Friday, September 14, 2007

USA: Re-riding history: 800-mile race tests horses and riders

Kansas.Com - The Wichita Eagle
Two riders compete Thursday in the Great Santa Fe Trail Race across the Flint Hills near Council Grove. The race is a re-enactment of Francis Aubry's 1848 ride from Santa Fe, N.M., to Independence, Mo.

BY BECCY TANNER AND TRAVIS HEYING
The Wichita Eagle

Thirty miles into his 51-mile race through the Flint Hills on Thursday, rider Jason Stasiuk dismounted, pulled off his saddle and walked alongside his horse as theyarrived at a required rest stop.

At a water trough, as Razzmataz drank, Stasiuk dipped his cowboy hat in the cold water and began pouring it not over himself but over the 18-year-old Arabian horse.

"He takes real good care of me," said Stasiuk, from Humble, Texas. "And I need to take care of him."

That's probably not how Francis Aubry did it.

In 1848, on a $1,000 bet, Aubry set the horseback record for shortest time traveling the 800 miles from Santa Fe, N.M. to Independence, Mo.: five days and 15 hours. He ruined six horses.

Now 60 riders and 160 horses are retracing his journey, racing the 800 miles over 13 days -- for the experience, and for bragging rights.

They are taking breaks -- and showers. But like Aubry's race, theirs is also marked by grit, sweat and blood.

Two horses died Tuesday and their riders landed in a Wichita hospital after the horses collided with a car in McPherson County. Both riders have rejoined the race as spectators.

Before the race began, the Santa Fe Trail Association refused to have anything to do with it. And some historians said it was the type of history that shouldn't be repeated.

"Francis Aubry rode horses to death," said historian and writer Leo Oliva of Woodston, Kan. "No one has respect for that kind of thing. The accident that happened was tragic. But I feared that kind of thing would happen."

But riders said they put the welfare of their horses first.

"We're doing this not for the ribbon, not for the money, but to promote our breed of horses," said Mac McSwain of Winona, Texas, who raises Spanish mustangs.

"The horse means more to me than a race," he said.

An endurance race

Thursday, the racers gathered outside Council Grove before sunrise in a dew-covered pasture.

The day's ride would takethem over 51 miles of gravel roads through the Flint Hills.

There was no starting line and no gunshot to mark the start of the day's race.

Riders leisurely made their way east toward the rising sun. Some of the more ambitious went ahead at a slight trot, careful not to push their horses too hard, too early.

Endurance racing is all about going the distance in all kinds of conditions. In this race, which began in Santa Fe on Sept. 3 and will end Saturday in Gardner, horses and riders have gone over sand and mountains. They've persevered through rain and wind, on highways and chipped rock.

They average 50 to 80 miles a day -- nine to 12 hours a day. Most of the time, they travel backroads and lonely highways.

The riders come from Washington state, Maryland, California, Colorado, Illinois, Oregon, Kansas and Texas.

They've brought Arabians, mustangs, Quarter horses, Tennessee walkers and Morgans.

Veterinarians travel with the race. Twice a day, the horses must pass inspection. If there is a question whether a horse is suffering, it cannot race.

McSwain, who is in his 60s, wanted one last great adventure. He and his wife brought six Spanish mustangs, intending to ride as a team.

Monday, a crowd frightened the horse he was riding through Dodge City. The horse reared; McSwain fell off, breaking his collarbone and shoulder.

"He's a country horse," McSwain said, arm in a sling. "He's not used to people yee-hawing. He's not a bad horse. He just had a bad rider."

Bragging rights

The race originally was billed as having a $100,000 prize. But organizer Rob Phillips was unable to raise the money.

Instead, Phillips says, winning "is bragging rights. You can brag about this for the rest of your life." Winners also will get belt buckles.

The individual rider and team with the shortest overall times will win.

Teams paid as much as $4,500 to compete.

Phillips says he intends to organize the race again next year.

"It's too wonderful to quit," he says.

He acknowledges some people have been critical of the race. But he points to all the communities that committed to feeding the horses, riders and their crews: Dodge City, which hosted a concert for the riders with cowboy singer Michael Martin Murphey; Lyons, which had an old-fashioned baseball game; Council Grove, where merchants kept their stores open until 9 p.m.

"From our standpoint, it was pretty darn good," said Kay Hutchinson, executive director of the Council Grove/Morris County Chamber of Commerce and Tourism office. "You'd be hard put in Council Grove to find anybody who didn't think it was a good deal."

A day off

On Wednesday, when the riders and horses had a day off near Council Grove, many were numb. One slept like the TV cowboys -- on the ground, saddle for pillow, hat pulled over his eyes.

April Cyrek of Humboldt County, Calif., was concerned about her 9-year-old Arabian mare, Bremarashir. The mare is blind in one eye and the rain and wind on Wednesday blew into the horse's good eye.

Still, she was glad she was on the endurance ride.

"You can see the country on the back of a horse," she said.

Billy McClain from Mission, Texas, said he and his two grown daughters have wanted to ride across country for years. "This is once-in-a-lifetime experience."

Endurance riding, McClain said, is all about knowing the rhythm of the horse.

"When there is humidity, you may not know your horse is hot -- but it's hot. You have to make sure your horse has plenty of water and is taken care of."

Reach Beccy Tanner at 316-268-6336 or btanner@wichitaeagle.com.

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