Thursday, March 04, 1999

Rookie Horse, Rookie Rider: Part 1 - Howard Bramhall

Well I just finished my first endurance ride. That`s if you can count a measly 25 miles an endurance run. I do. So does my back and my horse, who was so tired he fell asleep during the last vet check. And for those of you who complete 50`s and 100`s, you have my respect and admiration. I bow before you and recite, "I`m not worthy to be among you." This is my story.

First off, I didn`t realize primitive camping meant prehistoric. No running water, no plumbing, no stalls, no nothing except a port-a-pottie with a line of people. And the weather. Did i mention it was colder than Ken Starr`s bedroom? And this was Florida. I thought I had prepared for everything. I even downloaded ten pages of information on what to bring when camping with your horse (had to have been written by a woman), read it, even tried to follow it, until my truck and horse trailer became filled with stuff before I finished checking off the items on the third page.

Ever spend the night in your horse trailer? Ever want to? I tried it. Next time it`s the Holiday Inn for me (do they have horse stalls?). After spending over two hours sweeping and cleaning, i came to realize you just can`t get that "smell" out. Even when you throw in a couple bales of hay. And use good beer (ok, maybe not that good) cause you forgot the Pine Sol (that must have been on page 4 of her list of things to bring).

So to keep warm I lit up the Coleman lantern. This worked for awhile; I was almost asleep when i started smelling something burning. I knew it wasn`t me cause I was freezing and my lips were still purple and i quit smoking just last year. I woke up looking at one of my bales of hay aglow. It was totally on fire. Somehow my Coleman lantern had wondered a bit close to the hay and the two of them had gotten way too cozy with each other trying to keep warm. That song Burn Baby Burn started playing in my head. It`s a song I heard often during the Florida fires I had the honor of living through last summer. It took me over three bottles of beer to put the hay fire out. And, yes, beer can put out a fire (the cheap stuff I buy doesn`t have enough alcohol to burn) and the horse will eat the hay the next day.

Well my camping neighbors were not too happy with having me live next door, I must say. One lady looked at me, looked at the burnt hay in my trailer, frowned at her horse and mine who were hysterical, stared at my empty bottles of beer on the trailer floor, and said, "First ride, eh?" She had a way with words. She then moseyed up to me close enough to hug me (although i don`t think this is what she had in mind) and told me not to wake her again. To emphasize the importance of her words she moved her coat aside to expose a 9 MM revolver strapped to her waist. I guessed that the gun was to keep off dangerous hombres like me from disturbing her much needed rest. I promised her I wouldn`t wake her again since I planned on staying up anyway cause i was too cold to sleep. And now too afraid of waking up my neighbor. I watched her calm her horse with two words (Shut up) and then mosey on back into her heated tent. As i stood there and just shivered, wet from the beer i had used to put out my fire.

So morning finally arrives. Cold, damp, but I`m excited anyway. I feed the horse and go out to watch the 50 milers saddle up and warm their horses. Plus i feel a necessity to remove myself from the campsite as my neighbors rise to prepare for their ride. This is not just any horse race. These horses have more energy and excitement than you`ll see at any racetrack. I watch them canter and some of the horses buck and even rear up, but their riders remain in total control. After seeing one Arabian rear up several times I was kinda surprised to see the rider not be bothered by any of it and merely say "he won`t be like this after the first vet check." I couldn`t wait to see what my horse was gonna do in an hour under similar circumstances.

So I wandered towards the start expecting to see a gun in the air and hear a loud boom signifying the start of the race. Instead I see this tiny old man dressed up kinda formal for the surroundings bowing his head and saying a prayer to the riders. Where`d this guy come from and why do we need him here, I ask myself. Turns out he`s the local preacher. Then a lady with a clipboard in her hand does a ten, nine, eight... count down and they`re off. 55 riders all at once all heading towards a tiny trail barely wide enough for a Florida deer. It was at this point I decided I`m gonna wear that riding helmet after all. I hadn`t worn it since last Christmas when my wife gave it to me. But it had just dawned on me that i`ve never done anything quite like this ride either.

So now it`s time for me to get my Saddlebred ready. Did I tell you he`s 17 hands tall? And that I`m barely 5`7"? And man is he jumpy. He didn`t get any rest the night before camping with me and the fire and all the other horses, but he doesn`t seem at all tired. It`s everything I can do to get the darn saddle on him. I spent three weeks planning for this ride but all of a sudden the reality of it all kicks in and I`m a bit scared and jumpy just like my buddy. Man am i antsy.

I put the saddle pad on my horse. I wander towards the trailer looking for my saddle. The smell of burnt hay and beer is in the air, I`ve definitely marked my territory here. I find the saddle, go back to my horse, and can`t find the damn pad. Did i mention it`s still dark outside? I go back to the trailer and get the Coleman so i can find the pad. On the way back the horse spooks from the lantern, breaks my tie, and off to the races he goes. And the clipboard lady hasn`t said go yet.

Hoa there, loose horse on the run. Watch it! Grab him please, someone. Shit, I`m too old for this. Have you ever tried running with a Coleman lantern in your hand? My leg hooks up in my neighbor`s tent peg and Ripppppppppppp. They just don`t make tent`s like they used to. With 50 horses tied up going crazy and people yelling at you wondering why you`re trying to set your neighbor`s tent on fire with your lantern, I`m thinking that the tent i just destroyed belonged to my neighbor with the 9mm and that i`m a dead man.

Some lady has my horse. Whew. Thank God, I might make the start after all. I go up to her and she tells me that maybe I shouldn`t ride today. I ask her why and she says, "Well, you kinda smell like beer and it might not be safe for you if you`re hung over." I love considerate women. I tell her it`s OK, I`m only the groom and take the horse back to my campsite. Man is he jumpy. And I`ve got ten minutes till the start. At least I got my riding pants on. That`s cause i slept in them; part of my planning ahead. Too bad they`re so wet.

I`m back at my site and I realize the good news is that my 9mm neighbor had already left cause she was in the 50 race. The bad news is I knew she was gonna come back sometime and that she would probably guess who it was who ripped up her tent. So, should I leave her a note like i do when I back up into a parked car? Well, no time to worry about that now, I have a race to enter.

We finish saddling up. I say "we" cause endurance is a team sport, you and your horse fighting you every step of the way. My saddle and pad are both caked with mud from hitting the ground a dozen times. But, if nothing else, I am perseverant. I`ve got three minutes to warm this guy up. We`re doing fine. Now i`ve got to find a fence post or a ditch so I can get up on his back. Did I tell you he`s 17 1/2 hands tall? And that I could pass for a jockey? I finally find the spot we went to yesterday. Glad I planned so well.

Well I get halfway on the saddle and he`s up bucking away. Hasn`t done this to me in altleast three weeks so i`m not totally prepared. Now most riders pull back on the reins when a horse does this to get him to stop. Not me; I kick away and we`re off to the races in a full gallop. Course now I remember some authority figure speaking at the rider`s meeting the night before telling us (and for some reason she seemed to stare at me as she said it) that the riders were not to trot their horses in the camp area for safety. Well that`s good she said that cause I`m a firm believer in being safe and we`re not trotting. Not even loping. We are in a full throttle wide open gallop and I have no idea where we are going. But man can i hang on or what? And hey, isn`t that the preacher man standing right in front of us with his head down? We must be headed in the right direction.

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