Part 2: What it’s all about

Monday, October 12, 2015

Ride time for the open 25 mile was much later than I’d liked (9:30am) because that puts us riding in the warmest part of the day. It had been cool for the past week and our final training in the rainy chill had been great. It was Faygo I was thinking of most.

On the flip side it did provide us some sleeping in time and an easy morning getting ready to go. We had a new neighbor arrive the evening before and offered her coffee and sat down to chat a few minutes. Turns out it was the rider who won the 100 mile ride in June and we enjoyed hearing about her journey (which was very different from mine) and she assured us that the 25 mile course doesn’t live up the the “big bad beast of the east” reputation the 50 and 100 mile rides have. Most of the really hard terrain is after Bird Haven, so you guys will be fine!

Madison braids Faygo's thick mane to keep it off her neck.
Madison braids Faygo’s thick mane to keep it off her neck.

We spent a long time feeding the girls and grooming them, making much of them as my British Manual of Good Horsemanship from the 1950s suggests is good to do. It was great to have crew mom helping grab a towel, or the braiding bands, or the making crayon to darken our numbers and to start tossing things into the crew bag for later and going through the checklist with us. At this point I’m wondering how I have done this completely on my own in the past (I’ll try not to get spoiled!).

We discussed layers (it was already getting warm enough to shed a sweatshirt) and raincoats- last time I checked the real rain wasn’t expected until after 3pm, so we tossed our raincoats in the crew bag for later.

Khaleesi tacked up and last preparations...
Khaleesi tacked up and last preparations…

We made sure to ride Faygo today with her heart rate monitor and that takes a little time to put in place while tacking up. Also used the borrowed Cloud9 pad on Khaleesi and we were ready to start a little warm up ride around camp and to check in at the start.

putting the heart rate monitor on together
putting the heart rate monitor on together

The horses were excited with all the activity… the buzz was almost tangible around us and riders were trotting up and down the road on their fresh horses. We took a loop up to the start line to check in and Khaleesi at one point got so excited with all the horses going every which way around her she even did some little buck jumps that I think were intended for me to understand we needed to get up there FASTER! They weren’t enough to worry me though she (again- like the bucks on the trot out) has never done that before. I’m not sure if she’s starting to figure these events out and gets excited or if I was just excited and she felt it from me and my excitement came out her rear end!

I like to think she has fun in endurance rides, enjoys running along the trails and can’t help herself from a little jump of joy… thankfully it was the only one that day!

Girls are ready to roll, crew mom is all packed up!
Girls are ready to roll, crew mom is all packed up!

We checked in and headed back to camp to avoid the running start that was likely to ensue. We did a loop back toward our rig and then walked the horses back around and up to the start to begin around the back of the pack. There were 35 riders today and some great horses up there but our job was to take it easy and keep our eye on Faygo.

Unfortunately she started out already excited and though she’s completely in control and not scary- she wants to GET UP THERE and be in front of everyone else. Right from the start line Madison had to manage her and I’ve learned there is a balance between slowing her down and making her so frustrated she fights you exhausting her energy and letting her choose a way too fast speed that will also exhaust her energy. We managed as best we could, Khaleesi at a nice slow trot and Faygo at an easy gait and smiles ear to ear for us.

The first part of the trail is really lovely. Good footing, very gentle uphill grade that is often pretty flat. I put Khaleesi in front to hold our speed to a manageable slow trot. It took a long time to get Faygo relaxed and not trying to catch up to the horses she KNEW were just ahead of us somewhere. I’d ask Madison on occasion: What’s her heart rate? [Madison]: about 115… [Me]: ok… great. We’ll keep this pace up for a bit.

Not long into the ride I saw the sign for “ride photographer ahead- please spread out”. Funny thing was I was trying to focus on my horse who two rides ago did a dance when she noticed the camera and I didn’t even realize she was there until we’d almost passed her. No horse dancing this time- and makes me wonder if it was her or me in the first place. Becky as usual got a great shot of us! I love seeing the ride photos develop, I am almost starting to look like a “real” rider.

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I asked Madison what she learned in the ride meeting about the trail itself. Not much she said, only one thing: about 5 miles in there is a climb that were were told “not to underestimate”. 

