This was a trip 2 years in the making and ended up to be the vacation of a life time!
Jim Holland invited me 2 years ago to come ride his trails and learn about this sport I have since become addicted to. We share similar training agendas and have emailed back and forth. I just had happened on ridecamp and was very impressed with the collective knowledge of the group. I wanted to learn more and Jim knowing I was a newbie invited me to come learn from him. After alot of convincing he just wasn't being nice and really did want me to come visit; I decided that this would be an ideal vacation for me. Then 9-11 happened at the same time my paint mare was diagnosed with EPM. Sadly I had to cancel the trip.
Fast forward a year, I now own an ay-rab(gulp), have completed one out of control LD (double gulp) and 2 very slow and controlled 50's (whew) and yes I am hooked. I asked Jim if his offer still stands and both he and Joan give me a resounding YES!!! We decide I'll come ride with him for a week then we'll head to Biltmore to do the 55. Unfortunately I had to miss the birthday bash, but arrived in GA the following day.
Let me say, if Jim ever invites you to share his trails DO NOT pass up this opportunity. The trail are awesome, many of which Jim mapped and cleared himself. Now Reno and I are Texas flat-landers and not used to trails that look dubious even to a mountain goat. Several times I found my heart in my throat and Reno's eyes got large when he realized he was going to have to climb these narrow foot paths up the side of a mountain. It was well worth the heart stopping moments to see those spectacular views!!! After being out on the trail that first day for most of the day both Reno and I were tired and slept well that night.
The next day is another pretty day and Jim decides to trailer us to the other side of the mountain so he can show me some more awesome trails. Reno looks good and seems eager to go again. We get to the trail head and saddle up. I notice Reno flinches a little when I brush him but I didn't think anything of it. Saddle him up and mount..his back hollows and he just about sinks to the ground. I hurriedly dismount and we palpate his back...he is major sore. I feel horrid...we have never had back issues...is it saddle fit?... am I not getting off his back enough?...is it many hours of intensive climbing?. We decide it's most likely a combo of all three. We haul back to Jims, turn Reno out, Jim saddles up Magic and we head out with me riding Sunny. How kewl I get to ride the famous endurance wonder horse. What a ride! Riding Sunny on his own trails is like riding my paint Daisy. He has no reason to hurry so he is very laid back and trying to test me by seeing how much I'll let him get away with and grabbing mouthfuls of grass at every opportunity. Jim is constantly reminding me not to let him get away with that. I'm thinking how different he is from the fire-breathing ay-rabs I know. I must say at Biltmore he was all business and wanted to go go go :)
The rest of the week Isabel rained on our plans, but it did give me a chance to see Blue Ridge and the surrounding area...what a quaint little town!
Friday morning it is drizzling as we head out to Biltmore but, halfway there the sun starts peaking out of the clouds, the rain lets up and it looks to be a dry, pretty weekend. Reno's back seems fine, but Jim and I agree to just try for completion. What with Renos back and Sunny having been pulled the last couple of rides they started...ha...famous last words!! We get to Biltmore and my eyes pop out as we go through the gate and pass the manicured grounds...hard to believe there will be an endurance ride here. This is not like any ride I've been to in TX!
Jim and Joan have a very efficient system so I just try to stay out of the way and am constantly asking what I can do to help while they set up and we get ready to vet in. At the vet in I get a very personable, young, and new to endurance vet. All is fine until he checks Reno's back by digging his fingers in. Reno flinched...my heart and hopes sunk thinking we wouldn't be even starting. The vet voiced his concern but told me if I felt ok about it I could start. Geez..just what I need something to worry about all night, although it did take my mind of of what the trails would be like after all this rain. When both Jim and I ran our hands down Reno's back he was fine, only when u used "cat claws" for hands did he flinch. We had planned on riding a little that evening to stretch the "boys" legs but decided to stay off of Reno until Sat.
Saturday morning dawned clear and crisp. I had been awake up most of the night due to pre-ride jitters and worrying about Reno's back. Jim let me borrow a cachel pad to use on top of my pad to help Reno's back. We're all tacked up and the moment of truth arrives...I gingerly mount from a step stool....no reaction...Reno walks off and is anxious to go....whew!!! Biltmore here we come (sound the trumpets)!!! Now I am very careful about keeping my big butt off of Renos back and decide to two point the entire ride. Reno and Sunny are best of buds by now and we head off down the trail to warm up. Sunny knows what is up and is ready to GO...Reno on the other hand is doing his turtle walk and looking for something to eat..that is as long as Sunny is with in sight. Once he lost sight of his newest bestest friend Reno panics and does his pieffe thing. Both horses are very well mannered and calm while everyone is milling around waiting for the start. Once we start Jim has to keep reminding Sunny that he has to stay to the back of the pack..a concept that is foreign to Sunny who usually starts at the front and stays there. Every time a horse passes us you can see Sunny getting frustrated with having to let them pass. Reno is used to this so as long as he can see his "beloved" all is right with the world.
