When the going gets tough

by Patti Bailey, printed in Arabian Horse World, July 1990 : Copyright Patti Bailey 1990


My Arabian stallion, Remington Steele, is the only US and Canadian National Top Ten Halter Stallion in the history of the breed to successfully complete the Tevis Cup 100 Miles One-Day Ride, the granddaddy of all endurance races held in California’s Sierra Nevada mountains each summer. The reason why this particular accomplishment has not occurred before — especially in the same year — became painfully apparent as we progressed through the undertaking… one of the most grueling tests of endurance, stamina, and athletic ability in the world. “Why would anyone in his right mind enter a Top Ten Stallion in such an event?” asked my show ring associates. “A show horse can’t make it!” declared my endurance riding friends. “You’ll ruin him!” proclaimed everyone.

But we’ve always believed that a top halter mare or stallion should also be a top athlete. Since halter classes are really breeding classes, judges should consider from to function, and a good Arabian should represent both well.

Yes, I recognized that I was taking a chance with a valuable, proven show horse and sire, but Remington was worthless to me as a stallion unless he could do something… and do it well — balanced, comfortable and correctly using his conformation. How sad for the Arabian horse, if this most noble of all God’s creatures… this bold and hearty war horse whose spirit and courage was instilled in him by the very breath of God– is reduced to being an object d’art so fragile it should no longer be called on to perform…a museum piece instead of a capable companion.

Just take a critical look at what is happening to the legs of our horses. We’re not just seeing offset cannons and cow hocks, but bad pasterns, straight hocks, inherent joint/tendon weaknesses and angulations so poor, particularly in the hindquarters, that some of our present-day halter champions cannot be ridden without breaking down– a frightening phenomenon, as the real beauty of the Arabian has always been its stamina and durability. It’s what sets them apart.

Years ago, the versatility of the Arabian was highly prized, and most competed in both halter and performance. However, the modern-day demands place on a horse trying to be tops in both divisions are diabolically opposed. This is the story of how we worked through these oppositions and transitions… of the many mistake we made, as well as the joys and triumphs. Hopefully, it will stimulate other show people to enjoy the thrills of endurance, yet save them from much pain I created for myself through naiveté.

Of course, there were other considerations in our decision to enter Remington Steele in the Tevis Ride: Financially, I could not afford a trainer to pursue a show ring performance career- endurance training was something I could do myself. Plus, the market was changing to demand more sport and family pleasure horses. I decided that if I wanted to stay in the Arabian breeding business, I had to keep my product ahead of the times. Finally, everyone involved in the project wanted to support the growth of endurance riding and the Tevis Cup Ride itself, which has been in constant jeopardy of cancellation due to developmental and environmental impact concerns along the scenic Western States Pony Express Trail. This historic route has been preserved in its rugged pristine state, allowing riders to traverse the same routes the pioneers took to cross the mighty Sierra Nevada mountains, passing the sites of once populous Gold Rush mining camps as the “49-ers” tapped into the mother lode.

Once we accepted the challenge of putting our show horse into the endurance arena, my husband Andy and I made the difficult decision to let someone else ride him: Dr. Elaine Dornton, a practicing veterinarian in the Lodi/Stockton area and a skilled and seasoned endurance rider who had completed the Tevis ride before. The wisdom of this decision was borne out by a perusal of the “Medical and Other Risk Factors” section of the Tevis Cup’s Participants’ Guide, which begins, “This 100-mile ride is one of the most physically taxing events of its kind in the world and participation in it presents numerous medical risks to both horse and rider, many of which can be extremely serious or even fatal… Much of the trail is narrow and is often uneven, rutted, rocky, muddy, wet, dusty, slippery or all of the above. Even your best concentration and careful riding, even on the most sure-footed horse, may not prevent a fall. Many sections of the trail are along the edge of very steep or vertical canyon drop-offs extending, in some cases, for hundreds or more feet.” The section goes on for four pages outlining some of the main risks, which include injuries from falling, rattlesnakes, bears, mountain lions, altitude sickness, dehydration, etc., and ends with, “As has been emphasized, much of the Western States Trail is remote and in accessible by motor vehicle…there is absolutely no assurance that aid or rescue assistance will arrive in time to render you effective assistance should you and/or your horse become sick, incapacitated or injured.”

