Cristina Mutis chuckles at the fact she never made it to her Sweet 16 party, prom, and high school graduation. While other teenagers were busily picking out dresses and sashes, the young endurance horse racer was harvesting trophies at prestigious equestrian events across South America.
Cristina, fondly known as “Tata,” is Colombia’s ambassador of a high-intensity sport. Although this country has specialized riding clubs and many serious amateurs, few have traveled so far on horseback and risen to the challenge of long-distance endurance. For those who know horses – and Cristina grew up surrounded by them – endurance is far more than an outdoor riding experience, but an extreme challenge in which horse and rider must cover rugged terrain of 80, 120, and 160km. The endurance features rigorous veterinarian checkpoints in order to ensure the welfare of the horses.
Horses average a speed of approximately 20 kpm, and regardless of weather conditions and the trail, riders and horses are subject to the same physical and mental challenge in a competition that can last more than 24 hours. At the finish-line exam, horses are once again carefully examined in order to receive a completion certificate and placing. Exhaustion and stress are common obstacles that can lead to elimination from a race.
Cristina has never known a day in which she has not mounted a horse nor been in a stable caring for one. On her family’s farm in the hills near Bogotá she learned about nutrition and how to psychologically bond with the animals.
A childhood passion turned into a professional career for Cristina and riding required her to undergo home schooling. Even though her parents unconditionally supported her ambition to ride in equestrian events across the hemisphere, the process that led to en- durance began with a “good horse” and hours-upon-hours of training.
The specialized breed of endurance horses herald from Arabia where Bedouins would cross great distances under extreme heat. The horses tend to be smaller with a strong frame and enjoy challenging, strange environments. Not easy to find in Colombia, many endurance horses are bred in specialty farms across the United Arab Emirates and United States, with their gene pool imported through authorized veterinarian clinics. “There’s a much larger world to horses out there than many know,” said Cristina, while making a brief visit to the capital in order to attend a horse seminar at the National Army’s cavalry. “I am highly competitive,” claims Cristina. “Endurance requires extreme physical fitness from the rider and racing the horse to its maximum limits.”
As a competitor in an ancient sport- turned-world enterprise, the 24-year old Mutis began participating in international tournaments at age 15. In 2006, she participated in a 120km endurance race in Chile. With the same horse, she went to Argentina in 2007 for the World Youth Endurance trophy and experienced all the “challenges of a very complicated sport.” Unfortunately, her horse was eliminated due to a sprained hoof, but Mutis later moved up the global ranking to second place in 2009.
With a solid repertoire of races, Cristina and her father, Mauricio, began to organize endurance races in Colombia with the backing of the International Equestrian Federation (FEI), which was founded in 1921 and governs eight equestrian disciplines: jumping, dressage, eventing, driving, endurance, vaulting, reining, and para-equestrian.
Today, the Club Colombiano de Enduro Ecuestre oversees the sport in the country and counts over 400 members. It regularly hosts weekend races in which riders must complete the mandatory distances with all the veterinary support. “This is no finca outing with a bottle of Aguadiente (fire water),” laughs Cristina when discussing the perception many have of the national league.
Their first race was held in Cali in 2008 and an important Uruguayan veterinarian attended the event. He so respected the way Cristina managed the horse and pace she kept, that he found her a top Arabian colt from the legendary farm Santa María Endurance. She went on to qualify for the PanAmerican games and became a double champion.
At the 2012 World Endurance Championship in London’s Euston Park she clinched first. Cristina had truly arrived on the international scene.
Even though considered a team sport, winning an endurance comes down to total control of the animal over the topography. In this regard, Colombia is a privileged country. Even though most horses are used recreationally or as “beasts of burden” to haul goods from the farm to the market, Cristina has been at the forefront of instigating a change in the professionalization of the sport and the way horses are trained. “In Colombia they are often called bestías (beasts) which in itself tells you a lot of the man to animal treatment,” she said. “In Arabia they are revered and called partner.”
After covering much South American terrain and feeling the financial pinch of always being in the saddle, Cristina took a gap year in 2010 to study in Madrid, where she ended up meeting her idol and renowned horse trainer, Jaume Punti of Catalonia. At the helm of Juma Team Endurance, Punti’s horses are coveted in the United Arab Emirates, a nation of major endurance races, farms, and specially designed circuits. Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, the vice president and prime minister of the UAE, is a regular at all the crowning endurance contests, including the Windsor Royal Endurance Race, one of the most prominent festivals on the calendar.
Cristina became part of the global endurance inner circle when she landed a job as a “working student” at the Qatari Al Shahania Stud Farm near Madrid. Al Shahania owns and breeds some of the world’s best Arabian race horses and oversees global properties from their headquarters in an oasis in the middle of the small Emirate. Cristina continued to race internationally, from Malaysia to Kentucky and Brazil to Uruguay. With her world title from London, the future looked east, and Abu Dhabi, one of the headquarters of the sport, came calling. Sheikh Mansour bin Zayed, deputy prime minister of the UAE and one of the world’s most afflu- ent horse breeders and collectors, took “Tata” under his wing and hired her to teach his daughters how to become championship riders.
Like a fairytale involving princesses, luxury stables and Arabian nights, Cristina found herself immersed in a culture with very different traditions than her own, and where being a champion also entails virtues such as discipline and humility. “Endurance is like Formula 1 for these Sheiks, it’s beyond passion,” said Cristina. “The UAE is a society dedi- cated to its horses.”
Mansour’s famous stables, Al Wathba, was home-away-from-home for “Tata” and she worked alongside world- class trainers. Ensconced in Middle Eastern culture she earned the trust of the sheik and his princesses, because, in her words, “you have to be a good influence.” But the desert could not replace the love of her mountainous country, and even though she remains committed to Al Wathba and was granted UAE citizenship, she tries to spend as much time in Colombia as possible. When the racing season starts in August, “Tata” will most likely return to Abu Dhabi and join the team overseeing the hundreds of horses in Mansour’s luxury stables. In the meantime, her dream is to firmly establish “Enduro” as a highly competitive sport that is recognized in Colombia and entitled to state funding.
Colombia is a land of horses and travelers to rural areas are offered a leisurely cabalgata to take in the breathtaking scenery or follow a path where even the most tested Willys Jeeps can’t reach. From the coffee region to the expanse of desert in La Guajira, the horse is an essential part of the homestead. Yet far too often, they are malnourished and put to work in destitute conditions. If a horse’s true potential can be recognized, more riders will surely emerge to hoist high the Colombia flag with the same determination as “Tata” Mutis, our champion of endurance.