Going the Distance

Joan Harris believes she has one more ride left in her. But it won’t be any ordinary, run-of-the-mill horseback ride. It will be a 50-mile trek through a carefully laid-out course designed to test the endurance of both rider and animal.

“I’m turning 75 this year, and I want to do another ride,” confirms Harris, who has already logged over 7,000 miles as a member of the Endurance Riders of Alberta (ERA). “I could probably still do another 500 miles, but I don’t have a horse,” she said. “I don’t have a truck either. I sold that to my son. I gave my camper and horse trailer to him, too, and my grandson has that now. I sold the rest of my horse-and-riding equipment at the auction market, but I kept my saddle. No matter what horse I ride, I use my own saddle.”

That saddle also likely serves as a reminder of something that was much more than simply competing. “I really miss it. It gets in your blood. It was my life,” confesses Harris, who joined the group after seeing a poster on an auction market door. “A year ago I sent in my $30 for a membership. They tore up my cheque and gave me a lifetime membership.”

And why not? She’s been a member of the ERA since 1982, two years after the formation of the group, which was originally known as the West Yellowhead Endurance Riders. By 1989, the club’s name was changed to recognize the fact that a number of its members were from other areas of the province.

“It was started by a group of people who were interested in long distance riding,” explains club secretary, Brenda Henrickson. “The group was formed so sanctioned events could be held and so there could be a record-keeping process, which is critical for competing in any international rides, such as the World Equestrian Games.”

Membership numbers are quite healthy. “We have about 125 members in three age categories — under 16, 16–21, and seniors who are 21 and over. And there are several distance categories starting with 25–35 miles, known as limited distance rides intended for novice riders or horses. Some ride 50, 75 or 100 miles in a day.”

From the long weekend in May until Thanksgiving, you’ll find six to eight sanctioned rides across the province anywhere from the Fort Assiniboine Sandhills to the wide-open spaces near Milk River to the wilderness of Grande Prairie.

“The countryside you see is incredible,” offers Henrikson, who was the Chef D’Equipe for the Alberta team, which won gold at every distance at the 2016 Canadian National Endurance Championships in Manitoba. “The endurance family is a close group. Everybody helps each other out. It’s a family atmosphere and we have lots of fun.”

The camaraderie and storytelling around the fire was also a selling point for Harris to stay within the sport for over 30 years, during which time she not only rode on scores of trails but was also a ride organizer, international judge, sponsor, recruiter and volunteer. But don’t let the wily veteran fool you into thinking it was all about socializing.

“I never left the start of a race as the front-runner,” begins Harris, who competed on the Wildrose Rodeo Association barrel racing circuit before taking up endurance riding. “I would stay back, pass through all the vet checks and let them think I wasn’t a contender. One year, to get a picture of my horse and all of the hardware we won, my sister had to hold some of it.”

That prize-winning horse was named Stranger, born a year before Harris became a member of the E.R.A.

“They have to enjoy it,” suggests Harris, who rode over 3,000 miles on the back of her long-time partner. “He soured on barrel racing so much that the last time out, he wouldn’t even lope. But when we started loading up for an endurance ride, he tried to get in the trailer before he was untied.”

“I bought him as a weaned colt at the auction market for $65. He was a Morgan- Arab with a bit of Thoroughbred in him. No one in Canada has beaten our mark of eight hours, 54 minutes for finishing a 100-mile race. And it took only 10 minutes for him to recover to the necessary resting time. He was a special animal.”

“Some horses have logged over 8,000 competitive miles and thousands more in training,” says Henrikson, who notes it can take two years or more for a horse to build up its tendons and ligaments enough to enter competitive distances. “The objective is to complete the ride with a healthy horse.”

“Most races are made up of several 12-20 mile loops with a vet check after each loop. To win a race, you must cross the finish line first and your horse must pulse down to 64 beats per minute within a half hour and you pass the final vet check. At the end of the day, judges look at the cards of the top ten finishers and name the best-conditioned horse, one of the most coveted awards we have.” c

For more information on the Endurance Riders of Alberta, visit their website.