Monday, June 11, 2007

Justin Morgan 50

Sharon Levasseur

This year there was a new endurance ride in Vermont, the Justin Morgan
Memorial 50 in Tunbridge and four surrounding towns. I wanted to ride it but
wasn't sure Zephyr could handle the White Mountains. So three weeks
beforehand, we rode the Brown Bag 25 CTR in the Green Mountains of Vermont.
He did well enough to convince me to give it a shot.

The night before we were scheduled to leave, a friend decided on the spur of
the moment to ditch work and come along to crew for me. HURRAY! Thanks to
preparations earlier in the week, we were packed up early enough that I was
able to cook omelets. We were out the driveway by 8:15 with what was
supposed to be 6 hours of driving ahead of us.

We took our time, stopping here and there for coffee, second breakfast, gas,
elevenses, etc. but thankfully no wrong turns. We finally got to the
Tunbridge Fairgrounds around 3:30 or so, set up camp, and vetted in with all

Heather isn't a horse person and has had no real exposure to the sport of
endurance, so we spent a good long time getting my gear ready and discussing
the logistics of crewing. I've never had a crew before so we had to think it
through out loud together.

Next thing we knew it was time for a very yummy barbeque and the pre-ride
meeting. The trail description was the most thorough I had ever heard; it
was quite clear that Trailmaster Deb knew this trail in and out. I didn't
end up remembering very much of what she said, but one thing sure did
stick... watch out for the bull tied in the middle of the road!!!

Over dinner I met a guy named Dave who was riding a borrowed horse and had
the same goal I had, which was to finish as slow as we needed to in order to
get our flatland horses through safely, so we agreed to start together and
see how it went. Since I had a crew and he didn't, Heather and I agreed
that she could carry some things along and set them out for him.

After dinner it seemed as if we had 3 more minutes of daylight before it was
full dark and time to go lay down and pretend that sleep might actually
happen. Heather had opted to stretch out on the backseat of the truck.
she's shorter than I am. and I crawled into my Tent Cot in the front of the
trailer. I know I slept a little bit because I distinctly remember Zephyr
escaping from his escape-proof corral and that nobody could catch him. but
when I woke up it was clear that either I'd been sleeping, or he'd come home
and shut the gate behind him!

Time to get up came too soon. Start time was at 7:00 so my alarm went off at
4:30. Breakfast for him, breakfast for us, last-minute attempts to finish
shedding him out by sheer elbow grease, and tacking up by 6:40 for warmup.
Dave introduced me to Stina, whose name I'm sure I've spelled wrong, who
also wanted to ride very slowly because both she and her horse were
attempting their first 50-mile ride.

Zephyr was very calm as we warmed up and waited for the vehicle-controlled
start. Trailmaster Deb got this shot of the leading riders and the
starter's car:

Heather got a great picture of all the horses strung out after the starter's
car, on the switchbacks going up the hill out of the fairgrounds. It was all
pavement but all the horses were keyed up so everyone was trotting. Zephyr
was doing just fine until the second switchback when the road turned to
dirt. Then he turned on the afterburners and took off up the hill at his
biggest trot. Rather than fight with him and waste both our energy, I just
steered my rocket and tried to remind him that he had a rider, and that he
should try to keep it under 12mph. After a few miles he started to let me
have more of a say in the matter, so I hung back and waited for Dave and
Stina. We all arrived at the first crewing stop, a boat landing, together.
Heather helped Dave and I, but Zephyr wouldn't drink so I took a minute to
walk him down to the boat landing. Still no drinking so off I went. It took
a few minutes to catch up to Dave and Stina but eventually we did. We were
loving the trails and finding the markings easy to follow as long as we
looked around thoroughly at each turn marker to double-check which way the
trail went. Looking around thoroughly paid off in more ways than one; the
views were spectacular. The mountains were wrapped in such thick fog that
only the tops showed. I tried to take some pictures but the camera didn't
handle the light well so the pictures don't show the true glory that we got
to see in person.

More hills, dirt roads, woods, and fields, and then we were at the second
crewing stop. Pee-break for humans and sponging for horses, and we were off
again. After a while I spotted a pie plate attached to a tree off trail a
bit and yelled "WATER!" I couldn't read the pie plate yet but they don't
grow on trees, so chances were that it was a marker. The other two had
already passed it but Zephyr made the sharp turn without slowing down. They
all drank for quite a while. That was probably around 15 miles in. We all
felt a lot better then, it's always a little nervewracking at the beginning
when they're too keyed up to drink. We rode on with big grins!

The first hold was at a neighbor's farm, and was at around 18 miles. Heather
had picked a good spot for our water buckets up near the pulse-check area. I
knew it was hot and humid enough that to pulse down quickly we'd need to
strip the tack right away instead of waiting until between pulsing down and
the vet check like I normally do, so we stripped tack and dumped it into my
crewing cart. Sure enough, his pulse went right down. We got our official
out time and went back to the truck for a few minutes so we could both eat.
Round about ten minutes later I realized we hadn't gone for our vet check
yet, so off we went. It was in an indoor arena that had a mirror on the top
half of the end wall, and when I walked Zephyr up to it he didn't see the
mirror until he was right in front of it. His head came up, his ears pricked
forward, and he tilted his head from side to side as if he was admiring
himself. Heather just busted out laughing, she'd never seen anything like

We vetted through with all As again and headed back for another few minutes
of snacking before I had to tack up again. The three of us left right on
time. Loop 2 was a little over ten miles. We kept a slower pace, still
moving right out but taking more time to graze (and take pictures).

