I am beyond pleased to report that the Blackhorse Ride this weekend brought celebration and success and the mare I’ve poured so much into greatly outperformed my hopes and expectations.
Oddly enough I felt unusually unsure of myself while loading my horse onto the trailer and hitting the road on Friday morning. In fact I found myself questioning just about everything along the way – uncharacteristically of me. Friday itself went smoothly down to a relaxed shady afternoon warm up ride, everything seemed in place. Still I lay in the dark unable to sleep the night before, once again, wondering what I am doing here?
I hate getting up in the cold dark early morning. I am not a morning person. That’s not entirely true, I am a person who likes to spend the early morning on my couch next to the big picture window with my latte and journal praying over the day to come and seeing the sun peek over the mountains probably with a cat on my lap and if it is cold, a fire crackling in the wood stove. I am not a get up early and do something difficult morning person.
It was going to be a potentially long hard day and no guarantee of success. Wouldn’t I rather sleep in a little, wake up when the sun is warming the earth just a touch and do a nice easy 25-30 mile ride that I had decent assurance would be successful? We’d done that kind of distance to prep for this, on these same trails. Thankfully this ride didn’t offer that option so I couldn’t be lured to take the ultra conservative “safe” option.
Yet the alarms (bird sounds at least, I can’t stand to be jolted awake with a loud noise) began around 5am and I entreated Mike to please turn on the tent heater for me… um and Iva of course (Iva is never cold, she didn’t need the heater but it made me feel less like the cold sissy I am). I can’t come out of the blankets until my nose isn’t frozen! Not only did Mike dutifully figure out the tent heater (thank you for loaning it Timmy!) but he also started the coffee and assured Khlaeesi who was beginning to nicker at us as she could tell we were up and moving around inside, that her breakfast was definitely high on the priority list… after I got enough heat to brave coming out of my cocoon and some coffee… then she would get something to eat…. maybe I could get Iva to start on the food… Iva is never cold.
The morning went smoothly as ever. I had TWO amazing crew helpers and that was HUGE. I’ve often done this completely alone and I can pull it off, but having all those hands was beyond what I can explain for making the morning less stressful. Mike (who rode the single track section of trail the afternoon before on his mountain bike with his chainsaw in the trailer behind him, cleared the last of the downed trees for us. He was the ride camp hero for more than just me!) is great at being willing to figure out anything you ask of him, and Iva has been working closely with me for a year or so now — she has a good grip on how we do things and she is now equipped to be more proactive than she was able to be in years past.
I can not say thank you enough to both Mike and Iva who took the time to serve both K and me and others at the ride (Can I mention that Mike’s post ride home made Mac and cheese with extra meat and hot sauce is ridiculously worth every mile I rode!), and Amy and Madison and Niveah as well who didn’t ride but instead made sure others could and also helped me personally. Along with Mary the ride manager who had the vision to resurrect this ride from like 25 years ago, and many other volunteers without whom we couldn’t have an organized ride. I am grateful to each and every one of you
Because of my amazing team I was actually ON the horse and ready to go 10 minutes before start which is definitely a first for me.
I headed right out when the trail opened. I didn’t feel the need to “race” in the front, but one strength of my mare is a good brain and she will be more likely to take care of herself and conserve energy than to kill herself running too hard. Knowing I’ve finished rides with minutes on the clock in years past I did not want to waste any of them hanging out in camp leaving with the second or third waves of riders trying not to get caught up in the excitement of the front riders.
Though not out of control, K was nevertheless all business from the words “trail’s open”. I found myself negotiating with her to find a sensible pace yet not waste any energy in a fight with her. I think our conversation would have sounded like this had she been able to speak words:
Ok, I got this let’s go!
Yeah, ok, but did I tell you this is actually a 50 today? It seems a bit aggressive a pace for this long a day- and it’s your first ride back in 2 years.
I’m telling you- we’re good, let me run, I can keep up with these clowns.
