Monday, February 26, 2024

Saudi Arabia’s Fursan Cup Part II - Alex Shampoe

February 23 2024

By Alex Shampoe

The Fursan Cup race 2024 120k started at 7AM.

I got to the venue about 6:15. There were a lot of people buzzing around. Driving to the venue it seemed like the whole city of Al Ula was asleep. Then we hit the venue where everyone was busy and excited. The energy was very high. In the moment I was grateful that I have done bigger races like this, so it wasn’t too overwhelming.

All I could think about was the race start. The day before Power (my horse) was doing everything he could to stay as far away from other horses as possible. He had his bubble and didn’t want others in it. With 200 other horses starting, his bubble wasn’t going to work. I had confidence that he had done multiple starts like this so I was focused on staying with my team and creating the biggest bubble I could for Power.

The horses were all fed and walked but the time I got to the venue. We tacked up our horses and took them out of the barn. We hand walked them around the Saudi quarantine area. Most of the other horses had left and already gone out to the start line. Cheryl, Vicki (our new German teammate) and I decided we should get on our horses in the stable area while our horses were calm and away from the other 200 horses. We got on and everyone was calm and happy. As we tried to leave the stable, we were told we had to get off and walk out of the barn area and then get on the horses again out where everyone else was. This was what we were hoping to avoid but we had to follow the rules. The rules were very strict for safety reasons, so we quickly agreed and got off the horses. We walked the horses out and found a gap to stop and get back on between waves of horses. Now we had a short walk on a 3-horse wide path to the start line. There were multiple different herds of horses circling and circling in and out and around each other. We stayed in the furthest circle we could away from the start line. We were trying to find our Saudi rider that we were supposed to stay with during the race. He was riding for the same stable that we were. Then we heard the countdown to the start and suddenly, the sound of over 100 horses galloping away.

Just then our Saudi guy called to us, and we followed him to the start line where most of the horses have already left. Thank goodness all our horses were calm. They didn’t like when other horses would be acting up around them, but they all stayed happy next to each other. Power (my horse) was very focused on getting to the start line and going through the start. He did much better than I thought he would with all the horses around him. He knew what he was doing, and I just needed to trust him. The start went down a huge chute 40 yards wide with plenty of room for all the horses. When we left there was not much passing going on. Everybody in the back was pretty set in their pace right away. There was a little bit of juggling around as a few stragglers tried to find a group, but it was a very pleasant start.

The first loop was supposed to be the easiest loop. It was mostly on hard packed roads. What made the loop difficult was the rock and sand. There was rock on the hard packed part and then there was sand on the side. There were rolling hills throughout this loop. Was definitely not a flat and fast course. Right away we found out the different paces of our four horses. We had two younger horses just imported from France and then two older horses who had done a lot of sand work. One of the horses wanted to do more of a slow canter. Two of the horses wanted to go and go and go and go faster and faster and faster. After the first 5 km Power (my horse) was perfect. The first 5 km we were finding our groove. That was the fastest I’ve ever connected with a horse that I just met for a race. The day before I was so concerned that it was going to be a bad start. I had expected that Power and I were going to be fighting each other for the first half of the day but we weren’t. He listened to my seat, so easily. He cantered to the rhythm of my seat and my hips. When my seat told him to trot, he trotted to my rhythm. When my body told him to walk, he walked. No fighting. He followed all transitions from my body. I could not believe it. 

I want to give some credit to my saddle. I love my Reactor Panel. I believe a big part of the change in Power from pre-ride to race day was being able to change my saddle to fit him. He went from not being happy in a general fit to becoming completely comfortable in a saddle custom fit to him. I tend to be a very controlling rider. I always have contact with my horse’s mouth, not necessarily on the bit but ready to help them whenever I can throughout the day. It doesn’t matter what horse. I had light contact with Power’s mouth and that is how we went all day. We never had a fight. He was so balanced, and so in tune with my seat for most of the race. I felt like I could ride him bareback without a bridle. He was so awesome. Obviously I can’t say enough about Power.

