My plan was simple – in 1989, go to a few races for preparation, then take Rio to the North American Championship in Canada. Unfortunately, I was diagnosed with a degenerating disk at the end of 1988, so we modified the plan to have a friend ride Rio. At the first ride of the season, Rio took a bad step and strained his suspensory ligament. At that point I decided to rest him for 6 months so we could both recover. During the last half of 1989 and all of 1990, leading up to Sweden, I swam, worked out with weights and the Stairmaster machine. When I would get bored, I would imagine Rio winding deftly through the woods in Sweden. I would think about all the miles he had carried me without complaint. I only had to swim one mile, do 30 minutes on the Stairmaster! He went 50 or 100 miles every ride – but – he never seemed bored and certainly never complained.
In addition to working out, I started taking riding lessons. Over the years, I had developed some bad habits, some of which hurt my back. Centered Riding, developed by Sally Swift, gave me new riding techniques that made riding much easier on my body. The program worked so well for me that I become a Centered Riding instructor and have taught clinics to endurance riders all over the world.
With my new riding techniques, I entered a 75 mile ride near the end of 1989. Rio and I were both ready – he won the ride and I was not sore the next day – a 1st for me.
Rio’s conditioning was carefully planned. He performed best on 100’s when he competed in a 50 race about three weeks prior to the 100. The competition of a race is the best conditioning. The horse gets caught up in racing and works harder that he ever will on a conditioning ride. The adrenaline flows and the 50 mile distance helps them peak for the 100 mile distance. Because Sweden required a 60 day quarantine for all horses in their home country before being allowed to enter the country, Rio could not compete in a race, so we decided to put in one long training ride of 40 miles. At the 20 mile point I was to give Rio a vet check by taking his pulse, respiration, checking his mucous membranes and hydration. I let him have a 30 minute rest, and some hay and grass, before going on. Rio was not happy about going out the second time. After all, what was the point? In his opinion, he had done his workout, and quite willingly, even though he was alone. It was obvious to me that he considered this to be horse torture. “Rio,” I said, as my mother used to say to me, “You will do this workout and you will enjoy it.” When he saw we really were going repeat it again he sighed and got on with it. By the time we finished he was tired and ready for his massage and dinner.
After this workout, Rio got a few days off, just as he would if he had done a race. When we resumed his regular training schedule his renewed vigor assured me we had been on the right track with the extra long ride.
By the time we left for Sweden, Rio and I were in the best shape we had ever been. I had to add 35 pounds to my saddle to make weight.
In Sweden, most of the riders weren’t used to the pressure that comes with a World Championship ride. There were press conferences, reporters, well-wishers and people with questions. As the favorite team, everyone had questions. It was hard juggling public relations, parties, press conferences, horse training, finding the trail and the vet checks. Luckily, our team officials made sure the priorities were kept inline. The horses came first. Period. If they needed special food, it was taken care of. We had a team farrier to take care of the shoes. Transport to get us onto the trail was always available. Our team vet worked with horses and riders to make sure everything was fine with the horses. After the horses came the riders. Were we getting what we needed to eat? Were we getting enough sleep? I came down with an ear infection. Luckily one of the veterinarians had some antibiotics to give, after clearing it with the officials. Things had progressed since our early days in Rome. And after all, this was the World Equestrian Games – World Championships for all disciplines.
Sweden had been in a drought – no rain for the past 3 weeks. The bogs we had heard so many horror stories about were dry. The night before the ride we went to dinner to load up on carbohydrates. While we were eating, it started to rain. Not only did it rain the skies opened. There was wind, thunder, lightening – I supposed the drought was over. What timing! The crew went back to the stable tents to lay out the raingear.
As I got ready for bed, I hoped the stable tents were still up. I hoped the rain would stop. I hoped the alarm would go off in the morning. Somewhere along all these dubious hopes, I fell asleep.
Sweden was an easy ride for Rio. There were cheering crowds all along the way, which he loved. The spectators gave out information about how far ahead the leader was. One of them told me, “You are 30 minutes behind the leader.” Thirty minutes? Although I like to ride off the pace the first half of the race, that was too far back. I decided to push on ahead. Rio’s 3 minute recovery put us 27 minutes behind Tom Thompson, the Australian ride on Prince Aussie. For the second time that day, the vets were unsure about Tom’s horse and wanted him to recheck in 10 minutes. He was passed to go on the third check. This was further back than I wanted to be and I knew I was going to have to ask Rio for a big effort on the next leg, the part of the course where most horses seem to “hit the wall.” I gave Rio his head and let him move out.
