He was tied alongside a trailer at an endurance ride, offered for sale. Covered with sweat, he frantically paced back and forth along on the tie. His selling points was singular and not impressive – he bucked off every person who ever tried to ride him. By the end of the day, there were no takers. But she saw something no one else saw, the utter despair in his eyes. She knew this horse was at the end of his rope and she wanted to help him. She bought him on the spot. It seemed crazy at the time but turned out to be one of the best decisions of Joyce Sousa’s life.
Joyce Sousa was already an accomplished endurance rider when she made that fateful purchase in 1998. Joyce and her husband, Dennis, started competing in endurance in 1985. In 1998, her endurance horse was a big chestnut gelding, Jim Bob. Jim Bob would become Joyce’s first American Endurance Race Conference (AERC) Hall of Fame horse in 2005 with over 9,000 race miles. She could never have imagined at the time, that her $1,850 “crazy” purchase would yield another Hall of Famer and more, so much more.
His name is LV Integrity but the Sousas just call him Ritz. In 1998, he was a misunderstood 6-year-old Arabian that no one wanted. He retires this year an endurance champion, his career highlight with achievements few horses have ever accomplished.
WH: What were your plans once you bought Ritz home?
JS: The first morning started with Ritz charging me. I yelled and threw brushes at him and shooed him into a corner. He just stared at me. I approached him and started brushing him, he was shaking but did not move. He didn’t know what else to do but stand still and stare. We did this every day for three weeks. Then I sent him to a trainer friend, Rex Minton.
Rex started by simply saddling him then walking outside the arena. Ritz would buck and buck until he was tired. As soon as he stopped bucking, Rex removed the saddle and the day’s lesson was over. The first six days were all the same; saddle on, buck until tired, saddle off. My first report from Rex was simply, “this horse can buck”.
On the seventh day, Rex saddled Ritz but there was no reaction. He mounted, and the two walked quietly for a few minutes, lesson over. Three weeks later, Rex phoned with another report, “Joyce, I think you’ve got a horse.”
How was your first ride on Ritz?
I was scared, shaking as I mounted. Our first ride was uneventful, a three hour slow trail ride with Rex. I was uncomfortable riding Ritz the entire first year. I could tell he did not like me, that he tolerated me. He was very standoffish, unlike our other horses. But I rode him regularly and without incident.
When did you first notice a change in your relationship with Ritz?
We took three horses to the 2001 XP Ride, a 40-day, 2000-mile ride following the original Pony Express Trail from St. Joseph, Missouri to Virginia City, Nevada. I didn’t want to ride Ritz but knew the challenges would be good for him.
Ritz does not like water and we had to cross the Green River, 150 feet across. It is deep in spots so he would have to swim. I didn’t think he would go but he jumped right in after my friend’s horse and swam across. When we reached the other side, it was as though all my fear had washed away in that river. Everything changed. I was now completely confident that this horse would take care of me, of us.
This ride marked the change for me but also for Ritz. He learned that he could trust us, that now he had a family who loved him. He became a different horse. I wasn’t thinking about it before but four weeks later we rode our first Tevis together, placing 19th.
What does Ritz think about endurance?
He knows his job and he loves going down the trail, just loves it. He picks up his feet, puts them down and moves along. He is always ready to roll.
Do you prefer the 50 or 100-mile endurance races?
I prefer the 100’s, they’ve always been my mainstay. The longer races are won not by going fast but by pacing, learning to read your horse and monitoring his speed. Horsemanship plays out in a longer race.
Do you prepare differently for a 50 or 100-mile race?
I prepare exactly the same, long hours in the saddle. I call it “weight training”. I ride three times a week for three hours adding an hour each week as we build up to a race.
What one item do you always carry on a trail ride or endurance race?
Easy Boots and a hoof pick.
What do you and Ritz discuss during a race?
My radar is on and my eyes are focused on the trail. I don’t notice the scenery, I’m watching for obstacles or spooky things. I can’t afford to zone out making it more likely to get hurt. I am particularly aware of down branches and make certain we go around them, not over them. I know many horses impaled or badly scratched from stepping on branches that break and poke them.
I talk to Ritz, mostly giving direction. He understands “easy, walk, watch it, careful, over, good boy”. If I tell him to “watch your feet” he will look down to see what is coming. A scratch on the crest of his neck is my way of telling him he’s fine. I rarely use my reins, I can touch the side of his neck with my finger and he moves left or right.
How do you and Ritz unwind?
The finish line isn’t the end. There is still a final vet check, then the horses are attended; a light meal, blanket or sheet and a good drink. I enjoy a quart of tomato soup, then sleep. My husband, Dennis, sits up to with the horses to make certain they are ok. Ritz will eat, go to the bathroom then lay down for an hour or two.
