Arabians In Endurance: Nobody Does It Better

By Linda White

The Arabian horse’s ability to meet and conquer arduous physical challenges has elicited awe

Djubille, Brenda White rider
Djubille, Brenda White rider
among us feeble humans since ancient times. Little has changed in the intervening 5,000 years since Assyrian warriors rode their Arabian horses onto the battlefields of the Ancient Near East. Arabians are invariably among the top finishers in today’s all-breed competitive distance rides, and the “why” is no mystery.

From the time some prehistoric nomad discovered an orphaned newborn filly on the steppes above the Syrian plateau and decided she was too pretty to eat, Arabian horses and their human partners have prevailed in the harshest, most inhospitable conditions. They cross vast distances with minimal rest, food and water. The breed’s makeup has served it well: dense bone, economic body size and weight, long shoulder, deep heart girth and huge nostrils that allowed for maximum air intake. His well-constructed feet and legs were durable as iron, and his bravery and acute native intelligence made him unique. We marvel at astonishing stories of Arabians who carried their masters thousands of miles over harsh terrain, often in wartime. Those tales of Arabian horses’ lifesaving courage under fire are not myth and legend; they are matters of fact.

Mistanza, Charlene Lewis up
Mistanza, Charlene Lewis up
Dr. George Allen and his wife, Lynn have been breeding Arabians for 55 years. “Arabians have an efficient system of levers,” points out the equine veterinary practitioner. “He has a correctly balanced body system, and a competitive mind. Most horses have competitive minds, but the natural inclination has to be cultivated to a certain extent. The best endurance horses haves been brought up to understand challenge; to understand that there is a completion, an end point to their work, and that successful completion of that task is their reward. The best endurance horse has been started softly, and taught to move forward with an affirming, never harsh manner. We start our horses in the round pen, initially on a longe-line, and ultimately, at liberty, as they learn to understand and respond to voice commands. It is essential that they learn to focus on the task at hand. This kind of quiet environment and non-threatening training also will give the horse confidence, and teach him to trust you.”

He chuckles. “I should add that the human needs to learn to focus, too! All horses, and especially Arabians, are extremely intelligent and intuitive. As you work in the round pen, the horse will know whether or not you are focused. If your mind wanders, the horse will sense it, and just stop and look at you. Learn to focus, and to cultivate your horse’s potential. When he understands and begins to enjoy the task you are asking of him, the possibilities are unlimited.”

Endurance riding is a mutually rewarding example of the horse-human partnership that was forged

Opening Act, Heather Reynolds rider
Opening Act, Heather Reynolds rider
millennia ago. In 1955 Wendell T. Robie (1895-1984), an Auburn, California businessman and life-long horse lover, organized a distance ride that would found what came to be known as the Tevis Cup, or Western States Trail Ride: 100 Miles in One Day. Held over the weekend of what Robie called the riding moon, in late July or early August, the ride would become a benchmark for endurance competitors from every breed. With the successful completion of that first ride in under 24 hours, Robie organized another one for the following summer. The Tevis Cup, so named for Lloyd Tevis (1824 - 1899) is believed to be the oldest contemporary endurance ride in existence. It is a 100-mile, 24-hour endurance race, conducted over some of the roughest trails in California’s Sierra Nevada Mountains.

Historically, Arabians have always been among the event’s front finishers. In 2007, for example, eight of the top 10 participants rode Arabians. The breed continues to complete the grueling competition with similarly outstanding performances. Robie’s Western States 100 was soon imitated. Two of the first rides were the Old Dominion 100 in Virginia, and the Bonanza Ox-Trail 102-mile ride in Nevada. The latter was organized by a friend of Robie’s who completed the very first 100-mile ride. Today, hundreds of competitive endurance and distance rides are held all over the world, offering fun, adventure and challenge for human and horse.

Sheik Sheik Sheik, Terri Carroll
Sheik Sheik Sheik, Terri Carroll
Endurance and competitive trail riding have become the two most popular types of distance riding. Arabian horse enthusiasts of all ages and skill levels are embracing them, because Arabians excel at both. Competitive distance riding is the supreme test of a horse's physical condition and stamina, the rider’s intelligence, horsemanship, and his or her problem-solving ability. Strict veterinary monitoring is always a given. Most competitors own, train and condition their own horses, discovering early in the game that if they are to succeed, discipline, dedication and a sense of adventure are the sine qua non.

The endurance competitor's motto and mindset, "To Finish Is to Win," applies to all types of distance events; every rider can approach and enjoy the sport as a challenging avocation, or a recreational activity like no other. “Horsemen can trade the hectic world of traffic-jammed freeways and skyscrapers for a realm of natural splendor, while passing through cathedral-like groves of virgin forests that shelter vast numbers of wildlife,” boasts the Tevis Cup Board of Governors’ website.

