Endurance - I wish I knew how to quit you.
Confessions of an endurance addict, and how you, too, can stoke the fire that burns within throughout your lifetime. By Barbara White
This blog series has the theme of Why Endurance. Daryl, Gwen, and Dennis have articulately written why we do it. Sometimes, however, even if we understand and accept the why, getting it done requires us to plot the how very carefully. Unless you are a professional, it's not always easy to pursue Endurance dreams. My purpose here is to share some strategies to help keep you, the amateur Endurance addict, on the Endurance trail as you journey through the main stages of your life, facing the various challenges and obstacles each stage can bring to participation.
I entered my first Endurance Ride, a hundred miler, when I was a 19 year old college kid home for the summer. I have entered that same hundred miler, to be held in August, as a 66 year old retiree. In the intervening years, I have finished school, traveled, married, reared children, worked, volunteered, lived in a subdivision in a huge, flat valley with horses boarded out, and lived in the mountains with our equines surrounding the house. Not only does our sport of Endurance Riding welcome people of all ages; it is, indeed, a sport in which the individual can participate for a lifetime. I have learned that each chapter in a person's life will come with different challenges to that participation. I have also found that the three big necessities for this sport are time, money, and health/youth/energy. I have yet to find a period in my life when I had all three! In spite of that, somehow, due to the generosity of others or wily behavior of my own, I have been able to ride Endurance almost every year of my adult life.
Many of us are passionate about this sport. The addiction plays havoc with our rational brains. The craving, the yearning, the sacrifices we will make, and the depths to which we will descend to feed the beast that overwhelms us are familiar. I want to share with you some of the strategies that have worked for me over the decades, as well as some observations about other riders. No names have been changed because not one is innocent.
I ride Endurance because I love to ride horses, and I love to set personal goals that are both large and small. I enjoy conditioning rides, and I enjoy competitions. I love to ride alone, and I love to ride with others. I love the nervous anticipation shared by the horse and me at the start of a ride, and I love the deep satisfaction of finishing a ride on an equine partner for which I feel both respect and gratitude. Unfortunately, that satisfaction is temporary, only satiating the need for a short while. And then it must begin again. But it’s never the same; that would be pointless. And, therein, are both the appeal and the test of Endurance Riding, as well as its overwhelming, addictive quality. Can I do this trail, can this horse do this distance, or can this body handle another 100 miler? With each ride similar questions pop up that won’t be answered until the finish line. But first you have to get to the starting line. Even without time, money, and an energetic, strong body, there are ways to get there. Don’t put it off; there will never be a perfect time.
Do you have time and energy, but little money? That was my story in my late teens and early adulthood. Energy flows in abundance. A student or a five day a week working adult without family responsibilities probably has some free time. I moved to Auburn, CA, with a borrowed horse one summer when I had time and energy, but little money. I lived in the lower level of a house owned by an Endurance couple, secured a job at a burger place, and could ride at will because I had little other responsibility. My uncle loaned me an old station wagon, and I found a friend who had a trailer but no hauling vehicle. Hitching the two together allowed us hours on the trails of our choice. It was riding on the cheap, and, although there were some misadventures that summer, I returned home at the end of August with the buckle that had eluded me the previous year.
That was back in the days of newspaper classified ads and dial telephones. With social media it is easier these days for people with extra horses to link up with riders who are not owners. It's usually a mutually beneficial situation. The horseless person gets to ride, and the owner gets his extra horses conditioned and campaigned. I have both borrowed and loaned out horses over the years. My trailer tack room is stocked with girths of every size because I just never know what fun horse I might meet that needs a rider. Even when you decide you want your own horse and gear, you don't have to spend exorbitant amounts of money. There is a glut of good horses looking for homes. Used tack sales are in abundance. Do all those huge rigs arriving at camp make you feel inadequate? Not me. I haul a two horse bumper pull trailer and sleep in the back of my truck, protected by the camper shell. Although as a West Region rider I confess that I don't ride in subzero temps, it is probably actually easier for me to get out and saddle up in the wind and moisture when it is 27 degrees in my icy cocoon than it is for those luxuriating in their cozy little Taj Mahals. Please don't take offense. I'm actually quite envious, but my discretionary income forces me to make choices, and I'm content with my little camping set up.
Horse people are mostly a very generous group, but when you borrow, show appreciation, and don't take any risks with your borrowed equines or the inanimate paraphernalia that goes along with the sport. And don't be young and foolish. In the early days of our marriage, a generous, wealthy, and politically conservative gentleman, who was a good friend of my husband, loaned us an extra horse trailer he had. We used it for months, maybe years, hauling our horses to rides before complicating our lives with children. It was in the ‘70’s, and I plastered a large NO NUKES bumper strip on the back door of his trailer. Two days later the owner asked for the trailer back without explanation. I guess he could tolerate my letters to the editor and door-to-door activism, but a bumper strip on his own trailer was too much.
