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2008 Virginia Highlands Endurance Challenge – Behind the Scenes Point of View - Sluys Guys

Horse Sense

Swvatoday.com | Wytheville Enterprise: Living
By BECKY SILER/Correspondent

They came in droves. Hundreds of them to be exact. Horses, riders, pit crews and volunteers from 13 states converged upon Jubilee Park in Ivanhoe Thursday through Saturday.

Huge RV-style horse trailers rolled into the park beginning Wednesday for the inaugural Virginia Highlands 30- and 55-mile Endurance Challenges. Trailers were parked in neat rows until it seemed not another trailer would fit. But fit they did, and finally it appears that Jubilee Park has been revived.

The challenge was the idea of local endurance riders Don and Nikki Meuten of Ivanhoe, and Tom and Gina Hagis of Fries. For nearly a year, the couples have worked with the national forest service to plan the trail courses, set up a Web site, hire veterinarians and gather a core group of volunteers to host the event.

Jubilee Park, originally founded by the Ivanhoe Bridle Club in the mid-1980s, hosted its last major horse show in 1998. The park, which is nestled on approximately 14 acres along the New River just a quarter mile off highway 94 in Ivanhoe, is the perfect setting for hosting such events. With direct access to the state-operated New River Trail, recreational enthusiasts from all over can enjoy horseback riding, biking and walking from the park.

During the 1990s, the Ivanhoe Volunteer Fire Department held all-breed horse shows at Jubilee Park as fundraisers. After the last horseshow was hosted in 1998, the park lost its access into the grounds off Carbide Road, and had to close to the public for several years.

By 2005, a new road had been established off Trestle Road going under the New River Trail, and the fire department held its first poker run trail ride as a fundraiser at Jubilee Park. The annual poker ride has helped the fire department purchase new equipment. This year’s poker ride will be held this coming weekend Aug. 29 and 30 at Jubilee Park.

This past spring, the fire department and Wythe County officials met to discuss the fire department gaining control of the park grounds to host fundraisers and horse events on a regular basis. Once it was official, the volunteers from the fire department got busy cleaning up the over-grown areas of the park and tearing down the dilapidated arena.

Todd Hyatt, a 17-year member of the department, has been instrumental in reviving the park. He and other members have used mowers, weed trimmers and disking equipment until the park fairly shines once again.

Hyatt, an avid horse rider, said, “Our goal for Jubilee Park is to host horseshows and events to the caliber that they once were. To bring economy back to Wythe and Carrol counties in the form of recreational horseback riding and family fun.”

Hyatt partnered with Myers Lumber of Hillsville, which donated the boards needed to rebuild the riding arena. The fire department team is in process of working with the power company and the New River Trail officials to bring electricity into the park soon. It is expected to be fully operational with electric, water and a new arena by next spring.

Endurance rides are horse races along a marked course in the woods, which are sanctioned by the American Endurance Ride Conference. Endurance races range between 25 miles to 100 miles with numerous veterinary check points along the route to ensure safety of the horses. Although many of the riders ride to be competitive and finish first, the majority ride endurance rides to complete them and enjoy the scenery and friendships that are built along the way. The motto of the American Endurance Ride Conference is “To Finish is to Win.”

Any breed of horse or mule may enter endurance rides, but many endurance riders prefer Arabians and half-Arabians for their extreme athleticism, speed and heart recoveries.

Two weeks prior to the event, the organizers knew they had their hands full. The entries were piling in, and the two-day rides now had over 200 horses entered. More volunteers were rounded up to man the road crossings, water trucks and veterinary check points. Ivanhoe volunteer fire department would be crucial in their help with the water truck to fill water tanks for horses in camp. Thousands of gallons of water would be consumed during the three days.

Another local Fries couple, Bill and Nancy Sluys, helped the Hagises mark the trails, which consisted of a 55-mile continuous loop mainly along the Virginia Highlands horse trail. The 30-mile trail followed much of the same course, then separated from the 55’s to loop back to Jubilee Park after both rides had a vet check at Iron Mountain Horse Camp on Brush Creek Road each day.

