March 25-26, 2016
Leatherwood Mountain Challenge, Ferguson, NC: 25 miles.
Dark, starry night. Camp is quiet by now though it’s only 10:30. I can’t sleep this early- and even when I do sleep it won’t be sound. I always listen for the munching and drinking of my horse. A horse chewing hay outside your trailer is surprisingly loud when the entire camp is quiet. What wakes me is the silence in between. The moments of true rest between fueling up for the next day. That and the occasional clang of metal on metal if she accidentally hits the fencing with her head and then I panic for a moment
What happened?!… Is she caught? Trying to reach something outside the paddock? Is she out of hay? Is that possible – I threw in a weeks worth before bed to be sure! She must be thrashing in her pen with colic … Wait that is totally ridiculous. She is fine just bumped the side.
Doesn’t matter. I still have to get up and look to be sure there is still hay and water at 2am. I won’t get back to sleep if I don’t just check.
Then sounds of munching and drinking lull me back to sleep.
So here I stand with Khaleesi under the stars’trading breath’ as she deeply exhales deeply her horse breaths that smell like earth and hay. I don’t say a word. We just breathe on each other and she stops eating to stand with me nose to nose. I think she’s ready for tomorrow. She is confident, calm and relaxed. I could feel every whisker and velvet hair on her nose as she stood with her head over the corral breathing on me quietly.
I should get some sleep.
We arrived at base camp slightly later than I’d wanted to. One primitive section was just about full and the only spot left was dead center as the other rigs were lining the perimeter. Didn’t seem ideal, but in the end it was a pretty good spot. No one has much privacy in base camp anyway. We might have been in center view- but we had no actual neighbors which was kind of nice.
Endurance camping is not as leisurely as normal camping- there is a ton to do and the horses have been riding in the cramped trailer dehydrating all morning. They need to pass a vet check but not until you’ve found some water for them, make sure they’ve eaten (need gut sounds), and stretched their legs a bit so they don’t look stiff on trot out.
They need their enclosure set up and you have to check in to get your number (also before vet check). At some point your own sleeping area and human things will matter and I’m grateful there is a ride meeting and camp dinner because I might just skip dinner altogether if I didn’t have to drop what I’m doing and go get the information necessary to a good ride the next day accompanied by some food!
Somehow it all gets done and lately I’ve been fortunate enough to have a crew/team along and it is truly a godsend to not have to go solo with every detail- and have company to laugh with and share your stresses with and hep carry aluminum panels.
As I was brushing off Khaleesi I felt she had a slightly sensitive spot on her back- it wasn’t terrible. Just something to pay attention to. Both horses passed the vet check with A’s and we were set for the morning.
We get up well before dawn to soak some beet pulp and get breakfast ready for the girls. Everything is set up the evening before as we knew we’d be tacking up and prepping in the dark. The 50 milers were schedule to ride out at 7am but the times were going to be adjusted for daylight so they would hold the start until light was sufficient. 25 mile riders would start 30 minutes later, so we would have some daylight pre-ride but not much.
I made the coffee (always the priority on ride morning) and Jessica (Susan’s daughter) came to crew for us so we helped her with a checklist. As usual we made some friends and Roger (whose cousins grew up in the house Ed and I bought – which is a whole other story….) was riding the 50 with a crewman (Nathan) who helped Jessica if she had any questions going through the process.
The ride had a controlled start which concerned me a little- only because I’d never done one. In this case at the start, a 4-wheeler acts like a pace car taking the group out of camp to the trail. Sometimes controlled starts are used for safety: the terrain isn’t safe for faster starts (pavement?) or traffic concerns- or sometimes it might not be very clear how to get out of camp and onto the right trail? I’m not exactly sure why we had a controlled start but it ended up being fine and Khaleesi and I aimed for mid-pack while Faygo and Susan held back as long as possible (an extra 5 minutes) to ride a slower pace.
For the record- Faygo was not OK with this plan, but she and Susan handled it really well and once they were on trail they found a friend and Faygo was great – as I had thought (and hoped).
I seemed to fall in with a couple of riders from Virginia who were on walking horses. They were kind enough to include me in their group and Khaleesi seemed to step in with them eagerly.
Last year we had been the leader on a ride (with a new rider), and the follower on a ride as we tagged along with a more experienced rider and a ride with Faygo where we held back for her (won the turtle that day!). My goal for this ride was to move through it as quickly as she would go inspired by my forward energy, other horses and the excitement but not by me driving her with any aids or force from me.
This group inspired her so we tagged along at their pace. Which for the first 16 miles (into the vet check) was a moving average of 7mph- faster than we’ve ever sustained on a training ride.
