There is a Proverb that tells us a man makes his plans, but God establishes his steps. It is something I take to heart. There are some events I have a certainty about and regardless what comes my way I know my path is to go over around or through whatever the obstacle is. An example of this is Big South Fork 2021 (read that story here: Speedbumps and Roadblocks) when I went to load up and get on the road and my horse was missing. As I called neighbors and wandered the woods behind the property I was concerned but also fairly calm because I was reasonably certain we were going on that ride, so the horse would have to be found shortly and not be injured. It delayed us a couple hours, but she was found grazing in a nearby cemetery. Apparently the grass is extra sweet there.
There are events I’d like to attend but for whatever reason it’s obvious to me there’s a brick wall and I’m not passing without some kind of damage to myself and others. When I sense those I don’t bother anymore- it’s never worth hitting one’s head against a brick wall.
And then there are the events that I think make sense, they fit into the calendar, and I simply don’t have a strong sense of either way. These I hold loosely. Until I hear a clear “no-go” I keep moving forward. The ride Thanksgiving weekend was one of these. I had hoped maybe this year I would actually get in a late season ride in South Carolina.
Without question I wanted to go to this ride. I had plans to make stops on each end of the trip on the way to visit friends and I was looking forward to those visits. Also my horse is thriving. This season she has grown increasingly powerful- she is mentally engaged, she is willing, there is less brace and new levels of softness and relaxation in her biomechanics; she’s healthy, her diet/nutrition is dialed in and we’ve struck a great combination of work and rest. After seeing what she offered me at Big South Fork in September I was curious to see what she had for me in one more and a less demanding event to finish out the season.
K and I ride alone 80% or more of the time, but recently we’ve enjoyed some lovely company and ridden with various friends at some of the most idyllic places here in the rural mountains. I am grateful those rides were completely without incident as I look back.
Because the very next time I went to use my truck (for a solo HIT run on the Jackson River trail) my truck was clearly not feeling well. Something in the timing and idling was clearly off and the truck would stall. I canceled my solo riding plans for the day and got the truck into my trusted local family owned repair shop only to hear that it was an extensive issue and sorry no, with the holiday, there’s no chance it would be done in time to haul to the ride.
There was a voice of clarity as I sat down taking in the disappointing news. There might have been some creative ways around this but in that instant it became obvious to me.
Can you let go of this ride?
I have learned- it’s the long game. This will be for my good. It’s a promise. Even when it doesn’t feel good at the time.
Not necessarily in avoiding tragedy.
I used to think being blocked out of an event was to save me some horrible disaster – but now I’m inclined to believe it’s more likely something better is on the other side of the exchange.
It reminded me of a saying Mark Langley repeats often in his work with horses:
Can you let go of that thought?
I love this approach and he is so gifted at working with the horse first in their mind. If the horse’s mind and body are separate- not in the same place- you’re going to have trouble. Maybe in a minute, or maybe in a year… but it all stems from a thought.
It’s brilliant really. And ridiculously obvious. As I began going down the trail of thoughts leading to emotions and actions, like every good truth, I see implications of being able to recognize this. Most troubled horses are not present with their human educator/rider. They may be mentally with their friends, they may be mentally back in their home field or barn stall, they may be mentally withdrawn into their own inner world- far away from the reality you are trying to navigate. They have found a safe place in their mind and they go there.
Depending on the level of trauma, discomfort, confusion or fear they can have a wandering thought to a very “hard” thought. Hard thoughts are difficult to dislodge. The art of good horsemanship to Mark is once this disconnect is realized (step one is being aware when the horse’s thoughts and body are disconnected), how to convince the horse to let go of that thought and come to be present in the moment and the work.
Much of natural horsemanship is built around using the horse’s prey drive to bring a bigger worry and fear than the “hard thought” they had fixated on. Most people only have the tool of “move the horse’s feet” using increasing pressure to attempt to get to the brain. This can be effective, but I am considering that it looks even more effective than it really is.
I’m not sure getting a horse responding to flight mode really getting to the brain? Or at least the brain I want engaged? Depending on flight away from pressure is the responding brain — I want the thinking brain, the curious brain, the searching brain. It is true for all beings that we cannot think to the extent we are in fear or our sympathetic nervous system is engaged.
I don’t want a horse always running away from something, but one who is relaxed and searching- moving toward their thoughts.
Mark talks about using a “feel” to guide the horse toward a thought instead of flight away from pressure. And I find myself lately working with horses who are disconnecting in some way saying hey there, can you let go of that thought? Because what I want to do will feel good to you, and no one can really feel good when they are disconnected from the present… so if you’ll let go of that, I’ll give you something better.
It’s an invitation. I’m going to offer connection, confidence, patience, and the ability to act toward a thought. Fighting reality is always stressful. For both humans and horses.
I don’t want to be a human with a hard thought, refusing to let go if the one who is trying to lead this journey is gently reaching out to bring me to a better plan. Can I be led? There is a difference between steadfast and stubborn; between dedicated and stiff-necked. The line is usually hardest to see from the inside!
Since I can only make plans, and God establishes my steps, I’ve learned in recent years to stay flexible. In this case I had been wrestling at every layer to make plans to go visit my family for Christmas and nothing was lining up right. Within about 30 minutes from the news my truck was grounded for now I had tickets sorted out to spend thanksgiving with the entire family, which will mean not traveling over Christmas.
If you’d asked me a week ago would I want to maybe just cancel the ride to do a family Thanksgiving I’d have said honestly no, I don’t want to do that. Yet this is apparently where my steps are going to take me.
In perspective I am also thankful for some things:
I am thankful the way this ride became clearly blocked was a truck issue instead of a horse injury issue. Both can be expensive- but I’d rather have a healthy and sound horse any day! A vehicle is an inconvinience, a hurt animal is so much more.
I’m also thankful that the truck was totally fine in order for me to enjoy those lovely rides with friends, then completely not fine when I attempted to leave the yard- it didn’t go bad while hauling my horse somewhere with no cell service. Even more, it didn’t go wrong after I’d gotten to SC leaving me and K stranded in a strange place far from home.
Besides switching gears quickly to plan a family trip, I also switched gears quickly to put K on more generous rest. It was only a couple of weeks, but the sooner she goes into R&R the better for her system. Everything good begins with rest.
My vision for today is that next season will begin sooner than usual and we will aim for some earlier spring events. I hope that 2023 is the year she thrives through a 100 completion. Those are my plans as of now… I have reason to believe these are good plans, but as always I will hold them loosely. And when the one who is handling my own education in the greater scheme of things asks me can you let go of that thought? I hope I have the softness and trust to say ok, where are you leading instead of bracing against with hard thoughts… digging in my hooves in a refusal to shift gears. I hope I have the wisdom to stay connected and present even when things are not as I had hoped.
Khaleesi has been on some down time after Big South Fork and I have been flung headlong into fall season of music program administration, teaching and rehearsals. I have done some hiking with her and then snuck in one unimpressive ride before the hurricane rains poured through one weekend.
A few days ago we visited Caroline’s and had a day of jumping paired with visiting a nearby client so Khaleesi could help babysit a horse who wasn’t able to focus well while riding around the property.
