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.


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:


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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).


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.

late afternoon fall light
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!

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.


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.


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.


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.


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….


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…


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.


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.

Team green to 100!

Part 1: Base camp, volunteering, and saddle fit

Sunday, October 11, 2015


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.


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.


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!


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.


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.


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.


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…


The little things

Monday, September 21, 2015

Khaleesi has had a well deserved break, and Faygo and I have taken a few rides- a little alone time together, and some trail clearing and riding fun with Nancy and Mireyah. It’s been forever since we’ve ridden with them and that was a great ride. We got off and clipped out a new trail connector, then rode a really beautiful 11 mile ride on some of my favorite “backyard” roads.

I’ve also done some more work on my riding with Khaleesi. Riding bareback has been a fantastic way to better understand her feet and how my body connects with hers. I love riding her in a halter bareback – and this week the connection finally clicked of what it feels like when her back feet pick up. We got our first really good cross over and it was amazing to do that together. It doesn’t look exciting, but the timing for that little movement to be correct has taken me months! (Sometimes I feel like such a slow learner!)

We also worked on it under saddle and I was able to feel the movement then as well!

My trotting has been going through lots of phases, and saddle changes over the past couple months, but I believe it’s come down now to settling into my feet and keeping them more still. This will work better if I am more relaxed and not letting my legs “grip” her sides. We went through lots of off-kilter moments…

IMG_2701 IMG_2723IMG_2721 IMG_2725

I’m still pretty far from a graceful easy rider, but each time we get better. I know that improving my riding will improve our endurance prospects. If I am better in the seat- if I can relax more and get out of her way, she can move most effectively and faster, longer strides when we need them and we can do the miles without pain (for both of us!). Here is how we ended it this week- a little more centered, less grip from my legs, and my feet a bit more still:

Besides my riding, we’ve been working on some great ground exercises with Pam. These have become as fun to me as riding because I love to see her “get it” and step up to such great manners/behavior. I have always thought the time on the ground matters- and spent a lot of time there before riding Khaleesi last year and really built our relationship – literally- from the ground up. I have come upon a new love of working from the ground again.

Between our scheduled rides, I’ve been focusing on what I call the “Little things” that foundationally shape the “Big things” (our trail rides and events).

Some of our little things have included:

Standing Still: Don’t eat right now. Don’t move a foot unless I as ask you to. If you do move- I can ask with energy and a lead rope cue for you to put that foot back in place. Stay in place for me to adjust your saddle, hose you off, spray you with fly spray (that was a huge breakthrough this week!), and in extension- while the pulse taker gets your heart rate, while the vet checks you over, and while the farrier is working.

Back Up: she has a decent back up but I have to ask loudly for it. (of course that’s my fault not hers- she is perfectly capable of hearing me ask more quietly). We are working on gently wiggling the lead rope and focusing on which foot I’m asking her to move- also being able to ask her from a foot or more away and not having to enter her space to get her to move back.

Come to me: clucking for us means to come closer. So after getting her to back away from me a few feet and stand there, clucking to her to ask her to come closer is a great tool to have (it is also useful in the mounting block, or mounting rock, log on the trail.. etc)

Leading perfectly: her head at my shoulder. Don’t lag/drag when I move, stop when I stop, back up with my feet, trot out when I jog, slow down or speed up at will and don’t eat when we’re working.

Mounting: Coming to me at the mounting block, then standing quietly as long as I want- and not moving one foot once I get on until I ask her to.

Load up: she is great about walking right on the trailer if I lead the way. Eventually I’d like her to load up and step on while I stand behind her. She’s done it a couple times, but we’re not quite there regularly yet.

Some of these things are basics that we just do, like leading. Every time I get her out of the field and bring her into the barn we practice this. It doesn’t take much time and occasionally I’ll challenge her with some speed changes and stops or back ups together just to be sure she’s “tuned up”.

Unfortunately I get into the habit that her basic manners are fine and we don’t need to do much groundwork now- we did that already right?

Could there be more layers of learning available there that we are leaving on the table? Could it be this is more than “work” or making sure a horse is safe with good manners? I think what is really developed from the ground is communication and connection. It’s not work actually- it’s learning to have a conversation, and it’s spending time listening to your horse on their level. Literally.