Leatherwood held up to its reputation as a hilly monster though the footing I found not rocky but good sand (not deep) and easy. We were either going up or going down the entire 25 miles- both of which are hard on a horse. The group I rode with tended to jog along then canter for stretches. We do canter on our rides but never this much.
Still- the girl was game and I never asked her for more speed- in fact occasionally I held her back going down a steep section the walking horses can maneuver faster than she can do well.
I paid close attention to her heart rate and her recoveries were great. There were stretches going uphill she would rise higher than I’d like but she never faltered or slowed and when we’d level out she’d return back to 110 or 120 and often she’d hang around 80-90bpm as we trotted along. If we stopped at a crossing or trough she often recovered below 60 in a couple minutes.
She hardly drank the first loop- but it was cloudy and cool so I wasn’t concerned. I know this horse will drink out of a mud puddle when she is ready. We did stop for a couple minutes in some lush grass where she ate eagerly before the final approach.
We pulled into the vet check (in camp) in a little over 2 hours where Khaleesi drank and chowed down on the green grass. She pulsed down to 60 within 3 minutes of arriving (and we trotted in at a pretty fast clip) where the vet said she looked good but probably could use to eat and drink.
She drank a ton and turned her nose at the grain and beet pulp for the grass which she mowed down for the entire break.
She’s never turned her nose at grain or beet pulp. We had been adding her electrolytes to her beet pulp for days now and shed eaten them with no fuss. I wanted to try not dosing her with the electrolytes (which they hate) but having her eat them in the wet beet pulp. It seemed worth trying. Until it didn’t work when I needed it.
Enter Dr. Sarah from Lynn’s crew (Lynn is our mentor). She came to help and boy did she!
As soon as she walked over she started listing off suggestions and I can’t even remember them all now. She paused at one point (I must have looked overwhelmed) to say oh- I’m sorry, tell me if I’m interfering- I know Lynn said you guys are new and I just wanted to help.
Oh no… Not interfering. Keep going- I’m with you no matter what the look on my face might seem to say!
So she asked where our electrolytes were… In her beet pulp. Oh no. Do you have a plan B? A dose for her if she didn’t eat them?
Plan B? No. No plan B. Extra electrolytes back at the trailer.
Never leave something that important to chance. Your horse is giving you everything today- you have got to fuel it the best you can- wait here. I’ll be right back.
And she went to get her own electrolyte mix and dosed Khaleesi then rinsed her mouth and helped us get tacked back up- your hay looks fine for day- to-day- but you need to find something performance for ride weekends… Do you have carrots and apples chopped for them ready to go? How has her heart rate been? Keep her under 150 otherwise it’s anaerobic and you don’t want that this afternoon. Hold on, you need to move your HRM electrode over this way more… Your HRM pack is reversed – next time use electrical tape to be sure the connections don’t come loose as you ride. What is your out time? You have 3 minutes lets get you on now-
My head was spinning with all the suggestions and small details and tweaks we’d not thought of. This woman had successful 100s and plenty of top ten finishes and was working with other super successful riders. Whatever she had to say was worth taking note.
For now though: L32 heading back out. Second loop was shorter (9 miles) and the sun had come out to warm us up. We stayed with the same riding group on the second loop.
The climbing on the second loop was at least as tough as the first and our pace was slower (5.4mph). This loop we stopped longer for water and all 3 horses drank their fill every time. We did more walking in the afternoon and when we did fast climbing Khaleesi’s heart rate stayed higher than in the cooler morning so the walking was good to bring her back down each time.
We even paused long enough at a pretty spot to take some pictures.
It was a success for us- but also a big learning experience. I have been asking the question: how do we know we are ready for the 50? And I still am not sure how to answer it- but what I’ve decided after Leatherwood is that I may not know how to tell if we are ready- but I do know how to tell we are not, and right now we are not.
After going over important details earlier with Sarah, I said a few times you’re right I should have known that…or oh, I didn’t realize… Or I’ve heard of that but didn’t understand why…
She said “that is what the LD is for, you learn these things now in a distance you can make mistakes without dire consequences. You can’t make those mistakes on a 100”
So I’ve nicknamed the LD (Limited Distance) the Learning Distance for me and I am going to see if we can do better at the No Frills next month.
**Better electrolyte plan.
**Pick up some super high quality hay for the weekend.
**Add some senior or sweet feed ride weekend for extra palatability.
**Adjust where my HRM electrodes are and add electrical tape on ride day.
Those are easy. The two looming issues we need to adjust before we can do a 50 are her back and our pacing.
