The Fauresmith 200 takes place in the first week of July each year and is the culmination of the Endurance Year in South Africa. Since 1973 it has been run over the same course every year, 201 km over three days in a 75-75-51 split, with vet checks every 25 km to ensure the well-being of the horses. The sleepy little town of Fauresmith comes alive for a week with over 2,000 riders, supporters, organisers and officials arriving and camping at the show grounds. It is an annual gathering of Endurance enthusiasts from all over South Africa and neighbouring countries such as Namibia and Botswana. Teams from “overseas” such as Australia, New Zealand and Britain sometimes attend. South African riders are selected in various age and weight groups for national and provincial teams, with international and inter provincial team competitions to be decided.
Billed as the South African National Championships, this race is the big deal in our Endurance world. South African Endurance riders are split into those who have done it and those who want to do it. A common question that comes up quickly between newly- met riders is “Have you done Fauresmith?” An affirmative answer is given with some measure of pride.
To be honest, one does not simply “do” Fauresmith. In all senses of the word it is a mission. First both rider and horse have to qualify in the preceding year through the successful completion of at least three 80 km races. Then the horse's fitness must be managed in the remaining months leading up to Fauresmith. Most importantly, one needs a good crew to commit a week of their life to the cause. This is necessary as all except the final vet check each day take place away from the ride base, which means all the paraphernalia associated with vet checks must be carted to these remote stops by the crew. It took me three years for all the stars to be aligned and so it was that very early on Friday 1st July my good friend and crew Ross Malcom & I left Mooi River, kwaZulu Natal with Buddy in the horse box, off on our mission at last.
South Africa is a big country and we are used to travelling long distances. After four hours we gave Buddy a half hour exercise break in Bethlehem, Free State. Late Friday afternoon we arrived at Fauresmith and began the process of settling in for the next six days. It was midwinter and we were on the high plains of the Free State. The temperature was well below 0oC and we had our first taste of the lazy wind that was to become our constant companion during the nights at Fauresmith. We call it lazy because it would rather go through you than around you.
I was glad that I had chosen not to clip Buddy and he was quite snug in his rugs and stable for all the nights we were there. Buddy is a 14.3 hh SA Boerperd cross that we bred five years ago, out of an indeterminately bred mare that came with the farm we purchased. Buddy was not the ideal choice for such a gruelling race as he was only just old enough according to the rules. All the aficionados say that five years is too young for horses to be able to finish. Buddy was in fact my stand-in horse, my main horse, Solo, having succumbed earlier this year to African Horse Sickness. Following this tragedy, there was just enough time and therefore an outside chance that Buddy could qualify to do Fauresmith if he successfully completed all three 80's that we could attend in the time remaining. Buddy fronted up each time and we slowly knocked them off until all three were in the bag.
Ross doing his crew thing with Buddy.
So there we were, a bunch of novices with neither the horse, rider or crew ever having been to Fauresmith, about to take on an epic. To add to the pressure, we had been selected to race in the KZN provincial team – 6 riders with the best 4 times to count. To top it all off, Buddy was and always will be barefoot. Fauresmith eats horses and spits them out with a consistent fall-out rate every year of approximately 40%. Common knowledge is that most eliminations have always been due to lameness. One training ride out onto the course itself showed why. The going was extremely tough, the worst part being loose stones, mostly larger than the gap between a shod hoof's sole and the ground below. Shoes were not going to be much protection in this race. Strangely enough, all the horses I saw were fitted with shoes. I subsequently found out that 393 out of 397 starters raced in shoes. We smiled quietly to ourselves as we had a plan that seemed perfect for the underfoot conditions. We were going to race in Glue-Ons.
On Monday, the day before the race was to start, we arranged all the tools, boots and glue outside the horse box, trying to escape as much of the wind as we could. A few people had expressed a wish to see the Glue-Ons being fitted but I kept invitations to a minimum, especially as it was only the second time I would be glueing on boots. I suspected that things could possibly turn bad and sure enough, they did. I was using my own glueing system similar to that used by the Aussies. The plan was to apply SikaTack Go to the inside of the boots and the hoof base then to keep the boots in place during the 2 hour drying period by adding super glue in the top of the boots. All went well with the preparation phase and we had four clean and dry hooves. So far so good. Then I reached for my glue gun, squeezed and nothing would come out. After much digging and squeezing eventually the gun broke and I realised that it was because I had been trying to use the remnants of an old glue tube, some having leaked out the side of the plunger and set hard, thereby ensuring that no more could be squeezed out.
Spreading the glue inside the Easyboot Glue-On (and quite a bit outside too).
