Thursday, January 02, 2020
Never Quit: Ciera Schwartz Rides Blue Hearrt to 2019 AERC Junior Championship
by Merri Melde-Endurance.net
January 2 2020
14-year-old Ciera Schwartz's journey from zero endurance miles to 2019 Junior AERC National Champion in one season (in less than 6 months!) is nothing short of extraordinary.
"She had to go from zero! Think about that. From zero to 505 miles. Really think about it. It's amazing - amazing what that young girl pulled off!" says Robert Weldin, Ciera's sponsor and mentor during the 2019 AERC season in the quest for the Championship.
Along the way it's taken a village of enthusiastic, selfless supporters who helped her get there.
It was Marilyn Scholl who first introduced Ciera to endurance riding in 2016, near her home in Winters, California. "When I met her, she asked me if I could ride with her," Ciera says. "I was like, yea, I don't know what you're talking about though." Ciera started riding at age five in an all-around discipline barn. "I decided to do Western Pleasure in general." But thanks to Marilyn, it was endurance that became her métier and passion.
Marilyn sponsored Ciera on two Limited Distance rides in 2016, and one in 2017, aboard Marilyn's gelding Khavasea. When Marilyn didn't have a horse to ride with Ciera in October at Lake Sonoma, she asked Robert Weldin if he'd sponsor Ciera. "I did a pre-ride with him, got to know him a little bit," Ciera says. "Then we went out and we placed top 10 on the LD that day.
"Robert really liked the way I did things, so he told me that if I needed a mentor any other time that he would most definitely do it."
After Jaya Mae Gregory sponsored Ciera aboard Khavasea on an LD ride in April of 2019, Robert then stepped up in a big way. Not only did he become her sponsor and mentor for the season, but he also provided her with a fine 10-year-old gelding to ride, Blue Hearrt.
Ciera says, "I went with my grandpa to Robert's house [in Wellington, Nevada] for a visit. He had Blue, and he’d been working with him a little bit. (Blue was owned and campaigned the two previous seasons by Melissa Harris.) And Blue’s a real powerhouse, so Robert was looking for somebody that could handle him. And he let me hop on him and ride him around on his property, and we hit it off right away. So Robert was like yep, you’re the one."
Ciera makes it sound easy, but Robert points out Blue Hearrt is anything but.
Robert says, "Blue's 16 hands, and a very, very powerful horse - one of the most powerful horses I've ever had. She had to learn how to manage his strength and his power, because all he wanted to do was power through everything. She had to learn to teach him, hey, we've got to do this together."
Ciera's and Blue's first endurance ride together was so memorable in so many ways. She says, "We had Torre Creek Pioneer lined up (a 3-day Pioneer in Eureka, Nevada). Marilyn was nervous about me going to that because it was my very first 50. And 55. And my very first multi-day.
"So we went there, and it was raining, it was hailing; the weather was not on our side! But we finished all three days."
Robert says, "It was storming, raining, so bad, several people came up to Ciera and told her, it's OK to quit. And she dug deep, and continued on when it was cold and icy. She was able to get through all that, all 155 miles."
It would have been tough for a seasoned veteran endurance rider to finish three days in challenging weather, much less a 14-year-old on her first 50-mile endurance ride(s). "Oh, I felt tired," Ciera admits. "But I felt very accomplished. And afterwards, when I crossed that finish line I was so happy, pumped up with adrenaline. But a couple hours later I felt tired, sore, and wanted to go home!"
"She learned about not quitting," Robert says. "And she was always, from the start of our very first ride at Lake Sonoma to the very end, very, very humble. And she always, always put Blue first - at every vet check, everywhere we went, even when she couldn't stand up, the thought was Blue."
Finishing that first Pioneer ride cemented the vague thought of the National Championship 100 on November 2 in Ridgecrest, California.
"It was Robert's idea," Ciera says, "and everybody thought he was crazy, because this was my first season of really doing endurance. My grandpa and Marilyn were like - we’ll see.
"And Robert was like, she can do it! And I was with Robert on it, yep! Let’s do it! I don’t see why I can’t."
