Mountaintop Riding

Tuesday, October 26, 2015

The white patches and sore spots on Khaleesi were a nightmare when they were happening, but now I am thankful they pushed me to reevaluate our saddle situation. This is a good time to get on top of that and if our saddle had been working ok, I may not have bothered addressing it until we were in the middle of next season and then it becomes a frantic scramble for anything that works.

Trying the Synergist again
Trying the Synergist again

I rode in the Synergist for the second time on an alone ride last week and though I still loved it, the honeymoon was over and the real test was starting. She was not as naturally forward without buddies to ride with and we went through tougher terrain- through berry briars I had to reach down and cut from in saddle, and my “mountain laurel” trail is beautiful but thick with laurel that I always clip as much as possible on the walk up the mountain. She did great as I climbed around her back like a monkey at times trying to do as much as I could without getting off her. The saddle still held me in place and didn’t move around on her back either.

I mentioned in my last blog that the only thing that concerned me was a slight discomfort in one knee when I got off. As soon as we started out I began to feel that same knee was bothering me. I shifted my weight wondering if I wasn’t riding centered- one leg longer, more weighted than the other. Nothing seemed to quite fix it so I got off and checked. Sure enough one stirrup was longer than the other. Once I corrected this my knee immediately felt better and we were good to go.

I hadn’t ridden in this area since the “run through the jungle” post as you have to cross the clearing that had grown up with briars and that is where we saw the rattlesnake in the summer. Since this is mid-Fall I decided to take a chance: the snakes should have gone away as we’ve had some frosts overnight and the jungle should have died back at least enough to manage.

It was as stunning- the colors are gorgeous and the weather was perfect. Once we climbed to the top of the mountain and got on the ridge trail I asked Khaleesi to move it on out and she chose a collected canter that was really nice.

Beautiful ridge road on top of the mountain
Beautiful ridge road on top of the mountain

On the way back down the roads are wide and easy to ride but we slowed down due to the downhill incline. There was a mess of downed trees along the path at one point that we couldn’t get through. Of course this is the one spot where the woods were very steep on either side of the road and I got off to see if I could pick our way through and maybe cut a branch or two. No way. It was a thick mess and some of the branches were too high to walk over.

I look up one side.

Way too steep. Big boulders.

Down?

Um… I think that’s do-able. (I hope……..)

This area is rocky, and the rocks are piled on each side of the road. The footing was loose and leaves made it tough to know for sure what we were getting into, but this was the way home.

Definitely safer on the horse than off, so I get back on.

Ok… let’s do this. [point horse down the hill off the road]

Khaleesi: Nope. That is a bad idea. Let’s just turn around here and go back the way we came.

Me: That’s like 10 miles back instead of 4 miles home. We can do this!

Khaleesi: I don’t really want to go down there. It’s steep… Cut the trees with your saw!

Me: We’d be here all night. I KNOW you can do this girl. I believe in you. [kicks harder]

Khaleesi: Ok, but for the record, I don’t agree with this option.

She steps off and we slide down the 4 feet or so on her hind end, my feet could be on the ground if I  let them and she handles it like a champ until we find some decent footing. It’s rocky under the leaves but we can walk it slow and pick our way through along the side of the hill… now getting back up is harder. It’s only about 4 feet up- of loose ground with rocks and I’m not sure if we’ll be able to scale it- but we need to be back up on the road. Before I can think too hard about the best place to try for she makes the call and starts to scramble up. I help her as much as I can staying balanced and holding onto her mane and say a little prayer we don’t slide back down the mountain together and she miraculously gets us up onto the road on solid ground and all I can do is rub her neck and tell her she’s the best mountain horse I could hope for… I make much of her.

She says “alright already- can we get back to going HOME now?

Part of the rocky lined road- we came up on some downed trees ahead.
Part of the rocky lined road- we came up on some downed trees ahead- the incline on both sides was steeper there.

I was glad to be in that saddle and not a little english wintec for that detour, but also for the trail clipping and offroading. I like the wintec, but the more I’m trying other saddles the more convinced I am that a more substantial saddle is going to be good for both of us on long rides and off-trail rides.

As for the Synergist- it is still a leading choice. I have been in contact with the owners of the company (CJ) and after a wither tracing she told me the saddle I’ve been borrowing is built on a medium tree and we would be better suited to a wide. This makes sense because the fit is decent, but I thought there were a couple almost dry spots after riding. Not big patches, but enough to think it might not be perfect.

Imus 4beat saddle: getting tacked up near the airport
Imus 4beat saddle: getting tacked up near the airport

The next saddle on the list was an IMUS or Gaits of Gold or Phoenix Rising depending on when you got it and what you call those products. Brenda Imus is the person behind the line of bits and saddles, she has since passed and her daughter Jamie Evan is running the company and it is better than ever. The customer service is phenomenal and the products are high quality. I settled on a Phoenix Rising saddle for Faygo and absolutely love it. But would it work for Khaleesi- totally different horse with totally different movement?

I sent pictures to Jamie and a whither tracing and we decided that the standard tree is most likely the best choice for her. (Faygo has the wide tree- so her saddle wouldn’t fit as well). My friend Carrington is the one who first introduced me to the saddles and she happens to have an extra standard tree that I could ride with her in (it is one of her other horses’ saddles). We met to do a test run… and I do mean run.

We had been talking for a long time about doing a fast/flat ride with her Saddlebred (Ned) who loves to go go go and just hadn’t gotten serious about setting a date and making it happen. In fact- we hadn’t ridden just the two of us in over a year except for an hour or so during a camping trip at the end of a group ride (we went back out after the group ride for a few more miles). So we finally got serious and made a date to meet up at the local airport on top of the mountain and ride across and back, we figured it would be about 20 miles.

Pretty views from another ridge trail
Pretty views from another ridge trail

I brought a saddle of my own just in case, but the older Imus fit her perfectly and we were good to go. I wasn’t sure where the stirrups would be best and the first 2 miles they were too long and I felt uncomfortable and unable to balance. I stopped to shorten them and voila, it was perfect. Funny how stirrup length can make or break your knees, legs, and experience. Once I had myself adjusted the saddle was incredibly comfortable to ride and easy to balance in. The seat was slightly larger than mine, but didn’t bother me at all. The free swinging stirrups could go wherever I needed and posting was no problem.

We kept up an average moving speed close to 6mph and the horses seemed to have a great day. Ned really moves out and if he was in his fast rack Khaleesi does her collected canter to stay with him. She moved great in the saddle and trotted smooth and easy for me.

We tied off the horses for a short break and hiked up to the local look-out gazebo.

Horses tied as we climbed the last few feet up some rock stairs to the overlook gazebo.
Horses tied as we climbed the last few feet up some rock stairs to the overlook gazebo.

It has been years since I’d gone up there (used to hike it on foot every summer I visited) and it was as beautiful as ever. When I spent summers playing violin at Garth Newel Music Center, Flag Rock was a special place for me and the last year I came for that program I sat on that rock once and was certain I would never see that view or come back to Warm Springs again. I was at a pivotal place in my life and took me 4 years to return and climb out there once again- in 2007 it was as time a full time resident who doesn’t intend to move away any time soon. It was nice to spend a few minutes there- the first time I’d ridden a horse there.

Flag Rock- I've sat and looked out over the gaps many times over the years, more in the past than recently.
Flag Rock- I’ve sat and looked out over the gaps many times over the years, more in the past than recently.

On the ride home we found a few places that were just right and let the horses all out canter. One really pretty stretch we raced them and trusty 18 year old Ned pulled away from Khaleesi even as she tucked her head, bared down, and reached for her biggest stride. She was trying, but that Saddlebred kept his lead and we laughed out loud from the fun of a good run.

Khaleesi had a crazy off kilter canter when we first started riding (we don’t canter a lot) and I’ve felt her grow into the stride as we keep riding together. It was never very fast but recently once in a while, especially following Faygo up a little hill, or a pretty stretch heading toward home and she gets excited, I feel another gear engage and her nice collected canter downshifts for some extra speed. At first it was a mix of joy and fear…

hey there, this is new… is she out of control right now, could we stop!?

But she’s never run away with me and when I ask her to back down she always does.

I have been feeling her gaits change and grow as she develops her muscles and tendons and we balance together. I think her canter has taken some time to sort itself out with a rider up there and will continue to develop. I’ve also heard endurance riders talk about her trot gaining speed and efficiency slowly with practice and time. I believe she may eventually have a rack or running walk develop as well, but we are not in a hurry- it takes time to really build those muscles.

on the trail
on the trail

We enjoyed the ride, did almost 20 miles in about 3 1/2 hours and saw some beautiful views.

As for the saddle. I am not certain I will bother with a specialized trial. I have found two great options in Synergist and Imus and still have the Ansur to borrow next week. For now the top two have their pros and cons:

Synergist:

pros– love the customization (not just fitting the horse, but the options I can choose or forego to make it streamlined or build up anything I want), know I can have it refitted if the horse changes- or I change horses someday. Small company. Great customer service. Good potential for used saddles to pop up and good records of each saddle’s specifics- the owners of the company can tell me if it’s a decent fit for me and my horse or not from the serial #. I Like the English style rigging at an angle that pulls from the center of the saddle not just the front. Saddle holds me more in place making the ride easy on me, which is good for my horse. I like their look.

cons– if a used one doesn’t pop up- they are pricey. Saddle holds me in place, that is in both pro and con section because I’m not sure how I feel about it it. I like it but it doesn’t give me much room for my own balance/adjustment. Maybe a larger seat would change that.

