Our diabolical plans for the ride involved a 9 hour haul from WNY to VT with my steed, Ned, along with my friend Carla and her trusty mare, Miss Dee. We planned to spend a couple of days at my friend Suzy Fraser's new dressage facility, and some dressage lessons with Ned, who is a quasi dressage horse in addition to being a quasi endurance mount. [Ned is 9, ½ Arab and ½ Trakehner, originally intended to be my "real" dressage horse, but then we did one fifty, and he seemed suited to the sport, and well, you know how it goes. Dressage has taken a bit of a back seat, and some days we school 2nd level dressage, other days training level.]
After years of hauling with my husband with nary an incident of note, we were chugging along the NYS Thruway at noontime when a family of four passed us in the left lane, gesturing wildly and surely screaming, although all we could see were their wide open mouths and fingers pointing at the trailer.
Not good news, we figured.
Sure enough, a blown tire on the trailer, and a nice two hour wait alongside a 65 mph highway while AAA and the NYS Thruway Authority (which will not allow AAA service on their Thruway) argued over who miscommunicated to whom when the driver showed up with a tiny jack (luckily, we had one) and no tire iron sufficient to change the trailer tire. Ooops. Two hours spent there, including the time it took for the driver to return to his shop for a tire iron. Note to self: pack all necessary equipment to change tire oneself, THEN allow burly man to do it for you. Also note to self, explain to dispatcher in excruciating detail precisely what one needs, then make dispatcher read it back to you. Get dispatcher's name. Anyhow, both horses behaved like saints, and we headed off again, arriving in time to settle the horses in and watch Suzy school her third level Danish Warmblood before crashing for the night.
Over the next two days, we shopped and fussed over the horses, and I had two dressage lessons that reminded Ned once again that he does indeed have a left hind leg, and that no, collection is not just something that happens at Sunday Mass. He's a talented guy, but after an hour lesson I was flushed and wringing wet, and he had barely turned a hair. No wonder I love endurance, where at least we BOTH sweat.
Headed off to Rojek's Smoke Rise Farm on Friday morning, joining our friends Georgia O'Brien and Paul Calandra in camp. Met Susan Brehm, who was riding her first 100, and with whom I'd conversed on line, but had never met in person. It was so good to see familiar faces, new faces, swap stories, and enlist Paul to assist us in getting nearly level in a hilly pasture! Paul was planning to ride the 50, Georgia was going to crew (although she had packed her saddle and seemed to be wishing an evil injury on Paul so she could ride herself). We mapped out the holds and got unhooked to set up our crewing areas, since Carla and I were "flying solo."
Did I mention this was an ultramarathon as well? Two hundred seventy runners had entered to run the 100-mile course, so alongside the horse camp were camps for the runners, and all the vendors and volunteers there to support the runners were in camp, along with Running Bear Farm, NeighPerSay, and Animal Tacker. In short, it was a bit more "zooey" than the usual ride camp.
Speaking of zooey, Steve and Dinah Rojek have a pot bellied pig named Mr. T who roams the farm, interacting with the horses, and just generally being social. This made me raise my eyebrow a bit in concern - what would hyper-reactive Ned think of a pig in his paddock?
Registration and vetting went smoothly down in Rojek's indoor round pen/indoor arena. With all the vendors and spectators and runners and horses, it was a busy place. Art King vetted Ned in, and called another vet over to listen to Ned's heart. This had me a little worried until Art told me why. Ned's pulse was 24. As in 6 lub-dubs over 15 seconds. Leave it to Ned to be unflappable in the face of chaos, and yet have dumped me too many times to count for such remarkable sights in a forest as a rock or a tree stump.
My friend Carla's mare had the tiniest intermittent lameness behind, so we enlisted Michael Beesley (what a great guy!) to come over and check her out. Sure enough, just a bit of tightness in a hamstring, which he worked on (and promised to work on again at any of the holds if she needed it), and the Miss Dee was back in her usual perfect way.
The start for the 100-mile runners was set for 4 a.m., complete with live music and fireworks. Sounds like your average endurance ride, yes? So we were warned to set our alarms and keep an eye on the horses for that event. More fireworks at 4:30 a.m. or so to kick off the 100-mile riders heading out at 5 a.m.
Then we 50-milers could go back to bed for a nap before our 2 p.m. start time.
This whole "moonlight" thing was new to Ned and me. Carla and I had kept telling ourselves we'd do a night ride to get ready, but just never quite found the opportunity. We were armed with glowsticks, but it was odd setting up the vet checks for a ride where you were leaving at the hottest part of the day and planning on needing another clothing layer for the end of the ride. We kept having to remind ourselves and each other about that.