Coming into the first vet check was a little interesting. For the two younger horses we slowed down to make sure they would pulse well in this new environment. We got off and hand walked the last 20 or 30 yards in for them. Vicki had to pull off and weigh right away. Her horse still had a lot of energy so he couldn’t stand there and wait while she weighed so thankfully her crew guy ran to take her horse and start cooling him. In FEI we all have pinnies with our numbers. You can’t touch a horse unless you have his piney on. 

When I crossed over the in-timer line, I saw my crew guy, so I handed him Power (my horse), and he took off running!! I took off with him, saying “slow down, slow down!” and he turned back, still running, looked at me and said, “No Worries, No Worries”. He ran all the way to the closest water trough to the vet check. I took my saddle off as fast as I could thinking it’s going to take him longer to pulse down now because of the running. Then a guy with a heart monitor checked Power and I couldn’t believe what it said. 42 pulse! With no water for cooling, we walked right into the vet check and Power pulsed below the limit and trotted right away. The check itself was busy. There were lots of horses circling waiting for their chance to vet through. All our horses passed, and we were through to the next loop.

The crew area was in a huge open space completely covered. Each team had their own small space where they could crew their horses. Thankfully, the front runners had already gone out on the second loop and so the crew areas were not jampacked. When we came out of the vet check Power walked right up to his buffet table and stepped right into his huge ice water buckets. It was so cool to watch. He stood there the whole time like a perfect gentleman. You could tell he knew what he was supposed to do in the vet check.

The second loop was difficult. During this loop it got hot. We start off on the rolling, hard packed roads with the rock pebbles and side sand. Then we hit the rolling hills of deep sand. We soon hit a great crew point with lots of water to cool the horses. Then up up up in the deep sand to the top of a dune. (We got off the horses and started walking on foot. All of our four horses quickly showed us that they were much faster in the sand than we were, so we got back on right away). It felt like we were walking forever. It was so cool when we got to the top and looked out behind us. There was 30+ horses all lined up like a wagon train walking up the long dune. 

This loop was 32 km long but at least 10 km of it was this deep sand. Then at the top there was short trot/ cantered section around the top before starting back down. Then back to deep sand walking all the way to the bottom. I learned very quickly on this loop how great Power is in the sand. Having a balanced and conditioned sand horse who’s really listening to exactly what you want, was very helpful and made this loop non-stress for me. Thank you Power. From there it was hard packed road all the way back to the venue. And again, my amazing crew person took my horse and started sprinting through the check! This time I didn’t have a mini heart attack and I let them go, and of course Power pulsed in again at like 44 so…! All our horses made it through looking great!

One thing I really loved about this race was all the volunteers out there, giving us water to cool horses. They had two or three crew areas where your crew could come out on every loop. They also had at least three volunteer crew areas each loop with a lot of volunteers to give us water to cool. It helped that Vicki and I were young pretty girls who didn’t speak Arabic. The volunteer guys gave us a lot of water for our horses .

The third loop was like the first. It had a couple more sections of the deep sand though. These sections were spread out in little sections. This loop had more hills right away than the first one. The hills and few short periods of deep sand made this loop difficult. Oh yeah! And the heat. Coming from Florida the dry heat was quite a change and the amount of sand that you breathe in even when it’s not windy is shocking. Or more literally choking. My buff that I almost didn’t bring that day was a life saver. As I came off this loop, I still had my crew person to run Power through the cooling area. But the guy with the heart monitor wasn’t there and so my crew person started cooling. We maybe put 2 scoops of water on him while I’m waiting for the monitor and I then like 30 seconds after waiting I told my guy, “let’s just go in and see what happens.” I felt very impatient and spoiled but I love that I could trust Power like that, and he pulsed in at 44 again. 

This loop we were watching our phones too. The other two riders for our stable (the owner Faisal and the other German rider Anna) were riding more towards the front. On our walking breaks we were checking the app to try and get an update on how they were doing. We learned Anna had finished in 9th place!! Unfortunately, Faisal got pulled at the finish. It was funny riding our own ride and being able to get updates about the front runners, especially knowing a couple and cheering for them motivated us even more so.

