Amateur Felisa Read finds her perfect match with an unlikely partner
By Christina Keim
In the dark, damp, early morning hours of June 11, 2022, 34 endurance competitors were busily making final preparations for the American Endurance Ride Conference 100 Mile National Championship at Old Dominion in Virginia. A cold rain had started the night before, and continued now, just before dawn, where it soaked through gloves, ran into boots, and saturated the rocky trails that competitors were slated to tackle beginning at 5:30 AM. Perhaps most of the assembled riders did not consider these to be the ideal conditions for this long, grueling ride, respectfully nicknamed “the beast of the east” by those who have attempted it. But at least one rider smiled as raindrops fell from her hood.
“Lenny loves the rain,” says his owner/rider Felisa Read with a laugh. “That’s his Morgan half. It was really cool and wet, so for us it was a good advantage. I was happy—I think I said before the ride I’ll be happy if it rains all day.”
17 hours, 8 minutes, 35 seconds, and 100 sodden, slippery miles later, Read and her 22-year-old Morab partner would cross the finish line, pulse down and jog for the vets one last time before officially earning their new title of “Decade Team” from the AERC. This coveted award is presented to horse and rider teams that have completed at least one 50-mile endurance ride in each of ten years; a true testament not just to perseverance but to outstanding horsemanship.
With over 2,000 AERC lifetime miles on his record, Lenny was one of the oldest horses at Old Dominion that weekend. But if his finish at this ride is any indication, he has no intention of slowing down anytime soon. And that is just fine with Read.
“I’m really proud,” says Read, becoming choked up. “I always get emotional when I think about it, because it’s no place I’d ever thought we’d end up. At the beginning, a lot of people thought we were not a very good match, and kind of a crazy fit. But he’s truly my heart horse, I think.
“He just amazes me,” Read continues. “He just gets stronger and stronger.”
Read hasn’t always been an endurance rider. In fact, she didn’t even start riding until she was an adult, when a colleague invited Read to join her on some after work rides aboard her niece’s pony. Read was soon hooked and began taking formal lessons, then leasing, and finally buying a Thoroughbred of her own. But the match didn’t prove to be what she had hoped for.
“We were a bad, bad fit,” Read admits now. “I was a new rider and he was fresh off the track and too much for me. He was petrified of the horse trailer. Everything scared him to death.
“I always had envisioned that I would have a horse that I could just take out behind my house and go ride,” Read continues. “That’s what I wanted—to just go out trail riding on my own and to have a competent horse I could do that with.”
One day, Read’s farrier mentioned that he had a horse in his barn in need of a new home. The horse was young—maybe 6 or 7 years old—and pretty green, but unlike Read’s Thoroughbred, he was very brave. No one knew for sure where he had originally come from or exactly what his breeding was, but the farrier thought he might make a nice trail horse.
Though not officially horse shopping, Read went to her farrier’s farm to meet the horse. The 15.1 hand gelding had a broad chest, sturdy legs, and solid feet like a Morgan, but the refined face and personality of an Arabian. When he looked at her with his liquid brown eyes, inquisitive ears, and curious expression, Read was instantly smitten.
“That was Lenny,” says Read. “Of course, I fell in love with him.”
Soon after, Lenny moved to Read’s farm in Erie, Pennsylvania. Unlike her first horse, Lenny seemed to enjoy going out into the world. He loaded easily, was willing and forward to ride, and seemed like he could go all day long. Read began taking him horse camping with friends, staying out for two or three days at a time. Sometimes, Read would set her tent in the bed of her pick up and Lenny hung out adjacent to the trailer. In the mornings, they shared her cereal and at night, he’d try to eat her toothpaste.
“He just loved it,” says Read. “He didn’t really like arena work. We would last about ten minutes in a lesson, then he’d pitch a fit and throw his head around, go backwards and just do whatever because he was getting bored with it. But when we were out on the trail, he was just forward and going and not spooking. He would hi-line, and camp, and was just easy.”
