Update… small steps

Wednesday, December 16, 2015

Training a horse is insulting to the horse. Don’t be a horse trainer- be a horseman. A horseman educates the horse without the horse ever knowing its being trained…. Training a horse is absolutely finite. If you get the horse to operate as to be your legs you have exceeded the notion of training. — Buck Brannaman

I’ve been visiting my horses lately even if I only have a few minutes to do a few back ups or circles. Something I love to see is that for the past couple months whenever I drive up to the barn, any time of day, the girls come from wherever they are in the field to the corner of the fence to look for me.

Yesterday when I came to feed and squeeze 15 minutes of groundwork before a morning meeting I was surprised to see Khaleesi waiting for me half way down the fence. Faygo had come over and Khaleesi was just standing back. I started to pour the feed into the pans and still she refused to come over.

Little miss independent?

When I opened the gate and Faygo came for breakfast and she still didn’t move closer I wondered if something might be wrong.

True enough she started pedaling her front feet up and down in place and then it made sense: she was caught.

I took my halter and lead over with me to her to find she had a high tensile wire from the top of the fence that had gotten pulled slack and caught somehow so that her front legs were wrapped loosely. Pretty impressive actually!

How did you possibly do this to yourself?

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She had this top wire down around two of her legs

I have no idea how long she was caught there, but the ground had gone bare from some struggling. I was glad to see that she hadn’t panicked and  hadn’t hurt herself either.

She seemed to get frustrated me as I put the halter on:

MOM! can’t you see I’m STUCK!? I can’t go with you!

I know girl- but I think whatever we need to do to get you free will work better if I can help you stay in control with your halter… just hold up ok?

Thankfully the one wire was pretty loose and I was able to step it down and walk her one leg at a time over the wire. I was relieved it was so easy and she was excited to be free but did lead nicely with me over to find breakfast.

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Khaleesi eating breakfast after being freed from the fence.

I decided to forego the training- poor thing had been stuck in the fence, I doubted she would be in a mindset to work calmly. That would be setting us both up for failure. But I was so thankful I decided to run over there before my meeting that day!

Our dancing is improving albeit slowly. Our walking circles are getting more balanced and she isn’t falling to the inside as much as she did the first few times. I’m beginning to get her to start and turn around without quite so much crazy animation on my part.

I am really pleased with our leading. She is beginning to take at least one step back without me having to reach up and take her halter! Also she is moving out of my way if I walk into her space and following me in a circle the other direction. This small thing already feel so wonderful as she is paying a little more attention to me every time we do it. She stays just an eyelash behind my shoulder to be able to be ready for whatever move I might make.

Meanwhile (contrary to what my last post might have seemed to suggest) we are still riding.

Over the weekend Khaleesi started a new thing where she’d try to turn a half circle at random points along the trail to turn us toward home. No matter how strongly I did not give she still could turn her head- so in the end I changed approach and let her- only we kept going 360 so we were still going forward in the end. Tuesday she didn’t do this- nor did she try to pick up the pace to get home.

On Tuesday, not only were the girls waiting at the gate to come in and play, but they both led beautifully and we now use that leading from the field to get to their brains engaged to work with us.

Both girls are also getting better at sending on the trailer without us, and I was pleased to have them both walk on without any fuss without a human leading the way.

We did my all time favorite ride along the Jackson River Valley and I paid even more attention to what I was asking and how I released. Khaleesi likes to be a trail hog and not let another horse come up and ride next to us. We are getting better at me asking her to stay on her side of the trail even at a trot and she’ll step over pretty well. I paid close attention to how and when I asked with my leg, and as soon as she gave me some movement over I released the leg.

We are improving on minimal hands for communication as well. I am still working on an independent seat and using my body to communicate speed and direction as much as I can.  If we have to make a choice on the trail I am careful to look exactly where I want to be and she has done well choosing that direction (around a gate, log, rock…). I noticed that I had to use very little rein for steering and that pleased me.