Me, to myself: Ok, if that’s all we need to know, I assume its significant.

A few miles in we stopped at a water crossing and it was early for a drink but we waited a moment to take a breather. Faygo was breathing harder than I’d like for that amount of trail (and more than I’d have expected at home) and I think it was the excitement of the morning more than the workload. She was less “feisty” now that we’d been riding alone for a while so we decided to jump down and encourage them to take a bite of grass, maybe drink and just relax a bit. We offered the girls an apple or to in order to encourage them to realize this was a snack break and we each had a granola bar. We hand walked them for a bit and when all was a little more calm we got back on and rode easy for a while.

one of our early water stops
one of our early water stops

I kept watching my GPS to give me an idea of our pace and mileage (waiting for that mountain at mile 5) and our pace was pretty good, it was averaging around 6mph and as far as training with Faygo that’s a solid do-able pace usually that doesn’t work her too hard. She can gait for miles around 9 mph if it’s not steep without much trouble. We climbed a short steep hill just before mile 5 and Madison wondered if that might have been it?

She is from FLAT FLA!

No I told her. That is not a hill any ride manager would warn you about 🙂

We kept on and true to their word, around mile 5 the incline began. We slowed our pace and started to climb. And we kept climbing.

Climbing.

Yes Madison- this is the mountain not to underestimate.

It went on for miles. It started to rain on us (so much for the weather report). I checked the radar (we had pretty good service this high up the mountain!) and it looked like a small but heavy rain was going to pass over us and then clear up. At least it would cool us down a little up this climb.

Around mile 6.5 we had a nice view and I snapped a pictures to send to Sarah letting her know we were not making good time, but were ok.

After mile 7 we turned a corner and saw the incline kept going and the rain had lessened to a misty sprinkle so we dismounted and hand walked them for about a mile. We finally got to a plateau (not completely the top, but a nice flat section) and checked in together. How is everyone doing?

Khaleesi is fine.

Faygo is ok but breathing pretty hard. 

Beautiful ridge trail as the ran was moving out
Beautiful ridge trail as the ran was moving out

We hand walked a little while longer to give her a chance to recover a bit then hopped up and walked on. We were in a rocky ridge trail area and we put Faygo in front to set the pace. She has a fantastic fast walk that covers ground and she’s a technical trail wonder. She can fast walk through the worst footing without tripping and without hurting herself. She set a decent walk through the first of the rocks as we finished the more gradual climb to the top.

The hill had taken our moving pace down significantly and we were not as far as I’d have liked to see for the amount of time we were out. I was concerned, but knew we were doing our best. We stopped at the top to enjoy the view and let the horses get a snack and drink at the water trough. The sun had come back out and it was absolutely gorgeous!

Beautiful view at the top of the mountain.
Beautiful view at the top of the mountain.
Madison and Faygo start to head down the mountain.
Madison and Faygo start to head down the mountain.

Now we head down into the vet check. If Bird Haven is indeed 15 miles, we had a ways to go. This is another place Faygo excels, she has a great downhill! We picked up the pace and kept monitoring her. We did our best to find the balance of getting us there with making sure she was doing ok.

We pushed the downhill as much as we felt comfortable. Faygo bopping along in a nice gait with Madison sitting comfortably in the saddle, and Khaleesi and I trotting down the hill on a gravel road with me doing my best to find good balance along the way. Thankfully there was only one moment of WAIT!! STOP!! I’VE LOST BOTH MY STIRRUPS!! Otherwise we worked a lot on how to move the downhills without me falling all over the place on my first non-gaited horse.

Faygo seemed to be doing ok with the downhill and we made up some speed.

We entered the woods again and came to two streams where both girls stopped to drink and even took a few bites of grass. Check in with Faygo: heart rate was still doing fine, breathing was harder than Khaleesi – but then it always is. We were about a mile out of Bird Haven according to the signs on the trail.

One of the last creek stops before Bird Haven.
One of the last creek stops before Bird Haven.

I send a text to Sarah to let her know- we’re still fine, getting close!

