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!

    Capaill Uisce

    Thursday, August 25, 2016

    So far this trip has been the smoothest of my ride weekends. I feel a slight forboding as it’s been a little too easy somehow. 

       
     I got to the barn and found Khaleesi and Faygo both right at the gate in the early pre-dawn glow (their cycle is usually to be at the farthest end of the field before 8am). 

    When I tried to bring Khaleesi in before 7am on Monday she pranced, bucked and galloped full speed around the field instead of coming to me for so long I took Faygo in to the barn to feed and load my truck and left her out there acting like a banshee alone. When I returned for her the second time she still ran off in large circles a few more minutes before standing still finally and inviting me in to put on the halter. 

    I could guess what that was about but I’d probably have some human misinterpretation. In the end she took a full 30 minutes before agreeing to be caught and I was ready for that same 6:30am freak show this morning as I tried to head for Iron Mountain. 

    But there they both were waiting for me as if they knew.

    Khaleesi put her head right in the halter while faygo ate the small snack I offered as a consolation. And as we loaded up and started to pull away she walked calmly down the fence line resigned – instead of her usual jogging back and forth and calling. 

    As if they knew

    Picked up Susan on the way off the mountain and we were on our way. We pulled in late morning and found 4 lovely spacious shaded spots right on the New River. Ricky pulled up not long thereafter with more of our ‘team’. 

      

      

    We checked in without fuss then vetted without a hitch. We went (all 5 of us) to the crew area (Triple C Ranch) and setting that up was light work with many hands!

      
    Upon return to camp it was warm and we had a couple hours before dinner so we donned bathing suits and crocks and I took Khaleesi into the river. 

    She’s laid down on the trail in mud puddle streams with me at least twice. This was the perfect time to try to swim her!

      
    I hopped on bareback and could hardly keep her from beelining down to the water. She immediately stopped in the shallows and I knew she wanted to lay down but I kicked her forward. I wanted to get deeper. She complied but when we got in up deeper than her belly she would trot hop which could have been due to the mucky bottom I’m not sure, but it wasn’t quite deep enough for swimming yet.
    I circled her a few times into deeper water  where it was just not deep enough to swim. What she really wanted was to lay down in the sandy shallows and I eventually let her. Hopping off I stayed out of her way as she laid completely down and rolled around sometimes dunking her head and nose under. 

      
    As we waded around in the New River she must have laid down 20 more times in the soft mucky sand- to the entertainment of the other horse owners who had normal well behaved horses that stood quietly in the water. Apparently I had a sea serpent. 

      
    Again I was reminded of the water horses of the Scorpio Races book we listened to driving to Charleston this month. The legend of the Capaill Uisce  [kap-il Ish-ka] who were the fastest horses if you could capture and tame one. If not you could be their supper. 

      
    A carnivorous horse that comes up from the water each fall. Amy Stone might believe the carnivorous part… hopefully  she’ll be fast tomorrow!

    Dinner and the ride meeting took longer than expected but all standard. 

    Before climbing into my hammock I spent my traditional few minutes under the moonlight with Khaleesi. The river seemed to have turned her fur to velvet and her washed out golden highlights glimmered under the stars. I slowly followed the curves of her muscles with my hand down the line of her neck and back till I touched the grease paint ‘143’ scribed onto her hindquarters.

    I listened to her munching hay and drinking as I fell asleep. 

    Our luck continued however when at 2:30 am a loose herd came barreling through somehow not taking out Khaleesi’s pen (many others not so lucky). Khaleesi snorted and paced but no escape for her and eventually the loose horses were all apprehended. 

    Must have been a wild band of water horses come to lure Khaleesi back to the depths. This time however, she stayed. 

    Only a few hours to go. 

      

    Back in the mountains

    Monday, August 8, 2016

    After a week in the lovely city of Charleston SC of music and good bourbon it’s nice to be home. 

    When I walked toward the pasture on Saturday the girls hasn’t seemed to notice I was back. When I called out to them from afar they picked their heads up, perked their ears and galloped over to the fence to say hello! It was a nice way to be greeted home!


    I took an evening ride ponying Faygo to get reaquainted with the girls then a fun ride with friends on Sunday. 