She also kept a very steady slow trot pace for a good amount of the ride no matter who got ahead or behind- we did a good job at finding a rhythm and holding to it on loose rein and no leg action.

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Crossing Muddy Run at Hidden Valley with Nancy & Mireyah. This ride the two mares were really beginning to tolerate each other- almost in a friendly way. Such a big improvement over our rides in the Spring when at least one all out kicking match ensued (while we were riding them!)

One challenge I have is control over her walk.

She has a nice forward walk- I’ve felt it. However she also has a death plod that has very little use out on a trail ride. I do not have control over which walk she uses right now.

I can move her forward when she choses the death plod- but every time she chooses to trot up instead of animate her walk. My plan of action for this is I need to ask her with my legs for more energy, and when she choses the trot we stop or downward transition into the walk (which generally becomes the death plod again) and I ask again. This could take a lot of trying.

I noticed Buck via video footage encouraging people to realize what a first try looks like and to reward it. At one point a student in a group asked if she should release even if she just got one or two faster steps and he said “Of course- that is what it will look like at first.” So I will be trying to figure out how to reward a few good walk steps even if it’s not a sustained energetic walk. I do realize that is harder for her and she’ll have to work into it over some time.

A good thing to work in the arena or on a solo ride as if we fall too far behind in the process she is going to be set up to fail (no one likes to be left way behind) so then we have to trot to catch up once in a while.

Susan was on our ride and I have enjoyed introducing her to trail riding (and possibly endurance riding too!). She has a positive attitude, is an accomplished and fine rider, has a learning spirit and loves Faygo- who is teaching her tons each week.

Each ride Susan gleefully shares her “firsts” with us and I enjoy hearing them as we go…

My first time to ride in the woods… My first time on a gaited horse… My first time to cross a river… My first time to ride over 2 hours… My first time to open a gate on a horse… My first time to cross a bridge.. My first time (um, ok I promised not to share that one…)

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Susan coming out of one of our deeper water crossings

Today we got “My first time to go that fast… well, that fast still under control!

Then I got home to hear another Buck quote:

You do need to get a horse to where you can open him up and run. A horse is pretty incomplete if you can open him up and not have him loose his mind. You gotta practice dialing up and dialing back down again.

Nothing groundbreaking there, but something to think about- and we did it today.

There’s a beautiful hill that is a prefect spot to really run, and Faygo has an amazing “open up” gear. She is fast.

Developing Khaleesi’s canter has been fascinating to me. A year ago it felt funny, and she would twist out her back legs to get started and it was not very fast. Having never started a horse before I assumed that she just had a strange canter (too bad- I do like a nice canter sometimes). Over the year that canter has changed and improved and occasionally she would run up after Faygo as fast as she could and though she could never quite catch up, she was developing a nice canter.

Today I told Susan this was the one place she could feel safe giving Faygo as much room as she wanted- the footing was good and there’s a pipe gate at the top that would stop us even if somehow she felt out of control (though Faygo has not in my knowledge run away with anyone since Nancy worked on that with her years ago).

Susan and Faygo got going- but Khaleesi was ready for more and at the final stretch we passed Faygo and she might have hit what felt like her top speed. We only got to about 15MPH, and I can’t remember what her top speed was in the past, but she felt great and was balanced! (Susan had held Faygo back- this was the fastest she’d ever gone and she did a great job of staying in control and only as fast as she felt confident)

We walked around the pipe gate- heading home of course- and the girls both dialed back down the energy to a walk for a while.

Faygo can get so hot on her way home- one thing I may do more with her is trying to amp her up then dial her back to see if she can begin to control her own adrenaline level more. We saw some fun exercises that pushed the horse to sprint, then stop, back up 5 or 10 steps, then sprint, and sometimes just stand still in between. That will be a good Faygo routine this winter.

It’s boot season and in 13 miles we only had to stop twice to fix a boot for Faygo. One time we lost a boot in a deep mud suck coming out of the river- thankfully I watched it happen. The second time the boot twisted up onto her leg and we had to adjust. Not too bad all told. Khaleesi had all 4 stay on 100%!