Our two young horses in the group were starting to feel the sand and the heat. The last loop (loop four) we just wanted to get everyone through it and finish. We had to keep a consistent pace as we needed to fish the race by 7:10pm. By the end of the 3rd loop we had been averaging 12.8km/hr. We needed to finish with an average of at least 12km/hr. We had about 2 hours and 35min to finish. The loop was 25k. We were not crazy worried, but everyone was keeping an eye on their watch. This loop had a lot of deep sand. It did not have quite as much constant incline as the second loop, but a lot of rolling, deep sand. We met up with Yvette from Canada leaving and we started the loop off with a few kilometers on a hard packed road with a good incline. Then we hit a long section of deep sand followed by a little section of hard packed road where we got to see our inspirational crew. Next, we hit an even longer section of deep sand, and another inspirational crew point. On our last section of sand, we got to watch the sun coming down and our watch’s tick away. Finally, we could see the camp only 5km away and rode the hard packed track back to the finish line. In the end we finished with 22min to spare.

All our horses vetted through and received completions. Power felt like he could have gone out and completed another 40km. His vet card said he could as well. I can’t believe how lucky I was to be able to ride Power. With all the difficulties and changes with the horses over the 6 weeks before I cannot be more grateful of how it ended up. He tested me the day before the race, but I think he was just making sure I was tough enough for the next day. He knew if I would put up with his stuff the day before then he could give me his all on race day. No matter what I asked of him he did. We let the group go once, even losing sight of them, so we could watch the footing in the sand, no fuss. Canter/gallop out and catch the group, no problem. Waiting at the water points with 15 other horses running through and bumping us around, no fuss. Really having a balanced and strong canter through some unexpected deep sand, no problem. I’m so thankful for all the dressage lessons I have taken throughout the years. Without those lessons I could not have ridden Power as well. He really wanted to listen to the movement of my body and seat. It’s crazy when a horse halfway around the world can connect with you like that. He was worth 10x the leaping in the air, bucking and throwing himself all over the place he did on the pre- ride the day before the race. I hope that one day I can go back and ride him again. I am even looking forward to his pre-ride shenanigans. 

Thank you to my horse’s owners, my crew, my team, the volunteers, the veterinarians, the officials, and the organizing committee. Thank you to so many people from Saudi, Jordan, UAE, France, Italy, Canada, Germany, and the USA for coming together to make this happen. How lucky I am to experience these incredible adventures on the global equestrian stage.

Friday, February 23, 2024

Saudi Arabia’s Fursan Cup Part I - Alex Shampoe

February 20 2024
By Alex Shampoe

I have been waiting to post because I wanted to find more pictures. I realized that these few pictures describe my recent trip to Saudi Arabia for the Fursan Cup (75 miles) perfectly.

The idea started months ago when I made a list of Goal races I wanted to do outside the US in 2024. The Fursan Cup felt so unlikely and yet it was at the top of my list. The race is by invite only (more on that later). I didn’t know how I could get invited, what horse I would ride, who would I stay with, how would I get there… I had so many obstacles it seemed impossible.

In December Anastasia Gia Larue connected me with an Italian stable that I could ride for. I applied for entry to the race on the Italian horse and got Accepted! (2 obstacles down). Then I was informed that the organizing committee would not subsidize transportation expenses. I had to reassess my strategy given the financial risk associated with transporting a horse from Italy, especially in the absence of a guaranteed finish.

Next, I contacted one of my/Val’s friend from Jordan Rashid Kassim . I raced with him on Val’s horses almost a year ago at the Florida McCulleys ride. He asked his friends from Jordan and found me an amazing horse with a spotless record. I entered the race on the Jordan horse!! I got word back that the organizing committee wouldn’t accept any more Jordan horses into the race. (They only accept a certain number of horses from each country). Although I could not enter on a Jordan horse, I later stayed with the Jordan people, Samir Ahmad, Ali Abu Rabie, and Husain Al Jabari the first night while in Saudi. They could not have been more gracious hosts. I felt like part of their group right away and can’t wait to go ride in Jordan!

My search continued. With the help of Cheryl Van Duesen and Nasser AbuQamar I looked through 7+ Saudi horses searching for the horse most likely to complete. Cheryl then connected me with her horse’s owner, and he offered me a great horse Gaston! (Gaston was bred and raised by Morgane Payen’s family. Val and I stayed with Morgane’s family when we took Gilly with Meghan Wert to France in 2023 for the Young Rider Championships. The Endurance World really is small.) I felt like this was a sign and that everything finally was coming together.

