!

4. The rides here start about 4-5 p.m. which now is less than an hour before sunset. There was a full moon last night, but since everyone drives alongside, the horse/rider has plenty of light from headlights.

5. No camping overnight. Not that one couldn’t camp, but most people (or at least those I met) go home after the ride. Heck, when we start going, I’m taking a tent and setting up camp! J

6. Nearly everyone (maybe 80%?) rides with leg wraps or support boots on their horses (mostly leg wraps though). I noticed that when wet, they weigh a ton. I asked Avril #1 why she does this and she honestly said, because everyone else does. After the second vet check, she replaced the wet wraps with lightweight neoprene Podium support boots and I think her horse probably was the better for it. Her hind legs were starting to tire and she had started overreaching. I hoped that taking the heavier leg wraps off might solve that problem. I hope to hear from them today for a report.

7. All of the rides are held at Qatar Endurance Village, near Sealine Resort and a huge petroleum plant. I was hopeful before we got there that some of the trail would go along the Gulf, but that was not the case. Darn! It’s only about 50 km from where we live, but we’re having trouble adjusting to the idea of all the rides in the same place forever.

8. All rides are FEI. I have some serious research to do if I think I want to try FEI in the Middle East.

9. The vast majority of the horses are owned, trained and ridden by different people. I noticed many are owned by members of the Royal Family and, of course, by Al Shaqab Endurance Team which is essentially the Emir, Sheikh Hamad al Khalifa Al Thani. There are many other “teams” as in many will come from various stables and call themselves teams, although I don’t think there are “team” awards of any kind. However, we did not stay until the finish because I have to work this afternoon! I could be wrong about that. The riders are basically nothing more than paid jockeys. I was surprised at the number of children/juniors riding the 80 km on horses owned by the Al Shaqab Team. One of the team members told me (when I asked if he rode the same horse consistently or many) that Al Shaqab owns over 80 endurance horses, although he said that he has one horse that he trains/rides for the jumping team. Basically, my Irish friends are the only ones who own, train and ride their own horses, although Avril #1 can’t ride both of her horses and so has a jockey ride the other. Avril #2 is currently laid up from back surgery, so she has offered for me to take a ride on her horse which I have not even met yet. They stable their horses near Al Shahania (outside of Doha) where horses are trained and ridden by the owners and trainer, a Dutch woman and her daughter, I believe.

10. The top 15 earn “big money.” I did not find out how much “big money” is, but I am sure it is not chicken feed. I have yet to learn if there is any prestige or value placed on Best Condition which is always MY goal.

These are my first impressions of endurance riding/racing in Qatar. I am sure I will have plenty more to add as time goes on. As much as I would love to bring Malik here, I think there might be issues and consequences I have not considered or that I might not even realize. Malik could do this and excel. However, who would I ride in the Shore to Shore every summer? I have finally discovered where the endurance horses are and it seems there is no shortage, so at this point, I will start searching for a possible endurance mount for myself, either to buy or lease. I have enough friends to lead the way for me and help me out now. In the meantime, I need to start getting in shape again…I was dismayed to discover that I do not have the muscling in my arms and legs that I used to have when Malik and I were conditioning and competing regularly. Duh. BUT! I did it before. I can do it again.

Does anyone know something that rhymes with kilometers? “Kilometers of smiles” simply doesn’t have the ring that “Miles of smiles” has.

Starting over in Qatar,

Maggie (and Nelson)

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