When Chris and Brian Collette's band 'Run For Cover' belted out their version of this well known song (Sweet Home Alabama) I felt so privileged and proud to be part of Owyhee County, and Oreana. I first came to Owyhee county in 1991, doing rangelands research for a joint University of Idaho and BLM project. I fell in love with the vastness and beauty of the land and the open friendliness of the people. A burger or two at the Oreana Bar & Grill clinched it. We were able to buy property here in 2000 and set up camp. My husband John is a southern Idaho (Emmett) native, and he was happy to have a place in southern Idaho again.
One of the reasons we moved down here - where the dust and heat can at times be trying... is because Owyhee County offers endless opportunity for riding, and riding far. Within months of signing the contract to purchase our land in this empty corner of southwest Idaho, my passion for the sport (obsession? compulsion?) led me to start exploring the county for trails, poring over maps and aerial photos, working with the BLM on access, and generally becoming even more passionate about this land. John and I began hosting Endurance events in 2001 and this year I was thrilled to be able to host the AERC National Championship event - two races of 55 and 100 miles each. I selected trails to challenge the riders and to also give them a good tour of the land. They rode into the mountains - up and around Toy Mountain, back down North Fork Castle Creek and Hart Creek drainage, and then across the desert, down to the Snake River with a stop at the Sierra del Rio Ranch. I am also endlessly grateful to the ranchers that permit us to ride through their land in order to put these marathon courses together! One of the reasons I fell in love with Owyhee county was due to the community of friendly and accommodating people.
We had top US and Canadian Endurance competitors here - from as far away as British Columbia, Florida, Virginia and South Carolina. We were also thrilled to have guests and riders from South Africa, Malaysia and Japan. The King of Malaysia had arranged to participate, but had to withdraw at the last minute due to scheduling conflicts. Maybe next time! Even so we had 5 days of competitions, educational clinics, trade shows, and a fantastic country dinner and dance. Our caterers, Blue Canoe Catering were the best - everybody loved their food and they fit right in with the festive spirit. And they worked very very hard and were greatly appreciated. The Run For Cover band amazed everybody - a local band? But these guys are great! And they were - country, rock & roll, slow dance - they did it all.
In addition to the top competitors from across the USA and abroad, we had a good showing of local riders! Many came from the Northwest, the Mountain states, Canada, California and Nevada. We also had many competitors from southern Idaho, and a handful from Owyhee county! Carol Brand and Linda Kluge, both Oreana residents, completed the tough 55 mountain course in good time.
The winning times were fast, even faster than I had anticipated - I guess the Championship titles at stake brought out the best, and brought out the competition. The 55 mile race had a fastest finishing time of 4:57 - and this included a climb from our ranch on Bates Creek to a high point on Toy Mountain of 6500ft! Plus steep trails and rocky gullies to negotiate - impressive horsemanship, and 60 minutes faster than this course has been done before! The 100 mile race had a fastest time of 9:19 - an even faster overall pace than the 55 mile race, and these riders rode the Toy Mountain course, and then headed out into the desert during the heat of the afternoon. Impressive horsemanship AND impressive horses. Given the record high temps during the 100 mile competition (it was well over 100 degrees with blazing sun in the canyon 'furnace' between miles 57 and 85) , this was a real test.
The races were tightly regulated by a team of world class veterinarians. A vet from Malaysia and two vets from South Africa added to our prestigious team of USA vets. Our local veterinarians (Robert Washington from Idaho Equine Clinic and Karen and Olin Balch from Cascade Veterinary Hospital), were on hand to provide treatment if any horses became exhausted or dehydrated. Happily no horses had any serious problems. And only one horse required minimal veterinary attention during the event. We staged veterinary checkpoints at 10 - 20 mile intervals where horses were thoroughly examined, and horses were allowed time to eat and drink and recover before starting the next phase. A total of 4 hours of holds for the 100 mile event, and 2 hours for the 55 event gave riders and horses time to recover, and allowed the vets the opportunity to do an exit exam on the 100 mile horses. While the exit exam is difficult from a competitor's perspective (horses would be presented just before departure, fully tacked), it affords the vets a closer look at the horses, after the horse has had a chance to let down. A few horses were eliminated during the competition for lameness - sore muscles, thrown shoes, etc - but overall it was a very safe and sane event, and a true testament to the level of horses and riders that came to Oreana!
I love this land, and this sport, and was thrilled to be able to offer a glimpse of it to others from across the country and across the oceans. I was very proud of our AERC competitors, vets and staff. I do believe we in AERC have the best 'version' of the sport in the world, a version where the trails are challenging, the horses and riders are tough and non-complaining, the vets are careful to protect the horse, but not antagonistic towards the riders, and we all cheered the 9:19 fastest time as well as the 17:00 tail end time!
We tried to provide this championship with as much 'hoopla' as possible. Bev Gray provided invaluable help by bringing in a great group of sponsors, who were delighted with the exposure and the chance to be involved. With clinics and dances and dinners and riding demos in addition to a challenging championship ride, our goal was to bring the endurance community together - riders, vets, sponsors, clinicians, volunteers, foreign guests - to keep building the depth of support for the sport, to make new friends, and to showcase AERC's top riders and horses. Hopefully we succeeded to some extent. I'm not sure Oreana - and Owyhee County will ever be the same... between the ranchers teaching the South Africans to throw a rope and crack a bullwhip, the South Africans teaching our local bars that a 1am closing time would never do, the Malaysians getting a true rodeo show as some cowboys roped runaway calves out at vetcheck 2, our Japanese AERC rider (with 5 Tevis buckles) teaching the local volunteers how to speak 'endurance' in Japanese, and all of the AERC competitors getting a good dose of Owyhee heat, rock, dust and fine Idaho wine... we'll all have some interesting tales to tell our horses while out on that next long long ride...
Sweet Home Oreana! Indeed.