Dr. Mike Foss is back caring for area pets and livestock at Hood River Alpine Veterinary Hospital.
In mid-March, the Snowden resident left the snow and showers of a lingering Columbia Gorge winter and flew to the sunshine of Guatemala. He added another stamp to his passport, and another nation to the list of places where he's served as an official veterinarian for an international endurance horse race.
The sport of endurance horse racing is growing world-wide. Each event offers competitors the option of four race lengths -- 25, 50, 75, and 100 miles. Unlike some kinds of equestrian competitions, lots of special equipment and clothing is not required, just well-fitting saddles and tack.
Endurance racing is more family-oriented than many equine sports. Foss says competitors range in age from children to people in their 70s.
While Arabian and Arabian-cross horses tend to be the fastest at the long distances, the breeds of participating horses are not restricted. Foss says he's even seen draft horses taking part.
And while most of the humans choose to ride their equine teammates, a few test their own endurance by running alongside their horses.
The United States boasts a large slate of endurance rides, and it was at one of these that Foss first became involved with the sport. He had long had a special interest in horses and equine sports medicine, and was doing research and writing articles in addition to the work of his veterinary practice. Some 20 years ago, organizers of an endurance ride in Trout Lake asked him to serve as race veterinarian.
He enjoyed the experience and the people, and became more and more involved in the sport, working to organize events, serving as an official veterinarian at rides across the nation and in Canada, and developing the first accredited Endurance Veterinary course in the American continents.
He was also asked to serve as team veterinarian for the United States Equestrian Endurance Team, and earned certification through the Federation Equestre Internationale (FEI), making him one of an elite group of race officials whom organizers can choose to invite to work their events.
In 2009, he was named "Veterinarian of the Year" by the Pacific Northwest Endurance Rides organization.
While Dr. Foss continues to work at Northwest and other U.S. races, he has also been invited to officiate at international races around the world. In addition to Guatemala, he's been to Germany, France, Spain, the United Arab Emirates (UAE), Australia, New Zealand, and Argentina.
"Each has its own flavor," he says of the contests. "Northwest races are usually through forests, using trails and logging roads. There is a California race in Death Valley. The race in the Emirates was across the desert sands, and horse owners and spectators raced alongside in vehicles, creating clouds of dust that made it hard to even see the horses. The Australian race was an urban race through their capital city of Canberra. It's a planned city with lots of green space, and they raced through that, used freeway underpasses, and went past the Parliament Building."
In Guatemala, he found himself in the middle of the third-largest sugar cane plantation in Central America.
"The operators of the plantation agreed to open a few gates, which provided the race organizers with 100 miles of plantation roads and trails for the event," he said.
An adjacent airport afforded hangers for stabling the horses. A huge cane processing plant provided a backdrop.
The race site was on the west coast of Guatemala, at only about 200 feet elevation, so the contest was held at night, to reduce the effects of heat and humidity on the horses.
Endurance courses are laid out either as a loop away from and returning to the base camp, or as a series of loops fanning out from the base. Either way, there are checkpoints every 15-25 miles. At each checkpoint, a veterinarian evaluates every horse's heart rate and vital signs before it is allowed to continue. That is Dr. Foss' job.
Guatemala is working to develop an endurance racing program, and organizers wanted four-star FEI rated officials with international experience. Foss and other highly rated officials were invited. FEI endurance rides require international officials to assure fairness.
Working at the race was a terrific experience for the officials from the United States, Foss says, but spending time with their Guatemalan hosts was even better.
"We stayed in lovely homes, and the people were just great. They took us everywhere -- shopping, sightseeing -- they were very nice."
He says they visited small shops, historic churches and towns, Mayan ruins, watched erupting volcanoes -- ones with periodic ash eruptions, and ones with lava flowing down their sides -- drove roadways alongside brightly colored busses so crowded that some passengers held onto the outside, and saw wildlife areas with monkeys in jungle trees, colorful birds and interesting animals. They traveled through climate zones ranging from steamy coastal areas to cool mountains.
"It's always wonderful to meet the people," he says. "When you get a group of veterinarians together, even if you don't all speak the same language, there are always ways to communicate. It's neat that my work can be so much fun."
The next endurance race events on Foss' calendar are local -- a ride at Trout Lake on May 16, and a two-day event at Glenwood on May 30-31. Both are popular regional events, drawing horses and people from around the Northwest and Canada. Usually, some 100 to 200 horses compete in these regional events.
His future plans for working at international competitions? He's just waiting for the next invitation.
"I keep my passport and rabies immunizations current," he says. The passport allows him to cross international borders, the rabies immunizations are necessary because he may find himself putting his hands in the mouths of horses anywhere in the world.