1. Endurance Riding should come easy for the common folk
FOR most Malaysians, owning a horse is a luxury almost like owning a Ferrari. Equestrian is viewed as a privilege of high-society and when people think of horse-riding, they tend to think of Royalties playing polo or proud well-dressed gentry manoeuvring horses over bars in showjumping or daintily putting it through small paces for dressage.
But in countries like the United States, Australia and Europe, equestrian is a way of life as a horse is just another farm animal like a cow or a goat. Except that they are much more enjoyable, rideable and respond better to human call.
Thus endurance riding, basically riding a horse over a distance, comes naturally to the commonfolk rather than polo, showjumping or dressage.
Malaysia, too, have an equestrian culture in parts of Kelantan where farmers still breed horses from the old days of the Pattani kingdom (now part of Thailand) and Sabah, famous for their traditional Bajau horsemen. But they have mostly ponies and are confined to their groups.
The modern history of endurance racing started when a Wendell T. Robie set up the 160km Tevis Cup in America in 1955. He wanted a sport which `involved rapport with one's horse, companionship on a trail and the opportunity to share the incomparable scenery of my home territory', referring to his native countryside near Lake Tahoe. It was a huge success and more races followed in America. Australia embraced the sport in the 60s and Britain and the rest of Europe followed by the 70s.
Soon the Arab countries followed suit. Arab-bred horses became the only type used for endurance racing, due to their strength and fitness, and it is only natural for countries like United Arab Emirates (UAE) to subsequently become huge promoters.
In 1998, they invited countries affiliated to the FEI (world equestrian body) to compete in the World Endurance championship which they hosted in Dubai. They even paid for boarding and flight for those who qualified.
Malaysia were invited and five locals - Datuk Awang Kamaruddin Abdul Ghani, Dr Nik Ishak Wan Abdullah and Police mounted unit's Azhar Abu Bakar, Sharaf Ibrahim and Zulkefli Sudin - were selected.
Equestrian Association of Malaysia (EAM) endurance committee chairman SM Shuhaimi Shamsuddin said several riders went through the selection process held over increasing distances to qualify under FEI rules.
"This resulted in the five completing a 120km course near Bangi. We were the first Malaysians to get involved with the sport," he said.
Bear in mind that an endurance race is not very straightforward. Not only is it gruelling, there are veterinarian checks held at stages where horses which failed to meet certain fitness conditions are disqualified with the riders. More than 30 countries sent five riders each to Dubai. After the initial vet check, 162 riders were allowed to compete in the World championship.
Malaysia became the butt of their jokes when our riders arrived with Criollos, Argentinian-bred horses said to be good only for farm work, but managed to silence the critics when Azhar became one of the 77 finishers.
Whatever, the seed for endurance racing in Malaysia has been planted. A year later, Sabah set up their own endurance body and started their own short distance races and by 2000, they have conducted 80km races, equivalent to the pinnacle of junior championships on the world calendar.
The Malaysian Endurance Racing Society (MERS) were formed later that year. Shuhaimi said MERS came into being to allow ordinary folks to participate. Otherwise, one must go through EAM and only those who are affiliated with riding clubs (read: with money or support) can join the association. Thus starts a chapter in the Malaysian equestrian history and this would
soon culminate in an event that could well do what polo, showjumping and
dressage have failed - to bring the field to the masses.
* NEXT: 2. Creating an equestrian culture in Malaysia