Imus/Phoenix Rising 4beat:

pros– love the one I already have. Every time I ride in it I love it more. Small company. Amazing customer service. Comfortable balanced ride without holding me too much in place. I like the design that is not a flex tree but allows for lots of back movement and muscle development. I already have a relationship with the company and owner and they have been fantastic at every turn. Saddles are not cheap, but very reasonable and cost less than other options I’m considering. Might be better suited to her movement if she eventually picks up a rack or other smooth gait.

cons– bulky. The cantle is more substantial that I like and the stirrup fenders are more than I want. Even the light version is not truly lightweight. I’ve contacted the company to ask if there IS any room for adjustment in what they do to streamline it… the good news is there are a few custom things they can do for me to make the saddle closer to what I’m looking for (that might be back to a “pro”). There are almost never used ones for sale… I suppose that can be a pro too- it says people keep them.

As for riding… Training and the rest of it…

Something I’ve noticed that’s changed in my thinking about riding is how I quantify a ride. It used to be hours of a ride… a 3 hour ride… a 4 hour ride… an 8 hour ride… but now I tend to think in terms of miles. I don’t mind a slower ride for a short distance (5-8 miles), but now if I’m going to do 15 or 20 miles I’d prefer to move out and cover some ground.

I am fine to spend 8 hours in the saddle, but if I can cover the same territory and see the same things in 5 hours, and moving out keeps my blood flowing and muscles moving so I’m less tired I find that more fun. In the future if I do 8-10 hours in the saddle I hope that means I’m on a 50 mile ride.

Since this season of our first LD (25-30 miles) rides I’ve noticed I’m less tired and feel better after 30 miles of moving at a faster pace than 15 miles of mostly walking with occasional spurts of trotting/gaiting.

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Carrington’s horses (both Ned and Abaco) are great training partners for Khaleesi. In riding only 2 of us there is less of a group dynamic to sort out and we can just get side-by-side and keep a steady pace which is really helpful for me in training. One thing I want to improve is sticking with a pace longer and getting into a rhythm.

I’ve read a lot about conditioning LSD (Long Slow Distance) but when you get into the specifics, “Slow” means 5-6mph. For my neck of the woods most trail rides are in the 3-4mph range if you’re in a group who will keep along- and they are considered the gaited horse- faster moving riders. The quarter horse folks are under 3mph as they walk along enjoying a stroll (nothing wrong with that if you enjoy it!). I don’t find it hard to enjoy the view at 5mph- and it encourages me to keep my eyes UP as we ride and not worrying the footing (she does great when I let her to it- I am so much better at NOT looking down anymore). It’s harder to get my solo horse to really focus on moving along at 6mph on our own for consistent stretches, but with Ned or Abaco she will perk up her ears and they get to business.

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I don’t worry about this. When I started ponying her last winter I called her the “anchor” and when I started riding her I thought she would fall over from lack inertia she walked so slow. In the spring she would move into the lead horse position and just stop altogether. This weekend she took the lead regularly and trotted along in front of Ned at a good clip as well as riding side-by-side and behind. I think she will continue to develop the discipline of riding longer stretches on her own at a faster pace and we will enjoy a good walk with friends sometimes as well. As winter approaches footing and weather make for slower and shorter riding but hopefully as spring emerges next year we can find a ride with Carrington here and there to help me and Khaleesi get back into stride for starting 50s this year. Who knows… maybe Carrington and Ned (or Abaco) will decide to join us at a ride for fun one day!

Mountain top ridge riding, river valleys, the slow and the fast, with friends and gone solo: enjoy the ride.

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The Search for a Saddle

Week of October 19th

…. continued saga of finding the right saddle….

I took a lovely ride with friends along the Jackson River borrowing my friend’s Synergist endurance saddle [this one not for sale]. Synergist saddles are all about the custom fit- for the person and the horse. They even will send you a mold and do their best to get their panels to fit as exactly as possible your horses’ back. They are specific about the angles and distances in a woman’s vs a man’s seat (it seems like overkill to me at first glance) and try to put you as the rider in the most balanced position possible on the horse.

pretty fall ride along the Jackson River
pretty fall ride along the Jackson River

I had ridden in this saddle before on a different horse and felt very uncomfortable in it. The horse was gaited and to me there is a difference in the position you use to encourage a nice gait vs. the position I use to post a trot. I had a hard time getting the horse a year ago to gait nicely in the saddle- and my own position was different from riding mostly gaited horses. My hips and knees bothered me once I got off. However this time- on Khaleesi I loved it.

From hopping into the saddle I felt like I was comfortably poised in exactly the right position without being stiff. Of course this also meant I felt like it was easy to sit balanced without having to work so hard at it. (is that cheating?) We moved together with ease and it really felt nice.

As for Khaleesi- she seemed to move great underneath me. I had no trouble communicating with her and she had a great trot and canter for the ride which was at least 15 miles. She also seemed happy and foreword and didn’t exhibit any signs of pain or stress. Her ears were forward and we went in all positions of the ride, front, middle and back without much fuss.

Synergist
Synergist

I got down to feel a little stiff in one knee, but basically great. The saddle isn’t (of course) custom made for Khalees or me, but the fit was ‘decent’ enough to try a ride or two. She had a pretty good sweat pattern with two spots that were a little dry but it wasn’t bad. It was enough for me to contact the company with a few questions of what I might look for in a used saddle if we decided to go that route. I am going to do a quick measurement or two and give them my friend’s saddle number to see how close that saddle would be to fitting her and me, and then the company can help steer me toward used saddles that are the closest fit off the rack- we may not have to go the whole mold-fitted routine.

Our next trial was to ride in a borrowed ortho-flex [this one is for sale]. I love the idea of the orthoflex tree and considering it is a saddle my friend would like to sell, it would be great if it was a match for us. Basically ortho-flex makes a saddle on panels that have the ability to give and flex with the movement of the horse’s back. Also, the rider is slightly suspended above the panels and the seat is connected at 4 points in front and back of the seat/panels which means not directly underneath the rider’s seat. This concept is great as it distributes the pressure along a large surface area. Basic physics dictates that the larger the surface area to distribute the pressure the less pressure in any one place there will be.

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I put it on and the fit seemed pretty good when it came to how it sat on her back. My concern was that the panels extend more forward at front than I liked to see for her. She has a lot of movement and though I realize the panels DO have the ability to flex, they were still there on her shoulders and are pretty stiff/hard- also the rear of the panels sat down on her back and I wondered if they would push in behind me at the place the seat is attached. But the concept of them being flexible was in my mind as we headed out to see how it worked for us.

The first thing I noticed was it was harder to get my leg cues in, either to move forward or side- I had a hard time getting my foot to her actual side past the english flaps and the sheepskin pad. To ask her to move I really had to give her a good kick. Next, I felt all my communication that we’d been getting so much better at was working through a filter. I was sitting off her back which I believe was probably good for not creating pressure points- but at the same time it was also taking away the contact altogether.

I felt like we were off in general but we kept going as I thought “Maybe we just need to get used to how this feels?”

Unfortunately in our case, I don’t think she felt great in the saddle either. Her stride was shorter in everything from walk to trot to canter. Her back legs didn’t seem to get underneath her like I’m used to and she tripped or slipped on her back feet more than usual.

She tried to turn me around as well (lately she’s been pretty good about going out happily with me- so though I can chalk part of that up to not wanting to leave her friends…) it was notable that at least once she REALLY tried to convince me to turn home. I didn’t let her and though we did cut the ride a little shorter than I’d planned, I wanted to get a decent amount of time in the saddle.

When I did turn her home at first she happily trotted off but though I was ready for her to try to push me home, she would trot a few steps then return to a walk. A couple of times I asked her to canter, one time she really decided to push with a fast pace up a hill, it was a short stride bunny hop feeling canter that just went really fast. As we neared home I tried to really put my finger on how we felt that day and the description I came up with was robotic- I felt slightly jerky and off kilter. I had a hard time keeping my feet underneath me but I chose the middle stirrup setting and probably would have been better with the one most under my seat.

After about 8 miles we returned the the barn and my final feel for the ortho-flex was that I love it in concept, it’s a lovely saddle, and I’ve known riders who really swear by them. I just don’t think it’s the right saddle for us. [If anyone out there is searching for an older ortho-flex in great condition, let me know and I’ll connect you to its owner!]

One thing that is for certain as I’m on this saddle choosing exploration- between reading other people’s thoughts and the saddles I’ve ridden in myself- it is an incredibly personal and individual journey. I have looked up posts and blogs and just about every saddle has people who sear by them as the only reasonable option and people who say they are terrible and no horse should ever be ridden in one.

