The Big South Fork

Monday, September 14, 2015

I was on the fence about this ride.

I worried about the long drive. I worried that we would drive all that way for a miserable ride in the pouring rain and lightning. I worried that I have too much to do to give three full days to this self-indulgent hobby turned obsession that is endurance riding for me.

The drive was long. It took just under 10 hours to get there. The day was warm and I have to keep it slower as it threatens to overheat on the mountainous Virginia highways. I worried about dehydration and unloaded Khaleesi twice (every 3 hours or so) to eat some grass and  apples, move her legs and get a drink. I loved seeing how good she was at the grassy areas at the truck stops. She didn’t mind the activity or sounds a bit. She was a good traveler.

at one of the truck stops
at one of the truck stops

We got in later than I’d expected but still got set up and were able to vet-in before dinner and the ride meeting. I used a small pop-up tent this trip in case we were tacking up in the rain, at least I could start semi-dry and ride out in my new raincoat. Also, the pop-up covered most of her enclosure, so I’d hoped she might stay at least somewhat dry.

The way I had to park (spots were at a premium with largest turnout they’d had for this ride in years) I could only tie to one side of my trailer. I planned to attach the corral to that side as well. We would be doing everything in there, under the tent. I set up the pop-up alone (it took a few extra minutes but I did it!) and put it in place and walked her under it thinking after the fact “Gee, I’m glad she didn’t freak out about being underneath that huge ‘tarp-thing’! It was just about at her head height!” We hadn’t practiced that at home. I tied her to the trailer and built the corral around her while she ate hay.

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Base Camp
Base Camp under stormy skies

With not much time to hit the vets, she wasn’t even brushed, but we got all As and a pink L110 on her hind and we were good to go. It stormed during the ride meeting, medium rain, lightning and thunder. It passed over us and back at the trailer, things began to quiet down so of course (my loud-mouth girl) Khaleesi began calling out to see who was around… horses from afar would start calling back and then after a few would quiet down again. Then she’d start it up… I must have the loudest horse in the AERC.

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Finally she stopped and and as I tucked myself into my hammock (in the trailer) the rain came and went gently on the roof and I slept on and off listening to her munching, drinking QUIETLY. At least until about 4am when she thought it was a good time to see if everyone made it through the night. I am pretty sure it was she who broke the silence and started talking again. I laid there and finally got up around 5am to get ahead of the game. It always seems like so much time in the morning, and then I’m barely tacked up for the start time. Today I wanted her to be ready early. We weren’t going out dead last today. Goal was to get into mid-pack and see how we do.

Thankfully she was dry, and it wasn’t raining. it was cool- good for the horses. The only thing I forgot this weekend (which was unfortunate but not disastrous) was my mini-press pot for coffee. I had the camping percolator but I hate dealing with that thing, it’s terrible for just one or two cups and at 5am it takes way too long. The first time I thought it was done the water was still clear at the bottom, then I turned up the heat and somehow boiled it dry. I added water again and finally got some weak excuse for coffee- that was at least something. I decided the next morning to just get out of dodge and hit a coffee shop en route.

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I tied on my big raincoat knowing the last weather I checked promised 60% chance of rain ALL morning. I’d never tied this raincoat on before… I didn’t have the best ties for it, I used some good boot shoestrings and left it in the twine I’d wrapped it up in. We were ready to go in time to check in 20 minutes before start (I still did so on foot, no sense getting her all worked up yet)- though I realized my GPS had been left in my crew bag, and I’d sent that on ahead to the vet-check already. Today I was the anti-gizmo. No heart rate monitor, no GPS, my phone on airplane mode to conserve battery (no service in camp… as usual).

We took a walk around camp under saddle just to get moving and hit the trail just after they called the start time. We walked past the timers, gave our number and I let her start trotting slowly out. We hit the trail and she was good to go! Which would have been fantastic – except pretty quickly my raincoat was coming undone. I tried to salvage it under saddle… I didn’t care how it stayed on, but it’s one of my most valuable articles and there was no way I would risk losing it on the trail. We screwed around with it for a few minutes walking/trotting… trying to get her to stand in place a minute reins in my teeth, and in the end end I knew it was futile. We HAD to stop and fix it. Darn.. loosing valuable time to equipment kinks, and she was not going to like this one bit.

