A Hunter Jumper Gone Rogue

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There is a ton of crossover between disciplines these days, but often it still feels like each operates in its own "world," with unique sets of rules and customs. Below, RW crew member and hunter/jumper rider, Sonya, hops disciplines and shares her experience doing her first Endurance ride, the 2019 Nevada Derby!

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A Little Background Info

I started my riding career in Pony Club, and throughout the years have dabbled in a variety of English riding disciplines. In my younger, crazier days, I hopped back and forth between eventing and equitation/medals, with the occasional dressage show or hunter derby thrown in the mix. Point chasing to qualify for Maclay Finals while simultaneously working towards my first CCI** (Long) was already seen as an obscure mix of disciplines, especially on the same horse. But, I genuinely loved both disciplines so I made it work.

Now that I'm officially an amateur, I've lost the guts I used to have for the upper levels of cross country, so these days I ride mostly in the medal/equitation ring. Still, I've always loved long solo trail rides and been intrigued by Endurance riding. I just never thought I'd act on it!

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Competing a Maclay Regionals 2014 on Herbie, with George Morris judging in the background! P.C - Captured Moment Photography

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Bently and I running Preliminary at the Woodside Horse Trials

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Bently and I in our first hunter derby - we got an 88.5 in the handy round!

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Herbie back in the day conditioning at Windy Hill Open Space Preserve

In the Spirit of Spontaneity

Then one day I found myself talking to RW customer and Endurance rider, Stevie Delahunt of Action Horse LLC., on Instagram direct message. She sent me a photo from a training ride to feature on the Riding Warehouse Instagram page, and casually mentioned that I should come ride with her sometime. Since I was a complete stranger, really just a mysterious entity managing the RW social channels, she probably didn't expect me to take her up on it. But after 10 seconds of contemplation, I thought, "why not?!"

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I wasn't kidding, it really did start as an Instagram conversation!

Two or 3 spontaneous decisions later, I was signed up to do the 50-mile ride at the Nevada Derby on Stevie's horse, Alexander Hamilton. Over the next few weeks, my emotions were a combination of excitement and a sinking feeling of, "what have I gotten myself into?" The most I'd ever ridden at once on the trail was 7-8 miles. I do ride my hunter/equitation horse 6 days a week for 45-60 minutes, but 50 miles? For my first dabble in the Endurance discipline?

It'd be a "crash course" in Endurance, as Stevie put it. So long as I brought my good humor and was prepared to be very sore, I'd be fine, she said. With these encouraging words of wisdom, I was ready to embark on a new adventure!

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Who would've thought this (somewhat) tame hunter jumper rider would find herself doing a 50-mile Endurance ride?
The day before the ride, I drove up from San Luis Obispo and met Stevie and her horses at her place in Somerset before trailering to the ride site. After packing our things and dealing with not one but TWO thrown shoes, we were on the road!

Also joining us was Stevie's husband, Dylan, and Erin, a 2019 Mongol Derby rider, who like me was also doing her first distance ride at the Nevada Derby. She was riding another one of Stevie's horses, Hero. The trailer ride was long, but we easily killed time by sharing stories of our riding backgrounds and interests, and Stevie gave us a rundown on Endurance basics.

The Ride

Due to snowy weather conditions in Washoe Valley, the ride was moved about 15 miles down the road. The site did not have an official GPS location, which I learned was "the norm" in Endurance. Instead, the instructions on the PDF said to drive approximately 10 miles down this road and you'll see signs for camp on the right. Oh yes, that's another Endurance "norm" I learned about. Ride camps are marked on the road by an abundance of plastic ribbons tied to shrubs, trees, or any other landmarks by the entrance.

After traveling down a 3-mile dirt road in seemingly the middle of nowhere, a sea of about 50 trailers told us we'd arrived at camp. We unloaded the horses and Stevie set up the electric horse corral. Then we vetted the 3 horses in, put up our tent and went on a quick ride to stretch our horses' legs and test out our tack. Ride camp had water for the horses and Porta Potties for the riders, but other than that it was a bare bones, do-it-yourself situation!