How could we, relative greenhorns at the sport of endurance riding, even entertain the thought of not letting a vet ride him? As a practicing veterinarian, Elaine brought discipline, timing and knowledge to the team, and it would have been impossible to accomplish the task without her. Still, I have to admit that it was extremely difficult emotionally for me to let another horsewoman boss me around about my horse…oftentimes, it hurt.

It was equally difficult for Elaine, too. As she so aptly put it, “Even though it is a privilege to ride Remington Steele, asking someone to take your horse in the Tevis is like asking someone to have your baby.” Since both of us have young children, this was an appropriate analogy.

Elaine’s reasoning always came from the endurance horse point of view… while I was still trying to maintain him as a halter horse. I know we both did a lot of tongue-biting, and I thank God for giving us both the strength to maintain our friendship through it all, because it was literally like two women trying to share the same man!

I was responsible for Remington’s daily conditioning rides, and for six months, I put in endless hours, day after day, riding Remington, conditioning, grooming, cleaning and nursing him– not to mention paying the bills. There were numerous difficult transitions to overcome– bear in mind, Remington serviced a full book of mares during the same six-month training period, plus I wanted him to maintain his Top Ten stallion image. Early on, I emphatically informed Elaine that I was going to put my foot down about three things. (1) Blanket on whenever possible; (2) Neck sweat on at all times; (3) Never let him eat with his bit in his mouth.

Elaine looked at me as if I had six heads, so I set my jaw, stiffened my back, and said, “I really mean it!”

I soon learned, however, that endurance riding didn’t come by its name on a whim. A horse has to endure extreme variations of temperature during the 24-hour ride, from crossing snow fields in the wee hours of the chilly morning to being scorched at 110 degrees-plus in the canyons during the afternoon, and, before the ride is over, swim the American River (one of the Sierra’s major white water flows) in the bitter cold of the late night. Attempting to regulate all the above with a blanket was preposterous. Remington had to learn to stay out in his pasture all night, so he could move and keep his joints loose, and become acclimated to weather changes. The neck sweat, too, became obsolete– Remington’s neck got slim and trim from the rigorous conditioning he was undergoing instead of standing in a stall getting fat. It was heartbreaking, though, to let him eat with a bit in his mouth– a task we actually had to train him to do, as he’d been well-schooled to think that a bit meant business, not eating. However, a horse that is going to endure a 24-hour ride must learn to eat whenever he gets the chance.

Another major transition was returning Remington’s feet to their natural, more balanced angle, with a short toe and more heel necessary for safe trail work. In endurance, the horse needs to have a long stride — not the energy-wasting, knee-popping, exaggerated high stride of the show ring trot. It has become a disheartening “norm” to grow halter horses’ toes as long as legally possible and accentuate this by cutting down the heel, all of which strains the tendons and creates the perfect atmosphere in which to bow one.

R emington’s first competitive endurance ride was a 25-miler at Koch Kobee, where we both underwent some severe adjustments in our show horse mentality. For some reason, I thought that endurance rides were smaller-type events with mostly local participation, and that we would ease Remington into the sport slowly at one of the smallest of these. Imagine my shock when I rounded a corner after a three-and-a-half hour drive into the extreme boonies to see hundreds of cars and trailers spread out in a valley as far as the eye could see. My heart stopped . . . How was Remington Steele going to cope with his first camping-out experience in the middle of that?

I wedged my four-horse trailer into a very tight spot, unloaded, and prepared for our first vet check. The line to the vet check was very long… I was nervous about Rem having to stand quietly for several hours with all those other horses milling around him, so I put on his stud chain and carried a whip. He was an absolute doll in line (just like he is along the wall in the show ring). For an hour and half, he intermittently nibbled grass and looked at other horses with interest. People stopped to inspect him, commented on his wonderful disposition and excellent behavior. He was a perfect gentleman, and I was very proud of him. Several times people backed mares into him before they realized that he was a stallion; however, he maintained his composure right up to the final call into the center “ring”, where three weird-looking “judges” (actually the ride vets) in flapping yellow oilskins were waiting for him. He did have his show shank on, and I did have his show whip, so he said to himself, “It must be show time!”

