Unlikely Lessons: How Ultra Running Has Made Me a Better Horsewoman
Eight years ago, I started running ultramarathons, i.e. foot races longer than 26.2 miles. I had just turned 40 and was suffering from a severe midlife crisis. In addition to signing up for the Leadville 100, I made some other rash decisions, like going back to grad school and quitting horses. Thankfully, the “quitting horses” part only lasted a few months. The grad school part lasted until I had finished my now pretty useless thesis on postcolonial literature. On the other hand, the running part has lasted until now and shows no signs of fading anytime soon. Having finished seventeen 100-milers, I can honestly say that running ultras has changed my life for the better. It’s made me healthier, happier, and stronger. I realized only recently that it has also made me a better horsewoman.
Human and equine endurance athletes sharing the trail at the Vermont 100
When I ran my first Western States 100, which follows the same course as the Tevis Cup endurance ride, I was surprised to learn that the finishing times for horses and humans are very similar for both races. We are very different animals in most regards, but endurance is a superpower we share. Horses and people can run 100 miles at a steady pace without a break; most other animals can’t. For different reasons, both species evolved to be on the move most of the time. My own endurance training has helped me understand on a gut level how important it is for horses to keep moving, how keeping them locked in a stall most of the time is the worst thing we can do to them. The secret to a more cooperative horse is often just more exercise - under saddle, in hand, on a lunge line, turned out with other horses, all of the above, every day, most of the day. Many behavioral problems have a simple remedy: get the horse moving forward. The crabbiness and unease I feel now when I sit around too much must be what horses feel when we force them to be idle.
Running 100s has also taught me to enjoy the process of training, independent from the final outcome. In my twenties and early thirties, I used to train horses with a focus on some goal or other - usually doing well at a show, or moving up to the next level of dressage. With green horses I started under saddle, my main goal was checking off the list of things I felt they needed to know before they could go home to their owners.
When I started running ultras, I started to recalibrate my focus from goals and outcomes to the joy of being here, of running now. When you train for a 100 mile run, you spend a ton of time moving forward at a pretty easy pace. The goal of finishing the race and earning a silver belt buckle can add motivation, but that distant promise of fleeting glory won’t by itself provide enough incentive to get you out on the trail day after day, hour after hour. Instead, running becomes part of who you are, something essential to your very being.
The joy of an after-work sunset run
I now realize I feel the same about horses. They are a part of me, so the time I spend with them is never wasted, whether it’s riding, ground work, grooming, barn chores, or just being around them. I still have goals, but winning ribbons now matters much less than the joy I find in my daily work, my daily connection with these amazing creatures.
Amy, Renegade, Cinco, and I, having bareback fun.
Perhaps the most important lesson I have learned from running ultras is that a good mindset is more important than physical talent. I am not a natural athlete by any means, yet I’ve had a measure of success in tough races, mainly because working with horses all those years has given me plenty of grit and plenty of mental discipline. Whenever I watch the last finishers before the final 30-hour cutoff at Western States or Leadville, I’m amazed at how far the limits of human performance can be stretched when someone really, really wants to accomplish something. People who should probably not be upright and moving cross these finish lines every year, propelled by sheer determination.
My Jemez 50-miler, 2018. I fell seven times, but persevered to a strong finish.
Someone said running 100s is at least 50 percent mental. Based on personal experience, I know this is true. As I get older, I realize more and more that it’s just as true for working with horses. Training their minds is at least as important as developing their muscles. If I can get a horse to want to do what I’m asking, the training process won’t be a struggle that ends with a winner and a loser, but a willing partnership. If I can engage a horse’s mind in a positive way, any physical limitations he might have matter a lot less. How do I engage a horse’s mind? By being just like I want the horse to be: calm, respectful, confident, consistent. By challenging each horse just enough to to move one step beyond his current comfort zone. By recognizing signs of boredom, anxiety, or frustration, and adjusting what I do based on the feedback the horse gives me. By rewarding often. By quitting every session on a good note. In short, by doing everything a good horse trainer should do anyway.
Boonlight Renegade, working in a relaxed, yet focused frame of mind.
Not many horse trainers run ultras, and not many ultra runners train horses, probably because ultra running and horse training are two very involved, very time-consuming activities that don’t leave much time for other interests. As a horse professional who runs 60-plus miles a week, I have very little time for watching television, spending time with friends, or cleaning my house. But running lots of miles makes me ride better, and riding lots of horses makes me run better. It’s a strange combination, but it works for me.