This is a good week.

I haven’t seen any teenage tantrum flare ups (though I am sure they are not far beneath the surface) and we’ve had some nice small successes and good riding. Even our neighbor (who helped pull her back shoes on one of her worst days lately) saw us walking in yesterday and commented:

Boy, look at her… she’s such a different horse when you’re on her back!

And I said:

…not really, she just has her good moments and her not so good ones… like any young horse. She’s doing great today!

And then I thought… probably most of that difference is actually in me. She does her job really well: her job is to be a horse.

I have a long way to go to go from a “man” to a “horseman” and I hope I’ve made some more progress recently.

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Epilogue:

My saddle should be en route soon, but I asked for some pictures of the tree this time because I love watching the progress, and this tree is very slightly different than her standard one. So though I am dying to ride in it, it’s at least fun for the moment to get to see some pictures as it’s developing.

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!

8 feet on the ground

From Friday, August 28, 2015

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

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

New River
New River

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

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

Headed to vet-in
Headed to vet-in

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ready to go!
Ready to go!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Are you trying to slow up a bit?

Yes, actually- you can go by if you want

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

That would be great.

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

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First tie up on the switchbacks

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Faygo & Miles
Faygo & Miles

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

moon over the horses
moon over the horses

to be continued……..

Take Away

Tuesday, June 16, 2015

I’ve been thinking about what I learned from volunteering at the OD ride for a couple of days now. As much as it was hard to be there without a horse watching everyone else doing what I wanted to be doing, it was an invaluable experience and I’m so glad I volunteered. I’d heard it said before that one of the best ways to learn about endurance is to volunteer at a ride and honestly if I’d had a horse for that ride I would not have taken the time to volunteer- but I will join the chorus now in encouraging even people who participate but haven’t volunteered at a ride to scribe for a vet.

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So… what exactly did I learn…

So many nuggets and other things that are hard to put into words that fall into the experience category — I may not pull up until I have a situation to need the information in the future. However, I’ll see if I can do some relevant take aways here.

Take advantage of any talks, seminars, or lectures they offer.

The Friday afternoon before the ride, one of the vets had a talk offered on “How to get your horse through ride weekend”. I left vet-in early to go to this and was shocked to see only a handful of people out of 168 riders plus crew at camp.

The vet was an experienced endurance rider who knew the course and went over very specific details about the challenges of this particular ride on this particular weekend (heat and humidity). She talked about how to best use the course to your advantage and went over the maps with us (where there were decent streams for cooling off, where you might stop a minute in a pasture for some grass, what climbs were like and what time of the day you’d be likely to do them- how to use your energy and save your horse on them, where you might be able to make up some time); she highly suggested crews get ice coolers to the vet checks the night before because the water available on a hot day will often not be cool enough to cool the horse down fast enough, she talked about the need to front-load hydration and some practical ways to do it; she talked about how to take care of yourself- the rider- in the heat. She also answered questions.

She rode that weekend on Percheron crosses (NOT arabians, so she really had to pay attention as Percherons are certainly not predisposed to these conditions) she had a lot of experience with keeping a horse healthy and finishing a hard ride. My vet checked her horses both times she went through Bird Haven and they were in good shape both times, and she completed the ride. I also noticed one of the 100 top ten finishers was a man who asked some good questions at the talk and his horse (at 1am) looked good as well. Considering how many horses didn’t complete I believe some of them might have benefitted from the information- even if it was a reminder to them.

The front-runners often look good… until they don’t… (Sometimes the tortoise does win in the end)

Staying in one place- having information come in as horse-rider teams go through the ride I saw first hand how many people were moving ahead, making good time and then got pulled. Conversely I saw some who seemed to lag a bit behind, but did complete- which in the end puts them ahead. What I overheard about this in conversation (yes, I eavesdropped as much as possible in hopes of gleaning any grain of information possible) is that some of the “turtle” riders were behind because they’d take a few extra minutes in a grass field and let their horse graze, or standing them in a stream to cool off, they might have even taken a few extra minutes at the hold to let their horse get more recovered and rested.