I have already been quite amazed at the different feel for myself and for her depending on the saddle. I assumed saddles would make a difference- but I’m even surprised myself at how big of a difference in both of us it can make. Just the few I’ve started with have convinced me that this process is worthwhile to find the feel that I want on the long miles of trail of an endurance rider, and the saddle that helps Khaleesi move and feel her best as well. I am much more determined to beg, borrow and take on trial until we really find the right match- and hope that a couple of miles will give us the data we need to really know what will work long term.

what Khaleesi thinks about saddle fitting.
what Khaleesi thinks about saddle fitting.

I still have a few local options to borrow- then I may consider doing a loan-order from a couple reputable companies as well before making any real decision. I have a friend who swears by her Ansur saddle and has agreed to loan it to me for a ride. Honestly I hope I we don’t love that one because they cost a fortune! I love the Phoenix Rising (IMUS) saddle I chose for Faygo. Every time I ride her in it- it feels like “home”.  In talking to the company it appears Khaleesi is more likely a standard tree (Faygo is wide) so I plan to ride with a friend who has an extra hubby saddle the right fit to see how she does in that one. I have also heard lots of great reviews about Specialized so if I can’t borrow one I plan to do a loaner saddle in that brand just to see. I like the lighter weight of their Eurolight model. Once I get narrowed down to a couple top choices, I suppose that will be the time to visit some saddle fitting contacts and see what the pressure pad and the professionals think.

One thing I’ve been thinking about is the difference between an all-purpose english style saddle that we’ve been working in up till now and saddle more designed for long trails. I believe I’d like to always have something like my Wintec (hoping I can get the flocking or CAIR system fixed) for working on our balance, training (mine and hers!) and communication, then something built on a trail/endurance tree for our longer distances. I believe that the panels on most of the saddles I’m considering are slightly wider (meaning surface area, not a wider tree) and will distribute weight better for many hours in the saddle, and if a saddle helps me stay more balanced (cheating?) I think for long rides that could be good for both she and I as long as it doesn’t inhibit communication by being rigid.

I am starting to think that having a streamlined saddle for learning and a trail saddle for long rides might be a good choice for us.

Meanwhile, we’re still getting some nice fall rides in!

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Post Season

Monday, October 19, 2015

Our first season is now behind us and it’s a mix between the letdown of anticipation and activity and a more relaxed feeling of enjoying the ride without training goals in the forefront. I sometimes just go to the barn to bring apples and love and the girls must know because they come to me at the gate faster than they used to (though none of them are hard to catch).

Madison and I were fortunate to get one last ride in and get the girls to stretch their legs a bit before they headed back to FL. It was a lovely ride and we were in no hurry. The leaves are finally starting to change and drop and when fall gets serious it happens quickly.

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I am ok with our temporary saddle solution, but this winter I will have a goal to sort out a more long term answer to my saddle puzzle. For the moment I plan to borrow and ride her in as many saddles that are a “decent” fit as possible and see if I can discern how she moves in them and how I move in them. Yes- I have to start with the horse because that is the most important part, but as Garnet reminded me: If the saddle doesn’t work for you, it doesn’t work. You won’t be balanced and ride comfortably, and you can’t do endurance miles like that.

I started with a Freeform that a friend loaned me. I’m not generally a fan (for myself) of treeless saddles as I don’t think I’m either a light enough or good enough rider to make it work for my horse without a better system to distribute my weight without pressure points on her back. But still for some shorter rides, it’s not bad to try it and see how we feel. The one bonus of treeless is the movement in the back it affords the horse. [side note, this saddle is for sale if you’re looking for a freeform send me a message and I’ll connect you to her]

Khaleesi in the freeform
Khaleesi in the freeform

The feel as a rider in a treeless saddle is a little uncomfortable for me because of the wider feel in my legs around the horse. It made posting a little different- and not particularly better or worse. I felt she moved pretty well in the saddle and honestly I wasn’t able to tell a big difference in her. I hope as I use more different saddles through the fall as I’m able I might start to notice things more.

One thing I did was try a few from the barn on her on a day I didn’t ride recently. One didn’t fit particularly well and she pinned her ears and a few times tried to nip at me while we were feeling under it. I got the message.

NOT THAT ONE!

Then we tried another one and she was already more relaxed and though she was still turning her head asking what we were doing she was not as intense about the message.

Also this winter our goals are to continue to work on our communication and relationship. I would like to improve riding intentionally and move her with my energy more and less with physical cues. When I ride alone we are already better at this and we move into the trot often without my legs but from a joint energy push. Transitioning down is getting better as well and we are smoother going back to a walk than we used to be. I start with eyes and shoulders for turns and going around trees and often she follows without much rein aid at all now.

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When we ride with others we are both more distracted- she by what the other horses are doing (speed up slow down as a herd) and me as well- chatting and enjoying the company of other humans takes some of my energy focus away. I think it’s ok. It’s a different ride and I enjoy them all.

It has made my solo riding more meaningful than it used to be. I used to enjoy a ride alone, but after a while get tired of my own company and wish for some friends on the trail. Now I find that if I ride with others too often I wish for the focus and connection of a solo ride. This is good because winter means lots of solo riding as we start to stay closer to home and trailer around less.

Around the barn I also hope to deepen our relationship and communication. This is tough to do with a ride schedule. My last ride with Khaleesi I spent more time at my stool asking her to stand quietly than I would have been comfortable had someone been waiting on me. She wants to walk off when I get on her- at least a step or two. With no agenda or anyone waiting on me I took the time she needed to come where I wanted her at the stool (the stool is smaller than a mounting block and I find it harder for us to coordinate). When we got that to my satisfaction I got on and she took a step. I got off and we started again- the whole process. Second time it was better. Still a work in progress here.

The following day I brought her in ONLY to work on standing at the stool with me. I think she was feeling obstinate because it took over 30 minutes to get her in position and standing quietly with lots of starting over when she’d push her butt out and stand facing me as if to say “I’d rather do this“. I planned to work on mounting her bareback and getting the whole stand still down- but we quit at standing in the right place at the stool as I didn’t have another hour to hope to get the next step successfully (be flexible in training what you can that day, and always end on a good note).

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I find this to be a fun challenge- problem solving. How can I communicate better what I want her to do in a way she’ll understand, and how can I be a little smarter than her when she doesn’t understand or tries to evade what I’m asking. In the words of Monty Roberts I heard in an interview recently:

When you do your work correctly, repetition is your best friend. When you do your work incorrectly, repetition is your worst enemy.

If something isn’t working- my challenge is to figure out a better way to ask. Horses do not lie, and they are not “false”. They may resist something, but there is always a reason. Horses want peace and comfort – my job is to show them the way and if I do it right they will choose the right answer.

Monty made a point to say one of the biggest mistakes in working with horses is not controlling our own emotional state (internally). If a horse isn’t doing what we ask we often have an elevated heart rate (due to either fear or frustration). Not being in control of our own heart rate and internal energy is one of the main factors in his opinion that hinder our work- that kind of repetition is our greatest enemy. They are so sensitive that I may look patient and calm to a human, but the horse senses heart rate change and energy change in an instant. So all these boring things like standing still, coming to the mounting block and leading properly (maybe this winter sending on the trailer?) turn into personal growth for me- can I control not only my outer reaction, but my inner emotional one?

Can I not get upset when she swings her butt out away from me when I want her to stand next to me at the stool?

Can I keep my heart from racing when she does those little bucks at the start of a race?

Can I not have a reaction when my work colleague does something that would normally make my head want to explode?

Can I slow down my emotional reaction when my husband makes the comment that needles me in just the right spot?

Is it possible that student is not just slow or refusing to try- but that it’s my responsibility to find a better way to approach the problem that allows them to open up and learn?

That is the Jedi training I started this year and I can’t say enough what kind of positive affect it’s had on my life.

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late afternoon fall light
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Favorite trails this fall

I love being on the trails in the fall, but I’ve noticed that I don’t miss a riding day as much anymore if I only have an hour or so available to bring in a horse and do a little mind work instead. It’s become a sort of addiction actually- hopefully a positive one!

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Fall on the farm

Part 2: What it’s all about

Monday, October 12, 2015

Ride time for the open 25 mile was much later than I’d liked (9:30am) because that puts us riding in the warmest part of the day. It had been cool for the past week and our final training in the rainy chill had been great. It was Faygo I was thinking of most.

On the flip side it did provide us some sleeping in time and an easy morning getting ready to go. We had a new neighbor arrive the evening before and offered her coffee and sat down to chat a few minutes. Turns out it was the rider who won the 100 mile ride in June and we enjoyed hearing about her journey (which was very different from mine) and she assured us that the 25 mile course doesn’t live up the the “big bad beast of the east” reputation the 50 and 100 mile rides have. Most of the really hard terrain is after Bird Haven, so you guys will be fine!

Madison braids Faygo's thick mane to keep it off her neck.
Madison braids Faygo’s thick mane to keep it off her neck.

We spent a long time feeding the girls and grooming them, making much of them as my British Manual of Good Horsemanship from the 1950s suggests is good to do. It was great to have crew mom helping grab a towel, or the braiding bands, or the making crayon to darken our numbers and to start tossing things into the crew bag for later and going through the checklist with us. At this point I’m wondering how I have done this completely on my own in the past (I’ll try not to get spoiled!).