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Afternoon view from the Nevada Derby ride camp.
The 50-mile ride started at 7am on Saturday morning, and overnight the temperature dropped to 32 degrees. It's safe to say that none of us were prepared for this! The Yurt style tent kept us somewhat warm, but even with all our layers on we spent most of the night colder than we would've liked. Changing into riding clothes at 6am on Saturday morning sounded brutal in the cold, so Stevie shared another pro Endurance tip. Go to sleep in your riding outfit the night before! Genius.

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Stunning sunrise over camp on ride day
Rolling out of our sleeping bags on ride day, pre-dressed from the night before, we started off the morning by witnessing a gorgeous sunrise over Washoe Valley. By 6:30 the horses were tacked up, decked out in their matching Zilco trail reins, headstalls, and breast collars and color coordinating Toklat Coolback Endurance pads. Of course, we also loaded our EasyCare Stowaway Saddlebags with snacks and waters.

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Caught in an artistic moment capturing the sunrise on ride day, with Hero looking off into the distance ever majestically.

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Alex (front), Sparta (middle), and Hero (back), tacked up and ready to go at camp.
Just before 7, the three of us hopped on our horses and headed to the start line. Living by the AERC (American Endurance Ride Conference) motto, "To Finish is To Win," we didn't set out to be super competitive. Stevie, on the other hand, lives and breathes Endurance. She and Sparta have multiple 50s and 100s under their belt, but this time her objective was to show me and Erin the ropes of Endurance.
We let the more competitive riders ride out first and ended up starting our 50-mile adventure around 7:02. The 50-mile ride was structured in loop format, which meant that we started and finished at camp for each loop of the ride. This also meant that the 2 vet checks between loops 1 and 2 and loops 2 and 3 were at camp, as opposed to having "away checks."

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Heading out of camp and to the start line. I'm on the left riding Alexander Hamilton, Erin is in the middle on Hero, and group leader Stevie is on the right on Sparta.

Loop 1 was a true 20-mile loop. Stevie set the pace at a brisk trot, and for the most part, she stayed out in front, followed by me and Alex, with Erin and Hero in the rear. Alex is newer to distance riding, so he liked the security blanket of having a horse in front and behind him. It was still bitterly cold at 7am, and I wore all of the layers I packed (which definitely wasn't enough). In an act of desperation, I even put on my baggy sweatshirt for a little extra warmth. However, after 10 minutes of trotting, I could finally regain feeling in my fingers again.

All the horses were feeling fresh and fit! Alex especially was offended that we were trotting, not cantering (or galloping). They had the photographer positioned around mile 5, an unexpected sight that resulted in many spooking horses and comical action shots. "He will be fun to ride after 10 miles," Stevie said! While it was a breath of fresh air to ride a horse that doesn't require so much leg, my arms sure were getting a workout with all those half halts! As the loop progressed on, the 58 starting pairs of horses and riders spaced out as they each determined their own pace.

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Me, Stevie, and Erin out on loop 1

The terrain on loop 1 was relatively flat, with the occasional hill or rocky bit of trail that required us to walk. This allowed us to spend most of loop 1 at a brisk trot, with a victory canter sprinkled in every so often! Having no prior experience of what a 20-mile loop feels like, I was pleasantly surprised at how fast it went by. As we made the final turn back into camp, I remember saying, "wow, we're back already?" We ended up finishing loop 1 much more quickly than we thought in just over 2 hours, coming in to the first vet check at 9:23am.


For the first check, each horse and rider combination had a 30-minute hold before heading back out for loop 2. In that period of time, every horse had to pulse down to 60 beats per minute, and pass a soundness check and general physical exam. About a quarter mile before the check, the three of us dismounted and hand-walked our horses in, allowing them to pulse down before arrival. Alex was incredibly fit, because by the time we arrived he had already pulsed down to 56 bpm. Hero and Sparta had similar results, and all three horses passed the soundness check and physical exam with flying colors.

For the remainder of the 30-minute hold, we let the horses eat and hang out back in their corrals, as we stuffed some granola bars down and took advantage of the opportunity to use the bathroom. No sooner had we sat down, it was time to head out again and embark on the 15-mile loop 2!