I have had lovely compliments on my fabulous mare. She is intelligent, strong, balanced and highly responsive. It’s always nice when your horse’s finer qualities are recognized. Saturday she was all those things and more in her work in both places.
Sunday she was equally fabulous, but not at all agreeable and had some thoughts and opinions that completely hijacked my plans for the day.
This is the less fun truth behind a free and powerful creature.
They have an independent spirit that does not always equate to unquestioned respectful obedience. Danny Silk, in his book Culture of Honor (which I highly recommend), reminds us that free people who have responsibility of thought and choice are healthy and powerful. They are also the hardest to lead. It is much messier to move together in unity with people who have their own minds and do not mindlessly agree on everything. Brainwashed robotic populations that know they will be punished for freedom of thought are much easier to control. Its not very different with horses.
If efficiency and control are the goal then punishment and pressure are the better tools. You get to be the dictator and you have it your way. But you had better be willing to accept dull obedience and half hearted resignation. With control and punishment you are likely to win stuff… but you will never get the full brilliance the horse is capable of.
I believe and have experienced that you can find harmony the more you work together with your free population as a good leader. A true leader isn’t about being bossy or forceful but one who listens and serves others as the first priority even if it sidelines your own goals for periods of time. Both horses and people who have freedom of choice will choose to follow someone they trust and who has shown to be looking out for their best interests while calling them to grow and bringing out the best in everyone.
So armed with this belief I have set out to develop a powerful and free horse. I have begun to see brilliance and harmony. But it’s far from perfection.
After the glimpses of brilliance on Saturday I planned a trot/canter fitness ride for Sunday. I had some time (though limited) and the weather was a perfect fall day. I loaded up saddle and tack and grabbed the halter to find Khaleesi already thinking her independent thoughts. They were not in harmony with mine at all.
She kicked her back legs up and herded the trio across the dry creekbed to the far pasture in a hurry leaving no question in my mind about her feelings of going with me- anywhere.
So. I have a fabulous mare who is a stunning brilliant partner, and yep, the truth is, some days she resists even being haltered.
This doesn’t mean I cannot “catch” my horse. I can get my hands on her and if I had an emergency I could “trap her” with my tools. What it means is she is knows she has a right to her thoughts and sometimes they are not in agreement with mine. She knows I will hear her and not punish her for the honesty.
My hope was she would share her opinion with me, and I would tell her in equine language that she was heard and understood but today is a work day and so I’m not leaving without her on a lead. Sometimes that is enough and she decides to say ok fine, why not. But not yesterday. She was intent on holding onto that thought and for 10 minutes we did approach dance moves and she would block me from the side I halter her. Eventually walking off entirely.
After the 10 minutes of unusual level of resistance I had to recalculate. Evening comes early now and I was losing time. I could finish at sunset and come in after dark, that wasn’t ideal. And I didn’t have her willingly on line yet. I refused to throw the rope over her neck and get it done…
What did wisdom tell me today?
I looked at the truth of the moment: it was a horse who wasn’t willing to be haltered. I needed to adjust to deal with that question before anything else. It was the willing part. This wasn’t about catching a horse, it was about her thoughts and feelings. If I dragged her out of the field the brace would be hard to overcome.
I decided to adjust my advance and retreat timing to give her more (not less) control over the conversation. She began to get more curious as I began to be less determined. When she put her head in the halter I offered, I did about 30 seconds of some light leading work in hand that had lots of turns and direction changes. I made sure she was soft like butter in my hands.
She then tried to scratch at her flank and I scratched it for her. She was very happy with that and I took off the halter. I set my own goal aside to meet her where she was and see what I could do to make her feel better.
I knew the original plan was scrapped so I used some time to do a few things with Wyoming who hasn’t gotten a lot of attention lately and left Khaleesi to graze.
After a few minutes with Wyoming I went back to ask Khaleesi to come into the halter. Again she walked off: No thank you, I thought we already had this talk. So I did the same approach and retreat that gave her more control of the conversation and waited for her. She eventually came back to me again and offered her head to the halter.
I repeated similar leading patterns and again she was soft and responsive, she was in harmony with me and it felt really nice. I could ride that horse…
Then I took off the halter, left her to graze and went to do some things with Hope. After that I walked back to Khaleesi and she resisted less than the other times. Repeat. Almost no brace in her body and mind, she was quiet and relaxed, curious and connected. Felt amazing.
However if she is still starting with the mental brace of walking away before the agreement, we aren’t there yet, so I took off the halter again. I walked off, and when I came back she met me and offered her head.
Zero brace mentally, physically or emotionally. She floated with me on the lead any direction I asked rolling with changes like a ball and her hind and front end flowed easily.
Now we were done.
No fitness ride today. But I spent an hour or so smoothing out brace in my horse’s mind and body. If she works with brace her body holds tension which results in less efficient movement, less strength, less brilliance. Potential for injury over time is greatly increased if she works in a braced state. The more time I spend getting into harmony with her the more brilliance and flow together we have access to. That’s where her power and strength come from.
There is a price for having a horse who knows she has the right to act on her thoughts. Not only am I willing to pay that price because I know what’s on the other side of her choice to connect with me of her own decision, but I am willing to look foolish in order to honor her true thoughts and feelings as much as I can. No, she doesn’t always come running to meet me at the gate…
But the times that she does are all the more special.
Some of you know I have other writing besides the green to 100 journey I focus on here. Though green is truly the beginning of it all, it’s unfolded into the creation of Hope Horsemanship (Hope being my middle name) and I discuss more expansive topics there and include more of the entire herd and their stories.
Last week I delved into some questions around physical, mental and emotional healing and the impact of the nervous system and why many horses get worse in good care before they get better.
I do not have definitive answers to some of these important questions but I think the topic is of great value- especially to those who are trying to keep their horse partners balanced, healthy and happy with long careers.
If you haven’t already subscribed to Hope Horsemanship’s blog- check out the links of Am I Safe (it’s a 3-part blog) and if you like it what you see on the HH website then please do subscribe!
On Sunday afternoon, hours after the Big South Fork event was wrapped up I found myself (along with Khaleesi and Samwise) completely alone in the big field that had been pretty packed with people and horses for the past couple days. As I pondered feeling quite alone at the moment the thought came to me that seemed to sum up the experience: And then there was one…
Saturday morning at 6:30am there were eight competitors that rode out of camp in the dark to begin the 100 mile course that had to be completed in 24 hours or less ending with a healthy, sound horse in order to be a finisher. A pretty average 100 mile rides completion rate is somewhere in the 50-70% give or take. Some rides are not average at all. This was one of them. As the day wore on people were pulled from the race one by one until there were only three of us… and then (I don’t know the exact order in time) Holly & Poete finished the ride healthy and sound, and the other team was pulled. And then there was only us. Me and K still out there riding around the trails alone in the dark hoping maybe we might beat the odds.
…. And then there was one.