The veterinary check points are mandatory, and are designed to give each horse a rigorous physical exam before it can continue on the trail. The horses must pass a cardiac recovery test, a lameness exam and an overall physical in which the veterinary team will check for soreness, wounds or fatigue which would impair the horse’s ability to complete the ride. After the horse and rider completes the course, a final veterinary inspection takes place to ensure that the horse is sound and would be fit enough to continue if necessary.

Thursday evening, ride manager Don Meuten conducted a pre-ride briefing for the 125 riders who were going out on Friday’s rides. Eighty-five 55-mile entries and 40 30-mile entries along with their pit crews and family members gathered near the stage to hear critical information about the trail and rules of the ride. Meuten teaches at the University of North Carolina Vet School, and his light-hearted jokes and bantering had the crowd roaring with laughter.

Friday morning dawned clear and cool- a perfect day for an endurance ride. The 55-mile ride started at 7 a.m., and the horses thundered out of camp to a call from the timer of “the trail is now open”!

Ivanhoe firefighter John Pearman came down to the old railroad trestle with his young nieces to watch the start. “It sounded like a car race starting with the pounding of all those hooves coming down the gravel road at once,” he said. Pearman, who’s been around horses all his life, mentioned he had never seen anything quite like the start of this horse ride.

Most of the technical part of the trail had to be negotiated by the horses in the first three miles as they climbed up out of the river bed on a narrow one-track trail. During the course, several elevation changes took place which had the horses ascending and descending a couple thousand feet.

Valerie Kanavy, a world champion endurance rider from Fort Valley had several horses entered. “The course was somewhat rockier than I expected, but the trail was fast, beautiful and well-marked,” she said. Kanavy finished second in the 55-mile ride on her Arabian mare “Saager.” Seventy-nine horses completed the 55-mile ride and 37 completed the 30 miler. Friday evening, a supper was hosted by the Ivanhoe Civic League, whose president Maxine Waller headed up the crew. Following supper, an awards ceremony for Friday’s rides and a pre-ride briefing for Saturday’s rides were held. 55 mile rider Jeremy Reynolds of Richmond and his Arabian horse took top honors with a winning time of five hours and 43 minutes.

Saturday morning was cloudy and cool: “Another fine day for riding fast horses,” shouted Shelley Scott-Jones of Dalton, Ga., as she cantered past the photographer midday. Jennifer Wertz of Ivanhoe rode Randy Sayer’s horse “Flash” on the 30-mile ride Saturday. This was the first competitive event for the 4-year-old spotted walking horse and his rider. Sayers and his family have raised Tennessee walking horses in Ivanhoe for over 50 years and Sayers has shown horses at Jubilee Park since he was a young boy. Wertz and “Flash” came in 29th with a clean vet score.

With competitors attending from as far south as Florida and as far north as Pennsylvania, manager Don Meuten commented, “This is called a ‘tweener’ endurance ride. It’s between the north and the south, and everyone can’t resist the relatively easy travel distance.”

Overall, the comments heard from riders about the caliber of this event were positive and up-beat. Nearly all riders said they would return next year. Organizers are already planning for next year.

If you would like to attend the Ivanhoe Poker Ride and/or pig picking this Saturday at Jubilee Park, contact Todd Hyatt at (276) 620-0225 or Keith Burnett at (276) 699-2421.

Becky Siler is a freelancer writer who lives in Cripple Creek.

2008 Virginia Highlands Endurance Challenge – Behind the Scenes Point of View - Sluys Guys

Last fall Tom Sites, an SERA board member from Virginia started a ball rolling that is likely to keep going for a long time. He noted that there were no SERA sanctioned rides in Virginia and determined to get one started he connected a few people together who took that ball and ran with it. By late January a team of ride managers -Don and Nicki Meuten, trail masters - Nancy Sluys and Gina Hagis, secretary - Laura Cullins and logistical engineers - Tom Hagis and Bill Sluys embarked on a whirlwind project that resulted seven months later in the first annual Virginia Highlands Endurance Challenge.

