Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Bird’s Yellowhammer

Nashville, TN

Once upon a time, actually just this past weekend, a girl and her horse headed west to conquer a fierce fifty mile stretch of trail known as the Alabama Yellowhammer at Talladega. Susan was worried, as per usual, that she had under-prepared her brave mount, Bird. Susan and Bird had completed their first 50-mile race in May at Longstreet’s Charge, after which Susan made a promise to her other horse, Falene, that she would stop neglecting her. She also had a Theory, that a horse fit enough to complete a 50-mile endurance race could be kept fit with less work than it took to get him fit in the first place. And so it was that for the next 4 months, Susan rode both horses, 90% of the time on weekends only. Bird enjoyed the lighter workload, but would it be enough to keep him fit? Susan did not know. She was going to find out in the forests of Alabama in October.

Susan also had a plan, unbeknownst to Bird, to speed up. If Bird had known of this evil plan, he probably would have faked a lameness. He’s a laid-back, stop-and-eat-the-roses kind of guy. He likes to turtle. In fact, he didn’t win the turtle award at Longstreet only because someone else asked for it, and Susan let them take it. They completed the race with only 13 minutes to spare. But Susan had the bright idea that Bird would be better off if he didn’t spend 11+ hours under saddle. Everyone told her that Bird could speed up, that she wasn’t pushing him at all, and she knew it. She had seen his CRI’s last year at Skymont and again at Longstreet, and they were low, really low. Always already pulsed down when they came into the holds. She had actually tried to speed up at Longstreet, but screwed up running him up that mountain when he needed to pee, and he got into trouble, had to stop and recover, then she was too scared to speed up again.

Take 2: Yellowhammer. As luck would have it, about 5 days before the race, Susan tried to take Bird out on his final pre-flight check only to find that she couldn’t sit any speed above a walk. You see, Susan’s melon got thunked pretty hard last summer when 400 lbs of hay elevator crashed down on her head. Sometimes she has issues. Now, 5 days before Yellowhammer, her head was having its issues. She couldn’t have ridden 10 minutes, much less 10 hours. So she turned around and went home, turned Bird out, and tried to rest the problem away before Saturday. Tuesday and Wednesday came and went, but Susan was scared to even try to ride again. Finally, on Thursday, D-Day, she saddled up and took a very short jog around the arena. All systems: GO! Now she’s ready, ready to take a horse who may not be conditioned enough that she hasn’t ridden in over a week to ride a trail they’ve never seen at speeds they’ve never attempted.

Thank goodness her brother-in-law Mike was going again to crew for her. She had thought about telling him that he didn’t have to, that she could probably go it alone this time because she knew several people going who could help out if needed. But with this sketchy brain thing, she knew she’d better have Mike there in case she couldn’t drive home after. So, they all loaded up and headed out Friday before lunch. When they arrived at ridecamp, the scene was a tad overwhelming. There were rigs and people and horses literally packed in everywhere. Lucky for Susan, she had people. People on the inside. People who had her back. Her friend Shelley Scott-Jones had been there since Wednesday and had saved her a spot up near the vet check. Sweet! She got parked and all set up and squared away in time to take a short warm-up ride on a very fresh Bird.

Now Susan had heard that the trail was technical. That, ladies and gentlemen, was an understatement. The trail, or at least this tiny portion of it, was all rocks, ruts, roots, and mud bogs. Ugh! Let’s just say Susan started right then and there praying and praying hard, for the protection of her dear sweet pony. She kept on until eventually she decided to just Turn It Over so she could get on with this ride. “Please, God, keep my boy safe.” “You’re in God’s hands now Bird, you’ll be safe.” She had to remind herself of that promise many times over the next 24 hours because when you Turn It Over, the deal is you turn it over. You can’t keep worrying about it after you turn it over. That’s the deal.

Another thing happened on that little warm-up ride. When she turned around and headed back for camp, Susan felt an unfamiliar horse under her. If she wasn’t sure if he was ready before, she had no doubts now. This horse was ready. I’m talking Ready Ready. Maybe not riding him for 7 days before a race was a good thing. She didn’t recognize the power in him. He felt magnificent! And he flew over the terrain she was just fretting over like he had sprouted wings. She had to get in his mouth to hold him back, but she was laughing hard when she got back to camp. This might not be so bad after all.

