In 1975 the Florac endurance ride was the first one organised in Europe together with the creation of the Cévennes National Park and its amazing landscapes. Wining this mythical long-distance race is a dream to all the riders who take part in the European Championship. This equestrian sport is getting more and more popular worldwide and in France alone there are 2800 endurance rides each year gathering over 20.000 riders from all over the world.

Local endurance-horse breeding is world-famous thanks to a programme encouraging the breeding of leisure horses and to a great stallion named Persik. This horse is a legend. He was born in 1969 in Northern Caucasus (in the famous Tersk Stud Farm) from the best Polish, English and French bloodlines of Arabian purebreds and was bought by the Cévennes National Park in 1974. He won the two first “Florac 130 km” in 1975 and 1976 and was soon used to produce Arabian long-distance racing horses by covering local mares. His own great performances and those of his offspring made him “the world’s best endurance-horse stud”. He died in 2001 aged 32. Thirty-two of his direct descendants have won at least one major race and 152 of his 328 progeny are ranked on 120 to 160 km rides.

It is said that endurance riding originated in the 19th century with the postal service development in Europe and in the US (the famous Pony Express that linked Saint Joseph, Missouri, to San Francisco on a 1966 miles ride) and of course with the cavalries that on military campaigns used fast and sturdy horses. Modern endurance riding began in 1955 with the Tevis Cup that is a transposition of the Pony Express into a sport event. Later in 1965 the Tom Quilty race was created and in 1975 the Florac Ride was the very first one in Europe.

riding-on-the-Cevennes-MountsThis year edition took place on the 13 September and 69 riders from 7 different nationalities were on the starting line. The horses wellness is a main concern: every horse has to pass an examination by a veterinarian before the race and at each of the five compulsory stops during the race and also, what is very important for the safety of horses, after the finishing line. To be allowed to go on after each Vet-Gate, the heart rate of horses must be reduced under 60 bpm, breathing must be calm and there should be no limping, dehydration or injury. Between each of the six legs of the ride, horses and riders have to make a pause of 40 or 50 minutes. The Florac race is a very demanding one, going up and down pretty steep slopes along 160 km. So each rider has to control his or her horse’s effort especially during the first section when the horses are so happy to gallop in open air that they could lose most of their energy.

Every rider has his own supporting team following the race by car. It’s often a family business! Several times during each leg the horses are watered and sprayed to cool down, most of the time still trotting. The clock is ticking! It is fun to join the caravan of cars following the race and to share the competitive spirit of the teams hurrying up the small roads of the Cévennes National Park to be in time at the next meeting point.

Still there is plenty of time to admire the wonderful landscape along the way. The riders often say that the Florac Ride is the most beautiful one and you can imagine that even the horses enjoy it: on the way I heard one rider saying to her horse to stop watching the landscape to focus on the course!

The race starts before dawn in Ispagnac and it gets beautiful when the sun rises on the Cévennes’ mounts. Later the horses go up Mount Aigoual, 1.453 meters high, from which you get a spectacular 360° view over the National Park. Then they go down again along the canyon of the river Jonte to get to Meyrueis a lovely medieval town. But it’s already time to go up again to reach the Causse Méjean, 1.000 meters high, a high plateau with sparse vegetation. At least the race ends with the last steep slope going down along a 500 meters high cliff on the other side of the Causse Méjean. In this very difficult way down the horses and their riders make one last effort before the finishing line in the green meadows of Ispagnac where the crowd awaits to applaud them. This year’s winner was a Qatar rider, Faleh Nasser Bughenaim on Major Amor, followed just two minutes later by Geraldine Braullt, from France, on Pomoska du Barthas. Only two minutes after a running time as long as 12 hours and 30 minutes including the five compulsory breaks, that was quite short!

What a day! Out of the 69 entrants on the starting line only 34 were able to cross the finish line. It took most of the remaining ones up to 17 hours to get to Ispagnac. Exhausted but obviously overwhelmed with joy, every rider is triumphantly welcomed by his team and the crowd. Even if they are not medal-winners they have fulfil a great dream.


Text and photos © Annick Dournes & Frederic de Poligny