February 25 2020
Oh, the highs and lows of this sport.
Endurance riding is like no other activity I have ever known, and I have tried a lot of them. It’s something you can do that does something for your soul. It gets inside you and just takes you over. It’s like a drug- once you get to that point you just can’t get enough. When it is good, it is really good, and when it goes south, well, it hurts. I guess that’s why there is such a price to pay mentally when you get pulled sometimes.
Yes, Sorsha and I got pulled for lameness in the 100 at mile 80. Actually I stopped at 80 because I knew she was off, but I’ll get to that.
Why is it so different from breaking down on a motorcycle in a race, or falling on skis, or getting blisters in a marathon, or losing your golf ball? There are lots of ways to not finish your sport or activity, but none like this. It’s because horses are amazing. All horses. But what our endurance horses do for us is indescribable. Especially when you reach that point when it is all working with your equine partner. There is nothing that highlights this relationship more than long distance riding.
I rode Donnie for 14 years in endurance, we got 6500 miles, fifteen 100 completions, 4 for 5 at tevis, the Pardners award, etc, etc. Over all that time we became one being, and that is the best feeling there is. When you get to the point when you just go ride, and not think about anything by the enjoyment of the ride, you are there. That partnership you have with your horse is what it is all about, and there is nothing like endurance to help you achieve it. It is perfection, but it can be hard to achieve.
I had to start over with Sorsha, as we all do with our new horses. It can be a trying experience when you are used to your own Donnie. Especially on such a powerful, capable, and potent horse. Did I mention powerful? When I got her, she was green broke, untrained, and no one had really ridden her with any regularity. She was a handful- she was hot, spooked a lot, she was very nervous and scared to be out on the trail. Did I mention powerful? I was actually a little afraid of her in the beginning. She spooked me off a few times; especially the two really big ones that hurt. Her first few endurance rides were, well, exciting at best. And not relaxing. What does endurance do to horses? It makes them stronger, and stronger, and stronger. Sounds like a recipe for disaster sometimes. But I KNEW, deep down inside, that this horse had potential. The way she goes up hills, her wonderful mind, her extremely forward motivation, and the fact that she never did anything stupid. No bucking, ever. No rearing, no panic or big anxiety attacks. She stands still while tacking up, she trailers perfectly, she eats, drinks, pees, and poops. She does not kick, and she behaves like a gelding. My trainer, Bo, said I was really going to like this horse. She said she has a wonderful mind, and wants so badly to please you. She told me when I connect with her it will be good.
I did connect with her, and it took a friend’s advice to get it to happen. I was riding with my riding buddy Ines Hofmann Kanna at the Cache Creek ride two years ago when I told her how I had to ride Sorsha so differently than Donnie. I was riding defensively to keep from getting spooked off, meaning I was always expecting to come off the horse. I would look for things for Sorsha to spook at and prepare myself. Ines told me “No, dummy, don’t ride the horse like she is going to spook, ride her like she won’t.” That was it. Simple, direct, and it sounded really stupid to me at the time. My first reaction to that was something like: “Okay, YOU ride this horse and see if you stay on!” But I began to think about it, and realized that I was riding her completely differently that I ride Donnie. I tried to make myself relax on her back. Ever try to force yourself to not be scared? Try it sometime! But I realized that the dirt bike was the same as Donnie. I’m going 70 MPH over the desert, but I’m totally and completely relaxed. You don’t think, you ride, and love it. Your body does the riding, and your mind does the enjoying. That’s it, that’s the secret! That’s the same as riding Donnie. Dirt bikes and horses are so similar. I put my mind to it and started relaxing and pretending I was on Donnie. I would also sing- that’s an old habit I picked up while racing the bikes. It always helped me relax then. I forced myself to relax. It’s not easy.
