by Jessica Isbrecht
River completed the Big Horn 50! She climbed up and down the most intense trail we've ever competed on; gaining 9,000 feet in elevation. For comparison, the hardest 50 we've done previously had about 5,500 feet of elevation gain. I got off and hiked, tailed, or ran as much as I could to help her out.
She was too distracted and hyped up to eat or drink in the first 21 miles but that quickly changed once we started up the mountain in the sun. She chugged along all day putting that big behind to good use! The temperature cooled the higher we climbed. The weather was beautiful! Meanwhile, a nasty storm complete with pea-sized hail blew through camp, pelting Mackenzie and soaking our stuff.
I didn't pack a crew bag for either vet check at 21 and 40 miles. I brought grain that I mixed with water to entice her to drink at the first hold. Then, just let her graze the meadow at the second hold. River loved the grass and spent the entire hour grazing. I made jokes that I was riding the Cavalry Division (a 100 mile division where you complete the ride unaided, carrying all of your gear/food).
We hustled the last 10 miles to make it to the finish ahead of the twelve hour cut off time. She was understandably tired by the finish but perked up after a few hours of rest and eating. She looked great this morning so I'm very pleased.
River always knows where camp is and is motivated to get back. On this ride we finished up on the mountain and drove back to camp in the trailer. Honestly, I think she was confused by the unique experience of a point to point ride instead of a loop. Her MO on the second half of a ride is always Relentless Forward Progress but she didn't have that drive yesterday. She wanted to take it easy (and I certainly don't blame her). She'd lag behind until the horse ahead of her disappeared around a bend, then lope to catch up. I swear I felt her last bit of enthusiasm dribble away when we crested the last gigantic hill before the finish and she saw yet more mountains in front of her. She probably thought she'd have to go another 50 miles to get back home!
We crossed the finish line with only 10 or 15 minutes to spare. Byron was waiting for us with a bucket of mash, a bottle of water (much needed!), and our trailer. So wonderful!
River passed the vet check and we got our completion, her 100% success rate intact. I'm so unbelievably proud of her! Big Horn is a HARD ride. It's reputation is accurate, not exaggerated.
After a question regarding what a 50 mile fit Tennessee Walking Horse looks like, I went back through photos of River. It's very interesting to see the progression from casual trail horse when I bought her in December 2018 to the muscular, mountain climbing beast she is today. Here are a few good representative photos.
She's approximately 10 years old (don't have papers unfortunately), 15.3 and 945 lbs. She's an easy keeper on a forage plus ration balancer diet. I'm super conscious of keeping her from going IR/laminitic like most TWH are prone to.
She is barefoot and goes in Scoot Boots for protection. I trim her myself since we live on the road and can't get regular/quality farriers.
She has a 100% completion rate. She's done 4 LDs with 2 top tens and 7 50s with 4 top tens and 1 high vet score.
Her conditioning has all been long, slow distance and when I say slow, I mean it! She is my husband's trail horse. He likes to take his time with just short bursts of speed. I'm a middleweight rider with body plus tack usually coming in around 209 lbs. She carries much less in training because my husband is lighter than I am and never carries as much water as i do! We enjoy challenging, high elevation rides and all that climbing has been absolutely wonderful for her. In the last year, I've learned how fast you can get a horse fit just by walking for hours up and down hills. This program has worked for us. It may be different for you and your horse but gaited horses can do endurance. You just have to ride smart and manage them a little differently.