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horse endurance riding

In It for the Long Run

Veterinarian Claire Godwin and her horse Mercury are endurance riding champions

Meghan Murphy-Gill

Dr. Claire Godwin, an equine-loving veterinarian from Laytonsville, Maryland, has traveled 19,295 miles on the back of a horse. That’s the equivalent of nearly seven transverse treks across the continental United States, from New York to Los Angeles.

Whether saddling up for a competitive limited-distance ride (typically 25 to 35 miles) or an endurance ride (those longer than 50 miles), this sport takes horse and rider over sandy, rocky, steep, flat, you-name-it terrain, and often on historic trails. Competitors must complete the ride in a specific amount of time. For example, a 25-mile ride must be completed in six hours, while endurance riders have a full 24 hours to complete a 100-mile course.

The winner of each race is the rider-horse team that has completed the course in the shortest amount of time. “Along the course, veterinarians check the horses to make certain they are fit to continue the ride, and those vet check times are deducted from the actual ride time when results are submitted to the office,” says Kathleen Henkle, executive director of the American Endurance Ride Conference (AERC). Horses that are determined not fit to continue are eliminated from the race.

Claire first learned about the sport over 30 years ago. She was completing her externship with mixed animal veterinarian Dr. Chet Anderson, who competed in endurance riding. “It just seemed like a great sport,” Claire says. But six years would pass before she herself would start competing in races—kicking off a hobby that would have her conquer 18,730 endurance miles and 565 limited-distance miles.

Logging the number of miles and races Claire has completed is a major accomplishment in itself. Even more impressive is the fact that she’s done it while working full-time as a veterinarian.

But the sport is extremely fulfilling, making the commitment to it well worthwhile. “Endurance riding combines the opportunity of riding a challenging course with your equine partner and the camaraderie of camping and socializing with a group of individuals that share your same interests,” Kathleen says. “Many of the rides take place on trails that add spectacular scenery. Who could beat that?”

Indeed, what Claire loves most about being an endurance rider is the opportunity to see “the country on the back of a horse, and getting away from the stress of everyday life.”

Becoming Champions

Like a good endurance ride, Claire had a gradual start to the sport. “In the early years of endurance, I was balancing young kids, owning a practice, and competing, and I only managed to get to a few rides each year,” she says.

Steadily though, she was able to dedicate more time to the sport, riding several horses in limited and endurance competitions, and even getting family members involved.

In 2006, she bought her Arabian, Mercury, then 14 years old. His previous owner had competed with him in pony club. As a teenager, Claire’s daughter Kate rode Mercury in endurance for a few years before heading off to college. “I almost placed him with a friend at that point since I didn’t know what I needed with a 17-year-old, 14-hand pony,” Claire says. (Equine are typically measured in hands. Under 14.2 hands is considered a pony, and over 14.2 is officially considered a horse, though the term is used colloquially to refer to all equine.) “But then I competed with him in a couple of endurance rides and realized just how talented and fun the little guy was,” Claire says.

Over the next decade, Claire and Merc, as she calls him, competed all over the country. In that time, Claire was racing every couple of weeks, rotating Merc with two other horses she owned.

“He was always sound, and always reliable,” Claire says. “Although he is only 14 hands, he has size 1 feet (which is relatively large for his height) and great bone, and is built to last. He is uncomplicated to ride and follows my other horses around basecamp without a lead rope.”

Since Merc began competing with Kate, the horse has accrued more than 6,000 miles of endurance competition. Claire lists the horse’s accolades:

  •  7 wins
  • 5 Old Dominion 100 completions
  •  6 Best Conditions
  • 5 Tevis Cup completions
  •  18 100-mile completions
  •  2 Endurance Trip Crowns (Old Dominion, Tevis Cup, and National Championship 100)

Claire also points out Merc is the oldest horse to finish the Old Dominion at 27, and tied for oldest to top-10 the Tevis at 19.

As Merc approaches the end of his endurance riding career, Claire reflects fondly on their years of competing together. Her most memorable ride was the 2010 Tevis Cup, a 100-mile race that takes participants through the Sierra Nevada Mountains in California. “We didn’t plan on going until the very last minute,” she says, when her friend and fellow endurance rider John Crandell told her he had room in his trailer to drive across country. “He called on a Monday morning, we were loaded up by 9 a.m. the next morning with two of his horses and two of mine. Out of 200 entries, John’s horses came in first and second, and mine came in fifth and sixth, including Merc.”

“Life is not a journey to the grave with the intention of arriving safely in a pretty and well-preserved body, but rather to skid in broadside, totally worn out, loudly proclaiming, ‘Wow! What a ride!’” –Claire Godwin, paraphrasing Hunter S. Thompson.

A Strong Finish

Claire continues to compete today. In August, she’ll join friends in Australia for a competition outside Sydney. And next year, she’ll do the Big Horn 100-mile ride in Wyoming.

As for Merc’s future, “He still looks great, but I would like to retire him on a high note, and last year certainly was a high note, for which I am very thankful.” Still, Claire hopes a friend’s 12-year-old granddaughter can compete with him in some 25-mile races this summer.

When asked if she has a mantra she lives by, Claire paraphrases a quote by Hunter S. Thompson: “Life is not a journey to the grave with the intention of arriving safely in a pretty and well-preserved body, but rather to skid in broadside, totally worn out, loudly proclaiming, ‘Wow! What a ride!’”

Want to learn more about endurance racing? Visit the AERC’s website: AERC.org

Meghan Murphy-Gill is a Midwest-based writer whose childhood was spent traveling the United States. She loves to cook, eat, and run on repeat.