4000 Miles and Switchbacks Don't Deter Her

Endurance riding is more than a passion - it's a lifestyle choice for Mary Sikes Fields 64C.

By Michelle Valigursky

At first glance, one might assume that 72-year-old former schoolteacher Mary Sikes Fields 64C is a sweet lady, somebody's grandmother perhaps. But Fields is a complex woman, who behind the soft smile and kind eyes has the kind of iron will and fierce determination that have propelled her to ride more than 4,000 miles of rough high country and desert terrain - on horseback. 

Fields is a rare athlete: she is a competitive equine endurance rider as well as a spry senior citizen. Her sport is sanctioned by the American Endurance Ride Conference (AERC). Riders and their horses enter competitions that involve 50 to 100 mile rides. Like the name says, the sport is about endurance, and the AERC motto is "to finish is to win."

For Fields, every ride is a win. With her Arabian horses Christiansen "Pippy,"  Susar Masladan "Dani," and Avalon Yasminah Asiil "Yasmin" racing with her since she began the sport in 1996 at age 53, Fields has earned many prestigious titles and awards. She's encountered everything from sheer, crumbling cliffs to rattlesnakes to moonless nights. "It's a thrill, and I hope to be riding well into my 80s."

Since childhood, "I used to wish upon birthday cakes and stars for a horse," she remembers. Fast forward to her 50th Christmas when Fields received the best gift. Her husband Jerry gave her a gelding Arabian nicknamed Pippy. "The breeder told me he was bred for endurance. They'd been working him in the round pen, but he kicked, bit, reared, and bucked. He was a sneaky, mischievous horse. And I fell in love with him."

Prepping for the Big Pony Express Ride

When Fields graduated from Emory in 1964, she looked forward to a career in secondary education. For 3 years she immersed herself in French and German instruction in Kentucky. She moved to Texas in 1967 and stayed home with her first daughter. She and her first husband moved to New Mexico, where they were divorced. She returned to Texas in 1970 and got a job teaching elementary school, as there were no openings in German and French. She returned to school to get her elementary certification and found that she loved elementary teaching.

In 1975 she met and married Jerry Fields and took off to be a stay-at-home wife and mother, having two more daughters. In 1988 she returned to the classroom, first for three years of French, then for elementary classes until 2011, when she and Jerry retired. She couldn't have predicted the turns life had in store for her in her senior years. "Endurance riding takes an element of insanity - and fearlessness." From her home base of Mineral Wells, Texas, Fields and her family manage their barns, horses, Boer goats, and the Anatolian Shepherds that guard their livestock. "I've truly had a blessed life."

Pippy, now 26 years old, has become Fields' constant companion though he no longer races with her. "It was amazing how our relationship developed," she recalls.  At first, Fields bent over to work on his feet. "He bit me in the rear. I came up in his face with my school teacher finger and said, 'Buddy, you're not going to do that to me.'" After that, I'd pull up to the pen in my car, and he would whinny and run across the paddock to put his head over the fence for me. It was like lovers running to greet each other."

The constant thread in Fields' life was her love of horsemanship - and her growing competitive streak. Realizing that her horse was bred for endurance, Fields set her five-year goal to compete in the 100-mile Western States Trail Ride known as the Tevis Cup over California's Pony Express trail. The course includes creek beds, mountains, sand, jagged flint, and rocky, dangerous downhill terrain. 

"I had to overcome a lot of fears to get that done." To conquer her fear of heights, of trotting downhill, and of riding in the dark, Fields rode roller coasters and prayed to stay alive, then enrolled in riding clinics and trained by starting hundred mile rides in the dark. To manage the physical toll on her body, she rides with a sheepskin cover on her saddle seat and pads under her knees.

First and foremost, Fields cares for her horses. Her horses all now ride barefoot. Pippy wore shoes for his 3,840 miles. They caused several injuries, one of which required surgery on his right hind foot. He later completed two more 50-mile rides in 2007 and attempted two more in 2012, but he pulled with lameness at 26 miles. After that, Fields retired him. The rest of her 4,045 endurance miles were completed on Dani. In addition, she has completed over 800 limited distance rides (25 or 30 miles) on her three horses, over 500 of them on Yasmin.