I’ll address pacing first.
The saying goes: ‘ride your own ride’ and I didn’t exactly follow that sage advice.
I struggle keeping this girl moving at a faster pace on everyday rides without using force (which I don’t want to do) and have had some success this winter with finding motivation and she is improving. Still- I knew she was capable of more and this weekend I wanted to see what she could do. I allowed her to ride ‘with the herd’ — she’s young so I also felt she could learn what the other horses are doing out here.
I do not regret riding with our friends- because I learned a lot, and Khaleesi was happy and willing and we had a great ride. She was not ‘race-brained’ and out of control, she was happily flying along the trails with new friends- but although we gave her a couple chances- she was not ready to lead that group and told me she did not want to go in front (in fact she turned around only when I put her in front. I allowed her to go back in line as it wasn’t an appropriate place for an argument) she was ok with being in the middle – just not the lead.
I do not believe we could have sustained that pace if we were truly riding our own ride and riding alone.
Possibly more important were the cantering intervals… And more cantering. A lot more cantering than we do at home. It was fun and she offered the cantering every time without any sense of being tired…. However….
I think her best ride all around to date was at Big South Fork when we rode with a buddy who sustained a great metronome trot. I think that is a strength that Khaleesi has- and we didn’t use it at Leatherwood. Everyone has a different way to get through a ride and I think next ride I will try to keep a more sustained pace. (Of course we also dealt with a lot of climbing and descent at leatherwood so that’s a speed changing factor as well!)
I am pretty sure the excessive (for us) cantering is a contributor to her tight lower back post-ride. Which is the next issue.
I was fortunate enough to have Dr. Jeannie Waldron – who is the mentor of my mentor- take a look at Khaleesi the evening after the ride.
We had passed the vet checks fine and she came through sound and healthy, but that’s not the whole story.
She had some sore spots on when I ran my fingernail down her back. It was only our 3rd ride with the have a heart pad so I’m not sure if I have that right, and one side was more sensitive than the other.
When Dr. Waldron looked at her she kept touching her mane. She said to me “I have a few things to tell you about your horse.”
She is too tight in her lower back.
She asked me about our worming program. I told her what we’d done which was pretty significant and included a recent fecal count of 0.
She said she was impressed with what we had been doing worming wise- but suggested a power pack for her because she felt there were parasites we may have missed that would affect her back (too much to remember every specific detail here, but I’ve got an overview…) these parasites can impact an area that makes it hard to use her back properly and can contribute to a tight back- and her mane seemed to agree with the diagnosis. It wasn’t as healthy as it should be. She believed that would help her immediately.
She then suggested I back her 15-20 steps uphill every day to help build up those muscles even more so they are stronger.
We also checked for saddle fit, and though the saddle fit is good for the most part- it might be too narrow at her spine for her. I could feel what she meant and have a call into the maker to talk about it.
The worst spots were low in her back- and we finally have the dry spots and rubbing sorted out (I think!!).
Though she passed the vet check, I would not have wanted to ride her another loop with her back tight and sensitive (pain) spots she seemed to have.
This is my biggest concern and the thing I will be paying the most attention to in the next month as we ride.
I have made a promise never to put my goals ahead of my horse, and I will fix this issue (or at least significantly improve it) before I put her out for a 50 mile ride.
The night after the ride everything seemed overwhelming. I felt even a little like I had failed my horse. I saw all the things I didn’t do as well as I wanted.
Two days later as I finish recalling and processing I have a brighter outlook. I learned a lot from this and she came through strong and healthy overall. Some others were not so lucky – and in that vein my heart goes out to KL who was not so fortunate through no fault of anyone. There is enough consequence from lack of preparation, bad decisions, and mistakes but it is so heart breaking when you’ve done everything right and a freak accident changes everything.
Both my horses are safe and happy. They ate and drank all night and had great attitude and though tired were not worn out as some horses I’ve seen over-ridden and dull in the eyes. Her legs stayed firm with no fluid in the joint areas. We made it safely home to a big green pasture and they both get the week off.
** post script note: today her back is already greatly improved. The left side has no sensitivity at all and the right side (the side I added pad inserts) has a twitch but not a dip when I scrape a fingernail or pointy object down her back I have an appointment to talk to Jamie Evan tomorrow and I might need to do some more sorting out on my pad inserts.
I will use the Learning Distance LD to keep getting better until we are ready to try for the next step.
I am so proud of my tough little mare. She really shined on Saturday and she gave me everything forgiving once again my small mistakes.
If it were easy, everyone would do it!
Some extra pictures from the weekend: