Last week I was hurtling toward ride weekend doing my best to get through each day and knowing if I looked too closely at all that was and wasn’t in place in my own strength I might panic and end up in a total crash. As I took care of exactly what was in front of me hour to hour I realized this was the only way I’d make it through the Fort Valley ride that I began to wonder what on earth made me commit to! Ride the trail in front of me. In a moment of reflection I realized I felt like an Israelite heading into the promised land with the strangest of battle plans because it was the Mighty Yah Creator of the universe loves to give creative strategies such as…
That time the Angel of the Lord gives the brilliant strategy to Gideon (who was a total coward on his own, but was called by that Angel Mighty Man of Valor). First Gideon assembles an army. He starts out with 22,000 men to go up against the oppressive army and God says that’s too many. He gives Gideon a few tests to whittle them down to 300 before the number is small enough for God’s purposes. Then the plan is unveiled: Get some clay pots and torches… spread out along the hillsides around the oppressive army and upon the command break the clay pots all of a sudden revealing the torches and the 300 lights will stun the oppressors to confusion and they will end up turning on each other in mayhem and the battle will belong to you! (From Judges 7)
I might have asked if there was a plan B?
Still, maybe that plan was better than the one God gave King Jehoshaphat. When three armies came against Israel, Jehoshaphat was terrified. The story tells us he told the whole kingdom to fast and seek God’s favor, then he went to inquire of God and told him: You’re our God, you rule heavens and earth and didn’t you give us this land and we are about to be wiped out! You have to help us! We are all going to die, and then what? Next God says not to worry, this battle isn’t yours- it’s mine! You’re going down there, but you won’t have to fight, just stand firm, don’t flinch and watch what I do to show off for you! Thus the people took courage, and they went down to the battle ground, and they sent out the worship team to … sing. Yep. That was the plan. Loud singing: Give thanks to the Lord, for his steadfast LOVE endures forever! As the story goes, the singing grew and the Lord set an ambush against the attacking armies and they ended up destroying each other. Not one escaped
I like singing… but I can’t imagine playing my violin out in front of the army as a winning strategy.
So this is how I felt heading into this weekend. The closer the ride got, the more I began to envision the grueling climbs, the myriad of rocks and the endless mazes of grassy fields in the last loop as dusk begins to set, the mile 40 blues K always seems to get, and the fact that I also volunteered to take on the responsibility of a junior rider- so I would have to work that into every decision on the trail that day… The very real challenges got bigger and bigger. I had a slightly queasy feeling- why on earth do I do this sport?
Like a familiar theme this year, I had one or two phenomenal rides after the last 50 (Big South Fork), then disharmony on the trails and distance rides, went back to the arena to find harmony and balance and hoped it would be enough. As I reflected I thought to myself: I am coming into this very difficult 50 mile ride with an arsenal of clay pots and loud singing 😳 This meant I had every confidence and also no idea what would happen. This battle was not going to be won by my amazing preparation or skills.
One nice thing about the Fort Valley Ride is that it’s relatively close to home (about 3 1/2 hours drive with trailer). I arrived at camp Friday afternoon to set up and settle in without much drama. Mike came soon after with Peggy Sue in tow- her first ride weekend! I so enjoyed having her there, I cannot handle the responsibilities of race weekend with a horse and try to keep track of a dog and Peggy Sue cannot bear to be separated and left alone in the trailer, so if I had to leave her behind without a human buddy (in a strange place) she would howl and cry pitifully the entire day. This ride PS had Mike, Niveah, Amy, and Stephanie all around to keep her company and I think she enjoyed the adventure. The vet in went fine and K had a heart rate of 36. She was entirely bored with the whole thing until….
The biggest complication of the evening came from my decision to do a trace clip. Being a mountain beast, her coat is already very thick and I knew it would be hard on her to move through the day in a winter coat especially as the temps go into the 60s in the afternoon. It’s been at least 2 years since I’ve clipped her, but I used to have no trouble- in fact I used to clip decorative stars and hearts into her rump, so I assumed it would take a minute to reacquaint the clippers but figured it would be workable. My clippers are not put together at the moment so I asked Amy if she’d bring hers, I could do it the night before.