Later, Bird vetted in for the race at 32 bpm! and 860 lbs! Wow and wow. He took his ribbing for his various and sundry gaits in the “trot” out. Dr. Otis asked Susan if she had her big girl panties with her. He remembered her getting the huge pair of yellow panties a year ago at Skymont when she ran out of time and didn’t complete. They read, “Put on your big girl panties and deal with it.” She took them to Longstreet and they pushed her to finally finish a ride. She didn’t need those panties now, though. Tomorrow she would ride panty free!

So here’s this rookie endurance rider wandering around ridecamp looking for giants. She was telling someone about Sarah Engsberg being there. “She’s here somewhere...the girl from Georgia who WON TEVIS this year.” “Yeah, she’s right over there,” someone said and sure enough she was just a few feet away from them. Susan, along with a lot of other people had virtually watched the Tevis race two months ago on computer stream broadcasts. Sarah and K-Zar’s story was a really touching one, and when they congratulated her on the win and asked her what it felt like, she choked up a little remembering it. No wonder. It was truly a remarkable run. The poor guy who lost his horse at the Tevis this year was also at this ride, but Susan didn’t meet him. If she had, she would have given him a hug.

This Yellowhammer ride is a 3-day event, so the ride meeting Friday night was also the awards meeting for that day’s race. Apparently, the award for best condition had been questioned because the head vet, Otis Schmitt, was defending it, like he should ever have to defend anything... seriously! Anyway, he was explaining that the reason BC went to a horse with a sore back was because the trail was tough and had beat up all the horses and they were all sore somewhere. Best means best, not perfect. Of course, Susan was at that meeting and although some other important things were said about the next day’s competition, all she heard was “the trail was tough and beat up all of today’s best horses.” You Turned It Over, remember?

There are 2 holds, in camp, 50 minutes each. First loop is 20 miles, 2nd 22, 3rd 8. Pulse down is 64 bpm. The 2nd loop is an out and back and you’ll get a password at the top you have to remember and tell the in-timer when you get back to camp. That may prove to be the hardest challenge of the day. Everyone knows about horses getting “race brain,” but riders get race brain too, it’s just a completely different animal. Rider race brain is like early-onset alzheimer’s with a pothead daze. That password had better be a really easy word!

After a quick beer around the campfire listening to campfire stories (note to self: give Jody Buttram’s family a wide berth!) and a few sleepless hours spent in the nose of her stock trailer, Susan began the rituals of ride day.

3:30: Electrolyte dosing, not exactly a ritual, but she was trying hard to get a pre-ride pee out of Bird so he got a super early elyte.
4:30: Up for a walk in the dark perchance to pee. They walked all around camp. No pee.
5:00: Feed Bird and get dressed to ride.
5:30: Groom Bird and tack up.
6:00: Rider up. Walk around. Cue the pee.
6:08: The Pre-Ride Pee!! Yaay! It is done! Now Susan can relax and enjoy the day.
6:15: Check-in with the out-timer.
6:25: The trot-by and wait. Find June and get ready to roll. Susan’s friend, June Jordan, is on a new horse, Lealee. They’re planning to stay together as much as possible.
6:30: They’re off! 24 horses. 24 riders. 50 miles to go.

The weather is perfect, mid-40’s heading up to mid-70’s and low humidity. Today Bird’s gear includes a heart rate monitor, but it becomes clear early on that it’s not going to be much use. After Longstreet, Bird shrunk a whole saddle size. He was now in his “skinny saddle” and wore a completely different, much skinnier girth which just didn’t hold the lead in place like his old girth did. Susan tried reaching down to turn it a few times, but soon gave up. The speed was fast. They nestled into a little group of about 5 or 6 teams and tore down the trail. If her old pleasure trail riding buddies could see her now... well, they’d see a big blur as she streaked across the sky approaching the speed of sound, but I digress.

