Distance Endurance Riding Cowgirl Magazine
14-year-old Bryna Stevenson and Maddy during the Old Dominion 100 mile endurance ride. Photograph by Becky Pearman.

When Bryna Stevensen won a prestigious 100-mile endurance race on her $550 horse, she put endurance riding back in the spotlight and inspired horsewomen everywhere.On a grueling ride over rocky, treacherous mountain trails, Bryna Stevenson and her horse, Maddy, pulled into the mandatory veterinary check point. They’d completed 45 miles of the Old Dominion 100 mile endurance ride, the most challenging endurance horse race in the eastern United States.  To Stevenson’s surprise, there were no other riders there.

“I looked around and thought, ‘Am I going the right way?’” recalls Stevenson.

The blonde, bespectacled girl hadn’t lost her way in the mountains.  Instead, she’d taken a decisive lead in the prestigious race held in the Shanandoah Valley and Blue Ridge Mountains outside Orkney, Virginia.

Photo from the AERC.

Night fell and Bryna could barely see Maddy’s ears. She discovered that her flashlight was missing so she rummaged through her saddle bag and found a pink plastic wind-up light she’d gotten for her eighth birthday.  As she held the reins gently and cranked the toy-like tool, a faint light helped her find her way between glow sticks marking the Old Dominion trail.  She had slowed considerably but still didn’t hear any hoofbeats behind her.  The duo maintained the lead to claim the win after 13 hours, 43 minutes and 17 seconds on the trail, more than an hour ahead of the second-place contestant.

Past midnight, the youngest rider to win in the 40-year history of the Old Dominion fell into bed, exhausted, and still dressed in her riding clothes. In the morning, she learned that Maddy, a dapple-gray half-Arabian mare the Stevenson’s had bought for $550, had also won the Old Dominion trophy for the best conditioned horse, as evaluated the day after the race.

Bryna and Maddy (whose formal name is Whisperstream’s Atropine) demonstrated all of the qualities required to succeed in endurance, the horse world’s “extreme” sport.  A serious rider since the age of 8, Bryna had put in thousands of hours training and tens of thousands of miles in the saddle.  She’d become a savvy horse woman, as evidenced by the “tricks” she used, such as carrying a bottle of honey to squirt into Maddy’s mouth to keep her energy up.  Both Bryna and Maddy possessed superb physical conditioning and a will to overcome adversity.

It takes a certain kind of person to succeed in endurance riding. Lacking the spectator acclaim that comes with arena events such as dressage, reining, show jumping or barrel racing, endurance attracts individuals who don’t mind pursuing personal challenges outside the public eye.  Though everyone dreams of a finish like Bryna’s, simply completing a ride is a satisfying experience for most.  In endurance, the opportunity to ride amid breathtaking scenery, spend time with like-minded friends, and form deep bonds with one’s horse are the main payoffs.

It’s these things that attracted Jennifer Waitte, who along with husband Barry owns and manages Tamber Bey Vineyards in California’s Napa Valley.  In the early 1980s, Waitte was a high-school senior working at a Quarter horse ranch near Mesa, Ariz.  She had an Arabian horse she liked to ride in the dry desert creek beds. One day, she and her horse came upon a group of women endurance riders out for a training ride.  Curious, she engaged them in a conversation, asking questions about the sport.

Tamber Bey Vinyard owners Jennifer & Barry Waitte. Photo by Alyssa Weytjens.

“I didn’t know anything about endurance riding, but I thought, ‘This is exactly what I want to do,’” she recalls.  In the coming years, she worked toward reaching the goal of competing, entering her first race – a 50 miler – in 1989.  With determination, she finished the course but says she “nearly killed my horse.”  She lacked know-how, but Waitte learned quickly and improved.

An almost stereotypical Californian with long blonde hair, blue eyes, and a slender physique kept trim by riding and cycling, Waitte is now one of the sport’s most accomplished riders.  At one point she qualified for the United States Equestrian Team and she was hired by a sheik to train horses in Abu Dhabi.  But she’s proudest of having been a many-time finisher in the Tevis Cup, regarded among riders as the most difficult 100-mile endurance race in North America.  Perhaps in the world.

