Why Endurance Ride - Why Not? Anybody can do it.

Why endurance? Why not endurance? This blog is geared toward young adults, to show why you should give the sport of endurance riding a try, and toward our current members who just might be thinking "Hey, I still want to try a 100" or "I want to step up to finishing in the Top Ten." Anyone can achieve it! It is a tough distance but a doable one. So many riders have the desire; what's holding you back from trying?

Monday, March 31, 2014

The Thrill of Speed. The Beauty of Partnership

I was honored to be asked to write a short article on why I ride endurance, specifically, why I choose to sometimes race endurance and what got me started in the sport. I am not a writer by trade, and to put into words what at times is an intensely emotional experience for me is very difficult. For now, with this horse, my goals are sitius, altius, fortius- for as long as he enjoys doing it. The exhilaration of pushing our personal limits farther is incredible, and I believe that, at least for my four legged partner, the feeling seems to be mutual. If only I had a video of when he returned from his first 100 mile race! His chest was puffed out like a peacock and he strutted out to the pasture in front of his buddies like he was the greatest thing since sliced bread. Whoever says pride is only a human emotion does not know horses!

My introduction to endurance sports started with running ultramarathons competitively. Actually, it started with running to lose weight which led to ultramarathons. I have completed races up to 100 miles, can’t remember how many marathons, and at one time proudly held three separate women’s ultra-distance course records. I learned from ultras that we are capable of so much more than we think we are. Some of my fondest memories though were not of the wins or completions of tough races, but the camaraderie amongst the runners. The front runners would cheer on the slower runners as they passed on an out and back section, or even came back after their finish (and a shower/nap in some cases) to welcome the back of the pack at the finish line. Many of the top runners showed true sportsmanship and for some of us mere mortals we could only aspire to compete as they did. I also learned the hard way that the long term wear and tear of training can catch up with you and what can happen when you do not listen to your body. Unfortunately, various life challenges cropped up that put an end on my time and ability to run/train as I once did. But as they say, when one door closes in your life, another opens. Mine opened to the fantastic sport of endurance riding.

I had limited exposure to endurance riding indirectly via the Western States Trail Run. The story of Gordy Ainsleigh at Tevis was familiar to me. So I started to research endurance riding and now I had the financial ability and geographic location to support a horse. My husband naively said yes. Silly man- he must really love me! I started cautiously, taking riding lessons from JoAnn Pavlis at Milemakers in CO. I hadn’t sat on a horse in 20 years when I started lessons with her but it came back quickly. As a kid, I used to lead trail rides at a stable for free on the weekends year round just to have the opportunity to ride. As for many kids though, going to college and starting a career pretty much put an end to that. It sure didn’t take much to re-kindle the addiction. By end of summer I had purchased a wonderful off track Arabian I named Dakar who was looking for a new line of work.

I was happy to find much of the same support in endurance riding as I had found in ultramarathons. At my very first ride, I was “rescued” by two wonderful riders whom I had never met before. Honestly, when I started endurance 4 years ago at our first LD ride, I was not intending to be competitive, at least not any time soon. Dakar had other ideas. That first ride would have been my last were it not for Neil and Branka McLaughlin. Dakar may not have been into the racing game on the track anymore but he was all about it on the trails. He still gets very angry with me if I hold him back at the finish because in my opinion the area is not safe for him to race in or I think that it is not appropriate for where he is in training. But that’s my part of the partnership- I’m supposed to be the big brain.

I view myself as both a partner and a coach for my horse which is a huge responsibility. Not every ride we enter is a “race” for us and is sometimes just a step to a different goal. I realize I am working with a partner who can not verbalize what he feels—I have to be more in tune with him that I think I ever was with myself. To make it tougher, Dakar tends to be the stoic sort. I think one of the best things about endurance for me has been the satisfaction I feel from helping him develop his natural abilities. There are so many things to learn- not just actual training techniques but what electrolyte/re-fueling strategies work best for him as an individual; how to read him better when we are training to know when we need to push harder or need to back off. To me, this is as fascinating and as fun as the ride itself- I guess I am a little crazy. I may plan out our ride season and goals a year in advance but have to be flexible enough to alter those goals when his needs or unforeseen circumstances dictate it. It takes a good plan and a lot of hard work to continue to improve- it doesn’t just happen by accident, at least not for long. I take great pride in guiding him safely through a race to completion first, placing well in it second. If we get Best Condition or High Vet Score, so much the better! But I would be lying if I said that a good race wasn’t both thrilling and terrifying all at the same time! Riding a gallop to the finish is truly a gift that I feel blessed to have experienced but also not one to be taken lightly. The ultimate goal is to finish safely, with a horse eager and capable of doing it again.

In my point of view, racing, riding for completion miles/points or just to have a good time, are all fine when done with respect to the horse. And they can all be dangerous. Sadly, abuse can and does occur at all levels and styles of riding, whether intentional or out of ignorance. There is always the risk of injury to either rider or horse; it is something most of us never want to take the chance of but as all horse owners know, even leaving a horse in its pasture is no guarantee of safety! Personally, I feel the most dangerous part of endurance riding is the trailer ride. There is a popular saying that “speed kills” as an argument as to why endurance should not be a race. I would argue that crossing the red line in any form kills. That red line is different for every horse and varies from day to day, season to season. No matter how you choose to ride, it is not benign. Every day bad things happen. Some times they happen to you. When fate deigns to offer you warning signs, you have to be willing, astute and empathetic enough to listen. It is incumbent upon the rider to leave the ego at the trailer. In my opinion, ego has no business on the trail.

We had our first real “test” in partnership and ego abandonment most recently at a ride where we had an unfortunate encounter with barbed wire. It was obscured in brush and not visible in the low light of sunrise. We were only about 3 miles from the vet check on our first loop when we hit it-- thankfully only a slow trot as we were approaching a water stop. Although most were very minor wounds there was one skin laceration on his left foreleg just below his elbow. Dakar was 100% sound when we vetted in but I asked the vets to recheck him before going back out.. He was still sound on the recheck so we went back out. He ran a strong second loop, pulling on me the whole way. When we came back in off the second loop though, the vet said he was intermittently off on the leg he had cut. That was enough for me. The vet asked what I wanted to do— all of his other parameters were A’s. That was a no-brainer. We retired/rider optioned. At the time, we were leading the ride and he had a 100% ride completion rate to that point. Sure, I had spent a lot of money, resources and time to get there. But the horse has to come first. Always.

Of course when I formalized our pull I shed a tear. I think one of the vets thought it was because I was upset that we weren’t going to finish. But that wasn’t why- I was upset because I felt I had let Dakar down. He went where I had told him to; he trusted me and it was pure and simple rider error. It could have happened to anyone at any place but today was our turn. That’s part of the partnership that you have to have with your horse, whether you are racing, riding for miles/completion or just having a great time over 50 miles with your friends. You have to be able to set your personal goals aside for your partner. And that’s part of the beauty of endurance- there are so many different ways to enjoy this sport and find your niche but to do so always in respect of your silent and faithful partner.

 Photos by Karl Creations

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