Riders ready to test endurance

Michelle Slater

Victoria’s fittest riders and their elite horses will be aiming to complete a gruelling 100-kilometre ride around the Toongabbie hills on the weekend during the Gippsland endurance championships.

Riders will gather at the Toongabbie Adult Riding Club to head out for the ride, which is governed by a series of stringent vet checks at ride intervals to ensure the horse is rested and fit to continue.

The Verspaandonk family from Glengarry will saddle up their team of lean and leggy Arabian horses, after starting out in the sport 10-years ago.

All six family members compete together on their own horses who they train at home along local bush tracks.

Dad Bill said they got the bug after taking part in a 40-kilometre training ride in Rosedale, and they now travel across the state to take part in elite events, through some of Australia’s most beautiful terrain.

“We were looking for something to do as a whole family, we can all compete together and help each other out. And when you are not riding you are strapping each other’s horses,” Bill said.

“The ethos of the sport is to not push your horses, you are successful if you complete the distance and the vet deems your horses fit to continue, or you will get disqualified.”

Daughter Tabitha won this year’s state championships, and has successfully completed seven 160-kilometre rides.

Her sister Nikita completed the national championship Tom Quilty 100-miler in South Australia in 2011, riding bareback on a 14.1-hand high pony.

“Endurance is not something to have a crack at short notice. It requires significant training for the horse’s sake,” Bill said.

He described endurance riding as a level playing field, which riders of all ages and can compete together in different weight and age categories, and most riders look out for one another.

Tabitha said endurance was a challenging sport, which required riders to head out in the dark with head torches and negotiate tricky terrain in all weather conditions.

“It was sleeting at the state champs. We rode in a thunderstorm and we got drenched. The sleet was stinging our faces,” she said.

The fast growing international sport was founded in Australia by booting legend RM Williams, who was looking to continue the dying tradition of the fit bush horse who could stay a day under saddle.