Blood on the Trail: The history that equine endurance racing will never escape is back to haunt it

New book "American Endurance" looks back at the controversial roots of endurance racing in the United States
The winner of the 2016 FEI World Endurance Championships, Spain’s Jaume Punti Dachs and Twyst Maison Blanche, weren’t the first across the finish line. (FEI photo by Miro Nota)

When last week’s FEI World Endurance Championships (“WECH”)in Slovakia made the news for all the wrong reasons, echoes of endurance races of the past rumbled to the surface. For the past 125 years, organized equine endurance spectacles have pitted horses against fate. Thanks to FEI TV, we could all watch the WECH horses in action, acting out the latest chapter in endurance history, for better or worse. 

This fall, that colorful and often controversial history will be spotlighted in a revealing new book that cannot–and should not–be ignored.

To be truthful, the only time we usually hear about endurance at the international level is when something goes wrong, and it usually has to go very wrong to attract the media’s attention at all. How much worse can it get? 

Last week, Ajayeb, the 15-year-old chestnut mare ridden by Sheikh Rashid Dalmook Al Maktoum (UAE), was euthanized on the trail, after she tripped and fell on the fourth loop of the track, suffering an irreparable injury to her right front leg. reported that he mare allegedly slipped on a plastic water bottle discarded by riders who came before. 

Victory celebrations for some countries stopped short when the first group of finishers didn’t meet the veterinary inspection criteria. Two horses ridden by United Arab Emirates riders,Napoli Del Ma (Saif Ahmad Al Mazroui) and Quran El Ulm (Ganem Abdullah Al Merri), were vetted out and Uruguay’s LG Muneerah wasn’t presented by Jonatan Rivera Iriarte.

Grumbles and growls from around the world criticized the race on even more issues than direct welfare questions related to the fatality and the condition failure of the first to finish. Many competitors rode rented European horses that they did not own or even normally ride because the transport for their own horses was not paid for by the event. 

The required FEI necropsy of the deceased horse was bypassed because the horse could not be transported across the border to Austria to undergo post mortem tests at the University of Vienna. According to news reports today in the British magazine Horse and Hound, the horse’s remains were shipped to a crematorium instead.

All of this might have been written last week–or 100 years ago. Endurance–at least the American version of it–is about to look itself in the mirror when Random House Penguin’s new book, American Endurance: The Great Cowboy Race and the Vanishing Wild West by Richard A. Serrano hits the bookstores.

“You mean, they still DO that?” is the question that the sport, as it is conducted in 2016, will have to answer around the world. If it can.

• • • • •

The year was 1892 and the people in Brisbane, Australia were mad. Half a world away, in Europe, one of the most notorious competitive rides in history had just finished. German and Austrian officers each left their home capitals of Berlin and Vienna, respectively and rode 360 miles toward and past each other in the event known as the Distanzritt. Approximately 200 horses started the race; 145 horses finished it, although several were Dead on Arrival. Others probably wished they were. What records are left tell us that 25 horses died, more were disabled, and that one horse fell off a bridge.

Richard Serrano’s book about the 1000-mile horse race will be published next week.

Those that kept going were helped on their way by morphine. One horse, ridden toward Vienna by German royalty, broke down but kept on for another 74 hours, allegedly under the influence of the narcotic. The winner in Berlin, an Austrian count, crossed the finish line only to have his horse die. But he had ridden the 360 miles in 71 hours, 20 minutes.

At the other end of the trail, a German lieutenant rode into Vienna to win his part of the race in 73.5 hours, only to have his 12-year-old Irish Thoroughbred die, as well. In an interview with the New York Times, the lieutenant recalled how he had broken the horse to ride, and listed the rations given to his horse during the race. He said he had slept in the saddle.

“A good rider does not ask of the horse more than is necessary for victory,” Freiherr von Reitzenstein commented even after the death of his own horse. “He knows what his horses are capable of. He knows the horse’s strengths, he can see and assess his opponents during races, he can underrate or overrate horses and change his riding tactic in an instant during a critical moment.”

Why were the Australians angry? National pride, of course. They knew that their stationbred Walers could have easily bettered the time record set by the European Thoroughbreds. They and horsemen from a half dozen other horse-breeding nations wanted a shot at showing what their horses could do on the trail. And a new sport was born.

