Riding to Win

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

That night there is no campfire and no marshmallows. Instead, everyone trades massages and stories about other rides. They eat cold chicken, Brie and French bread. Someone opens a bottle of wine.

After dark, hurricane-level winds kick up and thunder slams the sky. Jeeps shake as the wind knocks them back and forth. At Darolyn's camp saddles are still sitting out, and helmets and feed buckets roll in the field. Mark scurries to get everything packed inside the trailer. The girls grab a bag of chips and crawl into the rig to watch the storm play a movie through the windshield.
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.

Throughout the camp, heavy raindrops cave in canvas tents. The water wets the horses, but as the air cools, the horses' muscles stiffen. They'll need morning massages. Endurance rides don't stop for rain.

Around 2 a.m. the flood waters slack off. The hard, dry mud is now chocolate mousse. Bobwhites and whippoorwills call in the darkness.

Darolyn's not going to ride.

"It's going to be really treacherous today," she says. She rode her best horse in mud like this last summer, and the world championship selectors screamed at her for risking that horse. "I'm not gonna make that mistake again," she says. She had a good showing yesterday; riding today she has nothing to gain and everything to lose.

She's not alone in her decision. There are half the number of people riding the 50-mile today.

"I bet there will be lots of water out there," Mark says, scraping mud off his boots. The earth is a pile of soggy horse shit. "Good God almighty," he grumbles. Darolyn nods. "I know," she says. "It's gumbo."

Vicki sits underneath the tarp, stiff and sore. Her back is killing her. Darolyn tells her to take a swig of KM. Darolyn signed her up for the 50.

"I don't want to do this," Vicki says. "I'm doing this for Darolyn."

From inside the trailer Darolyn calls back: "Meghan too!" Vicki's her sponsor.

Vicki shakes her head: "I must be nuts." The same thought is echoed throughout the camp. At 6:19 a.m. riders are on their horses talking about how they're crazy. "We're certifiably insane," one rider says.

The vet nods. "It's an addictive game," he says. "Don't know why, but it is."

The sky is streaked a salmon watercolor, and the air feels like the calendar has rolled back to March. The trail is wet, but the creeks are still dry. There's standing water in the riverbeds, but nothing is running. For that they would have needed a small flood, at least ten inches.

The mud creates a whole different course; no one can go as fast as the day before. Most people walk more than they ride, but some canter through the sludge, leaving slip marks. The vet's worried that horses' hooves will act like suction cups, sticking in the mud while their bodies keep moving. Mud can mean pulled muscles, he says.

The sun is starting to come up. Meghan's horse has a sore tendon, and the vet orders it out of the race. Mark's horse has a sore foot; they get pulled too. Mark was registered for the two-day 100 ride, so all the points of finishing well yesterday are lost. "You okay?" Darolyn asks Mark softly. Yesterday he was the first-place heavyweight and leading the 100. "I ain't happy," he says. As he walks his horse back to camp, both the horse and rider have their heads down.

The riders slog along, dismounting every few feet to scrape five pounds of gunk from the horses' hooves. As the day warms up, the sun dries the mud. But because so many people cantered through it, the ground is choppy, making the trail rougher than yesterday's dry dirt.

By 3 p.m. Sunday the camp is half abandoned. The 25-milers finished around noon, packed up and went home. Darolyn leaves to go visit her daughter at camp. When she goes, so does most of the excitement: The head cheerleader and coach is gone.

Crew members sit outside Darolyn's rig washing their feet in a bucket of dirty water. They've already consolidated the coolers and cleaned up; now they're just waiting. "This is a lot like sailing," says crew member Christine Ando. "Hours of boredom punctuated by moments of frenzy."

By 5:30 p.m. the camp is emptying out and the ride manager is grilling steaks. The ride secretaries are sitting nearby, their eyes so tired they can only look down. Everyone's exhausted, even those who didn't ride.

The 50-milers officially have 12 hours to finish the course: They have until 6:15 p.m.

"Should be soon," says the vet, glancing at his watch.

Still, nothing happens. No horses come trotting down the lane.

At 5:40 p.m. the first horse appears; at 5:43, two more. A minute later, two more. One lady is so tired she doesn't have the energy to get off and walk. Laura comes in fourth.

At 5:57 p.m. the ride manager approaches the time desk with a problem. Laura missed three out of four mandatory water stops. "Something is fishy," he says. Since she rode with Darolyn yesterday, someone says to check if Darolyn stopped. They figure if Darolyn had cheated then Laura wouldn't know better.

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