My horse and I have just gone our furthest distance yet. I’ve been in the saddle for hours. My knees and back ache. The sun is beating down; temperatures are climbing, causing us to slow to a walk. It feels like it will never end. The enthusiasm I felt at the start is waning but I don’t want to give up, so I just keep riding, taking it mile by mile.
The sport of Endurance Riding has always intrigued me. The athleticism of horse and rider teams competing on courses of 100 miles in a day is awe inspiring. I’ve always wanted to make it to that level but so far have only competed in limited distance rides, meaning shorter than fifty miles. Recently, I decided to attempt a longer distance. Here’s the story of how we reached our goal of completing a fifty mile endurance ride.
I started competing on River, Byron’s horse, this season out of necessity since Mackenzie is still healing from an injury. In March, River and I completed our first 25 miles at Old Pueblo in Sonoita, Arizona. The terrain consisted of gently rolling hills and River handled it beautifully. We were able to buddy up with fellow Greenbean, Christina McCarty and her horse, Hot Shot. Riding with them was a real pleasure. It gave me the confidence to ride away from camp on a prancing, head-tossing beast who was screaming for her friend back at the trailer.
River has separation anxiety. She loves Mackenzie and never wants to leave her side. This obviously presents quite a challenge in competition. I’ve been working with her to try to get over the anxiety but it’s a slow process. Her behavior makes me nervous but I persevere, knowing that repeated exposure will help in the long run.
I entered River in another limited distance ride, Mt. Carmel XP in Utah, in May. I had Christina lined up to be my riding buddy again. Then, at the last minute she had to withdraw due to an injury. After a quick pep talk, I decided to stick it out in the hope that someone else would let us tag along with their horse. Luckily, Lynn Leonard and Sandra Harris, two experienced endurance riders from California took us under their wings. We traveled 35 miles through mountainous terrain, gaining and losing over 4,500 feet of elevation. At one point our trail took us to “the top of the world” at over 8,000 feet above sea level where we could see the canyons of Zion National Park in the distance. River placed eighth with all “A”s on her vet score card.
We’ve since moved on to Wyoming, where I selected Dorsey Creek to be our next ride. I was planning on riding in the LD again. Then, after thinking back on how well River did at Mt Carmel, and consulting my mentors, I decided to give the 50 a shot.
We arrived at basecamp the afternoon before the ride. We selected a flat, sandy spot near the Wardell Reservoir to set up. Byron built two adjacent paddocks out of electric fence while I unpacked the truck and got the horses settled. We pitched our tent. Then, we took the horses for a walk before reporting to the vet for our initial exam. Later that evening, we joined riders, crew, and staff for dinner and a meeting held in a converted school bus. When I announced that I was a new rider doing my first fifty, a very nice lady named Yvette invited me to ride along with her and her horse Roscoe. She assured me that they’d be riding slowly as they were looking to complete the mileage needed to qualify as a Decade Team (same horse and rider competing for ten consecutive years).
I went to bed feeling positive about the day to come. Just as I was falling asleep I heard hoofbeats. I scrambled out of the tent to see what was happening. I discovered Mackenzie running around her pen, frantically swishing her tail and throwing her head, a huge swarm of mosquitoes in hot pursuit. After dousing both horses in bug repellent, I decided to put their rain sheets on as added armor against the mosquitoes even though it was still very warm.
A few hours later I was shocked awake by a crack of thunder so loud that it made my teeth rattle. A storm had rolled in and was hitting us without mercy. The pounding of rain on the tent wall was deafening. The wind blew so hard that the tent was pressed flat on top of us. Lightning and thunder had me whimpering in my sleeping bag. I’m terrified of lightning when out in the open like we were. I reached out and clung to Byron’s arm for reassurance as the storm raged on. Rain was blowing sideways, up under the tent fly and misting our faces through the mesh screen at the top of the dome. My sleeping bag was wet from the seepage through the tent walls that pinned me to the ground. At that point I didn’t know how I was going to make it through the night, let alone the next day.
Eventually the wind died down and the tent sprang back up into its normal shape. I crawled out of bed to find a huge puddle on the floor where the wind had driven rain through the door flap. I slipped my feet into my wet shoes and went out to check on the horses at around 2 am. Miraculously, nothing had blown away and the fence was still standing. They were dry and warm under their blankets so I gave them more hay and went back to try and get as much sleep as possible before my alarm went off at 5 am.
The morning dawned bright and beautiful. You’d never have known the night was so terrifying. I fed the horses and myself, then started getting ready. I was thankful that I’d arranged my riding clothes in the top of my duffle bag because the bottom half of my clothes had absorbed the rain water puddled on the floor.
Byron helped tack up River as I secured Mackenzie to the tie ring on the trailer. I wanted to make sure that she would not break free, jump the fence, and join us on our ride. I went over safety instructions and left a sharp knife to cut the rope or halter in case of emergency. She started screaming as soon as we began walking River to the starting area. I mounted up and walked around to warm up. River called and turned to look at Mackenzie but overall was not too nervous.