“It’s called the granddaddy of endurance racing,” says Waitte.  “It was the first and still the greatest.  Some will say the Old Dominion is just as hard.  But the Tevis has majesty and history.  It’s a great challenge.  In the endurance community, there is just a lot of love and support for the Tevis.”

Jennifer Waitte and her Arabian Mare. Photo from Rene Baylot.

Formally called the Western States Trail Ride, the Tevis Cup began in 1955 when Wendell Robie, an avid backcountry rider who often ventured deep into California’s Sierra Nevada range, decided to share his obsession with friends.  Wendell wanted to test their horses on a 100-mile section of the treacherous Western States Trail, which stretches from Salt Lake City, the capital of Utah, to Sacramento, California’s seat of government. 

Beginning at 7,000 feet, the trail ride commences south of Truckee, California, quickly plunging nine miles to the Truckee River.  From there, the path climbs steeply to the Squaw Valley Winter Resort, home to the 1960 Winter Olympic Games.  It squeezes its way over Emigrant Gap, where tens of thousands of prospectors crossed into California during the gold rush of 1849. Riders then continue west, climbing a total of 15,540 feet and descending roughly 22,970 feet in their quest to reach the finish line in the century-old town of Auburn.

Horsemen in the area doubted any modern horse could complete the trail in the 24-hours that Wendell Robie had allocated for the contest.  But in August, 1955, Robie and a few of his riding friends proved the skeptics wrong. A tradition was born.  In 2014, more than 200 riders from 12 different countries competed in the event.

In addition to the Tevis Cup (named for a family that supported the early rides), competitors also vie for The Haggin Cup, awarded to the horse with “the most superior physical condition” and the Josephine Stedem Scripps Foundation Cup, which recognizes the top-finishing junior rider. But a good proportion of the contestants ride solely for the silver Completion Award buckles given to everyone who cross the finish line in under 24 hours.

Photo from the AERC.

Waitte first competed in the Tevis Cup in 1991, finishing 87th. Last year, she competed for the eighth time, finishing in second place with a time of 15 hours, 14 minutes on her Arabian mare, M Dash Czoe (“Zoey”). Her close friend and riding partner, Jenni Smith, who works for the equestrian footwear company Ariat International, finished third on Waitte’s mare M Dash Stellar (“Stella”).

Jennifer admits to a certain ambivalence toward the Tevis in the days leading up to the annual race.  “It’s the only event that I look forward to and dread at the same time,” says the rider.  “It is just so much work!  It’s a race in which you go through every single human emotion.  It’s hard, but you feel a great sense of accomplishment when you cross the finish line. 

“I’m in awe of all the finishers and competitors.  There are elderly riders, there are kids.  And it makes you realize that there are some pretty tough people in this world,” she concludes.

Endurance riding in the U.S. developed from military necessity.  During World War I, horses were used extensively to convey men and armaments.   To test their horses’ strength and stamina, U.S. cavalry troops rode their mounts over 100-mile courses. Each horse was required to carry 300 pounds of weight that included rider, saddle, arms and gear.  The fittest, strongest stallions and mares, mainly Thoroughbreds, were chosen as breeding stock.

Today, Arabians dominate the modern sport.  Bred for long desert crossings, they tend to be small in stature and compact, with large nostrils and windpipes when compared with other breeds.  Their skin is relatively thin so that veins are close to the surface, providing more efficient cooling.  And they have a preponderance of slow-twitch muscles, the kind found in top human distance runners.

Laurie Birch by Lynne Glazer.

Over the nearly 60 years of the Tevis Cup championship, 95 percent of the winning horses have been Arabians or part Arabian. Of the three other winners, two were Thoroughbred crosses and one was a Mustang.

“These are the ultra-marathon runners of the horse world.  They’ve been genetically bred for this activity,” says Waitte, a former editor of  The Western Horse.