The reacquainting did not go well. Extra factors included having to use a generator (loud machine too close for comfort to start us out in the slightly concerned category), then the cord snaking through the grass like a little black snake was unavoidable and right in front of her feet no matter what I did. Then there’s the clippers themselves which we flicked on right in front of K next to her neck sending her into a terror at the strong unexpected vibration. We were off to an unfortunate start.
I did not watch the clock (probably good) but that little rough trace clip took a REALLY LONG time to get done. And I probably owe Amy a few gallons of gas keeping the generator running as I coaxed her to relax while the sounds were vibrating and then did some groundwork and rubbing, and releasing, and fought against frustration- also trying not to think about us being a strange slightly embarrassing unwanted center of attention in ride camp for anyone that came by our way for an hour. It was not pretty, but, in time, especially after Mike thoughtfully offered to help hold the clippers giving me an extra hand to work some ground maneuvers I did get most of her neck clipped.
The clip was done for speed and functionality, not style or elegance. But I think this side story mattered more than I realized. Later Amy came over and said the peanut gallery had been observing during their dinner and the general sense was that I had a lot of tenacity to stick with her and then to get it done. They agreed I had a gift of perseverance. That little but mighty prophetic word was going to serve me the following day.
Ride morning was basically uneventful, it’s such a gift to have help- Iva and Mike have unique strengths and one of Mike’s is he can take care of the coffee with an expert hand. That’s huge on ride morning. And he has a brain for remembering the list of things I need to remember but can’t always get organized. Madison was coming off a pretty good cold and wasn’t feeling 100% but she was determined to get out there and do her best. This ride has a fair amount of pavement right out of camp and then a 2 mile or so steep gravel road and the ride does a controlled start to avoid a group of horses scrambling on pavement in the high energy a ride start tends to have. K has composite shoes so I can trot along on pavement with good traction and concussion relief but Madison’s horse Demitri was on pavement ice skates in metal shoes and also he can be squirrely in high energy situations with other horses like a ride start so we took the approach of pretending it wasn’t race day and left camp after the rest of the horses were gone at a leisurely pace, we began in the back of the 22 riders that day and pretty much kept that placement the next 10 hours.
Fort Valley is an Old Dominion ride, and so it is one of the more challenging East Coast rides boasting rocky trails, lots of climbs- very few flat grassy roads, but also is beautiful and held at a time the trees are changing to brilliant golds and reds. Part of the ride is along the Shenandoah River. This ride heads out of camp (which is in a valley) up the ridge for two out of the three loops and includes the segments I call “Tread-Mill-ford” Lane (the two mile relentless steep gravel road up the mountain), and the “Trail of Tears” which is the other side of the ridge that is rocky and steep and it’s not easy going up or down it. This ride demands climbing and descending that mountain twice to get to the trails in the next valley over with lots of technical maneuvering for the horse, and none of that is fast. To survive these rides one MUST take any opportunity to move along and get moving.
Yet this was exactly what was not happening for us on Saturday. Moving along. It was the strangest thing as I reflect. I had gone through two other challenging rides in the ride season where K was strong and just weeks ago she had taken on the Big South Fork trails at a fast trot and canter for two solid loops of about 35 miles moving even in some good ridge climbs. On Saturday K was motivated early on, but for various reasons we had to pull back (first it was pavement, then gravel, and then some of the rocky technical sections) and before long the momentum she had begun with fizzled out until it was like we were slogging through wet cement. Demitri wasn’t inspiring any forward energy either, so at times we seemed to be struggling just to keep a decent pace. This continued to get heavier and I began over the miles to have a sinking feeling… at this rate it didn’t seem very likely we would finish at all.
