Pictured: Kat Irvine on her new horse, Time to Shine (Sunny)
Spruce Woods Provincial Park south of Brandon, Manitoba is one of my favourite endurance venues. Trails run for miles through semi-arid terrain, featuring mixed-grass prairie and shifting sand dunes. Occasionally, you come across unlikely plants and strange creatures like the hognose snake. It has oases of spruce trees fed by natural streams, aged oaks, and deciduous riverbank forests. Spruce Woods is a mixture of natural contrasts and Canada’s best kept secret. It also has a special spirit that draws me back again and again.
It had been two years since I completed my last endurance ride. After a series of non-completions, RO’s, injuries, and non-compliant horses, I’d finally partnered up with a bay gelding, Time To Shine (Sunny).
On Thursday evening, Dee Ans, my traveling partner/driver/crew and I pulled into Spruce Woods horse camp just after dusk. Darice Whyte greeted us with a more than jolly welcome. She had just come from a group on the other side of camp who were having a wonderful time. We couldn’t join them because by the time we set up camp and bed down Sunny, it was well past our bedtime. We crashed.
Friday was rest day for Sunny, but not for us. After a quick greeting with other riders and organizing committee, our little team organized camp with Sunny as the center of attention.
Interestingly, as the day rolled on, the atmosphere of a normal endurance event took on a different culture. The area where we were parked was filling with recreational riders – and drivers. An assortment of paints, ponies, Fjords, fat black Percherons, and minis. Wagons, carts and buggies populated every available corner. The most alarming conveyance was a rubber tired, flat-deck with bolted down school bus seats. Later we saw it with people whose riding days were obviously behind them. Someone should have considered seat belts so the former riders didn’t end up behind the flat deck.
It was luxurious to wake up in time for a 9 AM start LD. I had lots of time to give Sunny a nice easy warm up.
Start was relaxed and if I had any idea about riding with my friends Jessica and Abby Manness I was delusional. They disappeared in a puff of dust. Abby, a Junior Rider, was riding her new horse Red Haat Stingray. She had done a good part of the training of this horse herself. Her mom rode their solid role model, Justess. I didn’t see them until awards.
One spunky pony was ridden by seven-year-old Elsie. Elsie has her horse in Pony Club and together they have learned many riding skills, including jumping. Her dad, Peter Garn, escorted Elsie and Ginger down the trail on foot for a few hundred yards. But, as happens in the case of spunky ponies, Ginger was more interested in going home to her buddies and left Elsie behind. Elsie showed no sign of giving up and, in the true spirit and tenacity of endurance, mounted up and got going onto the trail.
My start wasn’t as exciting, thank goodness. After some calming conversation with Dee, Sunny and I headed out behind the bunch. I must admit I was more than a little nervous not knowing how my new pony would react to horses trotting off ahead of him, behind him, or nowhere at all, but he was calm and eager. During the next few hours he dealt with normal trail conditions sensibly.
Almost. Around about midafternoon the horse drawn conveyances emerged. They came toward us. Sunny’s head lifted way above his withers. His ears shot forward capturing every sound, processing for danger. The drivers in carts politely waited for us, looking at us, smiling. I got the feeling Sunny would rather be bolting down the trail. After all, they were minis – with carts!
As we went by them Sunny made a little scoot, and we shot down the trail on our way to the finish line. Sunny finished well, 4:15.
Elsie finished in good time, 6:00 under the wire.
Abby finished in 3:00.
Hi-five to Juniors. The spirit of Spruce Woods was with us all.
Kat Irvine started endurance riding in 1988. Since then she has completed 6,000 competitive miles. Eventually she started competing at an international level with Federation Equestre Internationale (FEI). The FEI qualifying competitions in Canada and US eventually qualified her and her horse, Nightwinds Savanah, for the World Equestrian Games in France.
She likes to write stories and finds endurance rides inspiring.