Like A Phoenix Rising, Lincoln Trail 2014

SOMETIMES LIFE DEMANDS that you refocus.
My wife Sandy and I love the sport of endurance riding. We train and compete gaited horses, and endurance has been an
important part of our empty nest years. We both compete mainly at the 50-mile distance but she does some LDs and I compete in some 100s. Sandy has a long list of autoimmune disorders that would leave most grandmas at home in the recliner.

In September of 2013, I came into a vet check in a 100 and she was sitting in a chair with a bloody rag on her head. She had fallen and hit her head while walking her Missouri Fox Trotter, Samba, who had been pulled with a lameness issue.
A couple of months later, we found out that Samba had EPM. It became so bad that you could push on the horse’s hip and it would almost knock her down. Samba had also lost hundreds of pounds and no amount of feed and hay would put weight back on her.

Sandy fell again a month later on a bluff overlook in the Shawnee National Forest. After that, she was diagnosed with an ultrarare autoimmune disorder called Stiff Limb Syndrome. She is one of 400 people in the
world with that diagnosis. She was put on once-monthly immunoglobulin IVs. We treated her horse and we treated her.
Cancer tends to run with this strange disorder and Sandy was found to have liver cancer too. Her medical team took out the cancer and part of her liver in February of this year. For a month she lived and slept in a recliner next to our bed. Sandy dreamed of getting outside and riding a horse again. I kept treating the horse and then training the horse with the help of friends.

In April, several of my friends and I put Sandy on the tailgate of a pickup truck and we helped her carefully onto a horse for the first time since that fall in October. She refused to give up, and neither did the rest of us. I recruited two friends with warmblood horse backgrounds. Neither had ridden a gaited horse before starting to ride our horses. They learned and they applied themselves in a systematic manner. I taught them how to ride a gaited horse, how to use GPS watches, heart rate monitors, and how to trot out. I put Gabrielle Hoffmann, who is from Germany, on our TWH mare Cheyenne.

Cheyenne had six 50-mile completions and is a powerhouse of a horse. We call her “Tina Turner in horse form.” Gabby rode Cheyenne with me in a 50 in Illinois in June. I had two horses in 50s that weekend myself. Not only did Gabby do well and finish in the top ten at her first AERC ride, she asked me if I had another horse for her the second day of the ride. I told her “no,” but as she thought she was ready to ride further, I agreed to help her get ready for a 100 in September called Lincoln Trail.

IMG_0896                                        Gaby Hoffman and Cheyenne

So, I ratcheted up the training. It would be a chance for Cheyenne to get her first 100 completion. It would be Gaby’s second ride of any kind. I kept up the training of Sandy’s horse by encouraging Sandy to make the effort to get out with us on Saturdays to ride. I took another of our gaited mares, a gorgeous blue roan Standardbred/TWH cross named
Indigo for another friend, David Kalhok of Canada. I had been training this horse for a year and a half myself and the mare had both a 30 LD and a 50 completion.

I hatched a plan to have Sandy ride in the 30-mile LD and have David ride with Sandy on Indigo. Sandy’s MFT mare Samba had been given another evaluation and was pronounced neurologically sound and cured of EPM. I thought Sandy could mentor David in the 30 and he could help her on and off Samba and do the trot-outs. Of course, our gaited horses don’t actually “trot.”

The ride itself couldn’t have been any better.

I rode my top horse, a TWH mare named Kate, in the 100. She had 19 completions for 19 starts in less than 100s and we would be trying for her fifth 100-mile completion. Gaby pulled Cheyenne in behind us and we rode conservatively due to mud on the course and the fact that Kate lost two shoes off the same foot in that mud. I taped on a boot and
worried. I decided that the easiest way to protect Kate’s foot was to put her into a pace. A pace is the most horrible gait there is. (It is easy for Kate, but horrible on my back side.) That is the reason that pacing Standardbreds are raced with a cart. I posted most of the 100.
You simply could not safely move on this course past a walk without a decent light. I had both horses trained well with lights and we sped up after dark because the course started to dry out. With four miles to go on the last loop, and well after dark, Gaby and I galloped uphill, side by side, at 16 mph. We were also hooting and hollering. We finished second and third. Cheyenne became the 65th gaited horse to finish a 100. Kate got her fifth 100 mile completion.  IMG_0943                Keith Kibler and Kate, Gaby Hoffmann and Cheyenne post 100.

While that was all good, my major excitement for the day was Sandy. She still has issues walking and fell twice trying to get around ride camp. Once David got her on Samba, he said he had a hard time helping her very much. It seems Samba was not crazy about him passing her on Indigo and neither was Sandy. My little wife turns into Lance Armstrong in these events.

We use heart rate monitors and GPS to determine which gaits, at which speeds, each horse moves most efficiently at. You know how the first four miles or so are sort of a time to forget sticking to your ride plan? That is the way Sandy usually is for the first lap of any distance. She led the first half of the LD, and even though she has been around this course many times, she was completely surprised when she and David arrived back at the ride camp.

She said she realized she was leading when she kept getting hit in the face with spiderwebs. Sandy led almost all of the second lap but wisely finished second when she let her horse walk in the last half-mile. David and Indigo were third.

IMG_0918                    Sandy Kibler and Samba, David Kalhok and Indigo

It was the best weekend of my life.


I was so proud of Sandy I cried. With a disorder that is on the Social Security automatic disability list, my determined wife fiercely refused to give up her dream of competing in endurance again. Not even falling in the camp stopped her from reaching for her dream. Both Sandy and Samba rose like the Phoenix from what would have stopped many other athletes, equine and human. Their heroism and determination, to me, is what endurance is supposed to be about.

Take courage and encourage each other. Life is short.

Keith Kibler

Shawnee Sunrise Farm2014-09-06 20.12.46

Keith and Sandy Kibler
Shawnee Sunrise Farm
Marion IL

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