Going the distance
Sands woman successful as endurance equestrian
MARQUETTE — For Jessie Finnila, riding her horse is not about winning the Kentucky Derby. As an endurance equestrian, it’s more about the long haul.
Finnila, 38, who lives in Sands Township, is involved in horse competitions focused on long distances rather than track sprints.
“I used to sit on my pony all day long,” said Finnila, who has ridden horses practically her entire life, with her mother, Wendy Maas, getting her interested in the pursuit.
Finnila took part in a three-day 100-mile race at age 5, and never stopped participating in endurance racing.
The competition is fairly simple.
“It’s 50- and 100-mile races in the woods, through trails, cross-country,” she said. “The first person across the line wins.”
If you think this is hard on a horse, though, she noted the animals are examined along the way, with vet checks at various intervals in a race.
“There will be a 10-mile loop, 12-mile loop or 15-mile loop,” Finnila said. “You come into the check, and you have to get your horse’s heart rate down to 60, and then once it’s down to 60, the clock stops and you’re on a mandatory hold.”
In fact, she said vets perform a full exam, checking the animal’s dehydration and gut sounds, for example.
Maas said vets look at a horse before a race to see if it’s fit to race, and in a 50-mile race, they will look at the horse three more times. If there’s anything wrong, “they will pull you at the slightest little thing.”
Since they’re on the trail so long, endurance equestrians take in a lot of scenery along the way.
“You see bear and moose, elk,” Maas said. “You see everything.”
Finnila said a race can be as fast as 8¢ hours or as slow as 24 hours, so people and horses refuel themselves at vet checks.
Finnila said has raced everywhere this year from lower Michigan and Wisconsin to Minnesota and North Dakota. And it’s been a successful year, with her horse, Starstrider, winning six out of seven races, taking a second place and earning six “Best Conditions,” which she said are awarded to one of the top 10 horses.
“It’s basically what the vet would award the horse that’s in best condition,” she said. “To me, it’s better than first place — and they say the best-conditioned horse is fit to go another 50 miles the next day.”
Starstrider is a 9-year-old Arabian horse she bred and raised.
“Last year, she had an extremely good year too,” Finnila said. “She won everything last year except for one race, and she does everything barefoot, so no metal shoes.”
Starstrider is ranked first in the country for rankings in Best Condition, and has competed all of her races all over the country without steel shoes.
” I do all her hoof care,” Finnila said, “and feel one of the reasons she is so successful is because she races barefoot.”
Finnila has over 8,000 endurance miles on her record with more than 20 one-day, 100-mile races.
Training a horse for endurance races equates to how a marathon runner handles training, she said. Her season begins as soon as the snow is gone, training in the woods a couple miles a week and eventually increasing the speed and distance and getting in hill work.
Her mother is a long-distance equestrian as well.
“We ride three or four days a week, and one day of long, slow distance, so maybe 10 miles at a trot, one day up hills where you run up as fast as you can and then get off and walk down on foot, and just keep on repeating, just as a runner would,” Maas said.
A third day will involve traveling 3 or 4 miles at a “pretty good canter,” she added.
Endurance racing isn’t always easy for the riders either.
“It’s very hard on the body, but your muscles adapt to it just like any other sport that you’re in,” Finnila said. “You have to build your muscles up to it just like a marathon. As far as horses and people, it’s very important what goes into their body too as far as food and nutrition.”
She said that since her horse travels barefoot, she watches everything that goes into Starstrider’s body, with blood work performed every few months.
“I try to keep the sugar really low,” Finnila said. “We get our hay analyzed, and give them certain minerals to balance out other minerals.”
Finnila, who works at Cleveland-Cliffs Inc., finds all this appealing.
“You really have to learn about your sport,” she said. “I could go out and look at my horse and tell you if there was something was wrong with her, if she wasn’t moving right. You really, really get to learn your horse when you spend that much time in the saddle and when you spend that much time on hoof care and nutrition.
“It’s a really rewarding sport.”
Christie Mastric can be reached at 906-228-2500, ext. 250. Her email address is email@example.com.