In 2015, I was diagnosed with a slow-progressing form of leukemia, Chronic Lymphocytic Leukemia, that led me to adopt the motto, “If not now, when?” For all appearances, I was healthy. I didn’t know when CLL might rear its ugly head but I thought, If I’m going to start living life to the fullest, what do I really want to do? What is my dream?
The answer was endurance riding.
While that health drama was going on (you’re never quite ready to hear your doctor say cancer, in any of its forms), my sweet, old Palomino Quarter Horse Buddy died. He was the first horse I ever owned, a perfect beginner's horse, and I mourned his loss.
My life felt like it was spiraling out of control. There were many tears and fears and bouts of depression. But humming in the back of my mind was that motto. Through a turn of events, I acquired Jager, a 13-year-old jet black Appendix QH (1/2 Quarter horse and 1/2 Thoroughbred) He was more horse than I was used to and he has made me a much better rider. I also adopted Charlie, a sweet pup, completing this little family of three.
I embraced the goals needed for training, but I ride alone. I craved the camaraderie of the events and camping, of being part of something exciting, of meeting like-minded people. Riding makes me feel alive in a way nothing else does.
My blood counts were rising. They went from 15,000 to 24,000 in 2015 (the norm is 3,000 for Absolute Lymphocytes in the white blood cells). There is no treatment needed until it starts to affect my health in some way and all was good on that.
By 2016, I had gotten used to the diagnosis, came to terms with it, found peace. I started pursuing my dream of endurance riding in earnest. I joined the American Endurance Ride Conference. Read everything I could find. Rode, rode and rode some more. Bought my first RV. It wouldn't pull a horse trailer! Sold that RV. Bought a conversion van. Bought my first horse trailer. Drooled over the AERC calendar, planning and dreaming.
My blood counts were rising. They went from 24,000 to 36,000 in 2016. On Jan 13, 2017, I hooked up the trailer to the van, loaded Jager and trailered a horse for the first time in my life, to Ridgecrest, California, for the Fire Mountain endurance ride. As I shifted the van into gear and pulled away from the curb, I couldn’t stop laughing for joy! It’s a moment I’ll never forget.
I planned on riding the 25-mile “limited distance” ride. No problem, I thought. Boy, was I wrong. I woke up that morning and was so emotional. This day had been a year in the making. I hadn’t slept well the whole week before and certainly not the night before because I was so exited.
I was shaking and crying as I saddled up. My horse was trembling -- excited by the other horses. We were still quivering at the start. I let out a big stress-filled sigh and a kind woman near the start saw my nervousness and invited me to ride with her. She was staying near the back of the pack, she explained. After a 16-mile loop, I was in so much pain from using a western saddle that tortured my right knee and ankle that I finished that loop, went through the veterinary check and said, “I’m finished for today.” My only thought was “How do these other riders do it?”
The ride control judge (who happens to be my vet at home), Dr. Michael Peralez, said, “If you hadn’t pulled yourself I would have pulled you. Jager is a little off in back.”
But, no matter -- the victory was in getting there! I was at an endurance ride, horse camping with my horse and dog in my great little van and meeting amazing people and I thought, “I’m living my dream! Actually living it!” That was the victory!
After that ride I bought a saddle from one of my new endurance friends and it made a world of difference. I felt like (and still do) I could ride forever in that saddle.
In February, I went to the Twenty Mule Team Ride and rode the introductory, “fun ride.” I ride alone at home and on that ride fought my horse the entire time. That was not a fun ride. In hindsight, we did everything wrong.
I saw my friend Liz at that ride and told her it wasn’t going great, and she said, “You’re going to continue though, right?” One side of me thought, I don’t know and the other thought, You better believe it!
I met longtime endurance rider Marci at that ride and at the dinner afterwards she gave me her completion award, a coffee cup with a picture of an old time 20-mule team. I love that coffee cup. It is a treasure to me and a symbol of everything I had gone through up to this point. I got teary-eyed when she gave it to me.
I decided to try to do one ride a month. In March I went to the Cuyama Oaks ride and finished my first two limited distance rides!
In April, I went to the Lost Padres Ride and that’s when it all came together. Jager and I were cool, calm and collected. I saw familiar faces and so enjoyed the social aspect. The ride was spectacular! I rode with a couple of women who were a joy to be with, and our horses were so compatible. As we were finishing the ride I thought, “This IS the dream!” It was everything I had hoped it would be. I was elated!
I had logged my third LD and had felt as if I could have ridden another 25! Jager seemed as if he would happily continue too. And each ride I was meeting more and more wonderful people.
The next day I was up and ready to leave the ride site early. As I was leaving I drove to a ranch gate, got out of my van to open the gate and my van door swung closed and locked me out! I was blocking the exit for the whole camp, the van was running and the horse was in the trailer stomping. I was mortified!
I looked around and thought, just get me out of here before someone comes! I tried to break a window in my van with a rock and it wouldn’t break! A woman drove up with her rig behind me and helped me call AAA to come and unlock it. I apologized, but she was an angel, and said, “If this is the worst thing that happens to me today then I feel lucky.”
I left her and started to walk to the ranch entrance to meet AAA. More rigs were pulling up behind mine as I started walking. A ranch hand gave me a lift to the entrance (it was a mile away or more), then the AAA driver arrived and we went back. There were at least six rigs behind mine by the time I got back. It was embarrassing to say the least! But bless all those endurance riders, they all took it in stride with great humor.
My blood counts have stabilized for now. They are still at 36,000 in May 2017. The doctor said, “You never know; you could die of old age before this gets you.”
And as we all know in life, it’s true, you never know what life is going to bring.
In May, my horse had a mystery limp. I canceled the Descanso Ride.
In June, he still had the limp and I canceled the Montana de Oro Ride. My vet Dr. Peralez checked Jager out. He said it looked like there was some arthritis in Jager’s hind right leg. It was slight, but he thought Jager’s life as an endurance horse might be over.
We are still testing him and figuring it out. Right now he's on-and-off limping at the trot. I love Jager and will work with him on whatever he needs but MY life as an endurance rider is NOT over.
Luckily I have space for another horse and the search begins . . .
So, if you are starting out in endurance riding or haven’t yet but this is your dream, just do it! Break it into baby steps to make your dream happen. (That goes for any dream.) Don’t wait for tomorrow. Live your life now. And just know that life will throw you curveballs, constantly. Just deal with it. Breathe. Cry. And then put one foot in front of the other and move towards your goal.
Get out and RIDE!
More information on endurance riding is available by visiting www.aerc.org or by calling the American Endurance Ride Conference office at 866-271-2372. By request, the office will send out a free copy of the 16-page Discover Endurance Riding booklet to prospective members.