HINCKLEY, Minn. — Spending a beautiful spring day riding horses through the countryside may seem idyllic and carefree, but weeks — even months of preparation took place before riders hit the trails at St. Croix State Park on May 4.
The park was the site for the kickoff of the Minnesota Distance Riding Association’s 2019 season. Over 60 riders of all ages took advantage of the weather to get out the winter kinks. “We have about 80 people ride consistently,” said Theresa Meyer. Meyer was the ride manager for the Hinckley event. Her husband Ken is president of the MnDRA.
“Distance riding is like a marathon — except you’re on horseback,” Meyer explained. “Beginners and novices ride 12-15 miles. The first ‘legal’ distance is 25 miles. Today we have a 50-mile ride. At some events we have 75 and 100-mile rides.”
The riding course set up at St. Croix Park was made up of an 11-mile loop and a 14-mile loop. Riders check in before going out and check in again upon their return. “For a 50-mile ride, riders have to complete the course within a 12-hour limit,” said Meyer. “Most riders complete the 50 miles in about eight hours. Some can finish as fast as four hours.”
No matter the distance, horses and riders check in at about the midway point for a 30-minute hold. During that period, the horse’s pulse is checked for a pre-determined rate. When the 30 minutes is up and the pulse is deemed satisfactory, the horse and rider can continue. Once a horse and rider have completed the course, they report to the veterinary check for another pulse check. When the pulse check is passed, the rider’s official time is then logged. Then the horse is examined by a veterinarian for signs of stress or injury. This examination must take place within an hour of completing the course.
So, for example, a rider completes the 25-mile course in six hours. It takes 15 minutes for the pulse rate to be satisfied. Taking 30 minutes off for the midway check, the rider’s official time for completing the course would be 5:45.
Points are awarded for times and miles ridden. The group holds an annual banquet where prizes are distributed, organizational duties are taken care of, and plans are made for the next season.
“Some people like to finish first,” Meyer said. “Some people just try to get as many miles as they can. Goals can be different.”
“You have to train for it,” Meyer went on to say. “A horse can’t train every day — maybe two or three times a week. But a horse can hold their condition a lot longer than humans. Most people give a horse a break in November and December and start walking them in January and February. We like to say, starting out, trot two miles without stopping. Increase the mileage until you get to half the distance of whatever length you’re competing.”
Michelle Fedewa of St. Francis, Minn. has 13 horses. She said Arabians, Morgans, Appaloosas and Tennessee Trotters all are good breeds for distance riding. “A lot of people take in standard-bred harness race horses from the track,” Fedewa said. Rescue horses love endurance racing and mustangs are excellent at this sport.”
“Riding a mile through a plowed field is an excellent workout,” stated Fedewa. “We are all very thankful for private landowners for helping us with competition and training.”
Meyer, who lives near Cedar, Minn., said the minimum age for a distance horse is four years old; but many horses compete well into their 20s. “He’s not here today, but we have a gray mare who pulls a cart. She’s 34 years old,” she said.
Distance riding also creates dietary challenges for the horses. “Eating is very important,” Meyer explained. “Horses are usually grazing all day and their digestive system is used to eating all day.” She added, good hay is a must. Horses are often fed flax seed, omega 3 supplements and beet pulp to boost endurance. Most riders feed alfalfa just before race time. "We also give them what I call ‘horsie gatorade’ to build up electrolytes.”
“Performance horse feeds have better science than 10 — even 5 years ago,” Fedewa added.
Horse health is a primary concern of the MnDRA which is why there are vet checks before, during and after the race. One of the veterinarians is Dr. Bonnie Miller who works out of the Mille Lacs Veterinary Clinic in Foley, Minn. “Our parameters fall into two categories: soundness and lameness,” said Miller. “We check heart rate, breathing rate and gut sounds. We trot the horse to look for lameness. The goal is not to get to the point of being in trouble. Are they fit to continue?”
Barry Saylor of Chatfield, Minn. had already completed his ride for the day and was putting the finishing touches on his campsite. Nearby, chomping contentedly on hay was his Arabian, “Dream Girl De.” Saylor has been riding this horse for three years, but has been active in MnDRA for 15.
“For me, it’s the competitive spirit,” Saylor said frankly. “A lot of us are runners — marathons, 10-ks. I’m at the age where I let he horse do the work.”
But just as importantly, Saylor finds satisfaction in the bond with his horse. “There’s a feeling of bringing a horse along from nothing into a fine, competitive animal,” he said.
Meyer said she enjoys the camaraderie as much as the competition. “We’re really a family!” she exclaimed. “Our oldest participant is 71. I heard about distance riding and it interested me. I showed up for my first ride as a novice and my horse checked out lame. A woman lent me a horse and that was it!”
MnDRA has nine more rides scheduled for 2019 with the season wrapping up Oct. 19. Annual dues to the organization are $15 for single and $25 for family. There are entry fees to participate in rides. MnDRA can be found on Facebook and the website is www.mndra.com.
One last piece of advice from Meyer: “Learn to watch the weather forecast,” she laughed. “And learn to invest in good rain gear. If it’s lightning, we’ll hold you in camp. But once you’re out there, you’re out there.”
She smiled, “We haven’t lost anyone yet.”