Every bit of water we saw, the horses sucked down like champs. There were no
crew stops on this loop, and we cruised into the second hold before we knew
it. After the saddle was off, Zephyr pulsed down pretty quickly. This time
we went right over to the outdoor sand arena for our vet check. When the vet
asked me to trot him down and back, and we were on our way back when Zephyr
started trotting with his nose near the sand, sniffing. I was tired enough
not to make the connection. All of a sudden, mid-stride, he dropped like a
stone and just ROLLED and ROLLED and ROLLED! The reins got wrapped around
his nose and torn out of my hand; I'm probably lucky the center buckle
didn't rip my skin. Dumb me, I just reached down and picked the reins up
again but didn't think to move around to where I'd be standing right in
front of him. I would have, but I kept thinking he was finished! It was a
good solid minute before he finally got up. Everyone nearby had gathered at
the arena fence and was laughing. Someone yelled out that I had to clean him
up before presenting him to the vet, and someone else asked how the rolling
would affect our grade for Attitude! Dr. Art King laughed and just said I'd
have to do the trot-out again (so he could check the Cardiac Recovery Index.
pulse before and after trot-out). We passed again with all As and a warning
to be sure and get every last bit of sand out from under where the tack
would go. He didn't have to tell us twice!

Zephyr got less time to eat at this hold because we had to take him over to
the hose for a deep cleaning. We did the best we could without shampoo. I
had time to run to the outhouse with my new container of
Anti-Monkey-Butt-Powder to combat some oncoming saddle sores. Soon it was
time to tack up again, this time with a clean dry saddlepad. We ended up
waiting a few minutes until Esther, whose riding partner had been pulled,
was cleared to leave. It was the first 50-mile for both Esther and her
horse. The four of us did loop 3 together, a little over 9 miles, probably
at about the same pace as we did loop 2. I tried to eat some of my beef
jerky on this loop but when I looked in my pack I saw that the Ziploc bag
had opened, and my pack hadn't been closed, and I'd apparently been trailing
clouds of jerky over the last few miles!

A couple of memorable things happened on loop 3. First, we passed through a
rather run-down farm and we saw the bull. He had been moved off the road...
he was laying down and tied by a 6' rope to an engine block on the ground!
Second, we got to a private residence where there was a sign that said
"water for horses". We were thrilled! The owner came out to check on us
and chatted for a minute. Our horses were just finishing their drink from
this lady's trough, and I was just reaching for the clip on my sponge leash
when she said "OH, you won't believe it, this is so disgusting! I'm upset
with the last people who came through, they didn't get off their horses to
wet their sponges with the hose, they just sat there and dunked them in the
DRINKING WATER! MY horses wouldn't want to drink that nasty water, and I'm
sure yours don't need all that extra salt, so I emptied out the whole tub
and it's just now done filling up." None of us were sure what to say, but I
sure as heck took my hand away from my sponge! We tried to explain that
these horses actually DID need extra salt, and that if they were thirsty
they'd drink out of the nastiest muddiest puddles they could find, but in
the end we just gave up and thanked her for going to all that trouble!

This same woman said she thought she'd just seen a riderless horse heading
back where we came from. We hadn't seen it so she said "oh, it must have
been an apparition." For some reason, this sparked a discussion over the
next mile or so about whether she said apparition or aberration and what
each of those words meant and how both were accurate. We were getting
punchy I think.

As we approached the fairgrounds for the last hold, we were crossing a large
mowed hayfield and everything just felt perfect. It was one of those
on-trail moments that just make everything worthwhile. I did something I’ve
always wanted to do but for some reason hadn’t yet... I dropped the reins on
his neck and spread my arms wide to the side. It felt so good! I convinced
them all to try it, and there we all were, arms spread, cantering along with
the sun on our faces and joy in our hearts.

The third and last hold was at the fairgrounds, and since we didn’t want the
horses to think we were finished we stayed up near the vet area instead of
going back to the trailers. Zephyr pulsed down pretty quickly and we vetted
through with all As again, and no rolling, although we did have an audience
waiting to see if he would try! I had time for one more application of
Monkey Powder… I told Heather I was running an experiment to see how much I
could use before it became visible puffing out through the fabric of my
pants. I’m a firm believer in the stuff now, it sure seemed to help!