Remington pranced up to the ride vets, bellowed, blew himself up and gave a perfect demonstration of his championship halter pose — neck arched, croup tight and level, ready for battle, complete with steam emitting from his nostrils in the cool air. He was wired, but under control… until they tried to touch him. Then he came unglued. He was willing to go along with these strange judges until they broke the rules . . . halter judges just do not run their hands all over a horse; that’s not part of the game!

He leaped sideways away from an offending hand, nearly knocking over a vet. One of the officials grabbed his lead and whip away from me and said, “Now, whoa,” holding the whip sideways, which every show person knows it’s a signal for the horse to move away from it. Obeying the unwittingly given command, he jumped sideways in the other direction… nearly eliminating vet number two. At that point, Kerry Ridgeway — ride manager at Koch Kobee (as he would be again at the Tevis is July) and also one of the sports most highly respected horsemen and veterinarians, said, “Lady, this animal is magnificent, but if he even looks like he’s going to jeopardize one person or horse at this ride, I’ll pull him so fast, it’ll make your head spin.”

I was crushed. My sweet-tempered horse had acted like a maniac, and I’d been chastised by one of the people I respected most in my life. Who was I to think I could pull this off, anyway?

As soon as I walked away from the vets, Remington returned to his naturally sweet self. He stood tied to the trailer all night long surrounded by mares and geldings and never even nickered. Meanwhile, my wonderful five-year old daughter Lacey and I set up my brand-new “bargain” tent in a miserable light rain. As greenhorns, we did okay. We blanketed and fed the horses, built a roaring campfire, and crawled into our tent and bags. I was reading Lacey a story by butane gas light when it started to pour — in the tent as well as outside. I found the directions to my tent and read the fine print, “The reason this tent is so inexpensive is because the seams have not been factory-sealed. Make sure to invest in a tube of sealer and seal all seams before use, or each needle hole will leak.”

Wonderful! I peered out the door in soaking wet misery and looked at my beautiful double National Top Ten Halter Stallion standing in the rain, also getting drenched. The words of his show ring trainer and friend Mike Neal rang in my ears: “Treat him like the Top Ten horse he is — don’t let him get messy.”

Oh, my dear God, if Mike Neal could see us now! I almost packed it in right then and there. The only thing that stopped me was Remington’s look of utter contentment. He was happily munching alfalfa and looked so peaceful and happy . . . he didn’t even appear to notice the downpour.

The next morning Lacey and I woke up in a puddle, but Remington’s blanket must have been factory-sealed. He was warm, dry and toasty under his West Coast blanket… even along the seam lines!

He was excited as the ride began, but well-behaved . . . until his second vet check, 13 miles into the ride. Here, we tried the chain over his nose and again took a whip, but he was not much better. After all, as I later realized, he was in the middle of a heavy breeding season, and we did use a chain over his nose when we bred him. The solution was incredibly simple: at the third vet check, we eliminated the stud chain and the whip, using instead a regular lead rope, like we always used at home. He was fine! And he has been fine at every vet check ever since. So much for Rem’s “attitude adjustment.”

Mine was a bit more difficult to achieve. From the very start of the conditioning program, Elaine — as well as every other seasoned endurance person I met — kept preaching, “To finish is to win”. But after two years of promoting a horse to 13 major championships, including two National Top Tens, I had a totally different outlook on competition. I was used to clawing, pushing and fighting to get my horse into the show ring with the right handler, under the right judges, with the proper advertising behind him. And, thanks to Remington Steele himself, I was used to winning — every time. Now, I had to follow Elaine’s example, who always started each ride ten to fifteen minutes after the others had left, so Remington wouldn’t become “chargey”. I did understand that trying to win with a green endurance horse was asking to cripple him, but I couldn’t see why we couldn’t at least try to be competitive… at least start with the others… to give the horse a chance.

