It`s 4 AM, Sunday morning, August 26, and I am experiencing the defining moment of my life. I am in Vermont, aboard the Mustang, Robin Hood, owned by Dr. Philip Ottinger. Unfortunately, Phil can`t be here to share the moment, but I have other support: my husband, crew, and team officials. Hood and I cross the finish line, I jump off, and promptly burst into tears. We`ve just completed the 100 mile course of the 2001 Pan American Endurance Championship.
It was a long time in coming, and involved tremendous dedication from all parties. Robin Hood had been selected for the 1999 Pan Am, with a different rider, but I had had to withdraw two months prior to the race because of an abcess in his neck and ensuing medical problems. I started riding Robin Hood in December of 1999, and though I really didn`t know if he could make a comeback, and though he was the first Mustang I`d dealt with, Phil kept encouraging me and telling me how to relate to him. At the time, I had no idea of the depth of the horse I had under me.
For the next year and a half, making it to and competing in the Pan Am race became my focus. It was a long process of bringing Robin Hood back to fitness after his metobolic problems, while at the same time learning the differences between dealing with Mustangs versus other breeds. I had come to endurance riding from a background of three day eventing, so was more accustomed to "hotter" breeds, such as thoroughbreds and Arabians. I quickly got used to Hood`s dependability, but it took me a bit longer and a few mistakes to finally understand some of the metabolic issues Phil had been warning me about. We ultimately got to the point that we could relatively easily "top ten" the 50 milers, and I started looking to the 100 milers for our qualifying races. My husband was very good to put up with all of my idiosyncrasies during this time. I was adamant about not doing anything that would distract from or potentially jeopardize Hood`s training schedule. (Yes...the word "anal" does come to mind!)
The final few months leading to the Pan Am race, including the day we were officially selected to the Pacific North squad, saw us on the Pony Express trail. During the months of June and July, 2001, about 60 riders, including my husband and myself, rode 50 miles a day, 5 days a week, for eight weeks, completing the entire original Pony Express route from St. Joseph, Missouri, to Virginia City, Nevada. Not all of us rode every single day, but we and our horses were there for the entire trip. It was quite an adventure, and I wouldn`t have missed it, bit it did have an impact on Hood`s condition for Pam Am. Robin Hood has a very upright lower leg and hoof conformation, and it can be rather tricky to shoe him correctly. Normally, he goes in Sneakers (Eqithotics, Inc.) put on by Kirk Adkins, but with two months on the trail, I had to have a local Wyoming farrier shoe him midway through to California. His angles got a little off, and Hood wound up getting sore in his heels. I had to send him home to Kirk in mid July, and so could not complete the final stages of his conditioning. Instead of peaking for Pan Am, he was standing in a stall resting his feet. Robin Hood is a horse who does his best when he`s worked every day.
Eventually, Kirk got Hood sound enough to be ridden again, so we set off for Vermont two weeks before the race. My husband, my dog, Robin Hood, and I in our two horse gooseneck with living quarters. We made it almost to Salt Lake City (home is Sacramento, California area) before the first breakdown. Yes. First of many. I won`t go into the details, but suffice it to say that on that trip back East, we had three major truck breakdowns, and in between, we borrowed a truck from a friend in Park City, Utah, returned that truck and picked up ours, spent the night in the yard of a friendly rancher, got to know a very nice man named Francis who is the caretaker for the Sidney, Nebraska fairgrounds, got more intimately familiar with roadside rest stops than anyone should ever have to, and learned of every Ford truck dealer and diesel mechanic between Ogallala, Nebraska, and Davenport, Iowa. Throughout it all, the Mustang was a trouper - took it all in stride even while wondering how many times we were going to practice getting in and out of the trailer, and enjoyed quite a bit of that lush Midwestern brome grass that grows along every road.
We finally did arrive in Vermont, actually back on schedule thanks to a couple of all-night drives, and I had one week to not only let Hood recover from the journey, but also try to salvage some sort of conditioning regiment to get his muscles active again. It was not to be. This time, I was thwarted by a mysterious hind leg lameness that appeared out of nowhere. The Western veterinary medicine diagnostics indicated a fetlock problem, while the acupuncturist argued that it was in the hock. You cannot even begin to imagine the state of agitation to which this reduced me! We had worked so hard and come so far to do this, and now we might not even be able to start. We poured as much Adequan and Legand into him as we could, and I gave him even more time off. It worked. Five days later, we started the 2001 Pan American Championship at five in the morning.
It was a good race, but all the problems we`de had coming into it took their toll. Robin Hood was tired by mile 50, sore in his heels by mile 60, and my mile 70, I came o the conclusion that he had done enough for me. It was time to quit. We came to a spot where our support crew could meet us, and I told them what was going on, and that I had decided to pull from the race. Meanwhile, Robin Hood was happily munching away on as much food as he could stuff into his mouth. Before making my withdrawal official, the assistant team chef d`equipe, Terry Benedetti, and I watched while my husband trotted Hood for one final assessment. He looked good - seemed to have gotten a second wind. I decided to press on to the next veterinary checkpoint. After all, it was the Pan Ams, and one doesn`t quit lightly from something like that!
Hood seemed to have sensed what was going on, and he buoyed my spirits for that next leg. It was almost as if he was saying to me, "Come on - we can do this!" Throughout that next (and last) 25 miles, we alternately carried each other. I hiked beside Robin Hood for most of the distance, and we walked together in the dark. From sunset until the time we finished, in the dark of very early morning, we were by ourselves on the trail. There were times when I would give in to doubts that we could do it in the time allowed. That`s when he would carry me along, his footsteps sounding like a metronome in the night, proceeding ever onward. I know horses fairly well, have ridden hundreds of them, and have about 5000 lifetime endurance competition miles, but I have never before experienced anything like that journey with that Mustang. I wasn`t just dragging a horse over a 100 mile course. I was competing beside a courageous and understanding soul and partner. We both chose to give it all we had, and that result was incredible fulfillment at the personal level. No - we did not win the race, but I know I had the best horse there!
I wrote this in part to share my experience, but also because I want you to know about Mustangs. They aren`t just backyard pets and pleasure horses. If you gain the trust and respect of a Mustang, that horse will rise to whatever occasion you ask. There is a depth of spirit and wisdom in them that can give you a true partner in whatever equine activity you wish to persue.