Endurance riding events – long-distance competitions against the clock which challenge both horse and rider – are run across the UK. Gayle Ritchie meets those taking part in one round Tentsmuir Forest
A breathtakingly beautiful Friesian stallion canters through the forest, his glossy coat shimmering in the sunlight.
His luxurious mane and tail flow freely and his ears prick forwards, listening to the gentle tones of the rider perched on his majestic back.
The stallion in question is 16.3hh Oscar and his rider is Blairgowrie-based Janine Mason.
The duo is taking part in a timed ride around Tentsmuir Forest alongside 71 other horse and rider combos.
Run by the Scottish Endurance Riding Club (SERC), the goal is to complete a set distance in an allocated time and with the horse in sound condition, its heart rate below a certain level.
Routes today range from a “taster” 9km to a full-on 62km challenge but some riders can boast of completing longer rides – up to a staggering 160km.
Some ride in teams while others go solo and there are horses of all shapes and sizes – from slinky, speedy Arabs to classy Clydesdales and hairy Highlands.
Overall, there’s a relaxed, welcoming atmosphere; there’s no snobbery or elitism whatsoever.
A major focus is on fun and there are some fantastic colour combinations going on, with riders matching their hat silks to their horse’s bridles.
Horse welfare and safety are hugely important. Spurs, martingales, blinkers and other restraints are not permitted and horses are vetted before the ride.
“Heart rates must be at a certain level and during the ‘trot up’, they mustn’t be lame,” chief steward Nancy Murdoch tells me.
“Those doing big distances have another vet check half way round, and again at the end.
“Rather than having a winner, mileage accumulated over time can result in awards.”
Top team Mary Stockdale and her stunning black Arab Cumbria Khafifa, and Fiona Kirk with handsome Mr Charles, a Welsh D Cross Thoroughbred, are the first team to hit the half-way 32km mark.
As they take a quick break to feed and sponge down their horses, they reveal why endurance is their favourite equestrian discipline.
“You can be as competitive or non-competitive as you like,” beams Fiona.
“You build a lovely partnership with your horse – a fantastic bond. You can ride all day as long as your horse is sound.
“Performance is based on merit, unlike showing, which is based on someone else’s opinion.”
Mary, meanwhile, who has awards coming out of her ears – having clinched SERC’s 2017 trophy for rider with most mileage – tells me Khafifa has completed 3,742km under competition rules.
“It’s a great opportunity to ride across beautiful countryside we’d never otherwise be lucky enough to see,” she smiles.
“There’s a wonderful community and it’s a simple sport to get into. Any horse can do it, provided it’s reasonably fit, and taster sessions allow you to get a feel for the sport.
“The relationship that horse and rider build together over the years is deeper than for many other disciplines.”
Lorraine Laing is competing in the 30km option with her Standardbred ex-harness racing horse Tom, who is 20 years old.
“We started with shorter pleasure rides then progressed to competing,” she tells me.
“We’ve done 50km but prefer to do 30km. I ride in a team with Anne Scott and her Arab, Smokey.
“We really love it and are trying to encourage more people to give it a go!”
Sheila Bruce, chair of the Tayside branch of SERC, says the sport is open to everyone.
“You go out, have fun, set your own parameters and ultimately, compete against yourself,” she says.
“Our motto is: ‘To complete is to win’. We believe in challenges – and in the welfare of the horse.”
It wouldn’t be possible to run rides without helpers and roles include everything from runner to vet writer, timekeeper, gate opener, road crossing marshall and checkpoint steward.
It’s hugely rewarding and addictive and who knows, it could inspire you to get involved in the sport yourself.
To check the calendar or to sign up as a volunteer, see www.scottishendurance.com
The Scottish Endurance Riding Club organises three types of ride: pleasure rides, normally between 16 and 29km, competitive rides of 30km and over, and endurance rides of 60km and over.
The ultimate competition is the endurance race, which may be up to 160km in one day but is always 60km and over.