Oh, I was so wrong! Up until this ride, I’d been conditioning three Tevis horses: Remington for Elaine, who was, by mutual agreement, priority number one, and got ridden first every morning, all morning; in the afternoons, I put miles on my husband’s Andy’s Tevis prospect, Coke; and at night, I conditioned my own poor mare, Cola, who got the dregs of my time. She and I were often trotting around the grape vineyards (we lived in wine country) until after midnight, trying to put hours in.

All three were entered in the Koch Kobee 25-miler as a training ride. Cola did not make it, as she was having a hormone problem — in a transitional heat and had lost too much weight. She had always been a broodmare whose body was used to being in foal, and this year we were keeping her open, because you can’t ride a pregnant mare in the Tevis. Andy had to work, so we asked a friend to ride Coke.

Elaine outlined the ride strategy which, of course, included holding Remington and Coke back approximately ten minutes at the start. But my friend rebelled – she felt Coke was ready, and she had come to compete. Elaine tried to explain that a 25-miler is not considered a race, just a training ride, and there would be no winner. As the other participants took off, leaving our two horses behind, my friend pleaded with me to let her and Coke go for it. I nodded yes, and off they went in hot pursuit of the rest of the field.

I was overjoyed when Coke came loping easily over hill and dale to finish first… he looked like a royal horse with Princess Anne on him. He wasn’t blowing – didn’t look tired or stressed, and his legs were clean and tight. On our way down the hill to the final vet check, we passed the ride secretary, who asked “How are you doing?”

“Great! We won the 25-miler on his first ride, ” I said with glee at our accomplishment. Her smile turned into a look of disgust. “There is no winners on the 25’s,” she replied curtly.

What in the name of Sam Hill was wrong with these people? I just couldn’t figure them out. They must know something I don’t, so just to be safe, I stood Coke in the cold river for a good part of an hour– the time difference between his and Remington’s arrival- to make sure his legs were fine. His last vet check was okay, except for the ominous word “stiff” penciled across it. He didn’t look stiff to me, but I babied him and fussed over his legs, anyway.

Elaine and Remington came in 18th out of a field of 50… pretty good for starting ten minutes late and only trotting. She was furious that Coke had come in first and said there was no way he could have cantered through the deep mud on such steep terrain and not have hurt himself. I said, “Well, look at him. He’s fine.”

Elaine replied, “We’ll see.”

At the awards dinner, they announced the Top Ten Best Condition winners, and my friend and I were surprised that they didn’t even mention Coke “winning the 25? or in what good shape he’d finished. Later that evening, I drove home and unloaded Coke, who looked well. I put him in a stall – mistake number two. Endurance horses should always be left out after a race, so they won’t stiffen up. Can you imagine my shock when I led him out of his stall the next morning hopelessly lame… two blown suspensory ligaments in front, a sprained left hip and a torn joint capsule in the right hind fetlock. Sadly, I learned the hard way why “winning” a 25-miler is considered irresponsible and green. Any fool can run any horse for 25 miles and win, especially if he doesn’t care what shape the horse is in afterwards. The object is to finish, and to bring home a sound, healthy horse.

I really admire Elaine for not saying, “I told you so.” She just quietly said, “Well, Coke is out of the Tevis – lay him up for nine months to a year, depending on his progress.” She must have known how badly I was whipping myself. Coke was well-conditioned, but not well enough, and I was beginning to get an idea of what this project was going to demand for success. After that incident, I kept my mouth shut and listened to every word that Elaine said, even if I disagreed.

T HE CONDITIONING PROGRAM. “I knew it was possible to condition a horse in six months, because I had done it before,” says Dr. Dornton. “I also knew how hard it was to do it — particularly with the objectives of maintaining his show ring brilliance and completing a breeding season as well. If Remington Steele ever slowed down and faltered, we would wisely slow down and aim for 1990. He never faltered.

