Interview with Lize Labuschagne of Helderzicht Endurance Stables in South Africa
Endurance riding is an amazing sport that keeps you humble and teaches so many life lessons. One of them is to never giving up!
My favorite moment on an endurance race is the start. Imagine yourself on a horse that’s excited, super fit, and ready to run. It’s dark and you're surrounded by a hundred other excited horses and riders and you can almost taste the adrenaline.
The countdown begins: 5 4 3 2 1, go! And you're off. In the darkness, you can’t see much; you can see the sparks that are made from horseshoes pounding on rocks in front of you and you listen to your own horses hooves to find the softest possible path to ride on.
Your breath gets in tune with the animal underneath you and you realize that today you and your horse are a team. You think as one. The sun shows its bright, orange and yellow face on the horizon, and you sense the total freedom, happiness, and privilege to be able to be where you are now. Moments like these are why I am addicted to endurance.
South Africa is such a scenic country. Every ride is an exciting and beautiful adventure.
We are a small competitive endurance yard in South Africa. We have three main competitions with a couple smaller competitions that we use as qualifying rides for the bigger ones.
Our first big race is the South African International Championship (SAIC). It is usually held in May, and is a FEI 120 and 160km competition. The venue rotates to a different province each year meaning that the course is never in the same.
Our National race, the Fauresmith 200km (usually in July), is a 3-day ride where riders compete with the same horse and must pass eight vet checks along the way to finish the race. The course is tremendously tough on horses because of its rocky terrain and steep inclines, but it is definitely a race to put on your bucket list!
Our last big competition is the Walvis Bay International Championship held in Namibia. It’s a grueling FEI 120km in the desert and over dune 7, which is the highest sand dune in Namibia. The whole course consists of riding in sand (which is knee deep in some places). This race is the most mentally and physically challenging race I've ever ridden; finishing it always brings me tears of joy.
The Sandymount 1000km race is on my bucket list next year. It’s a relatively new race that started two years ago. Finishing it with my amazing horses would be a great achievement for me.
I would not have been able to succeed in so many races if it weren't for my incredible horses. Each one of them has a unique personality that makes the long road a short one. It is so necessary for us to have strong positive bonds with the horses we ride. The more we give, the more they will give back!
Walvisbay involves the most strenuous training routine. I start training two horses six months prior to the race. We start the training with long slow distances (a lot of walking up mountains) just to get them strong again. They are in the walker five days a week, walking the first three weeks, and then trotting with a cool down after that.
When I feel their work is getting too easy for them, we begin hill training. We have a long semi-steep hill about 5km long that the horses trot up four times and walk down. The last two times are cantered up and down, followed by a long walk back home. The reason for this training is to improve their cardiovascular ability and also make them strong. Every two weeks, we also include a long canter session on flat soft ground.
We start training in the sand for the last three months. There is a beach 30 minutes away from home. Every second day, we trailer the two horses to the beach for a bit of sand training on the steep sand dunes.
There are different ways to train in the sand. The deepest sand is always furthest from the shore, so that’s where we ride. We begin with a walk and trot, and later include a slow canter. The deep sand is really tough on the horses, so we break the training down to intervals: two minutes at the walk, two minutes at the trot, two minutes at the canter, and then back to two minutes at the walk. We repeat it a couple times.
The training rapidly decreases in the last month, ensuring that the horses are well rested and ready for the race. They are still in the walker every day and we take them out in the mountains once a week.
This year I trained two horses: the horse that I was going to ride and a back up. After the long travel to the ride, my number one horse got tied up really badly and I had to ride my back up horse. We ended up doing really well because they were both super fit.
Being fit is a must if you want to do well in these races. You won’t believe how much it helps your horse to get off and run beside it even if it's only a short distance. I get riding fit by training my horses and going to the gym everyday, including weekends. I usually jog for 20-40 minutes or do high intensity workouts on the treadmill. I will walk fast for two minutes on an incline, jog slowly for two minutes, and then increase the speed and run for two minutes. I'll repeat this four times.
It's necessary to be fit so that you can help your horse over dune 7. The trick of dune 7 is to never stop. When you stop on the steep dune, you slide back down because of the loose sand. When you get to the top, it doesn't matter how fit you are; it feels like you want to vomit and your legs are shaking.
Make sure you and your horse are mentally and physically prepared for the race. Always believe in yourself, the horse you are riding, and the training you've put in prior to the race. Don't let doubt creep into your mind. Don't fear for the things that could happen. Yes, your horse could step on a stone or pull a muscle and go lame, but it doesn't help stressing about it. Remember to control your controllables and leave the rest to play out on its own.
ALWAYS listen to your horse. Your crew and vets might tell you that your horse is fine and you may ride faster, but they aren't the ones riding your horse. Remember that you are a team. The victory is much bigger when you know you've helped your horse on the course.
Helping your horse by doing simple things like getting off at a water point, taking off your helmet and using it as a bucket to cool down your horse. When it's a hot day, spare your horse's energy by slowing down to a trot when there is no oncoming wind. You will find that when you change direction and the wind is strong from the front, your horse will feel refreshed and you can increase your speed.
When you are close to the ride base, unclip your breastplate, get off, and run beside your horse to lower its heart rate so that when you come over the line, your crew can easily unsaddle and check the pulse. When it's under 64 beats per minute, you can stop your time and enter the vet check. After the race, leave your horse to rest and eat for an hour or so. Return to clean him thoroughly and ice his tendons.
A team looks out for one another. Stay in tune with the moment and never give up on your horse. He will never give up on you.
Lize, thank you for sharing your endurance riding adventures and wisdom with the community! To see more photos, check out Helderzicht Endurance Stables on Instagram.
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