    Ponying Faygo is a switch from last year when Faygo ponied Khaleesi- who was generally at that time a slow-poke. My biggest struggle was not dropping the lead when Khaleesi hung back to poop, or try to eat a branch, or just decided she didn’t want to walk that fast, or got tangled around a tree. 


    I just finished an audiobook (fiction) about water horses that are wild flesh eating beasts that come out of the ocean in fall on some fictional island in a place that seemed Celtic of sorts… These horses would sometimes be captured and domesticated as much as possible and were smart and fast and used for racing (where you could do worse than being thrown… You could get eaten by another horse in the race… Or pulled into the sea and drowned by the horse you hadn’t ‘tamed’ quite enough). They were powerful animals hard to restrain!

    Well on my way home I felt like I was riding one of those monsters and ponying another!!! I did insist they walk but it wasn’t the most relaxing evening ride I’ve ever taken with Faygo trying to lead us on occasion and Khaleesi nipping toward her to tell her to get back as I’m trying to shorten my lead line which had gotten long on a single track and she was behind us! Khaleesi occasionally picking up faygos energy instead of mine and hopping into a fast trot as I’m trying to slow her down and hold Faygo back at the same time!  

    By the time we were almost back home I had finally convinced Faygo that she was not allowed to go farther forward than my knee. I don’t love ponying and we don’t practice it that much. 

    On Sunday my endurance mentor Lynne rode with us and showed me her Tevis Buckle! Maybe next year I will make plans to try to go and crew to learn all I can for when we’re ready to make the trip. 


    The next ride I have planned is the Iron Mountain Jubilee 50 at the end of the month. After yesterday’s ride Lynne said Khaleesi is in great shape and ready to go. Just some basic rides to get her out – maybe a long ride, and some shorter speed rides- and also some rest in between and she will be fine. 

    I’ve noticed her picking up speed and also extending her cantering to longer intervals. Her heart rate tends to stay low in a canter and we may begin to incorporate more cantering in our rides. Lynne gave me some heart rate interval ideas for training in more cantering as we progress. 

    In my opinion we could use more mountain climbing. Not hard to find places to work on that here. 

    Today the new replacement saddle should arrive and I’ve ordered some offset stirrups as well. 

    Nice to know we’re on track!

    Needs improvement.

    Wednesday, September 2, 2015

    Our official grade at the end of the Iron Mountain ride was an “A-“. I am so pleased that Khaleesi and I completed the ride, finished in time, healthy, and in good spirits even if we were close to the back of the pack. I took a few days to just bask in the accomplishment of a solid first run with my young equine partner. The fact that we are learning together and she’s the first horse I’ve trained from zero makes it all the more special.

    Cue happy music… butterflies… slow motion shots of Khaleesi and I cantering through the open rangelands…

    IMG_2186

    Ok enough of that. Now we move on.

    The “A-” was generous.

    If I were getting a grade on more than taking care of my horse’s hydration and soundness it would have been lower. I don’t want to guess at letter; for simplicity we’ll use the old elementary school mark of “N” or Needs Improvement.

    I love the starting point of the LD rides to be able to make mistakes without doing too much damage. I want to use these rides as a learning opportunity. When we move to 50 milers (and longer) small mistakes can cost a lot more.

    Today is for reflecting back at what I learned, what I didn’t do so well, and what we can do better. We can do better.

    Away vet-check/hold basics: I have a fantastic huge waterproof crew bag. I did ok at packing necessities I’d need in it especially for my horse, next time I will also include a camp chair for me. I will appreciate being able to sit down a moment even more when our ride is double the length and I have two holds to wait out.

    On the trail: Stop looking down. Just don’t do it anymore. From now on and forever.

    I noticed myself way too often watching the footing right in front of us. I don’t do this when I work in the arena (sand footing). Some part of me is certain I need to guide my horse through crevices and rocky areas. Who am I kidding? She is responsible for her feet and completely capable. My energy focusing down is only creating a front-hand heavy horse and stopping her forward energy.

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    When I reflect on my favorite part of the ride… following a group of quick 50 mile riders, I was watching them up ahead of me, not the ground.

