Take Away

Tuesday, June 16, 2015

I’ve been thinking about what I learned from volunteering at the OD ride for a couple of days now. As much as it was hard to be there without a horse watching everyone else doing what I wanted to be doing, it was an invaluable experience and I’m so glad I volunteered. I’d heard it said before that one of the best ways to learn about endurance is to volunteer at a ride and honestly if I’d had a horse for that ride I would not have taken the time to volunteer- but I will join the chorus now in encouraging even people who participate but haven’t volunteered at a ride to scribe for a vet.

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So… what exactly did I learn…

So many nuggets and other things that are hard to put into words that fall into the experience category — I may not pull up until I have a situation to need the information in the future. However, I’ll see if I can do some relevant take aways here.

Take advantage of any talks, seminars, or lectures they offer.

The Friday afternoon before the ride, one of the vets had a talk offered on “How to get your horse through ride weekend”. I left vet-in early to go to this and was shocked to see only a handful of people out of 168 riders plus crew at camp.

The vet was an experienced endurance rider who knew the course and went over very specific details about the challenges of this particular ride on this particular weekend (heat and humidity). She talked about how to best use the course to your advantage and went over the maps with us (where there were decent streams for cooling off, where you might stop a minute in a pasture for some grass, what climbs were like and what time of the day you’d be likely to do them- how to use your energy and save your horse on them, where you might be able to make up some time); she highly suggested crews get ice coolers to the vet checks the night before because the water available on a hot day will often not be cool enough to cool the horse down fast enough, she talked about the need to front-load hydration and some practical ways to do it; she talked about how to take care of yourself- the rider- in the heat. She also answered questions.

She rode that weekend on Percheron crosses (NOT arabians, so she really had to pay attention as Percherons are certainly not predisposed to these conditions) she had a lot of experience with keeping a horse healthy and finishing a hard ride. My vet checked her horses both times she went through Bird Haven and they were in good shape both times, and she completed the ride. I also noticed one of the 100 top ten finishers was a man who asked some good questions at the talk and his horse (at 1am) looked good as well. Considering how many horses didn’t complete I believe some of them might have benefitted from the information- even if it was a reminder to them.

The front-runners often look good… until they don’t… (Sometimes the tortoise does win in the end)

Staying in one place- having information come in as horse-rider teams go through the ride I saw first hand how many people were moving ahead, making good time and then got pulled. Conversely I saw some who seemed to lag a bit behind, but did complete- which in the end puts them ahead. What I overheard about this in conversation (yes, I eavesdropped as much as possible in hopes of gleaning any grain of information possible) is that some of the “turtle” riders were behind because they’d take a few extra minutes in a grass field and let their horse graze, or standing them in a stream to cool off, they might have even taken a few extra minutes at the hold to let their horse get more recovered and rested.

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Granted- the top finishers were fast, but I saw that those people knew their horses, and probably had special horses that were mentally and physically predisposed to do well as well as mentally and physically conditioned. Know your horse, and pay attention to early signs.

What the early signs are…

Considering I don’t often ride my horses to their physical limits and I’m not a vet, I haven’t often seen what a horse looks like when they are showing signs of dehydration and fatigue.

I got to see what skin tenting looks like at an “A”, “A-“, “B”, and “C” and anything less than a “C” is not an early sign anymore. I learned that and “A” and “A-” are great, and that a “B” is ok, it’s hot and you’re working hard, your horse needs a drink and you should pay attention, and that a “C” is not the end of the world, but you’d better take a minute and let your horse “pull himself together” before you continue or you will be in trouble.

I saw what “impulsion” looks like at all those grades as well. I saw horses come in from the same ride heads up, willing to jog, eyes clear and alert and I saw horses come in whose rider had to jerk and drive them to jog out, heads down while standing, not so alert, eyes dull, and I saw a lot of in between. I also saw for the first time what dark urine looks like from a horse who had passed the vet check officially and seemed to be ok- that team took a rider-option and pulled themselves out because the urine was so dark it was a warning sign they felt not worth ignoring. I saw what a horse who was tying up goes through and how scary that can be (thankfully that happened at the vet station where she was able to get immediate treatment). I saw the difference between a tired horse and a horse that just isn’t “fit to continue”.

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Be prepared!

You have an advantage if you are ready for as much as possible. The morning might be cool, it might rain, it could be blistering hot in the mid-afternoon, and by 1am it was chilly. Have layers and be ready for extremes. One of the horses cut a digital artery on the trail and though the rider was a vet she didn’t have what she needed on hand- other riders who stopped to help her had a maxi-pad, vet wrap, and duct tape and those three things might have saved her horse’s life (I don’t know how that situation turned out, but she was able to ride the horse far enough to get trailered to Leesburg for emergency surgery and I never heard what the outcome was).

When I rode around as a passenger on a motorcycle a lifetime ago, the motorcycles folks always said you dress for the crash, not for the ride. I put in many hours on the back of a bike- even doing distance rides and weekend trips. I never was involved in a crash of any kind, but I wore kevlar, boots and a helmet every time just the same. Similarly it’s rare you need emergency supplies, but you could save someone (or someone’s horse’s) life and it might just be your own.

You don’t want to load down your horse- so be smart about it, many things can have multiple use. Duct tape seems like a given at least- Karen Chaton had the tip to wrap some duct tape around a pen so you don’t have to carry a huge roll- and you have a pen in case you need to leave a note for someone somewhere….

