It was a ride that reminded them of what cowboys must have faced during cattle drives when they had no choice. Southeast Junior High School 8th grader Skylar Zortz, her mentor and their horses finished a 50-mile race this past weekend despite thunder, lightning and flash flooding.
“The last part of it was kind of crazy,” Zortz said when looking back on the ride.
At 7:30 p.m. on Saturday July 2, 12 riders started the 50-mile Owl Hoot Trail Endurance Race held northwest of Vinita, Oklahoma.
Being under 14 years of age, Zortz rides with a mentor — neighbor Wendy Justice.
"I think some of the appeal for endurance riding is that people of all ages can do it," Justice said. "It is an Olympic sport. If you really like to ride you get to spend hours riding and you get to see parts of the country through parks and conservation areas that a lot of people may never see. We get to see up close and in the middle of national forests or red-dirt canyons like out at Kanopolis State Park."
Nearing the end of her second year riding, Zortz now has more than 400 miles of riding in endurance races and said a 50-mile ride normally takes them between five and half to seven hours during the day, or seven to nine hours at night.
The race this past weekend took them 11 and a half hours, and only six riders would go on to finish, including Zortz.
The race took part on two trails – a yellow loop and a red loop. Zortz said they rode the yellow loop then the red loop, then had a veterinarian check to make sure the horses were doing okay. They then rode the same pattern again — yellow then red loop, followed by another vet check. To that point, through the first 38 miles, everything was pretty good. But they knew that could change at any minute.
“When the race first started we got to see that the clouds were rolling in but then it got dark before we could really see it," Zortz said. "We were just kind of going off if you could see the stars or not to know if the cloud cover was coming in.”
Zortz’s dad, Bryan, was back at the barn waiting for the race to finish. Her mom, Amy, had stayed home in Weir, Kansas and was wide awake, spending the night obsessively watching the weather radar.
“They knew the storm was coming, they just didn’t know when it was coming,” Amy said.
At that last veterinarian checkpoint, at about 3:45 a.m. on Sunday morning, they only had to ride the yellow loop one last time – 12 miles.
It was decision time.
"I gave her (Skylar) the option to quit the race at 38 miles like several of the adults did and she was brave enough to finish what she started," Justice said. "In fact, several adults quit at that point. It may have been foolish and or risky to continue, but we had a choice. I also mentioned that this would be serious and riding at our own risk to finish, and she didn't hesitate. Off we went on a mission."
“We were hoping that we were going to be done and be in the trailer by the time it started pouring, but that didn’t happen whatsoever,” Zortz said, laughing as she thought back on it.
While three riders were ahead of them, Zortz, her mentor, and another rider rode together the rest of the way.
“It started raining when we were getting ready to leave so we put our rain coats on — we didn’t have our rain pants with us but that wouldn’t have helped anyway,” Zortz said. “At first, it was really windy and that was freaking out the horses because everything was flapping around. I didn’t have my raincoat that fit me so I had a big one and I was flapping out everywhere and freaking out Safire and I just had to hold it tight next to me.”
"We approached it one mile at a time and had to ride on point and flawless at a steady pace until we succeeded in completing," Justice said. "Twelve miles might as well have felt like we rode 20 miles though instead."
That 12-mile loop was made up of rolling hills, woodland and pasture areas, and a bridge that crossed a creek. The first two times through the bridge was fine. That third time, however, the bridge was covered with water.
"The lightning, high wind and rain made the horses spooky and uneasy at times, which was more challenging to keep them on track and not come off," Justice said. "Also with flash flooding in areas we had to go through tributaries that were overflowing and small wooden bridges with water going over in the dark."
“It was just, like, white water everywhere," Zortz said.
Zortz added they had been caught in rain, lightning and thunder before while riding, but it was nothing like what they saw in Vinita.
“We were in pitch black, the horses were freaking out, we were just trying to keep a steady pace to get done,” Zortz said. “We were worried about the lightning and the thunder. We had a couple of strikes that were overhead. Because it was pitch black outside and we were using headlamps you could barely see 5 feet ahead of you because of the rain. When the lightning would strike; everything would light up and it was like it was daytime again.”
"We actually had to swim an area that was flooding in the pasture from the creek to get to the finish line," Justice said.
“The last of it just kind of came in like a monsoon with rain — it was bad," Zortz said.
"The worst part of the storm was hearing the thunder, seeing the lightning crack over our heads, and the rain was so hard at times it felt like hail or needles hitting us in the face," Justice said. "The horses put their heads down and charged head long right through it. They never questioned our judgement with any obstacle despite everything."
At 6:54 a.m. on Sunday morning, after 3 1/2 inches of rain during that last loop, Zortz and the other women finished.
“It’s never that long,” Zortz said. “I was so soaked, when I took my boots off, when I turned them upside down pretty much my whole boot was filled with water.”
"Even though Skylar was exhausted, she vetted her horse for Best Conditioned Animal of the race and won," Justice said. "Most people were too miserable from the weather to make an effort to vet their horse for Best Condition, but Skylar stuck with it and got it done.
"It definitely was an experience that won't be forgotten. I am certain it built much character for Skylar. I also imagined that cowboys that used to drive cattle in the west must have experienced things like this when they had no choice or option for shelter when the weather was bad."