Wednesday, June 13, 2007

Riding Cavalry At The 2007 Old Dominion 100

Paul Sidio's Story

There have been lots of ride stories about the OD 100. This one is mainly about the aspects of riding it Cavalry style. For those who want just the summary, here it is. Ridng a 100 mile ride is tough. Riding 100 miles at the Old Dominion is especially tough. Riding 100 miles under Cavalry rules didn't make it any tougher. Riding Cavalry doesn't add any miles, hills or rocks. It just takes a little planning and forsight.

When I first got into Endurance riding, I heard about the various famous rides and started looking at websites about them. On the OD website, they mentioned a Cavalry division. You rode the same 100 miles , but under slightly different rules. You can look those rules up, but it boils down to this. You have to carry all your own supplies for you and your horse except water. Nobody can assist you or your horse during the ride including at the vet checks. Simple enough, but somehow it intrigued me. It turns out no other ride offers this. So a few years ago, when the thought of doing a 100 was not even in my goals, I started thinking about about what a person crazy enough to do a 100 there would have to take. Then as trying a 100 became a goal, I thought that Cavalry style would be fun. Last winter I posted on Ridecamp asking about this and heard from several people who had done it or knew somebody who had. From their help, I started refining my lists of stuff to take. The best advice was from Kevin Baird who told me, " minimalize, minimalize, minimalize." One nagging worry was that few people had ever done this. Probably less than 100? nobody seems to know. Those that had done so in the past, and were still riding there weren't trying Cavalry any more. Then I heard that nobody had done this since 2002. It makes you worry that everybody else knows something horrible about this that you don't.

I really hadn't planned to try the OD this year, but when the word went out that this was the last year on the old trail, then " maybe someday in the future" became "this year or never". I started trying different packing methods, and doing training rides carrying all my gear. Items were added, discarded and added back several times. Some of the great riders probably could just decide to do this the day before and do just fine, but I am a fairly poor rider, ability and equitition wise, with only 360 lifetime endurance miles before this ride and needed to do a good job planning this out to have a shot at it.

Last year, even though I am an AERC middleweight, I usually tacked out between 215 and 225 . My goal for this year was to actually be a middle weight, and after some exercise and watching my diet, I was tacking out at about 195 this year. With the extra gear, I estimate we started the ride weighing about 220-225. During the day I figured that we would use up the 10 pounds of grain and alfalfa cubes, plus about 2 pounds of my supplies.

Cavalry is simple, You can use what you can carry. You have to carry it all the way, (can't drop it off). You can drop off trash. You can't use other peoples stuff even if they leave it out for you. For example, I asked if I could carry a chair? The Ride Manager looked puzzled as to how/why I thought I could carry a chair, but said sure but you have to carry it the whole way. I am sure a vision of some fool trying to drag a Lazy Boy recliner over Shermans Gap crossed his mind. But I had a 3 legged lightweight camp stool. I could sit on a rock or a stump, but not somebodys buckets,tailgate or even a bale of hay. So the stool made the trip.

Since water was available, then my goal was to carry as little liquid stuff as possible. The big alfalfa cubes in zip locks became my grass and hay for the two vet checks with little grass. I added water into the zip locks at those checks and "presto magic" we had horse feed. Gatorade for me was little packets I could add to water.

So we showed up to Fort Valley, prepared as best we could. Friday I tried the now infamous 30 mile ride on my Missouri Foxtrotter , True Blue. Two weeks before we had done a 35 mile ride in the Ozarks and finished in 4:30. So we were confident that doing a 30 here would be a nice easy preview for the 100. .... In our dreams...Friday, in 95 plus degree heat and sauna like humidity, we came in slightly before the 8 hour cutoff and couldn't pulse down in time.

I had signed Piper, my good buddy 10 year old failed show horse Arabian gelding, and I up for the 50 in the early registration with the plan all along to bump up to the 100. Now we had just got totally whipped by this very tough trail and had to decide to make that decision to bump up or not. I visited with several experienced people about this. Flora Hillman and Karen Bohn were especially supportive and confident it was doable. So I trudged up the hill to the registration tent and changed my entry. My saddle was already set up for it, and I had already set aside the stuff to carry, so it was just a matter of packing it all up. My wife thought I had crossed the boundary line between the normal amount of crazy it takes to ride Endurance to the far side where only certified crazy people are. Her main concern was for the horse, and she made me promise to quit if it was too hard on him. She offered to crew, but I was determined to take this shot at Cavalry.