We discussed layers (it was already getting warm enough to shed a sweatshirt) and raincoats- last time I checked the real rain wasn’t expected until after 3pm, so we tossed our raincoats in the crew bag for later.

Khaleesi tacked up and last preparations...
Khaleesi tacked up and last preparations…

We made sure to ride Faygo today with her heart rate monitor and that takes a little time to put in place while tacking up. Also used the borrowed Cloud9 pad on Khaleesi and we were ready to start a little warm up ride around camp and to check in at the start.

putting the heart rate monitor on together
putting the heart rate monitor on together

The horses were excited with all the activity… the buzz was almost tangible around us and riders were trotting up and down the road on their fresh horses. We took a loop up to the start line to check in and Khaleesi at one point got so excited with all the horses going every which way around her she even did some little buck jumps that I think were intended for me to understand we needed to get up there FASTER! They weren’t enough to worry me though she (again- like the bucks on the trot out) has never done that before. I’m not sure if she’s starting to figure these events out and gets excited or if I was just excited and she felt it from me and my excitement came out her rear end!

I like to think she has fun in endurance rides, enjoys running along the trails and can’t help herself from a little jump of joy… thankfully it was the only one that day!

Girls are ready to roll, crew mom is all packed up!
Girls are ready to roll, crew mom is all packed up!

We checked in and headed back to camp to avoid the running start that was likely to ensue. We did a loop back toward our rig and then walked the horses back around and up to the start to begin around the back of the pack. There were 35 riders today and some great horses up there but our job was to take it easy and keep our eye on Faygo.

Unfortunately she started out already excited and though she’s completely in control and not scary- she wants to GET UP THERE and be in front of everyone else. Right from the start line Madison had to manage her and I’ve learned there is a balance between slowing her down and making her so frustrated she fights you exhausting her energy and letting her choose a way too fast speed that will also exhaust her energy. We managed as best we could, Khaleesi at a nice slow trot and Faygo at an easy gait and smiles ear to ear for us.

The first part of the trail is really lovely. Good footing, very gentle uphill grade that is often pretty flat. I put Khaleesi in front to hold our speed to a manageable slow trot. It took a long time to get Faygo relaxed and not trying to catch up to the horses she KNEW were just ahead of us somewhere. I’d ask Madison on occasion: What’s her heart rate? [Madison]: about 115… [Me]: ok… great. We’ll keep this pace up for a bit.

Not long into the ride I saw the sign for “ride photographer ahead- please spread out”. Funny thing was I was trying to focus on my horse who two rides ago did a dance when she noticed the camera and I didn’t even realize she was there until we’d almost passed her. No horse dancing this time- and makes me wonder if it was her or me in the first place. Becky as usual got a great shot of us! I love seeing the ride photos develop, I am almost starting to look like a “real” rider.

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I asked Madison what she learned in the ride meeting about the trail itself. Not much she said, only one thing: about 5 miles in there is a climb that were were told “not to underestimate”. 

Me, to myself: Ok, if that’s all we need to know, I assume its significant.

A few miles in we stopped at a water crossing and it was early for a drink but we waited a moment to take a breather. Faygo was breathing harder than I’d like for that amount of trail (and more than I’d have expected at home) and I think it was the excitement of the morning more than the workload. She was less “feisty” now that we’d been riding alone for a while so we decided to jump down and encourage them to take a bite of grass, maybe drink and just relax a bit. We offered the girls an apple or to in order to encourage them to realize this was a snack break and we each had a granola bar. We hand walked them for a bit and when all was a little more calm we got back on and rode easy for a while.

one of our early water stops
one of our early water stops

I kept watching my GPS to give me an idea of our pace and mileage (waiting for that mountain at mile 5) and our pace was pretty good, it was averaging around 6mph and as far as training with Faygo that’s a solid do-able pace usually that doesn’t work her too hard. She can gait for miles around 9 mph if it’s not steep without much trouble. We climbed a short steep hill just before mile 5 and Madison wondered if that might have been it?

She is from FLAT FLA!

No I told her. That is not a hill any ride manager would warn you about 🙂

We kept on and true to their word, around mile 5 the incline began. We slowed our pace and started to climb. And we kept climbing.

Climbing.

Yes Madison- this is the mountain not to underestimate.

It went on for miles. It started to rain on us (so much for the weather report). I checked the radar (we had pretty good service this high up the mountain!) and it looked like a small but heavy rain was going to pass over us and then clear up. At least it would cool us down a little up this climb.

Around mile 6.5 we had a nice view and I snapped a pictures to send to Sarah letting her know we were not making good time, but were ok.

After mile 7 we turned a corner and saw the incline kept going and the rain had lessened to a misty sprinkle so we dismounted and hand walked them for about a mile. We finally got to a plateau (not completely the top, but a nice flat section) and checked in together. How is everyone doing?

Khaleesi is fine.

Faygo is ok but breathing pretty hard. 

Beautiful ridge trail as the ran was moving out
Beautiful ridge trail as the ran was moving out

We hand walked a little while longer to give her a chance to recover a bit then hopped up and walked on. We were in a rocky ridge trail area and we put Faygo in front to set the pace. She has a fantastic fast walk that covers ground and she’s a technical trail wonder. She can fast walk through the worst footing without tripping and without hurting herself. She set a decent walk through the first of the rocks as we finished the more gradual climb to the top.

The hill had taken our moving pace down significantly and we were not as far as I’d have liked to see for the amount of time we were out. I was concerned, but knew we were doing our best. We stopped at the top to enjoy the view and let the horses get a snack and drink at the water trough. The sun had come back out and it was absolutely gorgeous!

Beautiful view at the top of the mountain.
Beautiful view at the top of the mountain.
Madison and Faygo start to head down the mountain.
Madison and Faygo start to head down the mountain.

Now we head down into the vet check. If Bird Haven is indeed 15 miles, we had a ways to go. This is another place Faygo excels, she has a great downhill! We picked up the pace and kept monitoring her. We did our best to find the balance of getting us there with making sure she was doing ok.

We pushed the downhill as much as we felt comfortable. Faygo bopping along in a nice gait with Madison sitting comfortably in the saddle, and Khaleesi and I trotting down the hill on a gravel road with me doing my best to find good balance along the way. Thankfully there was only one moment of WAIT!! STOP!! I’VE LOST BOTH MY STIRRUPS!! Otherwise we worked a lot on how to move the downhills without me falling all over the place on my first non-gaited horse.

Faygo seemed to be doing ok with the downhill and we made up some speed.

We entered the woods again and came to two streams where both girls stopped to drink and even took a few bites of grass. Check in with Faygo: heart rate was still doing fine, breathing was harder than Khaleesi – but then it always is. We were about a mile out of Bird Haven according to the signs on the trail.

One of the last creek stops before Bird Haven.
One of the last creek stops before Bird Haven.

I send a text to Sarah to let her know- we’re still fine, getting close!

When we got close to the vet check, there is another stream crossing and you can see the field that I’ve watched riders go in and out of as a volunteer and it was so exciting to know we were coming into Bird Haven finally as riders! Again the girls stood in the stream to get a drink and I reached for my phone to let Sarah know we were here. I was wearing my light gloves and didn’t quite have a good hold of the phone and it went slow motion tumbling right into the creek as I jumped right down after it, I snatched it up just as it fell into the water and in a panic I turned it off as fast as I could and dried it on my T-shirt. SHOOT.

I got back on and we walked into the vet check arriving at just about 1pm. Not great, but I had no idea really what the mileage to the finish was. We could be ok, but it was borderline.

Sarah was there to help us drop saddles and get the girls ready for pulse down. The heart rate monitor (probably shifted) stopped reading in about the last mile, so we didn’t know where Faygo was going in. She doesn’t pulse down as fast as Khaleesi, but there wasn’t a line at the P&R box (we were the last to show up and most riders had already left the check anyway) so we walked over to see how close we were. Khaleesi was at 44 and the pulse taker asked if I was sure she had done the first loop at all.  Faygo was fine at 64 and we moved to the vets.

P&R box
P&R box

I went to the first available vet and Dr. Birks came over to check out Faygo and Madison. Of course Khaleesi was in good shape, no soreness still (yeah!) and except for an A- on her capillary refill she was good to go. We trotted out without Faygo this time and except for a little hop as we turned around she was pretty good, (at least we’ve fixed the impulsion issue!).

I turned to Faygo and team and heard Dr. Birks tell Madison that he was not going to pull them, but he wanted to hold her rider card and let Faygo relax through the check and see how she was doing. Basically she was fine by the criteria they check for but her shallow breathing was something to note and he wanted to see her saddled up before we went back on the trail.

P&R box

We went back to our crew area and I tried to keep Khaleesi from eating everything in sight hers or not! We traded holding the horses and using the bathroom and sponged them down a bit to keep the sweat at bay. It had gotten warm- the high ended up being in the upper 70s which was the warmest day of the month so far. (Just our luck).