Getting a new ride started in such a short time in a new area gave a whole new meaning to the word “endurance”! The first two items of business, acquiring the permit (which we didn’t have in our hands until two weeks before the ride!) and finding the base camp were hard enough let alone putting all the other pieces together that made this first ride such huge success. Don chose to make it a two-day ride to accommodate the people who had to travel far so folks would be able to do two days of riding for the same fuel price and even though the plan seemed daunting at first, it turned out to be a great idea. Luck smiled on us in every way (mixed in with lots of hard work), we found the ideal camp, the weather was as perfect as it could be and a large number of riders showed up to support the new ride. That in itself was a huge challenge as three weeks before the ride there were fifteen entries for each day of the two-day ride and we had no idea how many would attend but our guesses were around the 100 mark for the whole thing. By the week before the ride the entries had soared to 170 and climbing! Thursday at check-in the numbers climbed to around 220 for the two days and when it was all said and done 202 horses started the combined rides over the two days making it one of the largest rides in the country. To say we were overwhelmed was an understatement but everyone kept their cool and put on their best problem solving hats and the result was smooth running affair from start to finish. Luckily the camp was big enough to accommodate the whole crowd and with the help of Tom Hagis everyone got parked with room left for more in the future.

About 6 weeks before the ride Don called a meeting and asked everyone what we would like to see in the perfect endurance ride since we were all riders. Superbly marked trails, lots of water, hay at vet checks, entertainment, good food were just some of the suggestions. Don took notes and I think every suggestion was filled and then some.

Tom Sites originally volunteered to provide the food for the whole ride but when the numbers swelled to gargantuan proportion Don hired the local civic club to provide the ride dinners and Tom concentrated on feeding the ever growing number of volunteers. He treated us to gourmet food at every turn. The local Fire Department also chipped in providing water for the base camp and acted as spotters on a very busy road crossing near the beginning of the ride. The volunteers came out of the woodwork for every job. Drag riders appeared from the Old Dominion, pulse takers from the SE and NE regions as well as the local community. Anytime there was a niche to fill it seemed that there was someone already doing it. After the ride some marathon runners even went out and pulled about 25 miles of trail markings for us!

Gina and I spent three days before the ride marking the trails with ribbon, arrows and signs so that nobody would get lost and nobody did! Thankfully some of the trails are permanently marked and we just added in turns and confidence ribbons on those segments so that when vandals removed about 4 miles of ribbon from one section the riders were still able to find their way. I went back and replaced the ribbon early in the morning of the second day and it stayed up that time.One amusing observation I made as I watched the horses pass different areas throughout the ride is how blind one can become when running at the front of the pack. The first few riders would come flying and blow right by a well marked turn as the ribbons brushed their face and I would have to call out to get them right again. After the first couple went by the rest could see just fine. The funniest incident was when I was spotting traffic at an old railroad trestle that was about 100 yards from the finish line. A top ten rider came cantering up and seeing me standing there said “I take it I turn left”, my reply was “You’re horse would HATE you if you turned left! The finish line is right there, straight ahead!”

Tom Hagis was in charge of setting up the vet check areas, which was a big job as we had three “away” vet checks for the 55s. Our base camp is perfect in every way with a big flat field, a scenic river and a kitchen except that it is a bit removed from the main part of the trail system requiring the remote vet locations. The trail to and from the trail system is so beautiful, though, that going the 10 miles in and out was a very enjoyable ride. Between Tom and Don the vet checks ran smoothly for the most part. The first day there was a bit of trouble at Vet Check #3 as it is a narrow area and crews started parking on both sides of the road blocking it up so that passing through was nearly impossible. This posed a huge problem for the water trailer and the ambulance trailer as well as anybody who tried to get in or out. People were crowded and patience was wearing thin at times. Don, being the great problem solver that he is, devised a parking plan for the next day that had everything working smoothly again. The homemade ice cream that was served up at this vet check went a long way to calm any frayed nerves. Vet Check #1 at Iron Mountain Horse Camp was everybody's favorite with lots of room, real bathrooms and ham biscuits available for breakfast.

