Adventures in endurance riding

How a dare led one woman and her new horse to start their journey towards one of the most challenging rides in endurance – the Tevis Cup.

The sport of endurance may not be as intensely popular as other equine disciplines, but it’s often described as one of the most challenging and rewarding. JayaMae Gregory, a registered nurse from California, discovered endurance riding on a dare, and it quickly became a defining point in her life.

The dare of a lifetime

JayaMae grew up as a hunter/jumper rider, and found that she missed riding while at college to pursue her nursing degree. After searching for a horse she could ride occasionally, she found Asali, a nine-year-old palomino Missouri Fox Trotter mare. JayaMae would ride Asali bareback and in a halter because, as a college student, she was unable to afford tack. “Shortly after I began exercising Asali, I made a deal with her owner and purchased her for $500,” says JayaMae. “One day, I was out on the trail riding with a friend and I happened to comment that I missed competition, but wasn’t sure what kind of competition I could do with Asali. My friend dared me to ride her in the Tevis Cup. I really had no idea what I was getting into when I first accepted the dare –100 miles in 24 hours through the Sierra Nevadas – and we had to qualify!”

JayaMae didn’t know it at the time, but that moment would become a turning point in her life. “A few days later, I joined the American Endurance Ride Conference; and a couple months after that Asali and I went to (and finished) our first 25-mile limited distance ride,” she says. “We moved up to 50-milers later that year and were qualified for Tevis two-and-a-half years later. We first attempted Tevis in 2013, but didn’t finish. We did finish in 2014 – and Asali became the first Missouri Fox Trotter since 1979 to do so!”

Initially, JayaMae thought she would complete her dare, receive her Tevis buckle, and go back to the hunter/jumpers. But that was far from the case. “In the process, endurance hooked me, and it’s now my primary discipline,” she says. She has even taken it a step further by conditioning horses for the sport, and teaching students at her facility, Lightfoot Horse Farm. She also manages an endurance ride each fall.

The natural endurance horse

Endurance horses have to be tough, levelheaded, and full of stamina. A more natural lifestyle suits many of these horses and improves their ability to do well. It is not uncommon to see endurance horses competing with less equipment than other disciplines. “I think the motto of almost every endurance rider is ‘less is more’,” explains JayaMae. “We don’t put on more than we need to because over a distance of 50 miles or more, all those ‘extras’ or ‘gimmicks’ just become a burden.”

JayaMae rides her own mare bitless, and Asali is either barefoot or wears boots. “Riding bitless in endurance is helpful because I can stop anywhere on the trail and let my horse graze without having to drop a bit. I also don’t have to drop a bit right before the vet check. And I have had a lot of success with barefoot horses. I like to keep my horses in a ‘natural’ state as much as possible. I use boots as they can be taken on and off, so the horses only wear them when they’re really needed.”

Success goes beyond the equipment, though. JayaMae also attributes her horses’ ability to compete in such long rides and stay healthy to the way she keeps and trains them. “I house my horses in a Paddock Paradise,” she says. “It’s really important for horses to be able to eat all day (in the wild they spend an average of 14 hours foraging and often walk 20 miles a day). Having the setup that I do promotes a healthy gut, and this is essential to keeping endurance horses healthy.” JayaMae also works with her horses using natural horsemanship, which she views as a partnership, with herself as the leader and the horse as the follower.

An enduring bond

Endurance riders have a pretty amazing bond with their horses. “Endurance is a sport that stretches beyond just knowing how to ride,” explains JayaMae. “It requires a true partnership with an animal ten times your own size. My husband jokes that I spend more time with my horse than I do with him — and he actually may not be too far off in his claim. Asali and I have covered 1,225 endurance miles and 305 limited distance miles together.” It is impossible not to form a strong bond when you spend that much time with your horse!

The sport of endurance is about more than just riding the trails. It challenges your very core — physically, mentally and emotionally – and JayaMae has learned a lot of life lessons as she has logged hundreds of miles on the trails. “Endurance taught me to overcome the elements of the backcountry, to learn to be alone and comfortable in silence, to trust my mount and to trust myself,” she shares. “It taught me to take things as they come, that the best fun in the sport is when — despite a fall or a runaway horse or getting lost on the trail — you can smile through it all and keep riding anyway. The rides we did not complete forced me to reevaluate my training, my riding ability, and my horse’s ability. Each non-completion taught me that change is okay. And it was in those failures that I was hit with something very valuable, in the name of humility.”

What is endurance?

“Endurance riding is a team sport in which both rider and equine must complete a course of a certain distance on the trail, in the allotted amount of time,” explains JayaMae. “The horse must pass all veterinary checkpoints and be ‘fit to continue’ at the end of the race. Endurance involves distances of 50, 75 or 100 miles. The same horse and rider team have 12 hours to complete a 50-mile course, while 24 hours is the cutoff for a 100-mile course. The Western States Trail Ride (also known as the Tevis Cup) is what some consider the Olympics of our sport. It’s 100 miles through the Sierra Nevada Mountains, beginning in Tahoe and ending in Auburn.”

Giving endurance a go

If you are interested in trying endurance, you’ll find your fellow competitors to be very welcoming and helpful. You don’t need much to get started, as JayaMae discovered early on. “Endurance riding is the only equine sport I’ve experienced where juniors and seniors can ride side by side,” she says. “It’s one of the only equine sports where you don’t need a $100,000 mount, or to meet specific (expensive!) tack requirements. It really is a sport for everyone!” If you would like something fun to do with your horse that will challenge you both and build your bond, consider heading out to an endurance ride – you might have such a good time that, like JayaMae, you won’t want to do anything else!