Sarah was such a good sport dragging our stuff from the crew parking over to the vet check in three trips, in the end she said she only brought one chair. That was ok, because I sat in it for an entire 2 minutes to eat my wrap (my average sitting in the 45 minute vet holds is about 2 minutes) and we really never have much time in the end. After walking the girls back to the water troughs and Khaleesi drinking more (Faygo played in the water a minute) it was time to start tacking up again.

Khaleesi wasn’t done eating and squirming and not standing still and I am embarrassed to say I lost my patience with her- as she danced her rear end to the side one more time I swung my lead rope right at her butt GET BACK OVER THERE AND STAND STILL!

Sarah was helping Madison get squared away and some nice onlooker who realized I was struggling came over and offered a hand- Would you like me to hold her for you?

Actually, that would be great… thanks

I could have used to have ridden that horse a little harder!!

We got the girls saddled up and Ric came over with her vet card to see how we were doing. Faygo’s breathing was still shallow. We had a conference.

He explained that if we were front runners in the ride no one would have thought twice about her breathing and it’s not officially a parameter they check for. However he knows us, and knows Faygo has an issue and wanted to talk it over before we headed out. He wasn’t going to pull Faygo out, but our choices were pretty plain:

#1 – We take Faygo out (rider option) and Khalessi likely could make the shorter run back to camp in time to complete.

#2 – We ride together home, but staying at a slow pace that wasn’t likely to get us there in time.

We didn’t know the course home, but heard it was basically downhill back to camp, and only 5-6 more miles. I asked Madison how she felt about it. We discussed earlier in the day that this weekend Faygo was HER horse, and that she needed to be comfortable with how we rode and took care of her. Madison felt Faygo would be ok to ride in, and she said that I could just go ahead and leave her on the trail… which I let her know was not an option! I wasn’t going to leave them in the woods on a strange trail when I was sponsoring her as a junior rider. That is not what this week was about!

I knew Khaleesi could do this ride- I didn’t need to prove that to any number cruncher. What I wanted was for Madison who had given her time to volunteer and help me on team green to get the experience to RIDE at least one time, and Faygo was the only horse I had to offer her. This ride was about that- not about racking up LD miles for Khaleesi.

We decided to ride home together, and take care of Faygo best we could.

In my heart I knew that Faygo was reaching a semi-retirement and I’ve known it long enough to have sought another horse to begin to take the workload over a year ago. It was still sad to be confronted with the fact that the horse I love the most is not going to have as long a career as most healthy horses do. At 16 she is in good bodily shape and her heart rate and conditioning is solid, but this breathing issue is going to cut her use as time goes on and probably her life shorter than a normal horse. Knowing it in your heart doesn’t make it easier when the facts are put so plainly.

Slightly teary, we all hugged and got back on the trail to finish what we started.

We had just over 90 minutes to go 6 miles. Normally- that is doable, Faygo can walk 4mph when she wants to. So we set out knowing we might not complete, but we would do our best to keep moving and stay at a good walk to come in with healthy horses.

We made small talk and laughed and enjoyed the beautiful afternoon but there was a heavier feel to the final leg of our ride hanging over us. We talked about our horses, and how pretty fall was and anything else that came to mind. Eventually we came to a confusing turn. Well- it wasn’t exactly confusing, the red ribbons indicated a turn to the left. It was clear as it could be, but when we turned that way we saw a “W” sign on a tree that said “WRONG” underneath.

Hmmm.

We second guessed ourselves and went back to the trail and walked up it a few feet.

Thankfully Madison HAD brought the ride map that usually is not in enough detail to be helpful. It had gotten a little soggy in the rain but was still readable and I pulled out my GPS.

If we have to climb back over that mountain ahead of us to return to camp, we are going to find the shortest trail home instead because Faygo can’t do that.

But on the map it appeared that the loop home cuts over a slightly new trail, then returns to the finish along the first 4 or 5 miles before the mountain climb.

The map and my GPS saved us because I could tell we were supposed to be on a new trail we had not previously been on for a while, and going the way the red ribbons told us, even through the WRONG sign was there appeared to be the only correct option. If we continued up the climb, we’d be backtracking the entire mountain which on the map we were not supposed to do.

We took the “WRONG” way that was apparently the “RIGHT” way according to the turn ribbons and headed toward home.

Apparently some other riders also had this discussion and opted for the long route and ended up with a close to 30 mile ride instead. That GPS can sure come in handy!

One thing was certain, I will always remember my first shot at the Old Dominion 25 being in the Fall. Generally this is the June course so I thought often how special it was to have a chance to see these trails in fall. Though the ride wasn’t going as easy as we could have hoped, the scenery was absolutely beautiful!

Pretty fall trails at the OD
Pretty fall trails at the OD

Since we were basically walking (Faygo’s walk sometimes meant Khaleesi had to trot-trot-trot to catch back up) I kept my GPS in hand. I was constantly checking the mileage, the time… once we returned to our original trail I could watch us close in on the finish slowly and I knew we would not be far off from finishing.

As we got nearer to the final dirt road that leads in and out of camp (probably 1/3 mile from the trail to the finish on the road) we talked over a plan. If we were still ahead of 3:30 (official end time), Madison would dismount on the road and walk Faygo in, I would see if Khlaeesi would run in to get a finish time. It was iffy but we both felt confident that it was worth a try.

I knew that Madison could hold her own, and that Faygo might be annoyed but never dangerous. I also believed Khaleesi had a shot at pulsing down quick enough to make it worth a try. No- the day would not be made or lost in one last ditch effort. If we didn’t make it, I still wouldn’t change a thing, but if we had the shot to finish and record our miles, we decided for team green it was worth a chance.

We continued to walk fast down the last hill to the road and right as we got there Madison jumped off.

GO!

I gave Khaleesi some leg and she (with plenty of energy to spare) trotted off at a good clip. It was 3:18.

She went happily for a minute then slowed a bit- Oh, hey… um, we left Faygo…

Go baby girl… it’s ok… they’re coming…

Ok.. this is fun! ….. wait- is that a house on the road? Was that there before? Hey, is Faygo coming?

Go girl, keep moving, you can do this!

Ok… whee- we finally get to run! How fun is that… Hey… more horses coming our way- are they going the wrong direction?

KHALESSI baby… just keep going… FOCUS!

We get to the finish and there are no pulse takers there. The pulse takers are down in camp at the vet station. Of course.

In Timer: Do you have your rider card?

(Palm to forehead… wasting time because I didn’t think to pull that out faster)

Here it is…

He hands the card back: Finish arrival time 3:27.

Of course in an LD ride you don’t finish until you pulse down. Why are there no pulse takers at the finish line 😦 ?

So we get the card and hot foot it toward the vet check. 3 minutes to go. I almost gave up and went back to find Madison. 3 minutes to get down there, get someone to take her pulse. Doesn’t seem likely. Don’t give up yet!

Golf cart heading slowly our way.

Khaleesi: Hey… is that a golf cart? What is that doing here?

Me: KHALESSI – I need you to FOCUS for 3 more minutes… THIS IS NOT ABOUT YOU RIGHT NOW… For the next 3 minutes this is all about me. It’s selfish and I know it doesn’t matter a bit to you if we finish at 3:30 or 3:35 but I DO CARE SO PAY ATTENTION! 

As we got to the camp entrance and more activity just had her more distracted I jumped off her and we jogged together down the hill. Sarah sees us and asks WHERE’S MADISON?

She’s just up the road, they are fine, walking in…

Gracefully one of us (not even sure who) tripped and we stumbled together me almost falling on my face as we crashed into the P&R box.

I need a pulse.

Frantic goes to immediate calm breathing and quiet.

A young volunteer rushes over to us: Do you want me to trot her out for you?

Me: no no no… um, shhhh… not now ok…. thanks though…

Pulse taker: she’s at 64we should take the saddle off…

[we don’t have time for that]

Ok, my pack makes it hard to get the breast collar off quickly so she’s helping pull the pack off but it’s “stuck” … yes, hold on the breast collar is attached…

We get the saddle pulled off as calmly as possible…

Ok…. shhhhhh….

TIME ON L37

I am certain we have missed it…

We didn’t do it.

Well. That’s ok- we tried! Still we had a great ride, now lets walk back up to find Faygo and Madison, no rush to vet until we’re all here together now.

All I could think of now was finding the rest of the team. We walked up and met Madison and Faygo just arriving at the finish line, the horses glad to be reunited. Did I do the right thing? In the end it was all for naught anyway… did I abandon my team? Or did we work together to strive to get at least on of us a [Capital] “C”. I know Madison would have killed me if we hadnt at least tried. We walked down together to get water and munch a few bites of grass while we pulled saddles to go in to the vet area.

Again we took the first available vet who looked over Khaleesi and gave her pretty high marks on her card- our trot out was decent though as we got back Madison left with Faygo down the line before I could turn Khaleesi around and all she knew was Faygo was running off without her so she lept into the air thankfully not hurting anyone walking around her to see where Faygo was going while I was already saying “Hey, we need to face her toward Faygo sorry!

Again, I could have used to run her harder that day!

