Khruschev and I were part of the 2000 World Endurance Championship event, representing the US in Compiegne, France. Two years of focus and preparation, all for ONE ride! I enjoyed every minute of the process and have no regrets, only thanks - to friends and family that helped along the way, and tolerated the obsession without complaint. Our story isn`t one of glory or tremendous success, but of persistance and teamwork. We didn`t do the race I had hoped for and trained for, but we had an amazing ride - the USET support staff gave 100% and was first class. We finished 32nd out of 150 starters - respectable, but not reflective of Khruschev`s ability and level of training. But this story is not about placement, it is about teamwork, and about finishing. My crew - my friends and family - were unbelievable, I can never thank them enough, and we couldn`t have done it without them. And Khruschev is a one-in-a-million horse.
As I write this, I`m flying over the Pacific Ocean, headed home. Khruschev is also in the air, on a different plane. I wonder if he`s thinking about the past few weeks, replaying the events, re-riding the course. Horse memories. Most likely he`s just munching his hay, exchanging occasional reassurances with his travelling buddies, Sam and Ramsz, and thinking about his next meal. The `here and now` of being a horse.
We had our share of challenges during the past few weeks. None of the challenges we faced were what we had trained for, what we had anticipated. But Every one of the challenges taught me some valuable lessons - stay flexible, stay tough, trust your horse (he will always give you everything he has), count on your family and true friends (they will always be there for you) and never ever give up. It ain`t over `till it`s over!
Khruschev caught a nasty cold while being shipped to California and developed a persistent cough. With the help of Nancy Elliot (USET team vet) and the constant support and concern of the friends I made during our stay he got through it. He was back to normal and the cough finally subsided in time for shipping. Hang in there. Then the trail gave out from under us during a training ride in the steep hills of coastal California. Khruschev slid down the ravine while I managed to bail off over his head. He waited for me at the bottom, and beyond odds managed to scramble and lunge back up the wash and onto the trail. His left hind and left front legs were bloody but there was no serious damage. The timing wasn`t too good though - USET was doing a final soundness evaluation the following day, only sound horses would be shipped over seas. The next day his hind leg was bruised and hot to the touch where he had scraped it. He was trotted straight out of his pen without a warm up - perfectly sound, out, back, circles left, circles right. Hang in there ... we`re still in the game.
We arrived in France on Saturday and settled in at the stables north of Compiegne. Beautiful old barn tucked in the Compiegne Forest, full of gorgeous Celle Francais and Spanish Warmblood horses, and friendly and helpful folks. We spent the first few days hand walking the horses, settling into a routine, grazing them in the field out back. There were paddocks available for turn-out, but the ground was wet and soggy from the unseasonal rains and we were afraid of what it would do to their feet going from dry to wet in such a short time so we tried to limit their time outside. The long days confined to stalls were hard on some of the horses. Khruschev is pretty much `ok` wherever he is though - just keeps eating and drinking and being a horse. But there was trouble brewing with his feet. We had our first formal trot-out evaluation on Tuesday (Aug9). The first few steps he took were off. My heart sank, and you could hear a pin drop. Uh oh. (Hang in there)The next 17 days were a constant emotional roller coaster. We pulled his shoes the next day, his feet had become extremely soft from time in the soggy pasture, the soles had turned crumbly, he had a deep corn in the left inside heel, a bruise near the toe. Both feet seemed sore, but he was most uncomfortable with the left front. Nancy pared the feet down and dug out the corn which was starting to abcess. She packed his feet and we gave him 24 hours with his feet packed and wrapped. Our farriers weren`t due to arrive for another 10 days. Darolyn and Cowboy said the Brazilians were somewhere in Compiegne with their farrier so the search began. The following evening we took the packing off of his feet and the Brazilian farrier trimmed them (btw - the Brazilians were great!!) - Cowboy had extra easyboots and we were thinking these could get us by until the farriers arrived. This plan backfired big time. The easyboots were not quite large enough and we had to really crank to get them on - the result was that the next day Khruschev was lamer, sorer than before. Now his heel bulbs were bruised and sore too! His feet had become so soft and sensitive that they bruised from the easyboot straps. I felt so bad for him - it was beginning to feel like the harder I tried, the worse it got. (hang in there)
By now John and Destry had arrived, and Susie and Lari were coming soon so I had plenty of moral support and also help keeping his feet iced, trying to ease the discomfort. everybody at the barn - riders, crew,support staff- was incredibly supportive and helpful.) The saga continued for the next two weeks, we tried three different shoings (thanks Ernie, Jaye, Brazilians) - one day he seemed better, the next day sore again. (hang in there) It was a fairly consitent pattern - the first few steps were the worst, but once he took more steps and warmed up he was better. He felt good when I rode him, but after he stood for a while, the first few steps were uncomfortable - better again once he warmed into it. We tried to keep a minimum level of fitness with longing and walking, but the best thing for him was rest and time (something that was running out).
Friday (Aug 25) arrived and all of the US horses were evaluated that morning for soundness before the official vetting in. Khruschev wasn`t perfect, but Rick gave me the ok to give it a try. So we presented to the officials - After the first trot-out there was some mumbling and head shaking and we were sent to another lane for further evaluation. Another trot - still some inconsistency. One more time .... about the same, but they gave us a thumbs up to start. The official smiled at me as we walked out - "maybe he`ll warm out of it - good luck Khruschev". It was a wonderful, friendly gesture. Hang in there.
