By Shaunna Angell
All photos © Remuda Photography 2023
As featured in the Winter 2024 issue of Arabian Horse World.
As the late October sun rose over Davy Crockett National Forest in East Texas, riders from many states were well on their way along the pine and elm-lined trails of the 2023 AERC National Championship. The Armadillo Endurance Ride management hosted a competitive group of 40 horse and rider pairs in the 50-mile National Championship and 28 entries in the 100-mile National Championship. The day provided sunny skies and an abundance of anticipation and excitement for everyone involved, especially for the teams who battled through the forest for 2023 National Championship titles.
Being the fastest to conquer the course in the 50-mile competition was Alisija Zabavska aboard DA Luciano, a 10-year-old Arabian gelding who was bred for the show ring but found a true passion for endurance. “Luciano means ray of light in Italian,” Alisija says fondly. “He is just that! He is the sweetest horse, just a lap dog.”
Alisija has owned Luciano for five years. She purchased the chestnut gelding (like we all do at one point or another) when she certainly did not need another horse. After putting training and time into him, she decided he was a competitor worth keeping in her herd.
When October rolled around, Alisija did not initially have AERC Nationals on her radar. “I was pretty much done for the season, but people kept asking me if I was going to Nationals. I wasn’t planning to since my horses had just raced at AHA Nationals in Minnesota. But they kept saying, ‘You have to!’ ‘This ride is in Texas, and you are in Texas. You have to represent and support!’
Alisija described the trail at Nationals as technical, explaining that “it is not the kind of course you can just blast through. There are lots of roots, washouts, and little ups and downs. Elevation-wise, it’s not terrible, but you are in the forest – everything is out there.”
Luciano took the terrain in stride, cruising to the first vet check, according to Alisija. “We didn’t go crazy fast,” she adds. “We paid close attention to the roots and washouts, and on our way to the first vet check, my biggest competition was right behind me.”
Winners of the 50-mile ride Alisija Zabavska on DA Luciano.
Unknown to Alisija, her competition diminished behind her one by one throughout the ride. Several horses were pulled at vet checks or called out of the ride due to tied-up horses and other injuries. Despite getting lost and missing the trail at one point, Alisija and Luciano carried a strong lead that continued to grow through the end of the race.
“When I left for the third loop, that was when we really cranked it up,” she recalls. “I didn’t know that a lot of people had been pulled after the second vet check. So, my competition had lessened, but I didn’t even know it. All I could see was that title, and I could almost taste it.”
“I had an hour of lead ahead of everyone. I looked like a lunatic who was pushing her horse! But that was not the case. I didn’t know everyone was getting pulled!” Alisija laughs in remembrance of her first-place finish.
Alisija attributes much of her gelding’s success to his incredible fitness. “He pulsed down exceptionally fast and always took care of himself so well … and next thing you know, Luciano finally has his title!”
Jenna Harrison atop Lily Creek Kong won first place on the 100-mile ride.
With an exhilarating win in the 100-mile national championship was Lily Creek Kong, a 15-year-old Shagya Arabian Trakehner cross, piloted by Jenna Harrison and owned by Cameron Holzer Gaytko.
“Kong” has had a long and bountiful endurance career over the past 11 years, with 16 one-hundred-mile races and 4 Tevis completions under his belt. He has been in training with Jenna Harrison and her family for just over a year, and the pair pulled off a 3rd place finish at Tevis 2023 after only four months with her in the stirrups.
“Kong just loves to run,” Jenna says, “even in training, he could go all day long. It’s part of who he is and in his heart. Having a horse as competitive as he is that has lasted this long is rare. It’s an honor to have him in our care.”
Jenna and Kong had a unique experience on this ride, trailing alongside some familiar faces and strong competitors, “the top four or five runners rode together all day,” she says. “Everybody in that group had placed top ten at Tevis earlier in the year. So we rode together periodically throughout Tevis, and then at Nationals, we rode together all day. It was fun and unique knowing that everyone had just placed top ten on those horses. You knew they were all top competitors, and this would come down to a run-off at the end.”
