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A sudden rainstorm washed away the trail. The ribbons marking the path were pounded into the ground as Darolyn Butler-Dial rode out of the woods on the northern New Mexico mountain. It was 9 p.m., and Darolyn was 90 miles into a 100-mile championship endurance horseback ride; she circled the meadow looking for a way down. She found a county road, but there was a five-strand barbed-wire fence blocking the way, and she didn't see a gate. Darolyn and the three women riding with her tried without success to retrace their path. Fourteen-year-old Laura Stoicescu was shaking and shivering; hypothermia was setting in. The women tied up their horses, huddled around Laura and waited to be rescued.
At the base of the mountain a search party called their names, but the thunder drowned out their voices. The rescuers figured Darolyn could find her own way out; she's not a woman who usually needs to be rescued.
Back on top the rain slacked off as the women warmed themselves sharing flimsy ponchos and body heat. Darolyn had a soggy, mashed-up cookie in her pocket that served as dinner. Around 2 a.m. the temperature dropped; teeth chattering, Lynda Corry untangled herself from the group and grabbed the horses' saddles. The women curled into a ball, and Lynda threw the gear on top, dived into the bottom of the pile and fell asleep.
A few minutes later Darolyn saw a pair of eyes coming toward them. She punched Lynda awake; Lynda said she didn't see anything. Certain it was a bear, Darolyn turned on her flashlight only to see one of the horses had gotten loose. The women laughed and slept until sunrise.
At 5 a.m. they resaddled and slowly made their way down the muddy mountain, horses and people sliding over rocky, wet clay. They arrived at camp in time for the awards breakfast. Darolyn had lost the national championship.
Six years later Darolyn has 20,000 miles of competition and three national championships under her belt. No matter what happens during a race, she keeps riding. During one ride, her horse stepped in a hole, giving Darolyn a concussion, a broken nose and two broken elbows. Six weeks later she rode another race with pins in her arms.
Darolyn won a 25-mile race when she was eight and a half months pregnant. The vets were afraid they were going to have to deliver her baby. Two weeks after Cici was born Darolyn was back in the saddle training with the baby in a backpack. She has to ride, she says. "I can't stand not to."
Darolyn, 50, has pictures of herself on horseback before she could walk. The fourth of five girls, she was named after her father and raised on a ranch in Paul's Valley, Oklahoma. With Choctaw and Chickasaw Indian blood, she was crowned Miss Rodeo America, Miss Ford Country and Miss Oklahoma University.
Armed with degrees in theater and teaching, Darolyn moved to Dallas to model and act. She was hired to start a production company, but the guy who funded her gave her hot checks and $3,000 debt. It was the height of the urban cowboy craze, so she got a job selling Tony Lama's ladies' handbags. In Humble she bought a small house and stable down Cyprus Creek Road. The five empty acres adjoining hers were owned by an airline pilot.
The pilot heard that a rich retired model had moved in next door, so he introduced himself. Pat French was a charming man; he looked like Steve McQueen and was two inches taller than Darolyn. Darolyn invited him in, they made bacon and egg sandwiches, and -- despite the fact that he was married and living with a woman who wasn't his wife -- they started dating. "We were our most favorite people," Darolyn remembers.
It was the '70s, so they dated other people. Pat was always her favorite, and Darolyn believed that eventually he would realize that she was smarter and prettier than his other women. But after their wedding in 1976 he didn't stop dating. Still, the marriage continued.
When she was 31, Darolyn read an article about endurance riding. She had just had her first daughter, Rima, and she figured she'd better try it before she got too old. She and Pat had lived on the ranch six years, but Darolyn hadn't ridden more than half a mile into the surrounding woods.
She rode her first 50-mile race after training a quarter horse for six months. She covered the first 35 miles in three hours and the last 15 miles in three hours. "Most of it spent leading this tired, tired horse," Darolyn says. "The horse was a runaway -- that cured him." Darolyn's quads hurt so much after the ride she spent a week walking down stairs backward.
Training for an endurance ride takes about two years, Darolyn found out. "Anything less is suicide for the rider," she says. "Homicide for the horse." Horses build stamina running up and down hills and mountains. Since Houston doesn't have hills, Darolyn began riding her horses through mud, sand and streams.
The more she trained, the more she won. In two years she earned her first national championship. She applied the same determination to her work life, but in 1983 Tony Lama refused to promote Darolyn to boot salesman. So she started making instructional horseback-riding videos. She didn't know very much about books and business ledgers, so, she says, people screwed her in every subsequent business venture. But at endurance rides she kept winning. Darolyn's children told her that driving to an endurance ride was the only time they heard her laugh.
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