Superman, Batman and Wonder Woman–everyone loves a super hero. They possess extraordinary traits, aspire to do good, apply their strengths to help others and are reliable, trustworthy stalwarts that inspire and comfort the rest of us. Endurance rider, Claire Godwin, knows something about super heroes. She has one living in her pasture.
Godwin, 59, is a Companion Animal Veterinarian and Practice Owner at Laytonsville Veterinary Practice, Laytonsville, MD. Like many WARHorses, Godwin grew up loving horses but put them aside to attend college, establish a veterinary practice, and start a family. Inspired by a dinner conversation about endurance, Godwin purchased an Arab and began competing in her 30’s.
Years later, PL Mercury, or Merc as he’s known, came into Godwin’s life quietly. At 15 years old his job was to merely be a horse for the kids to ride, but soon he began revealing his super powers to Godwin. Turns out the mild mannered kid’s horse possessed a talent for distance. As recently as June this super horse carried Godwin 100 miles in the Old Dominion, defeating “the Beast of the East” as the race is dubbed and finishing sixth! And this super horse is not done yet. On July 28th, Godwin and Mercury will tackle Tevis, one of the toughest endurance events in the world. Godwin hopes they can break Mercury’s current record as the oldest horse to complete Tevis (the Ride). This year Merc is 27-1/2 years old!
Typically, a super hero’s abilities are a closely guarded secret, but Godwin willingly shares Mercury’s strengths with WARHorses.
WH: Where did you and Mercury first compete together? Did your opinion of him and plans for him change following that first race?
CG: As my daughter was finishing high school and becoming more involved with other activities, I rode him a few times to keep him fit. My thought was to sell him because I hadn’t planned to compete him anymore but as I rode him I appreciated how fun he was to ride, and how uncomplicated.
How do you prepare/train Mercury for an upcoming race?
Merc gets a couple of months off from riding in the winter, and as the season ramps up, in early February, I start ponying him in the mountains for 7-15 miles once or twice a week. He only needs a few outings to ready him for 50-mile competitions, since he has a solid base on him. I really like ponying him rather than riding him as a means of conditioning, because I think it keeps the muscles on his back in better shape. Merc doesn’t need a rope to pony, he is perfectly well behaved just running along with the ridden horses.
Which do you prefer, 50 or 100 mile races?
I like them both. It’s more about what the horse that I am riding is ready/best suited for, and what I’m trying to accomplish that day with that horse. I usually have three to four horses that I am actively competing, and one to two that I have others riding. I’ve been blessed to have a couple of young people share my horses and compete on them. It is very rewarding to see the young riders grow and get into the sport.
Do you prepare for them differently?
Not really. It is more a progression of bringing along a young horse to do 50s, and when they can do 50s well and are old enough to do 100s they will probably have done 20 or so 50s by then. I don’t let a horse do a 100 until they are at least eight. We started conditioning Merc at 14 when we got him, and he did his first 50 when he was 15. He did not take as much LSD work (long, slow distance) as a five year old would before doing his first 50, because his tendons and ligaments were fully mature.
Is Mercury better at one or the other distance?
Not really. He just keeps going.
What inspired you to participate in your first Tevis with Mercury?
Merc’s first 100 was Tevis, in 2009, at 18.5 years old. I had taken him out there as a backup horse to the horse that I intended to ride, Reveille. It takes five days to drive the horses across the country, and you don’t want to get there with a lame horse and nothing to ride. So we took Rev and Merc.
We stopped at the Black Hills on the way, one week before the Tevis start. Rev seemed like he was handling the trip fine, so I put Merc into a 50-mile ride in the Black Hills that weekend. He won it, and I figured he would just get a nice rest in California while I rode Rev in the Tevis. However, a good friend’s Tevis horse tied up a few days before the Tevis and so I let her ride Merc. They finished well. It was both her and Merc’s first 100-mile ride, and that friend died unexpectedly at age 47 a couple of years later. Just goes to show you never know, and you should do what you love today because you never know what tomorrow will bring, right?
We were not planning to go to Tevis in 2010, but a friend, John Crandell, called me up two weeks before the ride and asked if I wanted to take a horse since he had room in his trailer. Well, we wound up having him drive my trailer, which fit two of mine, and two of his horses. We had them all loaded on the trailer less than 24 hours after he called, and heading for California. That year, my friend Lisa Bykowski rode Merc, and I rode another horse, and we finished fifth and sixth out of 192, and John Crandell’s two horses finished first and second. What a ride! Merc tied the Tevis record for oldest horse to “Top Ten” the ride, at 19.5 years.