Um… I won’t tell them you said that… see that horse ahead of us, that horse is likely to finish this thing in first place with a crazy high vet score and has like 6000 miles experience doing this. That horse could do this 50 twice today and still finish like it’s a walk in the park.
I can take him.
No. Not doing that. There’s no way I let you pass that horse. Sorry
I feel great! It’s a cool morning and I’m rested up. You gotta trust me, I’m so ready for this!
Ok. I trust you, I won’t hold you back much, but seriously. That horse is where I draw the line. We stay behind him no matter what. I have to be the brains here. You be the legs, and we’ll work together, ok? I trust you and give you some leeway to set the pace, and you trust me when I say ease up just a little.
Thus we began at a pace I wasn’t expecting, but I had a sense I did need to trust her. I was ready to give her a chance in the early cool morning and spend a little we might have to give back in the heat of the afternoon with less incentive of other riders as we often end up in a pocket alone at some point during the day. She might get excited but she won’t kill herself keeping up with a herd. This I am confident of.
She felt stronger than I’ve ever experienced coming into a ride in her body and she came through the two checkpoints much faster than I had hoped- crossed the Blue Ridge Parkway twice, navigating lots of rocky technical single track and dirt and rock roads with almost constant up or downhill, bringing us into the first hold at mile 18 in 2 hours 49 minutes.
Slow and smooth, unhurried, I pulled her tack (though not required) and walked her to the pulse box where in 4 minutes from arrival she pulsed at 48. We were at that point in 10th place.
She had barely sweat and ate and drank like a professional. The hold was 40 minutes and Mike was there helping out as a volunteer. He made sure she had plenty of carrots and my human electrolytes were refilled and I had anything I needed.
It wasn’t cold enough for me to have concern about her getting chilled and I’m glad I pulled off her tack, I think getting a break is better for the horse if possible. It’s worth a little extra effort.
We were ready to go a few minutes before out time and hit the trail at a trot to finish the loop back to base camp 12 miles away for the second hold of 50 minutes.
In the first loop there were two checkpoints and spotters who had water and hay. Most of the people racing in front of us had passed on taking time there but in both cases I paused and encouraged her to grab a bite and drink and hopped off to electrolyte at both. It cost me some time, but I think it was worth it. This meant however we were — as usual — in a lonely pocket by the time we got to the hold, and also left alone with the majority of the 40 riders behind us and the top 9 with a decent enough lead we weren’t likely to catch up.
In one of those moments of humor about 4 miles in, I absolutely could not go on trotting if I did not relieve my bladder as much as I hated to take the time – and I jumped off after a stream crossing barely getting off the trail to do a very quick relief break. Just a few minutes before I said a brief prayer that I knew my horse would really like some company. Other horses are huge encouragement on a long day riding hard and though she wasn’t tired she was feeling much less inspired than she had with other horses around. Lord, could you send us a buddy for her to share some miles with?
Who says God doesn’t have a sense of humor? It was just when I jumped off and barely got off the trail for some quick business that I heard hoof beats coming at us!
Oh I’m so sorry! I just could NOT wait! I cried out in desperation as Libby and Silvia approached the water crossing and kindly said not to worry, they wouldn’t look.
Their horses took a quick drink as I pulled myself together and got back on my horse as they trotted by. Khaleesi more inspired again picked up her pace willingly and they had a great pace for her. We leap frogged a while as one or the other would canter up a hill or extend a trot down the other side. They turned out not only to be nice riding companions, but we had wonderful chats about some fascinating horsemanship ideas that I found insightful and gave me some ideas in some areas I’d been working on that were oddly another kind of answered prayer. God doesn’t waste a thing. I’m so often amazed.
