For the past two months, I’ve been dipping my toe into an assortment of equestrian sport ponds—I took a polo lesson, jumped around a cross-country course, breezed a race horse, drove some minis and tried my hand at vaulting. But for my final blog this summer before I go back to school for the fall, I went from testing the waters to diving head first into the sport of endurance riding: I headed out to West Virginia with Jen and Bryna Stevenson to participate in a 50 mile endurance ride!
Yes, you read correctly. 50 miles. What possessed a hunter ring rat like me to attempt to ride 50 miles on trails? Excellent question!
I first talked to Jen and Bryna Stevenson for an article the Chronicle wrote about Bryna after she set a record for the youngest rider to win a 100-mile endurance ride called The Old Dominion. When we were wrapping up the interview, Jen said if I ever want to try endurance and go on a ride, let her know and she would let me borrow a horse.
|Loping along the trail with "Bunny"! Photo by Becky Pearman Photography |
Hmmmm……all I knew about endurance at that point was what I had gathered from the movie Hidalgo. The way Hollywood tells it, endurance involves a lot of riding, a couple of shoot-outs with various sheikhs in the desert, and then a bareback gallop across the finish line into the ocean. Sure, I’ll go on an endurance ride!
Jen, Bryna and I all entered the “Ride Between The Rivers” to be held on August 2 in West Virginia. As I was filling out my entry form, I saw a paragraph laying out the details of the “base camp.” Two red flags went up when I saw that: first, the only other time I had heard the phrase ‘base camp’ was in a book I read about a guy who climbed Mount Everest—are we climbing a mountain on this ride?
The other red flag was in response to the second word: camp. I am a lover of the great indoors. It has beautiful features like crisp, cool air conditioning, wonderful hot, pressurized waterfalls, and expansive plains of carpet and hardwood—that’s my scene. I don’t think I’ve ever made it a full night sleeping outside—my brother and I tried to pitch a tent in the backyard when we were little, and we made it till about 10 o'clock before opting for beds over sleeping bags.
But hey, there’s a first time for everything right? I was sure we weren’t actually climbing a mountain, and I could sleep in the back seat of my car for a night. I sent in the entry form and marked my calendar—50-mile ride, here I come!
August second rolled around, and it turns out base camp really was just that—a camp at the bottom of a mountain range. I stopped to take this shot as I pulled in to the ride.
OK, so they weren’t kidding about the mountains. That’s fine, they weren’t ginormous as far as mountains go, I suppose. It’ll be an adventure!
The ride began at 6:30AM, and we had 12 hours to complete it. I was riding Jen’s horse WP Angel Girl, a little chestnut Arabian mare affectionately known as “Bunny.” The trail was set up as a series of three loops totaling 50 miles, with a vet check after each loop.
At the start of the ride, we set out at a jaunty trot across the field, and I figured out pretty quickly that what I thought was a fast trot was just how Bunny trotted. She was very quick across the ground, and her big stride coupled with a speedy rhythm was about a normal horse’s cantering speed.
This made for some very interesting posting trot attempts by me—I tried to stay with her as I went up and down, but I learned to post on a hunter. The rhythm was a slow and steady 1, 2. 1, 2. 1, 2. Bunny’s rhythm looked more like a string of computer code: 010101010101, the 1’s being when I stood up and the 0’s for when I would start to sit back down and she was already on the next up-beat! Whoever rode behind me in the race was treated to the spectacle of an out-of-sync hunter rider sit-stan-si-STANDing all along the trail.
And let’s talk about the trail for a second—when I think of a trail ride, I picture wide, mostly level paths winding gently through a forest. This reminded me more of a Mario Kart game—power up by trotting on solid ground (when you can find it), swerve to avoid the rocks-branches-mud holes-puddles-thickets-logs-cliff drops. Bonus points if you can keep your mouth shut while doing all that, because you will inevitably swallow bugs if you don’t (mid-trail protein snack!).
| This picture does not quite do justice to how massive this climb was. Just take the hunter's word that it was huge. (Bryna's horse, "Taco", is the cute little pair of gray ears you see.)|
We finished the first loop, and there was a fair amount of climbing up the mountain and avoiding various hazards on the trail but nothing too crazy. I thought I was feeling pretty good, that is until I slid off to do the vet check and almost landed flat on my back. If someone had a video of me attempting to pull tack and jog Bunny for the vet, it would be best viewed whilst listening to the song “Wobble” by V.I.C. I felt like a jellyfish trying to walk on land. But no matter—we were cleared by the vet to continue, and after scarfing down a few Rice Krispy bars and a bottle of water, it was on to the next two loops!
The second loop was particularly challenging, and had a lot steeper climbs up the mountain than the first. When we got high enough up, you could look down and see the river hundreds of feet below as you trotted down the trail about two feet from the edge of the drop off. I’m not normally afraid of heights, but that’s because I’m usually in a glass encased building when I’m that far off the ground.
I went to Catholic grade school and high school, so to keep myself from losing it in the middle of the ride as we climbed higher and higher, I decided to start abiding by a piece of advice priests give at every mass: bow your head (low enough to miss that branch coming up) and pray for God’s blessing (and wings, in case you do fall off that cliff).
|Through the river we go! Photo by Becky Pearman Photography.|
In the end, we made it over the mountain, through the woods, across the river and back to base camp for the final vet check. Bunny passed with flying colors, and luckily the rider is not held to the same soundness standards, because by that point my wobble jog had turned into a full-fledged limp-and-run.
Writing this now 24 hours after the ride, I can say with absolute assurance my legs have never been so sore, and I will be hobbling around for a couple days I’m sure, but I can also now proudly say that I survived a 50-mile endurance ride! Anyone looking for an very challenging and rewarding sport should look no further than endurance riding.
Not only is it a great feeling to conquer the distance and the trail, the other riders competing could not be more friendly. Everyone says hi to everyone else as they pass on the trail and asks if there is anything they can help with. At one point on the trail, Jen’s horse tripped and cut its knee, and someone rode by and gave us a bandage to cover it for the remainder of the loop. Lo and behold, we came upon the same rider later down the trail and her horse had slipped a shoe. Bryna got off and helped her remove the shoe and lent her a boot to wear over the hoof for the rest of the ride.
| Bryna, holding the umbrella, giving a thumbs up as the vet clears the horse she helped out on the trail.|
The horse was able to finish the ride and pass the final vet check, something the owner assures us would not have happened if she had tried to finish the ride without the boot Bryna gave her. At the end of the day we may have been sore from the ride and wet from the rain, but everyone was still smiling and helping out with whatever anyone else needed. All in all, it was an incredible experience—anyone looking for a challenging sport with camaraderie second to none needn’t look further than endurance riding. I’d love to go for another ride, maybe work up to 100-mile rides, but I may be getting ahead of myself. First I should get back to walking normally…
|Thank you SO so much to Jen, Paul and Bryna Stevenson for letting me borrow their fabulous horse WP Angel Girl (Bunny).|
Our intrepid summer intern has been trying out all kinds of equestrian disciplines! Check out her other adventures...
Ann Glavan is an editorial intern for The Chronicle of the Horse. Originally from Cedar Rapids, Iowa, Ann grew up competing at A circuit shows in the hunter and equitation divisions, first on her pony Is A Belle and more recently on her horse Happy Go Lucky. Ann interned for Phelps Media Group during the 2014 FTI Winter Equestrian Festival before joining the Chronicle team for the summer. She currently attends the University of Missouri and is studying journalism and economics.