PRESTON - Riders and their horses rode through Forestville State Park this weekend in endurance rides reminiscent of the Pony Express of the 1860s.
The rides involved 50- and 25-mile contests — marathon horseback riding through the woods — but it wasn’t just about how far or how fast a horse could go.
It was also about stamina and conditioning. At the end of their first loop through the shaded park, the horses would stop at camp for a vet check.
Sixty horses and their riders from across the Midwest competed in the two-day event.
The horses, which included various breeds of horses, including Arabians, quarter horses, Morgans and Appaloosas, were examined for signs of exhaustion and dehydration, for any symptoms of lameness or injury. Their pulse was taken. A stethoscope was placed against each horse to check its gastrointestinal motility.
If everything checked out, the horses continued the ride. But if they showed signs of distress, the horses were pulled from the ride and disqualified.
It’s just like any athlete, said Dr. Trish Meeks, one of two doctors of veterinary science at the horse marathon. You can’t expect a horse to perform at a peak level if they aren’t receiving the best conditioning and nutrition.
“You cannot leave your horse sit in the pasture at home and not do anything with it and come to this ride and expect to place or gain points,” Meeks said. “If you do that, we as veterinarians will pull you, because your horse is not in condition.
If you’re thinking of “Hidalgo,” the movie starring Viggo Mortensen about a washed-up cowboy who competes against the best riders in the world in the sands of Arabia, you’re not getting the picture.
“It’s sort of an inaccurate depiction of what goes on,” said Victoria Robison, the ride’s co-manager whose horse happens to be named Viggo. “It’s not how we treat horses.”
This weekend was the 50th anniversary of the endurance rides at Forestville State Park. Dianne Schmidt, ride manager and organizer of the contest, will be retiring after more than 30 years of involvement with the event.
Rider Robin Schadt had just completed her first 17-mile loop through Forestville on her nine-year-old purebred Arabian, Chloe. Saturday was meant to be a conditioning ride for Chloe, Schadt said, as they prepare for a 100-mile ride in July.
“She’s gone on several 50-, 55-mile rides,” Schadt said. “She’s rather young for the sport, but she’s coming along nicely.”
The endurance rides have roots in the Pony Express in the 1860s and even further back to antiquity, when the Greeks trained their horses for war by placing weights in their bags.
Robison said she has come to appreciate the horsemanship displayed by the riders.
“They’re a group of knowledgeable, sensible people who ask their horses to do what comes naturally to them, which is to run around outside at a pace that suits them and not ask them to do silly things,” she said.