For being a relatively confident person who doesn’t deal with many fears and anxieties, endurance events this year have been a unusual source of great unknowing and nerves. I think the main reason for this is I have some hypothesis in play that are a bit untested and trying out some things that could go backward on me. But the success/failure of this long range trajectory won’t show up in one ride result. It’s going to show up in the health of my horse and her ability to continue to compete over years and increase in strength, and the need for medical intervention to keep her healthy or not, her mental buy-in to increase so she continues to be willing and not bunt out, alive and not shut down, and especially being a non-arab, can she excel and someday not only complete, but be competitive? Sometimes it’s hard to stay focused on the long game when one ride looms large in front of you.
Biltmore was an important lesson but not super fun. I was unsure how much damage might have been done in that ride physically and just because it’s not obvious doesn’t mean a crack hadn’t formed that will reveal a weakness later. Generally I like to dig out cracks and find them so I can bring the weak things into strength, however sometimes a small hairline fracture really needs to be left alone to heal, digging at it will only weaken it and create more damage. So which is it?
I was fairly certain one day of riding in the wrong saddle should not destroy her physically for months to come. However something from the past was re-opened and it wasn’t good. I thought this one needed to be left alone to heal and rest. Unfortunately I only had a month between Biltmore and OD and a month of rest seems like a terrible idea (especially with the amount of spring grass I have no control over her consuming right now) and also she had a huge rest over the winter so some reasonable work seemed pretty important before taking on what I think is about the most difficult ride we have around here.
I found some compromise by riding her on walking mountain climbs that didn’t stress her soundness and when I pushed her to do some hard climbs up and down with technical rock patterns I ended up getting off her and hiking or jogging which freed her up to get some exercise without having to balance me on extreme terrain. This felt like a great way to encourage her to keep working without stressing a potential crack I might have.
As the mid way mark got closer I knew I had to have more solid answers. I had avoided taking her on trot miles but she needed to go into taper down rest soon and I’d delayed signing up for the ride as long as I could. I had to know.
We trailered to the scenic river trail which is the most flat track terrain with lots of miles I have and it’s great for the occasional “fitness” outings. I think we could get 30 miles out of it if we used it all. I planned to do 10 miles or so and to test the system at a trot. Would she be sound?
I was worried, but I kept coming back to this phrase: the truth will set you free.
I DO want the truth.
I did want to go to the OD ride, and if she was presenting at all lame I would not go, so what I hoped as the outcome was: not lame. However, I had to see now if there was a problem and then it would be a matter of addressing it. Nothing to fear. The truth will set me free from fear. Worrying about the potential of her being lame was much worse than knowing she was lame and figuring out how to help her.
Turns out she was fabulously sound and energetic trotting the miles out and then doing walk-canter transitions on the way back with a few miles of strong cantering. So we go.
I knew in my heart we were going to this ride the same as I knew last year the rides we were going to. These plans, as strange as it is to explain, are kind of above my pay grade. It’s like as I go I get the outline. I kept sensing we were GOING to the OD, but I also was a little shell shocked from the last ride. Something I have learned is the sense I have to go to a ride does not necessarily correspond into a surface layer success of completing the ride. God is more interested in building my character, in teaching me things that will serve me long term, and though “failure” is never fun, it is actually in those experiences we learn the most. There are tons of biographies and books written about how necessary failure is to the bigger things humans can achieve, but it’s never particularly fun. So in knowing that I was being called to get to the OD starting line, that did not mean I felt confident we wouldn’t be faced with yet another hard lesson.
The OD ride had a 50% success rate for me & K. In years past we had completed twice and pulled twice. I kept having nightmare visions of the last gravel road miles into the second vet check when the last time we rode she had that slightly off feel, that one side landing heavier, pounding the gravel and the other side lighter… uneven… it’s not good. Not exactly lame, but not right. And sure enough pulled at the vet check, slightly off.
Working in the clinic over the weekend some easy group class patterns trotting a cloverleaf she began that strange popping up like she’s trying to go into a canter but then doesn’t. It feels like that not exactly sound horse that I had for 2 years a while back. I was concerned.
