It never fails when I attend an endurance ride with my Eli, someone has to look him up and down and say, “what kind of horse is that?” He towers above most of his Arabian competitors and walks with an air of authority that says, “don’t you realize that I was a racehorse?” He strikes an imposing figure and radiates power. When we first emerged on the southeast endurance circuit in late 2009, we got lots of quizzical looks from the regulars. “What kind of horse is that?”
Eli started his career as East Meets West, a Standardbred pacer under the reins of Archie McNeil. He is sired by the Western Hanover son, Western Paradise and is bred royally through and through. He raced 21 times but proved to be less than profitable on the racetrack. Owned, bred and trained by Mr. McNeil, Eli was chosen to go to New Vocations Racehorse Adoption to find a new career rather than fall through the cracks of harness racing. I saw a short video clip on youtube of Eli under saddle and knew that I had to have him. I notified Dot Morgan, the director of New Vocations, and Eli was mine within 4 hours of having been put up for adoption. His quality, his regal air and his athleticism illustrated all of the attributes I was seeking in an endurance prospect.
Why a Standardbred for endurance? I could have easily jumped on with everyone else and rode an Arabian but my background is much more diverse. Over the years, I have trained quarter horses, owned and ridden Appaloosas, Arabians, Rocky Mountain Horses, Pasos, Tennessee Walkers, Racking Horses and a variety of other breeds. As a lover of gaited horses, I wanted a horse that had a gentle temperament, athleticism, and the potential to have a variety of gaits. I found all of those in Eli. He has legs of iron from years of jogging on the racetrack. He can trot for hours at 10-13mph and his bursts of speed dazzle the imagination. His arsenal of gaits include a 5mph walk, the trot, the pace, the stepping pace and a slow rack. His disposition endears him to everyone. He is particular about where he eats and how he is treated. He will throw his feed bucket in his water tub and play with it like a sailboat. He does not like to eat off the ground and he would prefer it if you were punctual when feeding him. He has the work ethic of his breed and does not like to be left at home. Eli wants to please, wants to succeed and he wants to be out on the trail with me.
East Meets West quickly changed gears in his life and became my trusted partner on the trail. Standardbreds adapt quickly to new training and the first time he went trail riding, he took off at a bold trot and never looked back. He seems to relish new trails and new challenges. He travels well, camps in an electric corral and he never attempts to escape. After some trail conditioning, he completed his first 35 mile ride at H. Cooper Black in SC in the fall of 2009. He performed with ease, poise, power and confidence and proved that he could be successful in this new job. My proudest moments that year proved to be when several influential members of the endurance community noticed him and made a point to tell me that he was indeed a good looking horse and that they appreciated the way I took care of him at rides. By the end of 2010, he had completed 10 rides and we were a common sight at rides in our region. The looks from others had almost ceased and the vets knew who we were and that we were indeed a capable team. At the end of 2010, I signed Eli up for his first 55 mile endurance event.
You are going to do what? I believe there were people who doubted his ability to complete a true endurance event but I knew that Eli was ready to prove his mettle. He is a consistent machine on the trail. Our ability to maintain a steady speed throughout a ride assisted us in successfully completing this event. His body language as we headed out after 35 miles seemed to indicate that he thought I may have made a mistake but as the sun set and we finished the last loop in the dark; he rallied and trotted boldly for camp. The moment was frozen in time as we floated through the darkness and all I could hear were his hooves striking the ground. We overcame obstacles such as a thrown shoe that day and I had never been more proud of him. We passed the final trot out and all of our hard work paid off in an instant. Eli always gives me his best and demonstrates honesty in all his behaviors. Images of his win shot from the racetrack, the royal legacy of his bloodline and the indelible imprint of this long day on the trail filled my mind. Would Archie be proud of Eli for pounding out 55 miles in one day? Our accomplishment proved to be a small one in the world of AERC endurance riding but monumental for us as a team, as a partnership.
We did not stop there. Eli just got stronger and stronger on endurance distances and in 2012 we attempted and completed his first 75 mile ride in the top ten and won his second 75 mile ride. As we trotted through the dark at the Alabama Yellowhammer 75 mile ride, I was never more proud of my partnership with this grand animal. Our connection is beyond anything I’ve ever experienced with a horse and I think we are well on our way to a becoming a decade team. By the end of 2013, East Meets West had accumulated 560 Endurance Miles, and 365 LD miles. He was also honored by winning the First Annual USTA High Mileage AERC Standardbred Award for 2011.
Is he a thoroughbred? A mustang? An Anglo-Arab? Those questions are fewer now. He is a Standardbred and he belongs in this sport. Some days illustrate that he is the stronger partner in this relationship but I try to keep up with him. We head out on the trails and his ears go up as he picks up his working trot. This big racehorse that once tripped over small knolls on trail can now race through tight single track trails with little effort. His body slingshots forward with an effortless motion and his stride devours the miles. What is that horse? He is my Eli, my partner in this journey and I am thankful every day to Archie and New Vocations for giving me the opportunity to own this rare athlete. Racehorse adoption provides a real alternative to acquiring superior athletes who need to find a new occupation rather than spiraling downward at the racetrack and possibly meeting an untimely end. I look at this horse that is rippling with health and vitality and cannot imagine my life without him.
I hope that Eli can continue to inspire others to give Standardbreds an opportunity to try new sports. I know that he has made a huge impression on the SouthEast endurance community. We hope to continue to spread the word via social media, on the trails and at competitions wherever we may go. He has already been on the cover of the Village Courier magazine, he had a full article in the AERC Extra Newsletter and also an article in the Southeastern Endurance Riders Newsletter. I plan on starting a Facebook page for him in the near future and we look forward to keeping the blog updated and posting lots of videos for his fans. Our goals for 2014 include attending as many rides as we can and hopefully achieving the USTA High Mileage Standardbred for the second year.