Long before the sun breaks the horizon, Helenan Julie Muscutt is up feeding her horse a high protein mash with electrolytes. She fills a water bowl and heads back to bed. Muscutt says, “Just like marathon runners, horses need to hydrate.”
Her alarm buzzes and she’s back outside in the dark, strapping on a saddle. The horizon is burning red and her horse snorts in anticipation for the ride to come. She’s preparing for the seventh annual Pioneer Cabin Endurance Race, which is a two-day event on the Dagnell Ranch off Lincoln Road. She is one of several locals competing in the endurance race, which draws people from around the state and as far away as Calgary.
Over two days, 40 people competed in endurance races, including 50-mile races, a 25-mile race, a 30-mile race and fun rides.
The 50-mile course is composed of two 15-mile laps, one 12-mile lap and one 8-mile lap. After each lap, the riders and their horses take a 45-minute break while veterinarians check the horses’ vitals, such as cardiovascular, skin tenting and gut sounds.
Muscutt says it’s all about the horse. “It’s really fun; it’s a thrill,” she says. “There isn’t a dress code, no political hype, none of that. Come be friendly and take care of your horse. If you don’t take care of your horse, you’ll get a bad rap really quick. If you don’t take care of your horse you won’t get along with these people.”
As the sun beams across the wide Canyon Creek valley, the 50-mile riders let their reins down and head off across the dry landscape, kicking up dust streaked by rays of light.
Half an hour later, the crimson sunrise is disappearing and the camp is becoming more active. The remaining riders and their horses, Muscutt included, are warming up for the 30-mile limited distance race.
“I wanna be saddled 30 minutes before the start and just warm up slowly,” Muscutt says.
Throughout camp, horses and their riders stir up dust practicing sharp turns and short jaunts. The course to come is a combination of rocks, steeps, forest and wide open plains.
The race official makes the five-minute warning. Muscutt and her fellow competitors line the start.
With the drop of an arm the riders let their reins loose, kick their heels and let their horses do the rest. The dust they stir is a golden yellow and before long they disappear into the trees at the far side of the plain.
“I don’t really enjoy doing these (endurance) races,” Jerry Keck, the official time-keeper, says. “I enjoy trail rides. But I go along (with wife Anne Perkins) and be the crew.”
He’s there because of the sense of community. The ride camp is full of families, who have been traveling together, riding and competing all across the country. The Pioneer Cabin Race is the sixth race of the season for Keck and Perkins. They went to one in Ashland, one near Park City, Utah, and one in Otto, Wyo. There’s even a mother and daughter duo, the Janzes, who have traveled from Calgary and will travel all the way to Utah.
Muscutt comes down the last stretch of her first lap and comes into camp. Keck marks down her time.
“You can go all over the country and go to all these rides. (The event organizers) provide your camping, provide your landowner permissions, provide your vets … all for $60,” explains Muscutt. “It’s cool!”
Her horse is tethered to the side of her trailer after being checked out by the vets and drinking from the watering tank. There’s a special connection between a rider and a horse. It’s symbiotic.
“When you do 50 or 75 miles, it takes quite a partnership between you and your horse,” says Jeff Patterson, owner of Willow Bend Farm, a training facility outside of Missoula.
Patterson explains that horses sense your feelings. If you are nervous or irritable, the horse will behave similarly. He warns that if you go riding with a bad attitude, you’ll probably come home in a worse mood because the horse won’t respond in the way you wanted.
Relationships also go beyond just the rider and their horse. On the trail, people naturally ride in tandem.
“A lot of it has to do with the camaraderie with my friends,” Amy Palmer explains. “(But) riding in groups is also a safety issue. The horses will be more comfortable in a group than by themselves.
“(The people competing) are often women in their midlife, pursuing their dream of endurance riding,” Palmer says. “This sport allows them a lot of freedom to get out in the field and experience some speed. And there aren’t a lot of sports women can get that feeling.”
Muscutt goes back on the trail, riding alongside her friend Bobbi Walker. They talk and laugh, but she’s constantly looking 10 feet ahead, keeping her eyes peeled out for gopher holes.
“You’re not on a flat trail,” she says. “There are rocks, trees and ravines.”
Her speed varies. When she’s climbing, she puts her weight up over the front of her horse, making sure it can keep its balance and not slip. When she can see 100 feet ahead, she’s in a full trot. And at times, she’s not moving at all, allowing her horse a moment to drink from the occasional watering hole.
The day wanes down and Muscutt constantly checks her horse. Even though there are vets on scene, it’s up to her to know how how her horse is feeling.
“There’s a saying, ‘EDPP — Eating, drinking, pooping, peeing.’ If they stop eating, drinking, pooping or peeing, then your horse is in trouble,” she says.
That’s the communal theme. It’s all about the horse. Without the horse you wouldn’t be going anywhere.
“It’s invaluable,” says Patterson, when asked what it means to him to be able to go out and ride in the mountains of Montana. “In this sport, to finish is to win.”
Muscutt won the Sunday’s 30-mile limited distance race in a time of 4 hours and 17 minutes, crowning her the AHA Regional Competitive Trail Champion.
Saturday, Sept. 8 results:
50-mile endurance — 1, Kay R. Johnston on EJM Summer Rain; 2, Mary Ellen Prince on Diablo; 3, Elizabeth Dagnall on Roses April Rain and AHA Regional Half-Arab Endurance Champion; 4, Darlene Peterson on Raffizs Yahtzi; 5, Anne Perkins on Jameel; 6, Walter Benhardus on Capture; 7, Trina Lenmark on Taroka Daz’I; 8, Jean Keffeler on Cholima; 9, Katlyn Janz on Houdini; 10, Laurie Janz on ESP Classic Moment
25-mile limited distance — 1, Jeffery Patterson on Cowboy Cody Mone; 2, Jacob Zirbel on Allelujah Morn; 3; Herb Bingham on Tezeros Impster; 4, Bill Miller on Raffons Noble Dancer; 5, Ira Hickman on Cruiser; 6, Marie Suthers on Buttercup; 7, David Schneider on Abdaar D Apollo; 8, Natalie Schneider on YV Arion; 9, Laine Gillard on Rosie; 10, Curtis Freeman on Ruger
Sunday, Sept 9 results:
50-mile endurance — 1, Deborah Chapman on Majik Tsage; 2, Jennifer Kaplan on Rushcreek Oats, Best Condition; 3, Kay R. Johnston on DeKhapprio KF
25-mile limited distance — 1, Julie Muscutt on Satin Image AZ AHA Regional Competitive Trail Champion; 2, Bobbi Walker on Kenlyn Exotica, Best Condition; 3, Jean Keffeler on Summit Rose; 4, Marie Suthers on Buttercup; 5, Judy Bishop on Mi Lan; 6, McKenzie Homan on Gracie; 7, Anne Perkins on Shiloh