Thursday, May 07, 2009

Barefoot at the Biltmore Challenge 2009

from Darolyn Butler

When we decided to make the 2200 mile round trip haul to the Biltmore Challenge this year, we didn’t even begin to know what a challenge it would become.

The riders in this trip included daughter, Cecilia Butler-Stasiuk, Enrique Searle Martinez (an Intl. rider from Chile), Deborah Sterling from Dallas, Tex, Carol Bracewell newly moved to Florida, Elizabeth Martin from Houston and me, Darolyn Butler.

The Spring ride season had kept us really busy with attending rides at least every two weeks with as many as 18 horses at one competition. The thing that initially made Biltmore tough was we had the big Bluebonnet Challenge Ride the very weekend before we were to leave for Biltmore on Tuesday. So as soon as we came off that trip with 12 horses, we started stripping trailers and repacking daughter CeCi’s trailer for the trip. We were taking 7 horses, (one to be delivered to a new buyer in N.C.) so my LQ trailer was out of the running, and although we could fit the 7 horses in my 4-Star, it didn’t have the, at least, minimal living area that CeCi’s and husband Jason’s did. So that meant the daunting job of sifting through my two personal trailers and the storage sheds for everything one needs for a week long trip on the road as well as the accruements for 6 competing horses.

By Monday afternoon, saddles and tack had been pulled and lined up in the barn hall; a cafeteria table was laden with all the other goodies, lanterns, electrolytes, blankets, etc to be loaded in an orderly fashion on Tuesday morning followed by an early afternoon departure. Then mother nature struck. We had been having fairly continuous rains for two weeks and the ground was seriously saturated already when on Monday night storm after storm here in the Gulf Coast put up to 10 inches of rain in the watershed area of Cypress Creek which we live on.

I was awakened around 5:30 AM Tuesday morning from the yelling and knocking of one of my boarders who had arrived to help us evacuate the horses. I quickly checked the flood stage on the computer and was shocked to see the creek level was over 23 feet, (normal is 3 feet) and I usually evacuate at 16-18 feet. I quickly put on my official flood tennis shoes (never get in flood water with boots on… rubber or leather) and dashed out to see the level on the road at the end of my drive way. It was already high. We quickly got the Envoy, the small truck and tractor out. I frantically called a neighbor, Richard, employee Jessie, and a boarder, Donna Shifflette with goose hook ups as I had only 1 truck and three gooseneck trailers sitting in my place. I got the first rig out as quick as possible, and up to high ground, then back for a second one. CeCi and help loaded the ready saddles into her trailer, but we didn’t have time to load horses, or any other equipment, feed or hay. Friends and volunteers were showing up to help with the eminent 68 horse evacuation and calls were going out to those that I knew would help and had experience at this massive chore.

Richard hooked up to CeCi’s rig, Donna arrived and hooked up to the LQ. And then all 68 horses were marched through knee deep to chest deep flood water to the waiting trailers. The local Constables were called to help slow down traffic for us as we had to make many u turns in the middle of Cypresswood Drive’s 4 lane highway. Of course morning traffic was at its peak, although many people were being discouraged from driving as the whole of Houston was under water in many places.

Our stallion was ridden over to Sovereign Farms (next door) along with 3 of the Biltmore bound horses. The other four ended up at the ten acre pasture over near Bush Airport where we are able to place the horses for a few days. At that point, I wasn’t even sure Biltmore was still possible…. But as the last horses were successfully taken off the flooded farm, I reloaded the Biltmore horses from the “evac pasture” and took them back to Sovereign where they had a regular box stall.

In the meantime, CeCi had organized a brilliant canoe brigade for bringing out at least a dozen sacks of feed, 12 bales of hay, and all of our other ride and camping equipment. The neighbors were kind enough to let us park the 4 rigs at their place & we spent the rest of the day sorting through the trailers and repacking the Sundowner which we would be traveling in. Bummer, late that afternoon, someone stole one of our canoes from the frontage road so that made it a bit more difficult to get things out.

