Molly Caldwell is happiest when the wind is pulling at her hair, the terrain is gliding beneath her and when her movements are in sync with those of her horse.
Caldwell is one of only a few people in the Rome area who regularly participates in endurance riding — an equestrian sport based on controlled long-distance races.
She packs a tent and loads up a trailer and is gone for days at a time, traveling to events throughout the southeast where she and other endurance riders compete, testing themselves and their horses while enjoying the beauty of the outdoors.
“The horses’ health and well being is the most important thing we consider,” said Caldwell, who has been riding since she was 2. “Winning feels great, but I’m really out there because I love it and the horse loves to get out there and run too. We’re addicted to it.”
Caldwell, an employee at Culbreth Carr Watson Animal Clinic, is a member of the American Endurance Ride Conference, a national organization that governs endurance racing events and educational programs. Riders compete in endurance rides (50 or more miles) and limited distance rides (25-35 miles).
In endurance riding, the horse and rider are a team and the challenge is to complete the course with a horse that is “fit to continue,” which means that a panel of control judges and veterinarians supervises the horses to ensure their well being.
A horse must pass a pre-ride examination to even start an event and during each ride, there are vet checks at regular intervals.
“I’ve personally ridden a total 2,635 miles in races,” said Caldwell who has worked with 10 horses in the past, conditioning them for such races. She currently races three. “It’s a very exciting way to see different parts of the country and the world, since some people travel to different countries to compete.”
What she enjoys is the freedom and the test of her endurance and stamina, and that of her horse’s. And the conditions aren’t always ideal. Races take place in almost all weather conditions.
“It’s something you have to dedicate your life to doing if you want to do it well,” she said. “My husband knows this is my passion and he supports me… because he doesn’t have a choice.”
From her home in Shannon, Caldwell conditions her horses by taking them on regular rides and working up to endurance distances. She regularly rides on area trails such as the Pinhoti, Garland Mountain Trail System, Berry College, Dry Creek, Pigeon Mountain Wildlife Management Area and at Chickamauga Battlefield.
Then, she hops on the AERC web site and looks for races in the southeast. She has won races in Winder as well as Milton, Florida, but regularly races in North Carolina, South Carolina, Tennessee, Florida and Georgia. Her next event will be on Sept. 19 in Biltmore, North Carolina.
Caldwell said traditionally, Arabian horses have been most commonly used for endurance racing because of their speed and stamina, but she’s now seeing other breeds at the events she attends. Her horses — Gentry, Blackstar Nichi (called Bluey) and Petit Jets Legacy — are all Arabian or Arabian crosses. She loves them dearly and said the horses’ excitement and enjoyment of running through various terrain, over hills and through creeks, is obvious.
Though she admits the sport requires commitment and hard work, Caldwell encouraged others to learn more about endurance racing and to consider participating.
Whether it’s the heat of competition or the family-like camaraderie with other riders, she looks forward to her race weekends and wants others to experience that as well.
“People can visit the AERC web site at www.aerc.org and start learning about endurance racing and the different events and how to condition a horse,” she said. “They may decide that it’s something they’d like to get involved with. I’d say if someone is seriously considering it, they should go to a race, observe everything that goes on and maybe even volunteer. That’s the best way to see firsthand what all goes into endurance racing.”