Mountaintop Riding

Tuesday, October 26, 2015

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

Trying the Synergist again
Trying the Synergist again

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

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

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

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

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

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

I look up one side.

Way too steep. Big boulders.

Down?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

on the trail
on the trail

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

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

Synergist:

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

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

Imus/Phoenix Rising 4beat:

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

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

As for riding… Training and the rest of it…

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

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

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

IMG_3606

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.

IMG_3583

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.

IMG_3591

The No Frills

Saturday, April 25, 2015: Race Day

4:45am: I am not freezing. In fact I’m snugly warm in my cocoon. The first time I woke up was 1:20am. I think there was a loose horse stampeding around outside. I have always heard you don’t get much sleep before your ride. That seems like it would make it even more challenging for 50 and 100 rides.

IMG_8942
Early morning in camp
I was comfortable and dozed on and off. I could hear Faygo munching, drinking (yeah! Maybe the electrolytes are helping) and  she peed at least twice.

Now at almost 5am people are beginning to move around. Flashes of headlamp beams break the dark on occasion and horses are starting to nicker. I guess it’s breakfast time (for them).
My ride time is not until 8:30am but I’ll probably get up soon too. I am awake!
I wrote that from my hammock, and once I got up at around 5:15 I didn’t stop moving until I got home that evening. The rest of this is written as a history of the day for me… looking back from the next morning.

Written on Sunday, April 26, 2015

The first announcements through camp came about 5:30am.

Coffee in the dark before sunrise.
Coffee in the dark before sunrise.
GOOOD MORNING Star Tannery. Official race clock is 5:32am. Coffee is available in the farm house. Check in for the 55 begins at 6am at the start. 55 start time is 7am, 30 start time is 8:30. 

I decided to make my own cup of coffee and start kicking around even though I had “plenty” of time. Somehow that’s when things go wrong for me- when I feel like I have “plenty of time”. That’s when I usually run out of time. So it couldn’t hurt to get everything sorted out sooner.

Faygo was happy. I started out with breakfast for her as it’s not great to have a big meal and then ride hard. She got electrolytes, cough free, Springtime, applesauce and a small amount of water. She doesn’t love the soupy mash I’d been trying to get her to eat all week to increase her water intake. She’s started leaving some of it behind at the end. Since she drank almost her whole bucket of water through the night I went easy on the water. She left some supplement granules behind so I’d add a few more handfuls of grain until she’d licked the bowl clean.

I knew the rain was coming at some point today- so I tried to organize and break down camp as much as possible while it was still dry, and help me pull out that evening if we were healthy enough.

Walked up to the farmhouse to see what they had for breakfast- just some granola bars and the coffee was ok. The farmhouse itself was a falling down old house that had been turned into the shop/storage/greaseroom and though farmhouse sounded to me like a bed and breakfast scene, it was nothing that nice (this is the no frills you know!).

I thought “No Frills” was just a ride name, but actually, it’s a kind of ride.

A “No Frills” ride is one with a focus on the fundamentals – well-marked and accurately measured trail, good vetting, enough horse water to be safe, and that is about it! All you really have to have for base camp is a large area for people to safely park.  (I’d add “flat” to that sentence, but having camped in many, many less than flat fields over the years, I can attest that that is not a necessity.) Even water is negotiable. We all agree that you have to have a minimum amount of horse water available to make a ride safe and successful, but many riders haul their own [This ride we did have to haul water].

Technically offering coffee at all is a “frill” but as some folks said at the ride meeting: “this is the frilliest no frills ride in the region.”

I headed back to start grooming Faygo and chat with my neighbor who was tacking up for the 55 mile start time. I took my time grooming, braided her mane (to keep her neck cool- she has thick hair). And yes- by the time I was tacking up all that time was sifting away and though I didn’t need to rush, I was not tacked up 30 minutes prior to start time! That’s ok with me though because of a few things unique to us that day: #1 we were NOT here to be competitive, as our first ride on a horse with mild heaves we needed to go EASY. #2 that means we don’t need to run out at exactly the start time. While others are charging out the gate we needed to be walking around camp a few times ignoring the fact that a horse herd was leaving getting Faygo’s adrenaline up. #3 all that also meant to me that our “warm up” would be ON the trail. We didn’t need to add 30 minutes of riding around to warm up so we could safely start up the road at a fast gait.

Time is 8:13. 30 mile start at 8:30. Needing to check in: number 7, number 15, number 10, number 22.

OK OK… we’re coming… we still have at least 10 minutes!

All tacked up and ready to go. Packs had only necessities. Water full and ready… heart rate monitor watch on…. wait. I put the wristwatch on early to watch the time and to remind myself to put the heart rate monitor ON the horse. It didn’t work.

Time is 8:19. numbers 7 and 10 don’t forget to check in before you leave camp.

tacked up - ready to go
tacked up – ready to go
Well, we’re riding without the monitor. We’ve used it in training. I know what to look for, and Martha and Stephanie helped me with checking for pulse by hand for the vet stations. We’re not putting it on now. Time to go!

I checked in at the desk and we turned back to camp and walked around between the campers a bit as the announcement came: Course open for 30 mile. Ride Safe! Have fun!

We stalled a minute or two and walked out the last ones out of camp. VERY EXCITED to be doing this!

The first loop is what they call the ride before the first vet check (it is not actually a loop, it is a climb to a ridge trail to an “away” vet check). They told us it was about 12 miles, but my GPS said we got there around 9 miles. I caught up quickly to the “two Marys” from Ohio. They had been doing this a long time and one of the Marys had completed some 100s, but today was training a 6 year old new horse in the 30. They said they planned to take it “ultra conservative” and I said I’d love to ride with them a while. We walked the first long hill out of camp which was also paved, and then did some light intervals, gaiting (them trotting) a bit then walking a bit, then gaiting a bit, then walking a bit. Once we hit some nice ground and were warmed up we basically stayed at a gait as much as possible. I rode behind them and got to know them a bit. They were jealous of anyone who lived in terrain like this (which is about the same as where I live) because it’s so good for training in. Lots of hills/mountains, rocks, forrest, streams… There were lots of places where the footing was very rocky and rough- often rocks hardened into the trail that stuck up making it hard to pick through. We always walked these parts.

IMG_8973A few early lessons I learned: I decided last minute to leave my vest at camp. I was cold the whole first loop (not freezing, but I would not have taken it off had I had it with me). I hate having too much bulk, and was warm while at camp. I thought “it’s only going to get warmer- it’s a thick vest for tying on my saddle…. I’ll leave it. My rain jacket had gone ahead in my crew bag the night before as the rain wasn’t supposed to come in until later in the afternoon. Even though I had peed RIGHT before mounting up and walking out- early on I was cold and had to pee. Then it started hail/sleeting on us. THANKFULLY it wasn’t cold rain because though you could hear the sleet, and it was chilly out, it didn’t make my outer layer wet. That would have been bad. I thought weather report be damned ALWAYS have your rain jacket on you. I worried I’d made a pretty big mistake and would either get sick the next day from the chill, or that I wouldn’t be able to warm up and would be miserable all day. I tried to keep my mind off it by thinking about what a beautiful Looking back a day later… it really wasn’t that bad. I never got wet, and I did warm up.

More views from the first loop ridge trail
More views from the first loop ridge trail
About half a mile before the vet check was a nice stream. We had been doing downhill switchbacks with decent footing and the Marys on the Arabians from flat Ohio were being extra careful. Faygo is a fast downhill horse even in tricky terrain and I wanted to let her move so I asked them if it was ok for us to move ahead of them and they said of course. We hit the bottom of the hill right were the group ahead of us were finishing a drink so I decided to walk her in to see if she might get water and she took a great long drink (thank God for electolytes- I am certain she drank more than usual on this ride and figure it’s probably because of them). While we were drinking the Marys caught up and I waited for them while they tried to get their horses to drink. We could see trucks parked and knew the vet check was close, so we walked in from there together.

Pulled into vet check after about 2 hours on the trail at mile 9
Pulled into vet check after about 2 hours on the trail at mile 9
We pulled into the vet check last but still in good time, and the vets were very helpful. As soon as we walked through and said our “time-in” numbers:

Do you want to pulse now?

I don’t know… I’m new to this.. [I understand if you ask for a vet and your pulse isn’t down you waste everyone’s time and they ‘penalize’ you by making you wait for another check]

Well let me check her for you, [puts stethoscope to Faygo’s chest] ok… she’s at about 64 [we had to pulse down to 60 to pass, and you have 30 minutes to do so if you need it] … take a deep slow breath… that’s it… ok… [to the vet assistant] NUMBER 10, PULSE IN AT 60- GIVE OUT TIME 45 FROM NOW. [to me] ok- head over there where they’ll do the exam and watch for lameness.

The vet we got was the same really nice one who vetted us in and he asked how our first ride was going, said Faygo looked great and happy. We jogged out and back, they checked her over and she got all As again as we passed the “gate” into our “hold”.

The vet checks/holds are there for the horse to get a mandatory break. Otherwise endurance riding would be rewarding people who finish first because they didn’t rest their horse, so there is an agreed upon “hold” that changes depending on the race. Our (30 miler) hold was on 45 minutes (the 50 miler had 3 of these I believe) and then at the final 1/3 one “gate and go” which was 10 minutes.

crew bags at the vet station with a water bucket, a flake of hay, and your choice of wet beet pulp or senior feed.
crew bags at the vet station with a water bucket, a flake of hay, and your choice of wet beet pulp or senior feed.
The “gate” is pulsing down to 60bpm then passing your vet check. At that point they write your time on your vet card and you can’t leave for 45 minutes. Thus, if you come running into the vet check and it takes your horse 10 minutes to pulse down to 60, you will have had to stop for 55 minutes instead of 45 like people who walked in. So when you know your horse well and do this enough- you have a good feel for how long in what weather your horse takes to pulse down, and if it makes sense for you to push moving into the vet checks or if you really will be better walking in and being pulsed down upon arrival.

We headed to the crew bag area and there were volunteers to help hold your horse while you used the porta potty, and bring you and your horse a snack. PB&Js, granola bars, people and horse water, senior feed, wet beet pulp, flakes of hay, everyone had a bucket of water. The feed was all donated by the local Southern States (you guys are AWESOME). Again- the frilliest no frills ride in the region.

At the vet check I thought “45 minutes… that’s a long time… i could take a nap…” I took off Faygo’s saddle, made sure she had snack- tried to keep her from eating all her neighbor’s snacks (to a mare, everything within smelling distance is “mine”), went pee and put on my rain jacket, ate a granola bar, prepared an electrolyte for Faygo, drank a vitamin water… and WHOA, seriously, 5 minutes to go… I still need to re-tack! The Marys (with the same exit time as me) were walking to mount and asked if I’d like them to wait for me. HOW NICE PEOPLE ARE!

I said no way- we just weren’t quite ready but Faygo would be fine, and they should go on- we will catch up I’m sure. 

They said “With that horse, no doubt you will!” and headed out. 

In the end my 45 minute hold was closer to 55 minutes, but it’s ok. It’s a learning experience not a “race” for us today.

As we left the “out-timer” and called our number the guy (more lighthearted than mean) said “we know- you were ‘out’ ten minutes ago” We were the last in- we had to be the last out… but that’s ok!

IMG_8997Leaving vet check Faygo was fresh and a little peeved at me for letting us be LAST and LEFT BEHIND. It was a beautiful wide grass road mostly flat with small inclines- we gaited along about 10mph smiling ear to ear. THIS IS THE MOST FUN WE’VE EVER HAD!

After a few minutes riding alone we caught up to some the Marys again and Faygo called out to their horses like a wild woman “We’re COMING hold up… I can smell you” she seemed to yell as we got closer. We said hi and passed them as they were trotting easy and we had a good faster pace going and caught up to some younger riders who were moving faster. They asked if we’d like to pass and I said no-thank you, and we stayed a bit behind them for a while. Once the trail left the ‘road’ and went back up the mountain, the footing got rough again and everyone slowed down. The younger girls were a ways ahead, the marys caught up; I asked if they wanted to pass and they said no- they wouldn’t go any faster than we were through this footing, and they were assured that if any horse was going to hold them up it wasn’t going to be Faygo.

Coming up from the valley
Coming up from the valley
This was what April told me later was the most “demoralizing” part of the no frills. Actually I thought it was fun, but we had to slow down and the ground got rougher and rockier. Faygo is a champ at what they call “technical” riding, it’s her strong suit. She is surefooted and can navigate pretty hard terrain and her walk is really fast. So we led the middle pack through the worst of it… and then it got worse yet! We headed down into the bottom where this creek ran and much of the trail was along (in) the creek. I would look for the next white ribbons and think “Seriously? IS that trail?” considering over 50 riders had already come through here it seems like it would be more obvious. This part was some of the roughest riding I’ve done with the exception of places I’ve wandered exploring with my GPS and prayed to God my horse made it out ok. I did not fish out my camera for pictures here- but we were on large rock stairs in the creek beds with sections where there was no where for a hoof to go. This is the “middle loop” and it was something!

Quick shout out to Brandon my amazing farrier! We had no problem with our shoes on this really rough ride, and my horses feet were in good shape. I know some people did not complete this ride due to shoes and hoof issues. Not surprising- in fact it’s almost surprising more people didn’t have issues!

A look at some of the trail... not the worst of it by far!
A look at some of the trail… not the worst of it by far!
When we finally came out of that bottom (by the way it WAS beautiful down there!) we started going back up with the embedded rough rocks, so mostly still walking. By the time we popped back out onto a decent road my horse was still fresh (that was slow going) and cheered for some easy terrain and trot/gaited for a few more miles into the “gate and go” around mile 18.

Back at vet check station (same one) you call your number as you approach and you get your out time (10 minutes later) automatically. There is no pulse down here. You have to jog by the vets to leave to be sure you don’t have any leg lameness. I stopped at my bag, electrolyted Faygo one more time, she ate some hay, I had a cheese sandwich (thanks No Frills) and took a quick pee. I walked her to the water trough and she took a big long drink (yeah again!) At 10 minutes exactly we were gaiting past the vets and had a “good to go #10” as we headed out for the “final loop”.

along the trail!
along the trail!
This was the infamous hard packed road. It goes on about 7 miles and is mostly flat. We trotted along with the Marys but they wanted to do some walking and as another pair of riders, April & Griffin, asked to pass I said “I think I’m going to join them” so we parted ways to move out a bit faster. We had a good speed and after a couple miles dropped into the creek for another drink (YES! she drank again!) we walked once in a while just to break it up, but mostly we moved out. Once we were within a couple miles of the finish I felt like I couldn’t believe we had gone almost 30 miles. April said she had been watching us on and off through the day and was so impressed with Faygo. First of all she said “I’m jealous- you don’t even MOVE when you guys go” (the beauty of a gaited horse!) and second she said, “She doesn’t look like she just did 20 miles, she looks like you guys just left the barn!” I was SO proud of my horse. She was doing fantastic.

Final screenshot of the day
Final screenshot of the day
We went through the finish line together at almost 29 miles. I think the finish line is more for the 50 mile folks because though there was a tent set up and streamers- no one was there for us!! With an LD (limited distance) ride you don’t actually get a finish time until your pulse down to 60. The vets were about a mile away at camp, so after the finish line we all dropped back to walk and I “timed in” at 2:58pm. The vet asked if I wanted to pulse and I said I didn’t know for sure… she said “I can check you, we’re not too busy”. we were staying at 64bpm. She said go take off your saddle and give her a minute and come back.

So we untacked in the grass and moved slow-she took a long drink, she looked great. We pulsed in at 3:06pm and headed for final vet. They check for saddle sore spots, heat in legs, dehydration, gut sounds, and CRI which is a recovery index. Basically they take heart rate (60bpm now) and send you to jog out and back, watching that you are sound on all 4 legs, then in a certain number of seconds they test for heart rate again and you have to have recovered back to 60 or lower heart rate to pass). We got all A+ on our rider card. We COMPLETED! I was ecstatic, she was happy and healthy!

Faygo enjoying a post race meal of grain and applesauce
Faygo enjoying a post race meal of grain and applesauce
We headed back to camp for a post-race meal of applesauce, grain and hay stretcher and a butte (can’t hurt!). I gave her a rub and put a towel over her to keep from chill. What a great day! I never took off my raincoat. It never warmed up- but the weather was perfect for her.

I packed up camp slowly (she needed a break before we hit the road- trailering is work for a horse as they have to balance on twisty roads). Between breaking down camp I hand walked her around for more water and grass. I put on her light blanket and we hit the road as it began to really rain about 5:30 and it rained the whole drive home.

The drive took almost exactly 3 hours and we got in after dark to Khaleesi who was SO glad to see us. I walked in the door to Ed frying up some yummy bear nuggets and satueeing veggies in case I was hungry (what a guy!). A cold dreary rain outside I took a hot shower and took out my contact lenses (my eyes were dry, my hands were dry and scratchy) and then we talked about our days. I looked at myself in the mirror before bed and thought “You are a sight” red eyes, my hair a half-braided mess.. I was exhausted and fell into bed. Happy.

Postlude

Reflecting back, a few things I came away with…

I loved this and I can’t wait to do more! The people are fantastic and the horses are amazing.

Faygo the Fantastic... The Iron Lady... The queen!
Faygo the Fantastic… The Iron Lady… The queen!
Faygo did really really really really well. I could not have asked for better weather for her, and she never had breathing issues at all. She didn’t breathe any harder than any horse we rode with, and we did not stop except for the vet checks. No “rest” breaks, only occasional walks to give short rest from a hill or long jog. Her ears were forward and her step was light- she had fun. She was game. We were a great team! I believe she could do a 50 if the circumstances were good, but I’m not sure if I care to do that with her or not. We’ll see. It’s not the extended time or distances that I worry about with her, it’s only the speed and hills in heat. As Judy says “That girl is one tough mountain goat!”

The most obvious difference between endurance riding and trail riding with friends for me broke down into what is assumed. In trail riding walking is assumed unless someone “asks” if it’s ok to go faster. When you are with a group in endurance a trot/gait speed is assumed unless you have to slow down for footing. We “never” canter (ok… on that one pretty grassy trail where we were alone… yes… I’ll admit it, we cantered for a short time.. we couldn’t help it!). Also- that doesn’t mean no one canters- I didn’t ride with any top 10 finishers. Who knows what they do… they came in at least 2 hours before I did!

Post ride... Fantastic Faygo!
Post ride… Fantastic Faygo!
The trails are not perfect. We rode some gnarly sections today. Endurance horses and people are definitely not sissies running fast through manicured roads. That ride was pretty hard core in the middle loop. Also- much of it was absolutely beautiful, ridge views and the worst of the rocky valley was a little paradise if you could look up from the death trap you were walking through.

Limited Distance rides really are attainable by anyone and any horse with some preparation. We had tons of support and though I’ve ridden 30 miles in the past and been exhausted- there’s something in the air of an AERC event that we finished feeling like we could have done another 25! But the trick really is moving with some speed. It would have killed me to walk 30 miles.

Ride and Tie. I am GOING to do this. One horse, two riders, one tough race. I didn’t understand what this was until I met someone there who’d entered that event. This could be an AERC future for Faygo in hotter months… You have two people at the start, one person running (on foot!) and one riding. At an agreed upon distance the rider ties up the horse and the runner when she gets to the horse hops on and rides… to the next agreed upon distance where the same thing happens. YOU RUN AND RIDE. Yeah. I’m going to have to try that- and Faygo is so good at being tied. Supposedly it’s really good for a horse not quite in shape because it gets lots of rest breaks while the people run. Who thought of this!? Brilliant!

My “next step” goal is to see how Khaleesi does this summer with training. I would love to try a late fall LD ride and get someone to come ride Faygo while I ride Khaleesi and see how she does. This would mean I have to get her camping this summer, and continue her trail work. She’s a great age, and going along with Faygo would be a great training entry to the AERC world. Madison……… you would love this 🙂

Today… unpacking… relaxing… reflecting…

Official ride photo by Becky Pearman (at the vet in on Friday night)
Official ride photo (screenshot) by Becky Pearman (at the vet in on Friday night)