Thursday, December 28, 2006

Idaho endurance rider, horse train for another marathon ride

Thursday, December 28, 2006 · Last updated 9:05 a.m. PT


LEWISTON, Idaho -- Lisa Benner and her horse are endurance athletes.

They covered 100 miles across the Sierra Nevadas in less than 24 hours, and now they're training to do it again.

"It's you against the clock," Benner said of the difficult competition. "To finish is to win."

When the Western States Trail Ride began at 5:15 a.m. near Truckee, Calif., 196 horses thundered into the mountains, but only 87 crossed the finish line at Auburn, Calif. within the allotted time. The 44-year-old woman and her Arabian, Jack, finished in 23 hours, 33 minutes.

But Benner said she was so focused on finishing the ride, she didn't get to celebrate the thrill of victory.

"Even though I completed it, I didn't feel that moment of success, and I would like to have that," Benner said.

So, when she's not working at the Lewiston Veterinarian Clinic, she is likely riding Jack, or running beside him, or grabbing his tail and having him pull her up hills.

It takes months of preparation to go 100 miles in one day, and the conditioning is similar to what marathon runners go through. Benner rides up Asotin Creek, in the Viola area, or at Hells Gate State Park in Lewiston on cold winter days when most folks are snuggled up by the fire. Her focus is on the next Western States Trail Ride, known as the Tevis Cup, which takes place July 28.

One of the biggest challenges of the endurance contest is riding as fast as possible all night long.

"I've ridden in the dark before, but never at top speed on an unfamiliar trail," said Benner, who lives in Clarkston Heights in Washington state, just across the Idaho border.

"This particular trail can be treacherous. You have to trust your horse, because they can see better than us. At one point, I crossed my reins, kept my center of gravity and told him, 'You'll have to do it, because I can't.'"

The Tevis trail is a daunting course of steep climbs and descents with nine mandatory stops along the course.

That's when the crew takes over. Benner was assisted by Joan Fouty of Southwick, Jan Fogliasso of Southern California, and Karelle Hatcher of Colfax, Calif.

Fouty and Fogliasso, who are sisters, took care of Jack, and Hatcher took care of Benner. Hatcher has been battling cancer and was undergoing chemotherapy at the last Tevis Cup. "She was a super inspiration to people," Benner said.

"I couldn't have done it without my crew members."

The sisters hosed down the horse, decreased his heart rate, and checked over all the equipment. Hatcher made sure Benner had food, water and a change of clothes.

"I didn't eat as much as I should, and that will have to change next year," Benner said. "I was so focused on every step he took and making sure it was a good one that I didn't eat or drink enough."

She talked to Jack during the entire ride. "It was a nonstop conversation, and I kept going over four things: We can do this, I have everything I need to be a success, no negatives, and ride hard."

Benner admits she loves her horse. His name has special meaning, and she remembers the exact date she got him, July 15, 2002. "He looks identical to my granddad's saddle horse. My granddad's name is Jack, and I bought him on his death date," she said with tears in her eyes.

"I knew I wanted to do Tevis, and I knew he could do it," Benner said. "He's been my little hero all the way through. He's the toughest horse I've ever had."

It takes about three or four years of training to get a horse ready for an endurance ride. "You have to prepare their bones, tendons, cardiovascular system and even their minds," Benner said.

She had an additional training challenge when she was diagnosed with arthritis two years ago. "I barely made it through the '04 season. I had trouble getting on and off my horse, and I had to make some changes, but I came out of it ready to go."

Keeping busy and active is the key to dealing with arthritis, she believes.

Benner, who grew up in Cedarville, Calif., was inspired to try endurance riding as a child. "About 31 years ago, a distant relative did the ride, and I saw her buckle and always kept it in the back of my mind," she said.

Her brother, Warren Benner of Asotin, Wash., is not surprised about his sister's accomplishments in the sport. "I remember Lisa talking about riding from Cedarville to Goat Rock when we were kids, which is an eight-hour drive by car," he said.

The Benners were raised on an 800-acre ranch, where the family did their own butchering, fed cows with a team of horses and rolled their own grain. There were 19 kids in Lisa's graduating class.

"She grew up on horseback on the Nevada desert following cows," Warren Benner said. "We were raised 100 years ago."

Benner moved to Clarkston six years ago from Sacramento to be closer to her brother and his family. She is single and has no children.

"This is the most expensive piece of wardrobe I have," Benner said, proudly holding the belt buckle from the Western States Trail Ride.

She is determined to add another buckle to the collection, and she'll be training six or seven days a week to get it. Her crew has agreed to be at the next Tevis Cup, and Jack is up to the challenge.

"I know he can do it, and I know I can do it," Benner said.

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