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Granted- the top finishers were fast, but I saw that those people knew their horses, and probably had special horses that were mentally and physically predisposed to do well as well as mentally and physically conditioned. Know your horse, and pay attention to early signs.

What the early signs are…

Considering I don’t often ride my horses to their physical limits and I’m not a vet, I haven’t often seen what a horse looks like when they are showing signs of dehydration and fatigue.

I got to see what skin tenting looks like at an “A”, “A-“, “B”, and “C” and anything less than a “C” is not an early sign anymore. I learned that and “A” and “A-” are great, and that a “B” is ok, it’s hot and you’re working hard, your horse needs a drink and you should pay attention, and that a “C” is not the end of the world, but you’d better take a minute and let your horse “pull himself together” before you continue or you will be in trouble.

I saw what “impulsion” looks like at all those grades as well. I saw horses come in from the same ride heads up, willing to jog, eyes clear and alert and I saw horses come in whose rider had to jerk and drive them to jog out, heads down while standing, not so alert, eyes dull, and I saw a lot of in between. I also saw for the first time what dark urine looks like from a horse who had passed the vet check officially and seemed to be ok- that team took a rider-option and pulled themselves out because the urine was so dark it was a warning sign they felt not worth ignoring. I saw what a horse who was tying up goes through and how scary that can be (thankfully that happened at the vet station where she was able to get immediate treatment). I saw the difference between a tired horse and a horse that just isn’t “fit to continue”.

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Be prepared!

You have an advantage if you are ready for as much as possible. The morning might be cool, it might rain, it could be blistering hot in the mid-afternoon, and by 1am it was chilly. Have layers and be ready for extremes. One of the horses cut a digital artery on the trail and though the rider was a vet she didn’t have what she needed on hand- other riders who stopped to help her had a maxi-pad, vet wrap, and duct tape and those three things might have saved her horse’s life (I don’t know how that situation turned out, but she was able to ride the horse far enough to get trailered to Leesburg for emergency surgery and I never heard what the outcome was).

When I rode around as a passenger on a motorcycle a lifetime ago, the motorcycles folks always said you dress for the crash, not for the ride. I put in many hours on the back of a bike- even doing distance rides and weekend trips. I never was involved in a crash of any kind, but I wore kevlar, boots and a helmet every time just the same. Similarly it’s rare you need emergency supplies, but you could save someone (or someone’s horse’s) life and it might just be your own.

You don’t want to load down your horse- so be smart about it, many things can have multiple use. Duct tape seems like a given at least- Karen Chaton had the tip to wrap some duct tape around a pen so you don’t have to carry a huge roll- and you have a pen in case you need to leave a note for someone somewhere….

Take care of yourself.

Around 2am I saw a rider come in whose horse looked fantastic but the rider was not doing well. She had been dizzy and nauseous for a couple hours and hadn’t felt hungry so in all the adrenaline she’d neglected to eat and drink. She had 6 miles to go and though the vets and her team pumped her with warm chicken soup and encouraged her, and she did leave for the finish on horseback, she wasn’t having fun anymore and had spiraled into a pretty negative place. Another Karen Chaton tip comes to mind: eat before you’re hungry and drink before you’re thirsty.

Also keep you own electrolytes up- but don’t overdo it. I heard a story from some of the vets of a rider who was doing the calvary challenge (you have to carry everything on your own and no crew) who wanted to be sure she had enough electrolytes so she took salt pills (which were lighter than trying to haul gatorade) – only she took way too many and was losing fluids due to an imbalance. I’ve heard of some great electrolyte capsules on the market- but take them as directed!

Drag riders have a job.