I hopped off and she was not happy. A slower rider camp up behind and graciously stopped to wait for us. She was not in a hurry and told me that I might want to take a breath- maybe my horse was reading my agitation. (oh… yeah… right! thanks) of course it only marginally helped. She wanted to GO… there were other horses out there! I did what I could to re-tie the coat while she did not stand so quietly, then I got back on with a little difficulty (standing still!) and off we went again. It took about 5 minutes of trotting for the raincoat to begin to slide out again. This time I did stay on and began pulling parts of it through the loop top of my cantle bag. It was all over the place, but it seemed secure enough, and it didn’t bother her a bit. I could feel part of it behind my left leg, so I knew it was there (hopefully would notice if i lost it) and we kept going forward.

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the “snack” bridge… with grass growing on it

Thankfully we had a good pace going and we did pass a few other riders which meant we were not last. We eventually caught up to two riders who seemed to be going a perfect pace. We had to move to keep up, but they weren’t leaving us behind. Khaleesi and I settled in to shadow them and see what happened. Turns out we rode the entire rest of the ride together, at least Sabina and I did. Her partner ended up pulling at the vet check for a slightly lame front hoof (possibly a bruise?).

Our first ride together two weeks ago we led a new horse the entire ride, this time we followed Sabina and Leon, an experienced rider who goes back and forth between 30s and 50s depending on her training schedule. For this ride the other horse (who pulled) had been on a 2-year break and this was his first ride back. So the 30 mile LD worked best for them.

Turns out it did not rain that morning. At all. Good thing I fought with that raincoat- I’m sure if I hadn’t had it the rain would have poured!

Example of rock formations we rode past- blurry because we were moving!
Example of rock formations we rode past- blurry because we were moving!

The ride was stunning- huge rock formations big as buildings along the way, pretty woods, lots of streams, and crossing Big South Fork was really a treat. With rain that week the river was up- actually it was about as high as it can get before they detour and do not cross. The picture at the top of the blog is (by Becky Pearman) of the river crossing. We were focused on staying in between the boulders (park rules) that you could barely see due to the water level. She didn’t mind the depth at all and depending where you stepped it got even deeper, the guy riding with us on the 16H Thouroughbred was in over his feet where he crossed.

crossing Big South Fork
crossing Big South Fork

A few miles from vet check 1 at a brief water stop that she wasn’t drinking at, I was trying to feed her an apple (I carried a few with me to encourage her to snack on the go and also provide some moisture) and as I lured her head with the apple she sniffed it and refused and I thought I saw something… I asked her again (gently) to turn toward me and she had pinkish/reddish saliva around her lips. Blood.

Except refusing the apple, she wasn’t acting odd or uncomfortable, though I think she had shaken or jerked her head once or twice in a way that was unusual for her recently… in the past… uh… little while? Not continuously though… and I couldn’t think of anything that would have done that like stepping on her reins, or an accidental hard jerk on her mouth… I had been trying to encourage her to eat an occasional apple- had she bitten her tongue? Maybe back as far as when I got off her to fix the raincoat and she was fighting with me refusing to stand still. Also Pam and I had lowered her bit a few days previously. We checked and it did not interfere with her teeth, and had less potential for pinching her mouth this way. That could have something to do with it, but didn’t seem like a good reason.

She didn’t appear to have blood pouring out her mouth- so I decided to continue riding as we were into the vet check and get a better look there.

We rode into the vet check (almost 14 miles) at 2.5 hours giving us a decent first loop pace. It took me a few minutes to find my bag (this vet check did not have many volunteers, and was a little hard for me to sort out what was going on at first). Not very efficient, I eventually just dumped my saddle in some random area and took out her bit- checking her mouth though not too invasively and saw no more sign of any blood and decided she must have had a quick small injury that was not an issue. Brought her to pulse in after about 6 minutes because I couldn’t waste any more time looking around for my bag/spot before getting our out time. Due to all the time we pulsed in at 48 (fantastic!) and flew through the vetting.

