Endurance rider sets sights on Games
It’s a good thing that Parkite Sue White Hedgecock is in an endurance athlete, because she needs a lot of patience this month.
The elite endurance rider was recently named, among 12 other American horse and rider teams, for consideration to attend the World Equestrian Games (WEG) in Aachen, Germany in August. Former Parkite Christoph Schork of Moab was also named to the preliminary team. The results over the next few weeks will determine whether White Hedgecock and her horse, AA Montego, will make the long trip overseas next month.
The group of 12 is selected by a committee that has observed the horses and riders over the course of two years. The subjective selection process looks not only at overall race results, but the performance of the rider and the crew.
"They want to see someone who is cool and collected and able to hold it together when the pressure is on," she said.
White Hedgecock secured her spot after taking second at the 100-mile endurance event in Oreana, Idaho last month. The duo rode in with a time of 9 hours, 40 minutes and 40 seconds one second behind the winning horse. White Hedgecock said that her horse led for much of the race but in the end she didn’t want to challenge AA Montego to the point that it might hurt his health and chances in future races.
The two are now training and carefully preparing for one of two training rides in mid July, which will whittle the 12 down to five that will represent the U.S. in Germany. One ride is for Western qualifiers and the other is for East Coast riders. After those rides are completed, veterinarians will carefully look over the horses to determine their overall health, which will also play into the final selection process.
"We’re strong contestants if something doesn’t happen," White Hedgecock said. "This horse and I have done very well."
White Hedgecock explained that the training ride on July 18 should be viewed as just that. She compares it to a glass of water that she wants to keep half full.
"This is just a training ride," White Hedgecock said. "I don’t want to spill it all out. I’m conservative."
She says that it also important to always have reserves, so the horse will be able to compete well in the next race.
"My goal is Aachen," White Hedgecock said. "We want to be healthy."
Making it to the WEG, the Olympics of horse racing, would be quite an accomplishment for White Hedgecock, a lifetime horsewoman and AA Montego, the oldest horse in the 12-person field.
Succeeding as an endurance rider is no easy job. White Hedgecock has figured out AA Montego’s rigorous training schedule and diet to the most minute point, and with the length of endurance rides, winning becomes much like a chess match, with strategy and calculations influencing the outcome.
"It makes you become very hard on your skills, not just riding, but everything that goes into it," White Hedgecock said.
Besides riding well, the horse must also pass vet checks that make sure he is still healthy and not being overextend. The horse’s heart rate must be below 64 beats per minute before entering the vet check. Vets will look for metabolic and lameness issues. Feeding and watering follows the process.
Although an endurance ride can seem somewhat painstaking to the average spectator, White Hedgecock says that as a rider, the challenge is very fun and rewarding.
"You have to think and process and manage your horse, so he can have a good performance," White Hedgecock said.
Much like human endurance running, the smallest mistake in training or nutrition can mean a huge mistake on the course. White Hedgecock has devoted large amounts of time to make sure AA Montego’s program is just right.
"When these horses are good. When everything is done right, the horses breeze through this stuff. It’s phenomenal," White Hedgecock said.
White Hedgecock trains AA Montego on the Rail Trail. This spring, AA Montego went anywhere from 12-15 miles per hour for intervals of 1-2 miles with a heart rate monitor. He also competed in a few 50-mile rides.
"This horse has done so well at 100-mile rides that he’s ready," White Hedgecock said. "He’s world class."
In fact, all of the horses on the list of 12 have Certificates of Capability (COC) that show they have proven themselves worthy of world-class competition.
In the last decade, the American contingent has not been performing as well at the WEG. Since endurance riding is not a spectator sport, American interest has been slim.
White Hedgecock estimates that she is among about 75 endurance riders in Summit County. Many hail from the Kamas area and many are middle-aged. Travel costs and the slower pace of the sport makes it more attractive to an equestrian athlete who may be retired and may have competed in other horse sports in the past. White Hedgecock grew up in Vermont competing in all aspects of horse sports. She competed in rodeo barrel racing, gymkhana, showed horses and tried every other discipline in between.
Endurance riding also doesn’t have the fan appeal of rodeo or dressage, but local interest continues to grow as people see how intricate and entertaining the longer rides can be. Twenty-five mile races are held at Strawberry Reservoir during the summer.
In Europe, Middle Eastern countries and Australia, the sport is far more popular and the travel involved for competitions between countries is far less than in America. Travel across the country and world for competition is a daunting challenge. The U.S. governing body has also gone through some changes. White Hedgecock, though, thinks things will get better. The team has a new coach, former champion rider Valerie Kanavy, and some new goals. The United States Equestrian Foundation Director of Programs, Mary Lutz, recently passed away in a race accident, and White Hedgecock thinks that the team will be very focused on performing well in her memory. They are also gearing up for the next WEG in 2010, which will be held on domestic terrain in Kentucky.
White Hedgecock says that if the Americans do well as a team, it will mean a lot to the sport of endurance. If even one person does not perform well, it will greatly affect the rest of the riders’ chances.
"Everybody needs to be committed to medalling," White Hedgecock said.
The endurance event is the first in the WEG, so White Hedgecock expects that will also help draw attention to the sport. The course will be on a lot of roadways, and cobblestone paths along the borders of Germany, Belgium and the Netherlands.
If White Hedgecock does make the American team, it will also be a financial challenge. Traveling to various races is always costly and the USEF will likely only cover the cost of travel for her, AA Montego and a guest overseas.
"If you are going to play the game, it gets expensive," White Hedgecock said.
There are also logistics to be considered. White Hedgecock says that most of her time in the last month has been spent securing passports, making travel and lodging arrangements and figuring out what her schedule would be in Germany.
White Hedgecock has been in this position before. Two years ago she qualified for the World Endurance Championships, but a reaction that AA Montego had to a veterinary shot kept them from competing. White Hedgecock is hoping that this is their year.
"This is what I’ve wanted for thee years and it’s so within reach that it’s scary," White Hedgecock said.
If White Hedgecock doesn’t make it to the WEG she will still have some high profile competitions stateside. The Western States Trail Foundation’s Tevis Cup, a prestigious U.S. 100-miler, will take place in late August.
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