Setting that National Championship ride as their goal, and needing to qualify for it, they determined that Ciera needed 400 endurance miles on any horse, and a 100 miler on Blue. So in June, Ciera finished her second Pioneer ride, the 155-mile Wild West (two days on Rio, also owned by Marilyn, and one day on Blue), followed by a 50 on Khavasea in June, and a 50 on Rio in July.
Next came the Virginia City 100, a notoriously tough and rocky and (usually) hot 100. "I thought that was a really tough one because there aren't very many places where you can move out," Ciera says, "and because of all the elevation, between going up and down, and up and down, and the footing. That was a really amazing experience.
"And Nationals was a breeze, compared to VC!"
Ciera makes the AERC National Championship 100-mile ride sound easy, though in a way, it was another very difficult ride, because after 50 miles, she started getting shin splints. Anybody who's ever had these knows how painful it is to walk, much less ride a tough horse who's pulling on you because, as always, Blue wanted to go.
Robert himself was having trouble also, with his bad knee (he scheduled knee surgery for the end of December, so he could finish the entire endurance season). "We kind of had our goal on the Junior Championship, and we were sitting pretty well, but Ciera got leg splints, and at about the 50 mile mark, my knee just blew up.
"I had to lift her off the horse and carry her at the 50-mile vet check. I said, 'We can quit. It's OK. You have nothing to prove to anybody.' She couldn't stand up; her leg was all black and blue. My knee was the size of a volleyball. And she kept shaking her head no. She said just to give her the hour time. I said, 'Look, let's just slow down. We've got 50 miles to go. Let's just stay focused on what we came here for, on getting the completion of the 100.
"We iced her legs, she took some Advil, and she got back on; and we did the next 50 miles and finished at 4:20 in the morning.
"And the next morning, to Ciera's amazement - she didn't know it till they called her name out - she was able to win the Junior division."
Ciera naturally focuses more on Blue's accomplishment than on her trials in the National Championship. "Blue was really happy that he got to do his thing without a bunch of rocks [as at Virginia City] being underneath him. He really, really wanted to go, and he did not stop pulling on me. He is a real powerhouse, and I love that about him. He loves what he does."
It was an emotional moment for Ciera's fan club at the next morning's ceremony when Ciera accepted her awards, which included a Stonewall saddle. It's a tossup, but one could say Ciera's grandparents are her biggest fans. Russ Vancuren, who comes to Ciera's every endurance ride, agrees: "I am Ciera's head crew chief, biggest fan and one part of her large support base, and her grandfather. We all are so proud of her accomplishments this year."
"He is my number one support," Ciera says. "Well, a lot of people are, but he’s really been supportive of me, ever since I was little. And my grandmother supports from home."
Robert's wife Sharon also plays a major support roll behind the scenes, as does Marilyn Scholl, and Jennifer Sorrells, who drives a trailer to the 100-mile rides for Ciera to stay in. "It was a good team," Robert adds. "So many people were supportive."
I asked Ciera what she learned from Robert this endurance season, and this perceptive 14-year-old answered with advice many older, much more experienced endurance riders can take to heart. "Take it slow. It’s not a race, and it never should be. It's about you and your horse. It’s not about other people. And you pay to be out there, and you get to see these amazing things that not a lot of people get to see.
"Some little tricks here and there that I learned about getting through vet checks are really helpful, so we breeze through vet checks no problem. And there are just little things that you pick up from everybody. Robert would point out things that other people are doing, and he’d say ‘Hey go do that, see if that works.’
"So opening up your mindset is another thing that he taught me."
"She has really taught me a lot of things as well," Robert says. "She never complained. She was always, always taking care of Blue first. Even when she couldn't stand up, her thought was Blue.
"A couple of times we had a few tears together, but she never, never, never, never wanted to give up. That's one thing that really stood out with me. And she's been very humble, since the first time I met her until we got off our horses at 4:20 in the morning at the National Championship.
"And she always had a smile, from the start of the ride till the end of the ride.
"She's an amazing young woman."