After that I figured Merc had probably done all he was destined to do, and so he had a junior riding him mostly, for the next two or three years. In 2014, Lisa and I went back to Tevis and finished in the top 15. Then, because we were hopelessly hooked on the Ride by then, we went back out in 2015. Unfortunately that year, Merc failed to meet pulse criteria at the 92-mile vet check within 30 minutes (his pulse was 68 instead of the required 64). Of course we couldn’t let that be his last Tevis, so we did it again in 2016. That year, we decided to ride separately since I had a horse I thought could do well (and she did), and Lisa just wanted a completion. She rode Merc slowly and got a completion, I think 74th place. At the finish line there was a crowd there to cheer them. Lots of people know Merc. This year is the first year that I will actually ride Mercury myself at Tevis. I am very excited about it.
If Mercury could speak, what would he say to you at the beginning and end of a race?
All of my horses would say different things. I have one that calmly eats grass with his eyes half shut until they say that TRAIL IS OPEN at the start, and then he takes off like a fire breathing dragon, ready to conquer all. But Merc is just a steady Eddie kind of pony. It’s all just another day at the office. At the end? Merc wants to know “Whatcha got to eat?”
How does Mercury go/move through a race – is he different at the beginning? Midway? The end? Are there elements of a race/terrain that he prefers or dislikes?
He, like most horses, likes to run with the pack of excited horses in the morning, but he settles in to a sustainable pace within the first three to four miles. He likes to be a follower, in the middle part of a ride, and I think part of that is that he’s done so many rides with junior riders that are required to ride with an adult. He kind of got into a habit of being a follower. He prefers to conserve energy going up hills but flies going downhill. (This is something that you definitely would not allow a six or seven year-old horse to do.) On the last leg of the ride, I let him know that the finish is up ahead by giving him a verbal signal (“Yip, yippee!”) and he takes off.
How do you and Mercury wind down after a race?
We are usually both ready to sleep! Hundred milers usually start at five a.m. and often don’t finish until one a.m.!
Is there a moment when you felt particularly bonded with Mercury, during a race or at home?
Every ride that he gives me, since he was about 19, I’ve known could be the last, knowing the statistics. I truly savor each ride.
What does he eat the morning of and immediately following a race?
He eats about 1/3 of his normal ration of low carbohydrate pellets, with a little sweet feed, soaked in water. This is what we feed most of our endurance horses.
What are you immediate competitive plans for Mercury?
Just finished OD 100; doing Tevis in late July; then who knows? Probably some 50s in the late summer/fall.
At what point will you retire Mercury from endurance riding and how will you continue to enjoy him in his retirement?
I believe that if we had retired him at 20, he would not be as healthy as he is today. But when it becomes obvious that he can’t continue, he will just hang out with his best buddy in the pasture and continue to be spoiled. He does not owe us anything and we owe him LOTS.
What is a typical day at home for Mercury?
On pasture 24/7 except for meals twice a day . On days that we’re conditioning he might have a 30 to 60 minute trailer ride, and then running free ponying in the mountains, usually
What is Mercury’s favorite treat?
Carrots. He is suspicious of apples since I fed him one that was a little overripe about ten years ago. Geez, and they say elephants don’t forget!
What 5 adjectives best describe Mercury?
Trustworthy, intelligent, consistent, somewhat aloof, and honest.
What physical/mental attributes make a good endurance horse?
Self reliance, self confidence, good eater/drinker, big heart and quick to pulse down, straight legs and big feet. Merc is only 14H and yet has size-1 feet.
Are older horses, 15+, better suited for endurance and if so, why?
Yes, because they are usually more mentally settled and less likely to do things that could injure themselves. Their tendons, ligaments and bone are fully mature and less liable to injury. No, because they have had that many years to rack up old injuries and arthritis. So it really depends on the horse and his history. And luck.
What advice can you offer someone riding/working with an older horse ?
REST IS YOUR FRIEND. You do not have to ride them daily.
Is there a single achievement or award you and Mercury have won that is particularly rewarding?
He has been among the top ten 100 mile horses in the country; in 2011 at age 20 he was seventh in country, and in 2015, age 24, tenth in country. Equally important, he has carried 12 different riders to endurance completion including introducing six riders by being the first horse they rode in a race. He can be ridden by anyone. Mercury is the endurance ambassador.
What do your children think of Mercury and his accomplishments now?
Mercury is undeniably an exceptional horse accentuated by his advanced age. A super horse with abilities we can admire with wonder. Many WARHorses have been lucky to find our own super horse. These extraordinary friends teach us, forgive us and carry us without question. They perform because we ask them to and sometimes they’re really good at it. As they age, many will not be able to perform at a level like Mercury and that’s okay because they can still look us in the eye or softly nicker, and that alone will lift our hearts and carry us through the day.
Good luck Claire and Merc, we WARHorses will be cheering for your record breaking Tevis completion and wishing all riders and mounts a safe ride.