    Snacks?: I’m not thrilled with her low gut sounds at the final vet-check. For a 30 mile ride with no other metabolic issues it was not a serious issue. Moving forward she needs to keep something going into her system more often. Besides stopping for a bite of grass once in a while, I am considering carrying some alfalfa cubes or small apples… something to encourage her to eat while we move through the ride. Betsy, who I rode with, slowed up and gave her mare a snack on occasion. Worth a try.

    Ride faster: Seems simple and obvious, but we are going to need to pick up the pace. I believe she will do so willingly, and I need to let her. This is connected to…

    Ride better: Also obvious, but not nearly as simple. If I continue to improve my riding skills she will have an easier time moving faster. This is one of the improvements I can use outside help. So today we paid another visit to Pam.

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    I have been learning- contrary to what I would have thought- that once conditioned, a horse in endurance needs more rest than we think to stay healthy. One of my biggest concerns is that she love endurance riding and I don’t burn her out with too heavy a workload, yet she needs to be in enough shape to complete.

    My plan with her this fall is to aim for a long ride (10-15miles) and a fast ride (less than 10 miles) per week, with a “lesson” session in addition, or even instead of one of those if we can fit one in. This should also help me work on a little more conditioning with Faygo.

    Khaleesi has been on a break since we returned home Saturday night. I visited only to check on her, feed and give apples and give her a little positive attention and turn her back out to be a horse again. She had four full days of rest and today we loaded up to play a bit (learn together). This would be more mental work than physical.

    I had a feeling now was when it was going to get harder for me. The good news is that I have significantly improved my balance and posture at a walk and we are getting on the same page with our energy and transitions. We have also improved our trot a lot, but still have a long way to go.

    Today was to get serious about improving our trot. As usual, we struggled to stay on the rail at a trot and once we started moving Khaleesi was wandering all around the arena. If I wanted to stay balanced I had no control over her, if I used my legs or hands to move her back to the rail I was flying all over the place. Thankfully our rides are on trails and not wandering around arenas!

    We went back to leg signals and asked her to move OVER with my leg. I am getting more clear with this, but she was still not sure what I was asking of her. She was totally guessing… faster?… turn?… go the opposite way?

    We went back to a walk and asked her as loud and clear as possible MOVE OVER NOW… NOW… NOW… NOW… and after a few tries

    YES! We did it!

    Then we did it again… and celebrated!

    Once we got it, it was there. It was exciting… like “that button works now”.

    Then we did the other side. Took a few times, but again WE GOT IT!

    More celebrating, licking & chewing (for her) and deep thinking, a little break for her to mull it over.

    Now at the trot.

    Improvement. Let’s just get a steady trot, stay along the rails, and be in control. Simple, right?

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    After a few times around, after stopping once or twice to be more clear MOVE OVER TO THE RAIL! We got it.

    Steady trot, decent balance from me, basically on the rails (because I asked her to move over and SHE DID).

    It felt amazing- we were getting this. HUGE.

    We ended the arena work on that great note. Just celebrating her (and us) standing next to the rail we used to push away from. It was hot so we walked up to rinse off. This leads me to another improvement we worked on both before and after riding today.

    Impulsion: We got a “B” on impulsion on the final vet check. I am certain she was not tired (not enough to create her to drag) and she did not have a bad attitude, but she sometimes DOES have low impulsion if I go to lead her quickly (trot out). This is something we can improve.

    We talked about pushing instead of pulling her, and expecting her to stand when I ask her to, and move when and how I ask her to. She was dragging for Pam early on and we worked on being more clear with my energy and direction- and added a pop with the end of the lead to drive her from behind if she wasn’t moving with enough impulsion with me.

    It took her a few times to understand why that lady was swinging the rope behind her, but again- once she got it, she got better. Fast. We went from her lagging behind me to jogging exactly beside me, at exactly my speed and stopping on a dime with me.

    How FUN is that!?

    Then we worked on standing. I needed to tighten her girth and she would fidget, take a step, try to eat. We put her right back clearly where I’d asked her to stand and in just a few minutes I could walk around her on either side and adjust and tighten and she wouldn’t move a foot.

