Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Endurance Alaska! - Wilderness ride tests horses, riders

ANNUAL EVENT: This year a record number of people participated.
Original Article

WASILLA -- Early Saturday morning, in trampled-down hay fields at the foot of Bald Mountain, the horses seemed almost giddy to "giddyup," chatting as they stood next to their trailers, their riders just starting to stir from their campers and tents.The same time the next morning ... silence. Not a whinny nor a neigh. Not even heavy breathing. And they had another 25 miles or so left of tricky trails and even deeper river crossings in the 2010 Bald Mountain Butt Buster Competitive Trail Ride put on by the North American Trail Ride Conference.

K.T.MCKEE / Anchorage Daily News
Lindsay Mearkle became a fish out of water at the Bald Mountain Butt Buster Competititive Trail Ride in the Valley last weekend. Unaccustomed to such difficult trail conditions, her horse Demi refused to carry Mearkle on the first leg of Saturday's 25-mile trek, forcing her to walk the horse across the Little Susitna and nearly being swept down the river.

"It was dead quiet, the horses were so tired after Saturday's ride!" laughed event volunteer and Valley resident Tina Victory Sunday night while helping feed prime rib and potatoes to dozens of wet, worn-out riders gathered for the awards ceremony at the end of the 60-mile trek across park lands and at least 25 private properties.

For many local horses and riders, it was old hat -- just part of the thrill of testing your horsemanship skills, discipline and fitness in an annual event that brings teachers, doctors, nurses, accountants, writers, software engineers and their children together for a weekend in either Wasilla, Palmer or Fairbanks.

This year there was a record number of entrants -- 50 -- some coming from as far away as Tok, Fairbanks and Soldotna to pay at least $120 for the privilege to bust their butt and share some giggles along the way. In past years and in most similar competitions in the states, maybe 30 riders showed up.

"I don't know what it was that brought so many this year, but we love it -- even if it did offer some unusual challenges," said ride coordinator Nancy Williams, who diagnoses learning disabilities for Mat-Su schools when she's not doing horse-related activities.

Twenty first-time riders meant maps would be misinterpreted, riders would get lost and horses would be pushed to their limits because they weren't properly conditioned. For a few novice participants, it also meant having to scratch because of rule violations, such as walking a quarter horse mare across the Little Susitna River and nearly getting washed down with the frigid current.


"One thing that really caught us off guard this year was constantly having to change our schedule because of the number of riders coming into camp late on Saturday," ride manager Diane Sullivan of Chugiak said Monday. "Riders only get a window of 30 minutes late into camp before they receive a penalty point for each minute they were late. Two riders had 112 penalty points!"

Such an unexpected shift makes it difficult to make sure the event's two judges, flown in from out of state, are where they need to be as each rider goes through the various obstacles on the course, such as managing rocky river crossings where king salmon might swim between their horse's legs, or being able to walk their horse in a figure eight backward around a bush.


Or avoid a rather shocking experience, as one experienced rider working as a safety official managed to do.

"The funniest thing I heard about was when one of our safety riders backed her horse into an electric fence, thus doing a pirouette-type fall off the back of her horse as he shot forward," Sullivan recalled Monday.

"As she hit the ground, he hit the river, crossed it and stood on the other side looking at her as if to say 'Lady, are you nuts? I'm not hanging out with you anymore!' "

One of the first-timers in this year's event was Soldotna nurse Jane Faulkner, who was confident she could handle the trail after finishing this year's Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race -- 53rd out of 55 mushers.

She had come with three other nurses and a pediatrician, all a little unsure of what to expect as they prepared to head out of camp Saturday morning.

"It's the only endurance ride in Alaska," Faulkner, 49, said as she tightened the saddle on her horse.

"I asked the organizers if there's any way to prepare for this and they told me you just have to do it once to find out you're not really prepared. But I like long distances. I may not be fast, but I get there eventually," she said.

Faulkner was riding a horse she had rescued 16 years ago.

She said she was able to put a couple hundred pounds on the horse in only eight weeks, he was that malnourished.

She said she was attracted to the event because of its emphasis on horse care and proper riding techniques.

Palmer High science teacher Susan Dent, a former veterinarian who runs Wildwood Farm in Meadow Lakes with Rae Arno, said she never would have gotten involved with the competitive trail rides in the early 1990s if she thought they weren't beneficial for horses and riders.

"It's a fun (event) name, but it's a misnomer because if you're riding correctly, your butt shouldn't get hurt because you're sitting lightly in your saddle, using your legs and taking your weight off your horse," said Dent, whose horse "Cheval" took top honors in her division and helped Dent garner enough points to win a first-place ribbon in the overall combined class.


She has consistently placed high in these events over the years because she doesn't just train a couple of months before they start as many might do.

"It's a lifestyle thing," she said Monday from her home off Pittman Road, explaining that she takes her horses on several long trail rides throughout the year, as well as making sure they are kept in good condition with some sort of exercise ritual throughout the year -- even in winter.

"The first time I did one of these rides I was so ignorant. But I learned so much about what they were looking for, behaviors and habits along the way. Now I just do what they've taught me as an everyday thing. That's why I keep doing it -- it makes daily riding so much more fun and safe. I don't do it to win a blue ribbon."

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