A run-off is precisely what it came down to. “That last loop was very exciting. We were all one minute apart,” Jenna says. “All of a sudden, it was the two of us, and we were going at a very fast clip … my horse just came alive. [The run] lit him on fire. It was really, really exciting!”
Even with a horse with as big a heart as Kong’s, Jenna knows she could not have reached this incredible feat without her family’s support and hard work. “Everything we do, we do as a family,” she says. “If it’s not me racing, I am crewing for one of my sisters. It’s really neat because we work together every day. We have learned how to function with each other so well in high-pressure situations.
“I cannot express how absolutely important they are … I could go and complete the distance, but I could never go and run at the front without having my family.”
Taking a close second place finish in the 100-mile ride were Haley Moquin and I’m Hot N Bothered.
Haley’s mom, Kim Moquin on Okbas Finale went fourth place in the 100-mile ride.
Trekking along the trail neck and neck with Jenna and finishing in 2nd place was Haley Moquin on I’m Hot N Bothered, her 14-year-old Arabian gelding by French Open, son of Okba. Haley has owned “PJ” for three years and has accumulated leaps and bounds of trail miles and progress miles on him during that time.
“When I got him, he was very bad and did not want to be ridden,” Haley explains. “I ended up sending him to a trainer [who] said that PJ was in the top three most difficult horses he ever started under saddle.”
Although PJ can still be a challenging ride today, he and Haley have fallen into a successful stride in their partnership over the past two years, with two Tevis completions (12th place in 2022 and 6th place in 2023). “I do a lot of longer, slower miles for his brain,” she says. “He doesn’t do well with rest, but he is just so freaky talented that he got the nickname Freaky.”
The morning of the national championship ride Haley and PJ were faced with equipment challenges, with PJ’s shoes not fitting right due to him being in between sizes. “Immediately, I could just tell he hated them,” she says. “He didn’t want to do his super big trot. He usually goes 13 mph easy all day.”
As the ride and day progressed, PJ did perk up and found his groove alongside Haley’s mom, Kim Moquin, and her mount Finn. “My mom and I always ride together,” Haley says. “We had said that if our out times were not the same going into the last loop, we would leave one another. So this was my first time on PJ at a ride without my mom for the last loop.”
On that last loop, Haley hit “the gas pedal” for a strong second-place finish. “I’ve never really pushed PJ at a ride before, and this was a really competitive national championship,” she says. “I asked PJ to go, and he completely went for it. The last loop was 11 miles, and our average speed was 17 mph.”
If this ride foreshadows Haley and Freaky the Horse, we can expect to see more exciting finishes in their future. Haley shares her hopes for their partnership, “I’ve never had a horse who was so motivated. PJ will be the one I can have all my one hundred-mile success on; that’s his favorite distance.”
Riding to a 4th place finish in the one hundred was Haley’s mom and “partner in trail,” Kim Moquin, aboard Okba’s Finale. “Finn” is a 16-year-old Arabian gelding by Kim’s favorite stallion, Okba.
“Haley started riding endurance first, and at the time, her horse was seasoned, and mine wasn’t, so we never got to ride together,” says Kim. “Now, years later, we got her horse, PJ, my horse’s nephew, and they’re able to pace together. The horses are related, and we’re related. It’s never been more fun getting to book it down the trail with my daughter!”
Kim tells another tale of a great day with her chestnut partner, “every now and then, you have that ride where your horse just hits it all day, “she says. “That’s what Nationals was for us. [Finn’s] entire day was just phenomenal. It was his fastest ride to date. He ate like a champ and had this amazing ground-covering trot. I could feel the miles passing underneath us.”
Special horses must run in the family for the Moquins. Both mother and daughter have found irreplaceable mounts. “I couldn’t have asked for him to perform better that day, especially for us being the two oldest in the top five – he was the oldest horse, and I was the oldest person. I have never been on a horse that loves going down the trail even more than me. He’s so confident. He’s such a kind, honest guy.”
Horses and riders enjoyed well-earned rest and celebration as the dust on the trail settled behind them at the 2023 AERC National Championships. Happy trails until next year!