Equestrian Adventuress Hebe shares how she found her passion for endurance riding while working in Patagonia, Chile. Near the tip of the continent of South America she developed her new passion and became involved in this great sport! But would she be able to keep up with the Gauchos?
Author: Hebe Webber
Dreaming about Endurance
For weeks I’d watched and helped prepare the horses for the upcoming endurance race at the estancia. Cleaning stables, feeding horses and occasionally, if I was lucky enough, getting the chance to exercise the horses that would be competing. We’d prepared horses for a variety of people outside the estancia, but I was too afraid to ask if I could ride in the race. I’d never ridden endurance before and the longing to be a part of it burned bright, especially when I handed over the horses I’d so tirelessly cared for. My taste for endurance had been sparked during the long days out on the estancia marking trails for the competitors. Trust me, there’s nothing more fun than galloping a million miles an hour, racing each other, whooping and shouting as the Gaucho swings his boina above his head, all in the name of “work”.
The race was to be held for the local endurance club, for which the estancia was a member. The night before the competitors were set to arrive, I knew there was no chance I could ride in the race as I hadn’t prepared a horse. I sat at the dinner table, resigned to this fact, and listened to the family talk excitedly about the race. Suddenly, the head Gaucho turned and said to me in Spanish “Would you like to participate in the endurance race?”. Excitement bubbled inside. “If you like, you can ride with the kids tomorrow in the 18km circuit. Just to participate”. Unsure if I was enthusiastic or embarrassed, and with a slightly bruised ego, I decided unofficially with the kids was better than nothing.
Riding on the “Kiddie” Trail
The next day I arrived to start the 18km circuit, I sized up my competition: 4 to 7 year old children with Shetland ponies. Excellent. As much as I wanted to ride the circuit, I wanted to shrink inside my shell like a startled tortoise and crawl my way back to the stables. The majority of adult competitors that had arrived for the real race donned the embroidered jackets of their performance stables, mounted on endurance bred Arabians. While it is not unheard of to compete on Criollo horses, on this occasion I stuck out like a sore thumb; a foreigner at 24 years old with my buckskin Criollo pony riding with the kids.
It started off as a family affair, us all riding together, kids squealing and laughing , racing on their ponies. But soon enough I was far ahead of the group. Unsure if I was meant to stick with them, and entirely unsure exactly what I was doing. I settled into a rhythm of what I hoped was endurance that was fast trotting, cantering and occasional walking. As Patagonian weather would have it, the sunny afternoon quickly changed to have freezing gale force winds (the winds here reach up to 120km/h!). Considering I had to lay down over my horse’s neck, grab my saddle and one foot down hard not to be blown off, I’m slightly confused as to how the kids completed the circuit and didn’t become food for the pumas.
A Big Decision
When I returned, exhausted, freezing and inwardly proud of my endurance triumph, the Gaucho asked me in Spanish “How did your horse go?”, “Bien!” I replied. “Do you think she could do another circuit?”, “Sí, yo creo…” I said. A smile crept across his face. I gave him a confused and slightly excited look. “You want to ride the 40km circuit tomorrow?”. My brain screeched to a halt. I’m sorry, I what?! I nodded my head eagerly. So, just like that, I was a part of it all.
The following morning as everyone was rushing around taking horses for vet checks and getting their competitor jerseys, I, feeling slightly useless and in the way, went off cleaning stables. Not in a rush and eager to hide from the whirlwind, I took my time. My race wasn’t until 12pm, and I was only riding to participate not to compete. The Gaucho appeared at the stable “Hebe! What are you doing?! Take your horse and get your number! You’re competing today!” My brain screeched to a halt for a second time. Now I was a part of the whirlwind too and officially a competitor in the race! I ran off with my horse, passed the vet check and put on my jersey. Number 52.
Getting the Jitters
Uncertainty and nerves gripped my stomach for the first time at this point. Earlier I’d had no time to think about how I felt. I had slight concerns. I had absolutely no endurance experience, I hadn’t in anyway prepared my horse and we’d ridden the 18km circuit the night before. It also seemed that I was the only person competing in a traditional Chilean farm saddle. But I loved this saddle, and I trusted it. It served me well during the long days mustering cattle, the sheepskin covered seat something of a dream. The seat on these saddles is set deep, and the high pommel keeps one truly tucked in. In fact, there’s no saddle I’d rather compete in.
It was electric waiting for the race to begin. Watching the 100km circuit riders stopping in for vet checks, our horses dancing in anticipation. We all lined up at the first marker. The steward made a signal. Then we were off! Cantering out the gate, twisting sharply around the fence, all a big show for the spectators.
Fast Pace and a Brave Photographer
The race moved faster than I expected, the pace set at a rapid canter, darting through the forest and out onto the open hills, people cutting corners to get in front and riding wildly down the sides of the mountains. I have no idea how the photographer managed to ride in pace with everyone, galloping along with one hand on the reins and the other holding a big DSLR camera, jumping over the logs and low lying bushes, turning her body around backwards to photograph us all at the same time. A feat of equestrianism honestly, that girl had a seat of glue.
It was exhilarating racing through the wilderness in the eye of the Torres del Paine mountains, overlooking the lakes. We were blessed with a sunny, almost windless day; a rare occurrence in the south of Chile. Despite my earlier feelings of awkward inadequacy, out on the trail it seemed we were all the same. Arabian or Criollo, foreigner or Chileno, we were all in it together.
A Challenging Ride
The sound of pounding hooves, horses heavy breathing, dust flying – it was a challenging ride. In parts it became so steep we had to get off and lead our horses. The path was nearly never flat, littered with rocks, shrubs and fallen trees. It is hard enough riding that terrain, let alone at a rapid canter while competing with twenty others.
My mare kept pushing forward, full of energy, near tearing my arms out of their socks with enthusiasm. I kept checking her back, but the more I tried the more she pressed. A forward, high strung, yet intelligent animal, I decided to let her find the pace she was comfortable with, whilst occasionally reminding her to take it easy. I’d hoped this would get us through the first circuit without any trouble. I didn’t want to push her too hard, and it was difficult to tell if this was her usual forward gait or her simply hurrying to catch up with the others.
The Vet Check
After completing the first 22 km circuit, I arrived for my vet check. I looked at my mare and realized it was almost impossible she’d pass. Whilst she was still full of energy, her breathing and pulse were high and we only had twenty minutes to slow it down. I lost almost 10 minutes in the confusion of where to go and what to do. I finally found the Gaucho and we set about pouring buckets of water over her to cool her down. After 10 minutes of this, I anxiously arrived for my vet check.
I was informed that my mare’s pulse was too high. I would not be competing in the second circuit. And just like that… it was all over. I wandered off to continue cooling my horse down. It was a strange feeling, to go from being caught up in the excitement, racing around the track, to suddenly having the plug pulled on the fun. But that was the nature of endurance. Pace yourself and your horse or face elimination. Lesson learnt. While I was not surprised, I was disappointed.
Ready for More Endurance Riding in Chile
Walking back to the stables, I smiled. Even though I didn’t finish the race, over the two days I had ridden both the circuits, in doing so completing the 40km. I achieved my goal of participating in the race. In fact, I’d done more than that. I’d competed officially alongside the local riders, something I’d never thought in a million years would happen when I came to Chile. I turned my mare loose, watching as she took off to find her friends, head flicking and whinnying. While I was envious when those who completed both circuits received their medals of participation, I was proud of myself. After all the weeks of preparation, I could say it: I’d competed in my first endurance race. And I was hooked.