Endurance riding is like long distance running in many ways. Each person has their short and long term goals that hopefully align with their short and long term capabilities. The big difference is that your partner in this, your horse, is a flight animal and as such has abilities to "outrun " or overtax their system and running gear. It is our tough job to prepare ourselves and our horses to easily perform the distance and pace asked of them. With smart riding, a good horse with the right preparation, great speed and distance can be safely and easily accomplished. With adequate rest in between, this same horse can be competitive for many years. Some day when you’re bored, checkout our AERC lifetime horse records. When the flag drops, the BS stops. Mags Motivator is a great example: 10 years racing, over 3,000 lifetime miles and at 17 years old finishes 2 minutes behind the winner and wins Best Condition at this year’s National Championship 100!
Ok, time to get your motor running.
Last fall, 10 days prior to the National Championship, we had to select horses to take for each distance. For me, the choice for the 100 miler was easy. AH Bantiki, aka Bogart, is a tough Arab-Mustang we bred that was perfectly suited for the tough mountain championship trail. The choice for the 50 miler was much tougher. I ended up taking Hey Soul Sister, a 7-year old race bred mare. She hadn't shown me blinding speed at any of her races yet, she just seems to get anything I throw at her done easily.
Soul Sister had a great leg up in her early years. She was bred to race and then turned out for her first three years in the hilly grasslands of Eastern Montana. At the end of her 4-year old season, she got started by Darlene Anderson and in her fifth year began slow 50 milers. I took over in her sixth year when we usually begin to pick up the pace and intensity of our horses’ training-racing.
She didn't really get all her growth and strength until her seventh year, then she began to show me what she had in her gas tank. Any ride I threw at her she finished with that quiet " is that all you got? look". After we rode our depletion ride 3 weeks prior, she bounced back and began to act so sharp and ready I knew I just couldn't leave her home. A well bred, fit and sharp endurance horse is a beautiful thing.
Fast forward to the start and I tuck Soul Sister behind Kevin Myers and his seasoned gelding, Far. The first leg was maybe 18 miles and we eased into the first vet check maybe 10 minutes behind the front pack of 10 or so horses. We made up some time on recovery and then began the long, long ascent up the mountain. Saving horse as much as possible by tailing, we began to reel in the front pack. Soon after we crested the pass, there was good going and we caught the mob. Oh yeah! They bolted like rabbits and the chase was on! I remember saying to Kevin as we were side by side on a 2 track road, " there is nowhere else I would rather be". Do I like to race? Just a little.
After a bit of flattish country on top we began the long descent off the mountain, mostly off running to save young Soul Sister’s legs. We blew into the second and last check with maybe 8 horses. If I remember right, the order of recovery went Gwen Hall, Christoph Schork, Kevin Myers, and then me. All recovered within 2-3 minutes of each other with 10 easy miles of trail to the finish, giddy up. Soul Sister was having a great day, eating and drinking at every chance. Full of energy and bright-eyed. The other three horses looked great too, and I could see no weak links. It's amazing how fast good horses ate up this mountain course.
I think that to race near the "red line", a rider needs to have all his senses working, including that hard to describe sixth sense tuned into his horse and the situation. I wish I could itemize the little things I do at a vetcheck and on trail to assess my horse’s condition at that moment. It is really more instinctive when I glance at my mare’s eye -- is it soft, quiet and fluid? I put a hand on her neck at the top of the mountain -- is she holding heat? Where to push on trail, where to coast. A thousand seemingly tiny details often turn out to be the difference between winning and losing, completing and not completing. Soul Sister passed all my assessments as well as the ride vets, let's go finish this thing!
One by one we got released and soon were back in a pack of four, making a beeline toward home. All strong, all fast, with seasoned riders aboard, what to do? I had pre-ridden the finish and knew it well. The last three miles first had windy, narrow single track through the junipers with a great big boulder to skirt around. Then there was a downhill with two patches of pavement before the flat. There was two-track on the flat that led to a 90-degree right turn onto the road to the finish. What a ugly, scary finish to race on, perfect!
There was a water three miles from the finish where everyone's crew sponged horses while they drank. As we came in, I eased around to the camp-side of that tank, time for a breakaway! As the four horses raised their heads from drinking, I looked at the three riders and asked "everybody happy?" Quick as they nodded, I shot toward camp like my ass was on fire. Each of them knew that trail and there was only one of them crazy enough to chase me, Christoph Schork. Through the years he and I had butted heads often and I had a feeling this was how it would go down.
Like a video game on steroids, the junipers went by like blurs and somehow I got around said boulder without careening into space. Got on the pavement stretches and Christoph came on by! He had four glue-on easy boots, I had them only on the front and her hinds were slipping a bit, bummer! Got down on the two-track maybe a mile from camp and made a second move by, wide open, all in! Both little greys are race bred and made their ancestors proud. Side-by-side they powered toward home, only one minor detail left, that 90-degree right turn to camp at Mach 9!
Christoph got a better angle on the turn and lost less speed, Soul Sister had to jump the ditch onto the road. The finish sprint was on! A couple hundred yards of sprint and we crossed the finish line, Christoph by 1/2 a length! Thinking of the grit those two mares showed racing it off at the end of a tough 50 miles still gets my motor running. I went over and shook Christoph’s hand as those two mares were still dancing and acting like fools. Great horses can do great things.
Soul Sister showed me the ability I knew was inside, we just waited for the right time to show the world. I couldn't be more proud of her and I pity the folks who have to race against her in the future. Funny that I picked a race to talk about where I came in second. Oh well, can't be Superman every Saturday.