The entire first loop had setback and heaviness. To me it felt palpable, like a blanket over us. Something was wrong. I sensed it wasn’t exactly physical. Neither K nor D were having physical issues- it was like a fog was over us and we couldn’t get traction mentally. I began to pray against it. Yet the hopelessness would sneak in. More than once I found myself giving up. The first loop was almost 20 miles and took us just under 4 hours. At this rate we were in trouble, especially because I kept hearing about the dread second loop which was 18 miles but included the newly reopened Indian Graves section of trail. Someone the day before said it was terrible “I’d rather do cougar rock at Tevis any day that go back through that!” of course she followed up with the sentiment “Actually Jaime you’ll probably love it” I was certainly curious what this Indian Graves trail could be like, but it didn’t seem that picking up speed was likely in that technical steep trail.
Both horses vetted through just fine at the hold, Mike is great with K, encouraging her eat all she wanted of her own stash of food and hay though she wanted to roam the crew area for everyone else’s spread full of things I probably don’t allow her! And Peggy Sue was a great crew dog laying at my feet and staying closeby the team.
Madison and I got on trail exactly on time without any extra minutes to spare and heading back up the 2 mile climb with uninspired horses. D wanted to turn around and she had to hand walk him in the pavement area (which was wise) in order not to have that conversation in the saddle in a place they could end up out of control (ice skates on pavement). Back on the horse heading up the gravel road neither horse was particularly interested in this grueling 2 mile climb. I worked on interval transitions to keep K’s mind on something productive. Madison occasionally got D to trot on and inspired K to move a little faster for a segment here and there.
Heading down the back side of the mountain was slower this time that even the first loop and every rocky patch K slowed down to navigate the rocks like they were incredibly bothersome, but I’d look back and see that D had fallen behind, so in part I know her attention was also on her trail companion and she is not one to be in such a hurry she leaves her one charge behind. After all we had had the talk before going out: the horse and that girl are our one job- we have got to be sure they are ok. How much she understands I sometimes wonder, but she is not completely ignorant. Somehow- she does know things. And she wasn’t leaving D behind, not very far at least. That being said- she was not the K on fire I had experienced in my other rides.
Again, hopelessness lingered. We were way too far behind. Yet that didn’t seem right to me… My middle name is Hope. My horsemanship business is HOPE Horsemanship, I am totally OK with not finishing, but it was way too early in the day to make that call and fall into despair. How was I feeling such a complete hopelessness that I would give up so easily even trying? This is just not me… what is that fog, that dark cloud? At points when I wanted to just give up to the sucking darkness and resign myself to a death march back to camp over time and not considering the 3rd loop I would remember the words over me the night before: perseverance, persistence and instead of falling asleep mentally I continued to fight against the cloud and pray. I struggled against frustration: why are these horses so dull today? I didn’t want to end up in an argument with my horse which was not far off the way I was feeling and the way she was so slow to respond. What do I do about this?
That’s when I asked myself: How does the advice that came from Iva last week help me today? Her word she felt applied to this ride, going into it and getting through it, how do I apply it?
First HARMONY in myself. It’s ok not to finish, relax and remember- you ENJOY riding your horse, and it’s a beautiful time of year, and it’s ok to be in the moment and not stressed about the rest of the day. Being ok with various outcomes is not the same as resignation that there’s no hope.
Second, HARMONY with my horse. I could not prod and nag her along, I was going to need to get WITH her and join her in this even if it meant that she was slogging through the fog for some reason. Frustration was not my friend.
But a third application struck me, and as we continued to ride on, I put it to use.
I began to sing.
And Madison began to join me in singing.
And the horses began to trot. And they began to canter along the grassy roads we came to.
And if we lessened the singing the horses slowed down. We sang loudly and trotted and cantered to the end of the grassy roads. It still felt like dragging along but it was dragging at least a little faster! Now it felt like we were starting to move but not freely. The singing was dragging them out of the fog but they were so heavy!
As we headed onto the single track toward the Indian Graves section, still at a pretty low overall pace I continued to pray, to ask for our horses to break free and the fog to lift off of us. When I felt the hopelessness return I remembered that I was a person of tenacious perseverance. I will stay in this ride and do my best each segment of trail and regardless if we finish or not I was going to see the Indian Graves and that would be an adventure! And I held onto Joy with both hands.
