World championship Quispamsis man preparing for global race in Malaysia
photo: Bob Gielen of Norton and his horse, FC Galaxy, are training for a unique sporting event later this year. Gielen wil ride FC Galaxy at the World Endurance Championship in Malaysia in November.
NORTON - Bob Gielen extends his right arm as he approaches FC Galaxy, an 11-year-old Arabian gelding.Seconds later, the 58-year-old Quispamsis man is cheek-to-cheek with his horse. There's a special bond that develops from the miles they've logged and the places they've been over the years.
Gielen will ride Galaxy in the World Endurance Championship in Malaysia, where competitors from nearly 40 countries will compete in the 100-mile race on Nov. 8.
Galaxy appears up to the task. His caramel coat is like velvet wrinkled by rippling muscles and veins. His ears are pointed straight up as if he enjoys the praise coming from his owner and rider.
"You need a special horse to do 100 miles,'' Gielen said. "A lot of them will do 50 miles and then they'll quit. You need one that will keep going.
"I have another horse that is probably more athletic than Galaxy, but Galaxy has the drive and the desire to finish. You need both.''
And some serious strength helps, too. Gielen trains Galaxy on the rugged, rolling hills of Norton.
The horse weighs close to 900 pounds and carries about 200 pounds with the saddle. The 5-foot-10 Gielen weighs about 165 pounds, but he's not always applying direct pressure to the horse.
"He's carrying over 20 per cent of his body weight,'' Gielen said. "They're quite amazing beasts to actually be able to do that.''
Galaxy has owned Gielen for nearly six years. The ex-racehorse was bred in Texas and raced in Delaware.
"He was on the circuit for about two years and I bought him as a five-year-old,'' Gielen said. "He won a few races but he wasn't fast enough for that. Then it becomes a problem. When they retire race horses, quite often they don't make really good quiet saddle horses for people.
"This has been a second career for him and he's good at it. I don't know where he would have ended up. He probably wouldn't have made it as somebody's pet horse, because he is a handful and he came with a lot of fears.
"Even the first year I had him, he would always move away from you. He was afraid of everything. Now, it's amazing how much trust he has in what we do. He'll still let me know if he's not happy about something, but he's much calmer than he was when I first brought him home.''
Despite the physical demands, the 100-mile race is organized to keep horses healthy. There are several different phases that serve as rest stops.
Veterinarians are on hand to make sure that each horse's heart rate goes down to 64 beats per minute at each stop. Once that happens, the horses go into a hold of 40 minutes before continuing the race. As the race goes on, hold times increase to 50 minutes and an hour.
Gielen and Galaxy have done several 100-milers. Their best showing was in June in Montana, where the tandem finished with a time of 11 hours and 24 minutes.
"It's very comparable to a marathon,'' Gielen said. "After they've been out there for a few hours, it becomes kind of a mental thing for them. They're either happy to keep going or they might just say 'That's enough.' ''
Gielen takes comfort in knowing horses were born to run.
"If (Galaxy) grabs the bit and takes off, it's about all you can do to get him stopped again,'' the rider said. "That will happen at the beginning of the ride if there's a lot of activity around. He gets wound up just like any other horse.
"Because he's an ex-racehorse, I think they have a lot of that (excitement) bred into them. They want to run and they want to be first. It's also part of their instinct. As herd animals, the herd was their safety. The last guy gets eaten, so you never want to be last.
"They're flight animals. If you come up to them, they're natural reaction is to move away. They don't normally attack, so their nature is to flee. A good flight instinct is what is left over from their evolution, but it also makes them jumpy when you're on them.''
Gielen believes Galaxy's racing background is an asset in the endurance rides.
"If there's another horse in sight, he wants to catch up to it. Conversely, if there's one coming up from behind, he doesn't want to get passed. You can hear him flicking his ears back trying to tell me someone is coming and that it's time to pick up the pace.
"A lot of people don't realize this, but in some places in the U.S. and Canada, they race Arabian horses the same as they do thoroughbred horses. They typically go over a mile, a little bit longer than the thoroughbred racers do. They're not as fast as thoroughbreds, because they don't have the long legs to get going, but they do race Arabs and that's what these guys were bred for.''
It's Gielen's job to harness all that horsepower.
"The rider's job is to pace the horse,'' he said. "We're supposed to be the brains of the operation. When they head out for a ride, they don't necessarily know that they're going to do 100 miles. It's our job as riders to hold them back initially and encourage them when they feel tired.
"I think the best feeling of accomplishment is being able to get your horse through the ride. At the end of the ride, your horse isn't supposed to be completely spent. He's supposed to look as if he's finished 100 miles, but he's also supposed to look like he could still do some more. It's a real team effort.''
Gielen came to New Brunswick from Edmonton in 1977. He operated a nursery in Norton before going into a semi-retirement to become a substitute teacher.
When he's not in the classroom, he's riding while also trying to stay fit himself. In endurance racing, it's not uncommon for the rider to get off the horse and hoof it himself for a few miles.
"Quite often, if there's a steep hill, I'll get off and walk up the hill beside him,'' said Gielen, pointing out that endurance riders wear running shoes. "Sometimes, I run down the hills, too, just to give him a break. I used to run a lot more, but my knees are not real good anymore, so I don't run as much as I used to.
"Some (riders) run probably run five or six miles out of the 100 miles. It also helps your own knees just to get off the horse's back for a while. The better rider you are, the easier you are on the horse's back and the less work he has to do.''
Whether on the flat plains or tough terrain, Gielen finds peace in his sport.
"If I have an hour or two to myself, I can go and ride the horse and forget about everything else in the world. There's an old saying that the outside of a horse is good for the inside of a man, and it's true.''
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