Apart from navigating through a twisty-turny section of high desert shrubs, scouring the terrain ahead for the next trail marker, the first 10 miles of loop 2 were a breeze! We even let the horses have a good canter during a stretch of flat and wide trail. Then, we tackled the 2-mile climb the ride director referred to as, "attitude adjustment hill." We let the horses walk up most the hill, as we stood in our stirrups in the two-point to get off their backs. Talk about a lower leg workout!

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Cantering out during a flat stretch of loop 2, right before "attitude adjustment hill"
Somehow, even after this climb, Alex was still eager to go, channeling his inner dressage horse and strutting his stuff down the trail. Sparta and Hero had settled down a bit; at this point Sparta was happily trotting along with Stevie on loopy rein. Take note, Alex! My legs were definitely starting to feel the strain of miles of posting by the end of loop 2, but energy wise I felt great.

Coming into vet check 2, we again dismounted about a quarter mile before the entrance so horses could pulse down. Just like last time, Alex had already pulsed down to 56 bpm by the time we arrived and passed his check easily. All in all, even factoring "attitude adjustment hill," the three of us finished the 15 miles in just over 2 hours. This time, we had a 60-minute hold, so the horses got some much deserved rest, hay, and grain.

At this point, we had already covered 35 miles, so the light at the end of the tunnel was near. It was my ankles that were most sore from all those hours posting and putting my heels down, but as we rode out on the 15-mile loop 3, I felt a sudden wave of energy and thought to myself, "I could go for another 40 miles, this is awesome!" The dreaded blue loop, as we referred to it later, had other ideas. In the video below, you'll see a quick snippet of our canter stretch during loop 2, and Erin giving a victory "whoop" at the beginning of loop 3, the blue loop, when our spirits were high.


All the horses were going incredibly well and feeling fit as ever, so we picked up the pace for the final blue loop. I still spent most of the ride holding Alex back, and at mile 40, Hero was still feeling fresh enough for Erin to have an unplanned dismount. Just another thing that happens in Endurance!

Although we upped the pace, the blue loop seemed to drag on much longer than we expected. Towards the beginning, we spent a while navigating through a thick expanse of Nevada shrubs that hooked your stirrups if you weren't careful. The blue trail markers were a little difficult to find, but we made it out in good time! The trail then went up onto the ridge, where we passed a dirt biker tackling the hills and valleys of the high desert.

After about 2 hours of riding, which was how long it took us to finish the previous 15-mile loop, we made the final turn into camp. While the horses were having a drink, we noticed that someone had dropped some cans of beer into the trough. They must be congratulating us for being so close! Beers in one hand, reins in the other, we trotted on. The sea of trailers was in view, but half a mile away from the finish line, we saw that the blue loop took us to the right, away from camp. What?!

As we traveled further and further away from camp, we realized that those beers must have been a peace offering. This last-minute detour contained the rockiest terrain of the trail, so it was slow going. We kept double checking our maps, thinking we had taken a wrong turn. The further we trekked away from camp, the more resentment we built for the blue loop. The blue loop earned itself all kinds of nick names during this time. Forty-five minutes later, the three of us crossed the finish line together at 3:36pm! We weren't allowed to tie, so technically we finished in 10th, 11th, and 12th.

I was over the moon! All three horses aced their post-ride examination, and Alex felt like he could keep going for miles and miles. It's a huge testament to Stevie and Dylan for how well they manage their horses' fitness, training, and care.

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Alex's Nevada Derby vet card

The Gear

Being an Endurance newbie, I didn't own any apparel designed specifically for distance riding. I won't lie, I did contemplate using the Nevada Derby as an excuse to buy myself a fun new outfit, but at the end of the day, my practical side took over and I drew from my existing collection. Admittedly, this was a gamble, as I had no idea how any of these items would handle the abuse of the ride. Here's how everything fared:

Charles Owen AyrBrush Helmet: I only bought this helmet a month ago, after my old Charles Owen had become so stretched out that it flopped around my head. Although I was worried that a new helmet would make my head hurt after hours of riding, I was thrilled with how comfortable it remained. Erin was wearing a Charles Owen too, so I wasn't the only one that looked like an outright English rider!