We did not beat the odds, and only one out of eight finished the 100 miles of Big South Fork (BSF) 2022 (Holly & Poete). Those are unusually bad statistics for a 100 mile endurance ride. We ended up riding (because of the added mileage of going off course) about 88 miles and she was vetted fit to continue with one loop to go. The ride manager and vet told us that officially we were cleared to go back out there, however it was clear the 2 hours remaining was not enough time for us to do the last 17 miles so we chose to pull out instead. Some quick details and a compilation video are in the last blog here: The Journey of Big South Fork.
So Sunday there we were, having ridden about 22 hours and with me on 3 hours sleep it was unwise to attempt the 9 hour drive home no matter how good Khaleesi looked it was unwise to load her up and go that far as well. And since no one else needed to lay over an extra day for recovery, there was only us.
I found it oddly more unnerving to be alone in ride camp than to be riding at 3am alone (and off trail) in the woods and that was surprising to me. The unease never left and the incoming storms forecasted didn’t help at all. In mid-afternoon Khaleesi got a foot in the fence, pulled it all out of joint, then in the pouring rain of a passing shower looked around at the open space and wandered off to find better grass. It was at that point I began to take stock of my concerns of being alone there with my horse through the night of potential storms and rain and I decided to find new options.
Turns out that Brandea and Molly (and family) were only 3 1/2 hours drive away and they could house both human and horse (and dog!) so I made the phone call, packed up as fast as I could and we got on the road. I am so glad I did because K had shelter and some buddies though we kept them in separate areas, and I had a bed and peace of mind. Also we got to catch up — best friends who have been separated by geography are always grateful for that.
As for the ride, I am still astounded at the strange mixture of failure and victory, with the sense of victory heavily outweighing the obvious failure.
The fact is that K and I did not see the finish line and without question that is a fail to complete. Ironically this turbulent ride season of 2022 began with another fail to complete. However, at the Biltmore even though we rode every mile to the finish line, K had enough distress (that I had caused unintentionally) her heart rate would not stay in the parameters and instead of a completion we got a walk to the treatment vet. I was deeply aware of how strong and willing my horse was, I learned important lessons and found some bonus humility, but I didn’t consider it a victory.
In the BSF ride we did not ride the entire 100 miles, but there were many valuable jewels for us in the process that I can’t help but feel it deeply as a personal win even if it isn’t a public one.
Here are my personal ‘wins’
First: it was the most miles we have ever ridden, paired with the longest amount of hours in the saddle. We took on beyond the 50 and in way more strength than I anticipated. We both were uncomfortable (to put it mildly) and yet we both kept going without complaint. Considering this was really MY goal as the human I was surprised at how willing Khaleesi was to continue going away from camp, mostly alone, to keep riding in circles eventually even into the dark. Looking back I’m also a little surprised at the positive attitude I had through six hours of rain, pain in various parts of my body, exhaustion, and getting lost- alone in the woods on the wrong trail at 3am.
Second: The surprisingly low completion rate for this ride. All day long one rider after another were pulled out of the ride for various reasons and yet we hung in there the longest of the non-completers. Ironically, getting lost earned us a handful of extra miles so though we didn’t get to 100 we got closer than we would have had we not stayed on trail! Somehow that little bonus makes me smile. It might be the only time going off trail feels like a personal win!
Third: through all the mileage and terrain, Khaleesi kept pounding through the vet checks like a pro. At first I delayed bringing her to pulse because I could not find a pulse, and considering we generally trotted into camp I assumed she COULD NOT be down to 60 (required) with just pulling tack. Apparently, the pulse takers said she can be hard to pick up, but every time she was down faster than I expected. Her CRI all day stayed the same: 56/60 pretty much right off trail. Though she never ate on trail until it got dark, somehow her gut sounds were always solid and she had good hydration. Her trot outs practically drug me down and back and I never had to “encourage” her to move. She ate like a monster in every hold. Healthy horse is a victory to me even if we went overtime.
Fourth: The holds went really smoothly. My crew- Iva and Mike – were fantastic. Between the two of them they did the divide and conquer like they’d been doing this for years. I really appreciated the sense of calm that rested over our camp/crew set up. Nothing felt particularly hurried or slow. We always left at our out time, and everything got done including time for me to sit and rest while they took care of K’s needs and mine too. I am so grateful for them.
Fifth: Overall strength paired (physical) with “buy-in” on trail (mental). In reflection, I don’t think there were even three times in the entire 22 hours when I had to more than suggest for her to pick up speed. She and I seemed in agreement over almost all the terrain and speed in which to cover it. The only exception to this is the first loop when as usual she wanted to go even faster than I thought was prudent. I don’t fight with her, but I negotiated a fair amount. Because the start was in the dark I hadn’t realized that we were by riding along with Holly & Poete we were the leaders for about 2/3 of the first loop (a rider number checkpoint). I took an extra minute to electrolyte after the river crossing and encourage a drink and a few carrots as I intentionally waited for the pair move on. I did not want K to feel obligated to stay with that pair today. Not on a first 100.
It was going to be a long day and I needed money in the bank for the checks I was hoping to cash in much later in the day (night). It isn’t wrong to encourage a horse to pick up the pace. This is the first ride I really never had to ask, only to think it. She caught me before an aid or suggested it herself all those miles.
I do believe this willingness to offer and be so in harmony with me is in large part due to the increase of freedom work and the concepts of sharing the leadership from Andrea Wady’s resources and making sure there’s always an answer of some sort to what’s in it for her?
Still, no amount of willingness or friendship can overcome a fitness deficit. The longest ride we had done outside of the events this year (Biltmore 50 in May and OD 55 in June) was 16-17 miles. Most of our time was spent slowly climbing mountains sometimes on foot sometimes in the saddle with an occasional high intensity workout on the scenic trail often 8-12 miles of cantering and trotting intervals I had a theory that slower miles building her engine (zone 2) and some high intensity (zone 5-6) to push limits—avoiding training like I’d be riding at the event (zone 3-4 workouts in no mans land). I was willing to invest my time into it, but not certain how powerful I was until it was tested. You can read more about how we are training now in this blog link: No man’s land.
I wouldn’t want to skim over the impact working with Emily Kemp over the years to get both me and K moving more correctly in balance. That has been a huge factor.
The strength she moved through the ride told me what I needed to know. Much of her trotting over miles was balanced and efficient, even easy to sit which helped me not exhaust one diagonal over another. And contrary to my expectations, she never hit a wall
Probably the icing on top that put us over the top I owe to Stephanie Carter and Dr. Ann Marie Hancock at True North Veterinary Services. Working together in whole horse functional medicine, a hair mineral analysis test and consult took my pretty good diet and supplementing plan and tweaked it to ensure she was going into this ride with nutritional support to spare. Though she appeared healthy on the outside, the hair analysis suggested she could be on the verge of adrenal fatigue. This would not have been obvious until it became a problem, and at that point it would be a bigger problem that would take time and support.
Besides ensuring her nutritional support was more than adequate I looked to stress factors in her everyday life and the biggest one is the emotional weight she carries of the herd. I know she is a high level herd leader and in years past have been told by other professionals that her rest-digest system is maxed out most of the time. She is always “on” and doesn’t share the leadership with the rest of the herd.
