Testing the Limits

From Iron Mountain 50: Friday, August 26, 2016

7am: I felt the excitement of starting with more than 30 other riders in the morning fog along the New River. That feeling you get when you think ‘I get to ride my horse today!’ only times 100 because you are embarking on a 50 mile adventure and no matter how true it is that just to finish is indeed to win… It is still a horse race. 

I thought about group trail rides and why this is different, and for me the excitement is in the challenge: I will be graded by my performance today; and I will be ranked. How good am I? How good is my horse? I’ll be graded not only by the vets (humans) but also by my horse. And most importantly by me. 

The beauty of endurance riding is it can be as competitive or non competitive as you like. The vets are there to help you and the saying goes if you’re not in the top ten you may as well turtle! My competitiveness is against how good I was last ride. Am I better today than I was then? What can I learn?

For me it is the difference between practicing in your room, jamming for fun with friends, and getting on stage to perform in front of an audience. The stakes are different for each. Today matters. Have fun, but do your best and ride on!

One year- to the ride- after starting Khaleesi in endurance, the Iron Mountain ride is our 3rd 50 mile event. 

  

Ready to go before the start
 
She finished Biltmore strong, had a solid OD completion where many don’t make it. Every time she seemed to have a good amount of reserves in the tank. I have been curious to see what this little mare had in her- how much untapped potential was in there? 

I decided to take her out right at the start instead of hanging back as we’d done in the past. She doesn’t get out of control and the rush of excitement would help her start with more energy. I have read about negative splits- starting slow and then picking up speed through the day, and talked some strategy over with others more experienced than myself; my decision was to take the cool of the morning, climb the mountain and get some fast miles out of the way early. I knew she would slow her pace as the day wore on no matter what, I believed she would be good for the faster pace up front fresh and cool, and I also believed that if she couldn’t – she would tell me. This would also buy us time if we needed it later in the day. 

It was not as cool as I’d like even in the morning- I slept with my trailer open and barely needed a sleeping bag. That is unusual. In fact two days later the ride manager posted that Friday’s ride was the hottest in memory. 

The first loop went well and I let her canter more often this ride that in the OD or Biltmore. Her heart rate stayed in a nice 115-140 for the most part although higher on some of the hills but if I saw the crest, I’d keep her moving up to the top where we would recover pretty quickly on a downhill. 

The first loop is my favorite. Especially the section they call the rangelands where we ride through fields with beautiful views of the valley stretched out in front of us. 

  

beautiful rangelands
 
We got to camp just before 9am which is under 2 hours to do the first 15 miles. Susan was surprised to see us come in the first few waves of riders. We had just been happily floating along and I hadn’t realized how far in the front we’d been either. 

The vet check (VC) is on top of a knoll and in direct sun. I underestimated how long it would take her to pulse down. I thought the heat hadn’t really picked up yet however it was very humid and there was little shade. I didn’t want to haul all our food and water and buckets to the one spot of shade but in looking back that is exactly what I should have done first thing as we ended up doing that eventually anyway. It took 15 minutes to cool her down and pulse. Turns out most horses were taking longer to cool that morning than usual. 

Why didn’t I clip her? It would have made a big difference…

All was good with the vet- her CRI (cardiac recovery) went down to 56bpm after trotting out- except gut sounds (we struggle with this…. and it’s why on trail rides with friends they must think I’m a lazy horse owner as I let her eat on trail as long as she doesn’t change the pace or trip from not looking where she’s going.) The vet held her card to be sure she had eaten sufficiently before we went out again. If she wasn’t interested in food that would indicate an early warning sign of metabolic issues. 

Not a problem- I had to tear her away from chewing the grass at the vet check to get back to our crew area where she ate ravenously for the 40 minute hold. When we went back ready to go she was in good shape and we were cleared. 

 

Vet Check crew area at Triple C
 
The middle loop I was unprepared for. It was long (21 miles) and full of significant climbing. It is still hard to get her to leave the vet check with much energy especially to head out away from camp. We picked up what I consider a snail pace until another rider caught up with us and the two horses enjoyed each other’s company for a while. 

