From the chariot races of ancient Rome, to the bareback riding of the Apache Indians and the war horses that rode into battle during the First World War; a man and his horse have always faced danger and been tested together. It’s almost as if they become a single animal, inseparable and ready to face any challenge. Today this can be seen in races such as The Grand National, one of the toughest horse races in the world; a trial of stamina, strength, skill and endurance for both horse and jockey.
But it isn’t only in the familiar world of horse racing that rider and horse are put to task. Here are ten of the most testing events for horse and rider alike. Some are pure endurance, others skilful, and at least one is very dangerous.
1. Chariot Racing
It’s believed to be the sport that started the Olympics and was made famous by the 1959 epic film, Ben Hur. Today many people might be surprised to learn that chariot racing is alive and well and living in the United States. These days though there’s hardly a spiked-wheel in sight and the high-tech aluminium and fibreglass chariots, with shocks that can be adjusted to track conditions, will cost modern-day gladiators thousands of dollars.
2. The Suicide Race
The World Famous Suicide Race is held every year during August in Omak, Washington as a part of the Omak Stampede, one of the most famous rodeos in the world. It’s been held for more than 70 years and is best known for the moment when horses and riders run down Suicide Hill, a 62-degree muddy slope that runs for 225 feet to the Okanogan River below. The course starts at the top of Suicide Hill, where riders have a 50 foot run to get their horses up to speed, before charging downhill into the river and then swimming across to the other side. Survivors then sprint the last 500 yards to the arena where the excited crowd is waiting.
3. The Mongol Derby
This charity event is the longest, toughest horse race in the world; a 1,000km multi-horse epic across the wilderness of the Mongolian steppe. It’s billed as the “biggest, baddest equine affair on the planet” by Bristol-based organisers The Adventurists who warn: “It’s dangerous, it’s unsupported and you could die.” Only a couple of dozen very experience riders from the hundreds who apply are fortunate enough to be chosen, a mix of polo players, endurance riders, eventers and jockeys. International pony dressage rider, Katy Willings, who took part in the first race in 2009, said: “I was attracted to the extreme physical challenge it represented.”
5. Equestrian Vaulting
Equestrian vaulting could be described as gymnastics and dance on horseback. It’s believed to have its origins in the Bull-leaping of ancient Crete and the Cossack equine gymnastics of the Russian steppe. People have been performing acrobatics on, or over the backs of moving horses for more than 2,000 years and vaulting has been an equestrian act at the circus and rodeo from its earliest days. Today it is one of seven equestrian disciplines recognized by the International Federation for Equestrian Sports and competed worldwide.
6. Trail Riding
Trail Riding is about endurance, as rides that are either 50 or 100 miles long prove. As with human marathon running, many riders will participate to improve their horse’s personal best, but the winning horse is the first to cross the line and be declared ‘fit’ by a vet. Any breed can compete, but the Arabian is generally favoured because of the stamina and natural endurance of the breed. Popular in both the UK and USA, winning riders generally complete 100-mile rides in 10-12 hours. The first World Championships were held in the United Arab Emirates and today there are more than 350 international competitions, second to only to eventing and show-jumping.
Shijoring is extreme and dangerous, a bit like water-skiing on ice whist being pulled by a galloping horse. Its origins can be traced back 3,500 years when the Laplander inhabitants of the northern parts of Scandinavia skied behind reindeer as their only mode of transportation during the long winter months. Its modern origins go back a century to the luxurious ski resort of St. Moritz in the Swiss Alps who each year stage White Turf, an annual event of three races that include skijoring, gallop and trotting races using sleds with aluminium blades
7. Ban’ei Racing
Without doubt the slowest horse race in the world, Ban’ei is a form of horse racing requiring stamina and strength from the horse and skill and judgement from the jockey. Unique to the Tokachi area of Hokkaido, Japan, powerfully-built horses compete by pulling heavily-weighted sleds up sand ramps while being urged on by their jockeys. The horses used in the race are Percheron, Breton, and Belgian breeds that are specially bred for their strength in Japan.
Naadam is a Mongolian festival where “the three games of men”; Mongolian wrestling, horse racing and archery are celebrated. Mongolian horse racing is a cross-country event, with races 15–30 km long. The length of each race is determined by age class; two-year-old horses race for ten miles and seven-year-olds for seventeen miles. Up to 1000 horses from all over Mongolia participate but only children aged from 5 to 13 are chosen as jockeys, making it the most extreme school sports day in the world.
9. Horse-Boarding and Horse-Surfing
Two separate sports really but with a high degree of crossover. Horse-surfing has been around since early 2005 when Matt Smith from Newquay was the first person in the world to tow a kite board behind a horse. Since then many horse-surfing teams have been formed from Australia and Taiwan to America and the Middle East. Horse-surfing’s close cousin, horse-boarding was recently invented by professional stunt rider Daniel Fowler-Prime in Wolverhampton. It’s a fresh extreme sport where boarders on off-road skateboards are dragged across fields by horses, reaching speeds of over 35 mph.
10. Extreme Polo
Polo is a rich man’s sport so it’s no surprise that Extreme Polo, played on snow, should be centred at resorts like Aspen, Colorado and St. Moritz. The Extreme Polo World Cup, held each year at St. Moritz, is the world’s most prestigious winter polo tournament. Four high-goal teams with handicaps between 15 and 18 goals battle for the coveted Trophy on the frozen surface of Lake St. Moritz; truly a winter-wonderland spectacular.