Man Vs Horse
by Rebecca Stevens
Many people will say their best (or worse!) ideas come after a few drinks at the pub with friends. This is definitely the case with the Man Vs Horse Event in Llanwrtyd Wells.
Back in 1980, Gordon Green, landlord of the Neuadd Arms, was chatting over a few drinks with the local huntsman. They had conflicting theories as to whether a man could beat a horse in a race across the varying local terrain. Logic would of course dictate a horse would win, but then let’s factor in humans speed downhill and ability to endure the terrain across a long distance and the race becomes a lot more even (and interesting!)
From this small idea between friends, a huge unique event now recognised across the world was born, the Man Vs Horse Marathon.
📷 Andy Beaumont
📷 Christian Prynne
The small quiet Welsh town of Llanwrtyd Wells every year has its population nearly treble for one weekend as people from all walks of life come to try their hand (and hoof) at this event. As the event has grown over the years (now with over 60 horses and hundreds of runners) so too have the rules and conditions. The runners get a 15 minute head start, followed by the horses and riders with a mass start from the town centre through cheering spectators. The horses have to pass a vet check before the race, at the mid-way point and end before being allowed to finish. At each of these vettings, the horses are checked over and have to get their heart-rates below 60BPM (not easy when they’ve just been tearing around the welsh countryside!) so it truly becomes an even more interesting event and close race.
📷 Huw Evans Picture Agency
This year saw the event make history again as a human runner snatched victory. This is only the third time in the event's nearly 50 year history that a human has achieved this, and although the incentive grew over the years with some impressive prize money, the real victory is to say you beat a horse in a race. Firefighter, Ricky Lightfoot was the victor taking the £3500 prize, as he crossed the line in an impressive time and 2 minutes and 24 seconds ahead of the first horse.
So how about the experience itself? Why would anyone be mad enough to do it on foot or under saddle?
Well, as a local girl who also owned horses, I grew up watching this event in awe. Seeing these incredible fit horses charging past with their riders and the electric atmosphere that filled the town, never failed to make my eyes twinkle and dream that one day I too could compete.
As I grew older, I got my teeth into the event, volunteering as a vet writer from the age of 13 and seeing first hand how much work went into getting those all important heart rates down. Year after year we saw riders determined for the win and others just happy to tick this off their bucket list. But even with years of seeing behind the scenes, I don't think anything could have ever prepared me for riding this event- there truly is nothing else like it.
📷 Rebecca Stevens riding Caddie towards the end of the race in 2018
A mass start of 60 horses through crowds sounds like a recipe for disaster, and don't get me wrong- i was sitting tight and praying i didn't have a dismount in front of everyone! A pace car controls the horses pace for the first mile but once this leaves its every rider for themselves as you tackle the first hill. I say hill, but to be honest even for a welsh girl like myself, these aren't hills, these are mountains with almost vertical inclines and equally as grueling descents.
Soon you are riding alongside runners shouting "Horse on Left" as you overtake them on the hills and they jog past you again with ease on the descents. But one of the things that makes this event so memorable and different is the camaraderie and fun atmosphere shared by all competitors- cheering one another on and making jokes as you pass, somehow all smiling through the pain and often testing terrain.
📷 Andy Hedges
Then you have the vet check at the halfway point. Here, it's a game of planning as well as horse welfare as the riders have a ‘pit stop’ crew cooling down the horses and helping to bring their heart rates down. Once they have passed the vets approval, it’s all systems go again as riders tackle the second half of the race and hope to make up some time again.
📷 Julie Griffiths
Finally, after it feels like you can’t take even one more hill and your body aches (both runners and riders feel the same I think!) you hear cheers from crowds in the distance as you descend that final hill. Most take this chance to have a gallop to the finish line and a fun photo finish as they breathe a sigh of relief that they made it!
📷 Andy Hedges
📷 Rebecca Stevens finishing the race in 2018
So what makes people return year after year to this event? Why do we expose ourselves and our steeds to these unforgiving welsh hills and challenging weather conditions?
Of course, some do it for the glory of that victory but overall there seems to be a unanimous agreement that there is something truly unique about this event that isn't found anywhere else in the world. Whether it’s the fact it's run totally by volunteers and locals who marshall and line the event route to cheer you along, or the novelty of hearing a horse's hooves thunder past you as you run. This event seems to have an atmosphere of love, pure enjoyment and support wrapped around it (as well as a pinch of sweat!) that only further adds to its appeal and keeps people coming back.
See you there next year? Man vs Horse