I heard the vet tell her scribe what to write in each area and then kept our card. It was over.

Dr. Birks had again taken Faygo and Madison and did a good check on her. She was ok. Heart rate fine, recovery fine, hind end a little tight, slightly dehydrated but not terribly so. But her breathing still shallow. We talked a little more about her future- and that she was likely going to be slowing down- shorter rides to keep her in some shape, and more rides in cool months. It seems likely that she’ll be good for shorter rides with friends who like to take it a little slower on the trails, and she’ll probably have some time off in the summer season warm months when Khaleesi and I are on a more serious ride calendar.

It was a bittersweet day.

It was incredibly helpful to have a vet see Faygo in action and help me understand what is going on with her and how to monitor it and how to understand it in relation to other factors which are all showing that she’s healthy and doing well. I wouldn’t have changed one thing. For a short time I regretted that Madison’s first “endurance” ride was on a horse we had to monitor so closely and ride with such attention- move here, slower here, now Faygo in front on the technical stuff, now Faygo behind to keep her from rushing, what is her heart rate?, let’s get off and walk the last part of the mountain… it was not an easy ride for her. But the more I thought it over, the more I am so proud of how she handled the day, herself and her horse- she rode with maturity and confidence and love. Faygo started my “endurance” experiences with a solid No Frills 30, and she ended our season as well. I can think of no one I’d rather have on Faygo’s last AERC ride than Madison, and we learned so much more from this ride than we would have on two racing Arabs that easily ran the course. That is what it’s all about.

It was ok that we didn’t complete. We know what we did, and we were proud to have been there and tried. We had two fabulous horses and a fantastic team! That is what it’s all about.

We headed back to camp to pack up. I had a concert that weekend and we had to get home that night.

The girls munched hay and drank in their pens, Faygos breathing did return to normal and they were happy and healthy horses. That is what it’s all about.

Sarah had picked up a to-go snack and we ate quickly as it started to rain. We had to get packed up soon or we’d be doing it in a downpour. As we were loading they began the 25 award ceremony under the tent. You could hear the announcements on the camp speakers and they announced that 35 horses started today and 29 completed. Awards always begin with the turtle award. The rider/horse team that came in last.

In 29th place the turtle award goes to Jaime McArdle riding Ireland’s Khaleesi.

We froze in place. Did she call my name? We looked at each other… did we all hear the same thing?

For the third time today we all started to get teary eyes again…

GO!

This time it wasn’t to run to the finish line- but to the tent to pick up my turtle.

I was certain we hadn’t made the time but in all the activity I hadn’t even really looked at our rider card. Somehow we had finished! Khaleesi would get her last 25 LD miles for the season, and that turtle award – the last place award – that could be for some people a signal of loss (last place, right?) was as dear to me as if we’d have won best condition.

It is a rock! And how appropriate because the OD, the Beast of the East is known for it’s rocks. Old Dominion Rocks.

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We packed up camp and headed home- an emotional day of both joy and disappointment.

What is it all about?

I reflected on the drive home to myself that some people have talked about endurance riding as for people who are ‘competitive’ and I’d taken that on and thought “sure, I am a bit competitive, that makes sense” but the more I thought it over I began to disagree with that simple of an assessment.

I would never have had that experience if I wouldn’t have tried to push our limits (mine and my horses). Doing endurance is actually not at all about being competitive for me. I haven’t cared once this year if we came in top ten, and yesterday I would have still enjoyed the ride had neither of us gotten a completion.

What it is about for me is trying something that will challenge me beyond where I am today and my comfort zone. What endurance riding is for me is stretching to do something that I could not do today. Taking a journey that will force me to grow and learn, and that will show me what my horses are made of. Even with Faygo not completing the ride (though to be fair the girl came within about 10 minutes and that is pretty darn close!) she showed me once again how huge her heart is and how solid she took care of Madison on the trail and what an amazing horse she is. Sometimes it’s about finding your limits and realizing you didn’t make your goal- but if you reach for the sun you may at least land on a star once in a while.

I deepened my relationships with good friends through our trials and that wouldn’t have happened in the same way on a pleasure trail ride. I had to make tougher decisions than if we were on a pleasure trail ride. Being put to a test is a way to see what you are capable of. That is what endurance riding means to me. Enduring the circumstances and making the most of all you can. You have to take the weather you get, cold rain or heat and humidity. You have to ride the trail you get- sometimes they are rocky and rough. You have ride smart- take care of yourself and your animal while still paying attention to a time limit. You have to get your tack right, your supplies… don’t carry so much it weighs you down, don’t carry so little you are not prepared.

Being better tomorrow than I am today.

That is what it’s about for me.

The turtle symbolizes that and I will treasure it always.

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Team green to 100!

Part 1: Base camp, volunteering, and saddle fit

Sunday, October 11, 2015

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We arrived in base camp Wednesday afternoon and unloaded camp. It was great to have all 3 of us to handle horses, gear, hauling water and throwing hay and we were set up pretty quickly. Just as we sat down for a drink and snack an unfamiliar guy pulls over in a car and walks toward us Jaime McArdle? he asks and I stand up and walk over- it was Garnet who I’d contacted to help me with saddle fit.

We pulled Khaleesi out and indeed she had back soreness. He looked at my saddle and said the fit wasn’t bad, but there were two spots about where the soreness was that were uneven and putting pressure into her back. The reason the only pad that seemed to help at all was my thicker felt pad was probably because it gave more support to the whole saddle and helped distribute those pressure points. We decided to reconvene the next day with some trial saddles to see what might work and what might not, and some generous AERC friends had offered to bring saddles either for sale or just to borrow for Friday to help us out.

By the time we finished we had to pick up our volunteer and ride packets and head to the volunteer meeting… then dinner… then make sure our sleeping areas were set up before it was too dark and we headed for the volunteer showers to freshen up before we landed in our hammocks completely exhausted.

Camp!

One thing about camping at these ride events, I find there is little time for relaxing around with friends. Between set up and organizing gear and vetting in and organizing your crew bag and making sure your my horse has it’s soaked beet pulp or electrolytes, mash, etc… and ride meetings it always seems like sitting down to relax a minute is a short lived luxury. Probably that is why I find it more fun than just regular camping when there seems to be maybe too much down time…

The night was cool but we were snug in our cocoons. I slept ok. I love the aluminum corral, and I like to use the hay bags because they make less waste and keep the hay out of the poop and pee in the small area they are in- however… at night the clanging of the fence panels when the horses pull the hay out is magnified by a million and woke me up more than once. Madison and I had tried to zip tie the bags to the fence so they wouldn’t fling out and slam the fence, but this just meant with each bite the whole fence got pulled a little and clanged back against the other joining panels and I was sure I was keeping the entire camp awake.

one hammock per stall, the little trailer works great for 2!
one hammock per stall, the little trailer works great for 2!

I pulled the hay bags, checked the water, and went back to bed. Of course they spread the hay and still had some grass right outside the corral so sometimes they’d still hit the fence and it would clang, but I tried to ignore it and went back to sleep. I never sleep so well the first night anyway…

Thursday morning: 5am

GOOOD MORNING BASE CAMP… OFFICIAL RIDE TIME IS 5AM…. TWO HOURS TO START… they played a trumpet call of Reveille and a few minutes later some crazy goofy instrumental that I had to laugh out loud which is what woke Madison up.

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We hunkered into our cocoons a bit longer, then got up and started the coffee and got ready for the day. Mornings might be my favorite time in camp, if you get up early enough (which is not that hard when you are excited) you get a few quiet moments with the horses and your coffee. Khaleesi was way more interested in my oatmeal than her beet pulp and grain applesauce mash…

We met the vets under the tent at 7:30 just after the ride start to volunteer for the day at bird haven.

The start of the 50 mile viewed from our camp.
The start of the 50 mile viewed from our camp.

We had a great day at VC1 for the 50 mile riders. I really like Bird Haven because we get to see the horses come in to their first stop, and we are also their last stop going home. Sarah, Madison and I were all stationed together the whole day and have begun to get to know some of the vets and we learn a ton from listening to them chat in between horses coming through. Also we see things in other horses and are able to ask follow up questions that they are generous to try to explain in more plain english.

Bird Haven in the Fall
Bird Haven in the Fall

The riders came in fast that morning- it was particularly cool and this was a National Championship ride. In fact the first rider was in before we were ‘officially’ open (though we were ready!) which means she came in before they estimated any rider would be able to make the first loop. Most riders felt really good about their first loop and we had no pulls that morning.

Sarah and I took off in our lunch break while the 50 milers were out on trail for a few hours and we walked the girls around base camp hand grazing them to stretch their legs and get some good green grass. Then we stopped for lunch together at a little cafe and enjoyed some down time!

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We saw many riders start to slow down for the afternoon as the weather heated up and they had ridden hard (maybe some a little too hard?) in the morning with the excitement and coolness… We had a few pulls, quite a lot of holding the card and wanted to recheck horses that were a bit borderline at the last stop.

Cute goat hanging out at bird haven!
Cute goat hanging out at bird haven!

After most of the second wave of horses were through some of us left for base camp to vet in our horses for the Friday ride.

