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Beyond the Kentucky Derby: Giddy Up with Unusual Equestrian Events

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Horse in stallIf you missed out on the Kentucky Derby, don’t fret: There are plenty of other equestrian events you can enjoy.

But we’re not even talking about major events like those at the Ascot in England, the Nad Al Sheba in Dubai, or the Flemington in Melbourne, Australia.

Some unexpected destinations offer a unique—and sometimes comical—opportunity to watch unusual, international horse events and festivals, all taking place this summer and fall … so giddy up before the season ends.

Il Palio Bareback Horse Race, Siena, Italy—July 2 and August 16
Having taken place every summer since 1644, the Il Palio Horse Race in Siena, Italy looks like another excuse for drunken hooliganism, but to the Sienese, it’s a little bit more than that. The raucous, bareback ride around Siena’s Piazza del Campo marks the day when 10 of the 17 contrada, Sienese town districts, come together to compete for the coveted palio, or banner, dedicated to Mother Mary herself.

The two-minute race around the severely banked track turns the jockeys’ meticulously selected racing silks into vibrant smears of color. Often brutal, the race remains unfettered by modern constraints of decency; riders are equipped with whips, which they can use to bat anyone — and any horse. No worries if a jockey falls off: A horse doesn’t need its mount to win. Because this is Italy, the festivities begin days prior to the race, and will continue days after the race. Stand in the Piazza for free at 4.30 p.m. on race days.


Litang Horse Festival, Litang County, Tibet—Every August
The vast grasslands between China and Tibet in Litang County may seem remote, but when up to 50,000 spectators and competitors show up, it’s nothing short of a megalopolis. With illicit photos of the Dalai Lama tucked among the tents, the Litang Horse Festival offers travelers an opportunity to catch unadulterated Tibetan culture.

Horse pastureLitang is one of the few areas not affected by the earthquake, which shook Sichuan Province, China, in early May 2008. Celebrating Khampa warriors’ nomadic lifestyles, the festival highlights traditional games, including scarf-snatching stunts, equestrians wielding swords, shooting arrows, and firing rifles. In fits of joy, spectators often storm the battlefield after the races. Eat some yak patties, dance to regional music and swill the local brew known as ching.

Getting to this area is not cheap or easy, so check out Myths and Mountains, a Nevada-based travel company offering month-long excursions to the festival, Litang’s monasteries and mountains.

Wild Horse and Burro Expo, Reno, NV— August 15-16, 2008
In the upcoming event at the Wild Horse and Burro Expo in Reno, Nevada, brother-sister “Equine Extremist” team Tommie and Karen will perform with their steeds in “A Night of Amazing Horses.” Inspired by both Cirque de Soleil and Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show, this performance births a flashy, ungulate love-child. Audiences will see Roman riding, chariot racing, and trick riding, replete with horses jumping in tandem over fire.

A comedy segment even features Tommie’s horse laying flat on his back, as Tommie stands over him in a comical role reversal. Horses in Tommie’s show have to possess a certain balance of charisma and calm, says Marshall, “all while getting a view of the ceiling.” Tickets from $10.

(775) 853-4182,,

Laytown Races, County Meath, Ireland—September 11, 2008
If you’re a die-hard horse racing enthusiast, but would like to mix things up a bit, try horse racing on the beach in Laytown, Ireland. Laytown has been hosting horse racing on its wind-whipped shores since 1868, and claims to be the only “officially approved beach racing in Europe.”

The race takes place at low-tide on a three-mile strip of beach, and the grandstand is carved right into the sand dunes beside a three-acre field that houses jockeys’ rooms, bars and snack areas. As Laytown’s beach racing is a much-beloved event for local Irish residents and foreign travelers alike, crowds can reach up to 11,000. Dublin is your best bet for flying, and punctual trains run from Drogheda and Dublin to Laytown Station. Tickets from $22. 041-984-2111,

By Athena Arnot-Copenhaver for

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