Given my concern for Ned's potential encounter with the pot-bellied Mr. T, I took him for a handwalk down to the pasture where the little (well, not so little) guy was mingling with three horses. Immediately, social guy that he is, Mr. T headed right over to say hello. Ned was enthralled. Neck arched, nostrils flared, he reached his neck over the two foot stone wall so he could almost touch the pig in the split rail pasture beyond the wall. Scared? No. He was in love. At one point Ned had his knee on the stone wall, with every intent it seemed, to crawl over to meet his romantic interest. When he rocked back with intentions to jump, that seemed like a good time to bid farewell to Mr. T.
Now I had a new worry. If Mr. T was anywhere near the starting line, we'd never get out of camp.
There was a huge buffet dinner with all the riders and runners, plenty of carbs, and of course, Ben & Jerry's for dessert.
Ride morning began with the alarm at 3:45 a.m. Sure enough, the fireworks began at 3:55 a.m. with lovely music (was it Chariots of Fire?) playing, and it was awe-inspiring to see those beautiful fireworks over the darkened VT sky, standing beside your regal horse and partner, knowing just how privileged we are to be able to participate in such a sport as we do.
It was an odd morning, catching a nap, then running to the various vet check areas, and waiting to tack up until 1 p.m.
Normally, Ned and I are back-of-the-pack starters, given Ned's proclivity for airs above ground particularly during his younger years, but Carla and I ended up in the middle of the pack for this start. Ned was pumped, but thankfully, mostly earthbound.
Ten miles to the Greenall's, where there was a 10-minute mandatory rest stop. This part of the trail was probably the most challenging, technically, with a few switchbacks, climbs, twists and turns and a rocky area or two. We stopped for a quick potty stop on trail, and realized Ned was in ground bees. A little kicking and stomping and we were out of them. Phew!
We pulled into Greenall's in a little over an hour, immediately soaked the horse's slurpies, and they dove in, and then spent all of the ten minutes just sponging them while they ate. Great idea, nice stop, not terribly hectic since there was no pulse taking (although I'm quite sure our horses were down to 64) or tack stripping, and Julie Bullock watched us trot out to check for soundness after the rest time was up. Good to go, and nine miles to the first "real" hold.
The weather was gorgeous. Probably approaching 80, bright blue skies, fluffy clouds. Carla and I oohed and aahed over gardens and the New England-charming houses and barns, and the lovely views up the mountains, and down into the valleys. For pure wish-I-could-sit-back-and-hang-at-this-scenic-outlook-forever standpoint, this ride has to be tops. The horses were traveling along at a nice clip, Miss Dee favoring the wooded, technical trails, Ned enjoying the dirt road country lanes where he could just get into big trot mode, and go. With the occasional spook thrown in for kicks.
The trail into the vet check at Rhodes' took you through the back of their property, wooded, with a screened gazebo, and beautiful yellow barns and outbuildings and a house over a gorgeous stone barn. Breathtakingly beautiful, and so exquisitely maintained that I just couldn't believe we had a vet check on their manicured green front lawn (complete with that most lovely sight of all, the portapottie).
Miss Dee came down to parameters immediately. Ned hung for a few more minutes - he may have a low resting pulse, but he's also a big bodied ½ Trakehner. And as Mary Coleman would say, it wasn't Morgan (or warmblood) Riding Weather yet.
Julie vetted Ned through with all As, and seemed to take a liking to the big lug, despite the fact that on the trot back, he did the Arab head whirl and then managed to trip over his own legs. "Serves him right for showing off!" she said. Back to our crewing area, where both horses made quick work of their slurpies and hay, and were munching on grass as our 45 minute hold came to an end.
Off down the road for what was probably the "fastest" section of trail. Fourteen miles, methinks it was, of nearly all dirt road to the next vet check. This just hummed along. Ned was in power trot mode, allowing Miss Dee to come up front to take him past exceptionally frightening things like mailboxes. Another great part of this ride was that just about every horse place along trail had water tanks out for us. So there were lots of opportunities to stop and get your horse a drink despite the fact that there wasn't a lot of easy-to-get-to water on trail.
After one of these stops, I managed to sneak electrolytes into Ned via syringe, since it was a longer loop and probably the warmest and sunniest part of the trail. I do PnWs in feed at vet checks, but this was a bit of Enduramax, ProBis and ProCMC. I had the advantage of the element of surprise, snuck it into the corner of his lips while mounted, pushed the plunger, and voila, the deed was done.
Into the next hold, where once again, it took a bit of time for Ned to pulse down. He looked like he wanted to pee, but didn't, but all of his vet parameters were As and he ate in his usual don't-raise-the-head way. Short hold, 30 minutes, and we were occupied by getting our glow sticks attached and glowing. Michael worked on Miss Dee's hamstring a bit again, and offered to take our crewing stuff back to camp in his car. Did I mention he was a great guy?
It was almost dusk as we headed back out on trail. The wooded trails were quite dim, but the roads were still fairly bright. We made time where we could, knowing we'd end up slowing down in the pitch dark. Here we began to pass runners more frequently, awe-inspired by THEIR endurance and mental toughness. Some were walking, some were jogging and chuckling with a run partner, many were limping. All at least raised a hand when we greeted them. One gave the international hitch-hiking signal. I offered him Ned's behind but said I couldn't promise just how long he'd last. One duo agreed to race us back to camp for a beer. At this point they were over 75 miles, I believe. Incredible.
