On December 8-9, Virginia experienced our first icestorm of the season and subsequent power outages, mainly in the mountains and Northern Virginia. My job involves compiling statewide outage totals from 13 member electric cooperatives, so Monday was a LOONG day at the office with our regulatory agency requesting an initial report by 6 a.m. Luckily, I'm an early riser and chipper in the morning, a useful trait for endurance riders as well!
Two mornings later, with most folks' lights back on, my husband dropped me off for a 6:30 a.m. flight to volunteer as a timer's helper at the North American Endurance Team Challenge.
This biannual event helps develop our nation's horses, riders and crews who compete at the FEI (Federation Equestrian International) level and was being hosted by Helen Koehler and the folks at Goethe State Forest south of Gainesville. Helen built the opening ceremony theme around 2013 as the 500th anniversary of the discovery of Florida by Desoto, with descendants of Spanish Barbs and Pasos becoming the native "Cracker" horse.
I looked forward to seeing many friends from AERC's Southeast, Northeast, Mountain and Central regions as well as from across the north and south borders: Megan Savory Davis helped loan horses to form Team Mexico and several dozen Canadians made the trek from the Frozen White North. Among the 15 Canadian riders were Kim Woolley and Ziggy, Nancy Zukewich and Luba and Dessia Miller with her stallion Farley and Farley's half sister Kiera (same mare I rode in Canada on Labor Day weekend, now piloted by 17-year old Stephanie McLeod) who all overnighted at my place just before bad weather hit on their long drive down.
Arriving in sunny Florida, I had a chance to talk with past AERC President Connie Caudill over lunch while we waited for Texas vets Carter Hounsel and Dennis Seymore to arrive. (Their flight was about an hour later than mine.) Connie shared highlights of the AERC board's response to proposed changes to FEI rules, with which I heartily agreed.
For those unfamiliar with how international endurance competitions have evolved in recent years, the fast flat courses of major overseas events (along with supremely focused training and maybe some beta-blockers that don't easily test) have sliced by hours the winning time for 160km events so that they are now regularly below 8 hours and usually won by a rider from the Mideast (or possibly France, Spain or Italy who each have well developed national endurance programs).
In 2011, the speed requirement to obtain a Certificate of Capability (required to compete at the international level) was increased to 14 kilometers per hour: 8 hours, 35 minutes for a 120km/75-mile ride and 11:25 for a 160km/100-mile ride. Many NAETC riders hoped to complete in time to earn a "COC" for their horse.
Putting those speeds in perspective, my "once in a lifetime" horse Shiloh completed just one 100 in his 5,000+ mile career that included almost 20 19 100 milers at this speed (10 hours at JDs). Little Gryphon's first 100, as fast as his small frame could handle and on a flat trail with optimum weather, took 12:44.
Nonetheless, the U.S. founded the sport of endurance and many of us remain hopeful that our nation will one day again earn a team medal if not an individual medal at an upcoming World Endurance Championship (2014's being set for a fairly technical course in Tarbes France). Valerie Kanavy was the last U.S. rider to win gold at WEC in 1996, although Meg Sleeper finished the 2012 WEC in 11th place on Syrocco Cadence with an impressive ride time of 7:49.
Personally, I'm impressed with how many nations - even unlikely ones such as Japan and Costa Rica - have successfully embraced our sport. As with the Olympics, big international events still allow the meeting of new friends and mixing of cultures and love of the horse in a way that promotes peace, understanding and acceptance. But there's no avoiding the concern that the international playing field is now inherently unfair, with sponsorships and subsidies from the Middle East leading veterinarians and officials looking the other way on rules, especially regarding horse welfare. Humane issues must be our top priority in a sport where the horse portion of the team has no voice other than the concern of its rider and crew.
On Friday, Dec. 13, the 2013 NAETC dawned crisp, breezy and post-card perfect, with very few pulls until late in the day, virtually no metabolic pulls and a substantial percentage (40 of 68) horses completing. But in years to come, what will also be remembered about this event is the untimely passing of Braveheart, the 13 hand rescue horse turned FEI champ who'd suffered some form of major episode in the final miles of the ride (possibly neurological and/or metabolic difficulties) and never regained full consciousness after being sedated for the trailer ride to receive medical help.
As a ride volunteer, I had access to visual and anecdotal information that help me sympathize with the horse's owner and rider while at the same time being haunted by what I might have done had I been in their place. During awards, DVM Dwight Hooten assured all present that a full necropsy and analysis would be done on Braveheart to better understand what exactly happened and if it might have been prevented through better management and veterinary controls. I'd heard earlier in the week that the low potassium levels were showing up on voluntary bloodwork done on many horses who traveled cross-country to attend, and many crews remarked how much electrolytes they used on their horses during ride day, despite the cool temperatures.
With the first horses finishing the NAETC course before 8pm, I was thrilled to see what speed and consistency U.S. horses and riders are capable of, starting with Jeremy Reynolds who reportedly was running beside his horse running for part of the day and set blistering pace of 1 hour 5 minutes on the final 14.8 mile loop. He finished first just ahead of Nicki Meuten and her amazing mare Not Tonight (Nellie). This was Nellie's 10th straight 100 mile completion, an amazing accomplishment, and Nicki told me that their partnership had developed to the point that she let Nellie set the pace, knowing how just how fast she could safely go. Were it not for a lack of a headlamp to make up for missing glow sticks on the last loop, Nicky and Nellie might have kept their lead, but they were philosophical.
Third and fourth were Kelsey Russell and Valerie Kanavy on Gold Medal farm horses. Kelsey and Irish earned best condition the next morning, and at age 67 Valerie is still a force to be reckoned with! Also in Top Ten were Kyle Gibbon and Steve Rojek, the consummate endurance professionals and gentlemen, along with my pal Natalie Muzzio from Virginia. While the Southeast earned Team Gold, Northeast earned both Silver and Bronze team medals.
When I think back on NAETC in years to come, I will hope that Braveheart's passing marked the start of a new era in use of our collective experience and technology to PROTECT horses. I'll also recall how fantastic some horses looked the "morning after" this ultimate test of a horse and rider's fitness: here's Kyle Gibbon presenting for Best Condition: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UwcD-EPg0Y0 Would you have guessed that less than 12 hours earlier, they'd finished a deep-sand 100?? Horse doesn't look a bit tucked up although the rider has a bit of "bed head" ;0