Time in saddle gives county woman rare feat to go along with ‘legs of steel’

Janet Kirkpatrick and her horse Booker recently surpassed the 5,000-mile mark in miles ridden in endurance competitions. It’s the second time Kirkpatrick has logged 5,000 miles on one horse, setting the first mark in 1999 with another Arabian.
Janet Kirkpatrick and her horse Booker recently surpassed the 5,000-mile mark in miles ridden in endurance competitions. It’s the second time Kirkpatrick has logged 5,000 miles on one horse, setting the first mark in 1999 with another Arabian. Photo provided.

Originally published Oct. 15, 2012.

When Janet Kirkpatrick tells you she has "legs of steel," believe her.

The 74-year-old sticks out a well-toned gam -the result, she says, of the time she spends in the saddle.

"You're standing up the whole time," Kirkpatrick says. "And I think it helps the back, too."

She should know. A horse enthusiast her entire life, the Huntington County woman discovered endurance riding - a sport in which horse and rider race to finish trail rides of 25, 50 or 100 miles - in 1984. Fifteen years later, she became one of an elite group of endurance riders to log 5,000 competition miles on the same horse.

This summer, Kirkpatrick repeated that feat - piling up another 5,000 competition miles on a second horse.

"To do it on one horse is very unusual," she says. "To do it on two separate horses is just a dream."

In actuality, Kirkpatrick says she's probably accumulated three times her official miles - if you count in all the miles she's logged in training and just for pleasure.

"In the beginning of the year, I put in probably 300 miles just getting him ready to roll," she says.

Kirkpatrick's current equine companion - a purebred Arabian officially known as H.A. Highfire but answering to Booker - came into her life shortly after the unexpected death of another Arabian named Butch.

She and Butch had accumulated 6,168 competitive miles between 1990 and 2002, when the horse suddenly became ill and had to be euthanized.

"That was the longest night of my life," she says of Butch's death. "I held his head. I always told that horse I'd never let him hurt."

A friend connected her with Booker, an unbroken 4-year-old who "had never been out of the field he was born in." Another friend got Booker used to having a rider on his back, and Kirkpatrick spent some time playing with the horse before taking him to the woods for their first ride.

"He dumped me right off," she says.

Kirkpatrick didn't give up.

Cooing "din-din time," she coaxed the frightened horse back to her, tied him to a tree so she could get back in the saddle, and rode him home.

That was in the fall of 2002. In April of 2003, on Kirkpatrick's 65th birthday, she and Booker competed in their first endurance ride - finishing the 25-mile trail in four hours and 29 minutes.

The endurance rides are timed events, but emphasis is placed on the health of the horse, with mandatory stops and veterinary checks along the ride. A horse deemed not fit to continue is pulled from the event.

A horse needs to be in top shape before even attempting endurance rides, Kirkpatrick says, and it's up to the owner to keep the horse healthy.

"You've got to keep him sound and fit," she says.
"You've got to have a good vet. You've got to have a good farrier, and I'm real prissy about getting him shod every six weeks. It's the care you give them."

Although competitive endurance rides are held throughout the year, Kirkpatrick competes only April through October.

"I'm a fair weather rider," she says.

Kirkpatrick and Booker completed 411 competition miles that first year. Since then, they've logged between 400 and 670 miles a year, going over the 5,000-mile mark after putting in 355 miles this summer.

In addition to the two 5,000-mile horses, Kirkpatrick logged 2,700 miles on Cajun, a quarterhorse who made the switch from show jumping to endurance riding with Kirkpatrick.

"He hated it at the end," she says of Cajun. "I retired him and gave him to my daughter."

The love affair between Kirkpatrick and the horse world began as she was growing up on a farm.

"My folks said when Bill married me, he married my horses," she says.

"I've had five great horses," she adds, but there's always been just one horse at a time. "I'm a one-horse person."

When she started, back in the 1950s and '60s, she was something of an anomaly on the horse show circuit.

"I was the only woman running with the guys," she says.

But her enthusiasm for her horses wasn't an anomaly in her own family.

"We all play hard," she says.

Her husband is an aficionado of vintage tractors, restoring them and participating in pulls and plow days - with rows and rows of plaques attesting to his success. Her daughter also has her enthusiasm for horses, while her son has been active on the motocross circuit.

The horse circuit, though, isn't a family affair.

"It's just me and my horse," she says. "I pull a 35-foot trailer ... sometimes I'm gone two weeks at a time."

The trailer, which Kirkpatrick designed years ago, has quarters for the horse in the back end living quarters for the rider in the front half.
Her independence isn't unusual on the endurance circuit, and neither is her age.

"There are a lot of us older people out there doing this," she says. "And doing quite well."

She enjoys the alone time, especially riding through the woods.

"I love it," she says. "It's just serene out there. I like to ride by myself because my horse listens to me. And you get to see things on trails you would never see if you walked; you're not going to go out there 20 miles like you do on a horse."