As the rain had stopped, I fully expected the Creek to go down & perhaps we could start “un-evacing” the horses on Wednesday morning, still with time to leave for Biltmore by Wednesday afternoon. Not to be, the rains started again that night and the Creek went up 3-4 more feet to a final crest of 27-28 feet. Luckily CeCi’s husband Jason arrived from their home in N. Texas that evening and helped with the final pack out on Wednesday morning, and agreed to stay at the ranch and bring the horses back in later Wednesday or Thursday when the water went down. So, with 3 final canoe trips bringing out our personal luggage, food and other supplies, CeCi, Enrique and I got on the road by mid afternoon. Jason would later fly into Biltmore with crew Member Donna Shifflette.

Only a bit drained, (no pun intended), we started East on I-10 hoping to make at least 500 miles (about ½ of the journey) that day. We arrived at an RV Park near Mobile and parked for the night. We had a successful early start on Thursday morning expecting to arrive at Biltmore around 4:30-5:00 PM. That would have still given the horses a fairly good rest for the competition. However, the demons were rampant and we had a double blow out on the right rear side of the trailer just across the Georgia state line. One wheel/tire had been totally sheered off, and the battered rim was all that was left on the other. This event alone could make a small novel, but the short version is, US Rider sent us a local trailer to pick up the horses & place them safely on a small farm, but the mechanics they sent were not anywhere capable of taking on this massive repair issue. Coincidentally, a mechanic had had a flat just behind us, and it turned out his company was the best garage for miles around, A La Grange Automotive, in La Grange, Ga. These guys were amazing, The blow outs occurred at 1:30 PM, they started work around 2:30, they had to order/pick up parts, etc., and they did all the work on the side of the road as there was really no way to get the trailer towed without using two tow trucks they told me. They had me rolling by 5:30 PM. I went back south to get the horses, back North and stopped in La Grange for fuel and to have them install two new batteries while we had a gourmet dinner at Waffle House and on our way by 9 PM.

We rolled into Biltmore around 4:30 AM… I did have to stop once and take an hour nap. Unloaded, built pens and crashed for a few hours. I had kept our “on-the-road & in-the-air” riders and crews apprised of the issues and progress throughout the day, because at one time I really thought there was no way to get that trailer fixed and having desperately, but fruitlessly searched for a 6 horse trailer to rent in the area it looked like mission impossible. We even considered having Jason start driving with my 4-Star…. But time certainly wasn’t on our side there. So to have these guys fix the trailer and get us on the road was like a small miracle.

Checking the horses upon arising Friday morning we discovered Macproof was a bit droopy. As he was CeCi’s mount for the 100 we started scrambling on what to do. Should we drop him back to the 50, should we scratch him entirely??? We had an extra horse with us, Tarzan, who was being delivered to his new owner (and part of our crew) Kate Burnett. We asked, and a very generous Kate agreed to let him go in the 50 under Elizabeth Martin/Houston. CeCi changed to DJB Juniper in the 75, Enrique took DJB Fantasia in the 50, and Carol Bracewell took DJB Boomer in the 50, leaving Deborah Sterling on DJB Cherrys Juliet and me on Mercy as the only ones on our original horses. Of course this called for saddle readjustments and all sorts of stuff.

After confusing the heck out of ride management, Cheryl Newman, who was wonderful by the way… we got all of the entries done and started vet checking the horses. The veterinarians expressed concern about the horses attempting it barefooted, but we assured them we did have boots if needed.

Cheryl had sent out an e mail warning us all about some new bluestone gravel that had recently been put on about a mile of road. I really wanted to drive up to that area and take a look at it and the edge of the road to see how it could be handled by our barefooted horses, but I just didn’t have enough time. The ride meeting started at 5:30 and with weigh ins and such, we just barely made it there. Since we were riding the longer distances, CeCi and I were a bit concerned about this gravel road, and CeCi momentarily considered putting on front shoes, however, judgment prevailed and we both fitted our easy boots and Easyboot gloves & placed them on the saddle in case we needed them. All 6 horses started barefooted.

The hundreds went out first of course, with a four wheeler leading the way in the dark. I started back a ways and through the first loop made my way up to 12th or so. Mercy was handling the terrain beautifully. CeCi started 30 minutes later in the 75, and 30 minutes later Enrique, Carol, Deborah and Elizabeth in the 50. I think almost everyone in the ride took a wrong trail here or there and we were no exception. It’s always so frustrating when every moment counts and one has made a stupid error or in some cases, there was just a missing marker. They are not allowed to use any ribbon at Biltmore and for the most part they are excellent marked trails, but just tricky at times.

CeCi hit the bluestone gravel first on her last loop of the 75, but I didn’t get a report as I had to leave on that same loop before she came in. Mercy was tiring a bit and I was falling off my pace, but CeCi and Enrique were going strong. CeCi did not boot for the gravel and came through fine. She ended up placing 2nd by about 5 minutes I think, and 1st FEI. Enrique was 4th in the AERC 50 & 1st FEI and BC in the FEI. Carol and Deborah finished middle of the pack and received their 1 Stars (the goal) and Elizabeth finished way back on Tarzan who was not nearly as conditioned as the other horses… but he didn’t do to bad for a stand end. I just received an e mail from new owner Kate, she said the folks at his new stable near Raleigh were just in awe of his feet and totally impressed with how they looked after 50 miles. They just couldn’t believe it.

I started the 5th loop (the one with the mile of bad gravel road) with the “gloves” on so I wouldn’t have to stop and put them on at the gravel, but I noticed Mercy didn’t seem nearly as surefooted with them on as it had rained and the trails were very slick in places. Shortly after the gravel, Nina Warren came by and we chatted about the slickness… geesh I thought, and quickly got down and removed them. They are really quick and easy to take off. I had to do that loop one more time and the next time, I just waited until I got to the gravel, put the boots on, and then removed them right after once again. So in total, I may have run about 8 miles of the 100 in the boots. My finish at 11:21 PM gave our little group of 6 Cypress Trails Horses a 100 per cent completion rate in a race that went from 67% in the 50, to 62% in the 100. I think both riders and veterinarians were amazed. I’m always surprised though that more people don’t ask to look at their feet after such a ride.

One fellow rider did ask me if I fed a special supplement to make their feet hard. “Nope”, I said. “Oh, they are just Texas tough?” he replied. I laughed, “Are you kidding? I live in a swamp and sand. I have to go lookin’ for broken asphalt to find anything abrasive to ride on. They are just healthy feet and have thick hoof walls and soles.” It’s really interesting; Mercy and June both have very flat feet. I used to stress about the lack of concavity, but now I think those thick soles just give them extra protection.

Valerie Kanavy rode a brilliant 100 Mile ride on her latest up and coming star, Spectacular Gold, followed closely by Farzad Faryadi on Bullwinkle.

75 Milers: A local rider, Bonnie Hannah won the AERC Divistion on Rezus Respite. CeCi and DJB Juniper 1st FEI Division. B.C. went to Stagg Newman's horse Super ridden by Dom Freeman of Britain.

50 Miler: Bob Geilen won and BC'd in the AERC Division and Enrique Searle Martinez and DJB Fantasia won the FEI & BC Division.

Our group was on a total high. This is 18 year old Enrique’s 5th ride since he’s been in the U.S. and he impresses me at each one of them. Deborah and Elizabeth are very new riders and doing great. Carol is an old hand, but has had some injuries that have kept her sidelined. So good to have her up and riding. I know I can always count on the ladies to take care of my horses. And of course the indomitable CeCi, who did a fabulous job on one of my favorite mares, Juniper. Crew was audacious as CeCi’s husband, Jason Stasiuk, Donna Shifflette, Kate Burnett, and Elizabeth’s Aunt Diana proved to be right on top of everything! And of course, there were those that jumped in with help at the line, like Jeremy Reynolds and loaners of hay and “strange grain”!! Thanks everyone!!

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