It felt like a good pace, the pace she had meant to attempt today, but when she would have normally slowed down a bit, these girls kept on going. Well, ok. She was riding a winged Bird who didn’t seem any worse for it, they were stopping for water often enough (4 times this loop), and this was exactly what she was hoping to learn today, how other people did it. Every ride she and Bird had done up to this point they had done either completely alone or once with another rookie horse and rider, her crewman Mike and his horse, Ender.

Susan could also hear her friend Shelley in her head, “Stay with June, no matter what!” Now normally “no matter what” isn’t the best advice in an endurance race, but Shelley was right about this. Bird was probably more fit than Lealee, and June has been doing this sport for 18 years – she knows a little something about getting a horse safely across the finish line. It was time to stop underestimating Bird. Their in-time on that loop was 8:27. 10 mph. That’s cushion. They could slow down on the next loops. Mike was shocked, to say the least. Susan had finally gotten up the nerve to see what her horse could do. Mike had been a Bird supporter for a long time, and he was happy to see this.

Bird’s pulse was 70, and he was down in a couple of minutes. They waited for Lealee to pulse down too and headed for the vet. One B on gut. He needs to eat. Not a problem. One thing Bird does really well. Their vet check spot was just steps away from their trailers. Susan realized that the trail was beating her up and she should have hit the Advil then but didn’t. Race brain. She would pay for that mistake on the next loop. Besides being super technical, the trail had a lot of up and down action. Bird is a Tennessee Walker and has some nice smooth gaits including his trot, but what he does going downhill is not one of them. Susan calls it a “shuffle” but today she considered it just slightly more comfortable than a jackhammer. She doesn’t normally have riding pain, so this was new. She wasn’t sure if it was the trail, or if her body was secretly struggling to keep her head still, but either way, she was hurting.

50 minute hold. Time for thanking God for an uninjured horse, a great crew and other friends, June, Shelley and Molly Herlong, all there in support mode. And exactly how is Shelley doing this anyway? She’s volunteering at the ride, running around with her clipboard and duties, and yet she is ever-present with Susan and June tending to them like a mother hen. It’s truly remarkable. She may actually have super powers. Further investigation is needed.

While working on Bird in this hold, Susan realized that she desperately needs a hay bale bag. There are alfalfa leaves all over everything! In true rider race brain fashion, she devised a brilliant plan to buy bags and donate them to Angie McGhee’s Longstreet ride next May and then compete for one of them! Since she and Bird aspire to the mid-pack, she decides to have the bags go to a random drawing of the middle packers. She’ll buy red ones because she intends to win one and she wants a red one. Only an endurance rider could understand why this plan made perfect sense.

It was also in this hold that Dr. Otis told Susan to leave her HRM at the vet check for the next loop. When June heard about it, she remarked that Susan already had a reputation. Uh..........oh. Susan had never given a thought to her Reputation, and now it might already be too late! Yikes. Was she already The Whiny One? The Stress Case? The Crazy One Who Thinks Her Horse Might Be Her Reincarnated Boyfriend? No, no one knows about that. Whew. Anyway, now she’s got something else to think about. Maybe, if it’s not too late and it’s not already taken, she can get something cool like The Girl Who Can Really Back A Trailer. She can’t think about that now though. She has a race to ride. Elytes? Check. Let’s go!

Leaving out on loop 2, Bird was a few minutes ahead of Lealee. They were going to wait, but June said she wasn’t liking Lealee’s clinginess and not to wait. Susan, being semi socially retarded, wasn’t sure if June didn’t just want to ditch her, but she was hoping that that wasn’t the case because she and Bird were enjoying having company in a race for a change. They turned out to be un-ditchable in any event because 2 minutes out, Susan had to stop for stirrup adjustments and Lealee caught up with them soon after.

This loop was 22 miles. Actually, it wasn’t a loop at all, but an out and back and some sort of Jedi mind trick which made it last forever! What was up with that damned loop?! With a now full-blown case of rider race brain, Susan was completely incapable of operating her GPS so unable to watch the miles melt away on the monitor. Each bend in the trail was magically and mesmerizingly identical to the last. All 1,251 of them. On the way up, Josie McGhee and her cutie Cade passed them with 2 other people, one of whom was riding Lynda Webber’s horse, Bailey. She was Bailey’s previous owner, and they were having a sweet reunion. They all took a breather at the turn around point where they got the password which was not “barbecue” but “Talladega” instead.

