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Horses have been indulging man’s competitive nature since the rise of the Mogul Empire and the days of cavalry warfare. Fortunately for horses, the speed and weapons needed for modern-day warfare surpassed their talents. Nowadays, both horse and humans let off steam on the track instead.

Vodacom Durban July
© Vodacom Durban July

Two very gruelling horse races took place in South Africa in the beginning of July – one was a test of speed, while the other was a trial of endurance. The races could not have been more different from each other in terms of tack, style, governing bodies, people, culture and disciplines. The stakes were high and competition was fierce. From mink to manure, from caviar canopies at Greyville Racecourse to canvas tents in the Karoo; it’s like comparing the films Hidalgo and Seabiscuit!

© Photo Pixel Art
© Photo Pixel Art

The 119th Vodacom Durban July took place on the first Saturday of July this year with over 50,000 spectators turning up at the “Captain’s Table” for one of the most prestigious weekends in the Durban calendar. Meanwhile, 764km away, approximately 1,500 people congregated to race over 202km in the 42nd Fauresmith Endurance Ride.

Vodacom Durban July
© Vodacom Durban July

Here is everything you need to know about these two horsing events:

The location

The weather in South Africa’s third largest city is always balmy in July, which is why South Africans flock to Durban’s beaches to escape the wrath of winter and catch an unseasonal tan while going to the races.

Read more about Durban in our online magazine: Deeper into Durban

© Mohammed Moosa
© Mohammed Moosa
Durban skyline
© Diriye Amey

The riders of Fauresmith were not as fortunate and had to endure whatever mother nature threw at them – the weather in the Karoo can be slightly unpredictable and can range from snow, rain, mud, dust, icy winds and freezing temperatures to sudden heat waves.

© Kay Lockwood
© Kay Lockwood

Fauresmith is the second oldest town in the Karoo and one of three towns in the entire world that have a railway running through it. It was almost the capital of the Free State and is now home to 3,628 people. Yes, that’s about a seventh of the people who attended the Vodacom Durban July!

© Kay Lockwood
© Kay Lockwood

The spectators

It must be said that endurance riding, although one of the fastest growing equine sports, is not a spectator sport as the vast distances require vast spaces, with the horses competing out in the field – fields of wheat, sunflower, sheep, and plums. Some things are best just admired from the comfort of your home. Braai’ing, sokkie’ing and brandewyn (brandy) as well as general horsing around were on the Fauresmith agenda for those people who were there.

Vodacom Durban July
© Vodacom Durban July

Horse racing, by comparison, is much more of a spectator sport and you don’t even have to be interested in horses to enjoy a day at the races – from fashion, food and flirting to gambling, there’s a good time to be had by all. “You know horses are smarter than people.  You’ve never heard of a horse going broke betting on people,” said the actor, Will Rogers. Hopefully, no one lost their fortune in the estimated R335 million worth of bets placed at the July this year. Besides that the Bellinis, martinis and margaritas flowed freely at the Durban July.

© Vodacom Durban July
© Vodacom Durban July

The name of the game

Fauresmith has been recognised as one of the toughest horse races in the world, with a significant number of its entrants not even finishing the race. In this case, just to finish is winning enough. The race began on the first Tuesday of July and ended on the Thursday. The participants raced 75km over the first two days and 52km on the final day, with veterinary checks every 25km or so. Should a horse ‘fail’ a vet-check on pulse or movement, they are immediately disqualified. Mentally gruelling and bum-blistering, this race is technical and requires a certain level of strategy and hard-headedness.

© Photo Pixel Art
© Photo Pixel Art
© Photo Pixel Art
© Photo Pixel Art

Instead of one race over three days in which 360 riders compete, the Durban July consists of 12 races in one day in which a total of 190 horses compete. The horses gallop around a 1,000m (sprinters), 1,600m (middle distance) or 3,000m (long distance) track.

Vodacom Durban July
© Vodacom Durban July

Racing requires some fast thinking and quick manoeuvring on the rider’s behalf so that the horse does not get boxed in, or start too fast and burn out, or fall too far behind and be unable to catch up for the nail biting finish.

Vodacom Durban July
© Vodacom Durban July

Well that pretty much sums it up and I personally look forward to next July. Until next year – “Don’t look back and leave it all on the track.”(Racing Stripes)

A young girl practicing her riding in the Fauresmith show grounds. © Stephne Lockwood
A young girl practicing her riding in the Fauresmith show grounds. © Stephne Lockwood

For more on horses in Africa, read our issue: Africa in the Saddle & A Day at the Races in Chad

Africa Geographic Travel
Georgina Lockwood

I grew up escaping Johannesburg city to go horse-back riding in the Magaliesberg mountains or Land Rovering in the Madikwe sand veld. Accustomed to the sun on my face and the wind in my hair, I then embarked as a trainee sailor on a three-masted barque to travel the world beyond my beloved Southern Africa. Ship life steered me to remote destinations and ecological treasure houses like the Galapagos, Pitcairn Island and Polynesia. Once grounded, my love of the outdoors developed into a deep respect for the environment and a desire to preserve it which led to a full time career at Africa Geographic.