"Endurance riding involves training and conditioning the horse, keeping the horse's feet trimmed, hauling it in a trailer to rides, setting up camp, feeding and watering the horse, and giving it electrolytes," she notes. Weather is also a constant challenge. "I've done rides in 22-degree weather and 100-degree weather, in rain, snow, ice, and wind. I've enjoyed all kinds of scenery that many people never see." She says of the addictive extreme sport, "It is seeing the world in fast forward from the back of a horse."

In endurance riding, speed often dominates - to the detriment of the horse's health. "You see some yahoos running their horses like crazy," she says. "But you won't see that horse on the trail a few years from now. My horse has done over 3,840 miles because I take very good care of him. There are other horses who have completed over 10,000 miles in endurance.”

The Thousand-Foot Drop

After five years of experience and over 800 miles of completions in 50 and 100 mile rides, Fields  finished the Tevis Cup race in 1998. "A large part of the hundred-mile ride is an 18" wide trail with switchbacks and thousand-foot drop offs, and the last phase is done in the moonlight," she explains. "You're constantly looking ahead for rattlesnakes and holes, and I definitely would not look down."

That Tevis ride began at 5:15 a.m. on a Saturday morning. Fields finished at 4:38 a.m. on Sunday. Her husband and a friend met her at the first checkpoint, the Robinson Flat 25 miles into the race. While they moved on to the next checkpoints, Fields rode.

Many riders enter Tevis but often do not finish. In 1998, 230 riders started and only 119 finished. During the Tevis ride, each horse is evaluated by a veterinarian at a number of stops along the trail. That is why riders need a crew to bring their supplies and the horse’s feed and hay to various checkpoints. "Other rides are usually done in loops, coming back to a central camp to go through a pulse and respiration check, then a vet check. The horse is monitored for hydration, gut sounds, and muscle tone," she explains. "The rider must trot the horse in hand so the vet can check for lameness. If it passes the vet check, it has a compulsory “hold time”, during which it rests and eats and drinks. Then it can start the next loop. If it does not meet all these criteria, the horse is pulled from the ride. At the end of the ride, the horse still must be judged 'fit to continue' in order to earn a completion. One can be pulled even after doing all 50 or 100 miles if the horse can’t pass the final check." Fields has even pulled her own horse from a race. "If my horse is hurting, I will not ask him to go 10 more miles no matter how far along in the race I may be." 

Get Back on that Horse

"Endurance rides are a lot like family reunions. The endurance community is very supportive and encouraging, mentoring new riders and cheering everyone on. There is an awards ceremony after each ride," Fields explains.

Pippy once turned a somersault while training at the park, cutting his shoulder open and landing Mary on her head. She was Careflighted to a hospital with a brain stem bleed. Despite the severity of her injury, she was riding again in three weeks, against doctor’s advice. "The only question I had was 'When can I get back on my horse?'"

Fields' passion for horses is enduring.  She offers this advice for others interested in the sport. “This sport involves goal setting, hard work, determination, and toughness. One must train the horse gradually and consistently to get him strong enough to do endurance. One must work through setbacks such as injuries and keep going through fatigue and pain. But the great feeling of accomplishment at each finish, the wonderful bond with the horse, plus the camaraderie of the endurance family make it worthwhile.”

Editor's Note:  Mary’s husband, Jerry, is a former geophysicist for Mobil Oil. The two of them manage their ranch in Mineral Wells with four Arabian horses, a herd of Boer goats, and two Anatolian Shepherd dogs who guard the livestock. Their four grown children include Jerry’s son, Tracy Oaks, who lives in Bedford with his wife and four children; Mary’s daughter, Katrina Schold, who lives in Austin with her husband and son; their daughter, Jennifer Fields, who lives in England with her husband, where she is working on her PhD at Cambridge University; and their daughter, Rebecca Fields, a veterinarian who is finishing her third year of residency as a small animal cardiologist in Akron, Ohio.

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Michelle Valigursky