The following morning, Dennis walks the horses then we make a big pot of coffee, load up and head home. Most races are a day or two drive from our home. We stop frequently to let the horses stretch their legs. Dennis drives. I read.
Of course getting home doesn’t mean the work is done. It takes two more days to clean the tack and trailer. We give our horses a lot of time off after each race, at least three weeks to allow soft tissue to recover. After that we start back with a three hour walk and build for our next race.
Where are your favorite endurance rides?
The Sun River 100 near Bend, Oregon and Ridgecrest in Southern California are our favorites. The terrains offer a bit of everything but the footing is good. Tevis is also a favorite more because I relish the historical aspect, the trail having been used by pioneers and gold miners.
What do you suggest to people starting to trail ride or do endurance?
At any age you should ride with others who are conscious of safety. Ride only with those who watch for one another and don’t gallop off leaving you in the dust clinging to your horse desperately trying to keep up. A safe group ride is one where the pace is modified to accommodate the slowest horse.
What does endurance offer riders?
Endurance is challenging, exciting, satisfying. It is socially oriented, we have lots of fun together, people are gracious and share, and we often enjoy potlucks. Educational, the AERC does a lot to involve members providing lectures, conventions and educational programs on everything from shoeing, nutrition, metabolics and a terrific tiered awards program. Its all encompassing, I can’t say enough about this sport from the competitors, to the vets, to race organizers and volunteers there is nothing better.
Is Ritz like your other horses?
I have never met a horse like Ritz. If Ritz has a problem with something, he will tell you about it. At home, he is first to be groomed, fed, tacked, in his opinion there’s just no other way to do things. He runs a tight ship. He taught us how to live around him. If the saddle doesn’t fit just right he will crow hop then stop and refuse to move. There have been many times that I dismount to adjust tack to his liking. He will stand quietly with other horses galloping by until I remount, then off he goes to catch up
He has a tremendous work ethic. He is all eyes and ears on the trail. He is very powerful and he enjoys his strength. When we ride with a group, he is in front, always. He is a chill dude, in control. He tells us what he wants. We are very aware that he has trained us to live in his world. The scary, mean bucking horse now lets anyone ride him. Our grandchildren climb all over him, they can do anything to him and he is careful with them.
What is Ritz’s favorite treat?
Carrots. I am never without carrots. They are a treat but also a training tool. I use carrots to teach the horses to stand quietly when I mount. I show them the carrot then once mounted I reach forward and hand them the carrot. I take about a minute to wiggle around, get comfortable, check my tack while they chew. My horses are taught not to move until I ask them.
How have horses enriched your life?
Our life is a gift from God. God gave me horses and my family. What more could I want than what I have. I believe horses are my ministry, that they enhance all my relationships. I want a relationship with my horse because my horse gives it back. Horses fill your soul.
I feel it is my role is to help people and their horses build bonds. You can always be yourself with your horse. If you cry in their mane, they understand. The depth that they can fill you is unfathomable, it can’t, however, be measured because it is different for each of us. For those of us who love horses, our life is incomplete without them.
How has your relationship with Ritz changed riding as a team for nearly 20 years?
He blossomed from that angry, hopeless horse tied alongside a trailer. And I have gone from distrusting him to trusting him with my life.
What does the future hold for you and Integrity?
Ritz is retiring in December. Our last endurance ride was December 27, 2017 the Death Valley Ride. For 15 years we have volunteered for the mounted unit at Humbold Redwood State Park and we will continue to do so. There are 20-25 riders in the unit. We patrol the trails, handing out maps to visitors and checking trail conditions for the park service. We occasionally assist a hiker or biker in trouble. Recently we carried an overheated dog to a creek so he could sit in the cold water and recover. We usually ride twice a week, less during winter. The park offers 60 miles of horse trails from valley floor to towering trails and terrific camping facilities.
Ritz is retiring but I am not. I am 71 and starting two new horses, both seven year olds. I have no expectations for them other than to help them become well-adjusted horses. I will work with them slowly building their stamina for the 50’s and after that think about 100’s. Many of my friends are competing endurance in their 80’s. I aspire to continue at least that long.
The best moments with our horses are often those when you feel connected, when the two of you are in sync. In some ways connection is immediate; knowing that one horse within a herd is the one for you or knowing that frantic, unhappy horse twirling at the end of the rope, needs your help. Joyce and Ritz had an immediate connection that continues to blossom 20 years later.
“If I enjoy a trail ride, I can tell Ritz enjoys it too. When he is having a good day, my day is improved,” explained Joyce.
Divinity intervened on that fateful day in 1998 but their devotion for one another came only after putting in hundreds of miles together. Teamwork is achieved only when all parties have put in the work. Partners think and act together, they rely on one another for support, direction and love. Joyce and Ritz have that and so much more.
Photography Courtesy Joyce and Dennis Sousa