Jim Lewien rides Dublin in one of the annual “Happy Jack” races held in the Medicine Bow National Forest in Wyoming.
Astride one of his Arabian horses in an endurance race, Jim Lewien's mind narrows to the trail ahead and his mount's performance. "You don't think about work, the bank, or anything like that," says the Colorado executive. "It's very hard riding, but it's very recreational, because it's very physical and you don't have the same mental element you do on the job."
Lewien, chairman of the Denver region of $22.2 billion-assets Commerce Bancshares, grew up riding the horses of an across-the-street friend. They just hacked around, but he kept that love of riding. Yet, life happened in the meantime, and the banker didn't do much more regular riding, other than working some cattle on a relative's farm. Then, about nine years ago, at 59, he discovered endurance riding and bought several young horses that could grow into good competitors.
Distances vary according to race, rider class, and time and trail available. In common to all races is that under the rules of the American Endurance Ride Conference-its motto is "To Finish Is To Win"-horses undergo checks before, during, and after a race. Lewien explains that a horse pushed too hard by a rider-or its own competitive instincts-won't "pulse down" within the time limit. This costs horse and rider some standing.
"The health of the horse is paramount," says Lewien. Typically, during the days that many events last, the rider sleeps near his horses. (Riders may ride multiple horses in a meet.) Lewien's horse trailer has a small bunk space.
Endurance races run from 15 miles to the Tevis Cup, a 100-miles in a day annual event held in the Sierras, between Auburn, Calif., and Lake Tahoe. In making these rides, Lewien says, he and fellow equestrians view beautiful western country in National Park and Bureau of Land Management lands that many never get to explore. The furthest that Lewien has competed is at the 35-mile distance.
Lewien's companions on these rides are two mares, Willa and Angelica, and a gelding, Dublin, who is his fastest mount. Lewien used to try to hold Dublin back early in a race, but the horse just loves to run and be in front. "He is just a machine," says Lewien. "He has the most personality." Lewien once got marked down, because Dublin hated to be held back and didn't "pulse down" quickly enough.
Typically, races run at a fast trot, not cantering or galloping much. Like Lewien, one in two riders use a modified Western saddle, with no saddle horn. Lewien prefers to use a hackamore-bitless steering gear that frees the horse to eat and drink during a race. Many riders prefer Arabians or part-Arabians, because they are bred for distance versus quarter-horses, which are sprinters. Lewien has seen a variety of breeds ridden, as well as mules. For himself, he wears a helmet, tight breeches designed to minimize chafing, and half-chaps to protect the lower legs.
Riding in the sport's mature division, Lewien has placed first twice, and drawn a "best condition" on finishing with Willa once.
There's much fellowship among event riders, according to Lewien, but the nights tend to be early ones, once the horses have been cooled and put away.
"When you get back from an endurance ride," says Lewien, "you sleep very well. Endurance riders are a pretty determined bunch. They don't like to quit unless the horse isn't doing well."