Madison and I caught a ride back with another vet and we groomed and prepared our girls for vetting in. Khaleesi’s back had been continuing to improve and I was a little curious if it would be a problem but felt if we had a solution to not continue the damage then she would be fine to ride.

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We headed over to vet and both girls got As (she didn’t exhibit any soreness) and were cleared to go.

Standing still (kind of) for the vet.
Standing still (kind of) for the vet.

On the trot out, I thought it would be better if we trotted them together… maybe I was wrong. As we headed down the lane we were ok, then in turning to head back Khaleesi did a rearing, bucking dancing move that I think was excitement… she was not only ok to trot out, she was excited and ready to canter back at full speed. We collected ourselves and started back and she did more dancing on the line. This is new. I hadn’t expected this, but once again after our training and work and I think we get somewhere, she keeps me humble as she reminds me Hey, I’m still only 5… don’t get comfortable yet!

Trotting out- before the pony on a string episode.
Trotting out- before the pony on a string episode.

I asked the vet if he wanted us to go again and he laughed and said no, we were good to go.

Just again as we were going to get comfortable for a bit Garnet found us as did some friends with saddles and we proceeded to do a saddle fit/analysis as best we could in camp. I am always astounded by the AERC community and though I thought I had 3 saddles lined up, as Kate, Aimee and Madison helped bring them over from various other people they kept accumulating and we ended up with probably 10 possible saddles to look at from ortho-flex to an old Stonewall to some streamlined South African saddle and lots in between- some for sale, some who would let us use it for the ride Friday, and some that were just to see how the fit was. We felt them all together and Khaleesi was very good at just standing still while we experimented for at least an hour.

I got to feel them as well and he’d ask what I thought/felt. It was good to see all the possibilities, many were too narrow on her spine, some were pinching in front by her shoulders, some bridged a little and we talked about how in some cases a little bit of bridging can help a horse move into that space and develop a nice topline. I was able to see many different fits and gratified to learn I wasn’t crazy in thinking the Wintec was pretty good.

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In fact the Wintec was the best fit of the ones we looked at. Two issues to consider that were not ideal: #1 the CAIR panels were possibly not working properly in the middle and creating a pressure point (someone suggested there are 3 sections and the middle section might have malfunctioned). #2 the Wintec and many English style saddles have more narrow panels that don’t distribute the weight as well as an endurance (or western though I’m not going that heavy!) style saddle does.

We discussed the possibility of reflocking or having the panels fixed and using a pad that will help distribute the saddle pressure better in the future as a possible solutions. We also discussed trailering over to their place to use his pressure sensing pad to really sort out fit and options. Garnet has been riding endurance in a Cloud 9 pad for years and says they really do make a difference and he highly recommends them. He generously agreed to lend me a new pad to see if it made a difference. We tacked up and rode out and back up the road a few times and she seemed to move just fine in it. We had a plan for Friday.

At this point we’d missed the ride meeting (though I sent Madison to get information) half of dinner and still had things to do so we decided to get our work done while we still had some light and then go back to the cafe to eat, then shower once again to regain some feeling of humanity and get a good night’s sleep for the ride the next day.

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With a light headache (lots on my mind and maybe not enough water though I try to stay hydrated) I took a Tylenol PM this time and threw as much hay as I thought they could eat in the middle of the pen and climbed in to bed. I only woke up once to some light clanging, realized I really had to pee and got up to do a check/bathroom run and otherwise slept MUCH better night 2.

stay tuned for ride day…. the rest of the story…

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The Kitchen Sink

Monday, October 5, 2015

This blog seems to be a kitchen sink kind of entry as it’s forming very loosely in my mind.

We’ve had some pretty ugly weather in the past week. Storms off the coast and other weather fronts have socked us in with some rain, wind and cooler temperatures. Thankfully some sunshine of the personal kind blew through as my great friends and team green members Madison and Sarah came in. Madison exudes joy and light in everything she does- so one can’t help but ignore the dreary weather conditions when she’s around.

Geared up for a rainy cold ride on Friday
Geared up for a rainy cold ride on Friday

We met for dinner Thursday and took a look at the Friday forecast- 90% chance of rain of up to 4 inches and it appeared to start with sprinkles and pick up through the day. I agreed to send her a text in the morning on my way to the barn, and thought it would be nice to sleep in just a little on my first day off in a while- but when I woke up to see the big rain blob on the radar heading our way, I texted Madison at 7:15 am “I will be there at 7:30” and threw on some clothes, grabbed the dogs and we were off.

Dogs were so glad to be out again after a few days of me working and bad weather.
Dogs were so glad to be out again after a few days of me working and bad weather.

It was rainy, but still a fun ride. We did almost 10 miles and found a brand new trail I’d never ridden to extend one of my close to home loops. The weather never really got as bad as I’d expected- mostly a light rain- but we were geared up nonetheless. Both horses did great and I’m finding it easier and easier to ride Khaleesi.

Pretty shot during a rainy morning ride
Pretty shot during a rainy morning ride

Similar ride on Saturday. Both horses did a fun 10 mile ride and we had a blast trotting and cantering through some pretty woods in an overcast- but not rainy (until the end) afternoon.

One thing however is becoming more concerning: the white hairs on her back. [Considering she is black and brown, the white hairs are a sign something is not right under the saddle. Some kind of pressure from rubbing or pressing cuts off blood and the hairs come in white.]

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I felt the wintec was a decent fit- had the wide gullet in- so not likely it was pinching (right?) but these white spots kept increasing. Because she hadn’t shown signs of soreness before- I’d hoped it was mostly a pad issue… rubbing somehow… I’ve tried many different pads… still the white hairs keep getting worse and the area is growing. Now there’s subtle soreness after riding her.

I went back the the medium wide gullet which is slightly more narrow. Maybe if the saddle is too wide it’s not getting the support it needs on her back? After a fun group ride on Saturday- starting to ‘ease’ into a horse break for the ride next week – I found the spots were not as dry as they had been previously, and she was less tender. Still- it’s not great.

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I took a few pictures and threw them out to the AERC community and someone mentioned the gullet width is less of an issue as the angles. She’s a bit broader backed than the saddle is allowing. Thankfully I got a response from someone who deals with saddle fit and helped a friend who will be at camp this week and said he will take a look and give me some input.

View of the saddle from behind. If you imagine the angles of her back, then look at the seams in the saddle that point more sharply downward than her back does. This is one thing that was mentioned in the forum.
View of the saddle from behind. If you imagine the angles of her back, then look at the seams in the saddle that point more sharply downward than her back does. This is one thing that was mentioned in the forum.

Thankfully we are still in the Limited Distance category which is a great place to learn without doing too much damage. Anyone could probably get away with a saddle that doesn’t fit great for an hour or two of trail or ring riding- but once you start doing long distances and more intense work (speed, hills, terrain) your gear, horse, tack, plan… it has to be right. Even an out of condition horse has a chance at finishing a 25 mile ride sound, but after 50 miles there is less room for error. Anything that isn’t fitting well or isn’t kept clean, or not broken in… you get the idea.

This is our last organized ride of the season. By winter/spring I need to be conditioning in a saddle that fits her and isn’t causing any pain.

Tomorrow is packing day- we leave on Wednesday. I am excited for one more ride ‘weekend’ but especially to have my “team” there. It will be so nice to have help with the packing, getting the girls ready, setting up and taking down camp, taking care of the horses while in camp, and it’s nice to have company at the rides. It seems we might also be joined in our little camping area with another friend I met on my first ride back in April.

So far the weather looks pretty good although I am over the fear of rainy event riding. While it might not be my first choice, I know I can deal with a rainy ride and not only will I not melt, but I will probably still enjoy it. Highs appear to be in the 70s and lows in the 50s which is very comfortable though a little cool. It’s good October weather. Mostly dry though we might get a bit of rain one afternoon. We’ll be ready for whatever comes.

My lists are printed out and this being my 4th LD of the year I’m getting a better idea of what I need and packing is getting easier each time. I’m not really nervous for this- it’s close to home, a 25 (all the others have been 30), and the last ride for me this year. There’s something comforting about having a team along that makes it seem like we’ll figure it out – no matter what.

I am also excited to have Madison ride along with me on her first AERC ride – I think she’ll really enjoy it!

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So… that’s it. Team green heads to the National Championships- not to compete, but to volunteer and observe and learn. And while there we are lucky enough the open Limited Distance 25 mile ride is being held so we can be part of the fun too! I’m glad it will be an Old Dominion ride because so far those have been my favorites!

I’ll keep you posted!

Get it done

Tuesday, September 29, 2015

September has been a tough month to balance. Work has kicked into gear with early fall activities that keep me organizing, teaching, rehearsing (driving all around the area) and communicating at a good clip. I am grateful that Khaleesi is in shape right now and just needs some maintenance riding to be able to complete the Old Dominion (LD) ride in less than two weeks, Faygo however has been in slightly less use through the heat and humidity of summer and can use to be ridden more regularly right now.

