Endurance riding ‘To finish is to win’

By By Dick Mason The Observer July 06, 2012 12:38 pm

ELGIN — This  Elgin equestrian is more concerned with the pace of her horses’s pulse than the speed of his gait.  

Meet Vicki Nickels, an Elgin endurance rider with more than 25 25-to-50 mile endurance rides to her credit and a record which is gaining sparkle.

Nickels recently placed fifth in the first day competition at the Eagle (Idaho) Spring Fling 50-mile endurance ride.  She also received a coveted complement  — Ruger,  her Morgan-Arabian mix,  was rated by the ride’s veterinarian as the best in terms of physical condition of any of the nine horses ridden at the Eagle Spring Fling.

“To me that was more important than coming in first,’’ Nickels said.

Endurance ride participants must have their horses checked by veterinarians five times in the course of a 50-mile event — at the start and finish and three times during the ride. The horses’ heart rates, hydration levels, leg condition and much more are closely checked by veterinarians. When veterinarians determine that a horse is not fit to continue, riders are asked to pull their horse from the competition. 

“It is all about the animal,’’ Nickels said. “There is no shame in pulling out.’’

Horses and their riders must spend at least 40 minutes at each “vet check’’ station. This 40-minute block does not begin until a horse’s heart has fallen to 60 beats a minute.   

 Riders are thus wise to begin slowing their horses before each  check station  so their horse’s pulse will be low enough  that the mandatory 40-minute hold period can begin right away.

Nickels is always careful to do this.

“I walk my horse in the last quarter mile before a vet check station,’’ she said.

Endurance rides are competitive but entrants often consider their biggest competitors to be themselves.  

“To finish is to win,’’ Nickels said.

Nickels’ recent success is particularly noteworthy because  her horse, who she has been riding for five years has made giant strides. Ruger is a rescue horse who had been abused and was very skittish and nervous when Nickels first got him. So much so that Ruger threw Nickels off twice during endurance rides when he got nervous around strange horses.

Today Ruger, after long hours of painstaking work by Nickels,  is much easier to handle and more secure. Ruger has completed at least six endurance rides, events which have drawn him ever closer to his  owner. 

“You get to know each other pretty well on long rides,’’ Nickels said.

Today Ruger is jittery at the start of rides but then calms down.

“Once we get past the first five miles he is fine,’’ Nickels said. 

She said Ruger is excited at the start because he is anticipating what it is to come.

“He is excited because he knows what he is there for. He likes doing them, (endurance rides),’’ Nickels said.

Ruger’s Arabian blood makes him ideal physically for endurance rides. Nickels  explained that Arabians are not thickly muscled and have thin skin, both of which make it easier for their bodies to get rid of heat. 

Entrants are allowed to get off their horses and walk with them anytime during an endurance ride. However, they must begin a competition and cross the finish line in the saddle.

Nickels walks with Ruger not only as they near vet check stations, but also when they are going downhill. She said this reduces Ruger’s shoulder stress and allows her to stretch out a knee which gets tight.

Sitting in a saddle for close to 50 miles is hard even for experienced riders like Nickels. She feels soreness all over her body after an endurance ride. The soreness is particularly bad in her calves, thighs and legs.

“It is very hard (after a 50-mile endurance ride) for me to walk down stairs,’’ Nickels said.

Vicki Nickels and her husband Carl moved to Elgin from Cascade,  Idaho 11 years ago. Vicki, who has ridden horses all her life, began participating in endurance rides soon after arriving in in Elgin. She has long been interested in them because her mother participated successfully in endurance rides in Alaska many years ago.  

“it is something I had always been interested in doing,’’ she said.

Nickels said it would be virtually impossible to participate in endurance rides if were it were not for her husband Carl. He helps to transport her and her horse to endurance ride events, provides food and water for them at vet check stations, washes Ruger to cool him down and much more.

“He is is amazing,’’ Vicki Nickels said.

Nickels plans to continue participating in endurance rides for years to come. She is drawn to them because of her love for horses and the uncommon challenges the rides pose. 

“If it was easy it wouldn’t be an endurance event. It is testing you and the horse all the time.’’

Nickels, 46, said that participating in and training her horse for endurance rides over the past nine years has improved her physical condition significantly. 

“I feel better now than I did in my 30s.’’