Horze Fleece Lined Breeches: I don't think Horze makes these anymore, but they're your basic winter full-seat breeches, and with the weather at the Nevada Derby I'm so glad I had them. I was warned before the ride about chaffing and strongly encouraged to get riding tights, but I'm happy to report that I walked away from the weekend un-chaffed and (mostly) bruise free.

Ariat Heritage Paddock Boots: In the footwear department, I wore my good ol' Ariat lace up paddock boots. I had no worries about my paddock boots withstanding the ride, and they didn't disappoint. These babies have been with me on countless adventures, both in and out of the saddle. Like a true English rider, I paired these with my Ariat Contour Leather Half Chaps. Again, I was advised against this, but they held up great and protected my legs from the thick Nevada shrubberies.

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Back view of my riding outfit, including the Horze breeches, Charles Owen helmet, and Ariat paddock boots and chaps

Anique Signature Cooling Top: Under all those layers was the new Anique shirt. After falling in love with the fit and feel of this top (check out the full review here), I decided to put it through the ringer and take it on my Endurance ride. It's safe to say that after a 30 hour adventure of being worn, slept in, and ridden in, none of my other shirts would've fared so well.

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The lovely Anique top in action

Other layers I wore included an older model Horze lightweight down jacket and a 2016 Ariat vest. I also wore my favorite Dreamers & Schemers "Avocado Toast" socks. In terms of what to wear, the biggest lesson I learned is to wear what's comfortable for you! If I did the ride all over again, I'd wear the same thing (except perhaps some warmer winter gloves).

Key Takeaways

I came into the Nevada Derby having no idea what to expect, with zero experience in Endurance. At the end of the weekend, I left with new friends, a deeper appreciation for distance riding, and a soreness in my body that left me feeling fulfilled. Coming from a hunter/jumper background, it seemed a little nuts galavanting off to Nevada to ride 50-miles with someone I'd never met on a horse I didn't know. However, after dipping my toes into Endurance culture, I realized that this was far from crazy from their perspective.

I found myself warmly welcomed into this discipline, both in Stevie's hospitality and in the general attitude of the riders at the derby. Sure, it's technically a race and somebody wins, but I got the sense that most riders were there to experience the freedom of being out on the trail with a horse, and meet personal goals along the way. What's more, every rider seemed to be genuinely rooting for their fellow competitors to finish and have a great ride while doing so.

Whether you were in camp or passing another rider on the trail, wishing fellow riders a fantastic ride was commonplace. This is customary in eventing, too, but on the hunter/jumper circuit, these friendly remarks would make you an outlier. Although it seems like a no-brainer to wish your fellow riders the best, I've been on the hunter/jumper circuit for so long that this warm courtesy had become obscured. Witnessing the genuinely supportive attitudes of Endurance riders brought a smile to my face and re-instilled the faith I had perhaps lost in overall equestrian sport.

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The majestic red-headed Hero mentally preparing for the day

At the end of the day, what stuck with me most is how down to earth, welcoming, and tight-knit the Endurance community is. After years on the hunter/jumper circuit, I feel like I've discovered a home I never knew I had. I could not be more glad I sticked to my guns and went on this adventure. It was truly a special experience that I will never forget, and I can't thank Stevie enough for making my first outing so overwhelmingly positive!

If you have even the slightest interest in Endurance, my recommendation is, "just go for it!!" Truly, you won't be disappointed.
 
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Comments

#2
Thank you so much for your great article on endurance riding. RW has been a consistent sponsor of our sport and we appreciate them so much. I've brought several dressage riders and eventers into endurance and they all enjoy the relaxed, welcoming atmosphere. Hope to see you on the trail.
 
#3
Thank you so much for your great article on endurance riding. RW has been a consistent sponsor of our sport and we appreciate them so much. I've brought several dressage riders and eventers into endurance and they all enjoy the relaxed, welcoming atmosphere. Hope to see you on the trail.
Thank you so much for your comment and kind words, Cindy! We are always happy and proud to support the Endurance community. I can't wait to get back out on the trail!
~Sonya
 
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