    ** a little life lesson reminder for me here. I tend to want to stay in front of her actions and keep her from making the mistake, but you have to let a horse do the wrong thing and immediately correct the choice. You can’t correct something before it happens, and it would do me some good to remember that in life too. Horses don’t live in the past, and they don’t live in the future. They live in the NOW.

    I am ok with not living in the past, but I do sometimes find myself living in the future- anticipating things instead of watching them actually play out. Anticipating can be helpful, but sometimes it is a bit like assuming. It is a good reminder to stay more in the present and not always be thinking too far ahead of what is actually going on. With my horse, and in life.

    I thought “Wow, I could have such a well trained and mannered horse.”

    And then I realized “Wow, I DO have a well trained and mannered horse, it’s that I don’t ask it of her.” It only takes her 3 times to learn anything we teach her, just a few minutes to “get it”.

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    When we walked her up to rinse her off she began to fidget. She’s not afraid of the water. She’s just fidgeting.

    Pam took over and in less than one minute Khaleesi stood still in place (and relaxed, ears forward, not stressed at all) while Pam rinsed her off from every angle. Then she slowly did her upper neck and head to see if she would be ok with washing her face. She was pretty fine with that too.

    Next time, together, we are going to tackle the fly spray!

    We had gotten to the point I could “ground tie” her and drop the line to go pick up my bridle/saddle and she would wait patiently until I asked her to walk with me.

    My mind was turning around (human licking and chewing…) and I thought back to how much ground work we had done early on. She was better then, but she was pretty good right now. I had been ok with pretty good. It wouldn’t be very difficult to go from pretty good to amazing with this horse. I had lowered my expectations for expediency.

    She had been ‘pretty good’ for the farrier for her first shoeing, but he told me often it’s the second time that is worse because it’s not a new experience anymore. At our vet checks she stood ‘pretty good’ to get looked at, but she fidgeted a bit…

    It would be so much better if she knew I expected her to stand still and in place without moving a leg until I asked her to for all of those professionals that look at her. Yet I can’t expect this on one day and not do it a little bit every other day.

    You are either training or untraining a pattern in every interaction with your horse…..

    Khaleesi stands in place with the lead rope on the ground.
    Khaleesi stands in place with the lead rope on the ground.

    Then we loaded her on the trailer by sending her on instead of me leading her in. It took a minute for her to understand what we were asking- I’ve always “pulled” her slightly onto the trailer. She is a great loader, but until recently I’ve always walked her in. This time we “drove” her instead (gently and easily) and when the light bulb clicked she walked right on in front of us like she’d done it all her life.

    What I appreciate most about our visits with Pam is that she is generous with her time to allow Khaleesi to learn at her pace. We take a lot of time when she gets something right to allow her to lick and chew and think and we just rub her and chat and wait.

    I would be inclined to say “Ok we got that! What’s next?

    Pam says “Hold on, she’s thinking about what you just did- never interrupt that.

    I feel good about where we’ve been and where we’re going. So we are planning to enter the Big South Fork ride next weekend in TN. It will be another 30 mile ride and we’re going alone to focus on our game. Small steps- small improvements… incremental learning…. another shot.

    8 feet on the ground

    From Friday, August 28, 2015

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    With everything loaded in we hit the road on Thursday and though my poor truck was loaded down, we made it to Ivanhoe mid-afternoon to set up camp on the New River. It was the first big weekend for my new trailer which is so nice to have! My truck heaved and hoed a little bit on the hills of I-81, but it got us there pulling two horses and all our gear (including aluminum racks piled on top!).

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    It was really nice to have Kate in camp to help set up the corral and help wrangle the horses- and just to have a buddy… company… is also nice. The camp was along the New River and run by the local fire department. There was a ton of grass and big water troughs nearby with tons of scattered ports-potties as well as (HUGE bonus!) SHOWERS.

    New River
    New River

    It was a pretty big ride with roughly one hundred horses participating each day (a few less on Friday, a few over on Saturday). Base camp is a busy place like a little town with a tack shop, vet stations, registration, ‘mess tent’, even an ice cream stand and people and horses are milling about. Lots of trucks, trailers, dogs barking, horses calling out, kids running around… until 10pm (quiet time) it’s a noisy bustling place.