• • • • •

While horse racing was popular in those days, the Vienna-Berlin event elicited a special level of national interest because the cavalry and the abilities of horses and riders were so central to both a nation’s pride and its very vulnerability, even as the age of motorized transportation was dawning. There was a lot riding on the results of that race. It was like a title match in the FIFA World Cup. Our cavalry horses can beat your cavalry horses! Flags waved.

Things only got worse; in the 1909 Distanzreitt, 50 horses allegedly died during or after the race.

Perhaps the Germans and Austrians didn’t bargain for both the international interest that the event spawned, or the outrage over the the affronts to the treatment of the horses. And certainly no one expected what happened next, as countries like Australia and the United States dismissed the results, remarking with certainty that their feisty homebred mongrel horses could have left the finely-bred European horses in the dust. Since the Vienna-Berlin race had few, if any, rules, the riders were free to choose their mounts with endurance in mind. While many chose Thoroughbred-type cavalry chargers, a portion of the riders chose smaller Hungarian horses, often prized in time of war. These horses performed well at the distance, and justified their fame, even if they lacked the long-striding stature and “look of eagles” so treasured in the Thoroughbreds.

Among those who poo-poo’d the results of the Distanzreitt was one of the great entertainers of the day, Buffalo Bill Cody, whose resume included a stint with the short-lived but long-legendary Pony Express–when he was just 14 years old. Based in England in 1892 where he performed to crowds of Europeans, Buffalo Bill had a front row seat for the discussions of both sportsmen and breeders from all over Europe on the merits of endurance races.

To Buffalo Bill and other American equine entrepreneurs, the Europeans needed to take a look at the rugged American “cow pony”–their name for the unregistered Mustang crosses. No stud books with quill pen calligraphy of centuries recorded the blood lines of the cow ponies. Buffalo Bill would leave that to the Europeans.

The United States just needed to prove to the world what the cow ponies could do. Buffalo Bill came up with the idea of 1000-mile race from Nebraska to the gates of the Chicago World’s Fair. “Blood(lines) cannot as a rule hold its own against wiry bone and muscle,” Cody assured the patrons in London. He would show them, with his extravaganza horse race, the likes of which the world had not seen. With him at the helm, the world would take note.

• • • • •

And take note it did. Shiploads of off-the-plains American “cow ponies”, as well as equally rugged mules, headed for Africa to help the British during the Boer War.

But how the cow ponies came to steal the headlines from the Distanzreitt is another story, and one that is beautifully told in the new book, American Endurance: The Great Cowboy Race and the Vanishing Wild West by Richard A. Serrano, which will be published by Random House Penguin, on behalf of The Smithsonian, next week.

The race turns out not to be a Buffalo Bill extravaganza, but more of a Keystone Cops with very dark undertones and the plaintive objections of humane societies from coast to coast. Would it enhance the reputation of the Chicago World’s Fair–or destroy it?

Serrano’s book tracks the legends and what are hopefully some solid facts about the race from Nebraska to Chicago. While endurance feats had been accomplished by American horses before this, they were of the pragmatic sort: a cavalry march or the Pony Express or even going back as far as Paul Revere’s Ride at the dawn of the Revolutionary War.

The U.S. military appropriated the concept, if not the extremes, of the Distanzreitt as a measuring stick for the US Remount Service. A classic test was the ride from Fort Ethan Allen in Vermont to Camp Devens in Massachusetts (via New Hampshire), as a means to test not riders or even individual horses, but both as representative of breeds that contributed to the stock of American cavalry horses.

• • • • • 

When a coast to coast endurance race was announced in the United States in 1915, the Massachusetts Society for the Prevention of Cruely to Animals (MSPCA) sounded a call to arms in its magazine, Our Dumb Animals. “A race like this need not involve cruelty though in all human probability it will. These endurance races generally mean exhausted if not permanently injured horses. We trust all societies for the prevention of cruelty to animals int the towns and cities through which these riders pass, will give special attention to the horses to see they are not being pushed beyond their strength and are suffering in no way from the experience,” wrote MSPCA President Frederic H. Rowley.

It was, in fact, an early endurance race–or stunt–that launched the MSPCA, as told by Diane Beers in her 2006 book, For the Prevention of Cruelty: The History and Legacy of Animal Rights in the United States. Back in 1868, four men rode two horses (two men were on each horse) from Brighton to Worcester in Massachusetts, a distance of 40 miles. They didn’t stop for food or water, and the horses were forced to gallop the entire distance. 