I am reminded again that ground communication is a much deeper relationship builder than riding work. I was ‘forced’ into substantial ground communication with Khaleesi when I first brought her home because that was all we had and it is the base of the great relationship we have today. I am convinced it couldn’t have happened otherwise, I love Faygo and she and I have a really good relationship, but our relationship is built more from riding than ground communication over the years and it is definitely a different relationship. I’d like to work on that as well with her.

…….. In fact Faygo seems to hate being in an arena/ring. She doesn’t like repetitive tasks. She is impatient. I’d like to find out this winter if that is indeed true, or if she just hasn’t felt like anyone is truly having a conversation with her and she’s sick of having someone talk “at” her instead of work with her? She is incredibly smart. She seems to have learned how to function in the human world, but maybe she would open up to a conversation on her level. At her age it might take a little time for her to believe me, but this winter that’s a project for me to try….

Some of these things can be incredibly time consuming and don’t fit into a riding agenda day. Who wants to wait 5 or more minutes while we hang around the mounting block before hitting the trail? Who wants to watch us work on standing still for fly spray application… as of last week that could have taken 20 minutes of patiently just putting her feet back in place, getting one spray in, then putting her feet back in place….

No one – nor should they!

This is the foundation we work on when no one is waiting for us to hit the trail! In the busy pace of life, and riding goals appear larger than the time available, it’s easy for me to forgo this time and figure we’ll get our ‘training on the trail’.

Note: Of course we are training on the trail. We are training every time we interact with our horse- we are training good habits and positive relationships, or bad habits and negative relationships. Training on the trail isn’t bad, just maybe not sufficient for the relationship I hope for with my horse.

It has been a new challenge for me to combine “stand still” with “fly spray” because of how terrible Khaleesi used to be with the spray. She used to dance around me in circles as if being lunged on too short a rope occasionally rearing up and trying to bite the bottle.

I wasn’t sure the best way to deal with this except that maybe she’d eventually “desensitize”, realize she wasn’t hurt by the fly spray, and get tired of working herself up with it. Armed with the stand still work we set out to fly spray calmly. At first she would move around- much much better than the crazy fly spray dance, but not standing still as I’d asked.

With absolutely no time-line, I would spray her, put her feet back in place (sometimes having to put the spray down and two handed work the lead rope as she said “NO WAY am I standing around for you to do that to me!” I’d get her back in place as calmly and matter of factly as possible then pick up the bottle and spray again. Each time she’d move, but eventually just a step instead of completely trying to run me over to get out of the ‘zone’. Finally, about 2 weeks later, I took this video of her standing still while I sprayed her. She isn’t perfect yet, but she is doing great and each time we do it, the moving, stepping, and dancing is less.

Then there’s the mounting block.

Yesterday, bareback with only a halter it must have taken me 15 minutes to move her around the block again when she’d move a foot as I tried to get on her. Once she was SO CLOSE, she positioned herself perfectly, I rubbed her while she stood quietly, then leaned over and almost was on her when she walked off!

I was on, but that was not good enough. I dropped down, walked her calmly back to the block and we tried again. And again, and again, and again as each time she’d get in place perfectly… but at some point would move a foot or step off as I started to get on her. Thankfully Pam is gracious and we didn’t have a time-limit. She encouraged me to do it as many times as it took for her to hear me ask for what I wanted, and then learn to respond correctly.

Eventually there was a time she stood there with her ears back- I think she knew what we were trying to do and just was getting annoyed with the process. We stood there, her in place for what seemed like a LOOOOOOONG time. We waited. And at some point she softened and shook her head and licked her lips and there was a change in her. She was more willing to have the conversation.  After that it clicked and she did not walk off as I leaned over and climbed on her bareback.

That moment came from me doing NOTHING. Just waiting and reading her energy. (And Pam helping me realize that it was an opportunity. I am not naturally good at waiting and doing nothing in order to get results)

What I love the most about these things is that we are learning to talk to each other- or I am learning to communicate better with her while she realizes I truly am willing to speak her language. This process is pretty time consuming, but the rewards have been overwhelming. Also, once we gain understanding it is always improved going forward. The ground we gain has solid footing (as long as I don’t ‘untrain’ it in the future!) We have a conversation going that is much more balanced and our relationship which was good before is deepening as is our connection.

