Spring has come early to these parts, and with it the itch to get out and about. After a two month rest during the heart of winter, the Dark Mare is working on getting legged up for what will hopefully be a full season of competitive trail riding. My big goal is to successfully complete the 80th anniversary three day 100 mile ride at the Green Mountain Horse Association (GMHA) in South Woodstock, VT, in September, the centerpiece of its Distance Days weekend.
Lee and I completed this ride in 2015, both of us rookies to the sport. It was singularly one of the most amazing and rewarding experiences that I have ever had with one of my horses, and I have been able to meet so many enthusiastic, helpful and fun people as a result of the training and preparation that went into it.
The 100 mile ride is the marquee event of the festival of trail riding that is Distance Days. There is truly something for everyone; if you enjoy amazing scenery, challenging trails, the camaraderie of fellow trail riding enthusiasts and the opportunity to pursue personal goals, Distance Days is for you.
Here are five reasons why YOU should plan to ride at the GMHA Distance Days.
1) Become a part of history.
The GMHA 100 Mile ride is, as ride manager Chelle Grald describes it, “the granddaddy of them all”. Begun by the fledgling GMHA organization in 1936, the ride initially was held in Rutland, VT, just over fifty miles away from its current home in South Woodstock. It was the first ride of its kind, and it remains the oldest distance ride in the US, predating the famous Tevis Cup endurance ride by nineteen years. It has run every year without interruption, with the exception of 2011 (you may remember a little storm called “Irene”, which blew through just before the ride weekend, leaving a good chunk of Vermont underwater….).
GMHA was founded as an “altruistic organization” for the purpose of encouraging the breeding and use of horses in the state of Vermont, as well as to develop a system of bridle trails throughout the state. In its early years, over one thousand miles of trails were marked, traversing from the Massachusetts state line in the south to the Canadian border. Dues in the early years were just $2.00, which included a subscription to their magazine.
The 100 mile ride quickly became the highlight of the organization’s annual calendar. Part social event and part horsemanship demonstration, riders came from as far away as Indiana and Virginia in the early years; some riders actually RODE to the ride, covering over three hundred miles before the competition even had begun. Riders ran the gamut—children as young as nine were known to complete the ride, and men and women alike delighted in the thrill and challenge. Mrs. Fletcher Harper, a passionate foxhunter, won the 100 mile ride riding side saddle.
All manner of horses have successfully completed the GMHA 100 mile ride—Welsh ponies, mules, Thoroughbreds, Morgans, grade crosses, and of course, the now ubiquitous Arabians. Families would line the route to cheer on the riders; for many of these non-equestrians, it was THE social event of the summer. In its heyday, the ride had hundreds of entrants and a wait list.
Distance Days represents the opportunity to participate in a piece of living history, to add your name to an ever growing list of riders (and horses) who tackled the challenge of traversing the rugged and beautiful terrain of the Kedron Valley.
2) Short Rides, Medium Rides and Team Events
You are quite probably reading this right now and thinking, “well, that sounds pretty amazing, but 100 miles is a LOOONG way.” You are totally right. Maybe you aren’t up for that challenge quite yet….
And that is why Distance Days offers more than just the 100 mile ride. There will be five other ride lengths for competitive trail riders: 15, 25, 35, 40, and 60 miles. The 60 mile is a two day ride, but the other rides are all one day long. The entrants on these rides will be sharing the trail with the 100 milers, and so if you and your horse aren’t up to the rigors of the full 100 miles, you can still get a taste of the ride on these shorter routes.
The 100 mile ride covers the 40 mile WHITE trail on day one, the 35 mile RED trail on day two and the 25 mile BLUE trail on day three. These trails cover terrain in the towns of Woodstock, Reading, Hartland, West Windsor and Hartford, and visit such historic and classic Vermont landmarks as the Marsh Billings Rockefeller National Historic Park and the Taftsville Covered Bridge.
Another aspect of Distance Days that is super cool is that the ride management has come up with a unique idea for this 80th anniversary weekend: the 100 mile team relay. There are several options, but basically 2-3 riders can make up a team, and by completing the requisite combination of shorter rides, can collectively complete the 100 mile distance. Special awards will be given to the team with the best average score over all their rides. If one rider were very ambitious but didn’t have one horse that could do all 100 miles, they could do each chunk of the distance on a different horse, or do 2/3 on one and the rest on another.