Although I think drag riding is advertised as a way to see some of the trail without being on the clock and as a fun ride experience (it should be both of those things), they are responsible for coming in shortly after the last riders to be sure no one was hurt on the trail. They are fresher and start from various checkpoints to be sure they are in a position with good horses and riders to get help if needed. They were sent out (with fresh horses) 10 minutes after the last rider, and at the next (last) checkpoints the drag riders came in 2 hours after the last 100 mile rider came through and in the words of someone who saw them “wouldn’t have realized it if they had come upon a mastodon”.

They were apparently enjoying a lovely night ride, and not really doing their job. If something had happened to one of the last few riders they would not have been there to help. Also, a station can’t be shut down until everyone has cleared through- including drag riders. So it was inconsiderate of them to keep volunteer staff and a vet waiting 2 hours for them while they wandered along. My understanding is they had no issues and were not lost- just not in any hurry and enjoying themselves.

It is likely they didn’t understand the importance of what their task was and that people had to wait on them. So if I ever ride drag, I’m glad I heard the story to know the appropriate way to be a good, responsible drag rider.

Smaller things… for me personally…

* Carry a GPS. Many of the vet stations and parts of the trail go over places you’ve already been- in the worst case if you get lost you can at least get yourself back to where you were. Especially in the dark! I heard some of the vets talking about a rider who got lost at night and was in an area that can’t be accessed by vehicle without forest service keys (which the ride staff don’t have on hand). That rider was safe but did end up spending the night in the woods alone completely off the ride route.

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* Pop-up tent is BRILLIANT. Between downpours and intense sun having shelter at a major crewing point seemed to be a great idea. Many of the crews had a tent up and it was great for the crew while waiting in the elements, but if the horse was exhausted and overheating a pop-up tent is the only way to be sure you’ll get some relief from the sun (you can’t guarantee a shady tree, and you can’t know you’ll be at the right place at the right time to get the shade- especially if your rider comes through at 2 different points of the day. Also, if as a rider I had to spend 45 minutes at a hold that was downpouring- it would really make my day to get out of it for a bit- maybe dry off and regroup. Worth the investment- and it is great to have at base camp too, for all the same reasons.

* Don’t give your ride card baggie to the scribe!!! That was a small pet peeve I picked up through the day. I have a clipboard and a pen and am busy following my vet to be sure I have all the information correct. I don’t have a third hand for the baggie and if I stuff it in my pocket you may not get it back.

ALSO– riders try to have your card open to the correct place on your ride card and TIMERS: write the “in” time under the correct number slot for that vet check station! I saw a lot of screwed up rider cards where the station numbers were screwed up and that can then be confusing for the vet scribe who wonders why there is no “in” time at the vet check number section you are in. It’s not so hard to get it right- but as a rider, if you give the card ready to go in the right place you have a better chance of a clean and correct rider card at the end!

* Thank the vets and volunteers. I have to admit when I rode in my first ride at the No Frills, there was so much in my head this did not occur to me. But there were a lot of riders who took a moment to say a personal “Thank you for being here today to make sure we have a safe and enjoyable day”- and those little moments were such an unexpected gift!

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* My crew is going to be A-MA-ZING 🙂 I highly advise anyone who has non-endurance-riding crew folks in mind to come out and work an event. Sarah and Madison were 100% invested in the day and we were all there learning together. They are now way ahead in understanding what endurance is about, what goes into a successful and not-so-succesful day, and they were real troopers to do the 100 mile over 24 hours with no real sleep marathon. Madison’s vet said she was so fantastic, and Sarah got to see everything front row by being an in/out timer, she was also closer to the actual crew area and saw more of what crews were actually doing out there. I am so excited to have a team like that forming in advance!

The rest…

I know there are a TON more things I picked up. Small bits of conversation… stories told under the vet tent… watching a rider or a crew member do something unexpected…

It’s a great community of people who care about each other and their horses more than they care about their time or even finishing. I am so glad to slowly become part of that community and I think the Old Dominion rides have been a great introduction. They are run really well with very competent people in charge- as a rider and a volunteer I’ve had great experiences. They take care of each other and stay flexible when needs arise.

