Eighth

May 1, 2019

I have struggled to write since my last post; it’s been the longest hiatus since I began the blog.

It’s not due to lack of activity or material as much as there have been many seeds coming up all over the place with no finished concepts maturing into a blog that would share a complete thought.

Once finding a new level of soft in myself and with Khaleesi more connection continued on our relationship. It seems each time I find a new level of connection and communication and wonder if I’ve arrived somewhere I find that no (to my delight!) there are deeper layers to go.

I continue to find more conversation in our interactions and encourage everyone with a horse to earnestly seek to hear what your horse is saying.

I think it speaks to our humanness that we desire to be or meet horse-whisperers not horse-listeners. It’s easy to whisper, it’s very difficult to listen to the whisper. If you wish your horse would respond to your whisper, then go first and listen to what she whispers. You’ll learn so much more that way.

It is slow and takes a lot of practice and you’ll get it wrong at times. It’s much harder than force and tools. But it’s worth everything.

I have dedicated much of this winter to helping my friend with her first as an adult mare. The horse is lovely and perfect for her.

She is committed to the gradual, patient process of unraveling the mare’s layers of physical balance and mental protection; allowing her to bloom in her own physical-mental-emotional systems. The process is going well but is time consuming requring time, consistency and growth in both of them.

I have seen God at work directing things and when you see him involved everything moves faster. Truly HE is able to do things much faster than our human brains and bodies can keep up with. Sometimes I hear Him laughing (uh, with us right) as we race to keep up with all the growth and change.

I have enjoyed helping the pair grow together even more than putting in hours of lonely miles on long trails.

I’m learning from their process as well.

While I have been shown in most cases the necessity of beginning with the mental system of the horse; this mare had physical system issues that blocked her ability to work in a balanced way in the mental and emotional systems.

Not being able to balance her body properly meant that in riding she couldn’t connect with her mental system and her emotional system would take over and she would rush into a haywire state of panic.

That’s a whole other blog I won’t write because she isn’t my horse- however it’s been beautiful positive change in all the systems in a short time and I’ve spent a lot of time riding along with them to help in any way Khlaleesi and I can.

This has meant Khaleesi and I had to slow down and lower my mileage, however, the miles have been focused on form and quality. The lesser mileage and pulling back on speed for the purpose of helping them also worked to force Khaleesi and me to slow down our training and do a lot of rider form and connection.

One of our favorite places to work is the Jackson River Scenic Trail. It is flat with great footing and one can trot endlessly even if there was a week of rain previously. And it rides along the Jackson River with pretty views.

We do trotting intervals and the new mare seems to thrive here on the flat because it’s easier to balance than on the mountain trails with obstacles.

Now that I have my saddle set up working great, and Khaleesi has developed a strong topline she has begun to ask me for connection to ride more balanced in front on the bit. I purposely use the word connection because it’s a conversation we have. I don’t force her into contact. I don’t use the cycle of aids, and I don’t use ANY leg to push her to move onto the bit.

Now that my riding has gotten to a level of helping her more than hindering her she has begun to experiment. When she wants me to shorten the reins she dips her head. When she wants me to release them she shakes (it’s taken some trial and error to sort that out).

So riding along she began to ask me for more support…

She dipped again. More.

I shortened more. This seems like a lot of pressure.

She dipped again. MORE.

I was certain I misunderstood her and released some rein. Too much?

She shook her head. NO, that’s not what I’m asking. We’ve already established how I ask for more.

I don’t believe her. I begin to give up. This is all in my head. I can’t understand.

She dips her head. Take up the reins. More.

I take up a little more. 

She is happy for a few feet. Then dips her head. More. Take up more.

We continue this as I struggle, and my friend watches as I try to understand if I’m missing something. Human is confused.

Khaleesi is getting frustrated- I am not listening. I just can’t believe she wants that short of rein. But she’s very communicative and she’s annoyed. She begins working the bit in her mouth and her ears are flicking. She insists.

MORE!

So I take up more… more… until I am holding a 1200 pound freight train in my hands.

My friend watches and her eyes grow big as SOMETHING happens.

Khaleesi lifts up and begins to float above the ground, I stop moving in the saddle as I rose up 6 inches farther from the ground. She feels like a flying horse- not fast, just floating above the ground effortlessly. Magic.

After a short time of this we relax back down and we walk and then stop for a moment and she spends about 2 minutes yawning, shaking her entire neck and mane and licking and chewing in pleasure.

She was racking.

And she offered it up on her own without expert training and without me trying to get her to do it. It was beautiful. Organic!

She is certainly bred to be able to rack. She is saddlebred, rackinghorse and walking horse with 1/4 Arabian. So this little gift isn’t completely shocking. I’ve had people suggest I should get her in the hands of someone who could bring that gait out of her. While that isn’t bad advice because I have no experience teaching a horse to rack, anyone who knows me knows I am not likely to entrust Khaleesi to anyone to train her. And getting a racking gear though would be absolutely wonderful for us, I wouldn’t entrust her to just about anyone to get it.

Just one betrayal of her trust would ruin the years it’s taken me to earn it. No physical advantage would ever be worth it.

Due to the limited miles I’ve ridden this winter I made the call to enter the 30 instead of the 55 at the No Frills ride in April.

Friday morning of the race came and I strapped on her plain old scoot boots and Balance Saddle (with their pads) to hit the trail.

It was a fantastic day. We cantered many of the rolling grass roads, she climbed the mountains average difficulty recovering well each time, and she took the rocks on better than ever.

No boot issues even through some wet muddy low lands – until after the official finish line walking down into the vet check- a bad downhill mud suck took off two boots that I went back for on foot.

At that point I didn’t care we were already home!

At both the vet check and finish line she pulsed in immediately at 52 and her CRIs were both 44/48 which is fantastic for us. She had great vet scores and was totally sound and not a sensitive spot on her back. Gut sounds even were strong. She was strong.

In fact, we finished for the first time top 10 and placed 8th.

Eight is a number of new beginnings.  The word for this year for me and my mare is REGROWTH and the number 8 symbolizes a new beginning.

She is strong and fit, and I have a good sense for this season.

I am intrigued by the glimpse, the preview that came for the rack and look forward to how she will unveil it in time. Just about everything I do with my horses takes longer than others would expect. In part this is because I am not particularly experienced, but also I have learned to allow the horse to have a say in the process and include them in each step.

I am learning patience each month. Good things to come to those who wait…

Photo credit Becky Pearman

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.

IMG_3175

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

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

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

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

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

She is from FLAT FLA!

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

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

Climbing.

Yes Madison- this is the mountain not to underestimate.

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

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

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

Khaleesi is fine.

Faygo is ok but breathing pretty hard. 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

P&R box
P&R box

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

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

P&R box

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

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

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

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

Actually, that would be great… thanks

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Hmmm.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

GO!

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

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

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

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

Go girl, keep moving, you can do this!

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

KHALESSI baby… just keep going… FOCUS!

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

In Timer: Do you have your rider card?

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

Here it is…

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

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

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

Golf cart heading slowly our way.

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

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

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

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

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

I need a pulse.

Frantic goes to immediate calm breathing and quiet.

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

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

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

[we don’t have time for that]

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

We get the saddle pulled off as calmly as possible…

Ok…. shhhhhh….

TIME ON L37

I am certain we have missed it…

We didn’t do it.

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

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

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

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

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

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

It was a bittersweet day.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

GO!

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

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

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

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

What is it all about?

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

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

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

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

Being better tomorrow than I am today.

That is what it’s about for me.

The turtle symbolizes that and I will treasure it always.

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Team green to 100!

Part 1: Base camp, volunteering, and saddle fit

Sunday, October 11, 2015

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

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

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

Camp!

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

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

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

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

Thursday morning: 5am

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

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

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

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

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

Bird Haven in the Fall
Bird Haven in the Fall

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Get it done

Tuesday, September 29, 2015

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Fall is coming
Fall is coming

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

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

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

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

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

Wow. That was a cool moment!

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

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

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

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

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

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

Get it done.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Take Away

Tuesday, June 16, 2015

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

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So… what exactly did I learn…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What the early signs are…

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

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

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

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Be prepared!

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

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

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

Take care of yourself.

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

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

Drag riders have a job.

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

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

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

Smaller things… for me personally…

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

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

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

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

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

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

The rest…

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

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

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