Endurance riding: Very faint echos of the Pony Express & the Lone Ranger, ta-da-rump-rump-rump

ampersand_blue_castellarIn my ears there came the familiar sound…

Ta-da rump, ta-da rump, ta-da rump-rump-rump,
Ta-da rump, ta-da rump, ta-da rump-rump-rump,
Ta-da rump, ta-da rump, ta-da rump-rump-rump,
Dah…da-da-da-DA dah….

I had just dodged a micro-tornado that had come snaking like a dusty cobra over the cacti and chamisa and sagebrush spotting the high desert Caja del Rio Plateau west of Santa Fe. Then, from somewhere way back in my brain, came those staccato sounds of the William Tell Overture. And then, over the music and out of the my memories came the urgent voice of Fred Foy, crackling out of a radio speaker sixty-five years ago…

“A fiery horse with the speed of light, a cloud of dust and a hearty Hi-Yo Silver! …
Return with us now to those thrilling days of yesteryear.
From out of the past come the thundering hoofbeats of the great horse Silver.
The Lone Ranger rides again!”

I looked up. Off in the distance came came a band of five sunlit riders, floating toward us on a ground-hugging fog of desert dust churned by the hooves of their horses.

Santa Fe veterinarian Larry Nolen watches horses for lameness as riders approach the Eleven-Hundred well in the Caja del Rio.
Santa Fe veterinarian Larry Nolen watches horses for lameness as riders approach the 1100 well.

Well, let’s be clear: The horses weren’t what you’d call fiery. Not one was silver, their hooves weren’t exactly thundering, and the speed was something less than that of light — closer to about 10 miles an hour. But at that moment there was, somewhere back in my mind, a return to those thrilling days of yesteryear, back to a time when people actually used the word “yesteryear.” A time when a kid sat listening to WXYZ radio in Detroit (the birthplace of the legend of the Lone Ranger, in case  you didn’t know) and was transported three times a week to the Old West, a place he’d never been and never thought he’d go.

And yet, here he was…

In case you’re getting ahead of this story and surmising that I was standing out there in the Caja with my Google tablet watching a preview of Disney’s latest remake of The Lone Ranger, you’d be wrong.

I was out there beside the corrals and watering tanks of the Eleven-Hundred Well in the Santa Fe National Forest, only a few miles distant from the middle of nowhere, watching the goings-on at a day-long event called an endurance ride.

I’ve done some trail riding. Nothing better than swinging back and forth in a soft, creaking saddle on a sturdy mount in a deep arroyo or slowly grinding upwards along steep mountain trails or cantering across high country meadows. It’s a test of endurance for horse and rider, no doubt. But it’s always been done at a sort of leisurely, informal pace. No rules.

When I drove out there to the Eleven-Hundred Well last Saturday morning, my little Yaris bumping along the ruts and through the quicksand-like dust of Forest Road 24, I didn’t know much at all about endurance riding. I had harbored an idea of what was going on: Something akin to the Pony Express, I thought, a throwback to a time when lithe little riders on steely steeds galloped across miles and miles and miles of rocky, ill-maintained trails through thick brush, deep water, and roving bands of ill-tempered native Americans (they had another name for them back then) with feathers in their hair, finely-honed tomahawks in their belts and unerring arrows in their quivers. Well, not quite that Hollywoodie, but something like that.faces

But no. These riders — there were maybe 40 or 50 who were riding that day — weren’t quite up to the standards of those jockey-sized Pony Express riders of the 1800s, whose workday routine was galloping with their mailsacks across 100 miles of tricky terrain,  trading their spent horses every 10 miles for a fresh mount, caring first and foremost for the delivery of the mail. Endurance riders, these days, can be just about anybody — young to old, slim to not-so slim, woman (mostly, it seemed), man, girl, boy. The ride, although a timed event in which somebody gets first place, is more for the purpose of finishing on a healthy horse — only one horse, whose fitness, strength and, above all, wellness, is of primary importance.

There are, I’ve since learned, endurance rides all over the place, from the Northeast Challenge up there in Buckfield, Maine down to the Descanso Ride in the hills east of San Diego.  At the American Endurance Ride Conference’s website, along with lots of other stuff, you’ll find events scheduled across North America. Most of the United States. Canada. Texis, too. Some rides go 30 miles, some 50, some 60 and some, like the Pony Express, cover 100 miles in 10 hours or more.