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I’m torn between my desire to ride as much as possible and knowing that volunteering is a great way to learn and connect with that community. I’m excited to be part of an amazing and inspiring group of people.

Gone Solo

Friday, May 22, 2015

A few posts ago I talked about doing epic things with very non-epic steps on a very regular basis. Today marks just about 10 months since I brought Khaleesi home and in less than a year we’ve gone from barely halter broke to a real riding horse on her way to being an endurance athlete.

IMG_9375In a way it is a full-circle kind of day. End of July 2014 we loaded her (kicking and rearing) onto my little trailer and brought her to the farm to begin a journey. Now, end of May 2015 I loaded her by myself (for the first time!) willingly onto that same little trailer and brought her home again from a few weeks on vacation in Big Valley after trail riding her alone for the first time.

In between those very different trailer rides I’ve gone from a green horse-crazy girl with many doubts about my ability to lead this journey to a more confident, and hopefully more experienced horse-crazy girl who is coming out of my first year of EQUUS university a better horse person and a better person person too.

During those 10 months there were a million tiny steps. We tried to have one new, even if incremental and tiny, step every session. In early mornings in the late summer, when I’d take my coffee and portable chair out to sit in the pen with her and completely ignore her in hopes eventually she would just come near me- I couldn’t imagine that in less than a year I would ride her alone. I wasn’t sure I would ever ride her period at that point. Thankfully she’s been a great sport and a good teacher and she was a good first horse for me to work with.

So now we continue onward to get better communication on the trail, more fine tuning, and solid conditioning. Not only does she need cardio strength (that is going well), but her muscles and tendons will take more time to set.  Steady, reasonable, work (without over-doing it) will be our goal so that she is not prone to injury as we push on in her future.

IMG_9380During the time of graduations and end of school year activities, I feel that Khaleesi and I can celebrate that our first “school year” is coming to an end, and we have a graduation of sorts as well. We are moving on to the next chapter (grad school) She has the basics and I hope she might enter her first AERC (Limited Distance) ride in the Fall. We are far from finished with our studies, but we made it through our undergrad and are ready to continue! We’ll keep you posted as we keep moving toward the 100!

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Time. Truth. Heart.

Friday, May 1, 2015

Rainshowers bring spring flowers. Great. Also mud, and lightning. I don’t have any particular reason yet to go out in down pouring thunderstorms. I may be a little crazy, but I haven’t gotten to that point yet. So no ride today. We’ve postponed our ride to Saturday because it appears to have little chance of rain and be beautiful.

I did however take the day to get things checked off my list so that I CAN ride guilt-free over the weekend and I got into the gym (schedule has been difficult for gym time recently). Even though this post has no direct horse training stories, I was inspired by a TED radio hour podcast to write today.

IMG_9099I hope that green to 100 is about more than training a horse. I hope it’s also about dreaming big and stretching your limits past what you could do right now. Also, it’s pouring down rain right now so I can’t go outside and work on my yard. The TED show was called “Champions” and it hit a chord with me.

For now, I’m going to highlight my favorite quotes from some of the speakers they interviewed. (You can click the link below to listen)

http://www.npr.org/programs/ted-radio-hour/331331360/champions

The first story is an interview with Dianne Nyad who swam the channel from Cuba to Florida- an epic journey. She attempted the swim 5 times and failed more than she succeeded. She swam for over 50 hours without a break -without touching the support boat. When asked about her motivation to keep going she said:

“I think that my motivation in feeling that tremendous pressure, that our time here is so precious and so limited- that’s what drives me. That’s what drives me to dream big and not give into fears”

I feel like that almost every day I wake up. Today is the day. Every day. Make the most of it.

Next story I enjoyed was with Pam Reed- an ultra marathoner. David Epstein interviewed her for his book The Sports Gene. He said about her “Pam has an incessant drive to be active. The day I interviewed her, she’d just finished the national champion, ironman triathlon in New York the day before (she got second place). Her flight out of LaGuardia was delayed and she’d stashed her bags and was running laps around the parking structure while being interviewed.

