In which Endurance 101 discusses Junior distance riders
Endurance 101: Let’s hear it for the JUNIORS
The AERC Rules and Regulations book has an entire section devoted to the special needs and requirements for junior riders. I’ll list the important parts with my commentary and observations.
All Junior riders in both full and Limited Distance rides, whether they are AERC members or not, must be accompanied by a competent adult (21 years or older) sponsor throughout the competition.
This rule is listed first because it’s most important: juniors must ride with an adult.
What the rule doesn’t say is that competent juniors often sponsor their adult companion(s), especially on the longer rides! While junior riders are younger, and thus more vulnerable and needful of guidance at times, senior riders are older and thus more fragile and needful of youthful assistance!
Let me tell you, there’s nothing quite as lovely when you drop your water bottle on the ground at the 48 mile mark of a 50-mile ride, and before you can even heave a heavy sigh, the junior beside you is on the ground, handing it back up!
Juniors are riders who are less than 16 years old on December 1st. Just as Thoroughbreds all celebrate their official “birthday” on January 1st of each year regardless of actual foaling date, our Juniors count their age as of December 1st, which is the first day of the national ride season.
Juniors must wear a helmet. If Juniors are smart, they ask (sweetly and kindly, you understand) for their sponsors to wear a helmet as well.
Juniors may change sponsors only at vet checks…and I have lost track of the number of times I’ve come into a vet check and had the timers give me “that look”, signifying that they have a sponsorless-junior for me to take forward!
One time I picked up the grandson of an adult competitor at the first vetcheck of a 50-mile ride; at the time, I barely knew the grandfather and only seen 10-year-old Chad once or twice before in my life. Grandpa’s horse was lame and pulled from competition, and Chad was a little shy of heading off into the wilderness with a strange adult and the handful of teen girls riding with me that day. However, Grandpa assured me that the kid was “a good hand”, and, when our horses checked through, we all trotted cheerfully away towards the second vetcheck…where we were met by Chad’s very concerned dad, who was acting as crew that day. When Dad saw the smile on Chad’s face, put there by riding his lovely big red gelding on some of the most beautiful mountain trails in the world in the company of five pretty girls (plus me), he threw up his hands and welcomed us all to camp. “If I’d known you were riding with them,” I heard him tell his son, “I’d have come along with you!” Chad, a young man of few words, just grinned and grinned and grinned.
Sponsorship may change between checks only in the event that a competitor or a competitor’s mount is unable to continue forward safely. Kids take such good care of their horses, it’s not usually the junior’s horse who gets stuck. It’s almost always the sponsor or the sponsor’s horse who needs a lift back to camp. In a circumstance like this, it’s entirely okay for the junior to continue forward with another competent adult.
Most savvy endurance kids know that stuff happens on the trail, and they line up a bunch of potential sponsors in advance. Still, “stuff happening” can include “all the potential sponsors have already got pulled,” which happened once to my young friend Jill. Her horse was still good to go, but a number of her sponsors (including me) had gotten pulled during the course of the day for a variety of reasons. When it came to the last leg of the ride, Jill was in last place, and there were no more competitors left in the ride to go with her. Undeterred, the ride manager turned to me. “If you can ride another 13 miles, I’ll loan you my horse,” she offered. I grabbed my helmet, hopped up on the borrowed horse, and Jill and I did the last leg together so that she could get her completion. The rules allow a last-place junior to go accompanied by an adult running along beside, but (as a non-runner myself) I’ve never actually tested this.
A rider 14 years or older who has completed 500 AERC miles or more (in any distance) may “emancipate” in order to ride without a sponsor. The emancipation process requires that the junior and his/her parent write a letter to the AERC office well in advance of an event, consenting to and requesting the unsponsored status. Emancipated juniors ride in the senior division, and a ride manager does not have to honor the emancipation. As I implied at the start of this article, junior riders can be incredibly savvy, and sometimes more competent than their senior rider sponsors. As outrageous as some modern parents may find the concept of allowing teens to ride a horse all alone, for many miles, in the wilderness, endurance parents learn that most kids who qualify for emancipation really can handle almost everything that happens on the trail.
In fact, the “parenting” of endurance juniors is a shared task accepted by many adults in the endurance community. It may take "a village to raise a child”; it also apparently takes “a ridecamp to raise a horse-kid.”
Some kids come to events with family members, but many others come with neighbors, riding instructors, or just interested adults who recognize that a “horse kid” needs to spend time with “horse people” and are willing to move heaven and earth to make sure that this time gets spent.
Lest you think that these unparented kids are wont to run wild in camp, let me assure you: kids in a ridecamp have work to do. They know what needs doing, and they know who needs to do it, and they make sure it all gets done. If you ever want to see a bunch of truly mature, responsible, and totally fun kids, please come visit us in ridecamp sometime.
It’s not always easy for kids, riding off into the wilderness with adults they don’t know very well. Sometimes the adults ride too fast for the junior’s horse. When they experience this, juniors tell me that it’s awkward asking the adult to slow down, and they usually just bide their time until the vetcheck, where they try to find a slower-moving sponsor. Sometimes the sponsor moves so slowly that the junior despairs of ever finishing the ride…and sometimes, they don’t have any options other than to “suck it up” and cope, as best they can.
Kids tell me that they really hate riding with adults who complain a lot, or married couples who spend the entire ride arguing. The kid-network is quick, though—and they tell each other which adults to avoid and which to seek out when a sponsor is needed. I’m honored that they keep coming back to me, and I think, quite honestly, that they think I’m nicer than I feel, especially at the end of 50 miles or more of strenuous riding!
I love having kids along with me, to sing the songs they know, and tell me stories. On long rides in the wilderness, some of the older teens want to confide in me, which I encourage. They are totally aware that I will talk to their parents after the ride, and some find it easy to tell me the concerns they want to share but don’t feel comfortable telling directly to their parents. Honesty is always the best policy when talking with kids; I don’t pretend that they are adults, but I also don’t pretend that they are stupid, because they aren’t. Endurance kids are smart, cool, and excellent company.
When riding with juniors, I find it’s a good idea to keep an eye on what they eat and drink during the ride. They will feed only the choicest hay and freshest grass to their ponies, but somehow they forget that a pack of Skittles and a can of Mountain Dew is not adequate nutrition for themselves. It’s not too difficult for me to pack an extra container of yogurt and ziplock baggie of almonds in my vetcheck box, so I try to do that if I suspect that I’ll be riding with a junior. Other items I like to pack for my younger companions include a heavy trash bag (aka emergency raincoat) and a tube of sunscreen. They might tease me about “anointing” them with sunscreen, but they take the lotion, and they put it on without complaint, bless them.
I can’t think of another physical endeavor that throws unrelated adults and kids together in such a haphazard—and yet, nurturing—manner. It turns out that, when people spend time together in the wilderness, working towards the common goal of getting healthy horses to the finish line, they take care of each other, even when one of the people is young and the other is, um, not so young.
What happens when the juniors grow up? Well, let me tell you: eventually, they grow up and have little juniors of their own. And when those kids get old enough to ride endurance, their parents know exactly who to call and ask for sponsorship.