On a horse and a prayer

2011-03-29 00:00

Above: Spectators watching a race at KwaMpande.

THERE can’t be many horse race meetings that start with a prayer. Or ones that follow up the prayer by singing the national anthem.

But that’s what happened on a Sunday morning at KwaMpande under a blue sky tight with heat arching over seeding green grass on a plateau at the head of the Edendale valley. Grace Zuma supplied the prayer and the assembled race goers sang Nkosi Sikelel’ iAfrika, petering out in the transition to “Uit die blou van onse hemel”. “We don’t know how to continue,” someone said apologetically.

They were gathered near the finish line of the 1 300-metre track stretching in a freshly mown curve across the plain. Gold Circle helped construct the track, which is mown by the municipality prior to meetings, although no one seems quite to know how. “Someone phoned someone and he phoned someone ...”

And there can’t be many horse race meetings where you take your own finishing posts. Two lightweight upright planks fixed to flat wooden bases, which just fall over if a horse accidentally runs into them.

The end of the anthem was the cue for Bethuell Sibiya, secretary of the Umgungundlovu Rural Horse Riding Association (URHRA), to detail the events of the meeting. There were to be six races, some galloping, some trotting, held over either 600 or 1300 metres, including a couple of races for novices.

The origins of rural horse racing appear to go back to the 19th century, but over the past few years it has enjoyed something of a revival and in KwaZulu-Natal the highlight of the year is the Dundee Rural Horse Riding Festival, an annual event since 2005. There is another similar festival held at Kleinmond near Underberg.

“That’s what they are racing here for today, to go to Dundee,” says Linda Lakaje, URHRA deputy chairperson. URHRA has had horses qualify for these championships for the past three years with horses Slingo and Mambazo taking first and second places in one race, while Gundwani came first at a race held at Kleinmond.

At the KwaMpande course meetings are held on the first Sunday of every month with an entrance fee of R20 per adult. Children enter free. Not that there is a formal entrance gate. Horses are tethered to fences alongside a Roman Catholic church, and before and after races horses and riders wander freely among the crowd.

At a meeting like this there are no jockeys in colourful silky finery. Some have riding helmets, most don’t. Some have saddles, most don’t, riding bareback, even barefoot. And they come in all ages and sizes. There is a noticeable buzz of respect around Phelelani Nxumalo, a 10-year-old jockey who won the race on Gundwani at Kleinmond last year.

Another unusual thing about this race meeting is that there is no sign of gambling. “There’s no point,” I’m told. “It’s always the same horses that win.”

Around 100 horses turn up for the meeting although not all race. Most are medium-sized animals — 14 to 15 hands high. “They are born and bred here,” explains Caroline McKerrow. “They are hardy, and they have fantastic endurance. Some will come 10 to 15 kilometres just to race and then go back again. It doesn’t even bother them.”

McKerrow recently got involved with the UHRA. She is a smallholder from Boston where she runs a few horses and is well-known in the area for her knowledge and expertise with horses. “I help with a bit of administration and getting the results out via cellphone and e-mail.”

Down at the start, a man waves a white flag. They’re off.

“The races have been going on for many, many years,” says Lakaje. “I don’t know the whole history.” Although he well remembers the role horse races played in the ending of the war that simmered on throughout the area from the mid-eighties to the early nineties. “During the war people would have no-go areas,” he recalls. “But horses brought people together. They helped stop the war.

“The races began as a social thing. People would come and race, then eat afterwards,” says Lakaje. “They would kill a few chickens for something to eat. They would race their horses on a dusty dirt road and when the races were over they would have some food and drink some traditional Zulu beer. Then they would have some Zulu dancing before riding back home.”

Back then the meetings were referred to as “chicken races” thanks to the source of the shared meal.

“The meetings organised themselves back then, whether you pitched up at 10 o’clock or one o’clock was not a big issue,” says Lakaje. “But we realised racing on gravel road was bad for the horses.”

A concern for the horses’ welfare and people’s safety — riding home at night was not necessarily a good idea — saw proceedings became more formal with the formation of the URHRA a couple of years ago.

“We decided to take it a step further,” says Lakaje. “To get it better organised, to get more people to come, and to try to get sponsorship.”

On this particular Sunday, prizes are being awarded for the first time. Items have been donated by Alison’s Saddlery, there are shopping vouchers from Pick n Pay and Shoprite Checkers have provided food and drink for 40 children.

As horses and riders near the finish line, people gather closer to the track, shouting and cheering. The thud of hooves and a variety of riding styles are on view. Jockeys with legs stretched out haul back on the reins. Occasionally at the end of a race a horse barrels off the track and people scatter.

At the end of the race, URHRA chairperson Mlungisi Sibisi gets the winners into a line and takes their details.

“I was born into this thing,” he says. “At eight years I was a rider.” Although he’s not riding today. “A friend is riding my horse. I want to see how it runs.”

The race meeting began at around 11 am and ends at 2 pm with the awarding of prizes. People gradually drift away or cluster in small groups. Children begin gathering around the bakkie where the food and drink are being handed out.

The next meeting will be on Sunday, April 3.

THE Umgungundlovu Rural Horse Riding Association hopes to develop in a number of different ways to aid the welfare of the horses and the people who participate. They are looking at improving their track, having regular horse dipping and deworming clinics, and upgrading their facilities and equipment. They are also hoping to create self-help schemes, making items of tack and blankets, etc.

A website is also going to be developed to carry race results, stories and photographs of club events. This will take time and assistance, and accordingly the association would like to hear hear from anyone willing to donate expertise eg. website design/advice or material goods as in old tack, dips, rosettes, prizes and first-aid equipment, both for people and horses.

If you would like to know more you can contact the following people:

• Caroline McKerrow at 074 192 7787 or e-mail: caroline@ eastcoast.co.za

• Linda Lakaje at 072 171 2519 or e-mail: lakajeli@yahoo. com and

• Mlungisi Sibisi at 072 320 2527.

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