I almost pulled out of the ride a handful of times in 2 days. But something kept pushing me to go. And then I was practically nauseas because I was would think: ok, you’re pressing me forward, but I don’t want another failure lesson… I’d rather stay home. It’s safe at home. This does not feel solid.
I went. We vetted in. And all was well. Yet I still heard so loudly in my mind: you don’t belong here. You are so stubborn insisting on making this work with a non-arab. If you want to do well just get a different horse that has breeding and talent. Plus you know deep down you are concerned she’s somehow not sound and yet you’re going to start this ride with those concerns? She is never going to be a competitor. You’re a total outsider in this club and you don’t belong.
STOP! I told the voices to leave me alone. Then I asked God if he would defend me. Counteract them with some of his own truth over me!
And instead I heard: Well. You are an outsider here. But that is exactly where you belong and that’s ok. My favorite stories are always the underdog or the outcast coming to upset the status quo! It’s what makes things interesting and gives you more to work with.
Great. That’s not the comfort I was looking for.
I was grateful to have Mike there to support us. He is a great crew and K really likes him. As I shared some of my doubts I had to smile as he told me just what I knew was true, though it wasn’t the platitudes that would bring false comfort that I kind of also wanted. Since when have you been all that worried about looking foolish? You have to take risk in order to grow, it’s true, you guys may or may not finish this ride, but if you don’t I am confident you will take the lessons and come back stronger from it. You find the courage to ride out tomorrow, and you take what the day brings and you deal with it as it comes. You guys will be fine.
I know this trail. I was practically sick. It’s a lot of climbing and a lot of rocks and I could envision us pouring out all we had over it and then being laughed out of a vet check for lameness or possibly some metabolic thing in the heat. You should have known better why did you come? Thankfully the night before the ride we had an intense storm roll through that brought heavy rain, lightning strikes and loud thunder. That kept my mind occupied through the night on something else.
The morning came and I forced myself out of my hammock cocoon and began the morning prep to ride. Going into ‘get it done’ mode helped and soon we were at the starting line and on the trail.
She was happy at the start- everyone’s happy at the start! But even in the early tiny climbs I felt her begin breathing harder. Slowing slightly. Oh I knew we had not done enough training with my worries about her soundness. Mile 2 was way too soon for her to be faltering! And not like her. She kept up a pace though and we fell into a group that asked her to lead for them and she seemed to pick up her responsibility Khaleesi style and giving her a job switched her gears to now forward moving over even the rocks and climbs. Not far before the big climbs however she stopped for a BIG drink and another group was approaching. The horses we were with decided it was too risky to get behind another group and they took off. I stayed and let K drink her fill. The other large group went on as well as she drank and she was now behind both groups. This was ok, but she generally does better when we don’t get stuck alone in the back where she decides it doesn’t matter anymore and begin meandering along. Not ideal.
The biggest climbs of the day I knew she wasn’t going to be much faster than I can hike, so I got off for this one and again the big climb in loop 2. We had one more rider pass us here but it was ok. She was still doing well. I hopped back on and I was truly surprised how soon we came out on the ridge where she ate some grass and moved on.
We came into Bird Haven around 8:50 and people always look at us a little sideways as we trot past them to get in as quick as possible (don’t we know the walk into vet check rule?). One thing this particular horse does well is drop heart rate if nothing is wrong. In 4 minutes we dropped tack, took a pulse check, did a couple sponges and had our pulse time heading through the vet line.
Here is where things began to concern me. She generally has great CRI (unless something is wrong) and here her CRI went 56/64. Unusual for her especially so early in the day. Everything else looked good and she had gut sounds and decent hydration so the vet wasn’t worried but suggested she just needs to cool a little more – she is a tad… “fleshy” (truth) and that is probably all it is.
She ate, but only about half. Also unusual. She generally licks her feed pan clean in the first hold. Mike walked her and she ravaged the grass, so that was good, but I’d have loved her to eat more of her food. Thankfully she peed (which she hadn’t all day at the Biltmore) and though I had nagging concerns but nothing to prohibit us from going back out.
