Megan Gist Carter loves horses. And horses love her. The high-energy Oklahoma resident and ardent fan of RailRiders participates in an equestrian endurance activity known as “long riding.” Never heard of it? You aren’t alone. So saddle up and read on…
RailRiders: What exactly is the sport of “long riding?”
Megan Gist Carter: Long riding is not necessarily a sport, nor is it competition. It is for anyone who desires to journey on horseback for hundreds of consecutive miles. Each individual sets out and defines his or her own equestrian path and journey. You just hop on your horse with 15 pounds of gear and head for the sunset, not knowing where you will lay your head that evening, where you next meal is coming from; it is the challenge of facing the unknown and riding from town to town.
RR: How popular is long riding?
MGC: There are only about 200 Long Riders in the world who have completed more than 1,000 consecutive miles by horse. I am hoping to be number 201as I have not travelled the 1,000 consecutive miles yet. I have done close to 1,500 miles in one year.
RR: What have been your most memorable long rides?
MGC: Last September, I went 500 miles, following the perimeter of Oklahoma in a large loop. I even carried my partner’s schnauzer up with me on my saddle. In April, I rode 300 miles along historic Route 66--it was originally a horse trail way back in the day--and finished in the middle of nowhere. The following month, I rode for 250 miles along the Dry 100 of the Goodnight Loving Cattle Trail in New Mexico where desert temperatures soared in the low 100s.
RR: How far do you travel each day?
MGC: Sophie and I go approximately 12 to 20 miles per day. We average about 3 to 4 miles per hour. Just like any slow-paced adventure, it gives me time to reflect on the scenery. Ever look at grass going three miles an hour?
RR: How do you and Sophie deal with sharing the road with cars and trucks?
MGC: Many times, I am on secondary roads out in the country and I ride right down the middle of them. When I am on four-lane highways, the shoulders are pretty big to travel on them. I take whatever the road gives me. In New Mexico, I was mainly on cattle paths passing through giant 100,000-acre private ranches.
RR: Does traffic ever spook Sophie?
MGC: In her first two years in the world, Sophie was trained in the chaos of the racetrack. She was known as Track Rebel and is the granddaughter of the $36 million racehorse, Devil’s Bag. She ran three races at Louisiana Downs, and usually finished back in the pack. Her racing career prepared her for the road, cars, trucks, you name it. She is ten years old now and bombproof.
RR: What first got you interested in riding?
MGC: I first learned about the comforting power of riding horses after a 1992 car accident in my home state of Illinois. Doctors had to amputate half of two fingers on my right hand. I had been a lifelong piano player, and found myself spending most of my rehabilitation time on the back of a horse. I'd get back from riding and just felt like a completely different person. I later got a job working at a counseling clinic in Alabama that employs equine therapy. Now, in Oklahoma at the Grayce Academy, which I founded in 2000, I use horses for those in need of personal and emotional healing. The Academy is a non-profit Social Service Agency and Community Based Workforce Development Program. I want to state clearly that this is not a riding course; no riding is involved and all activities are done on the ground. But for individuals with horse experience, sessions are held on the trail on one of my horses like Sophie. She is nature’s great teacher and trusted steed. Our mission is to teach communication, trust, responsibility, partnership, and empathy and then move those characteristics into the outward expression of these principles as a responsible, considerate individual who lives their life with grace, balance, sensitivity and a life full of meaningful deep self knowingness. Through interaction with horses we can learn to know ourselves better. They show us who we are by reflecting ourselves back to us whenever we enter their space. Either calm, peaceful and confident or nervous and fearful will be their response depending on which we bring to them. Participants learn the language of equus, the language of the horse. When you begin to learn this language, not only will you gain insight into the nature of horses, but into your being as well.
RR: Please describe the personality and temperament of Sophie?
MGC: If Sophie were a person, she would be highly educated, have a stable marriage and several kids. Sophie does everything with a gentle and willing nature, and is a very people-friendly horse.
RR: Do you own other horses?
MGC: Yes, I have one other called Fancy who is Tennessee Walking horse. She is a Southern Belle who was raised in the hills of Alabama. It’s really quiet there and she had a great background and sensible head about nature. When she arrived into my care, I had to get her used to certain things. She was fine with the road, cars, trucks, but we definitely had quite a few lessons about walking over scary bridges. I had to be her leader so that she could trust me that nothing would hurt her going over it. We conquered that fear and now we are a complete team and have a great communication. I have helped her conquer her fears as she has helped me become a better equestrian.
