On October 8 and 10, the Old Dominion Endurance Rides Inc. hosted the 50- and 100-mile American Endurance Ride Conference National Championship rides for the third time, using the same trails used for the organization’s venerable 100-mile ride, which has been held in Virginia each June for more than 40 years.
Veteran ride managers Joe Selden and Nancy Smart headed up a virtual army of experienced staff who were vital to the success of the championship event. Organized by volunteer coordinator Claire Godwin, DVM, volunteers staffed the multiple vet checks on the point-to-point trail. Among them were experienced Old Dominion drag riders and ham radio operators who provided a crucial safety net for this remote area with its spotty mobile phone coverage and limited vehicle access.
Despite several periods of heavy rain on Friday evening, the 100-mile riders awoke early Saturday to starry skies and cool temperatures. Less than two hours after the 27 starters also got underway at 7 a.m., a rush of front-runners arrived at the Bird Haven vet check at the 15.7 mile mark within seconds of each other.
This fast pace continued past Laurel Run, with five horse-and-rider teams arriving together at the 45.6 mile Bucktail hold. The pace slowed around noon, as horses negotiated technical single-track trail along the mountain ridge marking the Virginia/West Virginia state line, giving riders time to enjoy the spectacle of the sun illuminating the fall foliage in the surrounding mountains.
By the Wates Run “gate and go” hold at the 51.1 mile mark, the course had begun to take its toll, with two horses pulled there. But the pace didn’t slacken for the front-runners, even as darkness took hold.
Sixteen-year-old Bryna Stevenson of Newton, New Jersey, was on Whispersteams Atropine (Maddie), the $500 mare her family purchased four years earlier, while Carol Federighi of Takoma Park, Maryland, was aboard Lily Creek Stetson, a Shagya Arabian gelding bred by her fiancé’s mother. The two had swapped the lead throughout the day, with Federighi’s mount pulsing a bit faster at several holds, but Stevenson’s mount soon catching up on trail.
“I was impressed by Bryna’s exquisite balance and horsemanship,” said Federighi, who explained that she’d assured Stevenson that if they could stay together on trail, she wouldn’t challenge the teenager in a race-off to the finish.
At 10:24 p.m., the two galloped in together, with Stevenson crossing the finish line as first in the featherweight division in a ride time of 12:14:57, four seconds ahead of Federighi, who placed as first lightweight. It was the second 100-mile win for Stevenson and Maddie, as she surprised the endurance world by winning the Old Dominion 100 in 2014, as a 14-year-old.
A little over an hour later, Sara Schick of Chesapeake, Virginia, and Lynne Gilbert of Raphine, Virginia, finished together, both on Asgard Arabians. Schick placed third on Legalas, the horse she won in the OD’s 2006 fund-raising raffle.
Despite the best efforts of her crew and being triple blanketed, Gilbert’s horse Mercuric was pulled at the finish for a hind end cramp. Gilbert is a veteran 100-mile rider who’d completed the 2012 AERC National Championship on Mercuric and had won the Old Dominion 100 in 2002 and again a decade later. In 2012 she also won the coveted Old Dominion Trophy, along with a best condition and the traditional cavalry award, meaning she had to carry everything she and Mercuric needed on the ride without accepting any help along the way.
But endurance riding’s rules are explicit about the horse being “fit to continue” to get a completion, and Gilbert was philosophical about Mercuric’s pull.
Rounding out the top 10 were Godwin, of Laytonsville, Maryland, on PL Mercury; Ann Mebane of Star Tannery, Virginia, on HH Saba Shams; Pam Karner, DVM, of Ithaca, New York, on Cirginia (first middleweight), on Ali Mostafa; Nancy Sluys of Westfield, North Carolina, on FYF InZane+, and Trisha Juerling of Broad Run, Virginia, on Busy.
Two days earlier, the 50-mile championship had also dawned cool and clear. The perfect fall weather contributed to a 79 percent completion rate, with 33 out of 42 completing the ride. Following the 7 a.m. start, nearly a dozen front-runners were closely packed as they arrived at Bird Haven, the 15.7-mile hold.
Trail Master and OD Board Member Bob Walsh had modified the second loop to replace a portion of single-track trail that had become eroded and potentially dangerous with gravel road. As a result, many competitors covered this 16.4-mile leg into the second vet check at Laurel Run in under two hours.