The horses did not survive. Boston animal lover and attorney George Thorndike Angell was outraged. Working with influential Bostonian Emily Appleton, the MSPCA was founded with 1200 members and a board that included members of leading families with names like Weld, Saltonstall and even John Quincy Adams II. Massachusetts passed its first animal protection legislation that year.

But the public remained fascinated by the idea of endurance races for military horses.

In 1914 and 1915, endurance rides featuring military riders highlighted both the New York horse show and the Brooklyn Horse Show. In Brooklyn, the US Signal Corps mounted huge mirrors to transmit Morse Code messages of the standings as the horses left the rest stop and Battery forge wagon at Coney Island. Ending inside the show ring at Madison Square Garden, an endurance race had charged down Fifth Avenue and across Central Park where Valegro charmed the dressage world this weekend.

• • • • •

News was a little slow this summer in the equestrian world, so the FEI’s attempt to re-name and re-brand the sport of eventing attracted some idle speculation of what it might be called. The goal was to make the sport sound more attractive, especially to television viewers during the Olympics.

There has been no call to either re-name or re-brand endurance racing. The sport still bears the same title it always has, in spite of more than 100 years of controversial and cringe-worthy history. For all the talk during the Olympics of the military routes of dressage, eventing and show jumping, endurance is rarely, if ever, connected to its military roots.

Those roots are deep. What began as a military test to either compare the endurance of different breeds suitable for the rigors of military service or to prove the prowess of one’s existing cavalry mounts and officers turned into a “sport” when promoters realized that the public would turn out to watch horses pass through a town or climb a hill or clamber over a mountain trail. Moreover, the public would crowd around the finish line, as if anticipating the end of a race–which, for all intents and purposes, is exactly what it was.

In the late 20th century, endurance became a ride instead of a race. “To finish is to win,” became the motto and the “best condition” award meant as much, if not more, than the victor’s medal. But when the sport joined the FEI, and especially when the World Championship became part of the World Equestrian Games, the FEI had no choice but to attract riders from as many nations as possible, and to nurture the sport in nations that have little involvement in other equestrian sports. 

No one could have predicted the fervor with which some nations grasped on to the sport. Moreover, no one could have predicted that the tail would wag the dog, and turn an endurance ride back into a race. 

The FEI, the equine welfare advocates and the equestrian world at large seem to have turned endurance out, until or unless it gets so outrageous, as it did earlier this year when the World Endurance Championships were moved to Slovakia, that it can’t be ignored.

But horses’ welfare should never be ignored, nor should the established rules of competitions.

• • • • •

What’s so very different today from 100 years ago is that the equine welfare societies’ voices are so hard to hear. But (maybe) there’s hope: At the 2016 World Horse Welfare Conference, scheduled for November 10 in London, the organization is leading its agenda with His Highness Sheikh Sultan Bin Zayed Al Nahyan, Chairman of Emirates Heritage Club in the UAE, on The Bouthib Initiative, a way of valuing welfare above speed in the sport of endurance.

Is it enough? Will anyone listen? Or has endurance been reduced to the level of shame that knows no rebound? It rebounded once, with the help of welfare advocates and sportsmen alike and it has “endured” with the pluck and pragmatism of one of Buffalo Bill’s cow ponies or an Arabian who can both trot and canter. 

Can it, will it, truly endure?

Perhaps, if it is built “wiry and muscled” like Buffalo Bill’s favorite horses. And, if it has a heart underneath it all.

Learn more:

American Endurance by Richard A. Serrano via Random House

If you can’t wait for the new book, the Internet has a treat for you. The Sports Illustrated “Vault” archive is featuring the 1962 account of the Chicago race, written by Robert Cantwell.

ReadTHE HORSE IN EUROPEAN HISTORY, 1550-1900 by Tatsuya Mitsuda, B.A. (Keio), M.Phil. (Cantab.) Fitzwilliam College, Cambridge (PhD thesis, 2007)

The Way We Were: New York’s Extravaganza 1914 Horse Show Aided World War I Victims (The Jurga Report on the endurance race through Manhattan in 1914)

Lieutenant Reitzenstein’s Ride: The Diet and Treatment of the Officer and His Horse, archives of The New York Times, October 8, 1892




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