The Long Ride

Jana Stanley trots Poco in a circle to check the horse’s soundness. Photo by Kenneth Boone

North American Trail Ride Conference brings their last endurance competition of the season to Wind Creek State Park

Wind Creek State Park last month provided the perfect Lake Martin setting for the last competitive equestrian endurance event of the season for North American Trail Ride Conference Region 5 riders. Competitors rode up to 60 miles under the changing colors of fall leaves on the park’s scenic trails, and the area won warm accolades from riders and race organizers alike.

The November competition was first time WCSP hosted the nonprofit association’s ride, and the riders were appreciative of the facilities they found here.

Her first time on the WCSP horse trails, Cindy Keen from Dublin, Georgia, said she was impressed with the trails and assumed local horses would do the best, based on their familiarity with the terrain and climbing.

“The trails were well defined, though, and marked clearly. It was absolutely gorgeous here with the down and up hills,” she added.

Ride manager Patty Lucas also said she was enthusiastic about the amenities at WCSP and the friendliness of its staff.

“Everyone has been absolutely fabulous and bent over backwards to help us out. The trails are beautiful; they have good mileage; and this is one of the rare sites we’ve gone that would be suitable for families,” Lucas said.

The Region 5 Trail Riders Association encourages endurance horse riding; ensures care and safety for horses through rider education; and assists volunteer ride managers in promoting quality trail rides.

“This is an opportunity to be in the saddle for hours and create a partnership and trust with your horse,” said Lucas.

The endurance rides are broken down into three categories: novice, competitive pleasure and open. Participants in the novice and CP categories rode for 17 miles on Saturday and another 17 miles on Sunday. The open category riders completed 30 miles on each of the two days of competition.

“It’s all about pace. Riders have to finish their mileages within a window of time – typically a half-hour – not earlier and not later. You work through a decision-making process to make it from point A to point B, following a map and working with your horse as a team,” said Jennifer Mulligan, rules interpreter for the WCSP location.

Riders may not be on the trails for longer than six hours without a break, so the open group had to come in for lunch before finishing their mileage each day.

While the weekend is about improvement and building the horse-and-rider relationship, participants also are judged at check-in, along the trail and at checkout, making the sport one of personal achievement.

The first in the series of judges is a veterinarian that evaluates the horse based on its physical condition; ensures its soundness and checks its metabolic rate, jugular refill and hydration levels, along with other safety precautions, to encourage proper care of the horse, explained Mulligan.

“It’s all about safety for the animal. They assign points to each test done and deduct throughout the ride, based on the horse’s condition,” said Mulligan.

The rider and horse are considered separately, and the second judge assigns points for horsemanship.

“The campsites are examined for cleanliness and checked for adequate hay and water for the horses. Also, riders are judged on how well they ride; what decisions they make; and how they complete something we call ‘opportunities’,” said Mulligan.

During the course of the trail, there are typically four to five stops at which judges may ask riders to complete certain tasks, such as opening and closing a gate; crossing a stream; or backing up or moving sideways. These tests indicate the preparedness of a horse for safe trail riding, she added.

“The critiquing is really for improvements and education. The judges leave comments and suggestions on riders’ cards as tips for the riders to enhance their abilities,” said Mulligan.

Aside from the judges, who have stringent requirements to be considered, volunteers perform all other job titles on each ride location. If volunteering in some capacity, that rider does not compete during the weekend’s location event. Prizes at each competition are not monetary; rather, they are typically something useful to the rider, such as a feed bucket.

Region 5, one of the six national regions, includes states east of Mississippi and along the East Coast up to Maine; however, the farthest north the group typically hosts rides is Virginia.

Members compete in about 12-14 rides per year, and each location typically hosts 30-50 participants. Also, this region comprises nearly one-third of all competitors in the nation, and at least nine Region 5 members have won the President’s Cup – a prestigious honor awarded to the top horse in the U.S.

“This weekend, we had seven first-time riders and a 10-year-old, which is the minimum age for joining the group,” Mulligan said.

Logan Samuels of Sylacauga and his horse, Watermelon, completed their first endurance ride during the Wind Creek event. He had joined his aunt for practice rides on the WCSP trails preceding the competition on Nov. 10 and 11, so he felt prepared, Samuels said.

“It was a lot of fun, especially the different opportunities. The last one was the trickiest, and we had to side-step and tie a ribbon to a tree,” said Samuels, who has been riding since he was 7 years old.

His aunt said they both had agreed to participate in the two-day competition, and due to the practice, she was confident Samuels was ready to go.

“He was too young to compete last year, but he did really great,” she added.

Watermelon, at 14 years old, was closer to the average age of horses for endurance riding. A horse must be a minimum of 4 years old to compete, said Mulligan.

Encouraging youth participation is a strong factor for this organization, said Keen, who has won the President’s Cup and two national championships. She encourages her ‘ducklings’ to participate during the equestrian trail rides.

“Kids just started coming to my farm for riding lessons, and the next thing I know, it turned into me hauling a bunch of junior riders to the endurance trails,” said Keen. “I’ve taught them how to ‘fish,’ and now most of them have their own trailers and pursue the sport.”

Junior riders are in the 10- to 18-year-old bracket, and seven of them came with Keen to the ride at Lake Martin. To remain competitive while also acting as a leader to the kids, Keen competes in the competitive pleasure category, which recently was included in consideration for national championships.

“On the trail, I call it loose supervision with the juniors. We ride together, and I teach them along the way about how to read the maps; to pay attention to the horse’s pulse and respiration; and to point out ‘breadcrumbs’ for situational awareness,” said Keen.

At the end of each riding day, horses’ vitals and soundness are checked again to ensure they are healthy enough to ride the next day.

An endurance ride is not only a personal competition but also an opportunity for camaraderie among individuals sharing a hobby, said Mulligan.

“Horsemanship is really about etiquette and helping each other. Even if it jeopardizes placement, individuals typically choose assisting others,” she added.

And now, with the first endurance competition at WCSP completed with high marks, riders and race organizers look forward to returning to Lake Martin for future events.