I flew to Dubai on Monday February 5 to spend some time with Madiya Al-maktoum and her amazing horses. Wednesday in Dubai I rode 3 times on 2 different horses and then Thursday before my flight to Saudi, I rode a 40k training ride. These rides refreshed my water bottle handling skills while canter/galloping on hot horses in the sand. The race was scheduled for Saturday February 10. On Wednesday February 7, Gaston (my Saudi horse) got kicked. Gaston was out. I was in the Dubai, getting ready to fly to Saudi, with no horse to ride in the race in Saudi.

Getting invited to this race is very completed. Changing horses 36 hours before the start is even more complicated. At that point, you can only change to another horse that is entered into the race. Yes, that means you need to take someone else’s horse, if you want to change horses that late in the game. A serendipitous turn of events transpired when Shannon Thorndyke, a fellow competitor from Canada, graciously facilitated the reassignment of her entry, Power Colours, for my use in the competition. After hours, Shannon and the Canadian Equestrian Foundation (not sure if that is the right name) acted quickly to help me. They removed Shannon’s entry through FEI so “Shannon’s horse” could be freed up for me. USEF was contacted, again after hours to enter me on “Shannon’s horse”. There were frantic phone calls and texts all night long. There were time zone issues. Some miscommunications occurred. Most importantly, Cheryl was at the office of the organizing committee on the venue. She worked with them every step of the way to ensure the changes were going to happen. The organizing committee, committed to Cheryl, yes….. Alex will ride on Saturday. The horse owner was patiently standing outside of the venue for a part of the time, “Shannon’s” horse in hand, waiting for permission to bring the horse onto the venue. Only officially registered horses were allowed on the venue, of course. Where was I you might ask? I was stuck in the airport, working through Visa issues.

Yet….. I was finally entered on Power Colours less than an hour before the cut off on Thursday night.

I was very delayed Thursday night landing in Al Ula, Saudi, because of unforeseen Visa requirements. Big lessons learned is to make sure I fully understand Visa requirements for all my trips going forward. You live and you learn. Now I know for next time! Thankfully a friend of my Jordan friend was patiently waiting for me outside the airport. It was too late to go to the venue so we went straight to where I was staying for the night. That night I stayed with part of the Jordan team who became my cheerleaders for the rest of the weekend. They became my race family and helped me in every way they could. They made the weekend so much fun and less stressful, navigating me through the different cultures and the venue.

Friday morning, the day before race day, I went to the venue for the first time and was in shock. It was huge!! There were at least 4 different stable sections arranged by country to keep all the horses quarantined and safe. They had a huge cafeteria room with breakfast, lunch, and dinner. They had so much food my eyes were always bigger than my stomach. I ate soooooo much food. The cooling, vetting, and crewing areas were arranged perfectly. Everything flowed very smoothly. The pre-ride briefing was in a beautiful (I want to say Mexican style but I guess it would be Saudi style) conference room. There were projectors on both sides of the room so everyone could hear and see the information given.

I meet up with Cheryl and we went and saw our horses. Power Colours, my new horse, was one of the most interesting parts of the whole trip. He kept me very entertained. We went for a walk around the Saudi stable and he was nice and relaxed until he saw another horse acting up just over the fence. Power shot straight up into the air and kicked out. Just imagine the Airs Above the Ground tricks. That’s what he did. As soon and I told him to stop he did. We walked calmly around for 10 more minutes. Again, something would startle him and up in the air he went. He never pulled on the line. I never thought he would hurt me. He just would go straight up, kick out a little, then come back down and walk on with me. Guess he just needs to get it out. I was thinking “Man I hope he doesn’t do that under saddle”…. He did.

Cheryl, two great German ladies, and I went out for a pre-ride. All the horses were wild. We were all riding for the same owner. (One of these German ladies would ride with us the next day slow and steady. The other went on to win 9th place!) Power’s regular rider told me that Power would play with me but just don’t let him intimidate me and he will settle. Well, easier said than done. One of the horses had some tack malfunctions and there was a lot of horses all around us. Power tested and tested but by the end of the 5k loop we had figured each other out. At least as much as we were going to. I couldn’t help but think that tomorrow is going to be an interesting day.