This hold was shorter so before we knew it, it was time to head out again.
Dave had been concerned because his borrowed mare hadn’t passed manure that
any of us could remember noticing, so he had her thoroughly checked by the
vets and was cleared to continue. We decided to wait a few minutes past our
out times so Esther could join us; her horse had pulsed down a few minutes
after ours and we knew that if we didn’t wait she wouldn’t continue alone.
This last loop would be a little over 13 miles and we only had an hour and a
half before the 7pm cutoff time, which meant we had to seriously pick up the

As we left camp we picked up a trot just in time to come to a screeching
halt to cross a small rock-bottomed river. The footing was a little
difficult but we made it through with all our horses’ shoes intact. Maybe a
mile later, while we were going up a hill, Dave said he was turning back.
His mare was reluctant to keep pace, which was unusual because she’d done at
least her share of leading the pack all day. She just seemed reluctant to
keep up. It could have been because we had been back at the fairgrounds and
this was her first endurance ride so she’d thought she had been finished, or
it could have been something much worse brewing. Dave made the smart choice
and turned back.

That left me and the two rookie horse/rider teams, and since I’m not that
experienced myself, I joked that the responsibility was scary. But in
reality, I know at least one and maybe both of these ladies were experienced
Competitive Trail Riders, so they knew the important things! We worked well
together, taking turns pushing our horses through the toughest 13.5 miles of
the whole ride. There was no breeze, not much time in the shady woods, and
not enough water. (There was actually a fair amount of natural water but
when we really needed it we couldn't find any.) The horses were puffing
hard but still interested in eating when we asked them to, and whenever they
were trotting they moved willingly enough. It was when we slowed to a walk
that we crawled! None of them wanted to walk at a reasonable pace; we
figured they were making the most of their rest time but it was still
frustrating because the only time we got any breeze was when we were

At the halfway point there were water tanks, where we caught up to a lone
rider. She left as our horses stuck their noses in and drank for a good five
minutes it seemed. We took our time and sponged thoroughly before moving on.
It seemed like forever before we ran into a couple different folks from ride
management, and the second of the two said we were three miles from the
fairgrounds. We continued pushing as fast as we could go, determined not to
fail by being overtime. We passed the lone rider at some point in here. I
had to get off to walk one of the long downhills, my left shin was on fire
and I couldn't trot downhill anymore. I thought walking on my own two feet
might help, and it did. I was able to get back in the saddle and trot again
with less pain.

It was a relief to finally see the fairgrounds across the fields. We crossed
a covered bridge in between and Trailmaster Deb was there to take our
pictures. Big grins and straightened posture.

The horses perked up when they recognized a field they'd traveled earlier.
I was in the lead and when we hit the track around the outside of the
fairgrounds, Zephyr started cantering. He broke into a trot before the
finish line but I crossed it with my arms spread wide and a big grin! That
was the first time ever that I'd finished a ride to the sound of applause
and cheering. I'm not sure why either, maybe they were waiting to see if
we'd make the cut off time? I've just beat cut off a lot of times though,
and never got that reception.

He stopped next to the in-timer without a cue, and I did my impression of
hopping off in a sprightly manner. Which is to say, I slithered down off his
back and assumed a spread-kneed, hunch-backed posture while Heather gave my
vet card to the timer. We went over to the crewing area, stripped his tack
and both sponged and hosed him down. Almost everyone I passed in those first
few minutes congratulated me, and I had to tell them not to jinx it as we
had yet to vet through! His pulse was down in something less than 10 minutes
and we were walking to the pulse box when he stepped on my foot and leaned
on it. I tried to push him off but didn't have much muscle strength. It
seemed like forever! When he was finally off of me I yelled a curse and
doubled over, and everyone started laughing. One lady called out "that
always makes me feel better too!"

I managed to trot him out all right. He vetted through with all As except
for a B on gut sounds, which wasn't surprising as we'd only stopped for a
couple of quick bites of grass on that last loop. I left the vetting area
and handed the lead rope to Heather, muttering something like "let him eat".
Then I headed for the nearest grassy spot and eased down onto my back for a
few minutes of rest! As soon as I could manage it I made my way back to the
trailer to join Heather and Zephyr, and change out of my wet clothes. I took
a turn with Zephyr and just laid on the ground with my eyes closed, holding
the end of his lead rope while he ate the grass around me.

I heard a bit later that people who have ridden all over the country said
the terrain rivaled Old Dominion (without the rocks). I don't think I'd have
done it if I'd realized that! He is, for all intents and purposes, a
flatland horse. We have hills but nothing like this!

There was no award ceremony because most folks had left. After I picked up
my completion award, we ate a cold supper, had some wine, and walked across
the fairgrounds for showers before going to bed. We'd just been given word
that instead of the leisurely departure I'd planned before our 7-hour drive,
we had to clear out by 7am at the latest because a Morgan horse show was
being held that day.

I woke up at 4:45 to the sound of our neighbors packing up. We were both up
by 5 and left the fairgrounds at 7, so we got home at 1:30 instead of
dinnertime like I'd planned. He trotted out sound, even on circles. We got
the trailer unpacked and parked, which feels great NOW but wasn't really on
my top ten list of things to do THEN. We went out to dinner and I still had
time to write this story when we got home!

Hope you enjoyed the story. If this ride happens again, seriously consider
going. It is a true challenge, but isn't that what it's all about?

Sharon L. and Zephyr

1 comment:

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