The events are run under a relatively simple, but strict set of rules — none so important as those relating to the fitness of the horse. Before, during and after the race, the riders are required to bring their sweating horses though a checkpoint — the Eleven-Hundred Well was that place last Saturday — where volunteers with stethoscopes and horse doctors with critical eyes, talented fingers and unquestioned authority inspect each animal for pulse, respiration, hydration, muscle stiffness, lameness and a bunch of other things I don’t know anything about. If the vet or, in some cases, a committee of vets decides the horse isn’t fit to go on, the rider is told to stop. And that’s that.

But if the horse is fit, the rider gets the go-ahead and takes off on another 10- or 15- or 20-mile loop in the preset endurance course, out into the wilderness over hill, over dale, the dusty trail goes up, and down and over the rocks and through the water and through the trees and past up the canyons and along the ridges. (It does sound like a Pony Express ride, doesn’t it?) With the riders out on the course, the organizers and sponsors (it was Listening Horse of Santa Fe, aided by members of the Northern New Mexico Horsemen’s Association last Saturday) are back at camp and the vet-check locations, keeping records and worrying about timing, water for horses, weather (if it comes) and whether anybody’s out there getting lost. Last weekend, five riders took a wrong turn. But, they found there way back to the trail. Nobody got hurt. A few horses were pulled and some even rode back to base camp in a trailer. Their riders probably wanted to pout, but didn’t.

Those who are veterans of the endurance game like to say that endurance riding is the ultimate in horsey stuff — no rules about how the rider sits, or what she wears, or the sheen of the saddle or the price of the bridle. (One western competition, I have learned, requires not only that the rider wears Wrangler Jeans, but a specific style of Wrangler jeans. Sounds like a golf tournament.) In endurance riding, “Nobody cares about the riders,” said one observer. “It’s all about the horses.”

Oh, there is some concern for the rider. Example: “Go get your horse hydrated,” Santa Fe vet Larry Nolen told a rider at the 20-mile vet-check Saturday. “And,” he added, looking closely with concern at the tired face of the rider, “you might also consider hydrating yourself.”

It’s also true that if you and your horse make it through the mid-course fitness checks and are the first to cross the finish line, you may not have won. There is one final hurdle, one final veterinarian waiting to examine your horse, who must be in good enough shape to continue, if he needed to. If he doesn’t pass the final fitness test, he’s deemed unfit to go on, and he doesn’t get first place. That, among other things, cuts down on the temptation to push too hard after the final midcourse vet-check. No Pony Express finishes here.

AERC Southwest Regional Director Roger Taylor (left) checks timing details with a volunteer scribe.

But it’s not so much the winning as the finishing. Although some riders compete for points, most do it for the fun, the exhilaration, the scenery, and the long hours of training, conditioning, riding and bonding with their horses. Not to mention the end-of-the-ride exhilaration of a cold beer from a base camp cooler. Then there’s that happy Rule No. 6 from the exhaustive, well-written AERC’s Rider Handbook: “All riders who successfully complete the ride must receive an award.”  To finish is to win. My kind of competition.

Beyond that, there isn’t much in the way of award. “Just braggin’ rights and a t-shirt,” in the words of one observer.

The AERC website provides links to several endurance ride videos, including this one, which incorporates most of the elements of an endurance ride event. I watched it. And I’m thinking about going into training with my horse and, maybe next year, giving it a try myself.

But don’t tell my horse. He thinks a tough day is a 10-mile saunter up and down a sandy arroyo. He doesn’t know it, but that kind of effort was yesteryear.

ampersand_blue_castellar Looking for Tonto, I’m outta here. Hi-yo Silver, awaaaaaay!



"Bad news," says Nolen. "You've got to rest your horse..."
“Bad news,” says Nolen. “You’ve got to rest your horse…”


After the vet check, a rider heads out on another 20-mile loop through the Caja del Rio
After the vet check, a rider heads out on another 20-mile loop through the Caja del Rio
All the pretty horses…
lame check
As part of the midcourse fitness check, riders must dismount and run their horses in front of the watchful eyes of a veterinarian, to confirm the horse has not become lame during the ride.



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