Hilda Donahue: Preparing to Ride the Virginia City 100

Four-star eventer Hilda Donahue, who’s originally from Ireland but now bases her business in Orlando, Fla., has graciously volunteered to write about her experience preparing to ride in the Virginia City 100 endurance ride in Nevada later this month. Thanks for writing, Hilda. Go endurance!

Hilda and Patrick

From Hilda:

Most of us event riders tend to be ambitious, courageous and attracted to extreme sports. When my sister-in-law asked me to ride her horse in my inaugural endurance ride, of course, I agreed! Usually, the novice endurance rider chooses a 25-mile ride to start, but my first ride will be nothing less than the Virginia City 100 race in Nevada, which spans 100 miles in 24 hours on Sept. 21.

Initially, I was introduced to endurance riding by John and Sue Greenall while working for a family in Montana. When Sue mentioned the Tevis Cup, I recalled hearing that Denny Emerson has completed the Tevis, so I researched it and was impressed at the level of horsemanship necessary to endure such a ride. As I believe in trying to emulate successful professionals like Denny, I thought that if Denny chose to do some serious endurance riding, there must be some benefit to it. The Tevis is the four-star ride of endurance riding, where, like the Virginia City 100, you cover 100 miles in 24 hours with multiple vet checks, but you’re also climbing 19,000 feet and descending 21,000 feet.

Lucky, lucky Me ( I am Irish, after all!), my mount for the Virginia City ride finished the Tevis this year. Patrick is an 8-year-old, 16-hand Arabian-cross gelding. He’s was an orphaned, bottle-fed foal, so is a personable fellow with a sweet disposition, although at times he can be skittish and spooky. I have ridden him twice; this past weekend we enjoyed a 15-mile ride at Point Reyes in San Francisco. Yes, I flew 2,900 miles to ride 15 miles! Once again, I am fortunate that my awesome sister-in-law Sharon Finston and her husband, Bob, are conditioning Patrick while I keep things going at my farm in Orlando and continue to teach clinics.

What fascinates me about this discipline is the terrain the horses have to negotiate. As a child foxhunting in my homeland in Ireland, we would encounter a variety of challenging footing. That was easy going compared to what I have witnessed so far on endurance “training rides,” as they are referred to.  To effectively protect Patrick’s feet, he was just shod (12 days out) with “sneakers,” which absorb concussion, protect the sole and assist with traction. Riders carry an easy boot in case a shoe gets cast on the ride.

Patrick's sneakers

Appropriate and comfortably fitting tack is essential. I will be riding in the extremely comfortable, lightweight and performance-enhancing Voltaire Palm Beach saddle. My pad of choice is, of course, a ThinLine pad. ThinLine has generously provided me with their lightweight and shock-absorbing pads over the years for many CCI3* and CCI4* events. Regarding bridles, Patrick will wear a simple bridle with a mild curb bit — we ride totally on the buckle — and a breastplate.

Interestingly, my other sister-in-law, Karon Dutcher, also an accomplished rider, has designed a hollow bit with holes that attaches to a tube and water bottle. This allows the rider to squirt water into the horse’s mouth while riding. Riders also carry a sponge attached by a cord to the saddle to facilitate soaking the sponge in water troughs and rivers along the way without dismounting.

Rider comfort matters too. Again, I am grateful to another sponsor, Tredstep Ireland, for outfitting me with their quality, comfortable, and high-performance  stylish riding attire. My choice is to wear items from their Symphony line. Those of you who know me know I will, of course, be riding in pearls!

Rather like our sport, a supportive team, or “crew” as endurance riders call it, is essential. After the initial pre-ride vet inspection — similar to the first horse inspection in event, although less formal — there are several mandatory vet checks along the ride. Should a horse be deemed unsound, not meet the respiration and pulse rates — determined based primarily on weather — he or she will be “pulled,” or eliminated. Just like in eventing, all decisions are made in the best interest of the horse.

Another view of Patrick's sneaker

At the vet checks, a crew is waiting ready to cool the horse, hydrate, feed, and check legs and shoes. Unlike eventing, some of these vet checks are in the middle of the night, so a dedicated, committed crew is essential. My crew will be led by my husband, Ken. He won the most the coveted Best Conditioned Award at a former Virginia City ride. Ken also is a Tevis Cup finisher, so I am extremely relieved that Patrick will have a top notch crew to help him.

Like eventing, a multitude of things can occur in training and on the day. Certainly, it’s a sport with many ups and downs, so it’s important to enjoy the journey and listen to your horse. The winning horse is the first one to cross the finish line while stopping periodically to pass vet checks that ensure the horse is sound and ” fit to continue.” However, the motto of the American Endurance Riders Conference is “to finish is to win.”

I am just looking forward to the ride and consider it a privilege to get to participate. I know I will be challenged from a dressage standpoint, as I will need to be supple, balanced, and clear and light with my aids. From a cross-country perspective, I will need to be brave — while riding in the dark on unfamiliar and grueling terrain and climbing and descending 7,800 feet! — and make sensible decisions regarding pace and speed. From a show-jumping standpoint, I will need to re-mount after short rests and be effective in getting my friend Patrick mentally and physically back in the game.

Although I have ridden around Rolex, Burghley, Pau and Adelaide, I do believe that this ride will be a challenge for me. I am looking forward to sharing with you the details about the ride later this month. As my mentor and friend William Micklem says, “Onwards!”

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