So, if you can purchase a horse cheaply, and you can get a reliable used truck and small trailer without winning the lottery and without offending others as I did, how can you save on the horse maintenance expenses? Fancy boarding stables are very expensive and may not be the best set-up for your endurance horse. Find a place with room for your horse to move around and a shelter for inclement weather. He doesn't want to be in a box stall or little pen; he craves a more natural setting. I have a friend who rescues horses. Her hay bills are huge, but her friendly relationships with her country neighbors allow her to move her horses to their empty pastures. Investigate, and you may be able to beg or barter a perfectly good living arrangement for your horse. Don't be afraid to ask. If he’s not on pasture, you will need to feed your horse high quality hay to meet his energy needs. Look around for the freshest, cleanest, and most nutritious. If you want to save a lot of money, be wary of all the supplements out there. Most horses don't need them, so don’t let clever marketing convince you that they do. For years we rode endurance with hay and oats or, maybe, COB (corn, oats and barley). We didn't know what electrolytes were; we had salt bricks. Our mailboxes weren't inundated with heavy catalogs promoting innumerable supplements and cure-alls. Of course, you want to do best by your horse, but most of this stuff is clever advertising, not necessities for success. Forty five years ago, back when all these magic nutritional delights were unavailable and not yet dreamed up, 50% of the starters finished the Tevis Cup 100 Mile Ride. Today, we obsess and spend much time measuring out this, mixing that, creating a complicated menu intended to cure every ill and buy fitness, and the Tevis finishing rate is still 50%. Think about it. Nutritional science is important, but I'm convinced that your time and money are better spent figuring out if there is something your horse actually needs rather than just following the crowd. And, remember, there is never a substitute for smart conditioning.
You may find a period in your life with some money, some energy, and no time. I think this is the most challenging scenario, and it probably happens in the prime of life. Work is demanding; the kids, if you have them, even more so. You will have to make choices about how you will spend your diminishing free time, and, if Endurance Riding is your choice, you will miss out on some other things. Or you may have to take a hiatus from the sport for a while. That happened to me. Endurance Riding and motherhood are not the easiest and best fit. Riding during pregnancy is generally safe and a decision to be made by a woman and her doctor. Because I rode Arabians and was a member in good standing of the USFT (US Falloff Team), I chose not to. However, knowing the power of addiction, I moved my horses an hour and a half away so I wouldn’t be tempted to take just one more little ride. Nevertheless, there are legions of women who have ridden during their pregnancies without problems. After the baby is born, one often learns what true Endurance is. Meeting the 24 hour demands of a tiny tyrant can drain the energy from even the most fit and spirited parents on the planet. But it must be good conditioning for getting back in the Endurance game. Does mother’s milk mixed with trail dust ensure a top ten rider in the making? I know of three young adults who were fed more than 30 years ago at the Tevis Cup Ride vet stops. Two are stellar crew members (breed your own crew and start them young!), and the third is an AERC director. It clearly did them no harm, and it enabled the mothers to channel their inner pioneer women for a day.
When I was raising children my horses were boarded out, I had to drive for an hour to get to worthwhile conditioning trails, and no one else in the family was interested. Luckily for me, however, because my parents were actively competing, I would usually get to ride one of their horses in a few rides annually. But, still, except for those few rides, taking a break from endurance sounds easier than it was. The problem with addiction is that withdrawal is very painful. I had to find a substitute drug that didn’t take as much time away from my family, so I chose running. It satisfied my need to set goals and condition for them, and it allowed me to savor that indescribable feeling of mellow fatigue and satisfaction after a job well done. However, unlike endurance riding, I could start training right out my front door, I could do it before the children got up, and I could go to a Saturday race and be home that same day to return to my maternal duties without guilt. Also, no time and energy were spent packing, hooking up the trailer or all the other prep and after care needed for the horse. And, best of all, even when I was lame at the finish line, I could still complete the race!
Remember that most people won’t understand why you enjoy Endurance Riding, much less why you are compulsive about it. Two very scary words to the Endurance junkie are weddings and graduations. Why do they always fall on the weekends you were hoping to go to one of your favorite rides? These celebrations can cause real friction between you, your family, and closest friends. The best way to avoid this is to be proactive. Check the academic calendars online for those graduations you must attend. At least you will know well in advance that you might have to sacrifice a beloved ride one year. And for the big rides that mean so much to you, I suggest you share those dates with those whom you dare not offend well ahead of the ride date. If it’s a graduation or other event that can’t be controlled by you, that’s one thing. But if it’s something being scheduled by a host or hostess, you may have a little negotiating power. Many rides are held on the same weekend each year and others publish their future dates. Don’t let a large formal envelope, with a little reply envelope inside, take you by surprise!
