Monday, February 27, 2012

Qatar: Arabian adventure: Desert riders uphold ancient equine tradition

QATAR (CNN) -

The sun is not yet up over the desert, but already 50 horses and riders are gathered at Qatar's Endurance Village in Al-Wakra, half an hour's drive from the capital Doha.

They are gathered to compete in a 120-kilometer (74.5-mile) endurance race, the likes of which are held here most weeks. Masked riders gaze steely-eyed into the desert as their horses crest their necks and paw the ground, eager to get the race under way.

The starter counts down in Arabic, and the horses and riders surge over the starting line, galloping into the pitch-black desert with their high-held tails streaming behind them.

Hot on their heels a fleet of Land Cruisers hares after them across the sand, the glare of their headlights creating a moving oasis of light. These are the support vehicles from which the owners, trainers and managers can observe the race in progress and shout instructions.

Today, the horses will complete laps of a 30 km (18.6 miles) course, stopping for checks at the end of each lap. Any horse deemed unfit to continue thhttp://www.blogger.com/post-create.g?blogID=5099696e race will be eliminated at each check point.

They will travel at speeds of up to 40 km per hour (25 mph) for around eight hours. Of the 50 who started the race, fewer than a quarter will complete it.

Most of the horses are pure-breed Arabians who are revered in Islamic culture, prized for their beauty, intelligence and, above all, their endurance.

It was the Arabian horse that formed the genetic blueprint for the modern racehorse, with every modern thoroughbred tracing its DNA to just three "original" oriental stallions imported to the UK in the 18th century.

Some say the Arabian horse was a gift to mankind from Allah. The ancient breed is supremely well-adapted to the unforgiving desert terrain of the Middle East.

Many of these animals are ex-racehorses, gradually trained and brought up to fitness to compete in endurance races.

Although the sport is ancient in its origins, today's races are as professional as they are competitive, with horses conditioned to the peak of fitness and subject to rigorous veterinary inspections both during and after the race.

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