Only three horses had been retired from competition after Laurel Run, but the rocks and pace eventually took their toll and six horses failed to meet the “fit to continue” criteria upon returning to Bird Haven for the third and final vet check.
With a 25-minute lead, Cheryl Newman of Chandler, NC, on JS Comet (O’Ryan) crossed the finish line first in a ride time of 5:12:10, also earning first place in the featherweight division. Next was first lightweight Colleen Greene of Rayland, Ohio, one of three Ohio riders to finish in the top 10.
Shortly after, the quartet of Laura Bramel of East Liverpool, Ohio, on RHS Sitara; Alex Upsenski of Rock Creek, Ohio; and Gina Hagis of Fries, Virginia, on Lumina, and Godwin, riding EH Ahmose, tied for third place with a ride time of 5:43:54. Uspenski was first in the heavyweight division on his Arabian gelding Marton, who’d earned three best conditions in a row just prior to the National Championship.
Next in were Verena Stock of Camden, South Carolina, on King Tiki, in seventh. Sallie Sullivan, of Canfield, Ohio, finished eighth on Ivan Groznyi and Jesse Jarrett, of Lenoir, North Carolina, was the ninth place finisher and first middleweight on Smoke Deuce. Rounding out the top 10 were Holly Corcoran and Poete, who traveled from Stroudsburg, Pennsylvania, for the championships.
Newman’s horse, O’Ryan, earned both best condition and high vet score. As manager of the Biltmore endurance ride in North Carolina each May, O’Ryan had been piloted by family friends for his several 100-mile finishes on Biltmore trails, including the 2012 AERC National Championship, but this was their time to shine together.
Traveling all the way from Brunswick, Maine, junior Sarah Buckley was sponsored by three riders, Kelly Lane, Jennifer Smith and Elyse Carreno, who each had years of experience riding the technical OD trails. “Elyse and Jen needed to slow their pace, so they sent Sarah on with me,” explained Lane. “We’re really proud of helping ensure her completion despite her pony having never encountered that many rocks before!” Buckley ended up tying for 21st overall with Lane and Karen Neuenschwander.
For the first time, both a 25-mile limited distance open ride and a ride-and-tie event were held in conjunction with the AERC National Championship, on the day between the 50- and 100-mile competitions. A total of 44 limited distance riders and nine ride-and-tie teams added both revenue and more spectators to the event.
“While we were prepared for many more entries,” said Walsh, “we were delighted by the sportsmanship of all who competed and grateful to our sponsors, who together provided nearly $12,000 in cash or in-kind donations.”
Smart added, “Joe and I were delighted with the good spirit and attitude of all who were there, enjoying the beautiful weather and the difficult trail, whether rider, crew or volunteer, or some of the most dedicated and experienced veterinary judges in our sport. Everyone seemed to capture that special feeling that only a championship can bring.”
AERC’s 2016 national championship will be held September 8 and 10 on the riding trails of Antelope Island State Park, which lies within the Great Salt Lake in Utah.
For more information about endurance riding, or to request a free information packet, please contact the AERC office, located in Auburn, California, at 866-271-2372, email [email protected], or visit www.aerc.org.
About the Old Dominion Rides, Inc.
Formed in 1973 as a 501c(3) nonprofit to promote and support the sport of endurance riding, the Old Dominion offers three AERC-sanctioned rides as well as several ride-and-tie events each year, but takes seriously its mission to preserve trails and educate riders “in the enjoyment, safety and well-being of the working endurance horses” by offering regular clinics and training rides.
The Old Dominion previously hosted the 1988 AERC National Championship in Front Royal and 2006 AERC National Championship in Fort Valley. In 2008, loss of those trails from development led the organization to move its 100-mile ride south and west to Orkney Springs, with nearly all of its trails now within the George Washington National Forest, in Virginia and West Virginia.
Since then, “Dozens of volunteers have worked countless hours to develop our new trail system and vet check locations, as well as improve our base camp along Happy Valley Road,” explained Jack Weber, an Old Dominion board member who managed the ride’s base camp and emceed the national championship award ceremonies.
Weber credits OD board member Virginia Ingram for the base camp’s cheerful and beautiful landscaping. She and her son and daughter installed footbridges across the creek dividing the meals tent from the vetting, vendor and camping areas. Bright flowerbeds and Halloween-themed decorations, with lights woven through tree limbs and along paths, adding a festive flair to the event.
The Old Dominion looks forward to welcoming endurance riders to its beautiful base camp for many years to come.