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    We got set up and went together to vet-in Faygo who got all A’s on her scorecard. I like having a vet look at my horse more than the once a year or so I have my vaccines and teeth done. They checked her back and the vet asked if I have trouble with her saddle rolling (yes, sometimes)- she said she’s almost “mutton withers” shaped, so kind of flat backed. Her back is healthy, no soreness (YEAH for the Imus saddle!) and she even gave her a body condition of 5 (which is ideal) though I still think she’s closer to a 6 compared to how she looked in peak shape this spring.

    Headed to vet-in
    Headed to vet-in

    We hit the dinner & ride meeting and learned that the trail is marked with very clear signs, arrows, flags and red plates with Xs if you should NOT go that way; you’d pretty much have to be an idiot (I think that was almost verbatim) to mess up this trail. In recent memory they haven’t had anyone get lost.

    We had a mellow early night though I never sleep that great when my horses are with me as I wake up at 2am… 3am… 4am…

    What was that noise? Did Khaleesi get her hoof stuck in that fence? Oh no, she’s going to pull a shoe before the ride tomorrow… Are they out of water? Did they eat all the hay?

    There were no issues however, and all was well in the morning.

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    Kate and I headed toward the start after 8am (the 30 mile riders went out at 8, the ride & tie start was 8:15). Faygo was a handful – way out of the ordinary- and I was glad I suggested I’d ride first (the opening of the course was flatter and since I’d kind of roped Kate into this, I thought it would be nice to give her the easier run to start… I would do the infamous switchbacks everyone was talking about).

    Faygo and Khaleesi were calling to each other and Faygo was determined to go back and get her:

    Faygo: She can run along with us, she doesn’t NEED a rider you know! Actually- you guys ride her and let me just come along!

    Me: No Way. We are not even discussing this, turn back around we’re going that way in just a minute.

    Faygo: She’s gonna be mad. I’m going to tell her it’s your fault. You don’t have to be in that little pen with her all night!

    Me: Ok, I know. Aren’t you glad to get a little space from her!? PAY ATTENTION you almost ran that lady over backing up like that!

    Ready to go!
    Ready to go!

    There were only 6 or 7 teams running the ride & tie. So we all assembled at the starting line, riders and horses milling about waiting for the “go” when back toward us from the course came a galloping riderless horse at full speed. As we watched in horror frozen in place not knowing what that horse would do and which way to go, the front handful of riders at the start began to have their horses start a stampede. In that instant I wondered which way should we go (though also glad not to be on foot if there really was a stampede coming)- Faygo was already a bit wound up and this was NOT GOOD- when a woman jumped out in front stretched out her arms wide and said WHOA! And as that horse barreled right at her she grabbed his reins and he stopped.

    Crisis averted… for us at least. The horse had red and green ribbons in his tail (green means “green”, like inexperienced; red means watch out, I could kick you) and I thought (oh- just like Khaleesi tomorrow!).

    Thus we began the race – all just a tad more amped up than usual, and the other horses ran out at a canter. I heard myself talking to Kate the night before when we had our ‘strategerie’ meeting.

    Kate: Ok, so what’s the plan, we know she likes to go- but keep her to gaiting? And how long should we go between ties? Maybe we should do time instead of mileage?

    Me: That’s not a bad idea- just keep her from cantering and she should do ok. She’ll have to walk the big hills, just make her stick to her gaits and she’ll do better. Just don’t let her canter.

    Race Day Reality: Right from the start line I was cantering along behind the other R&T horses trying to slow her without fighting and wasting all her energy.

    Me (to myself): In an endurance ride I know better than to go with the first group- what was I thinking… just because there are only like 7 horses here- we should have held back and gone our own pace. 

    Thankfully a short distance in, the rider in front of me asked to pass another rider who seemed to want to hold back a bit. As I then approached her I asked:

    Are you trying to slow up a bit?

    Yes, actually- you can go by if you want

    Nope- I’d love to slow down and get a little control, want to ride together a bit?

    That would be great.

    That started a new friendship with Faygo & Miles, Kate & Cindy (who had a similar experience with the running crew), and Alison & me. We ended up riding the entire 15 miles buddied up and enjoyed the day!