See, you could be a 100 mile rider yet!
3) Non Competitive Fun
Competitive trail riding is sort of unique among horse sports, because you really and truly are competing against yourself; rather, you are trying to use all of your horsemanship expertise to bring home a horse that is no worse for the wear after covering your chosen distance. Horses all start with a perfect score, and at the end of the ride, they are compared to their starting condition. Points are deducted for negative changes.
But some people really just aren’t into competing, and that is totally ok—Distance Days has something for them, too! CTR requires travelling at a faster pace than what many recreational trail riders might choose, and this could be another good reason to go with the Pleasure Ride option held on Distance Days weekend instead.
Pleasure rides will be offered on Friday, Saturday and Sunday of Distance Days. You can do any and all combinations of day(s). On Friday and Saturday, riders can choose from short (6-8 miles), medium (12-15 miles) or long (20 miles) options. On Sunday, riders can pick from 6 or 10 mile options.
Horses and riders which finish the entire weekend’s worth of long options (so 50 miles total) will complete the 50 Mile Pleasure Horse Challenge, and will be recognized at the Sunday awards ceremony.
4) Stunning Scenery
Let’s be honest—there aren’t too many places which can beat Vermont in the late summer when it comes to stunning views, the hint of fall color and crisp, clear air.
The Kedron Valley is an especially picturesque region of the state, with many classic New England style farm houses and barns, stunning estates, covered bridges and burbling brooks. Trails in the area are a combination of the quintessential Vermont dirt road and wooded routes.
And of course, there are the hills. No one will deny that a horse and rider must have a certain degree of fitness to handle them. The route covered during the Distance Days weekend tackles several of the most rigorous in the area, including Cookie Hill and Heartbreak Hill, for a few. But the reward for the climb to the summit is often a panoramic, expansive view, hearkening back to a time when horses were the dominant mode of transportation and the ‘conveniences’ of the modern era were far in the future.
5) Friendship, Sportsmanship, Horsemanship and Love
The themes of “friendship, sportsmanship, horsemanship and love” are the dominant motivations for most of those who choose to tackle a challenge such as the three day 100 mile ride. Grald has decided to highlight the significance of each of these important values in the commemorative Distance Days Program, which will be given to all entrants. Included in the program will be vignettes from riders past and present, photos and even the recipe for the tasty Cookie Hill chocolate chip cookies.
Distance Days will feature several opportunities to socialize as well as to honor the contributions of the volunteers and landowners, without whose generosity these sorts of experiences would not be possible. The 100 Mile Banquet will be a fancy affair, to be held at the Woodstock Country Club and chaired by longtime Woodstock resident Mrs. Nancy Lewis, who rode in the 1946 100 mile ride. A special presentation by historian and author Dale Johnson at the banquet will spotlight the role of the historic Woodstock Inn Stables in the early years of the ride. Riders have a chance to thank landowners for their support at the catered BBQ on Friday, allowing a fun and informal opportunity to share memories and fun. Between the finish and awards ceremony on Sunday, 100-mile alumni will gather for a Longtimer’s Reunion. Finally, Sunday’s awards ceremony will follow the traditional catered brunch.
This ride has given many future endurance riders their first taste of serious distance riding, and has taught them the fundamentals of good horsemanship that these sister sports require. Judges Dr. Nick Kohut (current president of the Eastern Competitive Trail Riding Association) and Linda Ferguson Glock will bring their extensive experience as riders, organizers and volunteers to the weekend. Dr. Joan Hiltz will work with riders on the 15 mile ride. Each step of the way, horses are closely monitored by their own riders but also by these experienced horsemen, to ensure that the animals’ care and well-being remain of the highest priority.
In spite of its legacy, rides like the GMHA 100 mile can only continue to flourish with the support of riders who are interested in participating in the shorter distance events which run concurrently with it. With continued loss of open space to train, amongst other issues, fewer and fewer riders have the time or inclination to commit themselves to preparing a horse for such a rigorous challenge as a 100 mile ride. Events like Distance Days are incredibly important, because they draw together all of the diverse types of rider who are ultimately united through their love of horses and “riding out”.
If this blog has piqued your interest, you can learn more about Distance Days at its website, https://www.gmhainc.org/trails/, or follow on Facebook at https://www.facebook.com/GmhaDistanceDays/?fref=ts