In every great sport there are winners- competitive people who put in the time, dedication, sweat and (lots of) money into their passion. Our beloved sport of endurance has a motto we all know- “To Finish is to Win”. Many of us agree with this motto and hold it true to each ride we go to. Conquering a course of 25-100 miles in a single day is no common feat. Many ride a horse for an hour trail ride and can’t walk the next few days (ask non-horse friends for details). Also, in endurance, there is a large segment of “racers” that take it to the next level. They build a competitive program of steady training, quality nutrition and top foot care. You see them at every ride, the ones that pull in and you say “Oh, well looks like [name] will be going for the win tomorrow.” The ones called “hot shoes”, “speedsters”, or sometimes not-so-nice names. I wanted to write this article in order to help understand that racing is not a dangerous or bad thing- if done right and smart.
Endurance riding is a lot like NASCAR if you think about it. Each year, racers pour in millions of dollars into their cars, set up great pit crews, practice year round, and build their craft to be the best they can be. Now there are many differences between NASCAR and endurance- NASCAR racers don’t have to walk out into snow to feed their cars! Cars aside, there is something common among the best racers and their strategies. The winners do not put pedal to the ground and burn their engines up to win. They think about every detail and race at a pace that will maintain the speed level their car is ready for. If they push past that limit- they blow up and they are done. Sound familiar?
About me: My name is Daryl Downs (M34665). I am 27 years old and live in Southeast Pennsylvania. I started doing endurance when I was 15 years old. To this day I have 3,200 miles in completions, multiple firsts, many top ten awards, and a few Best Condition awards (wish I had more but I maintain a light girlish figure). I have won the Old Dominion 100 (2005) and BC’ed the OD 100 (2006) as well. I have competed on over 20 different horses, for multiple kind owners. You will see many pulls early in my riding career- I call those growing pains and learning experiences.
When I go into a ride, I go knowing my horse is not only in top condition, but also ready to rock that course. I see no reason that my training program does not prepare the horse to excel in a field of other talented horses. Now, this does not mean I always bolt to the front. I ride to my horse’s abilities and nothing more. I take on the NASCAR mentality that says I will use my past experiences to make today the best race I can make it. I have top crew (who decided to start riding, but I digress), top nutrition, and the best care I can afford. I do not go up to the finish line unsure of my horse, or thinking that the win is mine. I respect each course’s terrain and the challenges of my competitors. I look around and know every single horse and their pasts. I know their records, I know what they did last month and I know what they can potentially do on this day. I study as hard as I train my horse.
Today I notice a hesitancy to embrace the racing culture by many members of my AERC family. They question the health of the horses and whether we are being humane in reaching our goals. Thanks to recent FEI struggles, we are seeing the dangers of reckless riding coupled with greed and disregard for their mounts. This is not how many of your AERC friends go about competing. First, we love every horse we get the privilege of riding. We spend countless hours talking to people about them and our training (until they avoid us). We truly work hard and put in the time and conditioning to match the pace we use in AERC events. I bring it back to the NASCAR mentality- the best will conserve and drive (ride) smart. The winner will rarely be the one who rode the hardest, but the one who put in the work before and rode smart.
Why am I talking about racing and NASCAR? Am I rambling? Probably. But, my point is, competing will not kill your horse- unfortunate events, poor care or poor riding will. I want the new generation of riders to read this article and feel relieved that their goals of finishing first in a race can not only be met, but can be met with a happy, healthy horse. Let us embrace different ideas in this awesome, diverse sport we love. I invite anyone that has a desire to top ten a ride, or even step up their training to speak to any mentor about what they do. Pick their brains and learn! It is exactly what I did and still do today. The only truly important piece of information to remember in the AERC is “Always Have FUN”. I always do.
*** To new riders looking to enter the world of Endurance, just jump in- the perks are great. There is so much to learn and so many different ways to enjoy the sport. As a pre-30 year old endurance rider, I take great pride in knowing that I am doing something special. Endurance creates goals not only for your equine friend, but for your own health. I have a focus to stay in shape all year long, preparing and keeping my weight steady for my horse. Other perks include- having a horse (duh), telling friends what you do and seeing their face, meeting new people, partying after rides, traveling, partying more… I have been doing it for 10 + years and look forward to every Spring and the adventures coming up! Check out AERC and read all you can absorb, check out the AERC YouTube page for excellent educational videos, get your horse and ride! ***
photos: Daryl Downs riding Gracie, owned by Sally. Jellison, BG Aashar, owned by Mike Marino. Odie, owned by Daryl Downs