Now that I have publicly stated my intention to attempt a 50 mile ride with Tarma this season, a first for both of us, it’s a good time to question why. Why isn’t exploring trails and moseying enough? What drives me to try to prove ourselves in such a sport? Last year I wasn’t really focused on endurance until later in the season, preferring longer trips and the more relaxed pace of camping.
Last year was also about processing grief, of seizing every opportunity because another one might not come. The focus was on Tarma and building our relationship, exploring what she wanted to do, what she could tolerate, what she didn’t enjoy. I began most rides still learning, still wondering what horse I’d have that day and how I would have to adjust to meet her. I still do of course, but it’s with more certainty that whatever I ask of her and whatever she needs from me, we will meet in the middle and be the better for it. I delighted in futzing constantly with my tack and camping set up, swapping out gear and finding what was comfortable, what wasn’t needed and things still missing.
Despite everything we did last year, all the fun and lessons learned, endurance still sings it’s siren song. That feeling of looking at a completed vet card, with a happy and healthy horse in hand, is a high that’s hard to match. When I was catch riding I was just that, along for the ride. The horses belonged to someone else, and even when I had completions the victory was only a little bit my own. The everyday care and management, all those little decisions along the way that get a horse an endurance completion, those weren’t mine to make or deal with. With Tarma, every step is mine (well, mine and my absolutely fabulous barn owners!) Even with less than ideal tack and fitness (me, not Tarma) we still made it work and we got those ride photos to show it!
A little bit of the drive to a 50 this year is deeply personal, most folks (including most of those I used to catch ride for) point out that a 50 miler is where “real” endurance begins. Arguing such semantics can occasionally be bitter, but it remains true enough that most reasonably fit and careful horses and riders can finish an LD, as we did last year. Of course that’s a huge journey and accomplishment…but a 50 takes just that much more, in terms of time and care and management. Of course, the same could be said of the jump from 50 to 100, which is a world I’m not even sure is on my radar, but it’s out there.
For us, a 50 miler is my stake in the stand, showing not the world but myself and Tarma that together, we can manage all the little details, all the big conditioning rides and travel and time and our relationship is solid enough to complete something tough, but at the same time fun. As a friend pointed out, during one section of our LD, I was zooming through the woods on winding single track trails, giggling while Tarma maintained her own pace, head up and ears forward. The world narrows during an endurance ride, to just yourself and your horse, and the only details that matter are the ones that keep you healthy and moving down the trail (and avoiding getting lost). To be able to shut everything else out and just ride, really ride, is a joy.
There’s a trainer (or at least horseperson) I follow on Facebook, who doesn’t ride because, quote, “None of the horses I have now really show an interest or inclination in being ridden.” The ethics of riding, of that partnership with horses is always in the back of my mind. I watch Tarma, I breathe and I listen, knowing my plans or intentions for each day with her can change based on what she tells me. Some days I don’t ride, all I do is feed her some treats and leave. I know I ask things of her she doesn’t enjoy, but I still ask her to deal with them, even after I make sure she’s more comfortable via modifications or treats or time.
What I don’t doubt is she loves her job with me, which is to eat up trail at varying speeds, in places both familiar and brand new, both near and far, in large groups or small, with the dog or without. I rode in a group of ten horses and two dogs for New Years, including a ponied two year old, and not once did she give any sign of pain or discomfort or worry. She told a few horses to give her space once or twice, but that’s expected. When a friend’s mare the next day refused to lead, Tarma lead and didn’t get anxious or uncertain at all. In fact, she was annoyed we had to wait for everyone else to mount and get ready, she kept trying to charge down the trail, ready to see what was in store. Only once has this mare hesitated to continue down a trail, and I should have listened to her better in that moment (saddle fit issues). Every sign she gives on trail is one of enjoyment, of comfort with herself, with me and her job in that moment. We explore places together we simply couldn’t if I was on foot. She’s even started to respond to voice commands for gaits, both faster and slower.
There’s a whole host of non-Tarma reasons to enjoy endurance, including: A lack of care to appearance, rather an emphasis on comfort for both horse and rider; regular vet checks; most folks are pretty dang awesome; getting to enjoy cleared trails we might not otherwise have access to; a clear, defined goal; and of course, zooming down trails with your best friend, viewing life from ten feet tall.