Another group caught us soon after and we rode together a while until some of the rocky climbing when K asked to fall back. So we did. She takes care of herself and is not the horse who will kill herself to stay with a herd. We rode the majority of that 21 miles alone and she began to complain in the rocky sections. 

Why didn’t I pad her for this? What was I thinking?

I was concerned with gut sounds as this loop was longer and also our pace was slower meaning more time on trail without eating. She was not interested in grass when I’d pull over briefly and we couldn’t waste time relaxing in the shade until she decided to eat. So on some of the serious uphills I hopped off – since we were walking anyway – and I’d pick a handful of nice greens from the side of the trail and she began to eat them out of my hand while we walked. I did this at every good climb. Around mile 13 there was a hospitality stop with water for both horse and human along with carrots and watermelon. I ate some watermelon and K even chowed a carrot from the volunteer (she doesn’t always like carrots). 
 

Hand walking while hand feeding on the second loop
 
I had hoped the last 7 miles would be a descent into VC as there’d been a fair amount of good climbing already- but Mike’s Gap gave us another steep rocky climb with steep rocky downhills to follow. The climbs and drops were ok but the rocks were taking a toll. 

I did my best to encourage her but listen to what she needed and we slowed on the rocks picking up speed on downs and better footing. Still we kept a respectable pace for the heat, humidity and challenging course to finish the second loop (20.6 miles) in under 4 hours. 

  
We ended up doing the last 3 miles with a few other riders who had caught up to us but as soon as we hit the grass of Triple C I got off and we started hand walking as the other riders charged ahead. I let her stay at the water trough at the bottom of the hill to VC as long as she needed and she drank well. In fact she drank at almost every creek and puddle we passed in that loop and I wasn’t concerned for hydration. She was drinking great. 

We took the hill up to VC super slow and I insisted we cool her in shade this time (even more of a challenge at this time of the day with the sun high and Kristen hadn’t been able to pulse Flash yet so she was under the tent trying to get him cool- and the tent didn’t provide a lot of shade either right now). Never worried because you always get what you need and everyone helps out others: the crew for Sarah – who was running in the front and already back on trail- was kind to allow us to use her shade and water and helped us cool K while Susan helped Kristen. This hotter part of the day we pulsed in about 10 minutes- just a little sooner than the morning stop. This time the vet gave her all A’s including gut sounds and hydration. The vet said she looked good!

She ate ravenously the entire hold. 

Great- all downhill from here right? Last 15 miles, gradually back down into camp. This is where I’m glad to have a little barn sour as her motivation to keep going home will be on our side. She’s strong and doing well so we should have a nice last push in. 

The last loop is where my memory failed me most as we headed back onto trail alone. 

This ride isn’t particularly rocky right? It’s not like OD…

True. It’s not like OD. 

However. The rocky sections are a bear. And it didn’t take long into the mountain climbs that started the final loop (not the same beautiful rangelands we came through in the morning) were rocky trails and K told me she was done with these rocks and she was walking. In fact she started to stumble on them from time to time and I got off to see if she had picked one up in her shoe. 

Nothing there.

<whiny voice> It’s hot and I’m tired… How much farther? My feet hurt. I don’t like all these rocks…. 

I know but you have got to suck it up. You have shoes on! All the other horses are going through the same terrain and you don’t see them wimping out!! This morning you ran through the same rocks when it was more fun and you were in a group! You can do this – what do you want to quit? Call the ambulance trailer? Get a grip on yourself!!

Who needs to get a grip? Said the other voice in my head. Your horse is out here giving her best for you and who you are most frustrated with is yourself for deciding not to pad her feet. You know you’ll look back at this moment soon and feel bad you got emotional (frustrated) and lost your leadership. Breathe. Realize your goal is never more important than your horse and listen to what she is telling you. You have the time. 

I remembered myself. I got back on her and agreed that she could walk the rocks as long as she picked up speed anytime footing allowed. We had bought enough time in the first loop to give us the leeway here. Better to be conservative and ‘complete’ than push her and get a lameness pull at the finish. 

