On 11 June this year, the hills around Llanwrtyd Wells in Wales saw the thirtieth Man versus Horse Marathon. The assembly tells the story of the race, and along the way reflects on the long story of the close relationship between humans and horses

Introduction for teachers

The Man versus Horse Marathon was inaugurated in 1980 as the result of a pub bet on whether a runner on foot could beat a horse in a long race. The answer seems obvious, but distance and terrain mean that over the years there have been some close finishes, and the runner won in 2004. The very existence of the race speaks of the close relationship between humans and horses that has existed for millennia.

If any children have horses or are riders, start by spending some time letting them talk particularly about their feelings when they ride.

Which do you think can run fastest: a good human runner, or a good horse and rider? Well, the answer’s easy. A race horse runs at about 60 kph (about 37mph) and normally keeps that up for one or two miles. The fastest human sprinters can manage about 35kph, and even then only for one or two hundred metres. So a horse is always going to win easily, right?

Well, maybe not. Every year, in Wales, there’s a marathon race between runners and horses with riders. And, yes, the horse usually wins, but not by very much, and a human runner won it in 2004. How can that be? Well, here’s the story of the race.

In 1980, in a pub called the Neuadd Arms, the landlord Gordon Green and some friends had an argument about whether a runner could ever beat a horse. Gordon said that although the horse is faster on the flat and over a medium distance, if the course was long and very rough and hilly, like a cross country race, the human runner stood a chance.

There was only one way to solve the problem, and that was to have a race. Gordon Green organised it, and sure enough a horse won the first one very easily both in that year and the next.

In 1982, though, the organisers decided to try to make the contest more exciting, so they made the course harder and hillier, with plenty of rough ground and steep climbs. The course was 22 miles long, a just over four miles shorter than a marathon, but a real test of stamina, especially with all the climbs. And sure enough, the finishes started getting closer. The horses continued to win, but only by a few minutes, and sometimes by a few seconds. Then in 2004 Huw Lobb, a world class marathon runner, ran 2 hours, 5 minutes 19 seconds, beating the first horse by just over 2 minutes.

How is it that a runner can give a good race to a horse over 22 miles? Well, there are a few things to consider. Horses aren’t as good up steep rough slopes for one thing. They need to walk and pick their way, where a top class human runner will keep running, no matter how steep the track. The horse doesn’t make time up down hill either, because on steep downhill tracks and rough ground, a brave runner can really take risks, racing down and sometimes almost throwing themselves down really steep bits. A horse rider needs to take a lot more care. The horse needs to be allowed to pick a careful path and it can take a long time to get down a steep slope.

Also, a horse doesn’t really like boggy ground. A runner doesn’t either, but the runner only has two feet to consider, and can dodge the worst bits and keep thinking ahead. The horse’s hooves aren’t designed for soft boggy ground, and they get stuck easily. In some of the marathons a horse has been hurt by trying to wrench a hoof out of the mud.

And if a runner get overheated, then horses get even hotter. Their body mass is greater in comparison to the surface area of their skin and so they can get very affected by the heat, ending up sweating and distressed, and no rider wants to let their horse get too affected by the heat, so they’ll probably slow down.

Of course, when there’s a fairly level bit, or a length of road, the horse will stretch out and overtake the runners easily. But when you put it all together, it’s not such an uneven race at all. But it’s a very exciting one, and lots of fun, and very many people look forward to it. This year 44 horses and riders took on 253 individual runners and 115 relay teams, all trying in front of more than 2,000 spectators for the prize This year the horse won yet again. Local girl Llinos Mair Jones brought Sly Dai home ten minutes ahead of the first runner, former British soldier Haggai Chepkwony. Haggai’s done well in previous races, and he’s sure he’s capable of winning on year.

Human beings and horses have always got on well together. Now, horses are mainly for sport or for show, but for thousands of years they were our necessary companions, doing for us what we can’t do for ourselves – pulling, dragging, carrying. We take pride in treating horses well, keeping them healthy, and looking good, and the sight of a good horse working well gives us all a special feeling. Once, our towns were full of horses. The sound of their hooves on cobbles was familiar, and they kept the whole town on the move, delivering goods, pulling buses and cabs. And of course in the country they pulled the ploughs and harrows and carts that made it possible to grow the crops that feed us.

Now there are far fewer horses in our lives, but the horses we do have are well-treated on the whole – cared for, loved by children, shown off at gymkhanas and special events, given their head at races and show jumping. Do you own a horse of your own? If so you are lucky, and I know you will always remember that, and treat your horse with love and great care. And if you don’t have a horse, do you wish you had one? I think all of us at some point have looked at a horse and thought, “I’d love a horse of my own”. And perhaps we dream of our horse. Like the FlyAway horse in this poem. (excerpt)

“Oh, a wonderful horse is the Fly-Away Horse–Perhaps you have seen him before;Perhaps, while you slept, his shadow has swept

Through the moonlight that floats on the floor.”

A prayer
We thank you Lord for our companions the horses and ponies and donkeys that have worked so hard for human beings for centuries, and deserve to share our lives as companions. May we treat them well, enjoy their company and give them peaceful times when they grow old.

If you’re troubled and disturbed, a calm and confident horse seems to give you new encouragement and strength.


This e-bulletin issue was first published in July 2010

About the author: Gerald Haigh