I had no choice but to cut open a glue tube and apply glue as best I could by hand, screwdriver, Leatherman and anything else that was handy. It was messy and not a good advert for Glue-Ons. Luckily my audience had dwindled to a couple of understanding die-hards and eventually the job was done, albeit with black glue in many places it should not have been. There was so much extra SikaTack around that I canned the idea of using superglue. To top it off, the wind was blowing dry grass onto the excess glue, making things look messier than ever. Two hours later I noticed that one back boot had twisted slightly but not enough to require reapplication. The boots were set fast and we were ready to race.
Day 1 at last – let's do this thing.
Day 1 of the race dawned and finally we were off. Horses were started on a seeded basis over a period of one and a half hours as the track quickly narrowed down into a rocky pass up the first mountain, with no room for overtaking. We were near the back owing to our relatively slow qualifying times. Once at the top we found it comfortable to stay with our starting group at an easy mix of cantering and trotting. The boots were staying on and Buddy went painlessly over all that the trail could throw at us. The all-round protection on his hooves made him confident to stride out smoothly and I felt we were on to a winner if they would just stay on for the duration. After 24 km we arrived at Metz, the first vet checkpoint. I was astonished to see some horses on drips, which could only mean that they were already out of the race. Thanks to Ross's ministrations we passed the vet check and were soon on our way again. This became the pattern for the race – ride 25 km, vet check, short rest then on again. The only hiccup came at the end of the first day when Buddy's pulse stubbornly refused to drop and stay below the maximum 64 bpm. The vet card shows that he passed with 64 and the vet remarked that this was a sign that I could ignore at my peril. After this close shave I decided to slow down for the remaining two days.
Roads were no problem with the Glue-Ons providing outstanding all-round protection.
Day 2 was the reverse of the previous day's course, which meant that we at least had an idea of what lay ahead. This helped and we enjoyed the outstanding scenery, taking things slower. After a strong final vet check at day end we had done 150 km and I felt for the first time that we could be among the finishers. Many horses had retired or been eliminated but we were still going strong. I now knew that the boots were going to stay on and that they were making all the difference at vet checks where many other horses were showing signs of lameness.
Our setup at a vet stop – flags help the riders find their crew among the hundreds of vehicles.
We set out on the final morning in great spirits, with just 51 km to go. We sailed through the penultimate vet check out on the course and turned for home. As always, although the horses had never been there before their uncanny instinct told them they were going home and their good spirits matched those of the riders around us. A few km from the end we hit the top of the pass that we had climbed on that first morning. While clambering down the pass we could hear music coming from the ride base and it was the tune we had been waiting for. Every rider entering the stadium completes the course by riding around the old athletics track to the tune of “Chariots of Fire”. This is a tradition that has been followed at Fauresmith for many years. What a feeling it was to be greeted at the entrance by Ross and to do that lap of honour. All that remained was one more vet check (the ninth). I knew that Buddy was not lame so the only obstacle would be the pulse rate limit of 64. After cooling down his head and face I put on the heart rate monitor and it showed 58. The vet check confirmed that he was in great shape and suddenly it was all done. Mission control could finally stand down.
Final vet check after 201 km – the heart rate monitor going on.
After 201 km of rocks and roads the Glue-Ons were firmly attached and looking for more work. The KZN team is grateful for the sponsorship received from Easycare which covered the cost of our racing shirts bearing the Team Easyboot 2011 logo. The Easyboot profile has been significantly raised in our province and I am sure that we will soon be the most progressive province in the adoption of hoof boots. Of the six members of the KZN team, only three of us finished which sadly meant that we were one time short and therefore out of the provincial team competition.
An analysis of the race results yields some interesting statistics:
- Horses that started the race: 397
- Finished: 248
- Did not finish: 149 (38% of starters)
- Retired by rider: 20
- Eliminated by vets: 129
- Elimination reason: Metabolic - 11
- No reason given: 2
- Lameness: 116 (90% of eliminations)
Some Final Facts
- Buddy was the only horse in the 2011 race wearing hoof boots.
- This was the first time in the history of the race that a horse has worn Glue-Ons.
- As far as I can tell, Buddy is the first horse to ever wear a full set of hoof boots for the entire duration of the race.
And a final thought: as a team Buddy, Ross and I beat the odds that were stacked against us from the time we had to change horses in mid season. All three qualifiers and many training rides were done using Easyboot Gloves. Ross & I know unequivocally that the Easyboot Glue-Ons made the difference between completing Fauresmith and the probability of being eliminated due to lameness. We know because we were there, we did it and can show you the T-shirt.