Monday, April 24, 2006

Tall (and long) in the saddle

By Don Sapatkin
Inquirer Staff Writer

Song (left) and Danika watch as Melody Blittersdorf, of Jeffersonville, Vt., prepares food and supplements for them between the second and third loops of an endurance race in the New Jersey Pine Barrens. Blittersdorf's daughter, Krista Alderdice, rode Danika, who won the award for best condition.
Photo by David M Warren/Inquirer. Song (left) and Danika watch as Melody Blittersdorf, of Jeffersonville, Vt., prepares food and supplements for them between the second and third loops of an endurance race in the New Jersey Pine Barrens. Blittersdorf's daughter, Krista Alderdice, rode Danika, who won the award for best condition.

Links: Endurance riding info and a photo slide show

Nancy Botella poured Log Cabin Syrup into Ruby's bucketful of oat, beet pulp and electrolyte mush.

"You've got to eat, lady, eat some grains!"

The tactic might have worked earlier that Sunday morning, but with 31 trail miles behind her and 19 to go, the horse nibbled with the enthusiasm of a novice marathoner offered pancakes at the two-thirds mark.

Endurance riding is the equestrian equivalent of long-distance running.

Riders, like runners, often enter the high-mileage events with a goal of simply finishing. Overall conditioning, pacing, and the common sense not to do anything stupid are as important as pure athleticism.

And distance riders get the bonus of working as a team.

"Ten. OK, up and back," directed veterinarian Meg Sleeper, calling out Ruby's 15-second pulse before a 250-foot round-trip trot. Medical safeguards are built into endurance events, and a recheck one minute later found Ruby's pulse unchanged at the equivalent of 40 beats per minute, a good rate of cardiac recovery.

The vet moved around the horse, pinching (a dehydration measure), listening (to gut activity), looking (for fatigue or injury). An assistant marked Sleeper's findings on a card that resembled a rental car no-ding diagram with a horse.

Ruby refused to open her mouth for the doctor.

"It's because she was abused," explained Botella, her face sunburned after two of the day's three loops of trail in the New Jersey Pine Barrens. "She was terrified when I got her."

Botella, who has had horses since she was a child in Glen Mills, knows nothing of Ruby's past, except that she was "rescued from a slaughterhouse herd" 12 years ago and is of mixed ancestry. (Endurance is dominated by Arabians.)

"I love going out on the trail," said Botella, 47. "You have a partnership with your horse."

Three weeks ago, she drove Ruby, 14, to the Pinelands for their second endurance ride, a 50-miler.

Horses, trailers, and women in tights filled the campsite behind the Kowboy Korral in Maxwell (north of Green Bank and south of Jenkins). For reasons that no one seems to understand, in America nearly all endurance riders are women. They were 28 of 31 starters that day.

"You can set your own goals is the reason I like it," said Patti Pizzo, who organized the three-day event (riders entered any one, two or all three).

Pizzo, who is 55 and partway through a move from the Doylestown area to Upper Black Eddy, devises a new course each year while riding the sandy trails over the winter. She was tickled this time to send riders past a Christmas tree 50 feet off the trail that someone decorated two years ago.

Pizzo got her first horse, a $50 gift from her father-in-law, a few years after graduating from Cheltenham High School in 1967. Endurance was barely beginning, out west.

A governing body formed in 1972. Endurance became the U.S. Equestrian Team's fifth discipline in 1993. Relatively unknown because it is not a spectator sport, the American export is the fastest-growing equestrian category worldwide.

While Botella pleaded with Ruby to eat her syrup-laced electrolytes, a mother-daughter team from Vermont organized their mandatory rest between trail loops like a seasoned pit crew: ice boots on the front legs; protective boots on the rear; baby food, electrolytes, apples, carrots and amino acids in the buckets.

They endured together and tied for first place with a riding time of 5 hours, 23 minutes. Botella clocked in at a respectable 7:37, ranking 16th among 24 finishers; seven starters had been taken out by vets along the way.

The award for best condition went to Danika, the 13-year-old half-Arab ridden by Krista Alderdice, 29, of Jericho, Vt.

Mother and daughter might have faced tougher competition if Sleeper, 38, had been riding Shyrocco Troilus instead of playing doctor that day.

She bred Troy 15 years ago, choosing a name that reflected his Anglo Arabian ancestry and her love of Chaucer. He carried the University of Pennsylvania veterinary cardiologist from her farm near Frenchtown, N.J., to the last world competition, in Dubai. She's hoping to qualify for the next one, in Germany.

Most endurance riders aren't that focused. An advice site on the Web asks first-timers what they've learned. Posted on top:

"That fat old ladies could participate."

Going the Distance With a Horse

The main disciplines for equestrian distance riding test the conditioning of horse and rider as a team.

Endurance riding

Goal: In a competition against others, fastest time wins - if the horse meets post-finish line criteria for soundness and recovery.

Standards: Governed by the American Endurance Ride Conference and Fédération Équestre Internationale.

Distances: Between 50 and 100 miles in one day, up to 150 over three days - sometimes more. Point-to-point rides may cover historic trails.

Safeguards: Several veterinary checks and rests are mandated. Stressed horses are routinely disqualified during the event. The vets' "best condition" award is coveted.

Breeds: Any "horse, mule, pony, donkey, or even a zebra, should anyone choose to ride one," says the AERC handbook.

Competition: Serious athletes compete in weight classes for points (always on the same horse) at sanctioned events. The Northeast circuit starts and ends in the Pine Barrens.

Variations: "Limited distance" rides are similar to endurance (and governed by the AERC) but only 25 to 35 miles long.

Competitive trail riding

Goals: Riders compete against themselves. Finishing within a narrow time window, they are scored based on veterinary measures of the horse's condition after the event vs. before.

Standards: Governing bodies are regional. The Eastern Competitive Trail Ride Association (ECTRA) sanctions competitive trail as well as endurance rides (following AERC rules).

Distances: Between 25 and 40 miles in one day, up to 100 over three days. (Time window for 25 miles is 4:10 to 4:40, including a mandatory 20-minute rest.)

Safeguards: Similar to endurance. Vets' judgments go beyond disqualification/"fit to continue" decisions to actual scoring.

Breeds: All equines.

Competition: Similar to endurance but lacking national and international levels.

Variations: "Competitive trail driving" is similar to riding but with the driver (and sometimes a passenger) in a cart. The ECTRA sanctions both, and they may be run together.

For more information

Details for all the above are at

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