Tuesday, September 30, 2014

Just Start (Sooner or Later You'll Finish)

by Lynn White

What I love about endurance riding is that we embark on long journeys with particular goals in mind only to end up experiencing and learning things we never thought about.   In 2000 I started trail riding with some endurance riders and decided to enter a 25-miler for the fun of it.   After that I was quite happy doing LD’s on my mare Agnes.  In 2002 we entered a 50 on a lark and never rode another LD again:  Never wanted to.   When Agnes was 18 we completed our first 100-miler.  When I drove to my first endurance event I never dreamed of finishing a 100-miler nine years later.

As much as I loved Agnes she terrified me at ride starts.   She was tough as nails and an excellent trail horse, but she’d morph into this crazy Banshee at endurance rides.  Agnes behaved like she had a neodymium magnet in her nose that was strongly attracted to the rear end of the nearest horse in front of her.    In her previous life she had been a pack horse, and considered her endurance career way more fun.  Agnes loved endurance so much she’d run herself to death if allowed.   During our eleven seasons together there wasn’t a ride where I didn’t question my sanity within the first 10 miles.    But when Agnes was on and things went well riding was magic.  I think this is why I kept coming back with her year after year.  I learned a lot from Agnes, most importantly how NOT to start a horse in endurance.   I often wonder how far she could have gone with a more  talented and knowledgeable rider.
Starting a horse from scratch and getting them through their first 50-miler puts a whole new perspective to AERC’s “To Finish is to Win” motto.  This is probably not a big deal to people who grew up on horses.  But for those of us that took up serious riding as an adult and  emerged from the mid-life crisis needing a challenge, it’s like taking up BASE Jumping.   Belesemo Moon is the first horse I actually started in endurance.  When I bought Moon (whom I lovingly refer to as “Roger”), Agnes had recently died from colic.   I had seen a photo of a cute unstarted Belesemo-bred horse on a bulletin board at the Teeter Ranch during Fandango in 2012.  He obviously had some Appaloosa in his lineage.    I recall looking at the photo for a while thinking what an oddly colored little horse he was. 

A week after Agnes was gone I was looking at horses for sale on Endurance Net and there he was again.  I called Carol Brand of Lost Juniper Ranch.    We talked for a while and I found myself saying something like, “Yeah, I’ll take him,” and Carol saying something like, “So when will you come pick him up?”  My problem really wasn’t getting Roger, it was convincing my non-horsey spouse that a second horse was needed on our place.    Equine procurement with my husband is always a tricky issue requiring the diplomatic skills of a Cold War era envoy.

Mid-July of 2012 I took a day off work, drove to Lost Juniper Ranch, and picked up Roger.  I took him directly to a pre-purchase examination.  Not only did he pass with flying colors, but he behaved remarkably well for all the commotion going on at the clinic.  There were bulls banging around in trailers, someone cutting dead trees with a chain saw, horses screaming for each other, and people milling about.  This little Arab in the Appy suit impressed me from the start.    A couple weeks later Roger went to “Joe-the-Trainer” for 30 days.  

Joe is a Quarter Horse trainer.  His equine passion is team roping, and he’s pretty good at it.   Joe puts a great start on young horses but he has a jaundiced eye towards Arabians.  He compares riding an “Aye-Rab” to riding a kite, or something to that effect.   Really though, starting a horse is pretty much just starting a horse.  It doesn’t matter what sport one is riding because horses all have to learn the basics and respect.  Joe doesn’t get attached to horses he’s starting.  Joe’s honest and fair and if a horse has some quirk or serious behavioral flaw Joe will find it, deal with it, and help you deal with it.    Joe really liked Roger which translates to, “Roger is a really nice horse.”   At 30 days Roger was ready to be picked up.  The rest of the 2012 summer we trail rode with  PJ Blonshine and her horse Pascha.

In 2012 was I focused (more like obsessed) at getting my seven year old Akhal-Teke going.  He was what is referred to as my dream hose.  I had waited seven years to buy my Teke as a weanling, and waited another three to start him.   There were some big dreams attached to this horse.   He turned out to be  a horse way beyond the skill level of a shorter than average 50-year-old “kinda-timid” rider.   For two years I tried to get comfortable riding this horse.  We never clicked.  He wasn’t the problem, it was me.   He belonged with a bold aggressive rider.  He’d never be happy as a mild-mannered endurance horse.   After his last drop-spin landed me on my head, rattled my brain, and cracked my helmet I was relieved to see him go down the road and thankful this adventure didn’t include a helicopter ride to a trauma center.   By the time of my shoulder reconstruction during the autumn of 2012 there was enough fear ingrained in me to question if it would ever be possible to ride without that nagging sense of impending doom. 

Around February of 2013 it was time to get back on a horse.   I spent a week doing ground work with Roger.  When the big day arrived for riding I saddled up and realized there wasn’t enough strength in my shoulder to hoist myself on.  Next day I bought a mounting block and we were back on schedule.   Except now I had those anxious thoughts of falling off and messing up my shoulder.  My new shoulder wasn’t needed because of some riding accident; it was just worn out from getting older.  But it’s the most aggressive joint surgery one can get.   It took about 18 months and lots of therapy before it was 100%.  Plus it cost the equivalent of a new-to-me pickup even after the health insurance coverage.   But the old ’77 Ford can be nursed a couple more years and living 100 miles from Oreana (AKA The Nexus of the Endurance World) means I can get to rides without ever having to brave the Interstate.    I’m lucky.  All I need is tenacity and courage.  Lots of courage. 

