Ursula Keenan and Omaka Silver Angel. Photo Credit Paparazzi on Tour

ESNZ’s new high performance endurance manager Ursula Keenan is chomping at the bit to get into her new role but knows all too well, it’s going to be akin to riding a 160km. From a lifetime involvement with horses, she has been involved across many facets of endurance and feels she has the attributes required to lead the development of a successful endurance high performance pathway.

Ursula started CTR (Competitive Trail Riding) at 12 after being introduced to it at Pony Club. It was a family affair with her parents and sister all taking part. Her mum and sister won a few South Island trail riding champs but Ursula’s not sure she collected much silverware. They lived on an 800-acre sheep and beef station and horses and riding were her loves. She dabbled in a little eventing but when she headed to boarding school focusing on CTR made more sense. Her parents kept the horses fit and so began a love of CTR and endurance. For the first five years it was CTR exclusively before they crossed to endurance to pursue longer distances.

“I was really lucky to ride for professional stables early on,” says the Leeston mum of 14-year-old twins. Later she competed for New Zealand in trans-Tasman competitions in Australia. “The ultimate of course is to complete a 160km event – that’s what you train to prepare for and complete,” she says. Ursula has four national championship 160km completions to her credit.

“I love that once you are riding over 100kms you look under every stone to find one step better for both horse and rider,” she says. “You can make yourself a bit crazy doing these things but there is actually always something you can do to improve things. That is a challenge that I love – you are never finished learning.”

She thrived as a groom to some of the best endurance riders internationally, including Kevin James, and travelled with him and his horses offshore for competitions. “I have had a lot of significant influences from many over the years but his stable was the first at that higher level.”

The pressure of being part of a small team and grooming at top level was something she really enjoyed. “I always thrived under the pressure and was happy to work for as long and hard as it took. It certainly gave me a much better understanding of the sport. Those three or four crews around you can absolutely change the outcome of the day. You have to trust them 100%.”

Ursula Keenan and Tokopuhe Iceberg. Photo Credit Country Road Photography

She also spent time grooming for Toft Endurance in Australia, another hugely influential part of her development in the sport, where she has learnt an incredible amount about breeding, training, riding and crewing. While she has groomed for some of the best at top competitions, her own competitive CV is more about consistency than results. “I am consistent at being consistent,” she says with a laugh.

“I have been passionate about high performance and performance for sometime. I am lucky to be involved in the endurance performance programme as a mentor for a while and helped run the successful programme for 18 months or so.”

Her experience offshore, and particularly with Toft Endurance, is what she now wants to bring to New Zealand. “You are learning off some the best there are and I know what we can transfer that here. This is our opportunity to try and do something for New Zealand that could see us having more competitors and horses at a higher level. Offering our riders opportunities to do more,” says Ursula.

More recently, riding for a buckle at nationals has been one of the highest achievements available for competitors, and she felt the sport is shrinking. “We need to build a platform for those who are driven to get out and be exposed to more. We want to get horses and riders overseas and exposed to that level of competition – even if they go as grooms or even spectators, they can soak it all in.”

The difference between New Zealand competition and an international competition is vast, so there is a lot to learn. Ursula is confident that her “massive overview” of the sport, that also includes previously being an FEI official, brings much to the table.

“I feel we are in a bit of a lull at the moment and I am really looking forward to being more involved at a higher level,” she says. “The sport is in a rebuild phase and there is a massive amount of work to do to get a completion at World Champs, but it can be done.”

The first step was more international competitions in New Zealand and with our trans-Tasman cousins. “This is a chance to consider the sport from a different perspective and we can help riders to train offshore, base in Europe or Australia so we can start to bridge that gap between New Zealand and international competition.”

Ursula can still be found out competing and just recently completed a 160km ride with her daughter Abi, who was on debut at that distance, with son Adam crewing. “It was very special.” She also has an online equestrian business and is an accredited saddle fitter.

ESNZ General Manager of high performance director Jock Paget figures Ursula is perfect for the role. “She has great experience and has seen endurance from multiple layers – not just as a competitor but as a groom, supporter and managing teams. She has a good understanding of the sport and is highly motivated and passionate about it.”

By Diana Dobson – HP Media Liaison