‘And this is Jazz’ said a smiling Karen Jones, one of GB’s leading endurance riders, handing me a diminutive chestnut 14-year-old arab. But I know how tough these little horses are, and was soon to be reminded of it.

Like many things in horses, Exmoor’s Golden Horseshoe Ride — a legendary 100-mile challenge — has reinvented itself in recent times. Most participants come to tackle still challenging but shorter rides, including a 50-mile one-day ride, and a 50-miler split across two days, rather than the main 100-mile whopper.

This year, the enterprising Golden Horseshoe team persuaded several equestrian journalists to take part in a 25-mile ride at race pace, and thoughtfully secured brilliant weather for it.

Listen to an interview with Lucy before the ride

Jazz had reassuringly smooth paces, and a dreamily comfy endurance saddle. Off we set at a brisk hunting trot, with Karen advising on the pace. Keep going, seems to be the rule — never mind the gradient, the rocks, the precipitous drop on one side — you daren’t really walk for a minute.

Exmoor is especially stunning from the back of a horse. Local school children waved us past in Exford, and we pressed on through farmland, over open moor, across rivers and up the odd massive incline, barely touching roads at all.

With every passing mile one’s sense of ‘So what’s the big deal with this sport?’ crumbles as you realise that endurance is a description, not a label. My admiration for the gutsy, ever willing Jazz grew with every passing kilometre. He tried his heart out up murderous hills, and as soon as he had got his wind back, offered canter wherever the terrain allowed. He hated the sight of a horse in front of him — good endurance horses have to be very competitive, self motivated, and unbelieveably forward going.

One soon learns how to handle the terrain to suit the horse. Through occasionally gluey soft peat patches on the open moor, Jazz almost preferred to canter than to get bogged down in trot. And you can barely afford any walking time if you are to achieve ‘gold medal’ speed of 12kmph, as was our goal.

Karen’s wonderful crew met us at certain intervals, to sluice down the horses, offer water or sloppy sugar beet (Jazz’s favourite) to the horses, and a banana or sweets to the riders.

With about 8km to go, and the feet getting a little tired, I suddenly lurched in the saddle — my left stirrup leather had broken. A makeshift knot sufficed until we could intercept our support crew and hastily swap it.

‘We may just make gold by the skin of our teeth — but we will need that 7min gate allowance,’ said Karen, scrutinising her stop watch. The final couple of kilometres afforded good going and there was a real sense of determination as Jazz wove at a canter through the gorse and crossed the finishing line.

The final challenge

But in endurance, the finish line marks the start of the final challenge — passing the vet, with a heart rate (for the horse) of under 55 beats per minute within 30min. It was perhaps the most fascinating part of the contest. We leapt off, unclipped the bits from the horses’ endurance bridles, and immediately start washing off with cold water.

Karen fitted a heart rate monitor to Jazz and used a stethoscope to double check it. ‘88. He’s very hot. More water.’ The team worked with calm efficiency, washing, scraping, a small walk, checking them again.

The horses’ heart rates dropped steadily, then seemed to rise again. ‘There’s a breeze — rugs!’ ordered Karen. We tried to distance them from the PA system and keep the horses together lest noise or separation anxiety might raise their heartbeats. Twenty minutes passed, and finally we thought we could present them to the vet. Pass!

It had been a marvellous experience. But the abiding memory is of a fit horse’s largely unexplored reserves. How many of them in Britain have become prisoners of the loosebox, manege or horsewalker? The Golden Horseshoe shows them doing what they are meant to do. So, all you riders — something to add to the ‘do before you die’ list?

Listen to an interview with Lucy after the ride

  • Lucy completed the course at 12.2kph to receive a Gold Award

Don’t miss H&H’s full report from this year’s Golden Horseshoe ride, out on Thursday 27 May

Photos supplied courtesy of Ian Wigley