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Adventures on the trail: Rachel Zander competes in endurance rides

Rachel Zander stands with her Arabian, Golly Zands (GZ) which she is training for equestrian endurance rides.

Rachel Zander of Dickinson never knows what to expect when she sets out on an equestrian endurance ride of 25 or even 100 miles in a single day.

The Ft. Meade Remount Ride in South Dakota on Aug. 18-19 is an example of the unexpected. “I love the Black Hills. We had a great day even with the rain and hail. I rode GZ (Golly Zands) in the 50 on Saturday, then we got rained out so we didn’t get to ride on Sunday,” she said.

She went on to thank organizer Michele Seaman for organizing the ride and to Dante LaPierre, her friend from Halliday, who joined in the ride.

Zander, 28,  is the daughter of Vicki and Keith Zander of Dickinson and  currently works as a salesperson for Pepsi.

As a member of the American Endurance Ride Conference (AERC), she considers riding as a as a hobby, and as an outlet for her love of animals.

“I grew up in town, but mom grew up on a farm at Mott and we’d spend summers out there. Grandpa was the only one in the family who had horses, so I think it came from grandpa. I loved horses so much, I had to have my own.”

Zander started out in 4-H, but riding in an arena became boring.

“Then somebody said to try endurance and I bought the Arabian,” she said.

Zander owns two horses -- a quarter horse named Doctor, and an Arabian, Golly Zands (GZ). She takes both on non-competitive  trail rides, but GZ is by far best suited for long distances.

Because GZ is still too young for attempting  the 100-mile rides, she may borrow a horse belonging to her friend, Dante.

“We may start from behind, but  throughout the day, Dante is very good at picking people off,” she said.

Arabians vs quarter horses

“Arabians are desert bred. When you look into the anatomy, they are built differently,” she said. “Their hearts are bigger, the veins are closer to the skin to cool themselves easier.  It’s fun to watch her run in a big floating trot. A quarter horse doesn’t even look the same. The Arabian’s shoulders are upright, her ribs are set differently. Quarter horses are built for short bursts of speed like for rodeos.”

Quarter horses can be  seen on the endurance rides, but not too many.

“Any breed can do it, but majority is Arabian,” she said.

“Doctor is so sweet -- we go into the Badlands, we move cattle, a friend is coming to ride him this evening,” she said. “Doctor will go down the trail, but he doesn’t have an ambition to go 50 miles -- ever. Golly -- she’s the opposite.  She greets you at the gate in the pasture because she wants to go to work. I actually have to pace her. I have to tell her you’re new to this and we’ll build up to the 100s over four years. It takes that long to build up the bones, tendons and ligaments. She did a 35 in June and did a 50 miler in July. At Sturgis we’ll try our second 50 -- we’ll see how she does. There’s some days when you’re prepared and times you don’t finish -- sometimes I get pulled -- maybe the horse is lame, or is not eating and the vet thinks there’s something wrong.”


Even Arabians must train for a 100-mile ride.

“It’s kind of like if you’re an ultra-marathon runner -- runners who run 50 to 100 miles. We are similar to them. When GZ came off the track (in California), she already had some distance training, but I started her slow -- 6-8 miles walking, more trotting, then I added cantering. When she’s good at that, I start adding distance -- 10 miles, 14 miles, 20 miles. When she’s good at 20 miles, I’ll start going faster, more trotting. more cantering. We call it long/slow distance -- you never build distance and speed at the same time.”

No matter the distance, the trail format has similarities -- the horses go at different speeds, they may walk, stop for water or eat grass.

Zander has learned to “read” her horses.

“We spend so much time with them -- why isn’t she eating, maybe her gait doesn’t feel right. Then there’s the mandatory vet checks,” she said.

Zander is among the few equestrian endurance riders in western North Dakota. She knows of one other in Minot, a couple in Bismarck, a friend in Scranton and her friend in Halliday -- maybe half a dozen all together. A majority of the riders come from states like Minnesota or  Wisconsin which has numerous state parks, and the warmer states like California. Arizona, Nevada and Texas.

The trails vary, depending on the terrain -- and that’s what’s fun about the sport. For example, Minnesota offers a lot of single tracks with trees, while Wyoming is more open with two tracks.

“Out west, it seems the tracks are more open and we  move faster. In Wisconsin, the trees slow us down a bit.”.

Goals to meet

Having participated in equestrian endurance rides for six years, she  still has goals to meet. One goal was achieved -- riding Dante’s Arabian, King,  in the 100-miler in the Big Horn Mountains of Wyoming -- described as the toughest ride in North America. Contestants started at 4 a.m., and finished  close to midnight. For Zander, it was 11:50 p.m. -- a time that put her in fourth place.

“It was dark and there was a storm going on one side and no moon. I turned on my head lamp and realized we’re walking on a trail with a drop off,” she said.  “We do ride with headlamps just in case. I try not to turn on the lamp because it messes up the horse’s vision.”

Another goal is to participate in the Western States Trail Ride -- commonly called the Tevis Cup Ride. It’s a 100-mile, one-day ride in the Sierra Nevada Mountains of California.

“We’re hoping for next summer,” she added.

While Zander is concerned about nourishment for her horse, she’s less inclined to eat herself.

“I will  carry granola bars and lots of water. If there’s no natural water, they put water out for our use,” she said. “If your horse doesn’t stop to eat grass , they can get colic. We alway say if they’re not eating, something is wrong. Sometimes I’ll even get off and take the bridal off and let her eat. If all they want to do is go, go go, and don’t take care of themselves they’ll never build up for a 100 mile ride.”

The endurance participants soon become friends and help each other out.

“If your horse is struggling, I’ve had people stop,” she said. “I do the same thing. We help each other out all the time -- we all want happy, healthy horses.”

The prizes for a ride are perhaps a silver cup or merchandise -- maybe a hat or a cooler (coat) to cover a horse while it cools down after a competition.  She’s also won a pair of buckets, a scoop and a couple of Renegade hoof boots.


Horses are first

Zander boards her horses at stables east of Dickinson and goes out every day to feed them. Sally Henry, who owns the stables, said Zander is well educated on her feeding program.

“She really knows what food and what supplements to put into them, especially for the endurance racing. She works full time, but comes out every evening. When a ride is coming up, she puts on 12 to 18 miles in one evening to get ready. If she runs out of time to ride her quarter horse, she’ ll do  lunge line training with him. She’s very committed to having her horses always being healthy and fit.”

Henry observed Zander compete in the Maah Daah Hey ride in the Badlands last year. “Everyone commented that Rachel is always the  one who has a smile on her face. When I pick out a birthday card, I tell her she’s my sunshine -- that’s her personality,” Henry said.

Zander’s next ride is a 100 miller in two weeks near Basin, Wyo. She plans to ride King again. Her riding  goal?

“Like always, I’d like to finish,” she said.

The sport of endurance riding is promoted by the AERC. It’s mission is to maintain ride records, provide awards,  ensure sanctioned events are safe, and monitor the horses’ physical and emotional well being. To learn more about endurance riding, visit