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Thousands participate in the 20-mile American Heart Association Beach Ride from Lakewood Campground to 54th Avenue North in Myrtle Beach on Saturday. American Heart Association states the ride has raised more than $429,000 busting the last year’s record of $363,000. Since the event started in 1981, more than $5.1 million has been raised to support the heart association’s research and education projects. Photo by Janet Morgan/janet.morgan@myhorrynews.com

Paul Riefenberg grew up wanting to be a cowboy.

The Gastonia, North Carolina, man and his wife Terrie were two of several horse riders who saddled up for this year’s American Heart Association Beach Ride.

“There’s kind of a passion that, you know, you’re living out this fantasy that you’re back in time,” he said, “and you’re a cowboy like your ancestors were.”

Riders from different states head to the Grand Strand for the five-day event that also features a vendor village, costume parade and silent auction.

As of Saturday morning, more than $429,000 had been raised — a new record and well over this year’s $375,000 goal. Funds raised go toward efforts such as cardiovascular research, and the event has raised over $5 million since its inception in 1981.

Riefenberg is part of the Ridge Riders group based out of the Charlotte area and has participated in the ride for over a decade, his family bringing their horses Whiskey and Fire to the 38th annual event.

“It just becomes part of your life,” he said. “They’re great animals, and they definitely teach you patience just like children.”

Initially, there were six of those out of the club who participated, and those numbers have grown to where 24 riders took part this year.

Sadly, last year a member’s husband Dennis Huggins who suffered a heart attack passed away.

“We’re riding for him in his memory this weekend,” Riefenberg said.

This year’s ride itself saw participants take their horses for a 20-mile trot Saturday between Lakewood Camping Resort and 54th Avenue North in Myrtle Beach.

“You can go a certain distance hiking and backpacking, but on a horse you can travel further,” Riefenberg said. “You get a different perspective sitting up high on a horse. When we go through the woods or out on the beach, you’re just seeing things from a different perspective.”

For Tammy Vandall, the beach ride has become a family affair. She came to the event for the first time in 2002 after being invited by some friends.

Vandall brought her daughter to the event when the child was three years old, and this year, along with their horses Crescendo and Journey, she and her husband Jay brought their 1-year-old grandson Zander for his first ride.

The Mocksville, North Carolina, woman recalled as a child naming her pony after Janis Joplin’s rendition of “Me and Bobby McGee.”

“I was four,” she said. “I told my Paw Paw that I needed a pony, and by the time I was five I had one.”

The Riefenbergs and Vandall both spoke of the community that riders are a part of.

“Horses are like golf or theater,” Vandall said. “Either you love it or you don’t. For those of us who love it is very therapeutic. It is very calming because horses … they’re very tender-natured. … All the people you find here are die-hard riders. They love it.”

The first ride had about 20 participants, according to the event’s website. Since then, the event has expanded with thousands of riders having participatined.

“Yes, we ride up and down the beach, but you’re here and you’re building those relationships, getting to spend time with you’re friends and supporting the cause,” Riefenberg said, “and raising money for the heart association and bringing awareness into the community. To me, that’s what it’s about.”

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