We did the roughly 12 miles in 1 hour 32 minutes, still a pace unexpectedly strong for this horse on this trail. This stretch wasn’t technical (except the one rocky mile in and out of the first check) it composed of lots of dirt/gravel forest service roads but I found them to be relentless with up and down- in fact looking back the biggest challenge of this ride was there was nothing flat. Everything was climbing or descending, and the ground was all hard rock or gravel (I can’t imagine the pounding on legs and joints without the composite shoes on this ride.)
The three of us trotted into the second vet check at the same time and parted ways to take care of business back in camp crewing from our trailers. K was hydrated and sound and Iva kept her in the shade eating mostly grass and carrots though she did chow some of her wet Coolstance and hay pellets with chia seeds as well.
The course map was set up that the first 30 miles left camp through a back trail, did a large loop returning to camp through the same back trails for the second hold. My concern was the last 20 miles was an out and back to the first hold again, also out the back trails with the finish line at the front of camp which took off a couple miles to make the mileage correct. I have a smart mare. She asks questions like: why after riding 30 miles, now that we have returned to the trailer and food and rest would you want to leave again? Did I do something wrong? And why go the same way we just came from? Why don’t you go jog another 20 miles on your own feet if you want to go so bad?
Quite honestly I find them to be valid questions and it’s a bit difficult to answer them to a horse that doesn’t speak fluent English… even if she did my explanation might fall short since she’s the one doing all the running.
In years past this has been the most difficult challenge I face with her mentally. On a massive loop like the OD the question isn’t there because once we leave camp in the morning it’s 50 miles back to camp at the end of the day so the entire ride is a mission that makes at least some sense. On rides like Forth Valley or Biltmore when we come and go from camp this is more difficult and I’ve had to insist (force) more than I’d like. I don’t love it when I have to say: Because I said so, now just do it or I’ll use my crop….
I am pleased with two pieces that came in leaving this second hold.
First I allow this horse to have choice in accepting the bit. I offer it and 99% of the time she takes it on her own when presented within 3-5 seconds. With one minute to “out” time I offered the bit and she delayed. Everything in me wanted to shove my fingers in her mouth and get it done (clock is ticking), but some small amount of patience apparently has taken hold in all of this journey and I decided to access my self-control instead.
I know she knew what this meant and she was not ready to concede yet. Her decision to take the bit or not is one place I give her choice- and for the most part it’s real choice because I haven’t had to force it in a very very very long time. I decided this was not the moment to start. She had bought us time moving so strongly early today. She had earned a moment of patience and self-control as the clock continued to tick.
Once again I offered the bit. She stood still, head down, lips and teeth closed. I waited.
I seesawed the bit a little to ask with more intention. She left her teeth closed. I waited more. Tick. Tick. Tick. Tick… I imagined our buddies that would be helpful for us to ride with as long as possible leaving us behind as I gave my horse the choice to finish tacking up. I put the last 20 miles on the table right there with a bit presented for consideration, knowing I could shove that thing in, I have the ability to get it done, but this is where the metal hits the road- do I have the stomach, the courage to let her make the choice? For how long? I think it was like an hour, but probably it was 2 minutes. As I waited and softly asked her if she would do this with me, she opened her mouth just wide enough and reached her lips to the bit taking it in her mouth and though she made it known this was not completely enthusiastic, she would go.
As I passed the out timer double checking I was clear to go I got the comment: Yeah, you’ve been “out” a while now. Truly, 5 or 6 minutes is more than I’d like to give up, and in the end that’s about the difference that put us behind the two riders that finished before us, but still, I wouldn’t trade that moment I waited for her and honored as much as I could her choice.
The next challenge was to get her to move forward at anything like the pace she left camp in the cool exciting morning start. I was lucky to get a decent walk though I was pleased that I didn’t need my crop which I carried just in case the entire day. The “in case” was in large part to be prepared for being squeezed between riders which is the one situation if I can’t get control of she is most likely to kick and I may need something with more communicating power to move her were that to happen. There are sometimes riders out on these rides who don’t have a whole lot of control over their horse and that can get sticky from time to time.
