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Endurance athletes of the horse world train, compete just like human marathoners

Pam LeBlanc, Fit City

Staff Writer
Austin 360
Elaine Swiss and her horses practice regularly to get ready for competitive trail riding and endurance racing. In trail riding competitions, timing is important, but how the teams navigate through tough obstacles, including gates, streams and hills, is also judged.

Toodles doesn't look like a long-distance runner.

She's sturdier and more stout than most marathoners. But this four-legged endurance athlete — a Polish Arabian mare — has plenty in common with her human counterparts.

She spends months building endurance. She tapers, easing off on training in the days before an event. And her owner carefully monitors her nutrition on game day, giving her electrolyte paste and the equine equivalent of energy bars to keep her from bonking.

"It's just like a human athlete," says Elaine Swiss, a retired high-tech executive and Toodles' owner and partner in competitive trail riding, one of two types of long-distance riding events popular in Central Texas.

At competitions, Swiss and Toodles follow a marked trail, tackling obstacles along the way. Judges lurk in bushes, scoring each horse-rider team as they pass through gates, scamper up and down steep hills, cross streams and negotiate special tasks. Teams must finish within a designated time window, but the first team across the finish line doesn't necessarily win.

Endurance races, the other type of long-distance riding event, are pure races. The winning horse is the first to cross the finish line.

In both types of competition, veterinarians check the horses periodically, looking for pink, healthy gums and sloshing belly noises to make sure the animal athletes are well-hydrated and capable of completing 25, 50 or 100-mile rides.

The humans, it turns out, are on their own — and the rides can take up to 18 hours to complete. "They make sure the horse is fit to compete, not the rider," Swiss laughs.

I finished a two-legged marathon a few years ago, and wondered what it would be like to partner with a much larger endurance athlete in a completely new sport.

I meet Swiss, a member of the board of directors of the North American Trail Ride Conference, the umbrella organization for competitive trail riding, at her ranch outside Round Mountain. She introduces me to Toodles, a bay mare with a velvet nose and Maybelline lashes.

Swiss buckles a special lightweight saddle (even horses need sport-specific equipment!) onto Toodles and hands me reins that double as a lead rope. She saddles another horse, Zelle, and we head out to pasture.

Long-distance riding competitions, Swiss tells me, grew out of the mounted cavalry. Soldiers spent hours in the saddle, day after day, taxing their bodies and pushing their animals to the limit. "They developed solid, good-footed horses and horsemanship skills that would help the horses," Swiss says.

Arabians like Toodles are particularly good at the sport because of their stamina and endurance. So are mules.

I use a watering trough as a step onto Toodles' back. It's not that I need it to mount, but it's easier on the horse's back.

Everything in the sport is geared toward easing the burden on the animal. It also explains why many horse owners enlist the help of equine chiropractors and acupuncturists to keep their athletes in top form.

"Competitive trail is a thinking person's sport," says Swiss, 50, who started competing in 2004. "It's all about keeping the horse sound over long distances."

Like the horses, riders have to stay in shape. They need strong leg muscles to do well, because winning teams maintain a steady trot over most of the course. And to trot for hours on end, riders must hold themselves just out of the saddle, a quad-burning proposition. They carry pouches with water, snacks, a hoof pick, an extra strip of leather for on-the-go repairs and a hand-held fan when they hit the trail.

Swiss stays in shape by running trails on her ranch, her beagle Mocha at her side.

I get good marks for my body position as we scale a short, steep incline and come back down. I manage to open and close a gate while staying on board, too, thanks to Toodles' experience. But I don't do as well when I try to back my steed between two narrowly spaced trees, another skill that pops up on competitive trail rides.

Swiss shows me how it's done, getting Zelle to slowly maneuver exactly where she wants her to. "You should be able to control every motion of your horse for safety," she says.

Riders compete for bragging rights; there is no prize money. That doesn't keep about 100 riders from showing up at the half dozen or so endurance riding events held in Central Texas. Among them is the three-race Storm Ranch Trail Versatility series in Dripping Springs.

My equine test drive complete, we head back to the barn, where Swiss hoses down Toodles, using a squeegee to scrape the cooling water off her brown hide.

As it is for humans, post-race care is important.

The only difference, as far as I can see?

Toodles doesn't unlace her shoes and kick them off before sauntering out of the barn in search of a good napping spot.

pleblanc@statesman.com; 445-3994

CORRECTION: This story has been udpated to correct the location for Elaine Swiss's ranch. The ranch is located near Round Mountain, west of Austin.