One of life’s cruel little tricks is that by the time a person actually accumulates some money and has more spare time, he/she finds that health, energy and youth are declining rapidly. Injuries plague most of us because our sport is risky, and accidents, of course, can happen at any age. But with slowing reflexes and weaker muscles, the older rider learns that bad things can turn into very bad things more often. Safety gear is an individual choice. I don’t like it. I long for the freedom of galloping in a tank top, wind flowing in my hair, soaring straight to the heavens on my Pegasus. Instead, my dermatologist has chastised me so much that I have promised to wear long sleeves. I started riding with a helmet when my first child was born. That was very responsible of me, I felt, but I also decided if I were going to lose brain cells, I’d rather lose them drinking fine, or not-so-fine, wine than by clobbering my head on granite. So the helmet and long sleeves are de rigueur for this rider. The safety vest is a slightly different story. It was a gift from someone who loves me, and although I don’t like wearing it, I usually put it on. I can tell that those riders with broken or cracked ribs aren’t usually happy, and, if they are, they don’t dare laugh because it hurts too much. They are also missing out on some good riding days while they heal. I cheat a bit in very hot weather and replace the safety vest with a cooling vest, which I hope is still better than nothing. I usually ride in trail running shoes, so I never consider stirrups without covers. There may be a certain romanticism about charging to the grave atop a gallant horse, but being dragged to the grave with a foot caught in a stirrup while Demon runs for his life doesn’t conjure up the same feeling somehow.
It has been said that growing old is not for sissies. I believe that Endurance Riders never grow old; some of them just need a little extra help with mounting and trot-outs. Our sport has had a number of successful Endurance Riders continue on despite advancing years. I don’t think this is simply because they have become addled as a result of too many unplanned dismounts. Rather, it may be an accurate indicator of the grip the sport has on so many of us. My father rode Endurance Rides into his mid-80’s. Basically fit and healthy, he accumulated 14,200 endurance miles, sprinkled with wins and BC’s, during a career that started when he was 58 and ended with a 50 miler when he was 84 years old. While he wasn’t particularly passionate about the horses, he enjoyed the new trails and the interesting people he met through the sport. I can recall him sitting in a camp chair, quenching a 50 mile thirst with a beer after finishing a hot summer’s ride, and seeming to be very pleased and content. As I, too, glowed with the good feelings of a wonderful day on the trail, I remarked, “Dad, you seem to be so happy.” His immediate and honest response was, “Well, yes, I’m off the horse.”
Our sport’s title of Endurance refers to the horse, not the rider, but for the most senior among us, there has to be a strong will to persevere out there, mile after mile. The incredible Jim Steere became the first person to finish the Tevis Cup Ride as an 80 year old. I think we all tipped our helmets to him after that accomplishment. Financier and billionaire Warren Hellman was one of San Francisco’s most generous philanthropists. Well-educated and an activist, he served on many foundations and corporate boards in the city, sharing his ideas, knowledge, and wealth to create a better San Francisco. Warren was also an Ultra-Runner, Endurance Rider, and avid Ride and Tie competitor. The last time I saw him was a few months before he passed away from leukemia. It was a foggy dawn at the Shine and Shine Only Ride, high above Silicon Valley, and I witnessed a frail and ill human being, with a great heart and spirit, mount up for his final AERC Ride. I was very moved by what I saw. In spite of his increasing infirmity, he still couldn’t quit Endurance. Just like Jim Steere, the discomfort of riding and the indignity of being helped by others meant nothing compared to the joy he knew out there on the trail and that same satisfaction we all savor after a job well done with a special horse. The Universe noticed that day, too, because Warren went home in the evening with a 4th place finish and a Best Conditioned award in the 25 Mile Ride. These three men are deeply missed by those who loved them and many who knew them. Perhaps their desire trumped their common sense, but it leaves the rest of us with great inspiration.
If you are hooked on Endurance, don’t wait for the perfect time in your life to ride. That time will never come; it doesn’t exist. Whether you are 18 or 81, you will find other demands on your hours, money, and energy. So do it now. Endurance Riders are a very big-hearted group. We show strong support for one another in victory and when things go wrong. We are constantly learning as individuals and as a group. We are bonded by our appreciation and respect for our horses and our trails. And…we just don’t know how to quit.
Add more years to your life, more life to your years. Ride a horse. Really Ride.