The mysterious and mystical woodlands of South West Brittany are famous for the legends that connect them to the ancient dolmens – Merlin’s tomb and the Knights of the Round Table.
On a recent walk in the Forêt de Floranges, we came upon ribbons hanging tantalisingly from trees and strange, arrow symbols painted at crossing points on some of the paths.
The sudden emergence of cantering yellow-gowned figures, who disappeared back into the morning mists in an instant, was startling.
As we discovered later, these ghost riders were French, Belgian and German competitors in an endurance race over a 100km controlled course that had been organised by the Fédération Équestre Internationale.
Dungannon-born horse woman, Avril Bray, knows the terrain well. On that particular day though, she was involved in another endurance riding event nearer to the Normandy farm she runs with her husband Anton.
“I began riding when I was three and would spend several hours a day in the saddle. When I was 17, I made the choice to focus on judo,” explains Bray, better known as Avril Malley back in the days when she was winning Commonwealth gold in Edinburgh and competing in the Seoul Olympics.
“Those were incredible experiences, but when I eventually came back to horse riding, it was like I hadn’t been away.”
“I always look forward and live in the present. I have never compared them (the two sports). However, the thrill of riding my own horse that I’ve trained is superb.”
For long distance endurance races, Bray’s preferred mount tends to be Moro Torcaz, an Arabian gelding she brought back from Qatar where she worked as a science teacher.
“It’s a special partnership. I spent a year reschooling him. Gradually we progressed up to 40 and then 120 kilometre races,” says Bray.
While endurance racing in Ireland does not have the structure to host many 160km (100 miles) races, the sport tends to stage events over shorter distances.
“It’s not pony trekking. You’re not just getting on the back of a plod and going for a walk,” says Helen McFarland, chairman of the Irish Long Distance Riding Association. “You can start off with the basic level 8-10 mile rides.”
“Be aware, endurance riding is a gateway drug. It’s highly addictive. If you have the slightest interest and get hooked, that’s you for life,” she adds. “It’s like chess on horseback going through various terrains. You don’t need map reading skills, though it does help.”
The annual Celtic Challenge Championship scheduled for the spectacular St Patrick’s Coast Ride, in the shadow of the Mournes, had to be cancelled at the start of September because of the Covid-19 crisis.
However, this Sunday, a less arduous event at Shane’s Castle near Antrim will allow 60 competitors to keep one eye on the clock and the other on the pre-determined trail where they can enjoy the view as they hone their map reading skills.
“While it can’t be the top competition because of the restrictions, it will be a very pleasant hack in the countryside,” says McFarland, who stresses that animal welfare procedures are always a high priority.
“All horses in ILDRA events have to be vetted. A qualified vet is on site to check them before the start and at the end of the ride. If the distance is more than 20 miles, the horse is vetted mid-ride as well. It has to be fit and sound at all those times. Its heart rate has to come within accepted parameters There are regulated watering halts along the route.”
McFarland and her horse Just C’mall, know the challenges at the top end. Competing at the 2014 World Equestrian Games in Normandy, they were close to the end of the 100-mile course before the vets stepped in.
“The day started at 3.30 in the morning,” she recalls. “There were nine checks and we had covered 88 miles before being vetted out. However, I will always remember the experience of gazing up at Mont St Michel as we rode along.”
If Irish endurance riders are to develop to a higher level, Bray feels they need to travel further afield.
“There aren’t enough qualifiers at home for young riders to gain the international competition they need. But it’s difficult when you consider the time commitment and the financial outlay of travelling with your horse to France.”
Bray’s own commitments are restricting how much she can give to the sport. “We’ve young horses coming through and I can’t afford to be away from the farm for very long.
“Welfare is always the main consideration. Moro Torcaz has problems with his legs and I have back problems – going back to my judo days. I pick and choose races that are right for us.”
A perfect partnership.