This summer I began to solve two problems at once: too much high nutrition pasture is available and she isn’t finding enough rest in her life. I began to bring the herd into their barn stalls at night forcing everyone to rest and giving K some downtime, also bonus diet plan where they are not eating grass all night. If everyone is locked in their stalls in the barn K doesn’t have to work as hard to stay on alert keeping the herd safe. I thought she would hate being confined, but after a few weeks she began bringing everyone in at night and she is the first one to voluntarily come in with the others not far behind. Getting some extra rest I find she is even a little less grumpy!
So the victory I found at BSF was confirmation that the things I’m doing are going in the right direction. I’ve also considered the question: what if I had signed up for the 75? We might have finished that distance and been more successful even earning a finish. I believe if we would have been successful at the 75 I would have been disappointed. I think it would have plagued me to know if we could have gone “all the way” especially if she ran strong through the 75. I am less concerned about a ride record and points than the process and the journey.
We are close. Man makes plans, but God establishes our steps. It’s a little soon to be certain, but tentatively I intend to head to JD’s ride in November and am likely to go ahead and enter the 75 so we have another ride over 50. We will continue to train with a lot of hiking through winter, climbing the mountains slowly and getting some high intensity workouts as the conditions allow. Schedule depending we will do some spring events hopefully including Biltmore which is a favorite and it seems that the bulk of the advice I keep hearing is that the OD100 is a good bet for us so if things continue as expected that seems the most likely path for us to get it done.
In truth I kind of like being able to say still… to be continued…
It’s always dangerous to try to do a thank you because there are so many people who were part of us getting to the ride, equipped and ready to ride over the years… But I want to try because I’ve been very grateful for each one:
Mike Scales & Iva Jamison foremost because I cannot imagine doing that without you there as my hands and feet… crew is so key; but beyond crew you both have really been on this journey in the trenches. You guys are amazing.
Molly, Brandea & the Reeds, Marcus Wise, Emily Kemp, Amy Stone, Linda & Randy Webb, Kate Lawrence, Lynne Gilbert, Kelly Stoneburner, Stephanie Carter & Dr. Ann Marie, Karin Banks, Becky Pearman, Danny & Kim Rexrode, Caroline McClung, the Alleghany Highlands Trail Club, Shelley Polly, Amanda Ferguson, Carrington Brown & Dabney Pasco, Laurie Tillet & Tim Bowler, and then there’s the people who have showed up to crew for us in years past, who have encouraged us, who have shared trails with us, who have prayed for us, who have read this blog and quietly rooted for us that I’ve never met…
I want to say thank you because all of these pieces of support make a difference and we ride with a beautiful multi dimensional foundation! It is a beautiful community over years and we are the better for it!
I am working on a reflective update on the lessons and victories of Big South Fork 2022, but meanwhile I’ve compiled a video journey you can enjoy that tells much of the surface story.
In short: 88 miles (an odd accumulation due to going off course on the last loop we rode) in about 22 hours. Khaleesi was counted fit to continue and was all As at 4:18am at our last vet check where we pulled as a rider option because the vet and manager told us officially we are free to go back out. The last loop was going to take more than the roughly 2 hours we had on the clock so we pulled voluntarily – healthy horse happy rider – happier crew and staff too I’m sure!
The videos were taken for my TicTok uploads so they are vertical instead of landscape which is why you’ll have the slightly awkward viewing on a screen for a longer form, and I threw it together as efficiently as possible so bear with any imperfections- all the videos are unedited live shots at the time… forgive the amount of times I repeat words at 2:30am such as fabulous and super… at least I’m not repeating words like painful and frustrating!
In fact as I reflect from making this video today I realize that it’s a really positive piece considering the amount of hours I was awake and the amount of painful things I was actually experiencing (hurting calves, incredibly sore butt being the foremost ones). It is the real-live thing, I didn’t edit out anything negative- except the concern I began to have on Sunday after the ride when we had storms rolling in. I did not video that process mostly because I was just trying to decide how to manage it and it didn’t occur to me it could be the most dramatic part of the day- but we still came up with a positive solution and all was well!
I will leave the rest of the deeper details to the blog post. For now, here’s the video link to YouTube. It’s a 5-day journey centered around the actual ride in about 14 minutes. I hope you enjoy the ride!
As long as the vet-in this afternoon holds no surprises, we have at least made it to the start of attempt #2 at the single-day 100 mile ride here at Big South Fork Recreation Area in TN.
If we were signed up for the 50 I would say I feel pretty confident that barring the unexpected we should finish and have a fun day. That is based on past experience and where she is in her fitness and training now.
But we aren’t signed up for the 50. And we have yet to complete a 100, so I don’t have any experience to rely on as of yet, and I just don’t know what tomorrow will bring. Which is exciting and a little terrifying if I think too much about it.
So instead I just do what is next and I plan to ride tomorrow as much in the moment as possible doing the next thing until we can’t do the next thing anymore and we stop and go to bed.
I took a look today at the ride map and loop lengths and all are under 20 miles. Any one of those loops we can accomplish. So we just need to string them together all in one day. Simple. Kind of. But that is how I plan to do it. One loop at a time. Giving it our best and having curiosity about what the day brings and not expectations or pressure to see the finish line.
We will or we won’t and as I waved a good ride to Claire out today on the 50 she said: how can it not be, it’s me and my best friend enjoying beautiful trails! And maybe that’s one reason I instinctively like Claire. Maybe it’s really that simple.
So I frothed up an aeropress oat milk latte this morning and took a look at Psalm 20 inspired by my rider number (number 20). I was pleased to read these lines.
It’s a good banner to ride under. In truth, I can ready my horse for battle, but in the end the battle always belongs to God if I’m wise about it. I will walk or trot or canter each mile with the expectation that he goes before me and behind me showing me the way and acting as my rear guard. Whatever comes we will take it on with as much grace as we are given.
I was listening to a podcast recently where Stacey Westfall discussed the differences between testing and training (she uses the word teaching interchangably for training). Stacey was talking about the process of learning vs the process of showing what has been learned.
Anyone who rides a horse has to do some amount of at least basic level training of what is expected in a safe riding experience with their horse. However, in my experience, when most endurance riders discuss training they are generally talking about fitness training.
Yet I liked the question she posed and found it related in an odd way to both ways of using the word: do you know at any given time if you are testing or training your horse? Have you thought about it?
The important distinction here is about mindset. In testing mode we are not responding until the response is a correction. That means we are waiting to respond until there is the ability to determine success or failure as we see it. If we are in testing mode we find ourselves often correcting (punishing) the horse constantly for responding in the wrong way or failing to respond to our cue entirely. If we get caught in this pattern the horse will begin to carry the weight of a sense of constantly failing tests they don’t realize they are taking.
In training (or teaching) mode we do not wait as long to respond after a request. We may pause a moment to allow the horse to consider, but we will support with help of an aid soon after to give the answer and make our intentions clear. In this way we are regularly working together with the horse to learn and grow and not of the mindset “you should know this already!” which would be testing mindset and is likely to bring frustration for rider and horse.