Also, this is different than true “non-agenda” time. I used to think that was bonding time- when we’d just go in the barn, and I’d groom my horse and give her attention and love and not ask for anything. While this is nice to do, I have begun to realize that though (depending on your horse who may not really like all the hands on attention) this might be a nice treat for them, it does not work on our relationship. My horse doesn’t need me to fawn over her and treat her like a princess to realize I love her. My horse needs me to learn her language. We don’t grow together into a deeper relationship because I adore her and brush her. We grow together when we interact.

Too often I believe we don’t know how to speak to our horses so they understand us- that creates a wall between us. I’ve seen a night and day difference in Khaleesi in a poor communication from me vs. a clear one.

One of the first times I was aware of this was trying to adjust her saddle at Pam’s in July and she kept eating grass which made the process harder on me. I would jerk her head up with the lead rope and ask her “stop and stand still” and her head would pull up as I jerked, then she would go right back. Pam watched a moment and said:

She doesn’t understand ‘pulling’ on her head. That’s not how horses communicate. They don’t ‘pull’. Would you like to teach her to stand quietly while you do that?

I thought OF COURSE I would like her to do that……… is that possible?

Pam took the lead rope and every time she went to get a bite of grass she popped the rope so it popped her in the head/neck (didn’t hurt her, just surprised her). She jerked her head up on her own and looked at Pam with a clear recognition.

That human just spoke to me” is what her face said- completely different from the inaudible chatter that my pulling her head up was to her.

She looked at Pam, and put her head down to eat again.

Pop with the lead rope- head comes up.

Looked at Pam. Obvious thought and processing going on.

Put her head partway down, did not reach for grass… testing the water.

No pop.

Ok. I am allowed to move my head.

Head slowly to the ground, sniffs, (no rope correction)…… takes a bite.


Head up. Looking at Pam, thinking it over.

Within 2 minutes she stood quietly and did not eat or mover her feet.

She heard someone speak to her clearly in her language and I saw it in her face. Some might say she “knew” what I wanted when I pulled her head up with the lead rope. She was just being willful. I take this example to be proof that is not true. It did not take weeks to change this behavior, it took minutes. There had been a wall between us in that instance, this shattered the wall. Choosing the correct method of communication was the only difference. I wanted to be part of that conversation.

I don’t want to just be a good rider. I want to be a horseman, a great one someday. One that listens to my horses and wins their respect and their friendship because I hear them and can communicate more clearly. We can’t grow together with bad or no communication.

I thought I was on a journey to a 100 mile ride. Turns out it’s bigger than that. It’s a labor of love.


The Big South Fork

Monday, September 14, 2015

I was on the fence about this ride.

I worried about the long drive. I worried that we would drive all that way for a miserable ride in the pouring rain and lightning. I worried that I have too much to do to give three full days to this self-indulgent hobby turned obsession that is endurance riding for me.

The drive was long. It took just under 10 hours to get there. The day was warm and I have to keep it slower as it threatens to overheat on the mountainous Virginia highways. I worried about dehydration and unloaded Khaleesi twice (every 3 hours or so) to eat some grass and  apples, move her legs and get a drink. I loved seeing how good she was at the grassy areas at the truck stops. She didn’t mind the activity or sounds a bit. She was a good traveler.

at one of the truck stops
at one of the truck stops

We got in later than I’d expected but still got set up and were able to vet-in before dinner and the ride meeting. I used a small pop-up tent this trip in case we were tacking up in the rain, at least I could start semi-dry and ride out in my new raincoat. Also, the pop-up covered most of her enclosure, so I’d hoped she might stay at least somewhat dry.

The way I had to park (spots were at a premium with largest turnout they’d had for this ride in years) I could only tie to one side of my trailer. I planned to attach the corral to that side as well. We would be doing everything in there, under the tent. I set up the pop-up alone (it took a few extra minutes but I did it!) and put it in place and walked her under it thinking after the fact “Gee, I’m glad she didn’t freak out about being underneath that huge ‘tarp-thing’! It was just about at her head height!” We hadn’t practiced that at home. I tied her to the trailer and built the corral around her while she ate hay.


Base Camp
Base Camp under stormy skies

With not much time to hit the vets, she wasn’t even brushed, but we got all As and a pink L110 on her hind and we were good to go. It stormed during the ride meeting, medium rain, lightning and thunder. It passed over us and back at the trailer, things began to quiet down so of course (my loud-mouth girl) Khaleesi began calling out to see who was around… horses from afar would start calling back and then after a few would quiet down again. Then she’d start it up… I must have the loudest horse in the AERC.


Finally she stopped and and as I tucked myself into my hammock (in the trailer) the rain came and went gently on the roof and I slept on and off listening to her munching, drinking QUIETLY. At least until about 4am when she thought it was a good time to see if everyone made it through the night. I am pretty sure it was she who broke the silence and started talking again. I laid there and finally got up around 5am to get ahead of the game. It always seems like so much time in the morning, and then I’m barely tacked up for the start time. Today I wanted her to be ready early. We weren’t going out dead last today. Goal was to get into mid-pack and see how we do.

Thankfully she was dry, and it wasn’t raining. it was cool- good for the horses. The only thing I forgot this weekend (which was unfortunate but not disastrous) was my mini-press pot for coffee. I had the camping percolator but I hate dealing with that thing, it’s terrible for just one or two cups and at 5am it takes way too long. The first time I thought it was done the water was still clear at the bottom, then I turned up the heat and somehow boiled it dry. I added water again and finally got some weak excuse for coffee- that was at least something. I decided the next morning to just get out of dodge and hit a coffee shop en route.


I tied on my big raincoat knowing the last weather I checked promised 60% chance of rain ALL morning. I’d never tied this raincoat on before… I didn’t have the best ties for it, I used some good boot shoestrings and left it in the twine I’d wrapped it up in. We were ready to go in time to check in 20 minutes before start (I still did so on foot, no sense getting her all worked up yet)- though I realized my GPS had been left in my crew bag, and I’d sent that on ahead to the vet-check already. Today I was the anti-gizmo. No heart rate monitor, no GPS, my phone on airplane mode to conserve battery (no service in camp… as usual).

We took a walk around camp under saddle just to get moving and hit the trail just after they called the start time. We walked past the timers, gave our number and I let her start trotting slowly out. We hit the trail and she was good to go! Which would have been fantastic – except pretty quickly my raincoat was coming undone. I tried to salvage it under saddle… I didn’t care how it stayed on, but it’s one of my most valuable articles and there was no way I would risk losing it on the trail. We screwed around with it for a few minutes walking/trotting… trying to get her to stand in place a minute reins in my teeth, and in the end end I knew it was futile. We HAD to stop and fix it. Darn.. loosing valuable time to equipment kinks, and she was not going to like this one bit.

I hopped off and she was not happy. A slower rider camp up behind and graciously stopped to wait for us. She was not in a hurry and told me that I might want to take a breath- maybe my horse was reading my agitation. (oh… yeah… right! thanks) of course it only marginally helped. She wanted to GO… there were other horses out there! I did what I could to re-tie the coat while she did not stand so quietly, then I got back on with a little difficulty (standing still!) and off we went again. It took about 5 minutes of trotting for the raincoat to begin to slide out again. This time I did stay on and began pulling parts of it through the loop top of my cantle bag. It was all over the place, but it seemed secure enough, and it didn’t bother her a bit. I could feel part of it behind my left leg, so I knew it was there (hopefully would notice if i lost it) and we kept going forward.

the “snack” bridge… with grass growing on it

Thankfully we had a good pace going and we did pass a few other riders which meant we were not last. We eventually caught up to two riders who seemed to be going a perfect pace. We had to move to keep up, but they weren’t leaving us behind. Khaleesi and I settled in to shadow them and see what happened. Turns out we rode the entire rest of the ride together, at least Sabina and I did. Her partner ended up pulling at the vet check for a slightly lame front hoof (possibly a bruise?).

Our first ride together two weeks ago we led a new horse the entire ride, this time we followed Sabina and Leon, an experienced rider who goes back and forth between 30s and 50s depending on her training schedule. For this ride the other horse (who pulled) had been on a 2-year break and this was his first ride back. So the 30 mile LD worked best for them.

Turns out it did not rain that morning. At all. Good thing I fought with that raincoat- I’m sure if I hadn’t had it the rain would have poured!

Example of rock formations we rode past- blurry because we were moving!
Example of rock formations we rode past- blurry because we were moving!

The ride was stunning- huge rock formations big as buildings along the way, pretty woods, lots of streams, and crossing Big South Fork was really a treat. With rain that week the river was up- actually it was about as high as it can get before they detour and do not cross. The picture at the top of the blog is (by Becky Pearman) of the river crossing. We were focused on staying in between the boulders (park rules) that you could barely see due to the water level. She didn’t mind the depth at all and depending where you stepped it got even deeper, the guy riding with us on the 16H Thouroughbred was in over his feet where he crossed.

crossing Big South Fork
crossing Big South Fork

A few miles from vet check 1 at a brief water stop that she wasn’t drinking at, I was trying to feed her an apple (I carried a few with me to encourage her to snack on the go and also provide some moisture) and as I lured her head with the apple she sniffed it and refused and I thought I saw something… I asked her again (gently) to turn toward me and she had pinkish/reddish saliva around her lips. Blood.

Except refusing the apple, she wasn’t acting odd or uncomfortable, though I think she had shaken or jerked her head once or twice in a way that was unusual for her recently… in the past… uh… little while? Not continuously though… and I couldn’t think of anything that would have done that like stepping on her reins, or an accidental hard jerk on her mouth… I had been trying to encourage her to eat an occasional apple- had she bitten her tongue? Maybe back as far as when I got off her to fix the raincoat and she was fighting with me refusing to stand still. Also Pam and I had lowered her bit a few days previously. We checked and it did not interfere with her teeth, and had less potential for pinching her mouth this way. That could have something to do with it, but didn’t seem like a good reason.

She didn’t appear to have blood pouring out her mouth- so I decided to continue riding as we were into the vet check and get a better look there.

We rode into the vet check (almost 14 miles) at 2.5 hours giving us a decent first loop pace. It took me a few minutes to find my bag (this vet check did not have many volunteers, and was a little hard for me to sort out what was going on at first). Not very efficient, I eventually just dumped my saddle in some random area and took out her bit- checking her mouth though not too invasively and saw no more sign of any blood and decided she must have had a quick small injury that was not an issue. Brought her to pulse in after about 6 minutes because I couldn’t waste any more time looking around for my bag/spot before getting our out time. Due to all the time we pulsed in at 48 (fantastic!) and flew through the vetting.


I did remember my chair, but only sat in it briefly. The area was crowded with all the crew gear and it was all I could do to keep Khaleesi from eating everyone else’s food (in bowls unattended, which is annoying to me). Apparently she didn’t have a serious mouth injury that affected her eating! I tried to move away a few things to create enough space to tie her so she could only reach her own food, hay and apples and sat to eat my roll up for a whole 3 minutes before it was time to start tacking up again (hate to wait too long and be rushed!).

Sabina and I decided to ride the home loop together and as we headed out I told her we were looking to push ourselves, and her pace had been great for us. I asked her to lead the way at whatever pace she wanted and we would just do our best to stay with her. If I felt it wasn’t going to work I would tell her and we could either modify or separate. Don’t wait for us if we lag, and if we come up a little quick, we are not trying to pass. I did not feel she needed to “be in the front” this ride. I know she can do that. I wanted to learn from a team who had been riding AERC rides for 10 years and often had been top 5 if she was riding alone.

loved all the neat rock formations along the trail
loved all the neat rock formations along the trail

She told me the first loop was a little slower than she would have gone for the other horse- he was now waiting back at vet check for a ride home, so we took off and kicked it up a notch on the longer loop back. Leon has a great fast extended trot- Khaleesi and I often switched between trotting and slow cantering to keep up with him. I don’t mind that, it gave us both a break from the relentless trotting to canter here and there. I enjoyed Sabina and we shared some nice conversation (and just rode in agreeable silence too).

My favorite part of this ride was coming out of the woods to this stretch. The sky was rich blue, clouds puffy white, temps were mild… it was September in all it’s glory.


We only walked where the footing was too rocky or too deep, and one relentless steep hill. Sabina let Leon trot then canter up and as we’d turn a corner it would get steeper… Khaleesi followed behind but tired quicker and up the trail I saw Leon stop and Sabina hop off. I wondered if she was adjusting something and thought “good- we’ll catch up to them” and she immediately just started hoofing it herself up the trail. We did catch them and I did the same. She said “This was as far as he was able to canter, so it’s the point I get off and give him a break as we walk up the rest of the way. If he’s walking,I might as well be walking too”. We were only maybe half way.

At the top, we got on and let them walk a little more to catch their breath (I was breathing harder than Khaleesi was!) and with an “Are we all good now?” away we went again.

at one of the water troughs- she drank a lot on the second loop
at one of the water troughs- she drank a lot on the second loop

On our first loop Khaleesi took no water and no grass. I gave her electrolytes in powerade & applesauce at the VC, she drank half a tank of water before we headed out, and she drank at every stream and every water tank on the second half. It was warmer, dryer, and she’d been out longer as well. She sweat a bit, but often was dry and didn’t seem to find the workload too hard. It was only the last 4 or so miles on a boring, but easy flat dirt road she began to lag and I had to ask her for more, we had to trot trot trot, then canter (more often than previously) to keep up with Leon. I hadn’t needed to ask her to keep up wit Leon before now. I realized she was getting tired, but I didn’t think she was going to hurt herself- this is where we had to push on and break through. She did.

After I got home I read a reprinted article about training and over-riding horses in the Endurance News and the author suggested the ideal workload is when you tire your horse around the last 20% of the ride. Not to exhaustion but to where you sense they are getting tired but can still carry on the same basic pace if you ask them. If they reach this point too early in the ride you have over-ridden the horse and will cause harm to continue in the same pace. If they don’t get tired then you should push a little more. I believe we hit this mark just about perfectly! 

Just as we began to think the finish was a couple miles off we saw camp through the trees. The trail wound around the outside of base camp, so we knew we were very close. We jumped off and walked the rest of the way in and crossed the finish line together. Saddles off, we took just a minute before heading to the pulse box. We both pulsed in within a minute of each other to be 10th and 11th place. With 25 riders started that day that put us easily in the mid-pack goal I had set out with. Thanks to Sabina letting us ride along and learn from her we were almost in the top 10! Our moving pace on the second loop was 6.1mph according to my GPS which was not bad at all!


We went through the vet and had no trouble. Attitude and impulsion were good! she is doing much better trotting out with me now that we’ve been practicing She had no soreness or tack issues, gut sounds were all +s, cardiac recovery went from 60 down to 56 after the trot out. She was alert and happy, was barely sweaty (I’d left my sponge and scraper in the crew bag, but ended up not feeling the need to rinse her off anyway) drank a ton more water and ate her hay and grain back at the trailer.

I grabbed a refreshing drink and hand walked her around and out of camp to find some greens to munch and stretch her legs for a while and rubbed her and told her how amazing she was. She walks through camp like she owns it- calling around her to the other horses just to chat as she goes. She’s calm- it’s not stress calling like when she was looking for Faygo- it’s like she just has the need to announce herself and talk to the other horses.

hand grazing lazily after the ride
hand grazing lazily after the ride

We had these horse neighbors in camp that always stood right next to each other like little twins watching us. I never saw their people, but they were always side-by-side and too cute not to get a picture of.

i called them the twins
i called them the twins

Also, on our walk around camp to graze and stretch our legs we saw this horse who apparently found the bag of carrots and was working on pulling them out one at a time… cracked me up…


I couldn’t close the top 1/4 door by the corral because of the way I’d set up the pop up tent, so that was always left open at night and at some point Khaleesi realized I was in there and sometimes she’d pop her head up through the corral or over top of it. As it got dark she’d put her nose all the way around as if to ask “Are you still in there? What are you doing?” I’d go over and say hi and rub her nose and chat for a minute and she’d go back to eating. She did this a bunch of times Saturday night. What a character.

The trailer corner of the corral... she learned to poke her head around and check me out that evening
The trailer corner of the corral… she learned to poke her head around and check me out that evening

I love to head home after a 30 mile ride and let her in a big field, and me hit the hot tub, and relax and catch up with Ed, but with the long drive we had to stay the second night. Once we start doing 50s we will likely also have to stay the second night. One perk was a glorious nap in the afternoon instead of packing up to go. Dinner was BBQ and it was nice to stay for awards and see how everyone else did. I spent some time packing up as much as possible that night so all I had to do was load my corral and horse and get on the road before the 100 milers went out on Sunday at 7am.

The next morning I was up at 4am… Khaleesi smacked her hay bag loudly with a thump on the side of the trailer, I think she was trying to get me up. After being jarred awake and wondering panicked “oh no- did she just push the fence over?” (of course not, but I was half asleep and strange things come to mind before you’re fully awake). I rolled out of the hammock to look and she was standing there chewing on hay.

Might as well get up and roll out! It took me a while in the dark, trying to stay at least somewhat quiet to finish packing up and take down the panels. She loaded on a little after 5am and we got out of camp and on the road close to 5:30. After about 2 hours, close to Knoxville we stopped at a starbucks where I ordered and then hit the restroom glad for a mirror where I also brushed my hair and did a good hand wash. After the coffee appeared I felt almost human again!

Starbucks & apple stop around Knoxville
Starbucks & apple stop around Knoxville

We hit the road again, moving faster today in the cold morning (the truck runs better in the cold) and had an uneventful drive home. It felt so good to pull in and unload her. The horses came running to welcome her back, and once I took off her halter in the big field I thought she’d run off kicking her heels and doing pirouettes (I’ve seen this before) in joy from being home again, but she stood next to me for a minute while I rubbed on her and took a few bites of grass… then she walked a few steps for some better grass and didn’t seem to be in any hurry. After she got a few feet away Faygo came in to say hello and I gave her some scratching and love time. Khaleesi took a big roll and sauntered over to the water tank. I headed home and hit the hot tub (after some unloading).

Looking back, we did improve! And learned some new things too.

Get an extra press pot that lives in the camping box. Never be without good coffee again!

Buy the lightweight saddle pack that goes with the raincoat and clip it on next time.

We picked up the pace. Yes, I would have loved to pick it up even more and creep into that top ten, but I think we found the appropriate balance. She got tired, but still seemed happy and she was sound and healthy at the end.

Look up, and ride better… those were my riding goals from the past ride. Thinking about this early on the ride I had a motto: Trust our feet. Hers and mine.

Trust her to set her feet, don’t look down. I definitely improved this and it helped us with keeping up our speed too- I was always looking up the trail a little ways and I found she almost never tripped or slipped. I can’t remember one time actually. True, the footing was basically good, but there were rocky sections and mud and plenty of chances to trip up.

I needed to trust that if I kept my heels down/toes up I would not fly out of the stirrups and the saddle. I have been riding in fear of losing a stirrup (like that is the end of the world) and tried to find a good spot on the ball of my foot where I could stay balanced. It helped.

I did ride better. I wasn’t perfect, and I still felt a little jarred around sometimes, especially watching Sabina in front of me who seemed to be exactly in balance and never wavered from her seat no matter what. I think I was a little more leaned forward for this ride than I’d like, but at least I wasn’t siting behind my feet. We mostly posted, but a very occasional 2-point and on uphills I found I could actually do a few sitting steps too balancing better on my heels and almost hovering. A few times we really hit a sweet spot and it was easy. I almost never had to grab the saddle to stabilize.

Our trot outs and standing still for the vet were also better. She occasionally tried to step away from the stethoscope, but basically stood nicely and stayed with me on the trots.

Aside from the need to continue to improve my riding skills overall, and continued fine tuning of her standing nicely when asked, we really hit the mark on this ride and I was very proud of her and pleased with my own improvement. Two days later I’m a little ‘sore’ or tight in a few spots- thighs mostly, but not jarred around sore like the last ride. We are efficient in the vet-stations, have the crew bag needs down, and have picked up speed.

I think having a ride only 2 weeks from our first ride was really helpful for us because the things I wanted to improve were fresh in my mind. It was absolutely worthwhile for us to stretch our comfort zone to get to the Big South Fork ride. We now have just under a month until our last ride of the season: the open LD (25) at the national championships in Old Dominion territory over in Oarkney Springs.

I am looking forward to this ride because it should be exciting (lots of people from all around) and it’s right in our backyard. Also, my future crew, Sarah and Madison are coming and Madison is going to ride Faygo as a junior rider along with Khaleesi and I.

I’ll be spending the next couple weeks focusing on getting Faygo ready for this ride, and it should be cool enough that she will do well. We will plan to stay in the back of the pack, be kind to Faygo and Madison, and not be pushing our limits. I’ve heard the OD courses are tough- this is good for us because when people say that, they are speaking of the things Faygo excels at: rocky terrain and mountains. I wanted Madison to have the experience of riding an AERC ride since she’s going to be helping me, and I enjoy her company and she does fantastic with Faygo.

With my teaching schedule in full gear this week, team green signs off for a little break for Khaleesi, she’s earned it!


Needs improvement.

Wednesday, September 2, 2015

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

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


Ok enough of that. Now we move on.

The “A-” was generous.

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

YES! We did it!

Then we did it again… and celebrated!

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

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

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

Now at the trot.

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


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

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

It felt amazing- we were getting this. HUGE.

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

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

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

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

How FUN is that!?

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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