We went back to the barn, I felt like we had been given a gift just being able to start, and yet another chance. And I knew that it wasn`t time to give up yet. I started looking for Jaye Perry (one of the USET team farriers), somehow hoping there was still something he could do to make Khruschev comfortable. Jaye was not to be found, but I was told he had left earlier in the day, searching for a farrier supply store. We spent the afternoon getting ready for the ride - John, Destry, Suzie, Lari and Carol worked non-stop preparing everything we would need for the ride. They kept the spirits high and acted like everything was going to be fine. I was the most dejected I had felt during the past two weeks. My wonderful horse was not himself, we might get through the first loop, at least we could start the race, but this was the 11th hour and I was running out of optimisim. Jaye showed up at the barn around 7pm that evening. I asked him if there was anything else he could do - any more rabbits to pull out of his hat? He smiled and said "where do you think I`ve been all this time?" Over an hour later Khruschev had his final (4th) shoing since we had arrived. We walked him around. Jaye looked satisfied and said just put him in his stall, he`ll be fine. Hang in there. I didn`t even trot him out, had no idea if he would trot sound then, or even in the morning. But I couldn`t bring myself to find out at that point.
That night during dinner and into the next morning I felt incredibly calm - almost numb. During all the excitement of getting ready in the dark, the electricity and anticipation that others were feeling, I was calm and quiet. I had already received one `gift`, just being able to start and at least do the first 20 mile loop. Nothing more could be done now in preparation. My crew was totally prepared and I knew they would take care of everything. The only thing I had left to do was ride our best ride - mile by mile. I knew this was not the race we had trained for - our challenge was not the sand, the speed, the heat and humidity. I had to keep him sound and comfortable. We joined the other 150 riders in the warm up area - just climbing on his back I could feel the transormation in his attitude - he was ready for a race! But I still hadn`t trotted him! We walked for about 15 minutes and I finally mustered the courage to trot - perfect!! He felt solid and absolutely wonderful. As soon as the race started I could feel Khruschev go `yes! finally! now let`s go do our job!`. He flew out into the dark with the others, even threw in a few good bucks - it was exhillarating and very emotional.
My plan was to ride mile by mile constantly gauging our progress by his comfort level. Cruise when the footing was soft and take it easy on pavement and cobbles. I felt it was best to start cooling him down a mile from the vet check - have him pulsed down and ready to present as soon as we got there - no standing around, just keep him moving. We got to the first hold just as the other US riders were leaving. I had walked him in the last mile - trotting intermittently - he seemed great. He was down as soon as we got in, went right to the vet. John and Suzie took him and I lost them in the crowd - we had started, we had gone 20 miles, more than I had expected during the last 2 weeks. Would we do another loop??? Yes! He passed - CRI was 52/48 and he got an A on gait! Whoop and holler... and then down to business. Next task - loop 2. Let`s see if we can squeeze in 14 more miles.
And so it went.... all day long. Each loop was a gift. Each hold was a joyous occasion. Khruschev`s crew (John & Destry (my son) , Suzie Hayes, Lari Shea, Carol Andrews & Linda Voigt) was excellent - fast, efficient, encouraging, and Fun! They worked non-stop, feeding, icing Khruschev`s feet, preparing electrolytes, making sure I was eating and drinking and laughing. And Khruschev was the model horse to crew for - was pulsed down when he arrived, never stopped eating, drank well, allowed himself to be fussed over and was just plain ol` happy.
We rode steady all day. Fast trot and canter in the woods and soft trails, easy easy on the rocky stuff. It got incredibly humid during the afternoon - hot and stifling. We rode alone all day (after the first wild loop) and he never asked to quit. I slowed somewhat during the worst of the heat, but he handled it well. There were zillions of US volunteers out on the trail at the crew points. Friendly, willing, ready to do whatever we needed - pour water, give electrolytes, mash, whatever. It was a great boost to our spirits to have them out there.
The final hold was at Pierrefonds, with the castle looming in the background. It was magical for us. By then the only other US rider left was Connie, and she and Smoke were doing great. We only had a 30 minute hold (at 88 miles) and they had all the horses do an exit CRI. I was pretty anxious ... 12 miles to go, is he still ok? I was too anxious to eat much during the hold - but we still managed to spend the time laughing and having fun. Final CRI and trot out - 60/52 and A for gait - unbelievable!! We left the last hold with everybody hooting and hollering - a real boost for our spirits. The sun was setting as we rode through the Pierrefonde Castle - . , the stones and turrets were glowing orange from the sun, the windows reflecting the sunset. I imagined Khruschev in armor, and horses of another era..
One more loop - Khruschev felt incredibly strong and I was tempted to let him pick up the pace and to move up in our placing - many tired horses had left before us. But I played it safe - with only one other US completion, I felt that it was too great a risk to change our mode of caution. We rode the last 6 miles in the dark - trotting when we could, being extra cautious in the rocks, and steadily moving on. We reached the final pit crew area, one mile before the finish, and the enthusiasm and hollering as we left were more than we could resist. We flew in the last mile - and came to the finish in a huge extended trot - the stand was full of cheering spectators and as far as Khruschev knew, we had won! (I never told him otherwise.)
The human spirit is indomitable. After the Fort Howes ride in Montana this year, we were having breakfast, sharing the table with the joyful, dancing Canadians. One of them had just finished his first 100 miler, he finished last, just before cut-off time but from the look on his face that morning you knew for certain that he was a winner, his excitement and enthusiam were radiant and infectious. We were laughing about the trials of the trail, being out all night with the coyotes and he grinned - "well you know, AERC`s motto is `To finish is to Win` - I`m a winner, eh?- go motto!"