The podcast continued on to discuss a third option many riders exist in which is micromanaging. In micromanaging there isn’t even time for the horse to think or decide, the rider “does it all for them”… kind of like a helicopter parent I suppose. The horse isn’t required to carry any responsibility of her own. They aren’t allowed to fail, or learn, or grown. No mistakes here. This micromanaging creates many different problems and they generally depend on what the personality of the horse is. The horse response to this type of rider can range from total dullness to a horse who seems ADHD throwing out all kinds of (unwanted and unhelpful) ideas trying to stay ahead of the constant force of aids and tools the rider is using to keep the horse from a “wrong” step in any direction.
Though it was an interesting podcast overall my mind wandered into the more “endurance mindset” of training meaning more fitness than learning. And I considered the question of testing vs. training for us.
I wonder how other riders would view this question. When are you training and when are you testing? I have made some shifts in my own approach in recent years that make a bigger distinction between the two as I define them.
The kind of fitness training I have shifted to this season has been intentionally NOT riding as if I was in an endurance event. I have thoughtfully chosen mountain hikes (both of us on foot) and rides and slowed down most rides seeking something similar to a “zone 2” heart rate fitness taking care in an attempt to build up physically instead of that zone 3-4 that wears down but is where we would normally aim in an event. If we do a “long” ride which for us right now would be 12-16 miles (where I used to extend regularly to 18-20), we do it much slower paced than we would ride at an event.
On the flip side of this to balance it out, I’ve planned some high intensity fitness training where I’ll allow her to give full effort (canter) a minute and then drawing back to a walk to recover and then going up into high intensity and then recovery walk etc. This would be seeking zone 5-6 or max heart with intervals of full recovery heart rate in between.
I make sure to add in balance riding in dressage format or a jumping lesson that adds strength and flexibility. We are getting pretty good with lateral movements, shoulder-in or haunches-in, some nice circles and clean transitions! Also K loves jumping and the more often we go play around in Caroline’s field course on the river she eats up whatever we put in front of her with great enthusiasm.
I’ve heard experienced endurance competitors suggest: just go out and ride your event like it’s a training ride! Enjoy it and ‘never hurry never tarry.’ And though I actually like the reminder to ride the terrain in front of you – not rushing but not wasting time, for me that would not look like a training ride. Because now the event is the test, and I’m not training the same way I’m testing.
It reminds me of teaching to the test models in school. If we know what the test will look like we can hope to prepare kids to do well on the test by working backward from what we know the test will look like and teach them what they’ll need to know to do well on the test. However I believe there was a time when education was about learning and becoming a well rounded individual and a test was there to determine how that process is going so many one could adjust going forward.
Is the point to do well on the test? Or is the point to develop the wholeness that would test well when asked to?
What I want most is to have a well balanced fitness and training program that stands up to testing or else testing reveals weaknesses that can be adjusted in further training work. What this means is that my core value is NOT to pass a test as much as it is to create a strong, well balanced horse that is sound in both mind and body and willing to participate in the testing of her whole horse fitness in a way that endurance riding provides. I hope that my ideas of training the physical, mental and emotional systems will mean a horse that is prepared to stand up to the single day 100 mile ride.
However as I have gotten away from “teaching to the test” it’s a little nerve wracking because the truth is… I don’t know. When my training rides looked a whole lot like an event day loop in how I rode the terrain I had less potential for surprise at how she would handle the ride. In fact we did this so well that last year our first ride back was close enough to home that we rode every part of the trail more than once and prepared very directly for that test. The only surprise on the day of the event was just how well she performed when the energy of the weekend (other horses, excitement and her sliver of competitive mare) came around.
From asking around it seems I’m on a bit of an experimental ledge- at least in the circles I have access to. I don’t know if this kind of training will transmit smoothly from human research to equine performance. But I like the concepts so I made the investment to find out. I am a truth seeker at heart.
And so we are heading toward a test at Big South Fork. We have registered for the 100 mile ride there and we will find out how this experiment is going, and what might need adjustment going forward.
In some ways the decision to give it a try makes perfect sense.
Khaleesi is in balance and strength. In the years of trying to sort out optimal performance
I now have a hoof plan with composite shoes that is working great
the balance saddle system has shown to get us through 50 mile distances with zero soreness or stiffness in her back (or hind end) and I have two saddle and pad combinations (dressage and jump styles) that are hitting exactly right this year
her teeth and jaw are finally in a place where her TMJ has mobility and now we are increasing range of motion not trying to unlock from past damage (if the jaw isn’t moving correctly the horse cannot use their whole body efficiently)
her diet is as free of inflammation as I can possibly get it and has been for a few years.
Her micronutrient and mineral balance is really solid and tweaked by hair mineral test analysis- I am now above the minimum requirements I had been at for years now to support her system as an athlete needs so she goes into competition not barely adequate (or deficient) but possible with reserves
she’s had an osteopath do a few lingering adjustments and clear her for being balanced through her body
she’s on a summer pattern of being in the barn at night both to help her with excessive weight gain from too lush pasture access and also to encourage more rest-restore (she can get stressed with herd management as the lead mare but when all horses are locked safely in the barn she is not “in charge” for a little while)
I have learned in the past few years to ride balanced and support her in balancing and becoming more efficient and strong in her movement.
There is not one physical issue concern I have lingering – which as I consider that is quite amazing considering that I’ve been through many many issues over the years with her and had to problem solve them each in turn.
Equally important I have been investing in her mentally and emotionally for years, but learning new key pieces recently that have solidified our relationship and brought new levels of responsibility and power into her side of the equation. We are finding new levels of partnership and freedom that she carries into this ride where her choices and responses are meaningful and have weight. This absolutely brings a risk- she could “not show up” for me mentally or emotionally and that would be devastating to our success, however if she DOES show up, it will be equally powerful in the positive category.
And yet until you test, you simply cannot know the answer to the question: Is she fit (mentally, emotionally and physically) to finish a single-day 100?
Even if I had the confidence and experience to say that it appears so, the single day 100 is the kind of accomplishment that needs all the preparation, the building of a solid horse, and then more than a little of the stars aligning and some favor from the creator of us all. Many things can go wrong and it doesn’t take a whole lot to divert our best laid plans.
In the spirit of transparency my goal from starting Khaleesi as a green four-year old was to take on this sport in a way that builds my horse up and isn’t done at her expense. It’s a very hard sport on everyone involved. My biggest concern is that at some point in the day she will just look at me as a horse to a human and ask me what my problem is leaving camp again after XX miles. It can’t make sense to her rationally, and I won’t be able to explain it. In truth there really isn’t a whole lot in this for her on test day. Not directly. And though I am wiling to ask, to convince and encourage… I am not willing to put her under the kind of force it would take if she dug in her hooves and said: No. I will not go out there one more time. I’m going to have to have a WHOLE lot of money in the relationship bank account in order for her to decide to do this thing for me, as a favor of friendship. And as I’ve never completed 100 miles and certainly not on her, I don’t know how much relationship bank she’ll require and so I don’t know if I’ve invested enough yet.
Summer has been pretty good to us here in Virginia. I have been on a slightly different routine with Khaleesi where I have been aiming for more polarized training. This includes regular low intensity training like hiking up and down the mountain that doesn’t break down her body but builds the engine contrasted with fewer high intensity training where we do shorter sessions of mostly cantering until she needs a break then cantering again until she needs a break etc.