I look forward to going to the AERC national championships next week and very glad to give Madison a taste of endurance riding by sponsoring her in the open 25 mile ride to join Khaleesi and I on Faygo the Fantastic. It will be Madison’s first ride and Faygo is not young or 100% with breathing and joints/muscles so we will plan to go easy and stick to the back of the group and finish strong & healthy.

With goals in mind, I could hear the voice in my head Get it done Jaime.

Tuesday I needed to get both horses ridden. I started with Khaleesi because it’s better for both of us if I’m fresher and physically it takes more to ride her right now. There has been a paradigm shift in my horse world late this summer and I brought her in with the intent on taking as long as it takes to be in her world for our time together. It was a little like being in a time-warp.

I brushed her and cleaned her up while she had a snack, then I untied her and everything else from feet cleaning to tacking up we did standing in place with the line draped over my arm. Then we played around at the step stool (mounting block) until she did that properly before we were ready to roll.

I felt like that must have taken a lot longer than my normal tie her up and buzz around her while she stands mostly quietly while I work. There is a focus involved that forces me to be 100% present (something I need more of in my life but is hard for me) working this way that felt like I had been with her for hours but upon looking at my clock, it was roughly the same amount of time it would normally take me.

Then we rode off together and after hitting the trail she broke into a trot and without a thought I began posting in my heels with her as if I’d been doing it all my life.

Fall is coming
Fall is coming

The entire ride wasn’t so easy for me, but it was a good ride and I love seeing the change of Fall coming. I can feel her legs and where they are much more naturally now, and we did a good 8 miles or so moving just under 5mph which is ok for us alone. I have noticed it’s not so easy to get her into our 6mph and up averages alone. Another horse to ride with helps if they are willing to move that pace, or ride day with tons of horses on the trail and she’s good to go, but just the two of us I have to remind her we’re working and I do ask her to, but I also enjoy some trail time in no hurry as well. It’s supposed to be fun… right?

We got back and I traded Khaleesi for Faygo. I am trying to work with her more intentionally now as well. I decided since her ride would be shorter that day to save even more time and ride her bareback- also I thought it would be good for us. We headed up the mountain and she has big movements that I noticed with much more thought to what it meant and where her legs were and how I moved with her. It was a lovely ride up the mountain around and back. At one point I had scooted too far forward and momentarily thought “wow! that IS a lot of motion” till I realized that was her shoulders moving. It was a good lesson of staying out of the way with the saddle of that movement and how far back that shoulder movement goes.

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My riding and seat are more relaxed now and my hips have more flexibility which is one way I can feel what is going on when my horses move. I am more tired now after riding than I used to be- new body parts are moving and different muscles are engaged. After riding both horses (and being bareback on Faygo) I was tired in a good way but felt like we’d done good things.

I always try to pull life lessons out of my work with the horses. I was teaching a student last week and tried an approach that I asked him questions and let him guide the lesson and his learning more than usual. He is a young student, very intelligent and naturally talented but he is noncommittal and quick to say “I don’t know” – even in questions like “Do you have a favorite movie.. color… book etc” I don’t know is a great answer if you need help, but in his case it becomes a way not to have to think more deeply. I challenged him last week. At one point I had asked him a question and he stood there a long time. I would normally think “I’m losing this kid- he’s drowning right now, I need to give him a clue or a follow up question” but instead I just waited. I didn’t say a thing. I thought he would end up distracted and not give me an answer but another “I don’t know” but instead after that unbearably (for me) long pause he did have an answer.

I also allowed him to decide if he’d done “enough” work on a piece he was a bit stuck on. He said he felt he should be able to pass the piece and move on. I said “Ok. We move on then” He was smiling (he knew he had more work to do on it, he’d “gotten away” with something). At the end of that lesson he literally sat in a chair and looked like he might faint. I was a little worried about him actually. I had fried his brain I thought… He said he was ok, packed up his violin and headed down the stairs- but before he got far he came back. He said to me “I think I have a little more work to do on that song, so I’ll play it for you again next week.”

Wow. That was a cool moment!

Grabbing a quick morning later in the week before teaching I did another bareback spin on Faygo since her rides have been shorter lately and have started enjoying that option if we’re not going far.

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I had a fantastic weekend of visiting musician friends, concerts and gigs along with a creative workshop with my young students. Not a lot of horse time, but it was raining as a tropical storm was coming in from the coast. In fact it’s been raining for days. I did grab another ride on Khaleesi before the whirlwind of friends and weather got too intense.

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My next day off was Tuesday again and I absolutely had to get a decent ride on Faygo. The OD ride is in just under two weeks and I can’t expect to do hard training less than a week before. This was the day. It was predicted to be the most rain, and to last all day. This would be a great opportunity to try out my rain gear!

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I headed to the barn and enjoyed the process with Faygo. She had lymes disease and had grown out of her saddle a couple of years ago while I wasn’t paying attention and ended up with joint and back pain and saddle soreness which also made her girthy. Thankfully I have that fantastic saddle from Phoenix Rising that is great for her and comfortable for me, but old habits die hard. She sometimes still reaches back when I tighten the girth and sometimes still takes a step away when I saddle her. (My vet and the ride vets all confirm she has no back soreness now… I am convinced it’s habit- and probably other things connected to how I didn’t connect with her in the past).

Now we took all the time we needed as I wasn’t in a huge hurry to go out of the cozy barn into the downpour. I asked her to stand untied while I brought the pad over and put it on her back. She took a step. I asked her to go back. I adjusted the pad and rubbed her. She’d take a step one way or the other. I’d ask her back. I played with the pad until she relaxed into just standing there while I walked around her and moved her pad around. Then the saddle- and by now she got the game and stood relaxed while I adjusted the saddle so I was really satisfied from both sides it was centered and in the best place. Then the girth. She didn’t move a foot. She did turn her head but not nearly as much as usual and we were starting off our ride already more as a team than usual.

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I steeled myself to the fact that I can do anything for 2 or 3 hours, even ride in a soggy wet downpour. I am going to have to do a ride someday in crappy weather. Just like I will have to ride in the dark… It’s inevitable- I went out night riding to prepare for that, so might as well practice this too.

Get it done.

In the end, the raincoat was fantastic. I was completely dry and so was my saddle. I didn’t mind being out at all and even extended our ride to stay out longer. If I didn’t have a goal I would not have gone riding on such a day. Now I will definitely go riding on a rainy day in the future again- by choice if it’s the day I have to ride.

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As for Faygo, I have been starting to give grain again as the summer grasses mellow out and they aren’t looking like roly-poly grass belly horses anymore. This makes it easier to supplement Faygo with her cough free and lung help supplements (mostly herbal stuff). I have noticed she was better last year with regular cough free. I did not bother with it as much this summer- in part because I’d decided to ride her less through the heat of summer, and also in part to see if it really did make a difference to use it or not. I think it does help and just having her on it in the past weeks she seems to have a bit more energy and recover from hills more. This is probably also because the weather is changing and cooler weather is much better for her. I notice her coat changes through the seasons, but it’s always thicker than Khaleesi’s coat is.

I know she is capable of finishing a 25 mile ride – especially one we don’t push her too hard. It is nice to see the Fall riding that she’s more suited for. Right now I envision that Faygo will get a little more riding time through the winter and Khaleesi will get more rest. This fits my farrier’s vision as well- he says Khaleesi grows less hoof than Faygo, and though her feet are good I could wear them down with much barefoot riding. We have a boot program of course, but at the moment I think I will try the advice of many endurance riders and give her a down season where I don’t ride her as much. This gives me some shorter rides and quality time with Faygo in winter and then let Faygo have some semi-retirement in spring- late summer when the weather isn’t kind to her.

Speaking of the farrier- the last thing I had to get done was shoes.

This was Khaleesi’s second shoeing and I’d been preparing her as much as I could using the stand still as I picked up and banged on her feet and held them longer than she was comfortable with. I value my farrier above all other people in my horse’s world and a horse easy for him to work with will make a huge difference in the quality of the shoe job she gets as well as his responsiveness to our needs when we call. I was much less nervous for this visit because I believe she would do alright and that I had tools to help her through and improve her.

Faygo has always been pretty good with the farrier- but after our stand still work she was better than I’d ever seen her.

Khaleesi was not perfect. We did hot shoeing for the first time and she dragged my farrier around the barn on her first front hoof but he said actually her reaction was not as bad as he’d seen- and what surprised him (but not me) was that the second foot, the second time she was better- not worse. She is able to learn and relax as we don’t amp up the tension ourselves where I know some other horses just get more and more upset. Thankfully she is not that kind of horse and by the last time he had a good fit and put the hot shoe to her hoof (this does not hurt them, but it’s freaky at first) she hopped back and then just stood completely still and seemed to relax there. When I put her back in place she chewed and yawned.

I am thankful for a farrier who is willing to be patient, take longer than usual with her and give us the time she needed to get used to the process.

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It is fun to reflect back to the day when he met her the first time, I’d only had her a week, and she was a little flighty and wouldn’t let him touch her. That day he shook his head and tried to ask my what on earth was I doing with THAT horse. Good luck was the best he could tell me at the time.

Now, the highest complement I’ve had so far might be when my farrier told me yesterday: “You’ve done a good job with that horse