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Desert stallion race pushes riders' limits

China Daily | Updated: 2018-03-19 09:02
A rider competes during the "Gallops of Morocco" race in the southern Moroccan Sahara desert on March 1. FADEL SENNA / AFP

ERFOUD, Morocco - Battling gusts of sandy wind, riders from across the world struggled to control feisty stallions as they raced in the first Gallops of Morocco, a desert endurance challenge.

In a country with an ancient history of horsemanship, the event in the wilderness of Merzouga was the first of its kind - a six-day test of stamina, navigation and teamwork.

Competitors spend four to seven hours a day in the saddle, covering up to 30 kilometers of rough terrain a day.

"You need a certain physical resistance," said Deborah Amsellem, 30, who headed from Toulouse, France, with four friends to take part in the race near the oasis town of Erfoud.

Riders use stopwatches to pace themselves and GPS devices to find their way through the sandy plains, deep dunes, rocky hills and passes.

The unforgiving terrain and fickle weather are not the only challenges: competitors must ride Barb stallions they have never met.

The North African breed, originally a warhorse, is known for its toughness and stamina but also for its hot temper.

Fifteen teams took part in the late February adventure, made up of 80 horse-lovers, enthusiasts of everything from trail riding to polo.

Organizers say the event is designed for "rather hardy riders who should be in good physical condition and have a feel for horses in order to cope with the distances."

Saif Ali al-Rawahi, coach of a team from Oman, described the event as "very difficult".

"There are kilometers in the mountains and in the desert," he said. "The horses have to ride on high dunes, the weather is not so good, very windy. It's difficult for horses and riders."

On the first day alone, several riders fell off their horses and some gave up entirely - while others said they were exhausted but enjoying the challenge.

Adventure destination

Morocco is determined to develop equestrian tourism, benefiting from its unique breeds to attract new visitors.

The southern desert is a favorite destination for those seeking an outdoors experience.

"You have hiking, car rallies, mountain biking and discovery trips," said Sadoq Abdedaim, owner of the upscale hotel chain Xaluca.

Claire Biyache, a French rider with eight years' experience who took part in the Gallops event, praised the "beautiful" surroundings.

"We've seen lots of very different scenery, sometimes very black, very mineral, sometimes dunes, sometimes oases," she said.

The adventure came at a price. For Deborah, a student, the $5,200 fee was "a real stretch".

But Dato Beh Chun Chuan, a Malaysian businessman who flew to Morocco specially for the race, said it was "very cheap".

"The most important thing is to have fun and have friends," he said. "Winning is not my main agenda in life."

The 62-year-old millionaire owns a polo club with 54 horses.

Agence France-presse

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