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I did remember my chair, but only sat in it briefly. The area was crowded with all the crew gear and it was all I could do to keep Khaleesi from eating everyone else’s food (in bowls unattended, which is annoying to me). Apparently she didn’t have a serious mouth injury that affected her eating! I tried to move away a few things to create enough space to tie her so she could only reach her own food, hay and apples and sat to eat my roll up for a whole 3 minutes before it was time to start tacking up again (hate to wait too long and be rushed!).

Sabina and I decided to ride the home loop together and as we headed out I told her we were looking to push ourselves, and her pace had been great for us. I asked her to lead the way at whatever pace she wanted and we would just do our best to stay with her. If I felt it wasn’t going to work I would tell her and we could either modify or separate. Don’t wait for us if we lag, and if we come up a little quick, we are not trying to pass. I did not feel she needed to “be in the front” this ride. I know she can do that. I wanted to learn from a team who had been riding AERC rides for 10 years and often had been top 5 if she was riding alone.

loved all the neat rock formations along the trail
loved all the neat rock formations along the trail

She told me the first loop was a little slower than she would have gone for the other horse- he was now waiting back at vet check for a ride home, so we took off and kicked it up a notch on the longer loop back. Leon has a great fast extended trot- Khaleesi and I often switched between trotting and slow cantering to keep up with him. I don’t mind that, it gave us both a break from the relentless trotting to canter here and there. I enjoyed Sabina and we shared some nice conversation (and just rode in agreeable silence too).

My favorite part of this ride was coming out of the woods to this stretch. The sky was rich blue, clouds puffy white, temps were mild… it was September in all it’s glory.

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We only walked where the footing was too rocky or too deep, and one relentless steep hill. Sabina let Leon trot then canter up and as we’d turn a corner it would get steeper… Khaleesi followed behind but tired quicker and up the trail I saw Leon stop and Sabina hop off. I wondered if she was adjusting something and thought “good- we’ll catch up to them” and she immediately just started hoofing it herself up the trail. We did catch them and I did the same. She said “This was as far as he was able to canter, so it’s the point I get off and give him a break as we walk up the rest of the way. If he’s walking,I might as well be walking too”. We were only maybe half way.

At the top, we got on and let them walk a little more to catch their breath (I was breathing harder than Khaleesi was!) and with an “Are we all good now?” away we went again.

at one of the water troughs- she drank a lot on the second loop
at one of the water troughs- she drank a lot on the second loop

On our first loop Khaleesi took no water and no grass. I gave her electrolytes in powerade & applesauce at the VC, she drank half a tank of water before we headed out, and she drank at every stream and every water tank on the second half. It was warmer, dryer, and she’d been out longer as well. She sweat a bit, but often was dry and didn’t seem to find the workload too hard. It was only the last 4 or so miles on a boring, but easy flat dirt road she began to lag and I had to ask her for more, we had to trot trot trot, then canter (more often than previously) to keep up with Leon. I hadn’t needed to ask her to keep up wit Leon before now. I realized she was getting tired, but I didn’t think she was going to hurt herself- this is where we had to push on and break through. She did.

After I got home I read a reprinted article about training and over-riding horses in the Endurance News and the author suggested the ideal workload is when you tire your horse around the last 20% of the ride. Not to exhaustion but to where you sense they are getting tired but can still carry on the same basic pace if you ask them. If they reach this point too early in the ride you have over-ridden the horse and will cause harm to continue in the same pace. If they don’t get tired then you should push a little more. I believe we hit this mark just about perfectly! 

Just as we began to think the finish was a couple miles off we saw camp through the trees. The trail wound around the outside of base camp, so we knew we were very close. We jumped off and walked the rest of the way in and crossed the finish line together. Saddles off, we took just a minute before heading to the pulse box. We both pulsed in within a minute of each other to be 10th and 11th place. With 25 riders started that day that put us easily in the mid-pack goal I had set out with. Thanks to Sabina letting us ride along and learn from her we were almost in the top 10! Our moving pace on the second loop was 6.1mph according to my GPS which was not bad at all!