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    First tie up on the switchbacks

    The trail was beautiful, but basically we ran from the New River up to Iron Mountain, so it was mostly uphill. The grade varied, and there were some beautiful ridge trails that were mostly flat- occasionally a downhill into the vet check (which was our finish line), but poor Faygo did a hard 15 that day.

    Sometimes we all walked together up the hills (we’ll say it was for Faygo, but I was grateful not to have to try to keep up running those things! Alison is a good uphill runner!) Sometimes we did get some distance and tie off, but we were never very far from each other. I’m still amazed after trying this sport out that horses and people are not so far off from basic speeds.

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    Somewhere around mile 11 or 12 we got the idea that we might have taken a wrong turn. The course was like a lollypop shape. The first 9 miles in and out of camp is one trail, then there’s a right turn that takes you into the vet check through the “rangelands” gorgeous cow fields, once you leave the vet check you go up the mountain trail to then meet up with the 9 mile in and out. We knew that the distance was about the same either way, so decided to continue on and deal with it later. When we saw the ride & tie ride manager coming toward us a couple miles out of base camp – she was headed back to camp on the 30 mile trail- we knew we were backward.

    She was worried about us but we assured her we’d had a great run, and ended up sticking together- and that we’d all missed the turn. Considering at the ride meeting we were told only a complete idiot could have missed it, we did feel bad. But in our case no true harm was done because we’d still do 15 miles, and still end up at the vet-check finish line. She agreed that it was fine and we went on.

    just a mile to go!
    just a mile to go!

    Once at the finish the AERC ride manager was more concerned because they’d been looking for us (there are radio spotters, and we’d of course never gotten to the one between the turn off and the vet check). So they were glad we were fine, but she asked us exasperatedly “Did you not see all the signs by the water trough to turn? How could you miss that?”

    We told her we were sorry, and that we can’t say the signs weren’t there, but that indeed we did miss them. Thinking back- not far from that spot was a guy on a little bob-cat tractor pushing dirt around near the trail. Our horses were annoyed but not that bothered (they are used to tractors), but the runners said they tried to let the man know that horses were coming through and he was a bit rude to them and seemed to get more in the way of the trail. We have no way of knowing if these things are connected, but we did find out later that some of the signs HAD been intentionally removed, and that a rumor (that has no specific proof) is that there is a political argument going on internally with a local back country horseman chapter and some of those disgruntled members were the suspect of the ride sabotage.

    Thankfully we are not complete idiots, and that turn was leaving the Alleghany Highlands trail down a dirt road that we would never have seen without signs. The following day they had volunteers at the important turns to be sure the signs were not taken down again.

    End of the ride! All happy!
    End of the ride! All happy!

    Faygo took about 5 minutes to pulse down at the finish which isn’t terrible for jogging in the last couple of flatter miles, and then the vet-check is up on a hill, so we had to walk up to pulse in. We pulled off her tack and let her get a good drink. She hadn’t eaten much on the trail, and though she was hydrated her gut sounds were minimal. The vet said that isn’t abnormal and that he wasn’t concerned- just make sure she eats and let them know if she doesn’t seem to want to graze (that was not a problem at all). Her back wasn’t sore, but it was a little tight as was her hind. Again- not cause for concern, but just something to note. It was a tough uphill course and it had been a challenge for her. She was tired but not overworked. The 15 was a good distance for her- especially for the elevation we covered.

    It was a great thing to do with her, and as I have been focused on making sure Khaleesi was ready for her first 30, Faygo just didn’t get the hard training she’d had in the spring. Now that the weather is cooling down and Khaleesi is in good shape, I will probably put more time into getting her ready to do the LD at the national championship ride. It’s only 25, and we will plan to “turtle” the ride and just finish. I am sure she is capable of that as she did a solid 30 in the spring at the No Frills.

    Faygo & Miles
    Faygo & Miles

    After relaxing a few minutes up at the vet-check, we hitched a ride home in the “ambulance” trailer (it’s there in case horses are pulled and need a ride home). Faygo was looking good and got to ride with her new friend (Miles, Alison’s horse, who is a Rocky Mountain- so they were both gaited and made a great pair).

