Wednesday, January 02, 2008

New Year's In New Mexico 07: A Lesson in Contrasts

January 2 2008

My own humble experience at the Las Cruces two-day ride amid the hustle and bustle of the FEI qualification attempts was one of strategically conservative riding on two horses the span the spectrum of character and gait. The more I am exposed to horses, the more I realize how drastically different each one is from the next.

Knowing the trail on Day 1 would be shared with some fast-moving horses, I chose to ride Red because he would be less distracted by the activity around him. Red is six; I got him just over a year ago and this was his fourth 50-mile ride. The race started at 8 AM – there were only 12 starters in the 50. We left with the big group, and Red settled immediately into a warm-up trot and our pace stayed between 8.5 and 8.9 mph for the 15 mile loop. A couple of riders passed us near the beginning, and we would be passed by other riders on the common trail throughout the day, but we essentially rode the entire day alone. It was fascinating to be out there riding my own quiet ride and to be sharing the trail and getting passed by the Sheika Madiea from the UAE; the King of Malaysia and Valerie Kanavy.

There was water every five miles and Red drank from every tank. The late December desert was devoid of much to eat, so Red was happy to get back to camp and his food. Rusty only rode on Day 2 because he was supposed to crew for some of the Malaysian Team, but they seemed to have as many crew as they needed, leaving Rusty to generously crew for me. It is such a treat to have someone waiting there for you at the vet check with a horse blanket, hay, and willingness to trot the horse out for you.

The 45-minute hold passed quickly and we were out again to take on the 25-mile loop. We kept a consistent 7.5 - 8 mph trot for much of the loop, and took 3h40 to complete the section. It felt like a long loop to me, but it did bring us to the 40-mile mark. Red drank his way along in five-mile increments; did not falter when some of the 100-milers cantered past us; and kept an amazingly constant output of energy and willingness for the entire loop. His gait remained smooth and relaxed and he flexed nicely at the pole with gentle teasing of the bit. Red is a kind and gentle soul who is much more advanced than I on his path to enlightenment.

Back at the check, Rusty worked his magic with me and the horse and had us back out on our ten mile loop on time without any fuss or confusion. The ten miles passed quickly and I was pleased to be finished the course by 4:30, making our ride time almost exactly seven hours. The sun was beginning to hang low and the temperature was beginning to drop.

It probably stayed below 52 degrees at the heat of the day. The terrain was mostly flat with good to excellent footing. There was only 2,000 feet of elevation gain over the entire 50 miles. And although the loops took you up and around the local landfill, the trail was pretty and the miles did not feel that they came at the expense of the horse the way a tough trail can seem. Clydea served us delicious food on all three days – from home-made pot roast to the best thanksgiving turkey soup I will ever enjoy. I was in bed a little after 7 PM, leaving the drama and challenge of the remaining 100-milers to others.

I would ride Far on Day 2 and I knew his approach to the work would take more skill and focus from me in order to be successful. This would be his second 50, and although he is seven, his mind works at a fast pace and he can be easily stirred up into a tempest if he is not treated with care. I was up at 6 AM, which left plenty of time for horses and humans to eat and get ready. Rusty was to join us today on Rocky, his little bullet of a horse, who is also excitable, powerful, and for whom this would also be a second ride.

We waited for the group to leave, knowing that the first 15 miles or so would have to stay as controlled as possible in order for our ride to be successful. We started out with John Teeter, and within half a mile, caught up to Jim and Clydea Hastie. A small herd of cattle were between them and the trail ahead. I had forgotten that Far had spent some time on a cattle ranch (thanks to the great Leslie Spitzer), which would have explained why Far seemed relatively unfazed by the commotion. John rode off ahead and herded the cattle off the trail for the rest of us. Far and I found ourselves at the front of a group of five. He felt like he wanted to explode – his gait had more elevation than travel, mostly because I was holding him back at 7 mph, when he would much rather have been traveling at double digits. His gait was springy and soon John and the Hasties passed us, leaving Rusty and me to gently negotiate our pace.

Far would remain juiced for 40 miles – his gait stayed energetic and challenging to ride. He is a horse who is happier when he can move out at a good pace – I am looking forward to getting him to the fitness level to be able to do that. The trail was littered with yucca trees, and he did not like them any more at the end of the ride than at the beginning. Our pace was interrupted from time to time with shies from one side to the other.

I was pleased the first loop on this day was the 25-miler. Far’s recoveries were exceptional all day, although he scored a C on gut sounds at the 25-mile check. It gave me something to worry about for the 15-mile loop even though he spent the first check eating constantly. At 40 miles his gut sounds were a B and the last ten miles were nothing short of heavenly. I finally let Rusty and Rocky lead, which I should have done earlier in the day. Far’s head came down; he worked better off the bit and his gait smoothed out.

We finished the day at sunset – eight hours of riding time and neither horse had dropped much in their energy levels or attitude. They are both exceptional movers with lots of hind end power and legs of steel. They ate and drank all day. Today, the day after we traveled home, Far is out in the paddock cantering with his Jolly Ball and having a fine time: the ride seems not to have taken anything from him.

We enjoyed good Mexican food at the New Year’s Eve Awards banquet, and called it a Day at 9:30 in the middle of a ferocious windstorm.

It was the perfect way for me to end 2007: riding two horses on the same trail who took on the task in wildy opposite ways: they are as different from each other as you are from me. My two days on the trail could not have been more different than the FEI competitors whose race was about something much more serious. Happy New Year to one and all and here’s to a life filled with challenges and contrasts!

Enduring: Kevin's Blog

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