A number of respected breeders of longstanding have found that breeding Arabian performance horses means breeding for a versatile Arabian that can excel in more than one discipline. Some of the breed’s most successful endurance horses were also winners in an earlier incarnation.

“Endurance has been a natural progression for our ex-race horses,” explains Deb Mihaloff. She and her husband, Alan Kirschner, both lifelong Arabian horse people, founded Cre-Run Horse Farm in Hanover County, Virginia in 1986. “We are into the fourth generation of our breeding program,” says Mihaloff, “and we believe in breeding horses that have a life after racing. Many of our ex-race horses are doing well at the 50- and 100-mile distances. Horses we have bred have completed 56,251 endurance miles, and competed in 1,586 rides, to date. Many are consistently among the top 10 finishers.” Bob Walsh’s SheikSheikSheik and rider Teri Carroll tied for fifth place in the 2014 Old Dominion 50 Mile Ride. The flea-bitten grey gelding has 1,170 endurance miles under his belt, to date.

Other Cre-Run-bred horses currently doing well are Cashin In, a chestnut daughter of racing legend

Nicki Meuten on Cashin In
Nicki Meuten on Cashin In
Sam Tiki. She placed second at the 40th Anniversary Old Dominion 100 Mile Ride with owner Nicki Meuten. At their next outing, the pair tied for the win of the FEI 100 at the 2014 Biltmore Ride. Cashin In currently ranks in first place in national 100-mile ride award standings. The mare Opening Act won th e FEI 55 at the Biltmore the same weekend, and won again the following week at the GERA 50, earning ”Best Conditioned” in both events. Barbara White and Djubilee, her Cre-Run-bred mare, completed the 2014 Tevis Cup Ride, finishing in 36th place out of 186 starters and 107 finishers.

“We were racing our Arabians at Los Alamitos in the mid-1990s,” explains Carl Fudge, of Sturgeon Creek Arabians, in Beausejour, Manitoba, Canada. “We sold one of the horses we had at the track to a girl whose family was very successful in endurance. The horse completed over 2,000 endurance miles, and won several rides and ‘Best Conditioned’ awards. To me, winning the ‘Best Conditioned’ award for a ride is at least as important as winning the ride itself!

“We went on to sell almost two dozen horses into the California endurance market,” he continues. “What I particularly like about endurance is that the care of the horse is THE primary concern. We breed athletic Arabians with racing pedigrees, line-bred to gene pools that are successful race horses; horses that were a known source of successful racing blood in Poland and Russia. All of Sturgeon Creek’s broodmares trace to race- or stakes-winning mares in Russia or Poland. In my mind, racing, whether it be five furlongs or 50 miles, is the ultimate test of a horse’s physical and mental makeup. A horse can be conformed to become an efficient runner, but if he hasn’t developed the mind-set to endure, and to finish ahead of the other horses, he won’t be successful. That is where endurance and flat racing are precisely the same.”

Tiki Barber, Carroll Fontana up
Tiki Barber, Carroll Fontana up
Sturgeon Creek-bred horses have completed over 26,380 miles, more than the Earth’s circumference, notes Fudge, with an 87 per cent completion rate, and 215 times, or 39 per cent of the time, Sturgeon Creek-bred horses have finished in the top ten. A year ago, Sturgeon Creek Arabians received a national Award of Excellence from Equine Canada, in recognition of their horses’ contributions to endurance. Horses they have bred have 57 endurance wins, 38 second places, and 30 “Best Condition” awards to their credit.

“We don’t ask too much of the young horses,” Fudge adds. “Dr. Deb Bennett says the hock of a horse isn’t fully formed until the horse is 5 years old - which is another good thing about endurance. A horse has to be a full five years old before it can enter a 50-mile ride; 4 year olds can only do 25-mile rides.”

The Arabian Horse Association offers several programs that recognize the efforts of distance riders within the framework of both endurance and competitive trail riding. A number of rides are offered in every AHA Region, from British Columbia to Florida. There is even a National Distance Championship. Other distance honors include an endurance high point award; a horse achievement award, distance horse of the year recognition, amateur and “Frequent Rider” annual awards. For more information, visit the Arabian Horse Association’s website, www.arabianhorses.org/. Click on Competitions, and go to “distance programs” in the drop-down box. All AHA distance riding events are sanctioned by the American Endurance Ride Conference, at www.aerc.org/. The AHA distance riding website lists eight other search sites; and requesting “endurance riding” or “Arabian endurance breeders” on any search engine will yield a wealth of information.

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