“An intense and calculated conditioning schedule had to be established and kept,” Dr. Dornton continues, “applying the basic principles of long, slow distance training with intervals at ten to fourteen days of hard workouts of increasing difficulty. We followed many parameters to gauge our training program so we could condition at Remington’s maximum capability. We monitored his exercising heart rate while riding with an on-board heart monitor. this allowed us to exercise at optimum speeds – not over or under-conditioning. We logged his recovery respiratory and heart rates, body weight, appetite, attitude, physical exams, blood chemistry results and feeding programs. With all these things aiding us, we felt confident of Remington’s progress — that we were not pushing him too much or risking serious injuries. Fortunately, Remington Steele began the program in excellent physical condition, and everything always said, ‘Keep going’.

“However, more was needed than just condition of the body for strength and endurance. Remington would also have to learn to stand quietly amidst commotion for a veterinary examination; work in mud and rain or 110 degree heat; be crowded at water holes and drink from puddles when necessary; stay controllable while excited horses waited for a group start; eat, when possible; rate himself on the ride; and negotiate difficult trails.

The first ride, Koch Kobee, introduced Remington Steele to the ride format, with easy trails and hill work. “It was the first time I handled him by myself,” says Dr. Dornton, “and we started to work as a team. The ride was made difficult by heavy rains, but we came out wetter and wiser.

“The second ride had to be specially planned so Patti would not be around. This was because I wanted Remington Steele’s first fifty to be a good hilly ride, and I wanted him to use the full allotted time to finish it, i.e., finish last!. This would strengthen his muscles without excessive stress on his tendons and ligaments and confirm in his mind the concept of long work hours. So off to Cuneo Creek in Humboldt County where my best friend and experienced endurance rider, Carol Clowes, agreed to ride him (I was a veterinarian at this ride). She had the privilege of riding him for twelve hours, most of which was again in the rain. He did fine . . . but we didn’t tell Patti for months that we’d made him come in last.

“Our final official pre-Tevis training ride was Camp Far West. Here I felt we were getting our basic training under our belts and it was time to pick up the pace. It was a relatively flat ride but very hot and humid. My plan was to pick a medium trot and maintain it as long as possible since this would be what was necessary on the Tevis. Again I started out after the majority of the over one hundred horses in this ride were on the trail. Remington Steele performed especially well, holding the trot for the entire 50 miles while recovering to the veterinary requirements faster than I had anticipated. A steady pace and quick recoveries paid off – we finished in 6th place. Each of these endurance rides had been selected to coincide with Remington’s stage of training, and after we were sure of his performance in groups of horses and at veterinary checks, the time had come to concentrate on the Tevis trail itself.”

R IDING THE TEVIS. “Each person has his own little phobias about riding the Tevis,” Dr. Dornton explains. “For some, it’s the night riding; others, the American River crossing; others, the physical fatigue. For me, it’s always the start of the race. There you are, sitting on a dynamite stallion, with more than two hundred horses snorting and prancing in the dark on a steep and narrow ski road waiting for the signal to go, being bumped and pushed along with everyone else in the struggle to keep your place in line. Remington, however, did fine in that tense situation, even when another stallion came between us and his favorite mare, Patti’s horse, Cola Bay.

“Once in motion, my apprehensions were replaced with the necessity of concentrating totally on the trail,” Elaine continues. “it is so rugged, especially at the beginning, that your eyes seldom leave the six feet in front of your horse. Fortunately, this is where previous Tevis trail experience pays off: you know the hard spots, where to slow down and where to speed up. Obstacles that stopped my heart at first riding now only get a respectful glance. Your mind and body are also psychologically prepared to handle the difficult trail and the unending miles.

“We trotted all the way up and over Emigrant Pass – a 4,000 foot climb which takes place in the first few miles of the race – and maintained a good position so we weren’t blocked by slower horses that cannot be passed on the narrow trail. Time is of the essence in this race. Ten minutes lost here or there add up quickly. You need to plan the time between each vet check so you are sure of completing within the twenty-four hours. Remington got me to every vet check within ten minutes of my projected time. We didn’t go fast enough to pass many horses on the trail, but we were going very steadily. The vet checks, however, were another story . . . and once again, a conservative pace paid off. I would get off and walk the 1/8-mile into the vet check, let him drink, walk over and be checked through immediately. His recoveries were phenomenal all through the ride. We left many faster horses far behind as they waited at the vet check for the required heart and respiratory rates.