Leaving this check amid a flurry of well wishes, I set off knowing I was going to have to move now. The route was lined with spectators, even in the woods, and they all told me how far behind Tom I was, so I could tell I was gaining. Much if this part of the trail was woods and gravel road, mostly all flat. Rio just cantered and cantered with an occasional gallop and trot. He seemed to know that it depended on him. He was in a tough situation. He was all alone, no buddy to help him keep pace and we would be alone for the rest of the ride. This was the section of ride where we had a hill! It was an old garbage dump that had been converted into a ski hill. It was about 800 feet, fairly short but steep. Rio started up at a trot, part way up I decided it was time to show the spectators what an American endurance horse could do. I swung off and grabbed Rio by the tail and he continued on at the trot up to the top. The Swedes loved it. The clapped and kept calling out, “Number one!” I said, no, no, but they insisted I was number 1. The helicopter carrying the TV crew was now starting to come back to follow me, so I knew I was getting close enough to Tom for the TV to think I might now be a threat. The comments from the spectators lead me to believe that Tom’s horse must be looking tired. This gave me renewed incentive and Rio picked up on it. We just had a couple of miles to the next vet check.
The fourth vet check was back at the racetrack at Taby, 12 miles from the finish, and also where the horses had been stabled. Rio was feeling heavy on the forehand, a sign that he was starting to fatigue. When I arrived at the vet check it took Rio 6 minutes to recover, longer than it had taken all day. I took him over to the vets and the examination began. First the jugular refill – fairly slow. Capillary refill, 3 seconds when it should be 1. Skin tenting for hydration – 4 seconds when the skin should just snap back. I started to worry. The vet explained to me that over all Rio was at best a C and more likely a D. He wanted to consult with another vet. While he went to get the head vet, I let Rio put his head down and eat some of the grass growing along the lane of the vet check. He was hungry and I thought that the moisture in the grass might help him. Kerry Ridgeway, the head vet, came over about 5 minutes later. He checked the jugular response – the blood shoot right up. Capillary refill was 1 second, skin tenting was one second. I could scarcely believe my eyes. Neither could the original vet. Kerry said, ” Well, he is an A or B, I don’t see what the problem is.” The original vet seemed in a state of shock and somewhat dismayed. Neither he nor I understood what had happened in 5 minutes. Later, I talked with several endurance veterinarians about this phenomenom and it was explained to me that letting his head down helped release chemicals to normalize his body and the grass could have worked that fast on his hydration and gut sounds. At this point I was 11 minutes behind Tom. Tom, for the third time that day, had to re-check his horse, which he did right after Rio came in. Shortly thereafter, it was announced that he had been pulled. Unfortunately, Prince Aussie had come up sore in a tendon. This meant I was in the lead and had about 11 minutes on the English rider, Jane Donovan. This vet check was only 15 minutes long and the vetting had taken at least half of our time. Ice boots were slapped on Rio, he was given food and electrolytes (as he had been at all the other checks) and I had a snack and something to drink. Then, time to go!
Because Rio had had an easy day, he was able to gallop in the last 13 miles and came into Olympic Stadium in downtown Stockholm looking fresh and ready to go on. The show jumping had just ended and the crowd stayed to watch the finish of the endurance race. It is very rare to be able to finish in a crowded stadium. Rio loved the applause and cheers. He pricked his ears and cantered across the finish line.
The closing ceremony for medal winners of all disciplines was in Olympic stadium where the jumping had been held. The course was still set up. Rio, in true endurance fashion, went over to the water jump and took a drink. Rio was given the honor of leading the other medal winners out of Olympic stadium at a gallop, which he was only too happy to do.
Defending our world title in Spain became the goal for 1992. Rio had proven to the world that he had the “right stuff, ” now, it was time to show them he could do it again against a new and larger group of horses. Horse and Hound Magazine had written that “R. O. Grand Sultan was 15 years old, beyond his prime and not expected to compete”. They forgot to ask Rio what he felt about that.