In April of 2013 we went to Oreana for our first LD.  We made it about 200 yards before I quit. Yes, 200 YARDS.   I was an unsteady mass of anxiety and Roger knew this.  This LD seemed more like enduring a 100-miler during a blizzard with cougars around every rock.   Roger is a sensitive horse and he’s only as brave as his rider.  He can sense the slightest shift in my seat or shrill tone in my voice.  This would have never become apparent without actually starting a ride.  Every horse and rider team has to start some time, somewhere.   Later that summer we managed to finish three LD’s.  I think we turtled two of them. 

Thinking we finished a couple LD’s with hills, we had to be ready for a bona-fide 50-miler (“thinking” is the key word here).   Last ride of the 2013 season we were at it trying our first 50.  We were doing alright alone until I took a wrong turn.  Then the hot-shoe  LD’s caught and passed us.  On top of that, duck season had opened and the sounds of shotguns echoing up and down the Snake River Canyon pretty much blew Roger’s little mind.  When I did muster up courage to trot, Roger started bucking.    We walked most of that 25-mile loop and immediately rider optioned out at the vet check.   Winter of 2014 was spent reading up on training, arena work, and some trail riding.  I had to get Roger’s bucking worked out.  

We were back for Round Two at Fandango during the 2014 Memorial Day weekend.  That was another not-gonna-finish ride.  Someone saw Roger pee and said it looked dark.  My heart starting pounding (panic attack or one of my many health issues), so it was another walk into ride camp for a rider option out.   As it turned out, Roger was in dire need of a sheath cleaning. 

I needed to get serious about conditioning and get used to the heat.  Agnes never much required much formal conditioning.  She came as a horse with a foundation so all I needed to do was just take her on a couple 20-mile training rides and we were good to go.   Roger presented the challenge as an overweight sensitive horse that had never gone farther than 25 miles.  It was time for faster solo rides with hills, rocks, sand, and heat three times a week.  We had six weeks to get ready for the next ride.   

Nasty horse wrecks tend to illustrate just how unforgiving gravity becomes as one ages.  So far my wrecks have happened at the beginning of trail rides with friends or close to home.   I’ve had one wreck that had the potential of being tragic.   So it’s a little scary trailering and conditioning alone.   I leave detailed maps for my husband so he knows where to come looking for me.  I joke that I wear colors that can be spotted from a helicopter, but I think it’s just smart to have a something-will-go-wrong plan when horses are involved.   My opinion about search and rescue personnel is this:  Most are volunteers, so make it easy for them to spot your sorry ass.  Ironically, riding alone is the best way to bond with a horse.      

Within a couple weeks of rocky trails and heat my irrational fears dissipated.  Roger and I had fun finding new trail together, learning how to open BLM gates, eating along the trail, learning to move out when the footing allowed, and then more eating while walking.  Roger’s heart rates began to drop.  He was calmer.  We were a team.  Instead of dreading the rides, I found myself looking forward to finding new places to explore and spending the time alone with my horse. 

Mid July of 2014 we wound our way on the back-roads for Round Three at the “Almosta Silver City”  ride.  Originally, Steph Teeter was going to put on a ride at historic Silver City in the Owyhee’s.  Finding passable trail in that area became an issue so Steph opted for a low key ride out of their ranch in Oreana.  Perfect first 50 for Roger.  The only real challenge would be finding someone else who wanted to do an eight-hour 50.   An endurance ride is kind of like going to a tent revival meeting:  Everyone has similar ideas of general outcomes, but one never knows who is going to show up and what is going to happen. 

I struck up a conversation with Merri Melde who had one of Roger’s relations, Belesemo Dude.  Dude, better known as “Dudley,” had been off and on and out of endurance riding for six years.  Merri had been working very hard with Dudley and was hoping for a completion of his second 50.  She asked me how “fast” I planned on riding.  Fast to me on a young horse is seven miles an hour so I told Merri between 6 and 6.5 mph.  We decided to start together.  It would be really cool to get two Belesemo horses through a 50 together. The theme for us was going to be “Roger and The Dude.”  It sounded more like a 1970’s era TV sit-com. 

At six o’clock the next morning we were off and rode together the entire ride.   We completed that ride in 8.25 hours and tied for 11th place.  I don’t remember the heat or the sun or the dust.  But I don’t remember thinking I was crazy for doing endurance, which was a definite first.  I remember that feeling after the vet hands me my card to say, “Congratulations,” and how much fun Merri and I had.  
My mountain of anxiety and irrational fear had been defeated by managing a newbie horse through his first 50.   Roger still has some crow-hop issues, but he’s not trying to unload me, he just gets excited.  I can handle this.  Roger is actually a very brave and honest horse as long as I am.  He’s exactly the type of horse I need at this stage of my life.  I don’t really know how fast we’ll be able to go, if we will ever be a team to be reckoned with, or if we will be able to get to do a 100-miler together.  I just ask a little more from Roger each time, and if he’s up to it he gets a little stronger and a little faster.  We are not in a hurry:  The ultimate goal is another Decade Horse, but a lot can happen in 10 years.

I really believe our endurance horses find us.  We can scour the earth for our dream horse only to find the one meant for us on a bulletin board or a classified add at just the right moment.   All we need is courage enough to let things happen while on this journey we call endurance riding.   Finishing a ride is easy; it’s getting a horse to that starting line which requires the effort.