As they headed back, they met Angie on 7 and Jody on their friend Molly’s horse, Rip. Jody told them that they were in the 6 and 7 positions. And so began the undocking of Susan’s command module from her ship. It would take a little longer for the shock to fully sink in, but the seed was planted, right there at mile 32, and her out-of-body experience was just beginning. She was running Top Ten. On Bird. Chi? Che? Non capisco. Bird grabbed the mike for the 2-way radio and called in to camp, “Houston, we’ve had a problem.”

They may have been running up front, but Bird and Lealee were tiring, and they had slowed way down. Later in that never-ending 122 mile loop, Susan started letting Bird walk up the hills, and June and Lealee disappeared ahead of them. Now, with no one around to see, Susan turned her attention to the pain wracking her body. She rode doubled over wrapping one arm tightly around her rib cage. What on earth was going on with her? She felt like the entire trunk of her body was going to explode out, killing her dead and covering her horse in little Susan-chunks. She also knew that Bird was paying for her stiff back. Ironically, she had Advil in her pack, but her race brain was unable to recall this minor detail.

After thinking for about the twenty-fifth time that they should be back in camp already, they heard a whinny from behind. It sounded like Lealee, but she was surely far, far ahead by now. It seemed like a long time since they had seen her. They finally got back to camp, looked back, and it was Lealee behind them. What? June had taken a wrong turn at the last spotter and had to back track. So, they all came in together after 42 miles, and Bird and Lealee both had salt faces. Bird pulsed down right away and vetted out all A’s. When Susan got back to her vet check area, she looked at the vet card and noticed Bird’s CRI was upside down. Her vet at that check, Dr. Ken, hadn’t even mentioned it. Not knowing what to do, Susan wandered off in search of advice and before she had walked 20 yards, she ran into Susan Kasemeyer and Joe Shoech. Nice. She knew she could have walked 10 miles and not found better people to get advice from. Both took one look at her card and told her to think nothing of it. The pulses were super low (48/54), everything else was all A’s, and the vet didn’t even mention it. She could ask for a re-check or she could forget it which is exactly what they would do. Done.

More people in this hold mentioned what position they were in. 6th. Every time it came up, Susan’s mind took another tentative step away from her body. She had no business in the Top Ten on her little Tennessee Walking Horse that could. In fact, just a few weeks ago, she was sitting around crewing at the Big South Fork ride when a rider stepped up to the scales carrying her gear, and the guy next to Susan commented that that rider was having to weigh in because she was in the Top Ten. Susan said, “That’s not something I’ll ever have to worry about.” The guy said, “You never know.” She replied, “Oh, I know. I ride a TN Walker.” And he said, “Oh, ok, you’re right, you’re not going to have to worry about that.”

But Susan saw Angie in this hold too, and Angie told her that she had paid her dues. Her brain couldn’t recall exactly what those dues were at the moment, but she was quite sure that yes, she had definitely paid them up. Besides, this was Angie McGhee, people! If she said Susan had paid her dues, she had paid them! So now as Susan continued to watch herself walking around in the rarefied air of the Top Ten Club, she found it fascinating the way people were constantly but subtly communicating her position to her. Even with rider race brain, it was impossible to lose awareness of where you were. Everyone told you. Everyone except any riders who passed you. They didn’t mention it. Fascinating. And everyone is rooting for you. Everyone wants everyone to do well. I guess it’s because the horses are involved. I mean, even if you didn’t particularly like a person, you wouldn’t want their horse to fail, right? It’s really a great sport.

Speaking of wishing others well, Susan had two other friends here riding the LD today, Maria Delaup on Jessie and Stephanie Johnson on Momar. Stephanie was at her first ever endurance ride. Susan had done some conditioning rides with them and knew that they had plenty of horse for what they were doing today, but it was still good to hear that they had finished safe and sound. Yaay! Stephanie sounded like she would be back for more. Yeah, new recruit!

This next and final loop was only 8 miles and Susan wanted to strip down to the bare necessities, no saddle bag, no water, no cellphone, nothing. The 3 Advil fairies were already starting to work and she was ready to roll. Mike gave her the jockey boost into the saddle and walked her out to the out-timer. On the way, he pulled a switch from a tree and handed it to her, just in case. Susan knew that Bird was tired and while spying on the inner workings of the Top Ten crowd was fun, she fully expected the next and final loop to be the slowest of the day, and she envisioned rider after rider after rider passing them until they were back in the Land of Normal, mid-pack.

They were leaving camp alone. Lealee had a re-check. Susan was going to miss her trail buddies, but at the same time, she liked being alone with her horse, too. Now they could talk. Susan has a long-standing habit of saying “last one” at the end of anything she ever does with Bird, picking up his feet, circles on the lunge line, shoulder-fores in the arena, hills on the conditioning trail, whatever. She always says, “last one” on the last one. So when they rode out of camp at the start of mile 43 of this 50-mile race, she said, “last one.” Bird flicked one ear back briefly. He wasn’t expecting that. All the other races he had ever done were 4 loops, not 3. “Ok then, let’s do this puppy!” he said as he flicked his ears forward and picked up the trot.

Bird picked a perfect time to get a second wind, but Susan still wanted to lollygag, looking back for June and Lealee. The miles would be easier with company, and she knew Lealee was tired too and could probably use the company. Eventually, they heard someone approaching, but it wasn’t their trail buddies. It was Cindy Bell on her 100-miler horse, Chance, and Angie Fura. Susan was still walking Bird up hills, so they passed, and she fell in behind them and breezed them for a bit. She didn’t want to pass up the opportunity for a little company for Bird. She did have to explain to him that he was not allowed to keep pace with a 100-miler horse. He had to go Bird-pace. So they dropped back. But Bird-pace turned out to be pretty good. They had averaged 7 ½ mph on that never-ending 2nd loop, and now he was back up to an 8 mph average. What a good Bird!

Yesterday’s short warm-up ride was very helpful too because when Bird got to that part of the trail, he really took off, crossing the finish line revved up and relieved. They finished in 8th place! Nancy Gooch was at the finish and told Susan this, but of course she didn’t need to, Susan knew. Nancy told her she would need to get weighed with the gear she rode with including water bottles. Susan heard the advice and repeated it down to the other Susan walking beside Bird far below, but then they both walked straight into camp and immediately forgot it.

On the way in, one of them thought to call ahead on the 2-way, “We crossed the finish line... 8th.” “Say again.” So now, in addition to having a full blown out-of-body experience, Susan is in a full blown state of shock. I mean, what just happened?? Well, for one thing, her horse completed the race without a scratch on him. She did have just enough sense to thank God for that. Turning It Over turned out to be the best decision she made all day. Beyond that... well, thank God for her crew too, Mike, who swooped in at that moment and took over. The next several minutes passed in a blurry haze.

Bird had dropped 30 pounds in the race, so after he vetted in, they spent their hour-long hold at the trailer eating. Bird ate like it was important. Back and forth and back and forth between his alfalfa and his beet pulp. Otherwise, he was very humble and not the least bit affected by his huge accomplishment. I guess it didn’t seem odd to him that his rider couldn’t stop kissing him. She was kind of like that even on a normal day. They sponged him off, walked him around, and stretched his legs, but mostly just let him eat. June and Lealee came in a few minutes later, and Lealee was as intent on the grub as Bird was. They had both conquered a tough trail today.

While waiting on the BC re-check, Susan’s South African neighbor came over and told her that there had been a mistake, Bird wasn’t in the Top Ten after all, they had counted wrong, the vet was rescinding his position. Nice try, but Susan was un-punkable. She hugged her Top Ten boy tight and said, “Not a chance.” This nice man gave Susan and Mike advice to prepare for the BC check. He said they needed something to spook the horse, rev his engine. Mike told him that Bird was essentially unspookable. The horse has been through mounted patrol training where they literally threw firecrackers at him, for crying out loud! How were they supposed to startle a horse like that?

Susan, whose race brain may or may not have begun wearing off, had the bright idea that the sound of a candy wrapper could happy up her horse if he had just finished watching an ASPCA commercial. The plan was to have Mike crinkle the wrapper in his pocket during the trot out. Just before they took off, Susan realized the flaw in the plan. If Mike crinkled a wrapper in his pocket, Bird would likely contort his body in all sorts of interesting directions just to reach those pockets and frisk Mike for the treat he was hiding. She and Shelley were giggling about this as they watched the trot-out, but it didn’t happen because Mike, clearly not suffering from race brain, had decided against the tactic. He said that Bird was plenty feisty, snaking his head at him trying to bite him like he usually does, so he didn’t need to use the secret weapon.

When she turned around from watching the trot-out, Susan had the delicious pleasure of spotting farrier Guy Buck. She was tickled to see him onhand to witness her horse standing for BC because Guy Buck was there for her first ride 2 years ago at Skymont when she ran out of horse on the 3rd loop. She was distraught and had told him that she didn’t know what she needed to do differently. He told her that she needed a new horse. Well, in fairness to Guy, Susan was on a different horse today, the difference miles and miles of conditioning makes. Still, it was a really sweet treat to gloat over her Tennessee Walker just a little bit.

Everyone seemed pleased with Bird’s check, and Angie said that if Bird got best vet score, they would make a plaque! Susan was just tickled that Bird looked so good for having gone so far so fast. She didn’t fully understand the grading process, how BC was determined, what high vet score meant, etc. She just knew that it was all good, and BC was the most coveted award of any ride. Someone told her that if Bird had come in 30 minutes quicker, he would have been a contender for BC, and someone else said that she needed to gain weight, or at least listen to Nancy’s advice about taking all of her riding gear to the BC weigh-in. She’ll just have to try to remember all of this later. Right now, she’s still floating in the clouds.

At the dinner and award show, people kept offering Susan and Mike their extra meal tickets that they had bought for crew or family that didn’t show. It dawned on Susan that it was apparently common practice among the riders to buy their crew a meal ticket. Funny, that had never occurred to her and lucky for her, her retired-Navy crewman was quite content with the MRE she had provided for him! Hey, MRE’s are good.

Susan saw Cindy Bell at the dinner and said thanks for letting her breeze her horse for a while on that last loop. Cindy laughed and said, “Sure, what were we gonna do, throw rocks at you?” note to self: you can throw rocks at your competition. The awards were going on for a while when the air took a really cool turn and Susan’s crew, who still had not clocked out even though he wasn’t eating a nice barbecue plate, ran back to the trailer to toss a blanky on Bird. He made it back in time to hear that Bird had high vet score! Actually, he tied for the top. Yaayy!! If you layer shock on top of shock, do they cancel each other out? Well, kind of. There’s definitely a shock saturation point, and Susan was there. It was all just so unreal. No t-shirt, but they did get a really cool little duffle bag that said “Top Ten” right there on it just in case anyone back home needed proof. Susan intended to carry her duffle bag with her everywhere she went for at least the next month or so.

After the dinner, Susan and Mike high-tailed it out of there with their tired horse and their loot, feeling very, very grateful for the good day, for ride management and the volunteers putting on such a great, safe, well-run ride, for the vets taking care Bird, and for their friends being there for them all day long. Staying the night would have been fun, drinking a few beers, basking in the warm, fuzzy feeling of a having a safe, sound horse at the end of a hard ride. But they only had a 2 ½ hr drive and Bird would really appreciate sleeping in his own paddock tonight. Besides, he was only going to be more sore in the morning and this way, he’d be already home. So they left.

On the way home, Susan decided that she would have to write the story of her day because there was too much to remember, but she also realized that she would have to tell it in the 3rd person because she was having a hard time still with the out-of-body thing. It all seemed like it was happening to someone else. Mike did drive her home after all, even though her head was, more or less, ok. She had to walk on tip-toes for the next 2 days to keep the wobble at bay, but some darvocet and a couple of days on a mountaintop did the trick. The stoic Bird, in true Bird style, had one sore day on Sunday when he didn’t want to be touched, and then he never mentioned it again.

The End.

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