When we got close to the vet check, there is another stream crossing and you can see the field that I’ve watched riders go in and out of as a volunteer and it was so exciting to know we were coming into Bird Haven finally as riders! Again the girls stood in the stream to get a drink and I reached for my phone to let Sarah know we were here. I was wearing my light gloves and didn’t quite have a good hold of the phone and it went slow motion tumbling right into the creek as I jumped right down after it, I snatched it up just as it fell into the water and in a panic I turned it off as fast as I could and dried it on my T-shirt. SHOOT.

I got back on and we walked into the vet check arriving at just about 1pm. Not great, but I had no idea really what the mileage to the finish was. We could be ok, but it was borderline.

Sarah was there to help us drop saddles and get the girls ready for pulse down. The heart rate monitor (probably shifted) stopped reading in about the last mile, so we didn’t know where Faygo was going in. She doesn’t pulse down as fast as Khaleesi, but there wasn’t a line at the P&R box (we were the last to show up and most riders had already left the check anyway) so we walked over to see how close we were. Khaleesi was at 44 and the pulse taker asked if I was sure she had done the first loop at all.  Faygo was fine at 64 and we moved to the vets.

P&R box
P&R box

I went to the first available vet and Dr. Birks came over to check out Faygo and Madison. Of course Khaleesi was in good shape, no soreness still (yeah!) and except for an A- on her capillary refill she was good to go. We trotted out without Faygo this time and except for a little hop as we turned around she was pretty good, (at least we’ve fixed the impulsion issue!).

I turned to Faygo and team and heard Dr. Birks tell Madison that he was not going to pull them, but he wanted to hold her rider card and let Faygo relax through the check and see how she was doing. Basically she was fine by the criteria they check for but her shallow breathing was something to note and he wanted to see her saddled up before we went back on the trail.

P&R box

We went back to our crew area and I tried to keep Khaleesi from eating everything in sight hers or not! We traded holding the horses and using the bathroom and sponged them down a bit to keep the sweat at bay. It had gotten warm- the high ended up being in the upper 70s which was the warmest day of the month so far. (Just our luck).

Sarah was such a good sport dragging our stuff from the crew parking over to the vet check in three trips, in the end she said she only brought one chair. That was ok, because I sat in it for an entire 2 minutes to eat my wrap (my average sitting in the 45 minute vet holds is about 2 minutes) and we really never have much time in the end. After walking the girls back to the water troughs and Khaleesi drinking more (Faygo played in the water a minute) it was time to start tacking up again.

Khaleesi wasn’t done eating and squirming and not standing still and I am embarrassed to say I lost my patience with her- as she danced her rear end to the side one more time I swung my lead rope right at her butt GET BACK OVER THERE AND STAND STILL!

Sarah was helping Madison get squared away and some nice onlooker who realized I was struggling came over and offered a hand- Would you like me to hold her for you?

Actually, that would be great… thanks

I could have used to have ridden that horse a little harder!!

We got the girls saddled up and Ric came over with her vet card to see how we were doing. Faygo’s breathing was still shallow. We had a conference.

He explained that if we were front runners in the ride no one would have thought twice about her breathing and it’s not officially a parameter they check for. However he knows us, and knows Faygo has an issue and wanted to talk it over before we headed out. He wasn’t going to pull Faygo out, but our choices were pretty plain:

#1 – We take Faygo out (rider option) and Khalessi likely could make the shorter run back to camp in time to complete.

#2 – We ride together home, but staying at a slow pace that wasn’t likely to get us there in time.

We didn’t know the course home, but heard it was basically downhill back to camp, and only 5-6 more miles. I asked Madison how she felt about it. We discussed earlier in the day that this weekend Faygo was HER horse, and that she needed to be comfortable with how we rode and took care of her. Madison felt Faygo would be ok to ride in, and she said that I could just go ahead and leave her on the trail… which I let her know was not an option! I wasn’t going to leave them in the woods on a strange trail when I was sponsoring her as a junior rider. That is not what this week was about!

I knew Khaleesi could do this ride- I didn’t need to prove that to any number cruncher. What I wanted was for Madison who had given her time to volunteer and help me on team green to get the experience to RIDE at least one time, and Faygo was the only horse I had to offer her. This ride was about that- not about racking up LD miles for Khaleesi.

