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Endurance and Triumph

by David Hart '13

Trampled under hoof, the Kentucky Horse Park shook as Colby-Sawyer's Katherine Gardener '15 rode toward a gold medal victory at the North American Junior and Young Rider Championship (NAJYRC) in July 2012. For most sporting events, winning times are recorded in seconds, maybe minutes. Yet Gardener set the Kentucky track's record at six hours and 11 minutes. She rides endurance, competing in 25-, 50-, 75- and even 100-mile races that keep her astride a horse for as long as 12 hours at a time.

Gardener's horse-riding career began around age 9, when she rode in local 4-H events. When she began craving more variety and competition, she turned to endurance riding. Now 20, Gardener has already racked up 2,500 miles in competition, in addition to tens of thousands in training.

The sport, developed in the 1950s and officially established in the '80s, requires riders to complete several phases of a track with stops at designated “vet gates,” akin to pit stops, before being allowed to continue. The length of time spent in exertion requires the rider to have an intimate understanding of her horse's mental and physical nuances.

“I like how involved I get to be,” Gardener says about her attraction to endurance riding. “I get to learn how to care for the horses, and how to feed them. I get to learn and do a lot more than I would just going into a ring and riding for a few minutes.”

Gardener, whose family owns and cares for horses in Coventry, R.I., trains with two-time World Endurance gold-medalist Valerie Kanavy and, for the Kentucky race, with exracehorse Big Bucks, who competed in the 2010 World Equestrian Games. “Valerie is very competitive and very serious,” Gardener explains. “I like that, because when I'm around her, I get like that, too.”

Gardener is shaping up to follow in the renowned footsteps, or hoof prints, of her mentor. To qualify for the NAJRYC 75-mile race in Kentucky, she had to complete three other Fédération Equestre Internationale (FEI) races: The 2011 Goethe Challenge in Florida; the 2012 Biltmore Challenge in North Carolina; and the 2012 Fort Howes Ride in Montana. With her victory in Kentucky, Gardener achieved the highest status possible as an FEI fourstar rider.

On her reaction to the record-setting victory, Gardener says, “I was in shock. I thought, 'Whoa! Did this really just happen?' Cameramen were all around me; I was in awe. It still hasn't fully sunk in.” Her modesty is impressive, considering that she ranks, in her division, within the country's top five endurance riders, and within the top 20 internationally.

Gardener plans to qualify for the NAJRYC race next summer, her last chance to do so, but she already has her sights set farther out. “I want to race in the FEI World Equestrian Games. It's kind of like that movie 'Hidalgo,' racing horses out in the desert, only there are no death traps or snakes attacking you.”

Given her record and passion, Gardener has the endurance to reach her goals.

David Hart is an English major and writer for College Communications.