I really like the approach and it appears to be doing something positive for us, including me because though I do ride her regularly I also now hike with her on foot as well so I’m getting more workout that I normally would and even in riding I’ve come to jog long downhill segments especially if rocky because we are faster, but more than speed for the sake of time she can do a slow jog on that downhill (where I’m aiming for higher HR than picking her way down, but still in a low threshold) without injury or putting excess stress on her joints which make it a better workout even at low intensity.
My training this summer feels a lot smarter and intentional than in years past. Time will tell if it’s more beneficial.
Something else I’ve been layering in this summer is a shift on the concept of leadership — which is a term tossed around quite a lot in horsemanship and means different things to different people.
I recently heard Andrea Wady talk about it in ways that gave me pause to consider because it was not what I usually think of a being a leader.
Wady has done a lot of observation of wild herds in the UK and the US as well as other places around the globe and has been on a lifelong journey into the world of pure liberty which is not the same as good training that can eventually be done without ropes and halters. She used to do this more conventional liberty work in Costa Rica where she lived for 18 years but began to ask the question: if my horse knows that there are consequences for not doing what I ask, is that truly liberty? Or is it good training? What happens if I were to take away the treats and the ropes or sticks, and have a real conversation with my horse? Not a trained conversation.
When I heard her interview I almost screamed out loud: YES THIS IS WHAT I’VE BEEN ASKING FOR YEARS!? WHAT HAPPENED!?
She tells of going out with her horse that she could ride and work with at liberty and they took a hike into the Costa Rican jungle off her property and was so excited to see where their relationship was. She went on the share how she was devastated to find out a couple miles into the jungle… that her beloved friend the horse had ditched her and ran home when she realized the choice truly was there to do so.
Since then she’s been trying to sort out what real freedom and choice would look like and is doing fabulous things with horses and people. What I admire the most about Andrea is that unlike me she is so much better at helping people start with bite-sized small things to pepper in where I tend to jump off cliffs and go all into try out these things- and most people (wisely so) are not willing to do that. She also uses things she observes about how horses communication and connect but is candid about the fact that we are not a horse nor should we pretend to try to be one. We aren’t fooling anyone. We can however try to understand how horses think and communicate and get better at meeting them in a way they might understand.
One of the concepts she challenges people to reconsider is what makes a good leader. We often say that the leader moves the other horse’s feet, so we must also be the one to move the horse’s feet, and they should never be able to move our feet. We imagine the lead mare who if she doesn’t get her way with a look or ear flick will snake her head, bite and kick.
Andrea shared an example she once observed of the wise mare standing at a water trough who notices a young gelding pin his ears and begin to move purposefully toward her. Almost bored looking the mare wanders over to the shady spot under the trees and the gelding arrives at the water to find no opponent there to push around and then also notices the rest of the herd heading toward the shade because it’s pretty hot this afternoon and that seems like a pretty good decision.
Who is the leader? Probably the mare. Who did she push around or pin her ears at? No one. She could have stood her ground and kicked the younger gelding, but it probably seemed more effort than she wanted to put out on a hot afternoon. She didn’t round up the herd and move everyone’s feet, she just made a good choice. And she probably has a history of making good choices. And so when she does things the herd follows her lead. Sure she can enforce her space bubble or push horses around, but she doesn’t need to do that much.
This is what I’ve heard called passive leadership and it comes from just being a good leader.
When I thought this through a bit more I realized that the best leaders (in the world around me) are not the bossy ones who move everyone’s feet but lead through example. They show more than the tell. They live out what they want to see around them. The best leaders don’t have to make everyone do what they are asking, they start out ahead of everyone and do things that others want to be part of.
While it’s true that Khaleesi will not hesitate to move another horse’s feet with force if that horse is where she would like to be… she is rarely very violent on a day to day basis, and generally the herd just follows her lead naturally because, usually she has the best ideas. And the funny thing is she never uses a halter or lead rope. The horses always make a choice. The horses always have freedom in the herd.
Another interesting challenge to my concept of leadership is the sacred cow idea that in order to be the leader we must be 100% the leader 100% of the time and the horse must always know that compliance (even if it’s to try while learning a new thing) is the only right answer and if we ever let the horse get away with saying no thank you to a request our future is doomed.
Wady talks about sharing the leadership from time to time in order to come to learn about the world of your horse from their eyes. This should only ever be done thoughtfully with safety in mind. It isn’t a process of zero structure and the possibility of ending up on a highway with a horse who is now leading but put in a position to make poor choices that could end up getting someone hurt.
What it might look like is deciding on a certain amount of time each day or each week when in their own pasture you begin to follow their lead on purpose. She talks about asking your horse to take you on an adventure for once- in your own field. The problem is many horse’s favorite adventure might be grazing, and humans think that’s a terrible adventure and have no patience to stand with a grazing horse and give five minutes to matching the weight shift and slow movement of their feet and legs to see if you can be in harmony with them. How about squat down as they graze and notice what’s in the grass… different kinds of grasses, clovers, weeds, what’s the soil like? Pick through some of it on your own- how does it feel? Most humans struggle to spend five or ten minutes like this with their horse. But it wouldn’t hurt any of us to experiment and try.
What about an arena area set up with a mounting block, some cones or buckets, anything else you might use in an arena… could you go in there with your horse, no halter or lead and go along as your horse checks out the different things… don’t try to lead them over to things, and don’t just watch as they do it… go along, touch what they touch… smell things (we don’t smell things very often do we?) turn things over so they can see the underside, bang on it and make noise, are they slow to process things or more quick to move on? What do you notice about them?
These small moments you could work in from time to time not where they just get to do this on their own, but you join them begins to create a different kind of connection.
What I’ve noticed is that we are predatory straight line thinkers usually with goals and a timeline. Here is what I would ask you- if you’re not feeding your horses or cleaning up around the barn and busy with something but enjoying that the horses are around… kind of like an equine fish tank… when was the last time you engaged with your horse in something that was not your idea?
This is the normal order of business I THINK for most horse people (you may skip or add a few but I think you’ll see my point):
Bring horse in
Load on trailer
Put on tack
Get on horse
Ride horse (trail, or arena, either way it is all the human plans)
Get off horse
Load on trailer
Release horse to environment
In all of the normal routine is there in your routine built in a moment of “ask horse what she wants to do or what she thinks about this” moment? If so is there a “right answer” involved? So maybe 95-99%… or maybe even in some cases 100% of the time interacting with our hoses is our plan. This is often what we also look at as leadership, we are the leader.
So what’s wrong with that? Is the reaction I get most. Either the human is aware they really only have a horse to do what they want with (and then they have all those other hours to just be a horse and that’s a lot more than with me and my demands right?) or they actually think that horses are not intelligent sentient beings who have thoughts, opinions, curiosity or are capable of taking us on an adventure anyway. They only want to eat, they are just dumb creatures of instinct, you’re putting way too much into this.
Well. I suppose it would be a waste of time to try to change anyone’s opinion about any of that. I can only share what I’ve seen as I experiment.