However, it’s possible to compete on just about any breed of horse and even on mules. The key, says Waitte, is to find a equine of a particular mental makeup and physical constitution.  A horse has to “like to go down the trail,” as horsemen say.  It should be comfortable riding in groups and alone. It should be light, athletic, and agile. And finally, it should “take care of itself,” doing such things as drinking water at every opportunity and minding its hoof placement, as a single misstep or a fall can spell disaster.

“If you get a horse that doesn’t have those things, you’ll wish you did,” says Waitte.

Fortunately, an endurance horse need not be expensive.  The Stevenson family keeps close to a dozen horses (Bryna Stevenson’s mother, Jen, also rides); most of them cost $500 or less to buy.  Those who already own horses may want to find an experienced endurance rider in their area to help determine if any of their equines might be right for the long, hard trail.

Given that most endurance riders operate far from the roadway, how does one go about finding one? The vast majority belong to the American Endurance Riding Conference, a membership organization that sanctions the majority of races in North America.  With more than 5,000 members, the AERC is the sport’s largest body and the best resource for beginning riders.

Hannah Pruss on her Arab, Krusador. Courtesy AERC.

Lisa Schneider, vice-president of the AERC board of directors, suggests that the curious attend an AERC-approved event to get their first taste of the sport and to connect with other riders.  These contests take place in nearly every state plus the four western most Canadian provinces. A calendar on the AERC website (www.aerconline.org) lists the dates and locations of upcoming competitions.

You’re likely to find some real fanatics at AERC events. Schneider herself began riding as a kid with her parents and has logged more than 10,000 miles in contests.  Waitte is close to crossing the 10,000 mile mark.  Even Bryna Stevenson, who has only been competing for six years, has earned more than 2,500 miles in competition. But the three women’s mileage logs pale in comparison to some in the sport.  One rider, Dave Rabe, has completed more than 1,111 rides, racking up nearly 60,000 miles. And a half-Arabian horse named Tulip has 22,280 miles under no less than 20 different riders!

Snyder also speaks highly of the AERC “mentor” program, in which very experienced riders like Jennifer Waitte pair up with novice riders.  Waitte, in fact, has several riders she mentors and who exercise and compete on horses from her barn.  Another way into the sport is to “crew.”  Nearly every rider depends on individuals to help them haul and groom, as well as resupply them on the trails.

Most competitors cite the opportunity to ride in scenic areas such as the Grand Canyon, the Sierra Nevada, the deserts of the Southwest, upstate New York and the hill country of Virginia as reasons why they fell in love with endurance riding.  It’s also a great place to meet and get to know people and forge the camaraderie that comes with sharing a tough challenge together.  It can also bring parents and kids closer. 

Cindy Bradley and her Morgan horse on the Grand Canyon Endurance Ride. Courtesy AERC.

“It’s a fun sport for families,” says Lisa Schneider, whose childhood involved family camping trips centered around endurance rides. “Growing up, we’d crew for my mom and dad. My mom actually finished second in the Tevis Cup twice.  And my dad did the ‘Triple Crown,’ completing the Tevis Cup 100, the Western States Trail Ultra-marathon run, and the Western States Trail ride-and-tie, which involved two men and a horse taking turns running and riding.”  Today, Snyder carries on that family tradition, competing with her husband and daughter.

Endurance riding not only breeds strong horses, but strong character. Anyone who talks to Bryna Stevenson knows that. She speaks with a maturity beyond her years and is completely dedicated to improving herself. In school, she applies herself in science classes to better understand equine physiology.  After classes, she can be found in the arena practicing a number of equestrian disciplines that help make her a well-rounded rider.  It all adds up to an individual well-prepared to take on the challenges of life. She may be a kid, but what she’s accomplished isn’t kid’s play. But that doesn’t mean it wasn’t fun.

“I remember when I was coming across the line, everyone was patting me on the back. It felt really amazing” she said.  

(Originally published in the October 2014 issue of Cowgirl Magazine).