I was enjoying getting to know Sego in the first month and a half of owning her. Though she certainly has a salty side to her sweet, she is intelligent and willing to try most anything. Training her and building her confidence under saddle was going very smoothly.
Fascinated by her traits (level-headed, kind, inquisitive, trainable… and a big strong, sturdy body and hooves to boot), I began researching Standardbreds. The characteristics I found in Sego were described by many other Standardbred owners. I researched what kind of disciplines Standardbreds did well in, and while they truly are a versatile breed that find themselves in a variety of “jobs”, from kid’s horses to Grand Prix Show Jumpers (I dare you to google “Bionic Woman”, you will at least get a giggle), there was one common job I found on nearly every STB education site: Endurance. In fact, Standardbreds are quite popular endurance mounts in Australia and Canada for whatever reason, and they are gaining popularity in the east and midwest of the US. They are calm on the trail and can cover many miles with little effort. Their strong bodies don’t deteriorate easily, even after miles of travel. Fun fact- Paul Revere made his famous midnight debut on a horse named “Brown Beauty”, a mare who was a Narragansett Pacer. Narragansett Pacers were considered “marathon” horses, a breed that would later contribute to today’s Standardbred. No, they are not Arabians, they have not been bred for thousands of years to cover hundreds of miles quickly. That being said, they aren’t gaining popularity in endurance by coincidence.
I’ve always wanted to give endurance a go– I loved riding so much I never wanted to get out of the saddle… Ride for a full day straight? Hell yes! Plus, you get to have a “sleep-over” with your horse, something my younger arena-bound self often only dreamt of. Sego and I had spent a decent amount of time riding around the countryside and I felt that it was something her and I could prepare for by ourselves. Sure, she might not be suited for endurance, she might not even like it, but how would I know unless we tried?
I began searching for AERC (American Endurance Ride Conference) rides near me and ended up finding the Trinity Hill Ride in Canyon Creek, MT, a mere hour and a half away from me. However, it was in a month, certainly not enough time to prepare for our first LD (Limited Distance). I planned on volunteering at the Trinity Hill event and set my eyes for riding an LD in Utah at the end of September. I thought volunteering at an event would be good education for me, as I really didn’t know anything about endurance except that you get to ride for a long time… little did I know how much education I was actually going to get!
My rides on Sego within the next month suddenly had a whole new purpose– a good, upbeat walk with some intermittent trotting for 2-3 hours at a time, a couple of times a week. While a horse’s heart and lungs can be conditioned relatively quickly, tendons, ligaments, and even bone density take years to develop. A horse that did not grow up on pasture or was not trained over various terrain while young simply does not have the muscle and balance to cope with uneven ground. Furthermore, a horse taken too far too fast can be permanently damaged. Sego came to me with no muscle and was very underweight. She tripped a lot on the trail and struggled greatly with hills. Our “conditioning” began when her health was up to par and consisted of mainly just walking up, over, and around all sorts of stuff. I familiarized myself with pulling our rusty bumper trailer and got comfortable riding alone. We did not shy away from any type of “danger”; rain or shine, cows or dirt bikes, rivers or logs… we faced them, knowing full well that anything was a possibility out on the trail, competitive or not (OK-except for rattlesnakes, we rode early in the morning to avoid those guys…).
Before I knew it, the weekend of the Trinity Hill ride had arrived. I packed my stuff, my dog, and my horse, and anxiously headed west towards the mountains. I arrived to ride camp, a handful of trailers parked randomly throughout a field, the evening before the event. Horses and their handlers lined up at a sign that read “VET CHECK”, and after a little back and forth jogging, horses received a bold orange number on their haunches. I unloaded Sego, wondering how she might act… this was only her second camping trip, and her first competition/event atmosphere. The big red mare held her head high, ears pricked towards the commotion, licked and chewed, then commenced to grazing. She was obviously as nervous as I was. Once I got her settled in with dinner and water, I courageously marched toward the ride camp office-tent (a brave thing to do for an introvert like myself) to attend the “Ride Meeting”, a circle of riders on camp chairs looking at a measley black and white map of the 25-50 mile trail they were about to ride. I listened in as counter-clockwise loops, pink and blue flags, grizzly bears at water troughs, and pulsing criteria were discussed. I felt a little dazed and confused but pretended like I knew what was going on, sorta like my first day of calculus freshman year of college (was that lady speaking english?). Luckily I met a gal who was also very new, and she was planning on riding her Arab gelding in the 10 mile introductory ride. I asked if I could join her, and Julie, the Ride Manager (and seasoned endurance rider), offered to take us both out on a “middle-to-back of the pack” endurance pace. I watched the sun set from my little hammock hung in the rusty bumper-pull and peacefully fell asleep to the sound of Sego contently grazing. Just kidding. I laid awake as the coyotes yelped some 100 yards away, my dog Hornet growled, and as Sego bumped a salt block against the trailer wall ALL NIGHT LONG.
I got up at the crack of dawn feeling a little crusty (and COLD), took Sego for water and brewed some cowboy coffee (blacker than Black Beauty himself). This is when I realized I forgot something utterly vital… a coffee cup. A coffee cup and chapstick, the latter being much longed for after my ride. I sipped my black coffee from a bowl that my dog may or may not have licked the night before (I couldn’t remember for sure, but was telling myself that he did not) and watched the endurance riders gear up and warm up. “10 MINUTES!” was yelled from the tent. The riders headed toward the start line, horses antsy and prancy, until it was time for them to go. Some trotted, others loped, some went sideways and others twirled in circles. The first big difference I noticed between trail riding and endurance…. in endurance, there are no real “Steady Eddies”. These horses were chomping at the bit and ready to GO, you definitely do not want to get sucked into their speed warp if you are new!
Once all the racers took off, I cleaned Sego up and went in for our mock vet check. It had occurred to me, too late mind you, that a good thing to train a young horse is how to jog on the lead, you know, in case you ever need to jog your horse for a vet at an endurance ride. Go figure. It took lots of hoops and hollers from extra people behind Sego to get her to half-ass jog down the vet runway, but she “passed” and was permitted to ride the 10 mile fun ride. I threw my 30ish lb western saddle on, climbed aboard, and waited to take off with Julie on her Arab “Blackie” and Chasmine on her Arab “Liner”. Oh yeah, Sego was the only non-Arabian (aka non-traditional) horse at the event. While everyone there was friendly and welcoming to me being new to endurance, I was told that if I ever wanted to get serious about it I would have to give Sego up for an Arabian. Well, I wasn’t sure what serious meant until we were six miles in, still trotting, and I was in some serious pain. A bouncy horse and a big, stiff, western saddle: not ideal for endurance. I can still see it in my mind now, Julie and Blackie effortlessly trotting ahead, Chasmine and Liner not far behind, and me wondering whether or not lady parts were really necessary while Sego gives me the side eye like, “we are STILL trotting??” Once we got to our water stop, Sego was dripping sweat. She drank decently and I sponged her down. The cool water did wonders to her energy levels as we trotted most the way back to camp. Sego took a little longer to pulse down to criteria, but other than a high CRI (Cardiac Recovery Index) which indicated that she was out of shape (no surprise there, she was an unemployed skinny scrapper for the past year, at least!), she passed the end vet exam with A’s and seemed quite proud of herself. In fact, you would not have been able to tell that she had just trotted ten miles. I, on the other hand, was feeling like I had just returned home from battle. A trail Veteran, battered and beaten (shhh, don’t tell the 50 mile riders….). As I limped back to my trailer, Julie (basically skipping) comes up to me, beaming. “That was fun! So, are you ready for a 25 mile ride tomorrow?”. I laughed, thinking it was a joke. But as Sego and I stood at the start line the next morning, Julie and Blackie on one side, Chasmine and Liner on the other, I finally realized it was not a joke. Again, a little too late. “OK riders, GO!” came a yell from the tent.
Knowing that in endurance you are given 6 hours to complete 25 miles, and knowing that I had gone on 10 mile trail rides that have taken me at least that long, I am not sure why I was so surprised at the speed endurance trails are ridden (and raced, by some). Essentially, if you want to complete the distance slowly, you are trotting the whole time. If you want to shoot for placement, you are trotting… and galloping. Somehow I was convinced by Julie and the rest of ride camp to enter Sego into our first 25 mile LD, going the same pace we had gone the day before, maybe even a little slower. The vet was one of these convincers, saying Sego would be able to do it, and, that it was a safe environment to try it out in. OK, Seg might be able to, but would I be able to?? I consider myself to be in pretty decent shape and I might have been the youngest rider there, so I was a bit embarrassed to be feeling so wiped from a 10 mile ride! Liz, the vet, graciously allowed me to borrow her endurance saddle which was much lighter and comfier than my hand-me down stock saddle (I’m sure Sego appreciated it too). I chose to ride in workout pants instead of jeans due to the large bruises the jean seams had left on my inner knees. Workout pants and cowboy boots. Whatever. As I was warming Sego up, a couple of older ladies approached me. “Now this one is not an Arabian, right? She has a strange gait. What is she?” I told her that she was a Standardbred and she replied, a little apprehensively, “Interesting”. Yes, very interesting.
We took off and the first 15 minutes of the ride were pure hell. I was slipping and sliding everywhere and could not keep my stirrups for the life of me. I could see Sego’s ear turn back towards me and a little nod of her head… “Get it together, woman!” I remembered how long it had taken me to get used to Sego’s trot in my western saddle, and here I was in a 25 mile endurance race, riding in a completely foreign saddle… in workout pants. Within 10 minutes of the ride my right stirrup came loose. I had to bring Sego to a halt as Blackie and Liner trotted on ahead of us. Sego patiently waited as I adjusted the stirrups, making sure that the keepers were properly in place, and got back on. She seemed to say “no worries, I got this” and trotted in full Standardbred mode until we caught back up with Julie and Chasmine. I figured out that if I braced against the stirrups in such a way and held onto the pommel with one hand, simultaneously praying to God Almighty that I might fake it till I make it, I could kind of stay in rhythm with Sego. Kind of. I was way past the point of trying to ride correctly or looking good (I could hear past instructors screaming “straighten your back, thumbs up, elbows at 90 degrees, HEELS DOWN FOR GOD-SAKE!!!”. I be up there just SURVIVING, okay? This was going to be a long ride.
Luckily for me, my calves, thighs, and forearms became so numb from my new style of riding that I forgot about my struggles ten miles in. Sego seemed even stronger than the previous day. That 10 mile intro ride had taught her to take care of herself. She drank and ate anytime she had the opportunity, and I think we both slept very well the previous night (I couldn’t hear her clanking around the side of the trailer, at least). In about two hours time we had completed the first 15 miles and were back for our mid-ride vet check and 45 minute hold. I must have looked very savvy standing there, reins in hand, staring at everybody running in circles around me. Horses were being untacked, sponged, watered, and pulses were being taken. “Hold time for Blackie!” Yelled out a pulse-taker. Sego took about ten minutes longer than the others to pulse down to criteria, and by the time I had gotten her all comfy and happy, it was time to tack up again. I hadn’t even taken care of myself! I woofed down a protein bar, drank half a water bottle, and saddled up, Sego looking a little confused. This was the real test, getting her to go back out and trot the trails, alone, when she thought she was done. Since she pulsed down slower, our out time was ten minutes later than my trail buddies. Sego and I waited in the creek, watching our friends trot into the distance, waiting for our time to go. “Okay Kim, you can go”. We took off at the trot, albeit a little apprehensively, as if Sego were trying to tell me “You know, we don’t have to do this. We can turn around and eat snacks back at camp instead”. That sounded nice. So did a hot bath and massage. But we were here to finish what we started, and like she was reading my thoughts, I felt Sego commit. She took off at a great big Standie trot and within minutes we were caught up to Julie, Blackie, Chasmine and Liner. The last 10 mile loop was hard for Seg, she was tired and lagged behind the others. They say that the bond between the endurance horse and rider is sacred. After this ride, I believe it. I’d talk to Sego on the trail, telling her that I knew she could do it. With one ear back towards me and the other forward towards the other horses, she’d charge on. I did not have to push her at all, though this was probably the hardest thing she had ever done. In fact, I never used leg pressure. When I was ready to trot again, I’d ask her if she was ready and she would read my mind and trot. On the last leg of the 25 miles, as we were plodding behind the other horses, something caught Sego’s attention. Two Angus calves running down the road ahead of us. I had used Sego to move cows a handful of times, and according to her, those calves needed a butt-biting (something she liked to do to a poor little calf moving too slowly…). She took off after the calves in a great big, ground-eating trot, past all of the other riders, ears aimed at the little heifers the whole time. The calves narrowly escaped my saddled land-shark by jumping a fence, but there was no turning back for Sego and I. From that moment on she trotted all the way back to camp with great enthusiasm, until I forced her to walk the last quarter of a mile to cool down. As camp came in sight and the big red mare marched homeward, I teared up. This horse, who just two months prior was skinny, scruffy, and barely broke to ride… this horse, who when I showed her to family and friends I could read the looks on their faces like “why in the world did you pick her?”, had completed 25 miles. She had completed 25 miles in a little over 5 hours and with a fabulous vet card (besides the one A- in Overall Attitude, I don’t know why, maybe because she full on reared like the Lone Ranger’s “Silver” when I asked to to trot again, like “ENOUGH WITH THE DAMN TROTTING!”). This was not an “in your face” feeling, neither was it a pat on my own back. I felt extremely humbled that Sego gave me all of her heart when I put her up to this task. That’s what brought tears to my eyes. That, and I had just realized how sore my calves were. I couldn’t walk for a few days, but it was worth it.
After the awards banquet and collecting our completion loot, I hugged my new friends goodbye, cleaned up camp and took my tired horse and tired dog back home (my dog had it real “ruff” running around camp and trying to get everyone to throw him a stick). It was so much fun, ride camp had become like a second home. But we had to get back and rested up… we had one month to continue to condition for our next 25 miler, the Blue Cloud Ride, which of course, thanks to Julie, I was already committed to before even leaving Trinity Hill.