While pre-riding I decided I wanted to change my saddle. I brought my reactor panel from home because I was worried about making weight with one of the light saddles they usually use in Saudi. I would much rather use a heavier saddle than a weighted pad. My saddle was fit to my horse at home and Power had a much different back. Thankfully, I had Wendy MacCoubrey on speed dial at probably 5am her time in Canada to FaceTime with me and help me change the saddle. When we first put my saddle on Power, Power was tense and not happy. As we started changing and moving it around his whole body changed. He was licking and chewing, yawning, he was much happier. One of his shoulders was different than the other. A regular saddle would have been very hard to fit on him perfectly. Without my Reactor Panel I don’t believe Power and I would have done so well. He had competed multiple races before with a different saddle, but I think having my saddle just made it that much better for the both of us. I can’t thank Wendy enough for her expert guidance. I couldn’t have done it without her.

Later that day (Friday) we vetted in. Power was a total professional. I guess he decided it was showtime. For dinner that night I went with my Jordan friends Fawzi Kassim and Zein Kassim to a restaurant in Al Ula and walked around town looking though all the shops. We also had Baskin Robins! They are everywhere!

I felt full cultural immersion. I was in Saudi Arabia, with my new friends from Jordan, planning to ride the next day with a new friend from Germany.

I will write about the race in my next post with videos and more pictures.

Sunday after the race I went to watch the 160k race start. I was also looking for a ride to the airport. The owner I rode for the day before (Faisal) was racing the 160k. His spent his entire vet hold trying to find someone that could take me to the airport. By the time he left he had one of his two crew people leave with me so I could get to the airport on time. The whole drive the crew guy (I’m so disappointed I can’t remember is name) and I spent laughing. He did not speak great English, but he was teaching me Arabic while he drove very quickly to the airport. Back to Dubai for one night and then home.

As I reflect upon this experience, I want to thank all the people and countries that helped me. We had Italy, Jordan, UAE, Saudi, Germany, Canada, France, and of course all my loving support back in the US all play a part in my adventure. Especially Valerie Kanavy and her husband Larry who listen, advice and support all of my crazy dreams and ideas.

Without all these people I could not have done this. This is what I love most about traveling. You meet so many different people and experience so many different cultures. My travel bug is even worse now. I can’t wait for future adventures on the global equestrian stage. I can’t wait to meet more people who will become lifelong friends.

Saturday, February 17, 2024

Sanoma’s endurance adventures in New Zealand - Full Story

February 5 2024
Sanoma Blakeley

New Zealand is somewhere I've always wanted to go. On the big world map hanging above my bed, NZ has a blue pin to indicate my desire to visit. However, this winter it wasn’t just a bucket list place I wished to someday visit, it was more of a “how can I get myself there?”. My really good friend was going to be in NZ for 3 months and she invited me to visit her. I’m always up for an adventure and good time with Addi, so naturally New Zealand was hot on my radar. In November I was deeply involved in my second favorite pastimes (looking for cheap flights) when I came across a REALLY good deal for a flight to New Zealand. I didn’t need to give it a second thought before throwing them in my cart.

Of course, before buying my flight, I did a quick internet search to see if there were any endurance rides in NZ that I could possibly schedule my trip around. My preliminary search showed several endurance rides with 2 different sanctioning organizations and one ride from each organization that would work with the flight deal.

I bought my economy, non-refundable or changeable flight and decided to reach out to these ride organizations and see what kind of adventures we could cook up:). I was quickly offered a horse for both of the rides that were scheduled during the duration of my trip.

I tried to talk Barrak into joining me on this trip and a preliminary google search revealed a incentive for him to come. There was going to be a triathlon there. That and the fact that he only sees the sun 4 hours a day in the winter living in Alaska and New Zealand, being in the southern hemisphere, is in the middle of their summer. Oh, and surfing... that was also on my list of reasons he should come with me. That and just because I love his company when traveling.

Everything came together and I readily accepted Robyn's offered to ride her horse, Makahiwi Titan in the 120km (75mile) Waimeha Mandate Cup on the 4th of February. Robyn was so incredibly hospitable and generous that I could hardly wait for my trip...

Read the rest here: