My 9 y.o. TWH, Bird, & I have been conditioning several months for this ride (since late last winter) & before that we had a base of six years of frequent, mountainous trail riding (we rode year round, rarely missed a weekend riding, & often rode every 3-4 days in the summertime). When we started really conditioning for this ride, we mixed up some longer, slower trail rides (15-27 miles) with shorter, faster ones (5-15), riding as much as our schedules would allow. We have a place close by where we rode often with a good loop on a gentle hill. We could run laps on this hill, then turn & climb an almost-vertical hill to the top of a ridge then back around to the loop & repeat. We had one place where we could really stretch out with better footing & we did many rides there where we would ride a fast loop, come back to the trailer, change tack & ride out again so he’d learn the it’s-not-over-till-it’s-over lesson. I never did more than two loops like that though (about 15-20 miles worth, total).
My horse is one of those ridiculously “easy keepers” who can ride & ride & ride & ride & still looks pudgy to me. Stores fat in all these weird places & feels squishy when he shouldn’t. So even though he didn’t look like a lean-mean fighting machine, I thought maybe that’s the best he can look!? Oh, by the way, he’s also gorgeous. I know I’m making him sound ugly & he’s not. He looks good, but when you stand him next to a cut, buff racehorse, he’s going to look fat. But I digress.
Later in the summer, I tried to get the only endurance rider I know in my area to ride with me to see how I was doing, but her horse was down so I was left to my own resources. I bought & read The Complete Guide to Endurance Riding and Competition. I read endurance.net articles and ridecamp. I learned that heart & lungs condition first, then muscles, then bone & tendon. Bought a stethoscope to practice C.R.I.’s & pushing the heart up into brief anaerobics. But what’s my gauge for the muscles, the bones & tendons? I read that it takes two years to develop the bones for endurance, but wouldn’t 6 years of mountainous trail riding count toward some of that? Or does it have to be 2 years worth of a certain kind of conditioning?
The amount of information out there is overwhelming, & it makes you feel like you can never be ready to do it. I kept flip flopping wildly back & forth from thinking we were no where near ready to thinking that maybe we were as ready as we’d ever be. I finally decided that if I didn’t just do it, I was never going to & I’d end up sitting in my house reading down into a rabbit hole. So, I entered the Skymont ride to find out what’s what. I entered the 50 because I know that we can go 25. What I want to know is how much farther than that we can go. It would be really nice to win. I mean, this is the “to finish is to win” sport, so we want to “win” even if we don’t win in first place. But if we don’t win at all, at least we’ll get an idea of where we are in our conditioning.
We drove up the day before. We only live 2 hrs away. I had my brother-in-law Mike with me who had been training with us riding his 6 yr old Quarter/Arab cross. We’ve had almost the exact same conditioning work. Very different animals, but we’ve worked around their differences so that we can ride together ok. I had taught Bird to trot & his big trot was about the same pace as Ender’s canter, so along we would go. We even practiced riding & splitting up in case we couldn’t ride the race together all the way.
Anyway, we get to the ridecamp, set up tents & go out on a short loosening up ride about 5-6 miles of the last of the blue loop. Better footing than anywhere we normally ride. Way better. This was going to be nice. Back to camp & the vet in. Not understanding the purpose of the trot-out, Bird thought it best to show the vet all of his gaits plus any gaits he had ever seen or read about. Thankfully, I had Otis Schmitt & he just shook his head at this display & said that there were a lot of them, but they were all straight! We were cleared to ride.
We fed the horses & left for the ride meeting. We have no crew yet. They’re planning to arrive by 1st vet check, so we have to leave the horses alone tied to the trailer while we go to the meeting. Now I almost can’t stand to be out of sight of my horse much less leave him alone in the dark in a strange place for 2 hours! I was sick to get back to camp. About the only things I remembered from the meeting were the cautions that Sat. would be the 1st day of hunting season & the ride property was surrounded by hunting land & they were going to have spotters on the perimeter trying to keep hunters from coming into our area & the one about how we had better not get lost & go off trail at the risk of severe injury to our horse because of old barbed wire all over the place! If I wasn’t sick before, I was sick now.
Somehow, I also got the sneaking suspicion that there could be moonshiners tucked away in the nooks & crannies of these hills. I live close enough to know that this is not as surprising as you might imagine if you aren’t “from around here.” Before the race, I had worried about getting into a wreck & separating from my horse, but now there was no chance of that. If I was in a wreck, I was staying with my horse even if I ended up hanging under his belly with his legs thundering around me! I was already going to have nightmares about my black horse tearing through the woods getting shot at by hunters & bootleggers while dragging 10 feet of barbed wire through some hillbilly’s still.
We “stalled” our horses in the trailer because we weren’t going to spring for corral panels on our first ride & we had never high line tied. We figured that they’d be just as likely to bang on the trailer if they were standing tied next to it as they would be in it & this way they’d be safer & could move around a bit. Well anyway, they were noisy. To their credit, they didn’t just stand there making gratuitous noises banging & pawing, but it was still annoying that every move they made was audible & I felt sorry for our neighbors. At the sound of the 5:00 wake-up horn, I bounded out of bed, got the horses out & tied & watered & eating hay. We were going to avoid feeding a lot of grain on race day, so we fed hay, a few handfuls of sweet feed & carrots & apples & our electrolyte cookies. Beet pulp soaked with apple juice was offered & turned down. It was cold, somewhere in the mid thirties I guess. Our neighbors were not growling at us over our noisy trailered horses, not even when I interrupted their pre-race preparations to ask a silly electrolyte question, thank you Angie! As a matter of fact, everyone we met was as nice as could be, the riders, management, volunteers, farrier (especially the farrier), vets, camp dogs, you name it. Nice as could be. Apparently even behind our backs, according to our crew.
The Start loomed like a dark, scary cloud over my head. Crowds are not my thing, especially crowds on horseback. I was too nervous to eat. I just wanted to make it through the start & get out there to ride my ride & find out what I came here to find out. We checked in with the timer & warmed up back out of the way where we could see the start & sneak out when we felt comfortable. We watched the start & it was calm & controlled so (huge sigh of relief) we set out just a couple of minutes after 7:00.
It was chilly & the horses were feeling great & loving the footing & there’s race energy in the air, but Bird wasn’t getting too carried away. We were doing about as well as I could have hoped. I tried to use a group of people ahead of me as a block to keep him from moving out too fast in the beginning & we clicked along. We finished the 1st 12 ½ mile loop in 1 hr, 44 minutes. We were close to last; I think the timer said there were 7 behind us, so I felt good. We were turtling, right? That’s good, right? Well, we felt good anyway. The trail was beautiful; the horses perfect & happy. We were calling them “racehorses” to boost their egos. After all, it may be the only day they ever get to be racehorses, so they needed to milk it.
At camp, our crew had arrived & my nephew met me coming in, handed me a pimento cheese sandwich & took my horse. God bless him. It was great to have a crew. There were so many little things going on & so little time. If you don’t have a crew, you’ll need about 10 long arms & an organized mind, & the latter may be the bigger feat. I know that I didn’t think clearly all weekend, because one of the big side things I wanted to accomplish was to get one of Angie McGhee’s books & I talked to her twice & still forgot to ask her! The horses had pulses in the 40’s & all A’s on the vet cards. They were pooping, peeing, & eating, same drill as this morning, hay, carrots, apples, little sweet feed, even some of the beet pulp. Not drinking yet, so we stashed our electrolyte cookies for the road to feed when they started drinking. My concerns about racing Bird in shoes that were only 3 days old were fading away to memory.
2nd loop was a bit slower. Ender had been a little off in his first trot out & we thought it could have something to do with him being “springy” on the 1st loop (he gets like that when he’s behind Bird ever since he learned that he was entered in an endurance “race!”), so we switched positions. Still no problems out on the trail, two good horses under us, powering on, but adding in some more walking. We did lose the trail a few times, but recovered quickly. The trail was marked extremely well, but with lots of fast weaving in & out of trees, it only took one blinding ray of sunshine to miss a turn & you’d be off course, sweating the barbed wire hazards.
We finished that 12 ½ mi. loop in 2 hours. Now, if you’re watching the math, you’ll notice that we’re not flying down the trail here. But, it is the fastest we’ve ever done that distance. We’ve ridden that distance (25+ miles) & we’ve ridden that fast 5-9 m.p.h., but we’ve never ridden a whole 25 miles at 7 m.p.h. So, at the ½ way mark, we’ve already done more than we’ve ever done before & I’m proud of my horse.
In the 2nd vet check, I’m not completely thrilled with the trot-out, but the way Bird is flipping channels on the remote, I don’t know how anyone can tell anything about him. Shifting gaits about every 3rd step. He doesn’t do that at home when we practice trotting out, by the way. But, he’s still in the 40’s & all A’s except for one A- in the gut. I realize that if we had taken the safe route & entered the 25, we would have finished with flying colors, so I’m happy to know that.
The vet did a C.R.I. at that check which I didn’t realize he was doing until the very end of it & I was standing there just talking to someone not helping Bird at all, not even looking at him. I thought it was bad (for the ½ way point). It was 42/48. I was concerned about it, but maybe it would have been better if I had been paying attention (I can drop Bird’s pulse 3 beats just by touching him on the mouth) & the vet said it was fine. I wanted to talk more to the vet about how we were doing because I knew that my real challenge was about to begin, but he was very busy with all of the 25 mile finishers coming in. I told him that my horse still had plenty of forward motion, but he was getting slightly tired already. He said that was normal, that he should finish the ride slightly tired or it would indicate that I wasn’t doing enough miles. I said, “But we’re only ½ way.” Then he told his helper to give me my completion. He had thought all along that I was one of the finishing 25’ers. My number “2” may have looked like the letter “Z.” She told him that I was a 50. He said that Bird was “cruising.” So off we went.
I was really stressed leaving out on that 3rd loop, but Mike reminded me that they would have stopped me if I wasn’t ok to go. Bird had finally taken a good drink in that 2nd hold too, so all systems were a go. But I knew that it was going to be tough to get him moving, especially since he really gave it his all on the 1st 2 loops. Joe’s advice from the new rider meeting was ringing in my ears, “At this point, your horse will have lost a whole lot of respect for you.” From Bird’s point of view, what possible need could we have to go back out & do it all over again? Sure enough, he was sluggish, even stopping here & there. As far as he was concerned, we were still close enough to camp for me to change my mind & he wanted to give me a chance to do that.
We pushed through that rough beginning & got moving on the 3rd loop. After a few miles into it, things really improved & we were cruising along, no worries. Good forward horse, at least when his GPS told him we were turned toward camp (love that equine GPS – saves me a bunch of money!). When we passed the ride photographer, Linda Toups, I told her that the next time I saw her I was going to strike a pose standing up in the stirrups pulling my underwear down since I seemed to be doing a lot of that!
Then the trouble started. It started very, very subtly. I normally switch leads & diagonals back & forth during rides to keep the horse from getting one-sided. Now, when I tried to pick up the left diagonal at the trot, it was awkward (I don’t know if I’m saying that right, it would be the diagonal when you’re rising with the left front leg, whatever that one is called). I was having to step down in my stirrups to push myself up into the post instead of riding his movement up. It’s the right rear leg I should be getting impulsion from at that point, right? If I had connected dots, I would have known at that moment: my horse is going off & he’s going off in the right rear. In any event, I wasn’t sure what was going on because I know that the rider can get lop-sided too, so was it me or was it Bird? I should have realized that it wasn’t me since I didn’t have an ache in my whole body. I was feeling great, like I could ride a hundred miles. Anyway, all that pushing off was hollowing his back out & making things worse, so I stopped posting on that side.
While this is happening, the weather also seems to be getting chillier. The wind is picking up & I feel like whenever we slow down, the muscles are cooling & that’s not good, so we try to keep moving out. I’m trapped between wanting to slow down because he might be getting tired & needing to speed up to keep from getting cold & sore. I had been so eager to get rid of that rump rug after the 1st loop because it was getting on my nerves, but I wished I had it back now. When we got to the lake, we stopped to offer water. We only stopped for a couple of minutes. They needed to drink, but the stopping wasn’t good either. Not long after we got back on trail, I felt like he was more off. I tried to press on a bit, maybe warm back up, but it wasn’t long before I decided that that wasn’t going to work. We were done. & we were 3 or 4 miles out of camp. I got off & walked. I was so very proud of my horse & told him so, but I had a hard time looking at him because his eyes were so big & innocent & there was a ring of white salt around them from his effort & I had asked him for more than he could do & he was looking at me & I had put him here. It was a long, hard walk.
Before the race, I had imagined getting pulled & this is how it went: we came into the 2nd or 3rd vet check kind of tired & the vet told us that Bird was fit to continue, but that there was a very good chance that at the next check, he wouldn’t pass, wouldn’t get a completion anyway, so I’d have to decide whether to keep going or not & then I would decide not to & we would quit while we were ahead. I always assumed that my decision not to continue would happen at the vet check. In camp. Well, that’s not how it happened. & this is where I can maybe be a cautionary tale for someone. Things may not go exactly as you plan, so plan for the other ways, too. Pack Kleenex.
We plodded on into camp. My ache-less body now a thing of the past because my knees are screaming from that hike. The trail I had thought was on the milder side of technical was a whole lot more tricky when you got down there on it! I didn’t even notice the time. I think it was 3 hours or so on that loop. We’re done. Who cares. We come in & head straight for a vet. Ender was already in & not ok either, waiting to go for his 2nd check. The vet check is a blur to me. I wasn’t paying much attention except to hear that it was muscular in his right rear leg. Ender’s problem was exactly the same, right rear. Weird. The vet does say that everything else is A-ok, they’re not even dehydrated. Apparently, his muscles just fatigued out. He said that I could give Bute if I wanted, but I didn’t because he didn’t suggest it, he only said that I could when I asked him about it. I decided to wait & see & give it to him the next day if he wasn’t better. He never needed the Bute, but I did apply liniment that night & the next day. Ender was the exact same.
So our conditioning was only enough to make it 35 miles. Now I know. Looking back, my feeling is that our conditioning was more weighted like we were entering a mountain bike trial & instead we entered a street bike race. My nephew said that our horses’ bodies compared to the others looked like the difference between hikers & runners (notwithstanding the difference in breeds). I think that maybe our conditioning didn't have enough extended periods of speed. We may be reaching those speeds in training, but we’re not holding them long enough. I’m also unsure about the race day feeding plan. Bird seemed ravenous afterwards. He’s always a big fan of food, but he was Hungry. If you don’t want to feed a lot of grain, but your horse won’t eat the beet pulp, do you go ahead & feed the grain so that at least he’ll have the energy source? I fed Bermuda & Orchard grass hays. Should I have started him on some alfalfa before the race so he would have had that as another option? I wish I had done that. Bird loves alfalfa. I should have bumped him up to a performance feed before the race, too, instead of his usual 10% sweet feed.
Anyway, we’d really like to give it another try next year. So, if anyone out there has any helpful advice, I’d love to hear it. Anything about what to add to our conditioning program, or especially any ways to test the horse to know where he stands along the way. We were lucky on Saturday to meet a super nice experienced rider, Cindy Bell, who just happens to live close to me at least part of the year & she invited us to condition with her next year, so that should help a lot! I know that she had lots of helpful comments after the race & maybe if I can talk to her when I’m not worn out & brain dead, I’ll retain more of it. If anyone else out there can help me, please do. I would especially like to hear more people tell me that since we weren’t pushing our horses hard & the trail was not difficult, that I probably didn’t damage my horse’s bones by riding him until his muscles gave out. The vets didn’t seem to think it was a big deal at all, but pushing my horse’s athletic abilities is a new experience for me & I want so much to do right by him & never ever harm him in any way whatsoever!
I imagine a lot people will read to the part where I say that Bird is a Tn Walker, stop, circle that part in red ink, & yell, “Hey Susan, I found your problem!” That’s what the ride farrier said. Bird is one of those heavy-bodied horses, & he doesn’t have his capillaries right under the skin all convenient-like, either. But I’m not expecting him to win in first place or anything, I just want to win, to win in any place would be alright by me. If I wanted to be competitive, I could go out & buy an Arab. But then it wouldn’t be Bird. & we’re a team. I love him. Why would I want to do this with anyone else? So, I’d especially like to hear tips from riders of the heavy bodies because that’s what I’ll be riding. We won’t be entering 100’s, but completing a 50 would be nice.
Thanks Larry & June & Gary, for putting on this ride & making it a pleasant experience even when it was such a gruelling one at the same time. I won’t soon forget it.
Susan (& Bird)