Arabian horses described by Arabic poets as “Drinkers of the wind, swallowers of the ground” are borne of the desert sands and ideally suited to conditions at the Tip of Africa Endurance Ride, held in Bredasdorp from 3 – 5 October.
Vets, participants, supporters and horses assembled on the flat farmlands at Prinskraal, a farm just out of town to take part in the 8th Tip of Africa Endurance Ride, offering distances from the premier 160 km to the entry-level 40 km event. Each route was broken down into a number of loops. After each loop the horses went through a vet check to ensure they were fit to continue, as the welfare of the horse is paramount. Following the vet check, horses and riders were given a rest period of one minute for every kilometre ridden, before starting out on the next loop.
This prestige event, which has attracted riders from around the globe, is organised by local breeder, trainer and rider, Naomi Müller, who owns and runs the Shabach Endurance stud just outside Tesselaarsdal, between Hermanus and Caledon. No newcomer to the sport, she completed her first endurance ride in 2002, working her way up to the ultimate distance of 160 km in 2006, when she became the first (and is still the only) South African ranked No 1 in the Federation Equestre Internationale (FEI) rankings. She was also rated 1st on ERASA’s (Endurance Riding Association of South Africa) rankings for 2008 and 2009, for long distances.
Since 2006 Naomi has represented South Africa nine times in events around the globe, including the Endurance World Championships in Terengganu, Malaysia, Samorin in Slovakia and Euston Park in the UK. I asked her what it was that motivated her to spend what has amounted to 14 000 km in the saddle as a competitive rider: Her answer was that as a veteran of 37 160 km rides it is the challenge of being able to pace and manage the horse according to the track in such a way that it finishes fit and well.
This, she said is where skill and tactics comes in. Each competition is a new challenge. Of course, riding in far-flung countries brings its own elements of surprise, like when in Malaysia, camouflaged bodyguards appeared from the bushes, which proved a little startling for the horses. Security was tight because the king, a keen endurance rider, was participating.
With so many kilometres behind her it does not come as a surprise that Naomi started breeding her own horses in 2005. “Experience is not what happens to me, it is what I do with what happens to me,” she said. “When you ride an animal for 160 km you want to know what it’s made of.”
The first foals were born in 2005 in Namibia, where her stud was registered, from foundation stock of proven Crabbet, Egyptian, Polish, Russian and Spanish bloodlines. The foals are allowed to mature before being trained up and sold, as this is what finances the operation. South African endurance horses are regarded as some of the best in the world and horses are exported regularly, especially to the Middle East.
Always a horse lover, Naomi had spent 17 years in media prior to her career as a breeder, trainer and rider of endurance horses. Starting on the lowest rung as a production secretary at SABC, where she did everything to ensure a smooth shoot, she worked her way up to being a film producer, eventually running her own business and producing human interest documentaries for the likes of Carte Blanche and Pot Pourri.
But as anyone in media will attest, it is both high stress and high energy, particularly in the newsroom. Naomi recalled an incident during her news-reading days in 2000, when doing live coverage of the Strydom couple, Callie and Monique on their return to South Africa from the island of Jolo, where they had been held hostage for 127 days by Abu Sayyef rebels. She said it was one of the most stressful assignments of her life, as she arrived at the airport and had to adlib for 20 minutes – which felt like an eternity – because the show went live earlier than expected with the lights of the plane only just coming into sight. Exciting times, with no day the same. But the kind of pressure she can do without now…
At the age of 39 she read a book, Kap die vuurklip by Dr Kobus Maree, which was essentially about finding your God-given passion. Intrigued by this she asked her two sons and husband what they thought ignited her passion and, without skipping a beat, they unanimously agreed it was horses. This motivated her to make a concerted effort to follow her passion. After five years in Namibia, she and her husband Stephen, who had been offered a job with the Overstrand Municipality, moved to the Overberg in 2006, where they bought the farm and started the stud. Being married to a civil engineer had meant travelling wherever Stephen’s work took them, so for the first time she could breed and train her own horses on her own property.
Commenting on the Tip of Africa Endurance Ride, Naomi said that it had lived up to its promise of becoming a premier endurance event, attracting top riders not only locally but also from overseas. Australia, UK, Sweden, Switzerland, Thailand, Uruguay and France are just some of the countries that have been represented. Part of the reason for it being so successful is the safety of the track and the fact that it is flat and soft, allowing for a relatively high-speed ride. In addition, the local scenery which includes a section on the beach at De Mond (ridden at low tide) has immense natural beauty. The Tip, as it is known, is the only three-star FEI-sanctioned event in the Western Cape. This makes it an accredited international event for the Overberg, providing a boost to tourism during the winter season.
Naomi still appears to thrive on stress as she has been the organiser of the Tip of Africa for the past eight years, and with the support of the local land owners, sponsors and the endurance fraternity behind her, it looks like she will hold this position for some time to come.