Not feeling confident, we left and she went willingly but she was unmotivated. So was I truth be told. We hit the gravel uphill and she began doing it: that thing where she pops up her front end like she might canter. But it feels off. It’s not exactly lame because she then goes alright but it is not a smooth transition. And she was not moving quick up the hill either.
Turn back. You know where this leads! This leads to that bad trot in 15 more miles after you’ve climbed that insane mountain and ridden the rocky ridge and then you hit the gravel and you know she’s lame. Why do that to yourself. Why do it to her. Turn around. Go back.
I came so close. I was about to do it. But then I heard: don’t give up yet. I know you’re concerned but it isn’t the end yet. Give her a chance to see if she will come right.
She found a mud puddle from the storms overnight and stopped to tank up on water.
I dug a little deeper in the moment.
What is it you want? I want to finish today. I feel like if I fail I am a fool because I “knew better” than to come in the first place.
Remember that thing you heard about failure… and the most successful people? Yes. Last week I heard that the most successful people have at least two OR MORE real failure cycles before they hit pay dirt in life. They keep trying even in the risky times.
Ok… so what do you really want? Are you that afraid of failure even though you know it can be the exact ingredient you need for a bigger success ahead of you in time? No. I am not that afraid of failure really.
So what do you want?
I want the truth. Only the truth will set me free.
Exactly! Be brave. Dig into this and find the truth. Don’t fear the truth! Even hard truths! They bring increasing layers of freedom, and you do not have to fear. This isn’t about one day’s outcome, it’s about a lifelong pursuit!
The truth will set me free.
She drank the puddle dry and then we heard hoof beats coming down from ahead. The group we had led in the first loop was wildly coming back toward us saying they were sure we had missed the turn, so we went back not far until she then saw it was impossible the turn was this far back so maybe they were correct after all… and thus we re-joined the group, and true enough with the motivation of some friends she seemed to forget about the goofy trot thing and just began to jog along with everyone.
We continued into the long 17+ mile loop into Laurel Run that includes the climb out of hell and then the steep loose rock descent lay in front of us. As always I got off on that climb and I stayed off until we reached the ridge. We did get left behind and had a couple riders go by us but she was still moving and I believed that it was not worth pressing her especially with the concerns I had at vet check 1. I kept hearing that I was putting money in the bank here and it would be worth it when I needed to write a check later that wouldn’t bounce. When we came out onto the ridge there was grass everywhere and she ate like a fiend. They would have been good places to move on, but she was ravaging the grasses so I let her eat… and walk… and eat some more… and walk… and eat some more. She ate a ton.
Then we navigated the ridge with all the rocks at a moderate unimpressive speed. She gets totally annoyed at the bouldering and it puts her in a foul mood. But she kept going. At some point a small family and the drag rider caught us (oh no, the drag rider… this is really going poorly for us today!) but actually it was a massive blessing because the drag rider had my rider card which had fallen out of my jersey pocket. (I had a dream a few weeks back that Dianne Connolly told me if I could find my rider card and brought it to them they’d be sure I got listed as completed since I had a great ride). Maybe being so slow on that loop that we connected with the drag rider was a secret ingredient to us finishing this year.
Afterwords we began to navigate the technical terrain with annoyance but faster than the little family and drag rider so we moved on ahead. When we got to the downhill segment she began to try to move but did not like sliding out- she has a good head on her shoulders and is not inclined to race ahead of her ability to not sustain injury. She she’d trot a few steps then slow and slip then trot a few steps then slip and slow. So I got back off and began to run down the hill. We had practiced this at home a fair amount. With me not on her she began running down the trail right behind me and I was going as fast as I could on my own two feet. It was working much better!
After descending the mountain I hopped back on and we hit the infamous gravel road into Laurel Run. I had no idea what the cut off times were but felt ominously like I must be close. I picked her up into a balanced trot and she was totally sound and light. I prayed it would continue and I didn’t ask her for speed, just consistency rhythm and balance.