We decided to ride home together, and take care of Faygo best we could.

In my heart I knew that Faygo was reaching a semi-retirement and I’ve known it long enough to have sought another horse to begin to take the workload over a year ago. It was still sad to be confronted with the fact that the horse I love the most is not going to have as long a career as most healthy horses do. At 16 she is in good bodily shape and her heart rate and conditioning is solid, but this breathing issue is going to cut her use as time goes on and probably her life shorter than a normal horse. Knowing it in your heart doesn’t make it easier when the facts are put so plainly.

Slightly teary, we all hugged and got back on the trail to finish what we started.

We had just over 90 minutes to go 6 miles. Normally- that is doable, Faygo can walk 4mph when she wants to. So we set out knowing we might not complete, but we would do our best to keep moving and stay at a good walk to come in with healthy horses.

We made small talk and laughed and enjoyed the beautiful afternoon but there was a heavier feel to the final leg of our ride hanging over us. We talked about our horses, and how pretty fall was and anything else that came to mind. Eventually we came to a confusing turn. Well- it wasn’t exactly confusing, the red ribbons indicated a turn to the left. It was clear as it could be, but when we turned that way we saw a “W” sign on a tree that said “WRONG” underneath.

Hmmm.

We second guessed ourselves and went back to the trail and walked up it a few feet.

Thankfully Madison HAD brought the ride map that usually is not in enough detail to be helpful. It had gotten a little soggy in the rain but was still readable and I pulled out my GPS.

If we have to climb back over that mountain ahead of us to return to camp, we are going to find the shortest trail home instead because Faygo can’t do that.

But on the map it appeared that the loop home cuts over a slightly new trail, then returns to the finish along the first 4 or 5 miles before the mountain climb.

The map and my GPS saved us because I could tell we were supposed to be on a new trail we had not previously been on for a while, and going the way the red ribbons told us, even through the WRONG sign was there appeared to be the only correct option. If we continued up the climb, we’d be backtracking the entire mountain which on the map we were not supposed to do.

We took the “WRONG” way that was apparently the “RIGHT” way according to the turn ribbons and headed toward home.

Apparently some other riders also had this discussion and opted for the long route and ended up with a close to 30 mile ride instead. That GPS can sure come in handy!

One thing was certain, I will always remember my first shot at the Old Dominion 25 being in the Fall. Generally this is the June course so I thought often how special it was to have a chance to see these trails in fall. Though the ride wasn’t going as easy as we could have hoped, the scenery was absolutely beautiful!

Pretty fall trails at the OD
Pretty fall trails at the OD

Since we were basically walking (Faygo’s walk sometimes meant Khaleesi had to trot-trot-trot to catch back up) I kept my GPS in hand. I was constantly checking the mileage, the time… once we returned to our original trail I could watch us close in on the finish slowly and I knew we would not be far off from finishing.

As we got nearer to the final dirt road that leads in and out of camp (probably 1/3 mile from the trail to the finish on the road) we talked over a plan. If we were still ahead of 3:30 (official end time), Madison would dismount on the road and walk Faygo in, I would see if Khlaeesi would run in to get a finish time. It was iffy but we both felt confident that it was worth a try.

I knew that Madison could hold her own, and that Faygo might be annoyed but never dangerous. I also believed Khaleesi had a shot at pulsing down quick enough to make it worth a try. No- the day would not be made or lost in one last ditch effort. If we didn’t make it, I still wouldn’t change a thing, but if we had the shot to finish and record our miles, we decided for team green it was worth a chance.

We continued to walk fast down the last hill to the road and right as we got there Madison jumped off.

GO!

I gave Khaleesi some leg and she (with plenty of energy to spare) trotted off at a good clip. It was 3:18.

She went happily for a minute then slowed a bit- Oh, hey… um, we left Faygo…

Go baby girl… it’s ok… they’re coming…

Ok.. this is fun! ….. wait- is that a house on the road? Was that there before? Hey, is Faygo coming?

Go girl, keep moving, you can do this!

