Tuesday, December 01, 2015

From Bucker to Blessing: 9000 Miles for Sousa's LV Integrity +/

November 28 2015
by Merri Melde-Endurance.net

When LV Integrity and Joyce Sousa crossed the finish line in last weekend's second day of the Gold Rush Shuffle endurance ride in California with their family - Joyce's husband, daughter, and granddaughter - the 22-year-old gelding's AERC lifetime mileage total tallied at 9065 miles. It's a milestone that less than 3 dozen horses have reached in their endurance careers.

Looking back at the beginning of his 17 seasons of competition, it was a rather unlikely proposition that anything like this would have evolved. There's really no other explanation for how LV Integrity came to be a successful part of the Sousa clan but Divine Intervention.

It started with Joyce saving a life. She was riding her Hall of Fame horse Jim Bob on a 100-mile ride in 1992 with Chris Knoch on his horse NV Fifth Ave. Cantering along the forested trail, Chris was turned in his saddle talking to Joyce behind him, when suddenly up loomed a big tree branch over the trail. No time for Joyce to do anything but flatten over her horse's neck and scream at Chris, "DUCK!"

"He didn't even turn around," Joyce says. "He just ducked down and the branch went over our heads. He said, 'I owe you one for that!' At the time, I just joked with him, 'Yea, you can just let me win this ride!'"

Though nobody could know it at the time, repayment was ultimately in the unlikely form of an unruly, mean gelding with a bad buck in his soul.

4th place in the Owyhee Fandango 100, May 2008

Fast forward a few years to the 1999 Big Bad Bally ride near Shasta, California. Chris was there with that very beast to sell. "He had to sell the horse because he was really mean and used to charge his little girls - he had to take a pitchfork to him once - and he was a bad bucker," Joyce says.

Nobody was interested in the 6-year-old LV Integrity because he was a rather wild looking thing. He'd been tethered all day between two trees on a highline. "He spent the day running back and forth, back and forth, all day long. He was covered with sweat; he was just a miserable looking thing."

Chris sought out Joyce that evening. Joyce recalls, "'I've got this horse," Chris told me. 'I can't keep him on my place; I can't trust him around the kids at all, and he bucks like a sonofagun. But I think you can do something with him. I will take anything you have to offer me for this horse.'

"I went to look at him. There wasn't much to look at, really. He was just a lanky, bay, sweaty-looking piece of horse flesh, but what captured my heart was his eyes. They just had a look of despair. They weren't able to love, and nobody was able to love him. He just looked like he was at the end of his rope. I didn't even really look at his conformation that much. It was his eyes that got me."

She conferred with her husband Dennis, and their kids Jenny and John; they said it was totally up to Joyce to decide. What Joyce decided was to write a check to Chris for the horse. "Chris told me that was great, but under no circumstances should I get on his back or try to ride him, because he'd kill me. And I believed him!"

at the finish line with Dennis and Joyce, May 2008

Auspiciously dubbed "Ritzy" by Joyce, the Sousas hauled him home, and Joyce called up an older cowboy trainer she knew named Rex Hinton, and told him Ritzy's story. He agreed to work with the horse, and they delivered Ritzy to Hinton's ranch.

3 weeks later Joyce got a call from Rex. "He told me, "'Joyce, I believe you've got a horse. Come on down and get him.'"

The first week of training hadn't been easy for Rex or Ritzy. The first day, Rex haltered the horse in a round pen and put a saddle on him, and as soon as he cinched the saddle, that horse went to bucking. "Vicious bucking," Joyce says. "Rex couldn't get near him. He just walked away and let Ritzy buck it out." After the horse eventually stopped, Rex was able to approach him and remove the saddle, and he put the horse away and let him be for the day. That same thing happened for 6 straight days. "No way Rex was even thinking about getting on him. Rex told me he'd cowboyed all his life, and he'd been on bucking horses, and he didn't think Arabs could buck. But Ritzy was a BUCKER."

But on the 7th day, when Rex went out and saddled Ritzy, this time the horse stood stock-still. He didn't move. Rex put the bit in his mouth with no problem, then very very carefully put a foot in the stirrup, expecting Ritzy to start bucking at any moment - but he didn't. Rex sat on his back a while, then asked the horse to move around the corral a bit, which he did with no problems at all; then Rex took the saddle off and put Ritzy away for the day.

1st place in the Owyhee Fandango 100, May 2009

Rex saddled and rode Ritzy for a week in the arena, and only one time did Ritzy act like he might think of bucking, but Rex popped him on the butt with his reins and told him to stop that, and he never did it again.

