Just 21, she’s already logged thousands of miles on horseback as one of America’s top young en-durance riders.
Katelyn Baldino will never forget the moment she crossed the finish line at the FEI Endurance World Championships for Young Riders and Juniors in Pisa, Italy. It was her third attempt at completing a World Championship endurance race, and indeed, the third time was the charm.
“I don’t know if I’ve ever cried more in a day in my life,” Katelyn, 21, recalls with a laugh. “I knew it was the last ride of my Young Rider career and I was just so proud of Traction.”
Aboard Traction, a 9-year-old Arabian gelding owned by Melody and Jeff Blittersdorf, Katelyn came across the finish line in just over seven hours this past September, along with fellow U.S. teammate Maria Muzzio, giving the U.S. Team a 6th place finish. Someone had given the riders American flags to carry, and as they entered the finish area, they could see their families, friends and the support staff who had helped make their achievement possible.
“I will probably remember that moment until the day I die,” says Katelyn. “I was so proud of my horse and how hard he worked for me that day. I couldn’t be happier.”
The ‘Will to Persevere’
Endurance riding is the ultramarathon of equine sports. For the 75-mile distance, riders and hors-es have 18 hours to complete a trail course, and very thorough vet checks every 10-20 miles to determine whether a duo is allowed to continue. Metabolics, soundness and the overall attitude of each horse is assessed.
Although Katelyn had completed numerous rides on home soil in preparation for the World Championships, her previous two World Championship attempts had ended in veterinary disqual-ification — so making it all the way through in Italy was a victory in itself.
“We say, ‘To finish is to win,’” says Katelyn. “If you can complete this big challenge while taking wonderful care of your horse, then you’ve won.”
Each race presents its own challenges based on terrain and conditions. Sometimes, you’re riding through dark woods. Other times, you’re crossing open plains in blazing sun. Rain or shine, the race continues and the time limit stands. Horse and rider must be both physically and mentally strong.
“It’s not a manicured course where they’ve gone out and laid down footing,” Katelyn explains. “In the U.S., it’s a lot of state parks or public trailheads. Sometimes you’ll ride through fields or the woods or cross rivers. It’s truly an all-terrain sport.
“You’re gonna hurt,” Katelyn adds. “There are going to be times where you’re dehydrated or you’re sore or it’s raining, but if you just keep going, you’re gonna get it done and you’re going to be successful. For the people and the horse, it’s that will to persevere. You have to get com-fortable with the uncomfortable to be successful.”
For Katelyn, one of the joys of the sport is the connection a rider makes with her horse.
“It’s a really cool way to spend some time with the horse and see a lot of the world,” she says. “The horses are so happy on the trail. If it didn’t seem like something the horses loved, I wouldn’t want to be part of it.”
A Constant in Her Life
“I got involved with horses when I was in first grade,” Katelyn remembers. “I took a less a week for a really long time. Eventually I decided I wanted to take two lessons a week. I was just that kid who loved to ride. I was that barn rat that hung out with the horses all the time.”
Katelyn first became interested in endurance riding when she was just 10 years old. At age 12, she rode her first race — 25 miles — on a Friday and then returned to ride another 25-mile race the next day.
“I was so sore and tired, I literally could not walk,” she says, laughing. “But I loved it. It was the most fun I’d ever had on a horse.”
Over the years, she’s found an incredible, supportive community among her fellow endurance riders. “I’ve grown up in this sport, and the community has been a big extended family to me,” says Katelyn.
As she finishes her senior year at the University of Georgia, Katelyn has a new challenge ahead: life beyond school. With a degree in biology and a minor in horticulture, she’s considering the possibility of grad school to obtain a Master’s in Plant Pathology, the management of plant dis-eases in a way that maximizes crop yield and minimizes impact on the environment.
“I didn’t even know plant pathology was a thing until I took a class and had to read a paper on a disease in Maine that was wiping out the blueberry crop.” Katelyn explained. “I talked to a pro-fessor and she said if you think this is cool, you should intern for one of the professors in the de-partment. I did that and I just fell in love with the science.”
She’s also dreaming of her next big athletic challenge: a 100-mile endurance race.
Whatever the future brings, professionally and competitively, Katelyn knows one thing for sure: Horses will always be part of her life.
“I love horses more than anything,” she says. “They are my happy place. They’re the safe spot that no matter what’s going on in my life, horses will always be there for me. They’ve always been a place where, if I need a minute, I know they’ve got me.”