The vets were skilled and plentiful as the best practitioners from the SE and some from the NE were called in to watch over the safety of the horses. Otis Schmitt was the head vet and joining him were Mike Bridges, Duane Barnette, Jeannie Waldren, Nicki Meuten (as if she didn’t have enough to do already) and several of Don’s vet students rounding out a great crew. Occasionally when a big group of horses would arrive there would be a slight backlog but with three kinds of hay, carrots and horse treats in the vet line the horses were wanting for nothing and were able to refuel as they were waiting for their examination.

One of the biggest challenges was providing water for all the remote locations. In addition to the three vet checks there were four other locations on the trail where water was provided. Bill Sluys proved to be the water boy extraordinaire, providing over six thousand gallons of water to keep all the locations full with some help from neighbor, Greg Dixon. Some local residents kept one of the hundred gallon tanks at the top of a mile long steep gravel road full. Once again fate smiled on us with the cool temperatures as Bill worked out the water plan realizing that with the large number of horses next year two or three separate water rigs would be needed especially if the weather turns hot. The fire department allowed Bill to fill up the water trailer at the station with their high powered valve saving a lot of time and making it possible for him to get the water out on the trail as quickly as possible. Anytime I asked a rider if there was enough water in the tanks on the trail they would report that they were full.

Gina Hagis drove one of the ambulance trailers and when a colicky horse needed treatment also volunteered to drive to Virginia Tech that night an hour away. Considering the numbers of horses, there were very few pulls throughout the weekend totaling less than 10%, most were for minor lameness. Laura Cullin’s husband, Chester, drove the other trailer and with two rigs there was very little waiting time for a ride back to camp for the riders and horses that were eliminated. We were all very relieved that the colicky horse was recovering.

The trail crew had spent months laying out the trail, measuring, mapping, clearing, marking, timing, tweaking and getting it as right as we could for the ride. A few of us had even pre-ridden it a month earlier in 95 degree weather just to make sure it all felt right. That day it took 12 hours to complete in a non-competitive situation including the vet hold times and with the extreme heat. Based on what we had learned about the trail we predicted that the finishing time would be around 6:30 – 7:00 as it proved to be a tough mountain trail. We were amazed when Jeremy Reynolds blew our trail out of the water the first day with a riding time of around 5:30! The conditions were as fast as they could ever be with perfectly dry trail and low humidity with temperatures in the low to mid seventies and nothing in the rider’s way but a few rocks and mountains. Even the large groups of pleasure riders decided to stay home that weekend and leave the trail clear for the ride.

The biggest theme throughout the weekend was smiling faces! I don’t think I saw any frowns all weekend, people were just having so much fun. The camp was beautiful, perfectly flat and right on the New River with a big rock face across the river to look at. After the ride the river was filled with horses getting their legs cooled off and kids young and old playing in the water. I noticed a few people even brought canoes to play with on the river. The dinner was served quickly with two food lines. The ride briefing was entertaining with Don’s masterful speaking style, which was heard loud and clear with the help of a sound system provided by Bill Sluys. Between dinner and awards on Saturday night old time mountain music was provided by our band, the Pilot Mountain Bobcats, fresh from a first place win at the local fiddler’s convention the weekend before. I don’t know how I mustered up the energy to play after the exhausting weekend but once I started the first tune I just got into the zone. The music added just the right touch of mountain culture to cap off a great weekend in the Virginia Highlands.

“Best ride ever!” was a comment I heard numerous times from the riders and volunteers as the weekend came to a close. The management team, although suffering from that “run over by a steamroller” feeling was bursting with pride on a job well done. Even before the last of the equipment was stuffed into our overloaded vehicles there were rumblings of “next year we can make _______ better” or “next year we can do ______” so it looks like you’d better put it on your ride calendar for 2009 because it will be better than ever and you won’t want to miss it!!

PS…. I was too busy taking care of the trail to take note of the winners of all the rides but I will post the results as soon as Nicki sends them to me.