Ok… whee- we finally get to run! How fun is that… Hey… more horses coming our way- are they going the wrong direction?

KHALESSI baby… just keep going… FOCUS!

We get to the finish and there are no pulse takers there. The pulse takers are down in camp at the vet station. Of course.

In Timer: Do you have your rider card?

(Palm to forehead… wasting time because I didn’t think to pull that out faster)

Here it is…

He hands the card back: Finish arrival time 3:27.

Of course in an LD ride you don’t finish until you pulse down. Why are there no pulse takers at the finish line 😦 ?

So we get the card and hot foot it toward the vet check. 3 minutes to go. I almost gave up and went back to find Madison. 3 minutes to get down there, get someone to take her pulse. Doesn’t seem likely. Don’t give up yet!

Golf cart heading slowly our way.

Khaleesi: Hey… is that a golf cart? What is that doing here?

Me: KHALESSI – I need you to FOCUS for 3 more minutes… THIS IS NOT ABOUT YOU RIGHT NOW… For the next 3 minutes this is all about me. It’s selfish and I know it doesn’t matter a bit to you if we finish at 3:30 or 3:35 but I DO CARE SO PAY ATTENTION! 

As we got to the camp entrance and more activity just had her more distracted I jumped off her and we jogged together down the hill. Sarah sees us and asks WHERE’S MADISON?

She’s just up the road, they are fine, walking in…

Gracefully one of us (not even sure who) tripped and we stumbled together me almost falling on my face as we crashed into the P&R box.

I need a pulse.

Frantic goes to immediate calm breathing and quiet.

A young volunteer rushes over to us: Do you want me to trot her out for you?

Me: no no no… um, shhhh… not now ok…. thanks though…

Pulse taker: she’s at 64we should take the saddle off…

[we don’t have time for that]

Ok, my pack makes it hard to get the breast collar off quickly so she’s helping pull the pack off but it’s “stuck” … yes, hold on the breast collar is attached…

We get the saddle pulled off as calmly as possible…

Ok…. shhhhhh….

TIME ON L37

I am certain we have missed it…

We didn’t do it.

Well. That’s ok- we tried! Still we had a great ride, now lets walk back up to find Faygo and Madison, no rush to vet until we’re all here together now.

All I could think of now was finding the rest of the team. We walked up and met Madison and Faygo just arriving at the finish line, the horses glad to be reunited. Did I do the right thing? In the end it was all for naught anyway… did I abandon my team? Or did we work together to strive to get at least on of us a [Capital] “C”. I know Madison would have killed me if we hadnt at least tried. We walked down together to get water and munch a few bites of grass while we pulled saddles to go in to the vet area.

Again we took the first available vet who looked over Khaleesi and gave her pretty high marks on her card- our trot out was decent though as we got back Madison left with Faygo down the line before I could turn Khaleesi around and all she knew was Faygo was running off without her so she lept into the air thankfully not hurting anyone walking around her to see where Faygo was going while I was already saying “Hey, we need to face her toward Faygo sorry!

Again, I could have used to run her harder that day!

I heard the vet tell her scribe what to write in each area and then kept our card. It was over.

Dr. Birks had again taken Faygo and Madison and did a good check on her. She was ok. Heart rate fine, recovery fine, hind end a little tight, slightly dehydrated but not terribly so. But her breathing still shallow. We talked a little more about her future- and that she was likely going to be slowing down- shorter rides to keep her in some shape, and more rides in cool months. It seems likely that she’ll be good for shorter rides with friends who like to take it a little slower on the trails, and she’ll probably have some time off in the summer season warm months when Khaleesi and I are on a more serious ride calendar.

It was a bittersweet day.

It was incredibly helpful to have a vet see Faygo in action and help me understand what is going on with her and how to monitor it and how to understand it in relation to other factors which are all showing that she’s healthy and doing well. I wouldn’t have changed one thing. For a short time I regretted that Madison’s first “endurance” ride was on a horse we had to monitor so closely and ride with such attention- move here, slower here, now Faygo in front on the technical stuff, now Faygo behind to keep her from rushing, what is her heart rate?, let’s get off and walk the last part of the mountain… it was not an easy ride for her. But the more I thought it over, the more I am so proud of how she handled the day, herself and her horse- she rode with maturity and confidence and love. Faygo started my “endurance” experiences with a solid No Frills 30, and she ended our season as well. I can think of no one I’d rather have on Faygo’s last AERC ride than Madison, and we learned so much more from this ride than we would have on two racing Arabs that easily ran the course. That is what it’s all about.

