Riding to Win

Business partners, employers and lovers have come and gone. Darolyn Butler-Dial and her horses not only endure but are victorious.

Darolyn's husband rode with her in almost every race. But Pat began telling her the horses were draining them financially. As her stable grew, he didn't like the traffic in his home. Eventually he stopped wanting to go to rides every weekend. He wanted to do things that didn't involve horseback riding, but Darolyn couldn't think of anything else she'd rather do. About this time, Darolyn started finding receipts and bank documents indicating Pat had another life involving a girlfriend and a separate apartment. When they divorced in 1993, Pat stopped riding.

Two years later Darolyn got a training license and started flat-track racing her Arabians. But whenever a race conflicted with an endurance ride, she found herself longing to be on the trail. Darolyn took on more boarders and started teaching lessons and leading trail rides. Endurance riding is how she makes her living now. People board their horses with winners, buy their horses from winners and take lessons from winners, she says. She took the best part of her life and made it her livelihood.

Darolyn's current husband used to crew for her at rides. Mark "the Cowboy" Dial drove her rig, grilled steaks and massaged Darolyn's feet. Mark, 40, wears long-sleeved starched shirts no matter how hot it is, recites Wild West trivia and won't go to the doctor even if he cracks a few ribs. They were strictly friends without flirting for five years, until the summer they "accidentally" fell in love. He's utterly and entirely devoted to her and the horses. "We're both throwbacks from the 1800s," she says. They were married on horseback last fall; the ceremony was held at high noon at the joining in the creek.

Riders in the Tevis Cup have 24 hours to make it 100 miles.
Courtesy of the AERC
Riders in the Tevis Cup have 24 hours to make it 100 miles.
Mark and Darolyn got married on horseback.
Deron Neblett
Mark and Darolyn got married on horseback.

The day before the second annual Hill Country Memory Ride, Darolyn's house is in chaos. The ranch hands put the wrong saddles on all the horses for the regular 10:30 a.m. trail ride; Darolyn's daughter hasn't made the sandwiches yet; and Darolyn's arguing with the bank. On top of all that, Darolyn's newest prodigy, 12-year-old Meghan Dunn, is missing. (The girl went to a slumber party and didn't give her mom the phone number or tell her she needed to be at Darolyn's. The owner of the horse Meghan's riding is coming to watch -- Darolyn needs Meghan there.) No matter how frustrated she is, Darolyn doesn't yell or raise her voice.

Darolyn wanted to leave no later than 10 a.m. At 1 p.m. they're loading the rig when a woman on the 10:30 a.m. ride faints and falls off her horse. Darolyn and Mark drive into the woods to rescue her. Vicki Hudson, 44, looks at her watch. She's one of the "lilies" (as Darolyn calls them), who came for a trail ride then bought a horse and a trailer. Vicki sits down and sighs -- she doesn't want to drive a big rig of horses over dark hills, but it doesn't look like she has a choice. Vicki bought Belle last October; a month later she had a double mastectomy. When Vicki told her doctor she had taken up horseback riding, he said it was against his better judgment, so she didn't tell him about endurance rides. Just like she didn't tell him that the first time she fell off her horse she thought she had burst her silicon implants.

Around 4 p.m. they load 11 horses into Darolyn's big red rig and Vicki's deluxe white trailer. On the six-hour drive, they bounce along eating barbecue and listening to cowboys sing about corazones. Darolyn spends the ride on her cell phone talking to people back at the ranch.

Rain slams the windshield as the sky darkens. It's after 10 p.m. when they drive into what feels like Deliverance country. The race is in the Hill Country State Park, ten miles outside of Bandera, a small cowboy town where bar stools have saddles instead of seat cushions.

Mark drives the rig up a hill past picket fences into a darkened ocean of tents, trucks and trailers; horses stand silhouetted against the night sky. After the horses are settled, Mark and Darolyn are too tired to set up the tent, so they sleep in the rig. It's 1:30 a.m. when Darolyn's now-20-year-old student Laura spreads a tarp onto the hay, lies down and falls asleep.

In 1955 rancher Wendell Robie and his neighbor argued that horses weren't as durable as they used to be. Robie challenged his neighbor to a 24-hour, 100-mile ride along the old Pony Express trail. Robie placed an ad in The Reno Gazette opening up the challenge to ride through the Sierras from Tahoe City to Auburn. Five people showed up; four finished. The next year a dozen more showed up. Today people fight to get off the waiting list and into one of 250 coveted slots to compete in the annual Tevis Cup ride. Races patterned after the Tevis spread across the country and around the world.

On Memorial Day weekend about 60 riders, most of them women, saddled up at the Memory ride. Hundred-mile rides are usually ridden in one long day that turns into night. No one naps, they just ride. But this ride is broken into two 12-hour, 50-mile races.

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