The upside was the wooded mountain trail on the return to camp was shaded where the rangelands would have been open sun. Considering the amount we walked (she did willingly pick up speed every time we had good footing) her heart rate was not running high and I felt that at least we’d be coming in basically cool and strong. When she trotted and cantered I paid close attention and felt she wasn’t off as long as we weren’t in rocks. 

All in all with walking a decent amount of the last loop and a few stops stops to drink we still kept an overall average of 4.7mph 

  

She got more excited as we neared camp and we trotted in to the finish line at 5:45 pm; with two 40 minute holds that puts our official ride time at 9 hours / 35 minutes and if you were to take off the cooling periods before the holds began we’d be closer to 9 hours moving on trail in the saddle. That would be a personal best for us although our it’s hard to compare apples to pork chops as Biltmore was a 55, and the OD is… Well it’s the beast of the east. Still I knew she gave me her best and I was pleased. 

I walked slowly to final vet thinking it shouldn’t take too long to pulse and we had 30 minutes. As my team welcomed us back and congratulated me I actually said don’t jinx us! We’re not finished until we walk out of the vet!

 

cooling for pulse at the finish
 

Indeed it took longer to pulse down and cool than I expected and we kept replenishing the ice water – she would go down to 64 then pop up and hover at 69-71. Then I decided to slow walk her to see if moving a little would help and to my horror she was already getting stiff and her gait was off. She didn’t seem lame on one leg necessarily but something was going on. Besides getting stiff from a tough ride she was also dealing with tenderness in her front feet. 

After walking her to keep her from getting stiff and then icing her to cool and pulse down (as the ride vets looked over occasionally) we finally got her down enough to get in there and see what would happen. And if something was wrong then I’d rather find out sooner than later. 

The head vet took us as we walked in and she pulsed at 64 and he sent us to trot. I couldn’t look- I took the advice given and just kept moving fast as possible — the lead was loose so I knew she was with me. He finished looking her over and her hydration and muscle tone was A, gut sounds were acceptable and she recovered back to 64 bpm (a good sign). He gave her a B on attitude and a B on impulsion (how willing she was to trot with me) and a C on gait. 

  
A C is not great, but it is passing…

Your horse is not lame she is tired. She has some good steps and sometimes stumbles but she passes. 

Good girl! I am convinced she knew her job and gave it her last 100% to give us a decent passing trot to finish the day. 

I talked briefly to the vet about how she did and he said the high heat was a considerable factor and if it were cooler the ride might have been easier on her than it ended up being. 

**This video is from 2 days after the ride. She is actually improved from what she looked like later Friday night when she was sore and stiff but you can easily see how she stumbles on occasion in the rougher grass. After getting her home and observing, I am convinced she had sore feet from the rocks. Her legs were firm and no heat in them, joints did not fill this time at all. She was in great shape except for her tender front feet. **
Friday evening at the ride meeting and awards the head vet commented that if there was one mistake across many riders that day it was not enough electrolytes. I am not sure if that was a factor for us (I assume it could certainly be) but I have been struggling with the electrolyte question this summer. I read some of the successful western region riders do not use electrolytes at all- and they have research to back that decision up. 

My mentor (who does use generous electrolytes by the way – so she is an example in the ‘for use’ category) told me how surprised she was that so many tevis horses including the one she rode had very limited electrolytes – her horse got 2 doses only in the 100 mile course. 

I stuck with my normal ‘at the vet check’ dose but another vet suggested that best absorption would actually be to give them right upon getting to the hold because they get absorbed with the digestion and once we hit the trail chances are they won’t be absorbed as efficiently. Of course many won’t give them too soon because it could interfere with the horses interest in eating. (Bad taste in their mouth and cranky from the administration). 

But we only had 2 holds in this 50 when in my others we had 3. So I was dosing significantly less (33%) in that alone- and in both my other rides I had given extra doses as well. I at least should have taken one on the road for the 20 mile middle loop. 

Not thinking…

Of course I wasn’t certain electrolytes really mattered. At this point I’m making the decision going forward to dose more liberally in heat because even if it’s not as important as some believe- I don’t think it’s going to hinder her in any way and a better err on the side of more than less. 

