By Joseph Robertia
“Endurance sport” plus “animals” in Alaska usually means dog mushing. And that’s true for Iditarod veteran Jane Adkins. But for the past five years, it’s also meant horse riding.
While there is no shortage of rodeo events for horse enthusiasts around the state, Adkins has instead spent her mushing “offseason” participating in endurance-themed equestrian challenges that hold a similar appeal as covering 1,000 miles by dog team.
“I’m drawn to endurance, I think, because I’m not fast. I’m slow, but I can complete things,” she said.
But she’s not a huge fan of having to travel long distances to participate in long-distance races. So she organized the Midnight Sun Challenge endurance ride in Nikiski on Saturday.
Seeing others participate in competitive trail-riding events around the state, such as the Challenge of the North in Fairbanks and the Bald Mountain Butt Buster in the Wasilla area, Adkins decided to provide an opportunity to saddle up on the Kenai Peninsula.
The Midnight Sun Challenge covered 30 miles in a series of loops through the woods off of the Escape Route Road, and there was a 12-mile event for those not quite trained up to the full distance. There was a maximum time limit of six hours to finish, which Adkins said should be more than enough time for teams trotting at an average speed of 5 miles per hour.
“The horses had to be in good condition, but this being our first year, we wanted to keep things small, simple and low key so we could evaluate everything along the way. We tried to make it easy on the riders and horses, so it’s mostly flat trail and we’ve done what we could to avoid mud,” she said.
Trail conditions were one of the biggest question marks of organizing the event. As it turned out, golden leaves covered the soggy earth, a thick fog lingered low and cool, damp rain fell on the horses and riders, but as late-September weather conditions go, it was still a good day for a horse ride.
“The weather plays such a factor because rain can turn the trails to snot,” Adkins said.
While not an official American Endurance Ride Conference Competitive Trail Ride event, Adkins organized it in similar fashion, though without the points, but still placing precedence on care of the animals.
Typically, horses ride together and are evaluated at the finish and at various checkpoints along the way. Judges look at the rider’s horsemanship and veterinary factors.
“We do baseline checks when they come in to evaluate their pulse rate, respiration and temperature. Then we check them again 30 minutes later to evaluate their recovery rate,” said head veterinarian Gerald Nybakken.
Horses that don’t “pulse down” after 30 minutes to a heartbeat of less than 64 beats per minute are not allowed to continue.
Adkins said that conditioning horses for endurance events in Alaska is tougher than in the Lower 48 due to the shorter riding season this far north, but she was impressed by how well all the horses did in the event.
“We all put in a lot of training miles to accomplish this. Rebekah Bennett (who placed third), of Sterling, passed 500 miles for the year, and I was close behind her (in overall miles for the season),” Adkins said.
Bennett was happy with her performance, especially since this was her first endurance event, completed on a horse she’s only had for about a year.
“This was our first time going that fast and that far, but she did really well. We did interval training — longer slow runs and shorter faster runs — all summer. It was still really challenging to compete, but I liked it and would do it again,” she said.
Hara Hansen, of Nikiski, said the event was somewhat of a cathartic experience, having lost a close family friend, Ann Krogseng, in a four-wheeler accident just days before.
“It was one of the longest rides I’ve done. It was beautiful. I had four hours of nature to think about Ann and all she meant to me and our community,” she said.
Hansen said that the time on the trail allowed her to explore the recesses of not just her own mind, but also her horse’s.
“I’ve used her for vaulting, jumping, arena work, hunting, but this was so different. Her body was conditioned but she doesn’t have the mind for this yet,” Hansen said.
Part of the problem was that her horse, typically a fast walker, is used to being out front. However, as some horses moved faster and paced Hansen, her horse struggled with not being in the lead.
“She got anxious with other horses passing, so we’ll have to work on that,” she said.
That participants want to return next season is exactly what Adkins wanted to hear, since she’d like to turn the event into an annual occurrence.
“Hopefully everyone learned a lot for next year,” Adkins said.
Midnight Sun Challenge 30 mile:
1st, Susan Dent; 2nd, Jane Adkins; 3rd, Rebekah Bennett. Withdrew, Alys Culhane, Dan Hansen and Hara Hansen.
Midnight Sun Challenge 12 mile:
1st, Jayne Hempstead and Katie King.