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We went through the vet and had no trouble. Attitude and impulsion were good! she is doing much better trotting out with me now that we’ve been practicing She had no soreness or tack issues, gut sounds were all +s, cardiac recovery went from 60 down to 56 after the trot out. She was alert and happy, was barely sweaty (I’d left my sponge and scraper in the crew bag, but ended up not feeling the need to rinse her off anyway) drank a ton more water and ate her hay and grain back at the trailer.

I grabbed a refreshing drink and hand walked her around and out of camp to find some greens to munch and stretch her legs for a while and rubbed her and told her how amazing she was. She walks through camp like she owns it- calling around her to the other horses just to chat as she goes. She’s calm- it’s not stress calling like when she was looking for Faygo- it’s like she just has the need to announce herself and talk to the other horses.

hand grazing lazily after the ride
hand grazing lazily after the ride

We had these horse neighbors in camp that always stood right next to each other like little twins watching us. I never saw their people, but they were always side-by-side and too cute not to get a picture of.

i called them the twins
i called them the twins

Also, on our walk around camp to graze and stretch our legs we saw this horse who apparently found the bag of carrots and was working on pulling them out one at a time… cracked me up…

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I couldn’t close the top 1/4 door by the corral because of the way I’d set up the pop up tent, so that was always left open at night and at some point Khaleesi realized I was in there and sometimes she’d pop her head up through the corral or over top of it. As it got dark she’d put her nose all the way around as if to ask “Are you still in there? What are you doing?” I’d go over and say hi and rub her nose and chat for a minute and she’d go back to eating. She did this a bunch of times Saturday night. What a character.

The trailer corner of the corral... she learned to poke her head around and check me out that evening
The trailer corner of the corral… she learned to poke her head around and check me out that evening

I love to head home after a 30 mile ride and let her in a big field, and me hit the hot tub, and relax and catch up with Ed, but with the long drive we had to stay the second night. Once we start doing 50s we will likely also have to stay the second night. One perk was a glorious nap in the afternoon instead of packing up to go. Dinner was BBQ and it was nice to stay for awards and see how everyone else did. I spent some time packing up as much as possible that night so all I had to do was load my corral and horse and get on the road before the 100 milers went out on Sunday at 7am.

The next morning I was up at 4am… Khaleesi smacked her hay bag loudly with a thump on the side of the trailer, I think she was trying to get me up. After being jarred awake and wondering panicked “oh no- did she just push the fence over?” (of course not, but I was half asleep and strange things come to mind before you’re fully awake). I rolled out of the hammock to look and she was standing there chewing on hay.

Might as well get up and roll out! It took me a while in the dark, trying to stay at least somewhat quiet to finish packing up and take down the panels. She loaded on a little after 5am and we got out of camp and on the road close to 5:30. After about 2 hours, close to Knoxville we stopped at a starbucks where I ordered and then hit the restroom glad for a mirror where I also brushed my hair and did a good hand wash. After the coffee appeared I felt almost human again!

Starbucks & apple stop around Knoxville
Starbucks & apple stop around Knoxville

We hit the road again, moving faster today in the cold morning (the truck runs better in the cold) and had an uneventful drive home. It felt so good to pull in and unload her. The horses came running to welcome her back, and once I took off her halter in the big field I thought she’d run off kicking her heels and doing pirouettes (I’ve seen this before) in joy from being home again, but she stood next to me for a minute while I rubbed on her and took a few bites of grass… then she walked a few steps for some better grass and didn’t seem to be in any hurry. After she got a few feet away Faygo came in to say hello and I gave her some scratching and love time. Khaleesi took a big roll and sauntered over to the water tank. I headed home and hit the hot tub (after some unloading).

Looking back, we did improve! And learned some new things too.

Get an extra press pot that lives in the camping box. Never be without good coffee again!

