On Sept. 12, hundreds of elite athletes from around the world will gather before dawn to set out from the Tryon International Equestrian Center in Mill Spring, North Carolina, for the world endurance championships. They’ll make several loops and cover almost 100 miles through the nearby countryside, returning to the TIEC for intermittent veterinary checks, during the 2018 FEI World Equestrian Games.
And course designer Sue Phillips will be anxiously awaiting the results of her first World Games championship.
But Phillips, who hails from Poetry, Texas, outside of Dallas, is anything but under-qualified for the job. She’s a four-star technical delegate, course designer and judge, as well as an official FEI steward. She’s been an official for more than 25 years and also has competed in endurance.
“When you come in as an official who rides, your brain functions like an organizer: You think about how it should be organized, through years of putting on local rides,” she said. “You also have to be a star-rated FEI official to be a course designer for endurance. I’ve worked as an FEI official but not a course designer for a championship, but I know what we need to do and what we need to accomplish, and I have a great crew working with me.”
Phillips flies to Tryon intermittently to work on the course, and while the countryside was new to her, she and her crew have employed GPS technology to map a complete view of every trail in the area.
“[The crew isn’t] local either, but we all came in together and work with the Tryon group,” said Phillips. “We figure out where the trail should go, and they make it ‘pretty.’ When this beautiful red clay/sandy soil gets wet it can be slippery, so we want to be prepared. The established trails hold up better than new trails, and a lot of the trails off premise are fairly established.”
Some of the terrain is in the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains, and combined with an exceptionally wet spring, it’s made the course design process tricky. “It’s beautiful country with the mountains, creeks and rivers, the ups and downs, and at the same time those impose challenges for us,” Phillips said. “There’s never been an endurance event here before, so we are working with a lot of unknowns. We’d find a beautiful trail along a stream, but after the rain we discovered it would be too wet. The rain we saw was excessive, but we have moved the trail to higher ground. All these creeks and rivers are beautiful and easy to cross unless it rains a lot. We have to consider the worst possible conditions.”
“There are a lot of moving pieces, but I think we’re going fairly well,” added discipline manager Jan Stevens. “For the most part my job is the organization of the event, to help with the specifics of the endurance of the event: the vet gate, the logistics. I’ve got people putting together the volunteers, and I’m coordinating officials, making sure everyone has their duties assigned.”
Stevens, who hails from Montana, will be in Tryon at the end of July through the beginning of August, and she’ll return Aug. 25 and stay for the duration of the competition.
“Unfortunately the weather has been a major hindrance for everybody, especially Sue and her team because for a while you couldn’t get to anything without tearing things up, and we want to take into consideration our landowners,” said Stevens. “The Tryon Partners have been really excited about it and willing to learn about endurance. I came on board a year ago in January, and it was such a great endeavor that Tryon picked up when Canada fell through [for hosting the WEG]. I was a little leery in the beginning of designing a course where an endurance competition had never taken place, but as I met people and worked with the staff it became an exciting opportunity to show off the trails in the USA. We have a great team and a great crew, and everyone is so positive.”
Once the trails have been marked, competitors will have to deal with whatever the conditions are on the day. They can’t alter the course once the competition has begun, so Phillips wants to make sure she gets everything right.
“The trail crew came out and GPS’d every trail we could find; we have some great mapping guys,” said Phillips. “We put it on Google maps and went out and rated the trail: Our categories are: great, maybe and no way. Through that grading process we were able to map out the trails and choose which ones were suitable to incorporate into the course.”
While some of the trails in the immediate vicinity of the equestrian center will be new, once competitors are out in the forest they’ll be on beautiful, established footing. Phillips has used trails maintained by the Green Creek Hounds for foxhunting, and they’ve been riding this country for decades. There are also several trail systems in the area, thanks to various homeowner groups and the Pacolet Area Conservancy, and she’ll take advantage of some of their established trails as well.
“We’ve measured every bit of the trail,” she said. “I haven’t ridden it [on horseback], but we’ve driven around a lot with our Gator, and we find impartial riders to ride parts of it. For the test event we used the North Trail and dealt with seven or eight property owners. We recently put in a South Trail with about 65 property owners who have graciously allowed us to use their property.”
Spectators are only allowed on certain parts of the course because competitors can’t get unsolicited advice during the competition. One hotbed of action will be at the venue, where people can watch horses and riders at the vet checks as well as see the finish line.
“It’s impressive to see them gallop maybe 25 miles, have the crew take care of them, and in [a few] minutes their pulse is down to 64 beats per minute,” said Phillips. “There are absolutely magnificent animals that do this. We do have some crew members out on the trail, in case a rider needs a Band-Aid or ibuprofen or a horse needs some water, at an official crew point.”
The course will consist of five loops, and competitors will return to the venue after each loop for a vet inspection, where they have a timed hold during which they must rest. Each horse and rider are given an exact time to depart, and then they do it again.
“A lot of times the ride is won by when the pulse comes down, usually to 65,” said Phillips. “So if a rider arrives at 10 a.m., and reaches 64 at 10:02, their timed hold starts then. So their time out would be at 10:47. Another horse comes in at 10 a.m. but doesn’t pulse down until 10:06, so their time out is later. There’s a lot of strategy. Some horses just naturally have a better heart rate, and you have a good crew who knows to strip the saddle off and knows where to quickly put the water on the horse’s body to get that pulse down.”
The endurance course shares the same steep hill that has eventing competitors amping up their fitness programs in preparation for September, but Phillips said endurance riders are used to going up and down and navigating twists and turns on course. “Many of these horses are capable of cantering a 160-kilometer ride in its entirety,” she said. “Of course that depends on the terrain. Especially on the north loop, the twists and turns through the forest will be a challenge.”
Also, she noted, “It’s a beautiful ride, but the riders might not take the time to enjoy the scenic Blue Ridge Mountains!”
For national 100-mile rides, competitors have 24 hours to complete, but rules for a Fédération Equestre Internationale championship are different. “We haven’t totally decided on the max time allowed, but usually you want to keep up a 14-kilometer average pace,” said Phillips. “Though the winning times will be faster than that. We figure the first rider could easily be in by 7 p.m., including the hold times. That’s pretty fast!”
They’ll have an emergency plan in place should they need to access a horse and rider at any point on course. There will be course veterinarians and human first aid on course, and Phillips said there’s an excellent response team for horse and human athletes, including specialized veterinarians who are experienced with endurance horses.
“We have at least 70 volunteers; there will be someone to monitor every road crossing,” said Phillips. “They’re coming from all over the country, but the local community has really stepped up, and this isn’t a sport where volunteers do four-hour shifts. The ride starts at 6:30 a.m., and volunteers may be here ‘til 10 or 11 p.m. Some people are endurance enthusiasts, while some just think it’s exciting to see the horses come past.”