After a week of that, Rex took him out of the arena and rode him up and down the hills for another week. Ritzy never once made another move to buck, so he called Joyce up. "He told me there was nothing else he could do for the horse. He wasn't bucking, Rex was riding him, and now it was my turn.

"When Rex was telling me this, I was scared of that horse. Then I thought, well, God created the earth and he rested on the 7th day too… maybe that's what Ritzy is doing!

"It hit me then. I felt I had saved Chris's life, and he had told me, "I'll pay you back" - so I thought that this was God's way of showing me that Ritzy was Chris's gift to me. I have always felt that, because that horse NEVER, at any point in time, since then, has ever bucked with me, or ever tried to hurt me in any way."

Despite Ritzy's good behavior, Joyce was a bit tense riding him the first two seasons and 4 rides on the endurance trails, because she knew what Ritzy had been like.

But he never did anything wrong; and the next year was a real turning point for the gelding when he went on the 2001 XP ride from St Joseph, Missouri, to Virginia City, Nevada, with the Joyce family.

2nd place in the Bandit Springs 100, riding with daughter Jennifer Niehaus and MC Gallantly, July 2009

"We had 2 other horses along, and he was the closest horse to my camper door. When he wasn't being ridden, he hung out there. That's when we really bonded." Joyce rode him 500 miles in those 6 weeks across the country; and 2 weeks later, she rode him in the Tevis Cup to a 19th place finish on his first 100 mile ride. "He had proved to me that I could trust him with my life, literally. This horse was a solid horse."

This bonded team of Joyce Sousa and LV Integrity went on to phenomenal success, racking up 9,065 AERC miles over a 17-season career (to date), 143 completions in 151 starts, with 35 100-mile finishes out of 41 starts, including 4 Tevis Cup finishes without a pull. His record includes 18 first-place finishes, 7 of those in 100 mile rides. Ritzy picked up 12 Best Conditions along the way, and National 100-mile awards in 2002 and 2009, in addition to numerous Regional awards. This year he received the Arabian Horse Association's Legion of Supreme Honor award. He has never been pulled in a 50 or 75-mile ride.

Included in those accomplishments were two trips overseas. In 2003 Joyce and Ritzy were invited to Abu Dhabi to compete in the President's Cup; Ritzy made it 91 miles in the ride before the Sousas pulled him because he just wasn't acting right despite cruising through the vet checks with a pulse below 60. Turned out he had caught a bug and was running a high temperature the next day; and his return home was delayed until he recovered. In 2005 they qualified for the World Endurance Championship and returned to the UAE, though unfortunately they were unable to start.

4th place in the AERC National Championship 100, September 2009

"Life went on," as Joyce puts it - life on the U.S. endurance trails with another decade of multi-day 50 mile rides and 100-mile rides, until September of 2014, when at 21 years of age, Ritzy started showing some inconsistent, undiagnosable, slight rear end lameness.

"I thought he was starting to show the signs of aging, and thought I probably should take him out of endurance totally. I started riding a 9-year-old that I had. In the meantime, in 1 1/2 months, Ritzy wasn't showing any lameness at all; he was just going great guns. So I started riding him again as my mounted patrol horse."

But when Joyce's new horse was injured in September of this year, she started riding Ritzy on the endurance trails again. "He's just sound as a dollar. Getting all A's on attitude and gait. I give him a year off and he comes back better than the last couple of years I rode him!" Joyce's daughter, Jennifer, also took him on a 50 miler in October, riding with her daughter Alex.

"His time off was probably the best thing that ever happened to him," Joyce says. "He came back gangbusters. He's happy, real happy going down the trail. I was just thrilled. It felt so good to ride him again, I can't even tell you."

Joyce has over 23,000 AERC miles; and with one horse, Jim Bob, already in the Hall of Fame with 9005 miles (2005), and Ritzy having now gone over 9000 miles in his stellar career, one wonders what the Sousas' secret is.

Warming up for Tevis, 35th place (4th buckle), July 2013

She replies, "In all honesty, I believe there has to be Divine Intervention here.

"We are no different horse handlers than anybody else. We aren't gurus! We love our horses; we manage them the best way we can; we treat them as individuals. Each horse IS an individual. We try to train properly. We try not to overtrain. We try to figure out what training methods work for what horses.

"This isn't about me, or about Ritzy. It's about us all enjoying each other. It's about going and doing your business the best way you can and thanking God, living in a mode of total thankfulness. I just have to believe that.

"And that horse is a part of our family who will fill the bill wherever he's needed, and he is our blessing!"

Top photo:
4th place in the AERC National Championship 100, September 2009

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