Green for green

I’ve been holding my ride season plans this year with a loose grip. 

After wrapping up last season with a good ride though unsuccessful finish at Big South Fork (BSF), it became clear we are very close to a successful single day 100. An experienced veteran of the sport came to chat after BSF and encouraged me that Khaleesi seemed like a solid horse, and was wondering: what was my plan for “getting this done?” I didn’t have a plan at the moment only hours after not getting it done, but I asked her for some thoughts.

She highly encouraged me to attempt the Old Dominion (OD) 100 the following June. She took time to explain why she thought it would be a do-able ride for us, and was really encouraging. I was grateful she took the time to share her insight and tucked the ideas in my brain. Over the winter, I decided to give the goal of OD 100 plan a try and we got an early start with the No Frills 55 (which includes some of the OD 100 course) in April, then headed straight (do not pass go… do not change shoes…) to the Biltmore 55 the first weekend of May. My intent going into 2023 was IF we successfully completed those two early rides we would enter the OD 100 in June.

That was until we came through the horrible horrible (“mail trail”) loop in the No Frills ride. That loop felt like it would never end, it sucked the entire life out of me trying to encourage my horse not to stop on the side of the rocky mountain trail and wait for the vultures to come pick us apart. For real… in the moment it was that bad. In that moment I said: there IS NO WAY we are doing the OD 100. Khaleesi hates navigating and climbing the mountains over rocks. This is miserable. For both of us… why would we do this? 

Decision made (in the moment of when you should not make any real decision being tired, angry, hungry, frustrated)

We did finish the No Frills 55 and had good remarks from the final vet at how good my horse looked after that grueling ride. This was small consolation, though the finish line WAS the sweetest sight I’d seen in a long time that day.

I decided in the aftermath of misery that was the overlapping loop of the OD 100- I had lost my mind over the winter to think we should try the OD 100. So I went back to do what is fun for us… Big South Fork!

It seemed like wisdom to me. It seemed like a good plan to me. I felt… well… 

The truth is I’ve never felt very certain about anything this year. 

I’ve felt that it will be a good year for us, but I haven’t felt a clarity about what that will look like. I never felt that sure about the OD 100 plan, and when I switched the BSF, I didn’t feel all that much more certain about that. In the absence of “feeling certain” I went with logic. The BSF plan made sense to me in my head. 

Recently I was doing some fall planning and wanted to be certain I had the correct weekend marked off for the ride, so I looked at the ride calendar and found… to my surprise, but really, deep down, not that surprised: no 100 mile ride being offered this September at Big South Fork.

Of course not.

If I wasn’t certain before, this helped clarify: If we are doing 100 this year, it is NOT going to be at BSF.

So I weaseled my way mentally for about 2 minutes through other ideas. What about Vermont? I’ve heard that ride is awesome… That just seemed like an overwhelming undertaking- it’s so far, and I think you need crew there as it’s not a return to base camp ride. I considered the new 100 this summer in Southern VA a few friends were looking forward to doing… but we’ve avoided that ride as it’s in the worst heat of August, and in Southern VA it’s miserably hot, and I’ve never really loved the trails or the ride enough to go out of my way… I just did not think that was a good option. Expand my reach? Head out west? 

What am I doing?

I don’t want to take on a complete unknown 100. I knew Big South Fork, and the truth is, I know about 70% of the Old Dominion trail from events and a segment I’ve drag ridden twice. I know almost all the vet checks, and I’ve crewed for the ride. The very first ride I ever volunteered for so I could learn about the sport before trying it myself was scribing for the 100 at the side of the King of Birdhaven (Ric Birks) I believe back in 2015.

It finally settled in for certain. OD 100 is the plan. 

It probably always was ever since I brought home the feral 4 year old mare. I read an article in our local electric cooperative magazine about a woman who kept trying year after year to complete a single-day 100 mile ride called the Old Dominion 100 and finally her dream came true… I had never heard of endurance riding before that and thought it was fascinating… so within the first week I had Khaleesi in her new home with me, and couldn’t even get my hands on the feral creature in the little pen yet… in the days I could only toss a hay pile and sit in her pen reading a book and drinking my coffee… when someone at a small dinner party asked me a question no one before or since has ever asked (What do you plan to do with that horse you just brought home?) I answered: I’m going to take her from an unstarted and basically feral filly to completing a single day 100-mile endurance ride.

