Monday, June 18, 2007

Montana: Ovando woman rides her horses to glory

by Betsy Cohen of The Missoulian

Imagine a few hours in the saddle, riding a horse nonstop at a steady trot up and down mountain trails.

Think of the pounding and jarring over uneven, sometimes unforgiving and rocky ground.

For most of us, it's not too hard to imagine the soreness and aches that would follow.

Over two days recently, Ovando rancher Suzanne Hayes racked up two national championship endurance titles - logging 15 hours in the saddle and 150 miles - at the Arabian Horse Association's National Endurance Ride Championships in Montana's Custer National Forest near Ashland.

On June 9, Hayes rode her 7-year-old Arabian-thoroughbred cross named Chevy in the 50-mile competition, finishing the ride in about five hours and earning the national championship title in the half-Arabian division. The following day, Hayes climbed aboard her World Endurance contender, a 12-year-old Arabian-quarter horse cross named Quincy for the 100-mile competition, finishing the ride in 10 hours and earning the reserve championship title.

Hayes didn't need any aspirin to recover from her whirlwind 150-mile weekend in the saddle. The achievement of finishing and the giant silver trophies she received at trail's end fully numbed any soreness and stiffness.

Adding to the sweetness of it all, both horses received “best conditioned” honors by the competition's team of veterinarians, and out of 180 competitors, Quincy was chosen to receive the veterinarian's highest score for fitness and soundness.

“I'm really excited,” Hayes said. “It feels really good to have done so well.”

With two major championships under her belt, Hayes is now eyeing in earnest the American Endurance Ride Conference National Championships in Boise, Idaho, at the end of August, the World Endurance Championship in Malaysia in 2008 and the World Equestrian Games in Kentucky in 2010.

Ambitious as her goals may sound, Hayes, 53, has been competing in endurance rides since she was 11 years old. She earned a bronze medal in the Pan American Championship in 1991, was selected to be on the U.S. Equestrian Team for international competition, and was a member of the U.S. silver-medal squad in the 1992 World Championship in Barcelona, Spain.

Hayes made the U.S. team again for the 2005 World Endurance Championship in Dubai, but just weeks before the competition Quincy came up lame and couldn't compete.

Emotional days, weeks and months followed the let down, Hayes said. It had taken the duo years to achieve the level of fitness and mental edge needed for international competition, riding alone nearly every day through rain, heat and snow, some 15 to 25 miles at a stretch in the mountains behind her Ovando ranch.

Quincy's soundness issue, which arrived unexpectedly and with vengeance was a bit of a mystery. Hayes' response was to give him a full year off and turn him out to pasture to heal and rest. When he began to step out soundly and all traces of lameness were gone, Hayes slowly started him on a reconditioning program last year.

This spring, her old friend showed Hayes he was fully recovered.

Hayes' goals at the Arabian national championships was to ride conservatively and if any hint of lameness showed up, she would pull him out of the competition.

But the 100 miles didn't faze the horse.

When she crossed the finish line, Quincy's eyes were bright and his stride even and strong and she knew they had left the dark days of recovery and broken dreams in the dust.

The honors given to Hayes and Quincy by the competition vets was perhaps the most rewarding part of the weekend, Hayes said.

“To me, the horse's welfare is much more important than winning or even finishing a ride,” Hayes said. “My game plan all along was to finish with a sound and happy horse.”

As for Chevy, Hayes couldn't be more pleased.

The youngster is showing he as the grit for competition and a cheerful attitude that makes it fun.

“He's still in the building process and I still don't allow him to go fast as he is capable of,” Hayes said. “I want this horse to last a long time.

“He's a candidate for the World Games in Kentucky. They both are.”

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