Take care of yourself.

Around 2am I saw a rider come in whose horse looked fantastic but the rider was not doing well. She had been dizzy and nauseous for a couple hours and hadn’t felt hungry so in all the adrenaline she’d neglected to eat and drink. She had 6 miles to go and though the vets and her team pumped her with warm chicken soup and encouraged her, and she did leave for the finish on horseback, she wasn’t having fun anymore and had spiraled into a pretty negative place. Another Karen Chaton tip comes to mind: eat before you’re hungry and drink before you’re thirsty.

Also keep you own electrolytes up- but don’t overdo it. I heard a story from some of the vets of a rider who was doing the calvary challenge (you have to carry everything on your own and no crew) who wanted to be sure she had enough electrolytes so she took salt pills (which were lighter than trying to haul gatorade) – only she took way too many and was losing fluids due to an imbalance. I’ve heard of some great electrolyte capsules on the market- but take them as directed!

Drag riders have a job.

Although I think drag riding is advertised as a way to see some of the trail without being on the clock and as a fun ride experience (it should be both of those things), they are responsible for coming in shortly after the last riders to be sure no one was hurt on the trail. They are fresher and start from various checkpoints to be sure they are in a position with good horses and riders to get help if needed. They were sent out (with fresh horses) 10 minutes after the last rider, and at the next (last) checkpoints the drag riders came in 2 hours after the last 100 mile rider came through and in the words of someone who saw them “wouldn’t have realized it if they had come upon a mastodon”.

They were apparently enjoying a lovely night ride, and not really doing their job. If something had happened to one of the last few riders they would not have been there to help. Also, a station can’t be shut down until everyone has cleared through- including drag riders. So it was inconsiderate of them to keep volunteer staff and a vet waiting 2 hours for them while they wandered along. My understanding is they had no issues and were not lost- just not in any hurry and enjoying themselves.

It is likely they didn’t understand the importance of what their task was and that people had to wait on them. So if I ever ride drag, I’m glad I heard the story to know the appropriate way to be a good, responsible drag rider.

Smaller things… for me personally…

* Carry a GPS. Many of the vet stations and parts of the trail go over places you’ve already been- in the worst case if you get lost you can at least get yourself back to where you were. Especially in the dark! I heard some of the vets talking about a rider who got lost at night and was in an area that can’t be accessed by vehicle without forest service keys (which the ride staff don’t have on hand). That rider was safe but did end up spending the night in the woods alone completely off the ride route.

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* Pop-up tent is BRILLIANT. Between downpours and intense sun having shelter at a major crewing point seemed to be a great idea. Many of the crews had a tent up and it was great for the crew while waiting in the elements, but if the horse was exhausted and overheating a pop-up tent is the only way to be sure you’ll get some relief from the sun (you can’t guarantee a shady tree, and you can’t know you’ll be at the right place at the right time to get the shade- especially if your rider comes through at 2 different points of the day. Also, if as a rider I had to spend 45 minutes at a hold that was downpouring- it would really make my day to get out of it for a bit- maybe dry off and regroup. Worth the investment- and it is great to have at base camp too, for all the same reasons.

* Don’t give your ride card baggie to the scribe!!! That was a small pet peeve I picked up through the day. I have a clipboard and a pen and am busy following my vet to be sure I have all the information correct. I don’t have a third hand for the baggie and if I stuff it in my pocket you may not get it back.

ALSO– riders try to have your card open to the correct place on your ride card and TIMERS: write the “in” time under the correct number slot for that vet check station! I saw a lot of screwed up rider cards where the station numbers were screwed up and that can then be confusing for the vet scribe who wonders why there is no “in” time at the vet check number section you are in. It’s not so hard to get it right- but as a rider, if you give the card ready to go in the right place you have a better chance of a clean and correct rider card at the end!

* Thank the vets and volunteers. I have to admit when I rode in my first ride at the No Frills, there was so much in my head this did not occur to me. But there were a lot of riders who took a moment to say a personal “Thank you for being here today to make sure we have a safe and enjoyable day”- and those little moments were such an unexpected gift!

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* My crew is going to be A-MA-ZING 🙂 I highly advise anyone who has non-endurance-riding crew folks in mind to come out and work an event. Sarah and Madison were 100% invested in the day and we were all there learning together. They are now way ahead in understanding what endurance is about, what goes into a successful and not-so-succesful day, and they were real troopers to do the 100 mile over 24 hours with no real sleep marathon. Madison’s vet said she was so fantastic, and Sarah got to see everything front row by being an in/out timer, she was also closer to the actual crew area and saw more of what crews were actually doing out there. I am so excited to have a team like that forming in advance!

The rest…

I know there are a TON more things I picked up. Small bits of conversation… stories told under the vet tent… watching a rider or a crew member do something unexpected…

It’s a great community of people who care about each other and their horses more than they care about their time or even finishing. I am so glad to slowly become part of that community and I think the Old Dominion rides have been a great introduction. They are run really well with very competent people in charge- as a rider and a volunteer I’ve had great experiences. They take care of each other and stay flexible when needs arise.

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I’m torn between my desire to ride as much as possible and knowing that volunteering is a great way to learn and connect with that community. I’m excited to be part of an amazing and inspiring group of people.

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