One day, a friend suggested that Lenny might enjoy competitive distance riding. Read was intrigued but didn’t know much about the nuances of the sport. She decided to enter a competitive trail ride, a timed, judged ride in which horses are scored on any negative changes in their condition between the start and the finish. Due to her inexperience, Read went too fast and had to wait before crossing the finish line so as to avoid speed penalties. After that, she transitioned to endurance, a sport in which the horse’s condition is continually monitored throughout the ride and the winner is the fastest horse and rider who meets veterinary parameters at the end.
“The first endurance ride we did was sort of like the school of hard knocks,” Read admits. “I didn’t know much about how to manage electrolytes, and it was a wet, cold, rainy day. But that’s the thing—he has such a big heart. He just goes and goes.”
The pair soon overcame their rookie status, working their way up to 50- and 100-mile rides, and eventually earning multiple top ten finishes and several “best conditioned” awards. Competitors on a 100-mile ride have 24 hours to cover the distance, which includes time spent at several mandatory timed rest stops; they frequently end up riding well into the nighttime hours. Read learned that Lenny seemed to catch a second wind as soon as the sun set, cruising down trail in his preferred, ground covering trot. She came to relish these moments when it was just the two of them together in the dark, listening to the whippoorwills, inhaling the scent of mountain laurel, and counting the stars.
As Read prepared Lenny for his fifth attempt at the Old Dominion 100 Mile ride this spring, she was careful to balance conditioning on the trails with just the right amount of arena work. Though dressage is not Lenny’s favorite activity, Read has found it to be important when it comes to being able to lengthen and shorten his stride while out on trail. This year, the skill proved invaluable thanks to the slippery conditions.
“The rocks were really wet and muddy from the rain, so having control of the speed of his trot was important,” says Read. “I let him open up on the roads, then shrank him back down so he could scramble on the rocks. We ended up doing a lot of walking on the wet rocks, just to be safe and careful.”
Ultimately, over 60% of the championship starters failed to complete the ride, but Read’s strategy paid off. Not only did Lenny keep all four of his shoes on (many riders had to retire after losing shoes in the mud), but conserving his energy on the tough sections left him with plenty of engine to go faster in areas where footing was better. Throughout the day, Lenny’s vet scores stayed high (which is desirable) and he continued to happily pull Read down the trail. As they crossed the finish line, Read was shocked to realize that despite the challenging conditions, they had actually taken forty-five minutes off of their personal best time at Old Dominion. For the fourth time in five tries on this demanding ride, Lenny finished in the Top Ten.
“It was a beautiful night,” says Read. “It is really cool to be back [here] and have another completion on him. Endurance was just something we started off doing because of his high level of energy and his willingness to go. Now, we’ve made all our big goals.”
Lenny will now enjoy a month off, during which time he will accompany Read’s young horse and her 8-year-old daughter’s pony Pipsqueak to Pony Club camp. Though Read hopes that Lenny’s endurance career isn’t over just yet, she would be equally happy to simply enjoy horse camping and trail rides in nearby Allegheny State Park with him and her friends. Plus, she and her daughter are beginning to enjoy trail riding together; last year just after Christmas, the pair completed their first significant ride, covering ten miles in a local park.
After all the miles that Read and Lenny have spent together, she still struggles to wrap her head around the fact that she managed to luck into such a perfect equine partner.
“There is this hospitality stop at Old Dominion where they offer food and water for the horses and food for us,” says Read. “It’s not an official hold, and he doesn’t like it. He knows his job is to move down the trail. So, he’s just circling and circling there, not eating all this good food, because he just wants to do his job. That is truly his personality—just keep moving forward.”
Christina Keim is a narrative journalist and travel writer with a specialty in equestrian-themed topics. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in a wide variety of digital and print media, including Wanderlust Journal, The Plaid Horse, Equine Journal and Practical Horseman, and she is a regular contributor to the Chronicle of the Horse, UnTacked and Northeast Equestrian Life. She holds both an M.Ed. and an M.F.A. from the University of New Hampshire. Visit her at www.christinakeim.com.