Hanna Bartnick practices swimming with her horse Unicorn before the beginning of the Race the Wild Coast competition in South Africa.

Hanna Bartnick contended with sharks, bears, and sandstorms during her capstone project and transcontinental odyssey.

As 23-year-old Bartnick raced her Boerperd gelding along South Africa’s aptly named Wild Coast, the duo negotiated jagged boulders, water crossings, vertical climbs, and narrow trails crowned with thorns.

It wasn’t until horse and rider arrived at the sandy shores of the Umzimvubu River on day two of the grueling Race the Wild Coast competition that the student paused to consider her most dangerous threat – sharks.

Located in the Eastern Cape province just south of Port St. Johns, the river, which feeds into the Indian Ocean, is a well-known breeding ground for bull sharks, making its waters some of the most perilous in the world. While swims were a daily part of the race, Bartnick and her competitors were warned to avoid this particular waterway.

“The river was the most direct crossing, but I didn’t want to contend with bull sharks since they can attack without provocation,” said Bartnick, a senior majoring in animal and poultry sciences with an equine production emphasis. “So, we moved up to a township called Port St. Johns to take a longer, but less dangerous route. Unfortunately, I was the last competitor in the lead group to make it through the horse change station, and my group, the race leaders, left without me.”

The detour left Bartnick facing sunset with only her GPS to guide her.

Bartnick swims her horse Going Gold alone across South Africa’s Mthatha River, hot on the heels of the race leaders.

“In Port St. Johns, we arrived at a busy road flanked by a steep embankment. The heavy traffic forced us onto a narrow sidewalk. When the drivers began honking, my horse, Going Gold, bolted, pitching me on the sidewalk. He fell down the embankment, sliding almost to the river’s edge. My own fall was so hard I thought I’d broken my pelvis. It was terrifying, and there were no other riders to help.”

For emergencies, Bartnick and her competitors were given panic buttons that, if utilized, would bring aid but disqualify them from the race.

“I thought I would have to use it, but after 10 minutes of struggle, I had Going Gold free. Somehow, he was all right. I hand-walked him down the highway during which time he stepped on my foot and ripped off my toenail. That hurt more than bone breaks I’ve endured,” continued Bartnick, who has been riding since childhood.

Considered one of the world’s most competitive races, Race the Wild Coast is 350-kilometer, multihorse endurance race. Riders draw their three mounts without knowing anything about the horses they will ride across stunning, treacherous terrain along the coast of South Africa.

“You don’t know if you’ve drawn a good climber, what its heart rate will be, or what its temperament is like,” said Bartnick with surprising nonchalance. “All of this factors into the placings. These types of races require a little bit of skill and a lot of luck.”

Bartnick, whose deft horsemanship is matched by her pluck and determination, spent the summer and fall competing in not one, but three international horse adventures. Each tested her skill, not to mention her mettle, while opening the student to extraordinary vistas normally reserved for nomadic peoples and the most seasoned National Geographic photographers.

Her travels, all part of a capstone project for the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences, brought the equestrian first to Mongolia, then to California, and finally to South Africa during the summer and fall. Bartnick’s project explores equine welfare and management strategies among the three events.

Bartnick and her cohorts navigated hidden marmot holes along with several sand storms during the 10-day Gobi Gallop in Mongolia.

In reflecting on her adventure, Bartnick speaks of the country and its people with reverence, referring to Mongolia as the nation that captured her heart. She was awestruck by the country’s breathtaking “desolate vastness,” characterized by unfenced, open expanses, and by its hidden wonders, including herds of camels, sheep, goats, gazelles, and golden eagles.

“What also stood out is the friendliness of the people. They are modest and eager to help. When riding through the Gobi, if we saw a family, they would offer us tea made from powdered milk. They were interested in hearing our stories,” she said.

The trip marked Bartnick’s first overseas adventure, an experience she holds dear. But her next capstone project races would put her courage, perseverance, and pain tolerance to the test.

“I got back from Mongolia on July 4th, watched fireworks in New York City, drove home to pick up my dog, and headed to California for the Tevis Cup, arguably the hardest race in North America,” said Bartnick referring to the high-elevation, 100-mile endurance ride in the Sierra Nevada mountains, and the second ride in her series.

The experience did not go as planned. A bear invaded camp the night before the race, rousing the campers and devouring their food. Then, shortly after the race began, Bartnick’s mare spooked and rolled down an embankment, pitching the rider who fought to keep from sliding down the mountain. Although the mare recovered, her elevated heart rate forced the team to withdraw just hours into the race.

“You don’t know what you’re going to get when you ride a horse you don’t know,” said Bartnick with good humor about an incident that would have addled even the most seasoned endurance rider. “I’ll be back, but with one of my own horses.”

Bartnick has a touching moment with a reindeer from Mongolia’s Tsaatan tribe.

Bartnick’s quick thinking and ability to stay calm under extraordinary pressure would be tested in the South African race just three months later.

As the senior continues to integrate the lessons and gifts from her adventures, she is clear that collectively, the experiences have been defining – burnishing her resolve, and augmenting her confidence as a woman, an equestrian, and a competitor.

Despite her intense travel schedule, Bartnick made Dean’s List last semester.

“I love my major, and I enjoy studying at Virginia Tech. I’m grateful for this capstone experience because a classroom doesn’t offer anything like this,” she said. “It’s amazing how much support I received from others. I hope to be able to give it back one day.”

Bartnick and a group of riders swim their horses across a large channel.

Bartnick hopes to start an endurance team and get other students involved.

“I made incredible contacts from the races,” said the adventurer. “I could go to just about any continent and know someone. I feel like I could do anything. If you commit money and time and then get on a plane, there is no turning back. What’s scarier than that?”

To see additional photos from Bartnick’s adventures, visit her Instagram account, feral_or_die, and her Facebook page at facebook.com/hanna.bartnick

– Amy Painter