By now, the glow sticks were actually glowing, and beginning to be the real visual marker of where to head next. We got a bit confused by some "Xs" on trail that were for earlier trail, but right on our trail back; we reminded ourselves to simply follow the glow sticks and were fine from then on. It was interesting that the horses seemed to see just fine - the best evidence of that was that Ned spooked in darkness at all the same silly things that he would spook at during the day.
We caught up with Ellen Tully and rode together for a bit. Even found a nice grassy area where the horses (and ahem, some of the riders) could have a pee. Was relieved when Ned stretched out and peed for approximately three weeks.
Ned seemed to look forward to catching up to the runners, and I swear HE was looking for the next glow stick at this point. Carla was feeling a tiny bit seasick from the glowsticks and riding in the darkness. We both ate a few more bites from a PowerBar, realizing we hadn't done so well in the eating department ourselves, and with a few Vitamin I tabs (aka ibuprofen) we both perked up. Still the horses were trotting right along the roads.
Into the last vet check, four miles from camp, in pitch darkness. This was a busy, congested check, with lots of crew vehicles in a small place. We found our bucket, sponged but not too much (there was a definite drop in temperatures in the air, and we didn't want to risk getting the horses chilled) then off to vet through. Didn't have to strip tack here, thank goodness, or I might have tacked up with my saddle backwards because it was so dark, and it was a quick 15-minute hold. I got a laugh out of the deep footing in the lit outdoor arena. Ned bounced right off it, but I floundered in the deep stuff, so the trot back was less than pretty with me trying to keep up.
Four miles back to camp and it was just Carla and me, our glowsticks, the trail and our ponies. We rode glowstick to glowstick in the woods, with me in the front on my not-historically-trustworthy Ned, reins at the buckle, trying to sit incredibly still in the middle of the saddle so he would simply follow the trail. I couldn't see a thing except the next glowstick and I found myself laughing more than once at the silliness of it all. More than once, I'd lift a finger, or find myself unconsciously steering with my legs to the next little glowing green light, and then we'd inevitably hear crash, crunch, and the sound of breaking twigs as Ned obediently steered right off trail. Sometimes it was easier to just close my eyes and stay in the middle of the saddle.
At one point we tried some trotting, with me in two point, hands holding mane, reins still on the buckle, having no idea of the terrain until I felt Ned negotiate the dips and twists. I got out of balance more than once, and he'd come to a walk to "catch" me. Good boy. We walked nearly all of that four miles, laughing and giggling, and knowing everything was going to be just fine.
The last section of trail was marked by glowing jugs on both sides of the trail, a lovely evening corridor to the finish line, where we were greeted by thunderous applause, although we certainly didn't Top Ten, or even close. Vetted through with Nina Barnett laughing and saying we looked too good to have ridden 100 miles (no truer fact was ever spoken, we'd only gone 50). Both horses looked great, trotted sound, then lead us through the darkness back up the hill to camp. Final ride time 7:40, 29th and 30th I think (there had been 55 starters). It was approaching midnight.
Fussed over the horses, drank water, ate a sandwich offered by Georgia. Paul had finished 23rd, with his Morgan wanting to go faster the whole way. That must have been some fun four miles in the dark woods!
Awoke to feed the horses, begin packing, and head off to GMHA to see my friend Suzy's winning third level dressage test ride. It was positively lovely.
But watching so many tight lips, and black coats, and the incredibly precise riding, I couldn't help but be proud of my slightly stiff knees and my weary glute muscles and the fact that I'd ridden all around and above and below that facility while those horses were tucked quietly in their stalls and those riders were sipping Chardonnay out of crystal.
There was a huge brunch of BBQ back at Smoke Rise Farm at 10:30 a.m. and it was great waiting in line and visiting with the runners, including one who had just finished at 7 a.m. and the one who had won the run. Incredibly inspiring. One woman, stiff legged, who had finished at about 4 a.m. said she'd decided she would perhaps NOT mow the lawn tomorrow. Ate with one of the ride vets, and we spoke of many things, including the runners, and the impressive cavalry endurance riders, and of the on-the-edge things our wonderful horses are willing to do for us.
My Ned arrived home last night about midnight after a nearly 11-hour haul, screamed for his buddies, galloped once around the paddock with two clean flying lead changes, then passaged along the fenceline until he seemed to suddenly remember that there was indeed an open gate to the large pasture where his friends called back to him. Then he galloped down hill in perfect balance, perfectly sound, fit as a fiddle to join his friends.
This morning his legs are cold and tight, and other than that big ol' red 37 on his behind, he looks like a mighty fine dressage horse!
Thank you so much to everyone who made the Vermont rides possible.
--Patti Stedman (NY)