The trails are awesome but, due to the rain parts are slick and there are some deep muddy places. Jim is a firm believer of riding the trail you are on and we do a lot of slow jogging and walking the first loop due to these conditions. Many pass us and we are in the back part of the pack(through no fault of Sunnys!) I get to see the famed Biltmore house on this loop and it takes my breath away! Hard to believe that this was once a private residence.
We come in for our first vet check and Joan is waiting for us. By the time the ride is over she has spoiled me and it will be hard to go back to being crewless! Let me tell you that woman has it together..she knows what Reno and I need before we do! When she wasn't crewing for us she was giving classes on crewing to newbie crews!!! Her upbeat attitude and nurturing nature were a very welcome sight as the ride wore on and I wore out. Both boys pulsed down immediately..I sure loved their heart belt and can see one in my future! Reno's back gets an A but his gut sounds are a C...oh great a new problem to worry about. This is a horse who eats and drinks everything in sight. Both Jim and I were surprised as he was almost sloshing at the beginning of the ride due to all the wet beet pulp he had been eating since wednesday. Sunny gets all A's..Sunny's biggest concern is how he can convince Jim to just let him go.
We head out on the second loop. We are still running it conservatively but the trails are starting to dry up and we are able to pick up the pace. Sunny has an unbelievable trot and Reno has to canter to keep his buddy in sight. Sunny's "I wanna go" attitude has rubbed off on Reno and now Reno is asking to go faster and getting upset when someone passes us. I wonder if I have the only horse that gets more excited as the ride goes on??? We let the guys gallop where the trail allows and this appeases everyone. This loop goes by quickly but my knees are starting to hurt from all the two pointing I'm doing and my feet are starting to get numb. Back into camp to the welcome sight of "mom" Joan. Getting off and walking the last bit to camp has both horses pulsed down by the time we get to Joan. Once again Sunny gets all A's (when's the real ride gonna start dad?)and Reno has a new "concern" (groan). Back is still an A, gut is up to a B, but vet says he's off on his right front. We trot out again..he looks like he's short striding but doesn't really look lame. A closer examination shows a tack gall from his breast collar between his right front leg and chest, where all the skin folds are. We go back and show the vet and it is decided I can continue if I omit the breast collar. Great ..I'm at the hillest ride I have ever been to and now I have to ride without my breast collar. Jim just gives me a wicked little grin and tells me to grab mane and get up out of the saddle when we hit the "hill's".
Off we go on the third loop..trails are dry and we hit a good lick. This suits me just fine ...my knees are killing me (not even the aleive I've been popping seems to help) so the faster we do this loop the sooner I can get back to "mom" Joan . I swear the entire loop was all up hill...at one point the girth was closer to Reno's flank than to his front leg...where are those downhills when you need them???...we had to stop so I could reposition the saddle. Sunny is happier now that we have picked up the pace and toward the end of the loop we leapfrog a bit with a gal on a very pretty game little Morgan mare. Finally we are at the last part of the third loop and mercifully I can get off and try to walk Reno back into camp. Here I am teeter-tottering along side of Reno trying to regain my "land legs" and Jim is striding out...no weeble wobble there...my goodness is this man for real, he just celebrated his 60th birthday. He has to stop and wait for me to catch up. I never thought I was sooo out of shape, but then again I've never two pointed for an entire ride...sigh.
Once again the guys are already pulsed down by the time we get to Joan, so we pull tack, sponge off legs and head for the vet. Sunny has all A's..heck he has hardly broken a sweat. Reno is finally all A's with the exception of his breast collar gall. We are deemed fit to continue...well at least Reno is...lol. We finish out the hold icing Renos "boo-boo" and both horse and humans chowing down.
