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Staying the course for 160km

Ana Whitehead will be competing in the junior 160km event over the weekend. PHOTO/SUPPLIED


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Defending champion Deirdre Bartlett, of Wairarapa, was not at the start line for this morning’s 1am start from Whareama Domain for the North Island endurance championships 160km event.

But Wairarapa has some strong contenders in the 70-strong field, such as Gemma Haywood, Jane Fergusson and Ana Whitehead.

The Wairarapa Endurance Racing and Competitive Trail Riding Club is organising the meet and spokeswoman Kelly Harwood said on Thursday the event was “a marathon, but on horseback”.

“It’s the extreme sport of horse riding, you need to have good endurance, and a really good understanding of the horse you’re riding.”

“This is a three-star event, which is basically the highest-rated event you can run outside of the world champs which are four stars,” Haywood said.

Six vets, seven race officials and about 30 volunteers are coming from as far away as Costa Rica, Botswana, the US and Malaysia for the event, which features categories ranging from 10km to 160km.

In the premier 160km event, competitors will ride six times around a 26km loop, with their horses’ health and heartrate checked by the vets each circuit over the 12-hour race.

Haywood said the whole competition was a balancing act.

“You have to really pay attention to your horse. You can’t push it too hard or you’ll be disqualified, but at the same time you want to go as fast as possible.

“The horses are really looked after, and you can only qualify for the event if you’ve proved yourself in smaller races.”

Competitors ride on Arabian horses as the breed is better at running over longer distances than their thoroughbred cousins.

Among Wairarapa’s strongest entries in the competition is 15-year-old Ana Whitehead, who took out the junior/youth 160km ride at the national championships last year.

The Tinui equestrienne was a member of the four-strong team which beat Australia in a transtasman competition in 2017.

Whitehead said she’d been training for the event since late September.

“I’ve done two 80km rides and a couple of 40km rides at the start of my training. I’m quite nervous, but I’m hoping to improve on last year when I didn’t do so well.

“I like seeing the countryside and I love horses. I really enjoy reaching the finishing post and knowing you’ve been able to hold on until the end.”

Endurance racing is a family sport for Whitehead with mum, Vicky, competing in the 100km event on the weekend.

Her sister, Hanna, and father, Scott, are volunteers helping to stage the event.

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