Going the Distance

By Rachel Wisinski | Photo provided by Sherry Aune

Sherry Aune has never been a morning person, but getting out of bed before dawn has never been an issue if the day ahead involved two things: horse shows and traveling. At 59, Aune has found a way to combine, in essence, these two life-long passions by competing in endurance riding, a sport where the horse and its rider act as a team to cover long-distance courses.

Even years after taking up the pastime, Aune says she still can’t sleep the night before a ride, and she’ll happily get up at 4:30 a.m. to be read for a 6 a.m. trip.

“I’ve been a horse lover since I could walk,” she says. “Somehow if it gets in your blood, it doesn’t go away.”

Aune, who grew up in Illinois, met her husband Chris in Mackinac Island, Michigan. The couple briefly lived in Texas, before moving to the Geneva Lakes area in 1981, where they eventually built a house on 40 acres of land.

Their home sits atop a small hill down a gravel driveway about a half mile from the road. Aune’s love for horses is easily recognized when glancing at the home’s décor. Next to the front door, a stained glass window incorporating a horse silhouette greets visitors, while horse figurines line the fireplace mantle.

Outside, a pasture and five-stall barn enclose six Arabian pure and crossbred horses, ranging from chestnut to bay — a reddish brown.

Always drawn to the Midwest, Aune credits the move to Walworth County as the reason for her continued affinity for horses and what would become her enthusiasm for endurance riding.

By chance it was Aune’s attire, a Parelli Natural Horsemanship clinic polo shirt, which led to this new-found hobby. While wearing it at a cocktail party after a golf outing at Geneva National Resort 10 years ago, a woman approached her and asked her if she rode. Aune explained how she used to show horses and barrel race and how she now rode on trails around her home. She also expressed her desire to try endurance riding but hadn’t found an outlet to get started.

The woman excitedly told Aune how she had just completed her first endurance ride and encouraged her to participate in the next one at the Northern Kettle Moraine Horse Trail (within the Northern Kettle Moraine State Forest) northwest of Milwaukee.

By the end of 2006, Aune had completed her first 25-mile ride.

What she didn’t anticipate was how sore her body would be afterward. She was conditioned to ride, but had not trained for the long haul. Aune vowed she would be prepared for the next ride — and she couldn’t wait to compete again.

COMPETITIVE HEAT

Now Aune competes on a national, regional, and statewide level for the American Endurance Ride Conference, the Upper Midwest Endurance and Competitive Rides Association, and the Distance Riding Association of Wisconsin. Because her horses are Arabian, she also competes in the National Arabian Horse Association and has finished as regional champion twice and national top 10 in distance riding.

Endurance riders accumulate points based on finishes and completions in various rides across the country, working toward individual goals set at the beginning of the season, which begins in early May and lasts until the first week of November in the Midwest Region.

Scenery in locations from Oklahoma to North Carolina have become the backdrop for Aune’s rides over the years. She hopes to add Colorado to that list this year.

“That’s what’s so fun about it for me; just seeing different parts of the country on horseback that I wouldn’t otherwise have the opportunity to see,” she says. “There are just so many beautiful areas.”

GOING THE DISTANCE

Sherry Aune has become a member of the 1,000-mile club twice. It took her and her horse Lily Creek Rhythm two years to achieve this goal, whereas she and Cabernet Sauvignon, affectionately known as “Cabby,” did it in six years in part due to some setbacks as well as Aune’s commitment to her full-time job, which limited the number of rides the two could complete.

During each ride, horses are required to pass “vet checks,” where a professional monitors metabolics and checks for lameness. Aune says both Rhythm and Cabby have been honored as best conditioned horses several times.

Although successful in the sport, Aune has faced a number of challenges as well. In 2009, she traveled to Oklahoma to participate in a 50-mile ride. Stopping at the first vet check after 15 or 20 miles, the vet determined her horse had thrown a shoe and was slightly lame as a result. Not passing vet inspection disqualifies a participant from the race, so they ultimately had traveled to Oklahoma for nothing.