Buy the lightweight saddle pack that goes with the raincoat and clip it on next time.

We picked up the pace. Yes, I would have loved to pick it up even more and creep into that top ten, but I think we found the appropriate balance. She got tired, but still seemed happy and she was sound and healthy at the end.

Look up, and ride better… those were my riding goals from the past ride. Thinking about this early on the ride I had a motto: Trust our feet. Hers and mine.

Trust her to set her feet, don’t look down. I definitely improved this and it helped us with keeping up our speed too- I was always looking up the trail a little ways and I found she almost never tripped or slipped. I can’t remember one time actually. True, the footing was basically good, but there were rocky sections and mud and plenty of chances to trip up.

I needed to trust that if I kept my heels down/toes up I would not fly out of the stirrups and the saddle. I have been riding in fear of losing a stirrup (like that is the end of the world) and tried to find a good spot on the ball of my foot where I could stay balanced. It helped.

I did ride better. I wasn’t perfect, and I still felt a little jarred around sometimes, especially watching Sabina in front of me who seemed to be exactly in balance and never wavered from her seat no matter what. I think I was a little more leaned forward for this ride than I’d like, but at least I wasn’t siting behind my feet. We mostly posted, but a very occasional 2-point and on uphills I found I could actually do a few sitting steps too balancing better on my heels and almost hovering. A few times we really hit a sweet spot and it was easy. I almost never had to grab the saddle to stabilize.

Our trot outs and standing still for the vet were also better. She occasionally tried to step away from the stethoscope, but basically stood nicely and stayed with me on the trots.

Aside from the need to continue to improve my riding skills overall, and continued fine tuning of her standing nicely when asked, we really hit the mark on this ride and I was very proud of her and pleased with my own improvement. Two days later I’m a little ‘sore’ or tight in a few spots- thighs mostly, but not jarred around sore like the last ride. We are efficient in the vet-stations, have the crew bag needs down, and have picked up speed.

I think having a ride only 2 weeks from our first ride was really helpful for us because the things I wanted to improve were fresh in my mind. It was absolutely worthwhile for us to stretch our comfort zone to get to the Big South Fork ride. We now have just under a month until our last ride of the season: the open LD (25) at the national championships in Old Dominion territory over in Oarkney Springs.

I am looking forward to this ride because it should be exciting (lots of people from all around) and it’s right in our backyard. Also, my future crew, Sarah and Madison are coming and Madison is going to ride Faygo as a junior rider along with Khaleesi and I.

I’ll be spending the next couple weeks focusing on getting Faygo ready for this ride, and it should be cool enough that she will do well. We will plan to stay in the back of the pack, be kind to Faygo and Madison, and not be pushing our limits. I’ve heard the OD courses are tough- this is good for us because when people say that, they are speaking of the things Faygo excels at: rocky terrain and mountains. I wanted Madison to have the experience of riding an AERC ride since she’s going to be helping me, and I enjoy her company and she does fantastic with Faygo.

With my teaching schedule in full gear this week, team green signs off for a little break for Khaleesi, she’s earned it!

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3 thoughts on “The Big South Fork

  1. Thank you so much for sharing your journey. I enjoy your writing, but most of all i appreciate how i can improve my horsemanship and learn from you.

    your honesty…..of the successes as well as the opportunities and where things might have not gone so well, is inspiring and encourages me to keep working.

    Wishing You All the Best, Deb

    386-234-0843

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    1. Thanks for the comment! I write these so I can have some record to look back on where I’ve been and where I’m going, and I always love to hear that other people enjoy reading our adventures as well. Thanks for reading!

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  2. This is definitely the most comprehensive write up I’ve seen of BSF! The rock walls are beautiful – it reminds me of the pics they showed of Rock Bridge Canyon on the AERC Facebook group earlier this year and it gives me hope because I really really dont want to have to drive to Alabama to experience something similar 😉 I’m glad y’all did we’ll and good luck at the OD open 25 – I hope to be up there drag riding on Thursday myself! 🙂

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