Day one… just off the trailer. July 20, 2014

And then I wondered what I had just said, and why I had said it. Because I didn’t even know it until that moment.

So, maybe the OD 100 has always been the plan.

Now we are three weeks away from the day when we will (God willing) cross the starting line for that ride. Though when I think specifically about it I usually want to throw up… I also have a confidence that this is what we’re meant to do, and cross the starting line is all I can be sure of. The rest is going to have to be grace.

The confidence has been growing after I made the call and registered us for the ride (before I could talk myself out of it). I am seeing all green lights for team green to 100.

— First we came through the first two season rides strong. The No Frills 55 wasn’t impressive for time or rank, but she held true to form trotting in good balance the entire 9 miles back to camp on the last loop. Not exciting, but solid.  The Biltmore 55 was a nice surprise – we finished in 7th place, and again the horse was in really good shape which is what I need to see. Two serious 55 mile rides with different challenges that she came through with zero back sensitivity, ‘A’ scores on hydration, solid gut sounds, no issues with anal tone (muscles) or a question of lameness in gait. Neither heart rate recovery was exceptional but again- very solid and easily within parameters.  

She is finishing these rides with time left on the clock this year with less signs of wear than ever before. Green light.

— Another green light came from the Biltmore 55.

I have been working with Stephanie Carter of Indigo Ancestral Health (in connection with True North Equine Veterinary Services) for a year, getting a picture of what is going on internally. We have done two hair mineral analysis tests and have been addressing any source of inflammation and eradicating it best we can. I hope to have a long career with Khaleesi- and I want a strong, powerful partner who is fully supported in every way I can.

Stephanie helped me adjust micronutrient balance based on what her hair testing showed, and after the second test it appeared that she was improving on balance, but had issues with absorption and her hind gut wasn’t as healthy as we would have expected. I had concerns about iron levels in the well water that is at the barn we are currently residing, so decided to test the water to. I found no iron, but unexpectedly I found substantial levels of chlorine and chlorine dioxide in the water. 

I do not know why, and when I tested the spring water in another part of the farm, no chlorine. When I tested my home spring water, no chlorine. So regardless of how accurate the home test is, it is able to show a reading of zero, and a reading of “this is higher than the safety window” for the water my horses had been on for about 18 months.

This would explain why her hindgut was slow to catch up to the changes we had made. She’s had low grade chlorine poisoning killing off the good bacteria needed for a healthy hindgut. I solved that issue pronto, but redeveloping hindgut health takes time and we can support it, but we can’t zap it instantly into balance. 

Supporting a performing horse nutritionally is just as dicey as deciding on a good diet for an athletic human. There are tons of opinions and lots of “science” that give us conflicting and confusing information. I’ve felt confident working with Stephanie because I have an underlying belief that simple, forage based, ancestral focused diet, with the addition of micronutrients is what I wanted. I also have a personal bias that human processed foods are causing disease, inflammation and degeneration. And I have come to believe that our animal processed foods are not doing us any favors as well. With the exception of my cat — who refuses to get off the Doritos (and cats get what they want)—  I don’t do it anymore. My dogs and horses are on as clean diets as possible with “real” food, and I’ve seen enough of the evidence for this being a game changer that no “science argument” could ever make me unsee what I’ve seen.

At the Biltmore weekend there was a research project on gut permeability in equine athletes and we were given the opportunity to volunteer. There would be blood drawn day before the ride, morning of the ride, after the second vet check, after the ride, and the day following the ride. This is a lot of poking at my horse on a day I need her to focus and not be in a poor mood, but they offered us a carrot so to speak: They would give us a pre-ride and post-ride blood panel. I decided the data was worth the poking, so we enrolled in the study.

In less than two weeks the results came and I looked them over. Except that most of the numbers appeared basically in the expected range, I had no idea what they really meant. Thankfully I’ve been at this “what’s going on inside my horse” thing for a year now, and I sent them on to Stephanie and the True North Team. 

I was relieved when the response came!

The team is unanimous! The results are really positive- she is in great shape except some residual inflammation we believe is in detoxing [which we were aware of from the hair test- detoxing happens when the horse’s system is healthy enough to release stored toxins, so is a good sign but does tax the system]. Because she is headed to a strenuous event, lets put her on Organic Gut Solutions [which helps pull toxins so they don’t have to go through the liver and kidneys and reduces stress on the system]. Otherwise keep up the good work! Congratulations!