If anyone read my training on the trail post I talk about using transitions to encourage forward energy and how I believe I have inadvertently contributed to a horse that isn’t as forward over years of riding without thinking about “release” on the trail and when. I used that information instead of my crop to get small increases in speed and then relax back to a walk until I had built up momentum. She began to offer willingly more trot and faster speeds again. We both had a little after lunch lull but this was by far the most successful final loop ride camp exit I’ve ever done with her.
After about 5 miles our friends caught up to us, they had gotten held up in camp and left later than planned but they came along just in time and once again K was glad for the company and picked up motivation to ride along together. We enjoyed the company all the way to the checkpoint (previously the first hold) at mile 40 and Mike was there still waiting for us to come through and helpful as ever encouraging us along as I stopped to electrolyte and allow for a few bites of hay or whatever was in that grain pan she found that might have been oats or who knows what… she vacuumed it up before I could ask the question and in the end it didn’t matter, she was entitled to a fun snack at this point even if it was beyond our normal dietary offering.
After a very brief pause we all turned and headed back toward camp for the last 10 miles. I was glad for my new friends but found their horses who are much more seasoned in 50 mile events had figured out this was the last stretch back home and they continued to pick up speed. Meanwhile K began to find her tank running low and thought she still cantered up hills and trotted on down them I knew both of us were beginning to wear. After a few miles we crossed a stream and K dove in to get a big drink– their horses pranced and begged to continue on. That was really alright, I knew we would be fine and didn’t need to keep their pace.
K and I stayed a few more minutes in the stream where she drank her fill and cooled her feet knowing her buddies were going to be long gone. This horse, when it comes down to it WILL manage herself over the emotional need to “keep up”. She will drink when she’s ready even if she’s being left behind, and she will finally slow her pace if she just cannot keep up.
I decided not to inform her those clowns from this morning that she was so certain she could outrun were likely approaching the finish line while we waited out here still 7 or so miles out. As our buddies pulled away we moved from basically 10th place to 12th. Still ahead of the solid “mid pack” I thought would be a wildly victorious day, and way way ahead of the “turtle” prize that I had still considered a successful day.
In the heat of mid afternoon we slowed pace and worked intervals mixing up walk, trot and canter to create focus and switch up which tired muscles would be engaged. After 2 more miles, around 5 to go, I began to sense a very slight uneven trot that seemed the smallest touch heavier on one side no matter what diagonal I chose. Now the paranoia began to set in.
My worse nightmare of all- a lameness pull- began to bubble to the surface.
Had we ridden too hard today?
Would I ever get out from underneath the mild subtle intermittent lameness?
Was I being an idiot to keep thinking this horse could do this sport?
I would have been better off walking a ton more if she truly wasn’t strong to do the amount of trotting we had.
I got off and walk/ jogged about a mile. I checked her feet again to be sure no rock had embedded itself. Was that a head bob? Did I not change diagonals enough? Still cannot get a reliable left lead canter- we did much more cantering than we used to all Right lead. Could this contribute?
Four miles to go I felt we would never finish if I didn’t get back in the saddle again. I can’t jog up and down these hills after riding 45 miles! So I began to ride as much sitting trot as possible, to encourage even movement now that she was tired her trot slowed to something manageable. Two riders trot by us… now in 14th place and still way way ahead of my expectations. 3.5 miles to go.
This will never end.
Up again, down again relentless hills… 2.8 miles to go. Worry plagues me. Finally we come to that intersection we’ve crossed every which way through the day and has water buckets and hay.
From here I knew the last mile was downhill- pretty steep, and hard pack dirt that was rutted out in places. I was tired, she was tired, It would be easy to slip or slide here, I wasn’t at my strongest so wouldn’t be much help to support her. I made the choice to jump off and hand jog her in.
