Thursday, December 20, 2007

Laramie horse, rider celebrate 1,000 miles of endurance riding

Billings article
By The Associated Press
LARAMIE - It's an unlikely story of a 25-year-old mare and her 62-year-old rider competing on the endurance ride circuit.

Over a seven-year span, the duo, starting at age 18 and 54 respectively, completed more than 1,000 miles. The horse is now semiretired.

Bonnie Swiatek said she wanted to compete in the endurance rides because her husband Don had been competing. She went on a couple of non-sanctioned rides in the mid 1990s with a Tennessee Walker mare called Gleam.

In 1997, Swiatek decided to give the endurance riding a real go and began looking for the right horse. She said she had seen the trouble her husband had with his Tennessee Walker in the heat, so she began looking for an Arabian because they are thinner skinned, handle the heat better and are bred for long-distance riding.

She found a 16-year-old chestnut Arabian mare named Tala. Tala was trained at the age of 16 and 17 and the two competed for the first time in June 1999.

Swiatek admits she didn't really know what she was doing and started Tala out too fast on her first ride. She said when Tala stumbled she decided to pull the horse. Family commitments kept Swiatek and Tala off the circuit for the rest of 1999 and 2000.

Both were wiser and better conditioned in 2001 when the 1,000-mile journey began riding 41 American Endurance Ride Conference sanctioned races over seven years.

During the 2001 season, Swiatek and Tala completed 110 miles together, with a best finish of third, never finishing out of the top 10. The two had shortened seasons in 2002 and 2004, riding only 25 and 60 miles respectively.

They rode 130 miles together in 2003.

Swiatek said the two have learned a lot about endurance rides. Swiatek learned that it's a lot more technical than she realized. She said it is important to keep yourself and your horse as hydrated as possible before, during and after the ride.

She said she prepares by drinking V-8 a few days before the ride including the night before, the morning of, during the race and right after.

This season, Tala was fed a special senior feed and sugar beet pulp, Swiatek said. Swiatek also learned to wear appropriate clothing for the heat, taking tips from bicyclists and avoiding cotton, while Tala learned how to read the ribbons, usually bright orange or pink, which mark the trail.

"It's like having four eyes out there on the trail. She's an amazing old horse," Swiatek said.

The big push Swiatek said she and Tala made the big push these past three years in endurance rides, but she never expected to reach 1,000 miles when she started out in 1999.

She said when she first bought Tala she figured she would start riding with her and then look for a younger mare. Swiatek said she prefers mares because she's had nothing but trouble with geldings.

In 2005, Swiatek and Tala competed in nine rides covering 250 miles; the first time the duo topped 200 miles.

The duo competed in eight rides for 210 miles in 2006. Swiatek said she only competes in limited distance rides (25 to 30 miles) with Tala. The longest season was this year when the two competed in 10 rides covering 270 miles for a total of 1,055 miles.

Swiatek said they rode mainly for "completion" and not for place. She added that the motto for the AERC is "to finish is to win."

The 1,000-mile milestone came in August at the Colorado Horse Park Challenge. The duo rode 25 miles to put them at 1,005 miles that day. They finished in 13th place, completing the ride in three hours and 29 minutes.

Swiatek said an average ride for limited distance is four to 4 hours. Riders have six hours to complete the ride. The horse and rider have finished a few rides in 2 hours.

On Sept. 2, 2006, at the Colorado Horse Park Challenge, the duo finished in first place in 2 hours, 33 minutes. Tala was also honored as the best conditioned horse. The mare also won best conditioned in 2005 at the Black Hills I & II ride where Swiatek and Tala finished third. To finish first was an amazing feat, Swiatek said, because she and Tala are competing against much younger horses and riders.

To be honored as best conditioned twice in her career is also amazing, Swiatek said, since most horses are retiring at age 18, the same age Tala was when she started.

"She loves it. Obviously she was bred for it," Swiatek said.

Swiatek said that just this season, Tala started showing signs of aging. Tala will likely stay retired but she may go on a few endurance rides next season. Swiatek said since they ended their season in September, Tala will give her a look and then look out at the wide-open country, ready for a long ride.

Preparing for Tala's eventual retirement, Don and Bonnie purchased two mares that are the likely heirs apparent to Tala - a 10-year-old gray named Skylark and an 11-year-old black bay named Rocket.

Swiatek grew up a city girl in Lombard, Ill. At the age of 12 her sister married and lived on a farm. Swiatek would visit her sister in the summers and learned to ride a horse then. After the age of 15, Swiatek went 10 years without a horse.

She purchased her first horse when she and Don lived in Tucson, swapping her old car for a horse at the age of 25. She said she always had a love for horses, reading every horse book she could get her hands on.

She especially loved the stories by Mary O'Hara and told her mother one day she would live on a ranch in Wyoming. It took nearly half her life, but she and Don arrived in Wyoming when she was 51. She said she was fortunate to work on a ranch next to O'Hara's ranch for a short time.

For 12 years while in Laramie, Swiatek had plenty of horses while the couple raised Tennessee Walkers. Now they are down to four horses, Sage, Don's horse; and Bonnie's three mares, Tala, Rocket and Skylark.

Bonnie said when she first began looking for a horse she was looking for an Arabian, but truthfully she was looking for a short horse. Most of the horses she has ridden were 15 hands high. Tala is 14 hands. Skylark and Rocket are slightly taller than Tala.

"I look for short, safe, steady and smart," Swiatek said.

To celebrate Bonnie and Tala's 1,000-mile achievement, a party was thrown for them at the couple's home in September. Bonnie said many of her supporters were in attendance, including Barbara Burns, whom she rides with to stay in condition with; her trainers, her husband Don, Jack Evers and Bob Atherton; and Sheri Olson and Gary Brown, her teammates this season on team rides.

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