I am always grateful for the wonderful vets at the rides. To a one, they are friendly, helpful and care about horse and rider. They are not there to find faults but to help and be sure the horses are cared for. They generously answer questions and always try to give the benefit of the doubt when possible. They are in many ways the heart of this sport and become part of the ride family getting to know us and our horses and watching out for our safety and well being. I have learned invaluable things from AERC vets – in person and online!

I took my ride card to find we had placed 16th which is solid mid-pack but higher than I had anticipated considering how much walking we ended up doing and how many passed by us at some point during the day. 

We slowly made our way back to the trailer and I sat to take my chaps off and get my feet out of sweaty damp riding shoes. I fed Khaleesi some grain snacks right from the trailer while she stood near and told her what a great horse she is and how strong she was today. That I was proud of her and thanked her for working so hard for me even when her feet hurt… And I was sorry I suggested she was being wimpy on the last loop. At that moment I had been too hard on her. 

  
Everything went right in June for the OD, this ride I pushed our limits to see what worked and what didn’t and I learned some things first hand that I think were important for me to see as a new rider in this sport. 

  1. My horse’s weakness is her feet. No matter what her feet will always be on the sensitive side. She was barefoot almost 5 years living on the mountainside and her first trail rides barefoot… Her feet are healthy and hard – they don’t chip easily and aren’t soft- but she’s sensitive. I don’t own my own property to make her a paddock paradise to possibly toughen her feet over time. I also am not willing to not use her for 2-3 more years while she goes through a barefoot program that may or may not really help her. Bottom line: Faygo could walk through the OD barefoot and stay sound, Khaleesi hates the slightest pebbles. I need to get smart about how to help her move comfortably and keep her feet healthy as possible. My farrier will help me sort it out. 
  2. Where is that working limit? She did so well getting through a tough ride but if I want a decade partner I need to keep listening to her so she stays in the game with me healthy and happy. I don’t believe we crossed over on Friday but I saw the line closer than I ever had before. Except the rocks, I didn’t push her as much as put her in a position I knew she would push herself (starting in the front group for example) Be careful what you ask for… I’ve seen horses over ridden that were dull in the eyes, heads lowered, not interested in eating or drinking and whipped to trot out- we were not even close to that- however with the heat and the rocks she gave 110% and I’d like to see her less worn down at our Ft. Valley ride in October. We are in this for the long term. 
  3. My limit. Apparently I was tired, got cranky and frustrated and lost my cool with her for a moment as well. I need to work within my ability of being a good leader. This is supposed to be fun! I need to always have sight of that as well. 
  4. The heat and humidity.  Take it more seriously. I learned a lot about heat rides at OD I only partially used that knowledge to my advantage. I need a better ice plan in the future and will electrolyte more. I would have liked to do better cooling before the last loop but our water had gotten warm in the sun there was no extra ice on the hill. Small things can make a big difference.

By the way I did put a red ribbon in her tail and of course not a kick all day. People noticed it and gave us extra consideration when passing and paid more attention to her body language when riding with us. Even so, she doesn’t tend to kick a horse close on her rear (though working with her mare space demands I have been more aware of what Buck calls her bubble and I demand she not get into other horse’s bubble and now expect others will stay out of ours. Hers is a bit larger than some other horses.) she tends to get pissy pants in riding side-by-side and more often at another mare than a gelding though some geldings she’ll put up with and some she pins her ears at. We had many close riders, no trouble on the switchbacks, rode in groups, and had riders pass us with no incident. 

The hoof protection decision is the first one I truly regret. It took a toll on her though I am glad to see some pasture rest has gotten her all but back to good over a few days. I have a responsibility to make the right decisions for her well being and I failed that one and she suffered. 

Amazing creatures- she lives in the present and is already over it. They can forgive so much from us bumbling humans if they know we are trying for them. 

 

Such an amazing mare- she always gives me her best. I owe her my best as well 100% of the time
 

The past is good for one thing only: learn from it. –Dee Janelle

She will have a solid week or more off. Hopefully my learning curve won’t be so hard on her in the future!

Video of her almost a week later… Much improved!

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