I was up at 6 a.m. on the Saturday before Labor Day, getting ready to drive 30 miles into the hills north of Los Angeles to meet someone I’d seen once at a party. Her name was Lisa, and she’d told me that her endurance horses needed exercise while she recuperated from foot surgery. For me, her offer presented an opportunity to try something new---and to take a step toward a dream that has been nipping at my heels for a long time.
“Oh! Do you ride, too?” I asked, surprised, when I pulled up at Lisa’s farm. I’d found not Lisa, but her husband, saddling a horse.
“Everyone asks that question,” Shel grumbled.
Women may make up the largest demographic of endurance riders, but Shel has logged more miles in competition than most riders ever will. He began riding in midlife and rapidly became an accomplished competitor. My surprise didn’t get me off on the right foot with Shel, but fortunately, he gave me a second chance.
I didn’t embarrass myself again during my first five-mile ride with Shel. I embarrassed myself the next day instead.
In mile nine of 11, riding a spunky gelding named Gilbert, I went cartwheeling out of the saddle and crashed hard. I met the dirt on my left side and slid like a shortstop across the gravel. My right foot hit my left leg hard enough as I landed that, as I jumped up to catch the loose horse, I could feel my shin swelling.
“I’m OK!” I yelled, hopping toward Gilbert, who looked as embarrassed as I felt.
Shel jumped off his horse and used his water bottle to rinse my road rash. I wondered if I would ever be invited back to ride again.
Six weeks later, I saddled up again, this time in Inyokern, California. Around 70 other horse-and-rider pairs milled around the crowded campsite in the desert. Dawn was just breaking over a horizon where the San Gabriel Mountains loomed large.
Dozing as I fussed with his equipment was Tally, Shel’s personal mount and Lisa’s two-time Tevis Cup partner. Instead of sending me home in shame the day of my tumble, Shel had taken me under his wing. Lisa, when her foot healed enough to ride, also took me under hers. My new coaches clearly saw something in me. It took some time, but somewhere in those six weeks between my first training ride and my first competitive outing, I started seeing something new in myself, too.
I was born loving horses. Unfortunately, I didn’t have a lick of talent for piloting show horses around courses of jumps. The riding instructor who gave me a balanced seat, strong legs and soft hands couldn’t do much about a heart that lacked passion for the show ring. While I swallowed my pride and cheered on my barn buddies from the bleachers, my mind always returned to a picture I saw in a magazine when I was perhaps 6 or 7 years old.
In the photo, a white stallion’s muscles rippled under a sweat-flecked coat as he crested a rocky ledge. His rider’s expression is one of intense concentration and joy. I found out later that the rider was Elaine Dornton, riding Patti Bailey’s stallion Remington Steele to finish the Tevis Cup.
The Western States Trail Ride---popularly known as the Tevis Cup---is one of the most prestigious events in the sport of endurance. In just one day, competitors cover 100 miles over challenging, mountainous terrain. The horses benefit from strict veterinary controls, but riders continue on with broken bones, bruises, the flu…. Just finishing is the goal of most riders, and only about half of those who start will cross the finish line.
This is what I wanted to do. But years of failing in the show world had prepared me to feel just as out of place on the endurance trail. I didn’t feel like the kind of person who could succeed in a demanding, physical sport.
Until I did.
It started to click when I finished a 22-mile practice ride before my first competition. I swigged Gatorade, bathed my horse, took a nap and went out dancing. I had more energy left than I do after days when my biggest exertion is a walk from my office to Starbucks. It clicked a little more when I found myself jogging. I hate jogging, but that didn’t matter when I thought about how the miles I ran would save my horse’s back during a 100-mile, one-day ride.
It became even more clear when Lisa and I started the ride together that day in Inyokern. For the first time in an equestrian competition, I didn’t have time to think about where I’d place. My mind was on saddle fit, sitting evenly, keeping my horse straight and balanced, and following my coach’s directions.
Then I lost my coach. We paused for a lunch stop after the first part of the ride. Then, just a few feet out of the veterinary check, Tally went lame, and Lisa went on without me. There was no need for her to compromise her finish just because Tally and I couldn’t go on.
I returned to the veterinarian. And just as suddenly, Tally was sound. The limp vanished as quickly as it had come. Someone offered me a leg up, and I was off again, with Tally trotting out like the veteran he is. But Lisa was far out of sight, and I’d never even practiced riding alone.
As we finished the ride, I was certain we were in last place. We went slowly and I stopped several times to reapply Tally’s zinc oxide ointment, which protects the pasterns from abrasive footing. I paid attention to nothing but finishing with a healthy horse. I was attuned to Tally’s every step, terrified that he’d limp again. Instead, he strode across the finish line sound and fresh. Lisa and Shel cheered our finish and folded me into a group hug. The pulse and respiration timer called out, “Fifth!”
Somehow, alone in the desert, Tally and I pulled off a top-10 finish.
Since then, I’ve completed two 15- and 16-mile fun runs and three additional 25- to 30-mile rides, all top-10 finishes. I’ve also ridden hundreds of conditioning miles on my coaches’ horses, and I’m training my own Arabian mare for endurance.
Since finding the athlete in me, I’ve realized time and again how much I’m willing to give up for a few more miles in the saddle. Skip the barbecue. Ride. Decline the date. Ride. Go home after a ride? No, drive to the other barn and ride again. My career comes first, but sweat and trail dust come second.
I don’t yet know the answer to the questions that burden me most: Am I good enough, disciplined enough, willing enough and lucky enough to make it to Tevis? Can I sustain myself in this sport? Or, will I spend the rest of my life remembering these precious months when I felt like an athlete---a time that quickly passed?
I do know this: I’ve found something that brings out the best in me as a rider and brings out the best in the horses I love. I’ve found a place in the horse world where I don’t have to cheer from the bleachers. I’ve finally found for myself what my friends enjoyed in the hunter ring all those years ago.
I will keep chasing that thing for thousands of miles, over mountains, through streams, across the desert and wherever it leads me.
This article first appeared in the July 2017 issue of EQUUS (Volume #378)