We saddle up...one more loop to go...9.8 miles...I am sooo sore and tired...I can do this...I refuse to travel all this way only to fail because I'm the weakest link in the partnership...my mantra is now 9.8 miles. While waiting to time out Jim casually asks Nina where we are in the group. I'm letting Reno eat grass and mentally chanting 9.8 miles when I think hear her say we are 11th and 12th but 10th left out quite awhile ahead of us. I see a gleam in Jim's eye that now matches the one in Sunny's...oh no...I'm in trouble. "you know..we may be able to top ten this." Jim casually mentions to me as we time out at a very brisk trot. "Sure" I say to myself, "and pigs can fly, too". I must confess that a little part of my brain, obviously the part that hadn't registered the pain coursing through my body, was excited about the possibility of top tenning. Shortly into the final loop the game little Morgan mare came trotting past us. Sunny and Jim were ready and stepped up the pace and passed the mare. I was self absorbed with my mantra and since Reno could still see his buddy we fell in behind the Morgan. Sunny was breaking his neck trying to keep looking back to see if Reno was following, so Jim told me to catch up. I did but started sniveling about how tired I was and that I didn't think Reno could keep up. Well Jim turned around and gave me the "look". He didn't say a word, just slowed down Sunny, but that was enough to kick in my guilt mechanism. Man I felt bad but, not bad enough to disappoint this wonderful man who had taken me into his home and shared his knowledge with me. Not only could I not disappoint this man I didn't want to be the limiting factor in my partnership with Reno. Reno was giving me his all...I had no idea what a big heart this horse had until this ride. The gal on the Morgan was ahead of us saying something about her mare being able to run with the Arabs..well I guess this was the straw on the camel's back. I decided to "cowgirl up", stop whining and "just do it".... besides, I think, the faster I do this the faster it will be over!!! I asked Reno for a bigger trot and told Jim that we were ready to follow him and Sunny. Reno was ready, Jim and Sunny were ready so we boggied. I wouldn't have been able to live with myself knowing I was close to top tenning and didn't try. Plus which I knew it would give Jim a licsence to forever more rub it in on how I had wussed out of a top ten.
We kicked in the Ay-rab afterburners and roared down the trail. The pretty Morgan mare was gamely trying to keep up but after a couple of miles at this pace she was huffing and puffing so her trail wise owner pulled her up to finish at a pace more comfortable to her.
A few more miles I heard the huffing and puffing again and assumed the Morgan had caught up to us...then I realized that sound was coming from me... geez,you would have thought I was doing the running the way I was weezing! I was sore, tired and exhausted but boy was it fun going down this trail at what seemed like warp speed to me. We breezed past two people/horses walking down the trail...could one of those be number 10??? Jim looked backed at me with that gleam shining in his eye and asked if I was ok. I managed to huff out YES. His reply was to picked up the pace...yee haw...we were flying!!! I was offically now a passanger and just trying to hang on.
The rest of the loop is a blur to me, but all of a sudden we are passing more horses and Jim says something about the finish line and to get up with him...NOW!!! We surprise this group of riders and they take out after us. I see the finish line and people are standing around cheering. Jim is shouting at me, telling me to ask Reno for all he 's got. Jim pulls up on Sunny as I ask Reno to go faster and keeps Sunny's nose by Renos flank. I know Sunny has to be confused, as this is probably the first time he has been asked to slow down before crossing the finish line!I'm sure Sunny thinks Jim had lost his ever loving mind that day..lol
We did it...our first top ten..and on a pretty technical trail at that! As I pass the finish line,I feel like I am going to pass out...I now know where the saying "ride til you puke" comes from. The rest is pretty fuzzy in my mind..I vaguely remembering Jim handing me a margarita and me getting sick after two swallows...then I remember somehow trotting Reno for BC; well Reno trotted, I wobbled...then in between that and waiting for the awards meeting I passed the time calling for my friend RALPH and laying down.
Yes, this vacation was a learning vacation, I learned the benefits of having a mentor. Without Jim's guidance I would have never top tenned, I would have never reached within myself to see what I was made of and I would have never experienced of really being able to say "yes, I gave it my all". I also learned the benefits of riding the trail you are given and riding one loop at a time. I learned I am the limiting factor in my endurance partnership with Reno and am using this information to revamp my conditioning program.
I have had the priveledged of riding breath-taking trails and making life long friends. As Jim, Joan and I were saying our goodbyes I could have sworn Jim was muttering something about OD next year with that same wicked gleam in his eye I have learned to respect and fear at the same time. As my daughter would say, "Nothing good can come from this". Hummm.....as I'm driving back to Texas I find my mind wandering to thoughts of getting a treadmill for me...spending more time two-pointing and teaching Reno to tail....
I would like to thank Bob Mangus for putting on this well run ride, All the cheerful volunteers, the vets for being fair while still looking out for the welfare of the horse, Joan for letting me whine and Jim for not letting me whine!