The fog continued to shift though in this part of the ride I felt movement and lifting, and then a definite pulling back to hinder the progress and then forward, and then holdback… Inspired by the idea of the Indian Graves Madison and I began to sing songs of resurrection power and coming back from the grave. There finally came a tipping point. Finally at about mile 30, after over 7 hours since the start we came to the steepest part of the trail that day and K came alive and she hauled up that mountain with a fresh wind and new strength. We began to climb and climb up the rock faces along the narrow trail and she and D finally broke free. At the toughest part of the trail our horses finally began to fly.
Once we hit the ridge we collected a rider who had stalled out and gave some of our fresh wind to them and helped them through the last part of this second loop. K led the way down the ridge, still rocky, steep and technical but she began picking up more and more momentum until we made it back to Milford Road and trotted back into camp at about the latest time I though a finish could be possible with a new hope.
The horses vetted through quickly again and we headed out with fresh strength to the shortest last loop with only one climb and lots of pasture and country roads. We may not make it in before dark, but we had three hours to do the easiest 12 miles. Maybe for the first time ever, K trotted out of the second hold taking on the last loop with an eagerness I rarely see around mile 40.
The last loop was uneventful and moved along at a good pace. The heaviness never returned and the horses moved freely through the grassy fields and wooded single tracks into the dusk. We enjoyed riding as the sun gradually disappeared leaving us searching for glow sticks in the last few turns and celebrated the bright light in the distance that meant the finish line was within view, still over 30 minutes to spare on the clock. As we came into the final section I let out a loud shout and yip yip yip across the fields as I knew our crew had been waiting on our arrival to welcome us in!
Khaleesi picked up her trot across the finish line and my favorite memory of the day could be how excited Peggy Sue was jumping for joy next to me and K- impatient for me to jump down and give her a happy rub. She had been waiting all day for me to return for good! There are few things like the joy of a happy dog when her owner has returned!
The horses vetted through fabulously. K came in quickly with a 60/56 heart rate and totally sound with good energy and impulsion leftover. She dove into recovery eating and I had made her electric pen easy to expand with a new section with fresh grass so after a little nap she got to work on the untouched grass. This ride she seemed the least “worse for wear” of all of them. It was also our slowest ride, but on the flip side the most challenging.
Anyone who reads my blog-journaling journey knows I see an underpinning of an unseen layer to all of life. By far this endurance ride had the most bizarre connection to the unexplainable zone I’ve yet encountered. I do not understand fully all that went on but I think if the veil were pulled back and I could see all the unseen activity of the day it would be fascinating. It’s like the wind, we all know it exists, it moves things and creates a stirring, but we cannot see the wind itself.
Something unusual was at play on Saturday- I’ve begun to see when I am being pulled directions that run against my natural character/personality to be suspicious (the hopelessness, the heavy fog, and the despair are not normal for me, they are what make me tune in that there is “wind” in the atmosphere). That pairs with the complete shift that came about- and in the most difficult part of the trail that day- and very clear night and day change that came with it. I know my horse and it was like she was finally freed from some unseen hinderance to return her to her normal self. Maybe it’s the time of year- the celebration of dark things is also very real, and humans even without realizing it seem to give more power to the negative and twisted realms of death and despair. We even saw creepy decorations on trail near some houses that our horses (and I) did not appreciate.
Regardless- I choose to celebrate life, resurrection, and light. And the light overcomes the darkness, and the darkness cannot comprehend it. Whatever the deeper details of this story were, life and hope overcame and we finished the ride against some real doubt and struggle. I may not have brought a clay pot and torch onto the trail (well I had a headlamp but didn’t use it), regardless I’ll go with the loud singing anytime! And I couldn’t have had a better trail buddy to sing against the darkness than Madison and brave little D as our rear guard.
Thanks to Amy Stone, to Niveah, and especially to Stephanie (Madison’s mom) for all the amazing help before, during and after the ride, and for trusting me to carry such a special junior into the dark! Thanks to all who prayed us through the day across the country. And a special thanks to Mike for setting aside a weekend to support my dreams even through less than ideal circumstances!