Julie Jackson-Biegart might not have been able to see very well, but she found the finish line first.
Neither rain, nor sleet, nor snow could keep Julie Jackson-Biegart and Nitro from galloping across the finish line first.
Jackson-Biegart had packed her shorts and warm-weather gear for the Ft. Howes CEI 100-mile ride, anticipating nice spring weather for the June 5-7 weekend in Ashland, Mont. But the weather turned ugly, making Jackson-Biegart’s 18-minute victory all the more remarkable.
“It rained inches the night before, and it was treacherous,” Jackson-Biegart said. “We were in a snowstorm in the mountains. When they first started the ride at 5:30 a.m., the rain was holding off, but it was very cold and the trail was a mess. I expected to go slow, but my horse was absolutely confident in the footing. I’d go from the trail to the grass, depending on whether it was clay or sandy footing, and we were going 14 to 16 miles an hour without sliding, so I let him go.
“After that, it started raining and snowing,” she added. “What was tough was that I didn’t have anything to cover my face, and when I tried to gallop in the open areas, the snow and ice in your eyes made it really difficult to see.”
Jackson-Biegart and Nitro led for almost the entire 100 miles. Two horses passed them briefly, but they both were pulled.
“It’s kind of a mental battle when you’re in front, because you don’t want to lose the lead, but you also don’t want to change your ride. You have to pay attention to your horse,” she said.
“On the last loop especially, when your horse is tired and you don’t know where everyone else is, your mind does funny things. When we were 4 or 5 miles from the finish, I glanced back and I thought I saw a rider. I just thought, ‘Not now!’ But I refused to look back anymore, and it turned out not to be a rider.”
Jackson-Biegart came into the Ft. Howes ride—her fourth time at this 100-miler with Nitro—just looking to finish well and improve upon her previous times. Her personal best before this year was 12:21—they finished this year at 11:40.
• U.S. team veteran Jan Worthington won the 75-mile ride on Golden Lightning, her mount for the 2008 World Endurance Championship (Malaysia), where they were pulled after being hit by lightning on the trail.
• Worthington also finished second in the 100-mile ride on Serloki.
• Bill and Jan Stevens, hosts of the Ft. Howes rides at their Circle Bar Ranch in Ashland, Mont., are the fifth generation on the land. Bill’s great-great-grandfather homesteaded the ranch in 1883. There are ruins of an early 1800s fort on the land.
But she’s also got her sights set a bit longer—Jackson-Biegart wants to represent the United States at the 2010 World Endurance Championships in Lexington, Ky. First, though, she has to be chosen to contest the FEI World Equestrian Games test event in October. She rode Nitro at the Biltmore Challenge CEI 100-mile ride (N.C.), finishing 15th, for her FEI Certificate of Completion.
Jackson-Biegart rode her first FEI ride in 2007 at Biltmore and got a taste for team competition later that year at the Z-Tec Zone Team Endurance Challenge, held at Ft. Howes.
“That was such a different mindset,” she said. “On that ride, I had to give up my individual ride to help one of our team members who, as a rider, had some electrolyte problems. But we won the team gold medal. Endurance is such an individual sport, so figuring out how to balance that with a team experience is a challenge.”
Nitro, a 14-year-old Arabian, and Jackson-Biegart logged 555 miles in 2007 and have completed all 10 100-mile rides they’ve started and been in the top five in half of those.
It’s not a bad record for a horse who was on his way to the auction when Jackson-Biegart found him eight years ago.
“He’s one of those horses that was headed for the killers,” she said. “Supposedly, he came from a racing stable. He was completely unrideable. It took me four months to be able to ride him at all. About six months after I had gotten him, the people contacted me to ask if I’d given up and had him put down. I told them, ‘No, he’s about to start his first 25-mile ride.’ Nobody else has ever ridden him; he’s been quite the project.”
Despite Nitro’s initial difficulty, Jackson-Biegart knew she had something special right away.
“As soon as I started to ride him, I realized his confidence. The very first time I got on him, I was riding with someone else and I was going to have them give us a lead, but he just had no fear. He’s very focused. You point him somewhere and that’s where he goes. He’s never been a horse that shied at anything. It makes a huge difference for an endurance horse. They trust you and physically want to go. He loves to move out.”
She believes some people underestimate Nitro because of his diminutive size, at 14.2 hands, but that perception generally changes when they see him in action.
“When people see him moving along the trail, they have a different impression of him. I’m really pleased with him,” Jackson-Biegart said. “My challenge with him has been to get him to take care of himself—eat and drink and relax—and do something other than go. This year, he’s been taking better care of himself than he ever has before.”
Jackson-Biegart grew up riding and dabbled in barrel racing and western pleasure, but it wasn’t until she met some endurance riders 11 years ago that she found her passion.
“I primarily enjoy trail riding. I like riding by myself. I met some endurance riders and I thought, ‘Wow, you guys ride just like I do!’” she recalled.
Now, Jackson-Biegart balances her career as vice president of operations at a metal fabrication company with riding and training the 14 horses she and her husband, Doug, have at their farm in Geneseo, Ill. Doug rode in his first 75-mile ride at Ft. Howes and finished fourth on a young horse, Halsteads Firesky.
Regardless of whether their future together holds a U.S. team appearance, Jackson-Biegart considered herself lucky to have found Nitro.
“He has incredible heart. My goal, with these 13 other horses, is to find another horse that has that unique sense of purpose. I hope I find another one like him,” she said.