To finish is to win
June 24, 2013
Rays of sun falling over sandstone cliffs painted with ancient petroglyphs were welcomed by riders on the morning of the Medicine Lodge Endurance Ride, held at Medicine Lodge Archaeological Site State Park, near Hyattville, WY, on May 11 and 12. Sunrise had arrived and the race would soon begin. Last minute preparations were made and helmets were screwed on tight. The tension in the air from hot, anxious horses and riders was not unlike a barrel race or roping, but the end goal on competitors' minds was very different: not "beat her time" or "rope that steer," but simply, "finish."
The sport of endurance riding has a very long history and trying to pick out a birth place or date for the sport could be difficult to pin down. An article in The Chronicle of the Horse referenced Pony Express riders and the U.S. Cavalry as early and necessary endurance rides ("World Equestrian Games: Endurance," by Coree Reuter, 8/1/2010); but as years went by, this type of necessary riding was no longer called for. Then, in 1955, an avid rider named Wendell Robie and some of his friends proved doubting spectators wrong as he rode the 100-mile trail from Lake Tahoe to Auburn, CA in a single day. This accomplishment started a spark in the hearts of long-distance riders and The Tevis Cup was born. Later, in 1972, the American Endurance Ride Conference (AERC) was founded and began setting down rules and sanctioning events across the country. Since then, the sport has had its ups and downs, but according to many riders is back on the upswing – whether that can be attributed to Viggo Mortensen and "Hidalgo" is questionable – but the fact is that interest and attendance are up!
For the new rider, there is a lot to learn about endurance riding. Different rides are different lengths (varying from 25 to 100 miles in length), but all require strict health checks by a state certified veterinarian. Vet checks are typically conducted the night before a race to confirm horses are fit and sound to compete in the race. Veterinarians check for lameness, scars, and wounds as well as respiratory rate, capillary refill, skin tenting and gut sounds. At the two-day AERC Medicine Lodge Race, competitors could enter the 25- or 50-mile race both days. Fifty-mile riders were required to stop for their first vet check at 25 miles, and their second at 40 miles with a mandatory one-hour break at each check to allow horse and rider time to rest. At the end of the break, horses competing in the 50-mile ride were required to have a pulse rate below 64 beats per minute before being allowed back on the trail. If a horse failed one of the vet checks, the horse and rider would be pulled from the race.
"I have had to take horses out [of a race] before, but most of the time the riders will do it first," said Dr. Allen Gotfredson, DVM, and then commented about the riders, "They know their horses better than I do." Dr. Gotfredson performed vet checks on Friday evening and during Saturday's race.
Trails for the Medicine Lodge Race were marked with colored flags and GPS coordinates were given out in advance. Water tanks (with water bottles) were spread along the route to keep both rider and horse hydrated during the ride. All AERC endurance rides have a time limit to complete the race and for the Medicine Lodge Race, 50-mile riders had 12 hours to finish and 25-mile riders had six hours to finish the race. Of the 12, 50-mile riders and 15, 25-mile riders, 21 completed.
Training for an endurance ride is similar to the training of a marathon runner. According to Medicine Lodge Ride Manager, Jeanette Tolman, endurance riders ride practically every day and, with a new horse, increase the mileage as they go and then vary the rides by riding a shorter but faster ride. With a horse already fit and competing in endurance rides, little conditioning is needed in between rides and Tolman prefers to let her horses rest.
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"Initially, getting [the horses] ready is the hard part," said Tolman, "It takes dedication." This dedication is not only needed to prepare the horse, but it is also needed to prepare the rider. Tolman continued, "It is just as important for the rider to be in shape." She added that an out-of-shape rider can be incredibly hard on a horse and can "become a burden" to the animal during a ride.
Many people ask about endurance horse breeds, and seasoned endurance rider Dorothy Sue Phillips will tell you that she rides "a little bit of everything" and that, "unlike other sports, there is no special breed," in endurance riding. Phillips has been riding endurance horses every year since 1989 and has over 18,000 miles of endurance trails under her belt. She said, "I started on a borrowed horse … I now have two Arabs and one fox trotter," but she's seen everything from Appaloosas to Quarter Horses to mules at endurance races.
First-time endurance competitor Tighe Jones entered the 25-mile race of the Medicine Lodge Ride on her mother's mustang named Sage. Jones travelled to the race with her coach Ronnie Eden, and prepared by riding trails outside her hometown of Laramie, WY. When asked what her goal was for the race, Jones answered, "To finish with Sage happy." Jones' plan to ensure Sage's happy finish was to check to make sure her gear was well adjusted, pay attention to her attitude, and make sure she felt good throughout the ride.
Many endurance riders agree that keeping horses sound and fit throughout their careers can be the most challenging part of the sport. Eden stated that tendon lameness has been a challenge with her horses, and then added with a laugh, "Endurance is easy if everything goes right!"
Phillips agreed that the most challenging aspect of endurance riding is, "Having a horse that does well, stays fit, finishes well, and can do it over again." She continued describing horses that have been competing for 15 to 20 years and compared them to her older horse that has been competing for only 10 years, indicating that the horse had quite a few more years left in the sport. Phillips competed in the 25-mile race the first day with a newer horse she had been working with, and her older horse in the 50-mile race the second day. She stressed that the most important part of the sport is to finish with a sound horse.
"The motto is 'to finish is to win.' It doesn't matter where you place. Just get your horse through safe and sound – that's the important part," said Phillips.
At 7 a.m. with the sun warming their backs, Phillips and Jones started up the same trail through the red, juniper dotted hills on the Medicine Lodge Ride trail. Both novice and expert rider had the same goal in mind: reach the finish line. Jones admitted she was a little nervous about her first ride but then expressed her excitement as she beamed, "It's so beautiful here! I get to go out and see all this stuff that most people don't see!"
Meanwhile, Phillips worked on calming her young horse and concluded about endurance riding, "I enjoy the sport and the people. At my age to keep riding on a good horse … It's tough. It's challenging. It's rewarding."