Cover Story

'A Hard Day's Night' at the Old Dominion Endurance Ride

Story and Photo by Priscilla Knight Williams, Contributing Writer

 


The sound of pounding hooves and bugle horns fills Piedmont’s countryside at foxhunts and steeplechase races. Dressage competitions and polo matches fill paddocks. And the memory of 1973 Triple Crown winner Secretariat setting records at the Kentucky Derby, Preakness, and Belmont Stakes fills every Virginia horse lover with pride. 

Lesser known, but just as exhilarating to participants, is Virginia’s Old Dominion Endurance Ride. For 40 years every June, riders, friends, family, veterinarians, volunteers, and horses from across America have headed to remote areas in Shenandoah Valley Electric Cooperative (SVEC), Rappahannock Electric Cooperative (REC), and Northern Virginia Electric Cooperative (NOVEC) country to tackle mile after mile of rugged trail in the “O.D.” race.

The 2013 Old Dominion

Hundreds of people and horses gathered on Friday, June 7, 2013, at the O.D. basecamp nestled against a mountain in Orkney Springs, Va., near Bryce Resort. Jack Weber, O.D. president and SVEC member, welcomed everyone and went over race details with the 145 riders who entered the 100-mile, 50-mile, or 25-mile events.  

Reveille at 3:30 a.m. on Saturday stirred participants in trailers, tents, and pens. As coffee percolated, 100-mile riders, including NOVEC member Natalie Muzzio of Clifton, Va., saddled their horses and strapped on their helmets for the 5:15 a.m. start. The 50-milers followed at 6:45 a.m., and the 25- milers took off at 8 a.m.

Like all 100-mile rides sanctioned by the American Endurance Ride Conference (AERC), the O.D. 100-milers had to complete the course, including several mandatory rest periods, within 24 hours. Riding all day and into the night tested the fiber of the strongest horse and rider.

“The O.D. trail is quite rocky, with many climbs and descents,” explains Muzzio, who’s been competing on Old Dominion trails since 2001. “Most of us tackling the 100-miler typically don’t finish until after midnight,” she says, adding, “It’s a hard day’s night!”

Horse Power

Riders choose different horse breeds for endurance competitions, but most favor Arabians. “Arabians are known for their stamina, heat tolerance, and tough feet,” says Mary Howell, manager of member and public relations for the Virginia, Maryland & Delaware Association of Electric Cooperatives. Howell’s half-Arabian has completed 5,115 AERC miles since 1999 and is still competing in endurance at age 22. “But with careful training, other breeds also compete well,” she adds.

According to AERC rules, a horse must be at least 5 years old to compete in rides of 50 miles or more. Each horse also must be deemed “fit to continue” by veterinarians at checkpoints throughout the race. The 2013 O.D. winning time of 15 hours and 35 minutes in the 100-mile race excluded three hours and 40 minutes of rest at “vet checks.”

“The health and welfare of the horse is paramount in our sport,” states Dr. Lynne Johnson, one of the O.D.’s 15 veterinarians. “At each vet check, we listen to the horse’s heart rate and look for dehydration, lameness, and overall attitude. We must deem the horse fit to continue before the rider may return to the trail.”

Because Virginia can be hot and humid in June, Johnson, an REC member, says she and the other vets provide whatever emergency medical care a horse may need on-site or at the full-care basecamp clinic.

A rider may voluntarily pull his or her horse out of the competition if it passes the vet parameters but exhibits signs of A.D.R. — “ain’t doing right.” At each of the remote O.D. vet checks, horse ambulance drivers stay ready to drive pulled horses to the basecamp.

Despite trail challenges, O.D. President Weber firmly believes endurance horses love their sport. When asked how he knows, Weber said, “Generally you have to coax horses into a horse trailer. My friend, who knows horses, was amazed to see how eager our horses were to get into their trailer.”

An American Sport Goes Global

Organized endurance events started in California in 1955 when equestrians rode from Lake Tahoe across the Sierra Nevada Range on the Western States Trail to Auburn, Calif., in less than 24 hours. That race, the Tevis Cup, remains one of the most difficult of the 100-mile races held nationwide because of severe terrain, high altitude, and often high temperatures. Today, AERC sanctions hundreds of events throughout the United States, including the O.D., Tevis, Biltmore Challenge in Asheville, N.C., and Vermont 100 in Woodstock, Vt.

Weber says, “Endurance riding is the fastest-growing equestrian sport in the world. It has wonderful camaraderie and you get to see beautiful scenery.” He notes that endurance competitions occur on almost every continent.

