Riding to Win

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

The woman has ridden 25-mile trails with Darolyn. She figured if she was going to drive all the way out here, she might as well do more. She's starting to regret that decision. Her whole body hurts, and she's got 37 miles left to go.

"Advil time," Darolyn tells her. Darolyn feels fine, she says, nothing hurts. Still, she takes a swig of KM, an herbal syrup that looks like tobacco juice and tastes like licorice and prunes. It's equivalent to eating ten bananas, Darolyn says.

The rest of her crew rides up, and Darolyn helps wet down the horses. Everyone tells her their horses' heart rates, what time they checked in and what the vet said. People who bought their horses from Darolyn or used to ride with her check back for her approval. "It's almost like I'm riding two horses," Darolyn says. "I ride for everybody here. I keep my eye on them all."

Laura Stoicescu's horse takes its turn getting dunked.
Deron Neblett
Laura Stoicescu's horse takes its turn getting dunked.
Laura Stoicescu's horse takes its turn getting dunked.
Deron Neblett
Laura Stoicescu's horse takes its turn getting dunked.

Back by the trailer, Darolyn grabs a milk jug marked "people water" and chugs it. She's under the microscope to join the national team. With her fingers crossed, she's breaking in a new saddle for the world competition. Her stirrups are stretching, so she adjusts them and takes the girth up a notch. A horse can lose 50 to 75 pounds in a race. That's why Darolyn feeds Alley at every stop and encourages her to eat along the trail.

In addition to the normal mix of hay, oats and corn, Darolyn feeds her horses sugar-beet pulp (for extra roughage) and two cups of corn oil a day. The oil goes straight to the horses' fat reserves for energy during a race. Since it's so hot in Texas, the horses are syringe-fed a white powdered electrolyte mix: regular salt, light salt and calcium carbonate blended with applesauce and honey. It's basically Gatorade for horses.

Darolyn doesn't sit down. She fights so hard for minutes on the trail, she doesn't want to lose time in camp. She doesn't waste time walking 50 yards to the Port-O-Let; she just pees in the hay with the horses.

"We're out in five minutes," Darolyn tells the girls riding with her. "Let's go!"

Darolyn grabs Alley's reins and steps onto the front bumper of a gold Jeep Grand Cherokee. The bumper breaks.

The British lady screams. "Oh, no! Not my bumper!"

Darolyn walks to the red Jeep next to it, hops onto that bumper and onto the horse and rides off. She doesn't waste time saying she's sorry.


Behind the trailer the 13-year-old girls are arguing.

"I don't want your horse to eat my horse's food," says Meghan, the previously missing prodigy.

It's the same food. "They're in the same pen," says Darolyn's step-daughter, Brittany Dial. "I'll feed 'em double."

Brittany and Mark tell Meghan if she'd shown up on time instead of going to the slumber party then maybe her horse would have its own bucket of food. The girls keep arguing, Meghan hits Brittany with a water bottle, then Brittany shoves Meghan. They're best friends.

Meghan gets on her horse. "I think I broke my foot," she tells Mark. "She stepped on me really hard."

Mark's adjusting saddles. "Quit complaining," he says. An ex-Marine, Mark recites: "Improvise, adapt and overcome."


Hawks and eagles fly overhead as Darolyn makes her way up the mountain. Bushes full of prickly, poisonous red berries dot the hills. The knee-high grass is like straw, and the trail is littered with wilted black-eyed Susans and piles of prickly pear. The second loop is the hardest; it has a steep climb up narrow cow paths and a run down rutted, twisty trails. The third and fourth loops just repeat the first two. On the second loop Darolyn's horse knows they're winning and wants to slow down. Darolyn listens to Alley and eases up.

In April Darolyn rode a three-and-a-half-hour 50. Riding the same distance in today's heat and humidity takes twice as long. Darolyn rides toward the finish line, her arms bleeding from tiny cedar branch cuts. She slows down and tells Laura to take her hand. They rode together all day, and Laura worked just as hard, so Darolyn wants to tie. It's not as important nowadays for Darolyn to be the only winner.

The vets gush over how great Alley looks. The horse could easily turn around and run another 50. Darolyn wins Best Condition, the most coveted prize in the race. Marathon winners fall down at the end of the race and people say that's noble, the ride manager says, but marathon runners have a choice -- horses don't.

As the day closes, riders are draped across camp chairs or lying on the water cooler table. Darolyn sits down next to the British lady. "Still speaking to me?"

Not really. The lady packs up her Jeep. She still likes Darolyn, and she still likes riding, but she's getting out of here before Darolyn can talk her into riding again tomorrow. She's going to take her son to a nice air-conditioned restaurant and go home.

Vicki's back hurts. She feels like she has been on her feet lifting boxes for 48 hours. Vicki crossed the finish line first of the 25s. Darolyn thinks she's ready to ride a 50; she wants Vicki to challenge herself. Plus, a horse's value goes up $1,000 with each 50.

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