    A few things I learned: 1) “Leaves of three, find another tree!” (don’t tie your horse to a tree covered in poison ivy.. I didn’t do this, but will try to remember the saying in the future, it’s good advice). 2) When/where to tie? Don’t stress too hard about this. It will become obvious at the time. You can practice (I’m glad we did), but in the end you will know the right distances on race day.

    Unfortunately Kate had to leave that afternoon. I missed having her there, but don’t mind alone time either. I had plenty to do getting Khaleesi ready for the next day, checked in and vetted as well.

    A walk to the New River after the ride with both horses
    A walk to the New River after the ride with both horses

    I was slightly concerned about Khaleesi as I hadn’t ridden her since Tuesday night and we were in a strange bustling place with lots of distractions. I wasn’t sure how she would be race day morning, and considering how hot-headed my solid mare had been I wanted to at least ride Khaleesi around camp a few times and be sure I had some control. Also, it couldn’t hurt to make sure my tack was all in place and working before I had to ride out in the morning.

    I tacked her up, hopped on and took a walk around camp. The ENTIRE time Khaleesi and Faygo called to each other. By the way, Khaleesi is a SUPER LOUD MOUTH. She will likely be remembered by people as that really loud horse. Not kidding.

    As we made one loop around Faygo was pacing and pawing in the corral. I decided to take one more loop- see if they could figure out that they weren’t going to die. It got worse. Khaleesi was ok, a little distracted, but not dangerous, but Faygo was a hot mess. I felt bad for her.

    My neighbor said to me “Boy, she hasn’t been happy since you left.” It was Khaleesi I was worried about leaving in camp. But to all accounts, once we left that morning, she just settled in and ate her hay all day. I had visions of Faygo running the corral, pawing and pacing and screaming all day. Then my neighbor continued “Once a very experienced ride told me you should really never consider bringing two horses to a ride. Unless the world is coming to an end.”

    That seemed a bit extreme, but I was concerned and felt a little off the rest of the afternoon. I put Khaleesi back- her tack was fine, she was safe to ride, and it wasn’t worth the stress to just ride her around a few loops. I decided to get an ice cream cone and take a walk. This was the self-doubt walk.

    What are you doing here? Do you know how much work this takes to get a horse ready to do this? Your life is busy enough- you hardly have time to think straight lately with your actual work, keeping your family responsibilities together around the house, and then devoting all this time to your riding- to keep two horses fit to participate. And now you tried to juggle it all, and the horse you want to be able to include- because she’s your first love, is stressed out and going to have a breakdown tomorrow when you leave her with your new horse that you are having so much fun with. Do you think that’s fair to her? How selfish are you? And here you are alone- overwhelmed with two horses in camp who need attention and your big day is tomorrow and you just feeling like packing up the trailer and going home… 

    I didn’t pack up the trailer to go home. Completely out of cell service and not able to call mom or even my husband for a pep-talk or just to talk to someone, I walked along the highlands trail above camp a bit and tried to ask myself why I felt so defeated. We’d had a good day. Faygo was sound and had a good ride, we’d made new friends… I still don’t know really why I had such a crash there, but I put my mind to working around camp. First I took a shower (that helped a lot), then organizing my ride/crew stuff for the next day, and made a plan for Faygo. She was going to have to be ok. I also said a little prayer for her- that she wouldn’t be so stressed out. After all, God loves her as one of his creatures- I suggested maybe he could give her a little comfort while we were gone.

    I decided that I would take down the corral the next morning and give her a smaller enclosure connected to the trailer (for added security) with hay and water so at least she couldn’t get too much pacing, running, or hopefully trying to jump out/escape. If I knew her, she might fret a bit, but after we were out of earshot, I knew deep down she was settle down.

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    Exhausted, I called it an early night. My new digs are a nice improvement over my first event weekend in the old rusty trailer. My hammock is comfortable and knowing the horses made it through the previous night with no drama, I slept a little better. I also set my alarm earlier because I always seem to run short on time, and the next morning I also had to take down and re-set my corral… alone… before riding out.

    The moon was beautiful. The horses were content. It was going to be ok.

    moon over the horses
    moon over the horses

    to be continued……..