Heraldic: Endurance’s Secretariat

Some of the world’s best-known endurance riders have ties to SVEC territory. John Crandell III earned the Triple Crown of endurance racing in 2006 when he and his mount, Heraldic, won the Tevis Cup, O.D., and the AERC National Championship 100. In 2010, Crandell and Heraldic won the Tevis Cup again. Their second place at the 2011 Pan Am Games in Chile helped the United States team win a silver medal. Two-time World Champion Valerie Kanavy trains during the summer in Fort Valley, Va. Both Kanavy and Crandell represented the U.S. in the 2008 and 2012 World Endurance Championships.

A Sport for Every Equestrian

With the motto “to finish is to win,” endurance competitions appeal to equestrians young and old, male and female. Many are women because, like jockeys, weighing less is an advantage. A number of fathers, husbands, sons, and boyfriends drive horse trailers, set up campsites and horse pens, and carry buckets of water for thirsty horses. But some competitors do these chores themselves.

“This is a friendly sport,” says Howell. “If you need help or forget something, someone is always willing to lend a hand.”

Emily Richardson, a semi-retired college professor from Hume, Va., is still competing at age 77. Riders as young as 8, with an adult sponsor, try to keep up with her on the trail.

Weber started riding at age 43 after his wife, Marie, bought a horse and put it in their garage. Knowing that wouldn’t work for long, the couple bought a farm in Fort Valley, Va. Marie started competitive trail riding. Jack followed on his son’s mini motorcycle as a drag rider. (Drag riders usually on horses follow competitors to help in case problems occur.) One year after Marie’s first race, Jack entered a competitive trail ride and took Grand Champion. He says emphatically, “I was hooked! He entered endurance competitions shortly thereafter.

Bob Walsh, an O.D. past president, started endurance riding 26 years ago after his daughter, Teri, left her horse at home when she went to college. He got on it and began riding. Since then, he has finished 13 100-mile events and tallied more than 6,000 miles across America. Walsh convinced Teri and her son Riley to compete. Today, the three generations train together.

Taylor Stine, 16, took up the sport at the urging of her horse’s vet, Dr. Jeanne Waldron. When Waldron was younger, she competed in Rome, Germany, Holland, as well as in the U.S., where she won the O.D. six times.

The Ride Management Team

Joe Selden and his wife Nancy Smart have managed the O.D. for the past seven years. Joe, now 70, started riding when he was 11 years old and learned about endurance riding from Smart when they met as Voice of America broadcasters. Smart pulled Selden into the sport.

Selden says most endurance riders don’t have patience for anyone with airs. He laughs when he tells of an Arabian sheik’s son who attended the Race of Champions one year in Utah. While walking through the camp, the sheik’s son spotted a handsome horse and said, “I will ride that horse.” The owner responded, “No you won’t!” The son said imperiously, “Do you know who I am?” The owner replied forcefully, “Do you know where you are?”

The O.D. depends on a host of dedicated volunteers. Volunteer Coordinator Diane Connolly has completed more than 3,000 miles of competition over the past decade. The NOVEC member says after she tried endurance riding it became her sport. Today, she “gives back” to her sport by volunteering.

Henry Muhlbauer, a wheat farmer and computer IT expert in Pennsylvania, has been the O.D.’s head timer since 1974. He heard about the sport from an endurance rider at his church. When he showed up to volunteer, he was assigned to time “because I was the only one who had a big digital clock with seconds.”

Howell says, “All these years later, it’s hard to imagine an O.D. event without Henry waiting patiently at that most welcome sight — the finish line!”  

For many, the weekend’s highlight comes at 8 a.m. Sunday morning, as the first 10 horses to complete the 100-mile ride just a handful of hours earlier are presented to a veterinary panel. These judges evaluate each horse’s soundness as it moves in circles at a trot to determine two awards that recognize a horse’s soundness and fitness to continue.

“The Best Condition Award, offered at all AERC rides, is open to the first 10 finishers,” explains Muzzio. “Unique to this competition is the Old Dominion Trophy, which is presented to the horse-and-rider team that has demonstrated optimum performance based on post-ride recovery and condition,” she says, adding that equine leg-protective devices are prohibited. The formula for determining a winner is based on a veterinary score, total elapsed time and weight carried. Muzzio was thrilled when she and her 11-year-old Arabian horse Laconic (“Nicky,” a ¾ brother to John Crandell’s Heraldic) won the 2013 Old Dominion Trophy.

Whether it’s timing, riding, or making sure horses are in good health, endurance ride participants form a deep bond with each other, their horses, and the land. They agree with Dr. Johnson who says enthusiastically, “Come join us. It’s a fun, fun sport!”

To learn about the sport of endurance riding, visit the American Endurance Ride Conference (AERC) website at www.aerc.org and the Old Dominion Endurance Rides website, www.olddominionrides.org. The Old Dominion organization will host the 2015 AERC National Championship 50- and 100-mile rides and welcomes additional volunteers.

 

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