RR: What about both of their equine athleticism?
MGC: A horse’s athleticism depends on the whole horse: mind, body and soul. I look to think of their athleticism in a total sense with them. If I listen and communicate with them, we can bring out the best athlete in each other. Just like any person preparing for a physical adventure, I have done the same with her. I ride anywhere between 20 to 50 miles per week locally and gradually build that up. However, I like to address a horse’s “talking ears.” This is a big part of her athleticism and a way for them to be able to communicate with me as we go down the road. Horses also use their ears to "talk" to us and tell us what they are feeling. Good horsemen and horsewomen learn to read their horse's ears. Here are some of my translations: Ears forward means a horse is alert and is telling me to be alert as well. Ears working back and forth softly means she is attentive, accepting, has good concentration and is trying to please. Ears straight up may mean she is probably asleep – and this does not usually happen under saddle. Ears facing slightly straight back may mean that she is doubtful and needs my reassurance in a situation.
RR: How do you protect their hooves?
MGC: When we are not on the road, the girls are barefoot. While riding, I use horseshoes. The shoes are not special. If I didn’t use shoes, I could use riding “boots” that are somewhat like tennis shoes for horses.
RR: What do they eat on these long trips?
MGC: I am so blessed in this part of the country to have great grass the entire way. They graze on grass during the day and many times have been donated grain. I do make sure that no rats have been in the feed and that the hay does not smell moldy if it has been donated and then make sure my girls are eager to eat. Fancy and Sophie’s condition is crucial on a long ride and you must monitor their appetites. The more they eat--- the better. A few hundred grams of sugar cubes per day (about 20 to 30 sugar cubes) is very beneficial for a long-distance horse if you can find them as well as electrolytes if they are also offered. I have found that feeding horses on a rigid schedule is not a good way to prepare a horse for a long ride, since they might be turned out to graze at any time of the day or night or given feed at unexpected hours. When riding in the desert, you never know when you're going to come across a beautiful patch of grass or when you're going to pass by a ranch where you can buy oats. If you feed a horse on a rigid schedule they will be much more likely to colic when a feeding schedule is disrupted on the trail. What's worse, a horse fed on a strict schedule becomes highly anxious on the trail should the feed times be delayed or changed or when there isn't enough feed. So I try to alter feeding times and, once in a while, I actually skip a feeding time. I do several other things with horses that I feel are essential to make a good long-rider horse, but which might not be usual for most horse lovers. In the wild, horses tend to drink twice a day, in the morning and at evening. It is good to train a horse to do without water, so they learn to drink well (but not over- or under-drink) when water is available. So at home, I let the horses only water twice a day about a week before I go on a long ride.
RR: And what about you in terms of eating and drinking water?
MGC: Here again, I am blessed to say that I’ve eaten with the likes of kings based on the generosity of strangers welcoming me into their homes. From steak to cereal to every day fare fit for a queen. Usually I take a lunch with me that consists of granola and enough water to last for a day. Each gallon of water weighs a little over eight pounds. That is the maximum amount I take with me. For Fancy and Sophie to carry me and gear, it’s kilograms not kilometers that matter.
RR: Do you do any "horse whispering" with the gals?
MGC: Both girls were developed using horse-whispering techniques. In the horse world, this is known as natural horsemanship training. I mixed it up with some old fashion good horse sense. You use psychology, not brute strength or pain to motivate the horse to do what you want. Horses are herd animals driven by instinct. Find out what motivates them and learning how to become a team creates a great synergy and dynamic between the girls and me. Sometimes though, but very rarely, they do get a swat on their neck if they need it; this is much like how you would swat a child's behind for discipline--but that is very rare because they are so good. I am their "herd" leader and know that I can keep them safe. I'm not a show 'em whose boss type of horse person.
RR: Finally, what do you like best about RailRiders clothing?
The Adventure Khakis
have seen close to 1,000 consecutive miles in the saddle. They have also been used as a neck sweat for Sophie and pajamas for me. These pants never seem to rip, tear, fray or even break a sweat. Not one tick or chigger could attach themselves to me when I am wearing them. And these pants actually prevent saddle sores. The Adventure Top
keeps me warm on cooler nights in the desert and very cool in the saddle when temperatures are in the 90s.