It worked. Sorsha changed. It was actually very quick- over the course of 6 to 8 months she became a different horse. She stopped doing big spooks, she preferred to be in front, and she gained so much confidence. Riding alone was still an issue, but I worked on that, too. The first time I tried to ride alone in a ride it lasted 5 minutes. We VERY QUICKLY caught the next horse and I planted her there for the next 48 miles. On her first few endurance rides I had to lead her on the ground for the first half mile or more before mounting. Now I get on at the truck and walk out. Yes, It took me three years to get to this point, but I stuck it out, and I have arrived. (Wait a tick- it took me three years to connect with Donnie!) The 20 mule team ride was a breakthrough in many ways, but none more than with my relationship with Sorsha.
I came down five days before the ride to help Brian with the ride and mark the trail. The week went very smoothly with no issues at all- the weather was perfect. I did about 200 miles on the bike, and we had the ride ready to go by Thursday night. That was a first! We are getting good at this; Brian and I make a good team. The only hitch was we later found out that there were two dirt bike events on our same weekend- one on friday, and one again on sunday. Come on, BLM. You need to do better than that. All three events use ribbons and signs to mark their trails. Of course Sunday’s race used pink ribbon. I had some good conversations with the trail guys out there, since there were three teams doing the same thing; all were very confused due to the lack of communication from the BLM. We got it all worked out in great fashion between the three groups so as not to interfere with each other, or at least as little as possible.
I had some excitement with Sorsha on Friday about noon when I tried to leave Gretchen’s house where she had been living all week, next to Gretchen’s horses. I experienced her first ever separation anxiety when I led her out- she was very stupid for a few minutes. It really surprised me (and Lisa Schneider and riders who had to stop and watch!) After a few minutes she got it together and I hopped on and rode her around and back to camp. All was well again. The weather report said light rain in the morning, but gone by 11am. It would be cool as well.
The ride started at 6am Saturday morning with no real rain- sort of a heavy mist. I walked out with Team Sousa- Joyce, Jennifer, and Alex. All were on newish horses. All went fine except for some excitement when a rider was off in the desert fighting a bucking and crazy horse. I picked up two of my team mates a bit later, Lucy Chaplin Trumbull, or affectionately known as Lucy Turnbuckle Chipotle. They had added me to their team, and had named the team “Three roses and a thorn.” I’ll let you decide who got to be the thorn! We rode together through town and out past the college, while I was holding Sorsha back. We got to the start of the climb and Lucy said “See ya!” Okay, here we go. I have not ridden Sorsha alone like this in a ride yet, especially so early on. She headed out up the climb all alone, but we passed several horses as we went. She did not care- she wasn’t chasing them, just going her splendid working pace, which is faster than Donnie. Oh, and she does not know hills exist. She just treats them like flat ground. It’s incredible. We rode alone, just cruising along at a really good pace, all the way to the first check at 15 miles. No spooks, no fuss, no issues, just superb forward. That 15 miles was wort the price of admission. It really was a breakthrough for us. (but the best is yet to come!) I caught Lisa, passed her up, said bye, and we were gone. She later said it looked like we were having fun. That’s an understatement! We blew through the first check and hooked up with Dean Moon and his friend Leahe Webb Daby on their Rocky Mountain horses. They were riding the 65 mile ride on the same trail, start time, and vet holds as us on the 100. The three of us rode at a great pace up into the wilderness and down into the second vet check on Garlock road at mile 33. We were just three mares bopping along through incredible terrain, all having fun through the toughest section of the ride. I left the vet check a couple of minutes before them and hooked up with two more good friends- Jill Kilty Newburn and Lori Olsen, fellow Quicksilver club members on the 65 as well. Lori was on Fargo- Sorsha’s boy friend! We flew along the flats at a pretty fast pace, gobbling up the 5 miles of flat land. We turned up into rattlesnake canyon and began the 3.3 mile trot/walk to the summit. It turns out there were a couple sightings of the infamous Mojave Green Rattlesnake this year. I don’t like those guys, since one attacked and bit the front tire of my bike once, but that’s another story.
