In August 2014, I was asked by my aunt-in-law Sophie Williams-Thomas to join her in a 250-300km charity horse ride across the rural Waterberg district in South Africa in order to help raise funds for the Waterberg Welfare Society Trust, a charity that she had helped set up when she lived in the area during the 1990s. The charity helps those at risk of or affected by HIV in an area where the infection rate is 50% of the population. Education and prevention is key to their work.
Riding had taken a back seat for me in the past four years after I tragically lost both of my wonderful advanced endurance horses in 2010; my Arabian G Putnik (Menes x Pudra) to a broken leg in the field followed by colic and my thoroughbred Alderney Prince (Trempolino x Princess of Man) to a brain tumour. However, preparation for the ride in Waterberg inspired me to step up my exercise regime and schooling of my five year old endurance star in the making Rizaam (Sambist x Rizaari), home from a season being produced and shown by Kirsty Nelson.
On 25 January 2015, we arrived at Horizon after a three hour drive north from Johannesburg airport. After a short time to acclimatize, we set out on a two hour hack on our allocated horses to ensure that we were happy with them before we set off for real the following day. Our group was made up of 10 lady riders that largely didn’t know any more than one other person in the group, all English save for two Dutch sisters. Our collective riding experience and chosen disciplines were pretty varied, including hunting, endurance and dressage.
My horse for the whole week was a wonderful grey part-bred Arabian called Sparky; he was approximately 15hh and cross-bred with a native breed, the Boerperd. A lot of the people at Horizon utilize this breed to cross with Arabians, Thoroughbreds, Friesians, and Welsh ponies, and others to give them stamina, strength, and resistance to disease.
Sparky was fantastic and I felt very privileged to have him. He had a lovely nature, was very willing, brave, responsive and forward going, but sensible and foot-sure. You really need to be able to form a bond and trust your mount as a lot of the going is pretty tough, with steep climbs and drops, rocks, and holes. He was keen to be up front and I was happy for him to be so. When the going allowed and the pace could pick up, he certainly needed little encouragement. However, on the occasions we were obliged to slow and take our place in a line he was very accepting; a perfect balance.
The horses were all beautifully trained, fit and in great condition. Their turnout in the bush as a herd of 80, and meticulous care by the staff at Horizon resulted in happy, healthy horses. Most were unshod but had fabulous hard feet and they were dipped for ticks twice a week.
We all rode in McKellan saddles that are similar to a stock saddle with a high pommel and cantle, no knee rolls and wide serge filled panels. They were definitely designed to prioritise the comfort of the horse over that of the rider! I’d planned ahead in this regard and the first item packed in my bag was a gel seat saver, which helped minimise the concussion and protect my seat bones.
The first 24 hours didn’t exactly go to plan. We had a very close and unintentional encounter with a crocodile, three riders fell off at speed, one went down with a nasty tummy bug, and another got bad heatstroke. Thankfully, things went on an upward curve thereafter!
Our route through the week took us across four game reserves across plains, through gorges and rivers, on sandy fast ‘roads’, along windy tracks and through thorny bush: a complete variety. Along our way we saw all sorts of game and wildlife including zebra, wildebeest, impala, springbok, red hartebeest, warthogs, rhino, jackal, crocodile, hippopotamus, eland, and Oryx.
Each night was spent in a different location with our bags, equipment, and food for the horses brought by a back up vehicle. Our riding time per day was about six or seven hours. Personally, I found that my training had prepared me well, legs and fitness wise, but riding in extreme heat was fairly energy sapping. Electrolyte tablets were definitely a good idea. The horses were certainly fit enough for the challenge and bounced back overnight as if it were Day One, although perhaps by the end they were ready for a break. Sparky’s nature reminded me of Putnik in that if you kept asking he would just keep giving. It’s an Arabian trait I think.
Day Two was a real highlight, swimming with the horses in a dam. I’m glad our guides warned me that Sparky loved to roll in water but would not roll over or on me, so I trusted them and him when he dropped down and dramatically lurched from on side to the other, as I was hanging on to a neck strap. It was a little like trying to stay on a slippery bar of soap but I succeeded! I was also grateful to have been warned about his tendency to do a very slow rear before plunging forward into deep water to swim. He absolutely loved it and so did I.
Perhaps a little to my relief, but a huge surprise, was how little trotting we did. Lots of walking was made necessary by rocky narrow paths, steep climbs and descents, and thorny shrubs. However, when the going was good and sandy, we made the most of it, and there were plenty of extended canters, which we all relished.
The ride was a real challenge for both horses and riders, and gave a sense of achievement, not least in terms of being able to help the Waterberg Welfare Society, which we visited on our last day. Seeing a one-bed ‘children’s ward’ that serves a population of 30,000 with an HIV infection rate of 50%, is pretty humbling. We think we may have raised enough between us to train 10 new auxillary nurses so that can be given 24/7, and we can also fund a significant number of orphans to go to school. So at least we left feeling we were able to make a real and tangible difference.
My love of endurance riding has well and truly been re-ignited, and Rizaam’s showing career may now be quite short lived. It was a truly anmazing and unique experience, made all the more special by the wonderful horses and, in particular, my little seahorse Sparky.