She says, “It’s so boring just sitting there.” [I can relate to this!]

After interviewing and researching for his book David learned this about people driven to do “epic” things- he said this about their goals:

It’s not like ‘I’m going to win the Olympic Marathon’ it’s more like ‘Today in my workout from mile 3 -4 I’m going to push hard’ … They are actionable goals. They have a  Dianna Nyad sized feat off in the distance, but they are really good at setting these sort of more proximate goals that tell you what to do today.

Working on ground driving for some steering before trying to ride, Summer 2014
Working on ground driving for some steering before trying to ride, Summer 2014

I love that! I get so excited when each day I go out we get one small step closer to our big goal with something as simple as riding without Faygo, or getting on the trailer (even though we didn’t GO anywhere). I love the idea of one small step every chance you get. These add up over time to huge things anyone can accomplish. I am about the most average person in the universe. I believe ANYONE can do epic things if they want to. But you have to start with very “un-epic” steps on a very regular basis.

This brings me to the other point David found that I learned in Bikram Yoga and marathon training:

Normally your brain is designed to limit what you can do with your body. At a certain point when you’re pushing beyond your limits your brain tells your body to shut down so you don’t die. Part of pushing yourself farther is convincing yourself either ‘you are not going to die’ or ‘this is really important‘”

This is such a fascinating thing to me- I think it’s one reason why people often work with a trainer because your brain tells you “You are going to die” but your trainer will likely telly you “No way- you have one more minute, or two more reps… in you- I know it” or whatever you need to push the limit.

Something Bikram Yoga taught me was that your brain will often panic and tell you “you’re going to pass out… you’re going to throw up…” I learned in Bikram was that your mind lies to you. I have never died, never thrown up, and never passed out- but I’ve often thought I would.

Bikram practice helped me in my marathon to understand what the difference between my muscles feeling like they were working hard and feeling like I was injured. It also helped me through a hard time in my life when I felt like I might die and that would be easier than getting up in the morning. But even though it didn’t feel possible- I told myself that I would not die and eventually things would get better. And then you have to just decide that you WILL keep going. If you’re not injured, if you don’t actually throw up, you just keep going. Yes I’m tired. Yes it is uncomfortable. It’s supposed to be that way. It’s the only way to come out on the other side- and that is the reward.

First time in the saddle, Fall 2014
First time in the saddle, Fall 2014

I hope I’ll be able to reach into that mental toughness when I’m cold… or hot… and tired… and it’s dark and unfamiliar… or raining… or whatever challenges I’ll eventually face after 12, 15, 18 hours on a horse trying to do something I think would be an epic feat. A 100 mile horse race.

The last guest was Sarah Lewis, author of The Rise, who talked about Success VS Mastery. I connected to the idea that fame and winning wasn’t necessarily the goal when people wanted to do epic things. The goal is more often to be better than you were before- to improve yourself each time.

I am not the best horse trainer, not the best rider, in fact- I’m pretty green myself if you compare me to all the people who have spent most of their lives with horses. The thing that gives me such encouragement and excitement is that I believe each week I am better than I was. I may never even finish a race in the top 10- but I know I am capable of doing a little better and learning a little more about myself and my horse.

Masters are not experts because they take their subjects to a conceptual end, they are masters because they realize there isn’t one. We build out of the unfinished idea- even if that idea is our former self. This is the dynamic of mastery: coming close to what you thought you wanted can help you attain more than you ever dreamed you could…. completion is a goal, but we hope it is never the end” Sarah Lewis.

And I also hope I have a horse who will be with me every step. Not everyone wants to run a marathon. Not everyone wants to push their limits. — And that’s ok. I think horses are pre-disposed in many cases to do amazing things. I don’t know yet if Khaleesi is a 100 mile horse, but I believe that anyone can do epic things with small steps each day- and hopefully that means so can any horse.

Everyone is capable of epic things- I hope you take a small step toward your epic goal this weekend. It just takes some time, truth and heart….