Contrary to what I used to think, if I ask my horse if she would like to make a choice from time to time it doesn’t make her less inclined to follow me when I ask for the leadership role. I think it makes her more inclined to submit to my leadership when I ask.
If you ever want to test all this out, you can try having a conversation with no method of control. See what you can ask your horse to do truly at liberty and you’ll have a gauge of where the relationship is. Of course if you’ve only relied on tools in the past you might have to work on some simple ways to communicate in order to even start this because you haven’t developed any common language except feel on a lead rope for example.
In the end you may see it as a waste of time. I can understand how someone would think that actually. Entering the world of the horse is like going from New York City to Mayberry and the New Yorker is not going to have much patience for how long it takes the sheriff to form a complete sentence. We are pretty sure that the only way to accomplish our goals is to get on and get working.
And yet… after adding in bite sized pieces and parts of this, I took Khaleesi for a high intensity work out on the river trail. I actually now am becoming more adept at shifting leadership in small ways more fluidly. I have never had her carry herself as balanced as she began to offer me at the beginning of this ride, in what I considered the warm up part. We walked, did some lateral work back and forth on the wide trail, I did some backing up and some reaching for her in softness. The best of these things became interspersed with asking her if she’d like to stop a moment (eat grass)… if she asked to stop and listen or look (strange sounds) we would sometimes do that… I was more in tune to the things she might ask me in this process and more likely to find a moment to say “sure, we can stop here and tune into that sound and see what it might be”.
As we continued on this warming up part of the ride each time she took up the trot she lifted into with balance reading my mind perfectly, but without me asking, once, she offered an idea: how about I pick up into the canter here at the same slow trot speed and give you the most floaty, balanced, lifted canter you’ve ever ridden in your life?
And I said: I love that, yes, that’s a great idea I’m with you!
It all happened in a matter of microseconds but it was all her idea, I was not going to canter until a bit later. And in truth I have never ridden her with this lovely of balance and lightness in my life. She gave it, offered it, to me. In that very moment she was the leader and I said yes.
It felt so good I think I cried a little. No kidding. And when she felt done we stoped. Also her idea. And then just stood there a moment both of us enjoying the sound of the river below, the breeze in the trees, and I noticed the smells in the air. The way she sighed and stood softly I think she was quite pleased with herself.
After that we continued to get warmed up and then hit the turn around of the trail where I planned to ask her to give me everything she had on the way back. Three miles of as much cantering as she could do. And then my plan was to repeat for a total of 12 miles for the afternoon of low intensity followed by all out high intensity. At the turn around there’s some grass in a circle and I allowed her a short snack. When I asked her her to attention and to return she didn’t fight with me, she knew her turn was over and we were going back to work.
I turned her around and barely thought: canter. She lifted off in a great strong canter though not as floaty as the one she offered earlier, and I never asked again the next three miles. Every time she asked to slow to walk or trot I said yes, and every time when she felt recovered enough she went back to the canter on her own. She was doing it, I just had to stay with her because I needed to support her changes and not get behind her movement in my body. For three miles she gave me all she had and it was stunning.
When we returned to the trailer I had planned to let her graze and recover then do it all again. That was my human training plan. I usually stick pretty tightly to my plans… I am a goal setter after all. But something about that ride was special enough I had a gut sense not to be greedy. Take what she gave me and tell her it was enough today. In fact it was better than enough.
I let her eat some grass while I untacked her and loaded her up for home. What I did learn about 20 minutes later was a massive storm was blowing through the area we had been and a warning came up on my phone as I went though town. So in the end, it was a good choice all around. That’s just a side note.
Maybe that ride was going to be unusually strong and connected regardless. I guess we can’t know for sure. I had been doing some of this time with her off and on and been building up a bank account of connection recently. I’m sure some other factors played into the perfect storm that brought such a great ride. However I do see a difference in our time together as I’ve begun to reconsider what good leadership is.
I should clarify that this is not the same as there being no one in charge, no leadership. When I decide to have a conversation about leadership with K or she asks me about an idea and I say yes, sure, great I’m with you, it is not random. There is an interaction happening over who is leading. Some people have no concept of what leadership is and have random free-for-all going on with their horses and that is not a good thing.
This interaction style will mean different things for different horses just like every parent knows that each child is unique. Khaleesi and I will forge a slightly different leadership dynamic than Wyoming and I will. I have also gone too far sharing leadership with Khaleesi and found where things don’t work very well. Even in freedom structure is helpful.
It is also true that my horses on the whole have had more choice and freedom and their voices tend to be considered probably more often than most normal horse people are willing to take the time and patience for… for better or worse. I think someone whose horse hasn’t had much say or freedom needs more structure in transition or they are likely to feel lost and confused.
Probably one of the biggest blocks to this is fear of losing control altogether. If anyone is curious to try to do some of this experimentation, you might remind yourself that control is an illusion anyway. You aren’t going to do too much “control” damage by going out into their world and learning how to be with them without controlling them as a start. In a really bad situation you’d be better off with a horse who knows how to make a decision and who feels connected to you by choice than one who is afraid of you or knows if it doesn’t comply there will be punishment. Someday something the horse fears more will come along… and injury usually comes out of that.
If you want to have a conversation about what it could look like to begin this process in small bite sized ways feel free to connect with me! You can find lots of information on Hopehorsemanship.com.
Meanwhile… get out there and feel the grass! Sniff the air… and hear the sounds around you. Slow down just a little, it will only do you good!
June brought some down time after the OD ride and some fun cross training. Khaleesi enjoys jumping and I love trying different things so we went to visit Caroline for a fabulous day of lessons and lunch with a bonus of relaxing in the river in the afternoon. Iva came along and rode Stella the pocket rocket pony who is aways on “go” and she had a lot of fun with her.
I particularly like cross training because it uses different brain and body pathways and is a workout that is also fun. However I’ve been starting to dig into this crazy idea about working in lower heart rate zones on purpose for extended work outs because apparently they are key in developing endurance fitness. Today I had a great opportunity to play around with that!
Besides walking the mountain I have not done significant out of the field riding with Khaleesi and today was the day to get out and start getting some miles. I had picked out the hidden valley/poor farm loop which is around 16 miles with maybe 950 feet of elevation as it loops from a long dirt gravel road to the river trail. It’s a pretty good moderate loop close to home.
I packed up my pads and girth and reins and half chaps and my sponge even; I made sure all the extras were in the truck and loaded Khaleesi for the 15 minute drive to the trail. Only when I arrived, parked, and then opened the door to begin pulling out tack something pretty basic had not made it. The saddle. Ugh. Well I’m not going bareback for 16 miles, it’s not so far so I headed back up to the barn- grabbed the saddle- and then returned to the trailhead, 30 minutes additional now but still worth it to follow through on my plan for the day.
As I began to get K ready something was obviously not right… oh no. The stirrup irons were still on the saddle I use for jumping. That is not good. Now I have the horse unloaded, half ready to go and I’m facing the decision of what now. I couldn’t see another 30 minutes of travel (and gas!) and I also couldn’t see bailing on my ride. So I decided to find out what 16 miles without stirrups would teach me.