“It’s very humbling,” Aune says. “When you first start this sport and you never get pulled and never have any problems, you think, ‘Oh, this is easy,’ and then if you do it long enough, it’s going to happen to you.”

Last spring, Cabby was sidelined after getting her front foot caught on a tree root and tearing her check ligament. Aune also tore her meniscus, broke a finger and jammed a couple more during the season.

FROM DREAM TO REALITY

During her childhood, Aune spent summers at her grandparents’ house in Fairfield, Iowa. She became friends with a girl in the area whose grandparents had a horse farm near town, so they spent every day doing the two things the girls loved — swimming and riding horses.

“When I was a little girl, I dreamed of having my own horse,” she says. “Then I grew up and had dreams of having my own horse in the backyard. God has blessed me, and my dreams have come true.”

Although grateful every day, Aune says caring for the animals during the winter months is more difficult. It’s a labor of love, she explains. Trudging out into the wind and snow to feed the horses and make sure their water isn’t frozen takes patience.

“I live for summers — summer and fall,” she says.

MORE THAN A HOBBY

Sometime in March of each year, Sherry Aune trailers one of her horses to the southern unit of Kettle Moraine State Forest near Palmyra where they begin training for the riding season.

Because the horses have been conditioned for long distances, they don’t need much of a warmup to get back in shape after the winter, since they also have a pasture to run in. However, Aune will provide supplements and electrolytes to maintain their muscles and hydration during the riding season.

They’ll eat a little more when they’re working harder, and they’ll even receive massages, just as Aune will, to work out any kinks.

For convenient conditioning, she often saddles up and rides the length of Palmer Road, where the Aune’s farm is located.

But she accumulates the majority of her miles at the Southern Kettle Moraine State Forest. She says she enjoys the combination of flat land, hills, rocky surfaces and crossing water during a long-distance ride.

During a typical flat ground trot, the horses reach speeds between 10 and 12 miles per hour. However, their mode of travel changes with the terrain — horses walk, gallop and trot depending on hills, rocks and water on the trails.

Aune takes at least one companion when she goes on a trip, whether it’s her husband, mother, friend or one of her two boxers.

“You definitely need the support of your family if you’re gone every weekend or every other weekend,” she says.

It also helps to have someone to handle moving trailers and the motor home, her home away from home, after she finishes each stretch of a ride.

Aune’s husband joined her in 2014, when she completed what she says is her biggest accomplishment – riding 250 miles, 50 miles a day, from Oscoda, Michigan, to Empire, Michigan — shore to shore, from Lake Huron to Lake Michigan.

She says she approached the ride as any other, and admittedly thought it would be easy. But after two days, she was in so much pain she wanted to give up.

After a few rounds of Advil and help from a fellow rider who lent her a back brace, she was ready to finish what she started.

In the end, Aune riding Rhythm completed the 250 miles, placing first overall and was best conditioned two of the five days.

Every ride is an accomplishment when you finish it, she emphasizes. And meeting people like the woman who gave her the back brace is a perk.

“That’s part of the joy of it,” she says. “You’re with your horse, but then you’re also around other people who love doing the same thing you do.”

WHAT’S NEXT?

Aune and her husband raised three children — all boys — but now they have 2-year-old and 6-month granddaughters. The 2-year-old is “pretty horse crazy,” says Aune as she expresses her excitement about the prospect of this little girl enjoying the horses in the future.

When she’s not riding or tending to her horses, Aune is busy working in the family’s business: Sperino’s Restaurant in Elkhorn, where she’s in charge of bookkeeping and maintaining payroll.

Her love of horses, however, keeps her focused on several personal goals and projects. In the future, she’d like to build an outdoor riding ring, and perhaps find enough horse lovers to make it feasible to create a horse leasing business. She’d also like to give back to the horse community by becoming a more active mentor.

Despite the setbacks she and Cabby endured during the 2015 endurance riding season, Aune looks forward to competing strong in 2016.

One thing is clear — horses are central to her in the near future and beyond. “I don’t see myself not having a horse,” she says. “They’re my therapy.”

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