HORSE enthusiast Ange Nicholls answered a small “Riders Wanted” newspaper ad, hoping for an inexpensive way of getting back in the saddle after the birth of her first child.
What she got instead was an introduction to the sport of endurance riding - and a high-end industry that sees international buyers pay thousands of dollars for locally bred mounts.
“That’s how I met Vincent,” she says, referring to Campaspe Valley Arabians stud owner Vincent Comer, a veteran with three decades of experience in the endurance riding world.
“He was looking for someone to help exercise his horses. It’s not paid, but I meet him out at One Tree Hill and go for a ride for a couple of hours about once a week and I just love it.”
This arrangement has mutual benefits: Vincent has a dedicated volunteer to lend him a hand and Ange enjoys a regular riding fix without the cost and commitment of owning a horse.
The 35-year-old began competing in endurance events last year and recently completed her first 80km ride - winning the lightweight category on Miss Pasha in just over six and a half hours and also taking out the best conditioned horse in her division.
She says Vincent has been a fantastic mentor to learn from in a sport where the goal isn’t so much to finish first, but to have your horse stay healthy and pass the stringent veterinary checks before, during and after the actual race.
“There’s a lot of preparation that goes into it,” explains Ange, who is a trainee vet nurse at Bendigo Animal Hospital in her spare time.
“It’s like training for a marathon, really. You have to build up the horse’s stamina and that’s why Arabians are great for these events because they originally come from the desert and it’s pretty hard going in the heat and the sand, so they are bred for it in a way.
“I’ve always loved Arabians - they have a lot more spunk and personality about them and they are quite refined looking.”
But Ange can’t afford to get too attached to the animals she exercises and competes on.
The ultimate aim of the venture is to train them to cope with the physical demands of long-distance competitions, get them officially qualified as endurance horses and sell them on the open market.
“Hopefully they get snapped up by overseas buyers, because they usually pay the nice dollars for them,” Ange says.
“The world endurance championships were just held in Normandy and the horse that won was exported from Australia to the United Arab Emirates, and they competed with it. Hopefully we might see one of our horses get up and do that one day.”
Endurance horses can fetch anything from $15,000 up to $50,000-plus, depending on how much work they have done, what rides they have completed and their success rate.
There is enormous interest from the Middle East in Australian-bred Arabians - a horse Ange rode on her first 40km training ride for Vincent was bought at Christmas and is now based in the UAE.
“He’s doing well and the buyers are really happy with him.
“We even had one of the Middle Eastern princes come over here once and we took him out to Vincent’s block at Axedale to see the horses. Sometimes the overseas buyers come out to look at rides, sometimes they compete, and some stay over there and have trusted scouts here who source their horses for them.”
There's a lot of preparation that goes into it. It's a bit like training for a marathon, really.
Ange grew up in north-west Tasmania and, as a child who loved horses from a very young age, pestered her parents for years about riding lessons.
They caved in when she was about 12 and she became good friends with her instructor’s family, spending weekends on horseback at their property and helping conduct trail rides and Riding for the Disabled classes.
She owned an Arabian during her teenage years but sold him to fund an overseas school trip. She later bought a thoroughbred mare and brought her to Bendigo when she moved here about eight years ago, but couldn’t afford to keep her when she fell pregnant.
After the birth of son Kaelin, now six, Ange was keen to reconnect with the equestrian world and responded to the newspaper ad that put her in touch with Vincent.
“He still likes bringing up the first time I went for a ride with him,” she laughs.
“I had a bit of weight on, it was summer and I still hadn’t become accustomed to the weather in Bendigo and I was suffering quite a lot afterwards.
“I was very red in the face and Vincent tipped water all over me. It didn’t stop me, though.”
There was another break when daughter Jazmin, now four, arrived but Ange has been back riding regularly since last March.
She says endurance events are just as big a physical test for riders as they are for the mounts.
“When I started, I was struggling even with 40km and it would knock me around for a week afterwards. My knees and shoulders would get very sore.
“It took me a few weeks to get over my first 80km ride, so you have to keep yourself fit, too. “But the last one I did, I was back to normal within two days because I’ve been doing a bit more personal training myself.”
Endurance rides usually starts before dawn - as early as 4am - with riders wearing head torches to light their way. An 80km event typically consists of two 40km legs.
Horses often undergo a pre-race vet check the day before, then must “vet in” again between legs to ensure they are fit to continue and again after the journey.
Heart rate, body condition, hydration, temperature and stomach sounds are all monitored.
“It’s mainly the heart rate than can get you disqualified, so that’s what we concentrate on,” says Ange. “You don’t want to finish an 80km ride and find out it is all for nothing, though it happens. That’s why ‘to complete’ is the goal.
“Winning isn’t so much the big thing, it’s more conditioning your horse so you can make the distance and get around in a fit state. Any placings you receive are just a bonus.”
Ange enjoys riding with Vincent in endurance events, and they are looking to tackle a 100km event at Eldorado in early November.
“We usually ride side by side, which is good because when one horse lags a bit, the other one can carry it. We take it in turns to go up front and switch back, especially towards the end of the legs.
“In our last event, I got a nasty leg cramp with 1km to go and was struggling, so Vincent could take the lead and my horse didn’t need as much encouragement then.”
The marathons also offer the chance to chill out away from the demands of work and family life.
“A lot of the time we ride in silence – I enjoy being outdoors and love nature and when I go riding I find it quite relaxing. I also like exercising and being fit so it combines the two.
“On the last 80km ride, we came down into a valley just as dawn was breaking. The mist was settling and the sun was coming up and it was just magic. Usually when I’m up at that time, it is to run around after the kids!
“I really feel like I don’t even need my own horse any more – I’ve got it so good.”