— Third green light for me, both No Frills and the Biltmore rides challenged our mental connection in different ways, and my aim this year has been to address the disconnect with leading, guiding, and offering instead of punishing, driving, or threatening.  I have found myself having to get pretty creative not to get something done the quick way by tapping into my horse’s prey drive which is much easier than offering a better deal and allowing her the freedom to choose. When she is dragging, I’ve seen now that often it isn’t that she’s tired, it’s that her mind was left behind and I need to find a way to bring it back, and see if it’ll engage us forward instead. This has meant a lot of creative thinking in the moment. I’m not sure I have it conquered, but I’m aware of it and we are improving together! I have seen new ground this year in our connection- and the confidence I have that we are a more powerful team is another green light I’ll move on.

— Finally, I didn’t want to attempt this ride without a crew- and a very helpful green light is that my ace crew Mike & Iva are on deck to support us. Mike has been with K and me since our post-covid return to competition and he has proven to be a god-send. He is also an extreme endurance sport guy (he has done some grueling mountain bike races of just under 300 miles across the VA highlands and set some records doing it on a single-speed). He knows a lot about the physical effects of endurance sports on the human, and has been a great help to me and given me key insights to helping Khaleesi in training and events as well. Bonus: he loves all animals including the horses and they love him too. He understands my approach with horsemanship and is one of the few people I completely entrust my horses to. Iva is quietly steadfast and unflappable. She has been along my horsemanship journey for years and she seems to fill every possible crack Mike might miss on a big ride. They are a good team and to know they’ll be there for me gives me confidence that I’ll have the best chance at getting this done.

So we are in the straight stretch toward the start line. It’s been a long journey and one I’ve hoped could be done in a way I could feel good about. Could we do it in good form? Could I do it not despite my horse but with her cooperation? Could we finish and I not feel like I had just beaten her up to achieve my goals? I don’t know if that will be true, but it has taken this long for me to see the green lights that at least make me think maybe we can. 

I’m really liking the side pull though we may try a different maker to find something less “clunky” going forward

It’s taken years to tweak the nutrition – having a horse who can absorb the nutrients is a huge step I’ve learned; then there’s the support so she shows up to the ride with correct balance and reserves in much needed calcium, magnesium, sodium, potassium etc- we don’t want to play catch up to get through events. It’s taken time to get the composite shoe plan clicked in, the electrolyte balance. We’ve had to get saddle fit solid and up my own riding ability so that we are showing zero back soreness at the end of our 50s, the polarized training and amount of low-zone hiking we’re doing is a huge part of her physical development and muscling especially through the ribs and abs… the experience and experiments of riding in a halter, then a snaffle bit, to landing in the sweet spot of the side pull is a big plus for this season. And I believe one of the most vital keys has been the emphasis on our connection and mental game. 

family hiking days have been a key for our overall fitness work

The gradual and patient commitment to finding the balance of as much freedom as I can allow her combined with giving her clear leadership and direction. It’s been a long process trusting her with ever increasing responsibility and that if given the choice SHE WILL come along on her own decision. Increasing freedom generates increasing power- this is a long term play. Relationships cannot be rushed, and trust comes in time. Not only the trust I have in her, but the trust she has in me. On both sides it is easy to violate that trust and go backward- it only takes frustrated moments to feel rushed and the need to JUST GET THIS DONE for months of trust to be eroded in a moment. I have grown personally in prioritizing the long term dream that we can be real partners over anything I think needs to be rushed through when she IS NOT READY and I’d have to use a force card. Today the threshold for this is pretty life and death. We’d need a semi truck bearing down on us in a road for me to go there. At least most days! I am becoming more trustworthy all the time. 

We have committed to taking all of these things on in patience. The events are only the testing ground for the work that is our journey together every day. I don’t want an endurance horse, I don’t even care about having a 100 mile horse – I want a powerful horse and a true partner who can do anything we take on together. The events are great at revealing what is being developed. 

And so… we will show up and I can say for sure, we’ll give it our level best. And we’ll let you know how the showdown with the Beast of the East goes.

Published by JaimeHope

Violin teacher and endurance rider living in a rural mountain county - one of the least population dense and without a single stoplight.

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