We were joined at the summit by Leahe and Dean, but we lost Jill as we started down the long hill to the valley. Her horse had a re-occurrence of a hind end issue, so she hopped off and started the long walk out and pulled. Lori and I continued on, leap frogging with the two rocky mountain mares as we went. As we neared the trestle the weather started getting ugly. Uh oh. I left my water proof jacket at the vet check since it was supposed to be clear all afternoon. That was not the case. We got rain, a little hail, and very cold air during the three miles to vet 3. Then we had to stand around. I was cold, wet, and could have been in trouble had it not been for Jill’s husband, Michael, who was crewing for her and Lori. I asked him if he had a jacket I could borrow, and he empties his pockets and takes the $300 Mountain Hardware mountaineering jacket off his back and hands it to me. Wow! I owe you a beer, Michael. I was too cold, but he saved me. The stupid thing is I know better. Dumb decision at lunch to leave my Arcteryx waterproof jacket.
Lori and I scooted out and rode nice and briskly the ten miles back to camp. We were both sent off into the desert (horse’s choice!) when the camera crew for the study opened an umbrella next to the trail. That was not good, but they were very apologetic. With about 3 to go she noticed Fargo looking off in the back end going downhill, but he was better once on the flat. But with only a mile and a half to go on the flat, he was lame. She started walking and was pulled at the finish at 65 miles. The tough part was that had she finished, she would have won the ride, since the first place horse on the 65 was pulled at the finish as well, and she was second in. Darn, disappointing.
I trotted into camp at 65 miles for my 4th vet check which went well. (pulse 40) I was quite shocked at the time- it was 4:35 and still daylight. My jaw dropped when I left at 5:35 and Mary told me I was the 5th horse on the 100 to leave. Wow. I turned on my new custom made blue LED lights (which worked perfectly by the way. They could not have been any better) and set out on the last 35 mile loop all alone. Not a horse anywhere, and none behind me for quite a while. This is where I see what the brown horse is made of. Boy, I could not be more impressed. She was incredible by herself- just as forward as during the day, same go go attitude, no spooks, just a real pleasure. We trotted briskly up the 4 miles and turned right on boundary road as it got dark. She was moving along and would have been happy to canter had I asked her to. I started singing because it’s what I do when riding at night and am happy. (And alone, so no one can hear me!) We motored along, and I did not care about the stupid light rain that would not quit since I had the proper attire on now. It was going so well I could not believe it, and I was just so happy. We stopped at the second trough on boundary road for a drink, and took off again at a trot. What a glorious feeling. I started singing an Eagles song, but a minute later I heard it- her foot falls sounded wrong. Oh no. I hopped off, turned on my headlight and watched her trot- she was lame.
There is no describing how that felt, so I won’t try. I started leading her down the trail on foot towards the south highway crossing at 80 miles. It took me about 80 minutes to walk it which is about 4 miles. I walked in and glumly asked the radio guys to get me a trailer. Diane Stevens was there, crewing for John who was the next rider behind me, back there somewhere. She was so great- she got a blanket for my horse, she gave me a Pepsi and probably would have washed my truck had I asked her to. Thanks Diane! John had a great ride, and typical. Ups, downs, he thought that he was going to have to pull, nope, continue, ride well, and he ended up second. Well done John! The trailer came in about 20 minutes and off I went to the finish where I trotted her for the vets. Pulse 40/40, but grade three lame on right front. The sad part is had I been able to continue I probably would have ended up in second due to my wonderful all alone pace, and the pulls that happened at the last vet and the finish. Oh well, I don’t care.
I had the best ride so far on Sorsha I have ever had and she proved to me that she is not only an endurance horse, she’s a really good one. I have never ridden her alone, and boy, she was an 11 on a 10 scale. But reality time- she was pulled for the same thing in her last 2 rides after about 75 miles. Lame on right front, she’s sound the next day. I talked to vets Michelle, mike, and mike at the ride, and my vet. I’m not sure yet what my plan is, but as Michelle told me, this is a special horse and they don’t come along like this one very often. She’s just 9, so I will do what it takes to get her back. I just hope it’s not a long term layoff, but I’m prepared to do that if required. I want her back healthy, because she’s just plain fun to ride in endurance rides, and that’s what it’s all about. And hopefully my team name can be a little better next year!