First I had to toss any expectations of how long this would take. My guess was I’d be walking most of it though I hoped I would be able to sit the trot without stirrups after I got settled in.
Second this ride was going to be slow, but it would take a fair amount of focus if I wanted to get through without coming off the horse. Stirrups give a lot of stability for that moment you flush the grouse, spook the turkeys, or startle the deer. Then of course there are the funky shadows that are not alive at all but can be equally concerning to a prey animal out in the wide world.
What I learned.
I can sit a trot without stirrups pretty well if I am balance, and if my horses is balanced, if she is straight, moving in strength and not rushing or distracted. In order for me to have a nice sitting trot on K she has to be in good form and I must be loose but still have structure.
If I began to get out of control I would generally tighten up, get stiff and it would all get worse. Yet even in realizing that I was never able to pull back the whole horse and human balance without coming down to a walk and starting over once I lost it. I assume I am the problem most of the time, but I began to notice that actually we might be going along fine until K noticed something, and would bend her neck to follow the interest that caught her glance. This would then bend the ribcage and throw off her balance. Actually in this ride, as I was focused on this intentionally, it was rarely me that got us wonky. So I learned that I probably can use to go back and restart more often instead of accepting a less than balanced trot when we are training. Eventually we might be able to rebalance in the gait, but not yet.
Every time I wanted to trot I would gather my reins and wait for her to give into them slightly as she would begin to come into balance with the speed of her front and hind which would prepare us to lift into the trot. As she lifted I could go with her in that left to right rhythm combined with up and down and a little later I realized if I looked up and opened my shoulder blades it worked even better. If she rushed into it and pulled along on her front I had zero chance and would be flung all over the place.
How much attention I paid to this form was way way more than normal for me. It’s a lot to think about and demand every time you or she wants to trot. Also I’m not thinking every trot needs to be at that quality of balance and strength. And yet it was clear to me that I should spend more time finding this quality on rides even if we don’t hold it as long. That strength will build if I’m more intentional about it
Overall I had no choice but to be balanced because any time I went to one side or other I began to fall or shift. Considering I did not fall I think my balance is doing pretty well.
Last I have been working on improving my own riding in the canter and the stretches we cantered were I think my own best canter yet. Not having stirrups gave me no option except than to follow her body. Of course I had to be very discerning because one funky shadow or a fisherman’s bike hidden behind a tree and I’d have been tossed. I think she could tell and when she cantered she held it well, she stayed in control with good form and rhythmic. I also had to get quicker at asking for quality transitions. If she rushed into the canter or fell out of the canter into a jiggy trot I was all but grabbing onto her neck like a monkey for survival. So as we transitioned I would ask her to stay balanced into the canter, or sometimes I would pick the canter up right from the walk. Then transitioning down I had to immediately go canter-walk with a step or two of trot sometimes but that was a good challenge that became much more important that usual.
As for the zone training, I’m just in the beginning of that journey, but as far as I can tell in the early stages of understanding (oversimplified). Zone 2 training in the articles I’ve been reading (I realize there are sometimes 5 zones and sometimes 6 zones in HR studies, this uses 6) is in the range of 70-80% HR capacity. Here is what I’ve seen so far:
Most people skip over zone 2 because it doesn’t feel like a workout. To stay in zone 2 usually you have to dial back your activity so you don’t bounce into zone 3-4 which is where most people do the majority of their workouts and is basically the “no mans land” of HR training. Apparently elite athletes know you should basically avoid this range except during your event. It’s not easy enough to give the benefits of the zone 2 I’ll list below… but it’s not intense enough to bring the benefits of the occasional all out workouts that are also important to mix in here and there. (Occasionally workouts at high intensity are also of great value!)
Zone 2 increases the number and efficiency of mitochondria in your body. More mitochondria means you’re able to create ATP (adenosine triphosphate). ATP is what fuels every cell in your body. When you are in zone 2 creating lots of mitochondria you’re able to use oxidation to turn fatty acids into ATP and this is “a lot of bang for your buck”. Otherwise your body has to switch from oxidation to burning glycogen/carbs to keep up or get ATP from lactate. Now we’re getting into layers that are deeper than I’m ready for quite yet. What I did find interesting is without zone 2 training the body becomes inefficient at using fat for fuel, and that inefficiency contributes to a variety of health conditions including insulin resistance, and cancer.
Zone 2 training improves performance as an endurance athlete. More time spent in zone 2 allows you to go faster for longer and apparently is what separates professional athletes from amateur. The issue is it doesn’t “feel” like enough of a workout so most people won’t spend enough time focused on it, but the magic is the more time you spend there, you increase capacity and gradually you are going faster at a lower heart rate, increasing your pace without shifting over to carb-burning. One interview shared by spending the majority of her time in zone 2 (running) over years her finish times at races continue to improve significantly. The paradox to those in the know is: go slow to go fast.
Zone 2 improves cardiovascular health. The heart grows stronger and also pumps blood more efficiently, the body expands its cardiovascular system and gets better at delivering oxygenated blood to the whole body. This also improves performance.
Zone 2 prevents injury and aids recovery. It allows for quicker recovery which we all want to see in an endurance event. The zone 2 workouts put the least stress on the body (joints, ligaments, tendons etc) and enables you to workout more and longer with less exposure to breakdown and injury.
Horses and humans are not exactly the same, but I am willing to guess these apply to horse fitness as well. I used to have a HRM for K but it’s gotten old and there are some issues I haven’t been able to solve with the watch and so I’m looking for a new system. This is a case where I can do some good walk workouts mixed in with some hard intense training, but I think knowing I am not slipping into zone 3-4 which is apparently easy to do would be key.
There was a period of over a year when K was not totally sound, which was frustration for me. We could not sort out exactly what it was, but she was totally fine at the walk and so we did walk… then Molly mare entered the scene and her body was a mess and so was her brain from the life she came from of racing her around with no form or balance. We had to teach that horse to walk again and it took a ton of walking miles to get her to realize she could (in part she was so out of balance and weak she often rushed because she felt unstable). But K and I dutifully walked many miles with the pair during that time. It was like I was being set up to do a lot of slow foundation work. I spent the time working on straightness and balance since we had no speed. When K came right again and we began to compete last year she went from being the turtle at every 50 to coming in above middle usually in the teens which for a horse like her is pretty good. Looking back I have to ask, was I accidentally spending a lot of time in zone 2? And now have I begun doing too much zone 3-4 training when we do go out?
I see a lot of breaking down over time of horses in the sport of endurance, it’s a hard sport on the body. But I keep believing there has to be a better way to succeed and also have a horse who stays sound and healthy over it’s lifetime. Some people do a great job of this, but it’s not easy. Lots of hard miles take a toll on anyone.
Quality over quantity has already been a factor I’ve been working with, form and balance are important to create strength that will serve the horse to be less prone to injury or wear. I am already more curious to begin working on this in my own physical training.
Like most things that are done with excellence… it’s time consuming, takes a ton of patience and is often counterintuitive. I have learned if you don’t enjoy the process, doing things well will be frustrating and annoying and you’ll generally settle for good. I’m ruined for good… I am on a life quest for more.
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.