At 7 am we crossed the starting line, falling into step behind the other riders. The first few miles were a battle to hold River back and get her head out of the clouds. There was a rather exuberant young Arabian a few horses in front of us who was cantering nearly in place, being held back by his rider. This made River think that she was supposed to canter too, even though she was keeping up with everyone else’s trot just fine. Eventually that horse was allowed to speed up and quickly disappeared into the distance. River settled down immediately.
I joined up with Yvette Haeberle and Gary Brown and their horses, Roscoe and Duna. We maintained a good 5 mph pace through the first 25 mile loop, occasionally slowing to a walk. Yvette told me that we needed to make good time in the morning before it got hot. Boy, was she right! The afternoon sun felt so hot. I had been spoiled by the desert and forgotten how much humidity affects the feeling of temperature. We slowed way down, doing lots of walking, and the second loop of 15 miles took almost as long as the first.
Physically, I started breaking down after the second hold at 40 miles. I have a few fused vertebrae in my lower back that were making me miserable. Tension in my neck and shoulders was giving me pins and needles. My bad knee was locked up and aching so badly that I nearly collapsed upon dismounting. I felt like I was starting to overheat and spent the entire hour long hold with evaporative cooling towels on my head and neck. Knowing that our last loop was “only” ten miles was what kept me motivated to get back on. River, on the other hand, was doing great. She continued to receive all “A”s on her vet card, chowing down and drinking at every opportunity.
The hot sun of the afternoon was overtaken by clouds as we trotted out onto the final loop. Distant grey storm clouds drifted closer and closer. Lightning struck a few miles away; I cringed. We kept going, passing familiar landmarks. I tried to stop myself from constantly checking the mileage on my GPS. The wind picked up and it began to drizzle. I caught a chill, so I stopped to put a jacket on, surprised by how quickly the weather changes.
River was doing so well. I was able to ride “on the buckle” with a loose rein for most of the ride once we got through the excitement of the beginning. She followed the other two horses for most of day, initially wanting to be as close as possible. Eventually, as the miles flew by, she realized they wouldn’t leave her behind and she didn’t need to be buried in their tails. I was delighted when she began listening to my suggestions of speed and following distance. On the last loop, she even allowed the other horses to get about 40 yards ahead voluntarily instead of pushing herself to keep pace with their longer strides. I rode with a heart rate monitor on her all day so I could see that she was working at an acceptable heat rate, not overtaxing herself to keep up. She happily traded positions, sometimes leading and sometimes following.
There was one particular hill that marked the final stretch of the return to basecamp. We could see the reservoir and camp in the distance. We knew we were almost home. Cheers and triumphant fist shaking broke out as we made our way onto the flat two track road leading to the finish. We took note of puddles on the road and commented that it must have rained harder here than it did on us. No sooner did we decide to slow down than Roscoe’s foot slipped on the wet clay. I think all three of our hearts stopped for a second. He managed to stay on his feet and continued on without another incident. It turns out that this area is composed of bentonite clay, a very slippery substance. I tried to walk River in the brush on the roadside for better traction, but the slippery spots were sometimes unavoidable. She slipped so badly once, with her front feet going out from under her, that I’m shocked she was able to recover before falling. It happened so quickly. It was like walking on ice. Those last few miles were excruciatingly slow going.
Endurance rider etiquette dictates that you defer your placing to the riders that helped you during your ride. You never race ahead of your mentor at the finish, even if your horse is faster. I knew this and argued with Yvette and Gary when they tried to tell me to finish ahead of them. They insisted that they’d both completed plenty of rides over their careers. So, as we neared the finish line I let River pick up the pace. We were greeted at the finish line with cheers and congratulations. Byron and Mackenzie were there too. A minute later Gary and Yvette crossed the finish holding hands. We all dismounted and I thanked my trail guides, falling into happy, exhausted tears as we hugged.
River immediately dove into a pile of alfalfa hay. She ate contentedly as I removed her tack. I piled everything in my arms and stepped up onto a scale. The scribe noted my weight. This is done as part of the process in judging for “Best Conditioned” horse. You qualify by placing in the Top Ten, and contending for BC is voluntary. We had placed second. Ultimately, we didn’t win BC but it was fun to go through the process for the first time.
We took River back to the trailer to eat, drink, and get cleaned up before the final vet check. All was A-okay on final inspection except for a tiny reduction in gut sounds, likely due to her refusal to eat grass on the last loop because she felt the need to make constant progress toward home. The trot out was funny because she didn’t want to leave her yummy alfalfa pile, needed a chaser to get her going, but then cantered back to the food.
We all rested for a few hours, then packed up and hit the road. Nobody wanted to spend another night out in the open at the reservoir! We only had a 1.5 hour drive back so I figured River could handle it. I was exhausted and slept like a rock that night. We hand-walked the horses a few miles the next day but other than that we all just rested.
Completing this 50 mile ride was a huge accomplishment for me. I’m proud of myself for sticking it out and pushing through the pain and my fears. Most of all I’m incredibly proud of River. We got so lucky finding her in Arizona. She’s a great mount for Byron and she’s turning out to be an excellent endurance horse for me to enjoy too.