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A Long Ride for a Long Ride: Vt., Ga. Women Unite for Equestrian Endurance Event

  • Equine dentist Linda Corey, of Fairfax, Vt., checks the incisors of Synthetic, a 17 year-old Arabian owned by Melody Blittersdorf, right, and Jeff Blittersdorf, left, at their home in Hartland, Vt., Wednesday, August 23, 2017. The Blittersdorfs are preparing Synthetic to travel in September to Verona, Italy to be ridden by a University of Georgia student in the World Endurance Championship for Young Riders and Juniors. (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

  • Melanie Blittersdorf rinses her nine-year-old Arabian horse Synerjy after washing him in Hartland, Vt., Wednesday, August 23, 2017. (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

  • Synerjy's wet mane dries in the sun after being bathed by his owner Melody Blittersdorf in Hartland, Vt., Wednesday, August 23, 2017. (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

  • Endurance equestrian Melody Blittersdorf washes Synthetic, who she rode to a first place finish in the Vermont 100 race in 2016, at her home in Hartland, Vt., Wednesday, August 23, 2017. Synthetic is being bathed daily on preparation for his trip to Verona, Italy where he will compete with a rider from the University of Georgia in the World Endurance Championship for Young Riders and Juniors. Blittersdorf hopes to earn a spot on the U.S. team for the 2018 World Equestrian Games with Synthetic's nephew, Synerjy. (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.



Valley News Staff Writer
Thursday, August 24, 2017

Hartland — Elite young equestrian rider Katelyn Baldino enjoys the endurance discipline more than any other, relishing the bond between herself and the horses through miles of natural terrain.

For the upcoming FEI World Championships for Young Riders and Juniors, both Baldino and her horse will be traveling great lengths just to get to the 75-mile course.

Baldino, a University of Georgia sophomore, and Synthetic, a 17-year-old Arabian gelding owned by Hartland rider Melody Blittersdorf, will be flying to Verona, Italy, for the world championships from Sept. 22-24.

It’s not the first time either will have gone to a different continent to compete. Two years ago, Baldino competed in the same event at a venue in Santo Domingo, Chile, the same course where Blittersdorf rode Synthetic at the 2011 Senior Pan Am Games.

Baldino, a Marietta, Ga., native who’s known Blittersdorf for three years, was named last month as one of five riders to compete for U.S. Equestrian at the Young Rider World Championships. She and Synthetic — a handsome gray gelding with “flea-bitten” orange-brown specks on his coat — last rode together while winning a qualifying event in June in Montana. Like any successful rider-horse combination, they share a unique connection.

“I’m kind of in love with him,” Baldino said in a recent phone interview between classes at Georgia, where she’s majoring in biology. “He has great perseverance and loves riding. He’s very mature and focused on competition day.

“In Montana, part of the race went through pastures with a lot of beef cows around. Some horses were probably terrified, but Synthetic just ran right on through. You have to love riding to do that. Plus, he’s very strong and stable on his feet.”

Those last attributes are vital to successful endurance riding, which involves veterinarian checkpoints every 10 to 15 miles. An irregular gait, too fast of a heart rate or behavioral abnormalities such as lack of appetite can result in elimination.

A lame gait eliminated Baldino and another borrowed horse, Kalilas Legacy, at the 2015 young rider worlds, she noted.

“He had tripped and fallen on top of me early in the race,” Baldino recalled. “I was fine, and he didn’t seem to be hurt at first. After about 15-20 miles, he started to feel lame. I think it’s kind of the same thing as a person running. Sometimes you have an accident and you think you’re fine, but eventually you start to feel it.”

Blittersdorf, 56, who is also a competitive rider, said caring for the horse’s well-being during the ride is fundamental to endurance racing.

“It’s all part of the strategy,” she said. “You pace the horse because you want the last loop to be the fastest. And you have to keep the horse safe, or the vets won’t let you continue. For people, it’s OK. Triathletes, for example, are allowed to limp across the finish line, but not horses.”

Baldino and Blittersdorf met each other three years ago at the Sand Hills Stampede in North Carolina, Blittersdorf guiding the teenager through the final stages of the race after darkness had begun to settle in.

“I was not having a great day, and my mom (Heather) asked her if she wouldn’t mind kind of taking me in for the end of the ride. She said, ‘Of course,’ and was wonderful about it,” Baldino recalled. “Her and her daughter (Krista) kind of scooped me up for the last 15 miles. It was a lot better than riding alone in the dark.”

Baldino started out doing youth hunter-jumper competitions but became enamored with endurance during her first race. Growing up near a national park, she’d already felt comfortable in the woods and cherished the opportunity to experience the outdoors with her favorite animals.

“I told my mom, ‘This is so much more fun than jumping around in circles,’ ” Baldino recalled. “Going out into the woods for the whole day on a horse brings out a whole new level of experience together. I kind of think about it like the difference between walking a dog on a leash in your neighborhood or bringing them out into the woods to run around.”

Baldino’s fastest 75-mile time is 6 hours, 49 minutes, achieved at the 2015 North American Young Riders Championships on a Kentucky course consisting primarily of flat, grassy fields. By comparison, her winning time on a mountainous Montana qualifying course in June was 8:08.

“Your pace has a lot to do with the terrain,” Baldino said. “The course in Italy, from what I understand, is a lot of rolling farmland. It’s hilly, but not overly steep.”

Synthetic will first head to a training facility in New Jersey next month before flying in a cargo plane with other animals from New York’s John F. Kennedy International Airport to Italy. (One-third of the transportation cost is being covered by U.S. Equestrian, the rest by Baldino’s parents.) The horse is already accustomed to lengthy travel excursions, having flown to Chile and regularly making the long ride between Vermont and Florida.

“He travels really well,” Blittersdorf said. “At this point, he’s got the experience where it won’t be an issue.”

Blittersdorf is motivated to assist Baldino — who doesn’t own a horse — in part by the notion of generally supporting endurance riding, something of a niche discipline with fluctuating popularity. Baldino has competed in races with as few as 12 riders and as many as 96.

“It’s important to keep the sport alive. It’s a great community of riders, and it allows you to meet so many great people and see so much,” said Blittersdorf. “There couldn’t be a nicer or more dedicated young rider to lend Synthetic to than Kate. She’s very dependable and goes 110 percent with everything she does.”

These days, Blittersdorf primarily competes on Synthetic’s nephew, 9-year-old Synerjy. The pair won the 2016 Vermont 100 endurance race and is the No. 5 internationally ranked open combination tandem. Blittersdorf is hopeful they’ll be among the U.S. senior combinations selected for next year’s World Equestrian Games in Tryon, N.C.

“It would be quite an honor,” said Bittersdorf, who has a pair of top-five finishes this year and eight wins in her last 42 events. “The field (of candidates) should be getting narrowed down soon, so we’ll see.”

Jared Pendak can be reached at jpendak@vnews.com or 603-727-3225.