I had stowaways front and rear, plus a lightweight canvas saddlebag with two compartments on each side. I had modified them so they would hold the stuff better when trotting or cantering. Most trail riding saddlebags are designed for leisurely ambles and not for carrying vital gear for extended miles at faster speeds. Usually in Endurance we want a saddle pad that covers as little area as possible so the horse cools better, but I used an oversized fleece type pad to cushion the area where the bags would ride on Piper.

Having heard about the difficult surfaces, we had practiced with Bosana boots and started with 4 of those plus an easy boot bare with gaitor that Karen Bohn was kind enough to lend us. For headgear I usually ride in a llittle S hackamore the first loop or two and switch over to just a nylon halter. To simplify and minimize, we elected to just use the halter. Piper is responsive enough to not get race happy and run off at the beginning. Reins were a soft cotton type 9 foot long roping type that doubled as lead rope at vet checks and tailing rope. We did carry a spare set of light reins as a back up. Our saddle is a Specialized International model with a few D rings added to hook gear to. We ride without a breast collar or crouper. The saddle fit well enough that we were able to ride all day up and down those impressive hills without it sliding up his neck or off his rump. We never had to adjust it between vet checks except one time when I was dimounting on a hill to tail up the remainder and Piper stepped away. This caused me to pull the saddle sideways on him.

There was still that nagging worry as I met riders who had rode Cavalry previously and who were riding the 100, but when I asked them if they wanted to try it Cavalry, they would give a small smile and shake their heads. Lynne Gilbert rode the 30 and then also the 100 at this ride. In 2002 she not only rode the 100 Cavalry style, but was the overall 100 mile winner and BC. But she just smiled and wasn't going to go Cavalry. She was encouraging. She seemed very nice, but what did she know that I didn't?

So at 5:30 AM , off we went. There are lots of descriptions of this tough trail, so 'nuff said about that. I had worked quite a bit to load my tack so that it was balanced front to rear and side to side. One adjustment I had to make was mounting the horse. Usually I swing my leg over the saddle low and close, but with the extra stuff we were carrying, I had to swing my leg high and wide. So I started using rocks, stumps, ditches etc to assist me..Fortunately at the OD, you are never far from a rock, hill or ditch.

Now here is where the first mis-information about riding Cavalry comes in. The rules say you are on your own and not allowed any assistance. You assume this means that it is just you and your horse against the trail. That is wrong. While other people are not allowed to assist you in material ways, everybody gave Piper and I huge amounts of emotional support. Just like how a cheering crowd at a basketball or football game gives that team an edge, this suddenly turned this from an away game to a home field game for us. It was almost embarrassing. Hall of Fame type riders were walking up to me before the ride, shaking my hand and congratulating me for signing up. We hadn't even started yet, but they were acting like we had already done something great. Now I got nervous. How sad and embarrassing would it be to have all this support and not make it? Right then I determined that the only way we would not finish would be if the vets dragged me off Piper and said he couldn't go any further. The emotional support was unbelievably huge. All through the day as we passed other riders, and even the 50's. the vets, ride management, other peoples crews, volunteers, they all cheered us on. It was unlike anything I have experienced in Endurance. I lost my name and became "Cavalry Guy". If I had to choose between t-bone steaks, air mattresses, massages at the vet checks,combined with a neutral attitude from the volunteers, vets, other riders and their crews instead of having to carry my stuff and get this wonderfull support from complete strangers, I'll always take the mental support. People have commented how I was always smiling on trail and in camp. Given the warm and friendly treatment everybody gave me, how could I be anything but happy? Nobody saw me when we tailed up Veatchs and Sherman Gaps. I wasn't smiling then, just panting really hard.

By the first vet check, we had lost one of the Bosana boots, They were great for traction on rocks and asphalt, plus I felt they helped ease the concussion. So of course we lost one in the first 10 miles. Now we had to decide to go on 3 boots for a while since the trail was relatively easy at that point and save our spare until later. Then when I reached inside my fishing vest for his first grain ration, the discount brand zip lock bag blew out and grain scattered over everything. What he didn't eat, I picked up and shoved back in the vest pocket. So much for plans. We added the spare easy boot at mile 40 or so. So we had four tires on the road now. Then we lost another Bosana boot around mile 75. Tore up the Easy boot around mile 80, (this is getting even more expensive). Moved boots arounds and finished with two on the front.

We kept a steady pace. slowed at the tough parts, and made time at the better parts. We rode with several different riders for short distances for a while, but the good advice I had recieved about just riding our own ride always came through and we would either watch them go on ahead or leave them behind.

The safety net in Cavalry is that if you lose or break something vital, and absolutely have to have it, you can get it from somebody, and finish the ride as a regular 100 rider. Several people had offered to carry an emergency crew bag for me in case I really needed something so at least I could finish the 100. My reply was that if I couldn't ride Cavalry Divison, I would switch over and ride Scarlett Division. For those of you not familiar with that riding division, Scarlett O'Hara said in Gone With The Wind, " I have always depended on the kindness of strangers".. If I got to the point where assistance was absolutely essential, then I too would depend on the kindness of strangers.

Apart from tailing up huge hills and the distance involved, the ride was a breeze. We would come into a vet check, find where our Cavalry site was, ( we were kept somewhat seperate to keep Piper from stealing grain and hay from other horses), go pull the saddle, sponge a minute, walk over to P& R. After vetting through, Piper would eat grass while I got out his grain , carrots and whatever I needed from the saddle packs. I would unpack the stool, and sit on it to relieve my back. For electrolytes, he used Perform and Win which I hand fed him dry. He would lick my hands to get it all. I tried it, but prefered the gatoraide type mixes to add to my water. We had one of those little lightweight insulated packs to keep my ham and cheese sandwitch and his carrots cool. Then we would re-tack. When he was loaded up, I would re-check the weight loads on the saddle bags to keep them even. At Curtis Field, the 75 mile vet check, I used my MRE food. These are self heating meals like the miliary uses. They have some chemical that you add water to and it heats the TV dinner type food up. I had 3 cheese lasagna. It tasted like crap, but it was hot, gut filling crap. When it was heating up, steam was escaping. The box it came in with the instructions had sort of fallen apart during the day. So I just put my foot on the bag to keep the heat in. There was concern on my part that it might set the grass on fire. If a Cavalry rider starts a grass fire can other people help put it out? That was something I hoped not to need to know the answer to. Other crew members and riders came over to encourage me and offer support, and one guy was concerned that my foot might be on fire. At every single vet check the volunteers were anxious to make sure I had drinking water. They were a great help, and their attitudes made it even easier.

Piper is a very special horse with a great attitude in camp. He wasn't dragging me around and hollering at the other horses. I usually just kept a foot on his lead line which left my hands free to work. When using the porta potties, I would choose the one with the most grass next to it and hold his lead rope in my teeth through the door. It was funny at a couple of stops, when I was in the porta potty, I would hear people outside laughing about this. One time a guy , not realizing I was riding Cavalry , saw the horse and the rope going into the porta potty , and said he was going to hold my horse for me. Before I could holler for him not to do anything,(try doing that with a lead rope in your mouth), 4 people stopped him. Everybody was watching out for me.

We only had a couple of scary moments during the ride. When coming into Edinberg Gap vet check, we were only about 100 yards out when Piper got distracted by the lights ahead. I was fiddling around looking for something in my pommel bag when he slipped on a steep dirt part and went to his knees. It was only a surface scrape like kids get everyday on playgrounds, but it was frightening when it happened. About 4 miles from the finish we were trotting on a gravel road. When the road crossed a creek they had put slick concrete. We almost went down there too, and his back legs spraddled every which way for a second until he recovered his balance.

During the day, at various times I had the good fortune to ride with Bob Walsh. He is a fine and kind gentleman. We would ride together for a while, and he would tell me the history of that part of the trail. Then we would seperate and he would go ahead or I would. After Curtis Field, the 75 mile mark, we wound up riding together more of the time as it worked for our horses. However late in the ride, I got concerned for Bob. I had heard a story of him passing out at a previous ride. When we left Edinberg Gap and were trotting on the last 10 miles he said " If we stay ahead of those two riders we might top 10." I looked over my shoulder. There were glow sticks and fireflies behind us, but no other riders visable. "Umm Bob, What makes you think we are even close to top 10?" I asked. He replied , "When we left Fitchetts, I was 10th and you were 11th" Now I was toast, and wiped out, but was positive that we had just left Edinberg Gap,and that Fitchetts was 35 miles or so behind us. Was this the infamous OD Delerium striking? Was Bob losing it? I told him that I didn't care about my placement and at the finish line he should just go ahead of us. Well Bob was delerious like a fox. We finished 9th and 10th respectively.Tom P from Canada had come into Edinberg with us, but was late leaving the hold. He made a wrong turn ( so he says) and finished about 15 minutes behind us in 11th place. One of the nice things about the OD, is that they have a special award for 11th place, which was a free entry to next years 100 mile ride. Pretty crafty Canadian isn't he? Obviously I was outmatched by these more experienced competitors:)

During the last 10 miles, the effects of riding 30 miles in that heat on Friday started affecting me more. My legs were like jelly and I wallered all over the saddle. My equitition which is poor at the best of times became even worse. Remember in the old western movies when the soldiers at the fort see the lone returning rider from the scouting party. He is slumped over the front of the saddle and wobbling from side to side? Then after he gets through the gate of the fort, he falls off the horse and you see 5 or 6 arrows in his back? That was me as we went up Traskers Gap on the last 3 miles and the arrows would explain the pain as my back cramped up.

Somehow as we saw the lights of camp, we trotted on in at 3:26 am. In fact Piper cantered the last 100 yards. He may only weigh 800 pounds, but 600 of it has to be heart.

One of the things about Cavalry that is not well explained in the rules is that even after you cross the finish line, and even after you go through the completion vet check, you are still in a Cavalry mode until the Cavalry Award judging the next morning. That meant nobody could help me with my horse and getting the tack back to my campsite. Nobody could feed me or rub my back or legs. That was something I had not prepared for. I had food at the RV which I was allowed to eat, and feed for my horse. Unfortunately, by 8:am when it was time to do the judging, Piper had tightened up and was off enough to be judged not fit to continue. There was no doubt in my mind that I wasn't fit to continue. When trotting him out, my right leg cramped up and I came very close to collapsing

The head vet, Lani Newcomb, came up to tell me that they were not going to give a Cavalry Award, and it was obvious she was distressed about it. Everybody was rooting for us and hoping it would turn out good. Not getting the Cavalry Award was no big deal for me. It wasn't one of my goals coming into the ride. We had completed our first 100 mile ride, and done it at one of the toughest rides in the world, and done it Cavalry. Then we surpised the heck out ourselves and completed Top 10. Lani was talking about this probably being emotionally devastating for me. All I could think was thank goodness they didn't want me to trot him out more. That would have been devastating.

So here is the second big mis-conception around riding Cavalry at the Old Dominion. People think you have to be a world class experienced rider on one of the legendary horses. Piper and I started with under 400 lifetime endurance miles. Anybody that has seen me ride will assure you that I am not a well balanced centered rider. I am a 57 year old Realtor in only moderately fit condition. Doing our first 100 Cavalry style was no harder than if we had had a NASCAR type crew of 10 people helping. Cavalry style reduced the distractions and allowed me to focus on my horse and the ride. For instance, I carried a hand held polar monitor and never used it the entire ride. We were in touch enough that I knew if his heart was up or down.

If anybody is interested in my list of what I took, and what I used, please feel free to email me privately, Paul at

Cavalry was this great day spent bonding and sharing trail with my horse. I recommend it to anybody. If fact you might want to try doing a 50 that way just for the fun of it. It is more like what they say Endurance riding was back in the old days when people slept in pickup truck seats or on surplus army cots in the back of mostly clean stock trailers. I am still amazed that more people haven't tried it. They are checking, but think I may have been the only non-local rider to have ever completed the ride Cavalry. Folks, it wasn't that hard. The old trail at the Old Dominion is gone. I feel honored to have had a chance to complete it. Long live the new trail. Who wants to try it Cavalry with me next year?

Paul N. Sidio
Spokane Mo

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