It was ok that we didn’t complete. We know what we did, and we were proud to have been there and tried. We had two fabulous horses and a fantastic team! That is what it’s all about.

We headed back to camp to pack up. I had a concert that weekend and we had to get home that night.

The girls munched hay and drank in their pens, Faygos breathing did return to normal and they were happy and healthy horses. That is what it’s all about.

Sarah had picked up a to-go snack and we ate quickly as it started to rain. We had to get packed up soon or we’d be doing it in a downpour. As we were loading they began the 25 award ceremony under the tent. You could hear the announcements on the camp speakers and they announced that 35 horses started today and 29 completed. Awards always begin with the turtle award. The rider/horse team that came in last.

In 29th place the turtle award goes to Jaime McArdle riding Ireland’s Khaleesi.

We froze in place. Did she call my name? We looked at each other… did we all hear the same thing?

For the third time today we all started to get teary eyes again…

GO!

This time it wasn’t to run to the finish line- but to the tent to pick up my turtle.

I was certain we hadn’t made the time but in all the activity I hadn’t even really looked at our rider card. Somehow we had finished! Khaleesi would get her last 25 LD miles for the season, and that turtle award – the last place award – that could be for some people a signal of loss (last place, right?) was as dear to me as if we’d have won best condition.

It is a rock! And how appropriate because the OD, the Beast of the East is known for it’s rocks. Old Dominion Rocks.

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We packed up camp and headed home- an emotional day of both joy and disappointment.

What is it all about?

I reflected on the drive home to myself that some people have talked about endurance riding as for people who are ‘competitive’ and I’d taken that on and thought “sure, I am a bit competitive, that makes sense” but the more I thought it over I began to disagree with that simple of an assessment.

I would never have had that experience if I wouldn’t have tried to push our limits (mine and my horses). Doing endurance is actually not at all about being competitive for me. I haven’t cared once this year if we came in top ten, and yesterday I would have still enjoyed the ride had neither of us gotten a completion.

What it is about for me is trying something that will challenge me beyond where I am today and my comfort zone. What endurance riding is for me is stretching to do something that I could not do today. Taking a journey that will force me to grow and learn, and that will show me what my horses are made of. Even with Faygo not completing the ride (though to be fair the girl came within about 10 minutes and that is pretty darn close!) she showed me once again how huge her heart is and how solid she took care of Madison on the trail and what an amazing horse she is. Sometimes it’s about finding your limits and realizing you didn’t make your goal- but if you reach for the sun you may at least land on a star once in a while.

I deepened my relationships with good friends through our trials and that wouldn’t have happened in the same way on a pleasure trail ride. I had to make tougher decisions than if we were on a pleasure trail ride. Being put to a test is a way to see what you are capable of. That is what endurance riding means to me. Enduring the circumstances and making the most of all you can. You have to take the weather you get, cold rain or heat and humidity. You have to ride the trail you get- sometimes they are rocky and rough. You have ride smart- take care of yourself and your animal while still paying attention to a time limit. You have to get your tack right, your supplies… don’t carry so much it weighs you down, don’t carry so little you are not prepared.

Being better tomorrow than I am today.

That is what it’s about for me.

The turtle symbolizes that and I will treasure it always.

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Team green to 100!

2 thoughts on “Part 2: What it’s all about

  1. I freaking LOVE being a turtle award winner too!! So what that I finished last; I finished, didn’t I?

    And I’ve OT’d once. So what? I still RODE those 25 miles, same as everyone else did.

    Madison should be proud of herself. She did what most people are too afraid to do; saddle up and go for that distance. I hope she celebrated that victory in and of itself. It’s an accomplishment.

    And congrats to you and Khaleesi for another 25 on the books!!

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