As we headed down the last mile I watched her trot next to me as sound as the day she was born. As I jogged along I was able to enjoy looking next to me – her body lean and strong and even. We crossed the finish line all 6 feet on the ground together. Symbolically I thought it fit. We were more of a team than we have been in years past, yet less of a team than I hope we will be in rides to come.
Iva and Mike were there to greet us and help me walk her into camp, pull her tack and get her through the vet. Amy came to make sure we had all we needed and she flew through the last check without a hitch.
Amy also helped teach Iva and me the best way to wrap tired legs- she has a ton of experience in these things and I’m grateful for her help.
There are things going on in my horse herd that have me continuing to question deeper what’s possible between a human and a horse. I don’t think it is any accident that God set us in the path of Libby who mentioned the way she and her husband work with their horses leave much more choice and that the horses respond to it in amazing ways. She didn’t begin the questions, she verified that many of them are the right ones to be asking and I’m getting “warmer” in the search. I think I give my horses more choice than many are comfortable with already, but in the end I’m prepared to “get it done”.
Is it truly choice if the horse cannot say no?
What if K wouldn’t have picked up the bit? How long until I would have stuck a thumb in her cheek to open her jaw? I don’t consider that inhumane yet I think waiting on her to make that one decision meant something- both to her and to me. It gave her an honor of choice in that moment- and I’m VERY glad she chose the way she did because in the end, I don’t think I would have given up finishing that ride because my horse didn’t open her mouth. How long I would have waited? That is the real question. Yet… down deep I would like to think someday I might be the rider who would not go out at the second vet check because my horse said No.
Taking a step back and looking at it, what exactly would I have lost?
Not a thing. Miles on a record that no one really cares about anyway except maybe my ego.
What might I have gained?
That is much harder to answer. Maybe everything- and maybe nothing.
Sometimes in the early mornings I hear those soul whispers. They are always significant. This morning very clearly I heard: why do you fear if you give your horses more choice it will mean they will refuse to comply? Horses are built to want to partner and work for humans- it’s our own human methods and systems that destroy that willingness, generosity and bond. It can be regained but you have to be brave enough to try….
My whole horse journey has been winding around this direction since I found Khlaeesi on a local farm determined to do something different from what I had seen around me. A way with less force and more partnership. Have I found freedom or simply a kinder and gentler prison?
I know many people will find these questions ridiculous and a waste of time. I’m not certain they are wrong.
But I’m not certain….
At the core, what I dream is an equine partner with spirit in tact, choosing out of free will to work with me. Not an animal slave I’ve trained to comply or else. These are different ends of the spectrum and most people are probably not at either extreme. I have some ideas to play with, so if I learn anything useful I’ll make sure to update you. I won’t be throwing out the baby with the bathwater and opening my pasture gates setting the mare herd free to the mountainside any time soon. In fact I don’t even allow then to eat all the lush grass they want at the moment as they don’t seem to be capable of making good choices of when to take a break and end up gaining too much weight for their joints and too much sugar for healthy hooves and eat themselves literally sick if left to their own devices.
Apparently with domestication comes some limits. Probably different people have different tolerance for these limits. Maybe I will head out in search of where my tolerance can stretch and what might happen there.
In the concrete world of calendars and events, getting through this ride well sets us in line for the OD 50 once again- the ride I’ve completed once and not completed twice.
In the next month after she has some time off physically, I will dig deeper into more canter work and keep climbing the mountains here in our backyard. I am excited about the Emily Kemp Horsemanship Clinic Memorial weekend because aside from the composite shoes which I contribute the greatest chunk of success to, the improvement in my riding balance and not only getting out of her way but becoming a part of her strength I think is a close second and I still have a lot to improve on. I’d like to get a more reliable left lead canter which has been a weakness the entire history of my riding her. And I will be experimenting in smaller ways to offer her more choice than I already do to see if I can build a stronger partnership and get more buy in from her.
And just maybe we will once again conquer the Beast of the East’s 50 mile course… together