“Then, in that darkest hour between sunset and moonrise, when you cannot even see the pure white horse you are riding; when you have not seen another horse for over an hour; when you’ve already covered 75-80 miles and been in the saddle for 16-17 hours; when you are literally feeling your way down treacherous switch back trails – you thank your lucky stars to be on a horse with the guts to get you and himself safely to the end. When you finally see the lights of Auburn and know that you are really going to make it after all, you cannot help the tears that well up in your eyes.

“We finished,” Dr. Dornton adds, “but the most important thing is that we accomplished the goal we had set out to achieve. Remington finished 50th out of 200 horses and looked better than we had dared to dream. After a rest and some food, he came out of his stall so alive that I wondered if he didn’t need his stud chain on. Seeing him snorting and wheeling around without any sign of soreness or fatigue so soon after the ride gave me the most satisfaction and feeling of pride . . . because in endurance riding, the goal is to have a good horse, ride him well, and be able to go again.”

A N OWNER’S REFLECTIONS. When Elaine and Remington Steele crossed the finish line at 2:30 a.m. I was so proud of them! The crew wondered why, at the end of the whole ordeal, I wasn’t down on the finish line absorbing the glory, rather than sitting up on the hill overlooking the scene from Rem’s stall, which I had just finished bedding. The announcer kept calling for his owner, but I just didn’t want to go; I was so overwhelmed by what Remington and Elaine had done, that suddenly all I wanted to do was take care of my horse. Finally, I understood what endurance people mean when they say the Tevis is not just physical and mental – it’s spiritual.

We accomplished our goal of proving that a top Arabian halter horse does not have to be a museum piece . . . that it’s possible for a halter champion to be a useful athlete. And the equation works both ways: I saw a great number of very beautiful. excellently conformed endurance Arabians on the trail, many of whom could excel in halter classes.

This summer, I plan to show Remington Steele in several Regional Championship halter classes . . . in his athletic, endurance horse condition. I’ve also decided not to show him with his face clipped down to the bone and covered with grease. Nor will I ruin his beautiful healthy hooves by over-sanding, which destroys the hoof’s protective covering, or hoof blacking, which smothers the hoof.

Recently, I showed Rem at a stallion parade, and as I waited to be called into the stage, my trainer friends yelled, “Hey, Bailey! What happened to your groom?” Soon after, the audience was applauding enthusiastically for his Tevis accomplishments, but when the announcer mentioned that we were showing Remington Steele without hoof paint or grease, and not over-clipped, 1500 people gave him a standing ovation.

This tribute, along with the demand we’ve have for Remington Steele breedings and foals, proves to me that people are tired of seeing horses which are overly made-up, and appreciate the more honest beauty and ability of the Arab — horses which are good enough to be ridden, not too good to be ridden. We had 38 requests for breeding contracts before we left for Scottsdale this year from our Arabian Horse World ad in the stallion issue showing Remington “doing” Cougar Rock; his 1991 book is already half full with paid bookings, as of April 15; and he’s had five invitations to stand at farms on the East Coast in the future. Remington fillies were sold out by August in 1989 . . . his colts and geldings by November . . . I even had deposits on 1990 foals en utero! My phone has been ringing . . . business is good . . . sales are definitely up!

Yes, I do intend to stay in endurance – but this time I want to learn to walk before I try to run. Andy and I want to spend several seasons doing 50 milers, trying to become really excellent (and even more educated) before we attempt the Tevis again. I have learned so much about legs, conformation, metabolism, fitness, feeding, and health care for both horse and rider since I began this sport. It’s changed me from the inside out . . . I am a healthier, happier, more well-adjusted person now . . . and my horses are healthier and happier, too – and we’re still winning in halter!
A letter we received from an Arabian breeder and endurance rider in Australia, Richard J. Makim, sums it all up, “Endurance is what you learn after you think you are a horseman!” So get those beautiful Arabian halter horses off the shelf, and ride, really ride!