Watching the 2004 movie "Hidalgo" changed Keith Kibler's life.

The movie told the story of the hardships endured by a cowboy, portrayed by Viggo Mortensen, and his horse, Hidalgo, during a long distance race across the North African desert. The movie inspired him to take up the sport of endurance horse racing.

"I had done over 80 triathlons and had accomplished about what I wanted to accomplish at that," Kibler said. "I thought I'd take a year off from punishing myself at that and spend some time with my wife and her horses.

"What really appeared to me was the relationship between the cowboy and his horse. I thought it would be fun to compete at something where you had more of a relationship than with your bike."

So, after a bit of research, Kibler decided to give endurance racing a shot.

Immediately, he discovered there was another parallel between the movie and real life.

In the movie, Mortensen rode an American mustang, a horse that many believed unsuited to the rigors of a long-distance race. Kibler, and his wife, Sandy, compete on Tennessee Walking Horses and Missouri Foxtrotters. Most endurance racers ride Arabians.

"I showed up at my first race, a 50-mile race, in May of 2005 and was told I was on the wrong kind of horse and should go home," he said. "They asked if I could really sit on a horse for 50 miles. An ironman is about 140 miles, so I thought I could. I had just completed my second one of those, and didn't know if I wanted to do that any more."

The races are sanctioned by the American Endurance Ride Conference. About 92-93 percent of the competitors ride Arabians, a fact that piqued Kibler's curiosity.

"It made me wonder whether a gaited horse could do endurance," he said. "And, that's what I sought to find out. I used both the training techniques and training tools from my triathlon background to train the horse because I didn't know any better. Not only did it work, but it worked very well."

There is a real advantage to riding the gaited horses.

"To ride an Arabian horse for 50 of 100 miles, you have to have really strong legs and a strong back because you're jumping up and down," Kibler said. "Our horses are so smooth you don't have to do that. The saddles we use are cushioned. The one my wife has has a webbing in it. It's kind of like riding in an easy chair."

The Kiblers race nine different horses. In their five years they've had 47 races, 29 top-10 finishes and five best of condition awards.

"The best of condition award is the top honor in this sport," Kibler said. "It's a combination of where you place, the weight of the rider and how the veterinarians have scored the horses before the race, at each vet stop, at the end of the race and an hour after the race."

The presence of veterinarians is where real life deviates from the movie. At the end of Hidalgo, viewers weren't sure the horse would survive. The horses are monitored carefully in AERC events.

"Usually for a 50-mile race you'll have a stop at about 20 miles and another at 35 miles," Kibler said. "They're like pit stops in NASCAR, but they're vet stops. The vets check the horses. It's a very safe sport for the horses. You have 30 minutes for the horse's heart rate to drop. If it doesn't drop in time, you're disqualified. They watch the horses very carefully.

"The motto of the AERC is ‘To finish is to win.' You have to get it done (50-mile race) in 12 hours. That includes the vet stop time, and the vet stop time is around an hour. Your moving time is about 10 hours."

He said a top caliber horse can average about 12.5 miles per hour in a 50-mile race.

The nearest AERC races are held in Salem.

For more information on the sport, or gaited horses, go to www.shawneesunrisefarm.net.

 

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