As we approached the VC there was a short out and back where we needed to grab a clip to prove we added the extra miles that makes this ride now a 55 (the last time I rode it was a 50 and this is new to me). I asked when the cut off was and the volunteer said I was no where close to that so yay! We went down to pick up our clip. (… did I mention I had a dream a few weeks ago where I was in a ride where we were running on foot with our horses and I had noticed that there was an out and back we must not miss picking up a clip and ribbon or we would be sent back? Strange huh…)
This vet check she once again pulsed within 4 minutes to 60 then her CRI was 52/56 which was better but still not as she usually is, and apparently gut sounds, hydration, muscle tone and everything was A. I asked how she felt with her back and hind as well, that’s a lot of climbing and a lot of up and downhill trotting: the vet assured me everything was loose and felt great, so back soreness or tight muscles.
Dianne’s niece Elizabeth stayed with me the entire check and continued to sponge K while she ate voraciously until her skin was cool to the touch. This I learned a couple years back from April Dobson who also rides a non-arab. Don’t just get them down, get them cool, more money in the bank for the ride home.
At this point I felt I had a nice size nest egg in that bank account and I hoped we could start to spend at least some of it. I didn’t need to spend it down to zero, but enough to get us home strong.
After Laurel Run it’s really “all downhill” home. Ok, so not exactly really all downhill, but no more massive climbs and still some rocks sections but no insane technical ridge lines. The worst of that ride is in loop 2 and loop 1 is no slouch either. Loops 3 is pretty gentle and loop 4 is a quick jog home.
She picked up a balanced rhythmic slow trot right out of the gate and I didn’t bug her to push for any speed. We had plenty of time there was no reason to press her. She ate more on this loop and I let her but it was grab and go now. She also drank a fair amount out of the streams.
Another habit I took from riding with Angie Crestwell McGhee last year was to sponge at all times. Every mud puddle. Get good at tossing and squeezing constantly. I did that through this ride and I think it does help. I do it at every single sighting of water.
She had only been picking up speed the last few miles. We passed a few riders this loop. Once again trotted into the last hold as quick as possible and once again in about 5 minutes we had a pulse time. This one took longer because I could not get a reading and wasn’t sure we were down. Considering I was toward the end of the group by now the vet check was quiet and I thought it would be ok to walk over even if we weren’t down to find out. Turns out the problem was her pulse was so low it wasn’t picking up reliably. She came through at 48.
This was probably the best vet hold yet where she was back to her old self and had a couple B grades for hydration but everything else including gut sounds A.
The last loop she wasn’t convinced I knew what I was doing because though its back to camp it goes out a different way. She questioned me a few times but not out of exhaustion, more confusion. I had to prod her on to believe me and she always did then would ask again: are you SURE this is right?
Yes. There’s the blue and white ribbons… we’re good!
So remember in loop 2 when we added a couple miles because you missed the turn….
Yes I remember I’m sorry, that was tricky but this time I’m sure.
Eventually she began to believe me and kept gaining steam. By the time we met the part of the trail we began on she got excited and began rolling along like a train. It occurred to me later that she never hit a wall this ride, it wasn’t super fast, but in all our history of 50s, even the ones we’d turtled, she always hit some kind of a wall around mile 38-45 and even if we were headed back to camp she was plain tired. For this ride, the last 18 miles she only picked up speed. Now she was long trotting over the terrain and I was doing my best to ride well and not get in her way and warn her of any obstacles she might have not seen.
We hit the gravel road back to camp and no sense of unease or being slightly off. She was flying along in a big extended ground covering trot and kept it going right to the finish line. There she stopped on a dime and seemed quite pleased with herself.
It’s not over until the final vet sings. We walked over to drop tack, cool briefly and see what we would find. Her final CRI was 52/48. That’s my girl. Dr. Bob who helped me at the treatment vet at Biltmore said this was a true test of my mare and she passed it strong. He congratulated me on a great job managing her all day and coming back from a hard lesson a month before.
I was relieved not to have another hard lesson. The truth I found when I finally had the courage to ask for it was kinder than I had anticipated. So often it is.
We still have a long road ahead. But this is good. Any journey worth traveling has some good twists and turns along the way, and takes the time it takes. The things I am learning as I manage her physical/mental/emotional training and our relationship— how to build her up over time and not break her down — will serve me for a lifetime, and at least a long career for her… God willing.