The easy gallop at which contenders started Wednesday's endurance race at the Kentucky Horse Park belied the grueling conditions that riders and steeds would face over the 75-mile course of soupy mud and some slick pavement.
This isn't a sport for the faint of heart on a clear day, let alone Wednesday's rainy, sub-50-degree conditions.
"I don't know. Is it crazy or stupid?" said Danielle McGunigal, 38, of Fort Valley, Va., after the second of four loops of 13.3 to 24.7 miles.
By that point another competitor, Matthew Sample of Australia, already had been whisked to the nearest portable heater to counter hypothermia-like symptoms upon arriving at the first checkpoint. (He wouldn't finish the race).
And McGunigal's mother, two-time world champion endurance rider Valerie Kanavy, was forced out after her horse slipped and fell.
All that was just in the first half of the race for those rain-chilled riders and horses that finished Wednesday's test run of the endurance event for the 2010 Alltech FEI World Equestrian Games at the Horse Park.
Wednesday's competition began at 7:30 a.m. with the first of two races. One was 75 miles long and the other was supposed to be two loops longer for a total distance of 100 miles. But because of the cold and rain, officials shortened the 100-mile race so it, too, would finish at 75 miles. That's the minimum distance to be considered a qualifier race for next fall's games.
Nations may send four riders next year for the team competition and an additional rider, who may compete as an individual. Awards are given to top teams and individuals.
On Wednesday, Sheikh Majid bin Mohammed al Maktoum, who turns 22 on Friday, was the preliminary winner of the 75-mile race, in which 12 of the 38 competitors who started completed the course. Coming in waving his nation's flag just before 4 p.m., he led the United Arab Emirates team, which was expected to capture the team title that will be officially announced Thursday after final vet checks and horse drug tests are complete.
"Other than the weather today, the course was amazing," he said. "There wasn't any hard part other than the ground being a bit slippery."
His father and the ruler of Dubai, Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid al Maktoum, had planned to compete but didn't make the trip because of a scheduling conflict, according to an official statement.
In the other race that was shortened, McGunigal finished first and led her U.S. East team.
But it wasn't without struggles. She called shortening the race a "wise" decision.
Among the eight disciplines at next fall's games, endurance is the marathonlike event demanding mental and physical toughness for the riders and horses.
The top horse-rider duos usually are familiar with each other, which is important because pacing is key.
Like cycling's Tour de France, endurance is broken up in stages, in this case with mandatory vet checks and rest periods in between so horses can cool down.
Good teams and riders with well-conditioned horses can make up time with the vet checks just like NASCAR pit stops. The quicker a horse can show a "normal" heart rate of 64 beats per minute or fewer and other regular vital signs, the sooner they can start the mandatory rest period of 30 or 40 minutes (depending on which loop was just completed). That means they can get back on the course quicker.
"This sport is the epitome of how hard and how fast we can push a horse," said Ken Marcella, a veterinarian from North Atlanta who was among those checking the health of the competitors. For that reason, equine experts have used endurance races as a chance to research horses' physiology.
The challenges are exacerbated in mud, which not only creates slippery trails but a suction effect on hooves, forcing horses to work harder for each step.
The endurance course winds around the Horse Park and through dozens of nearby privately owned horse farms on the various loops.
Weather aside, it drew rave reviews from riders.
Kanavy, 63, who was world champion in 1994 and 1998, said she has ridden courses abroad that stretched along littered and unkempt areas.
That's not what she found Wednesday.
"We went down this driveway and through this grape arbor, and I'm thinking, 'Wow, this is so cool,' " she said. "It made me kind of proud. I'm like: 'I want to thank those landowners 'cause it was so cool. I can't wait until the foreign riders see this. Eat your heart out.' "