by Nancy Sluys
Sometimes things work out different than we had planned. After cancelling Danny's entry to the South Mountains Ride because he is having a hoof issue I thought my ride plans for the weekend were a bust. When the weatherman predicted a perfect fall weekend I decided at the last minute to change my tact and headed up to the Fort Valley Endurance Ride in Virginia with my little home bred girl, Summer (Nancy's Summer Dance). Her dam is my NATRC National Championship mare Shady Rock Rose and her sire is Don and Nicki Meuten's Stetson CD. She has only ever done 25s and CTRs but I decided to take a chance that she could finish the 50. I bred and raised her in hopes that she would be my next endurance star but bad luck along the way sidelined us several times over the years preventing us from reaching our goals. Now at age 14 she is mature and strong and hasn't had a mishap in several years so the odds seemed to be in our favor.
Fort Valley is a tough mountain ride, made even tougher by the reintroduction of the Indian Graves Trail (second loop of the 50) that had been taken out of the ride for the past 6 years after becoming impassible due to severe storm damage. Indian Graves was infamous for it's long, steep climb that ended with a series of rock steps that horses had to leap up to navigate. Exciting but somewhat dangerous. A while back a crew of hardy souls camped out for several days, packing in equipment like sledge hammers and hammer drills and such and busted up the rocks, opening up and fixing the trail so we can once again enjoy it's exciting beauty and making it much safer. I am in awe at the superhuman feats it must have taken to make that happen!!! Thanks Pete Godwin, Mike Cleveland, Janice Heltibridle and others!!!!
Summer started the ride feeling good and strong and I was glad for the mountain we had to climb right away to give her mind and body something to think about instead of trying to race the horse in front of her and wasting too much energy. She got right into the groove and right down to work, marching up the mountain and when we took the right hand turn onto the Milford Gap Trail the sun was just coming over the mountain creating a golden light that we rode towards. We hooked up with a couple of other riders, Tom Hagis and Terri Carroll and we completed the first 19 loop in a conservative timeframe. Summer vetted through with all As and set about eating all she could find at our vet area.
The second loop sent us up the same mountain which the horses were a little less enthusiastic about than at the start. After crossing the mountain and riding along the Shenandoah River for a bit the trail branched off towards Indian Graves. By this time Summer had told me that she wanted to slow down a bit so we separated from our little group so that I could read her properly without the influence of the other horses around. I started to realize that she was getting pissy because we were repeating trail we had done in the previous loop because as soon as we took the turn onto the new trail she picked right up. Since I have had her since birth we have a very close relationship and our minds were melding by this point. Up and up we climbed and she was strong and forward just eating up the trail as she adventured forward. As the trail became steep and very rocky we came across 2 riders that were off walking their horses up the mountain on foot. Summer became impatient at their slow pace so when we reached a wide part of trail I asked to pass. She marched on, perfectly comfortable with the terrain since it was similar to what she is used to training on at home. When we reached the summit I was amazed at the difference the trail work had made. Still challenging but not dangerous as it once was. Once we reached the top I had forgotten how slow the mile of ridge trail was before reaching Milford Gap and the trail back to camp. It follows the spine of the narrow ridge and consists of a skinny, almost nonexistent trail picking it's way through the rocks and boulders offering gorgeous views of the valley below and the brightest leaf color of the day. Finally we got to the turn for camp and Summer was glad to be able to trot. She passed her second vet check in fine form and we were good to go for our last loop.
Once again she ate everything in sight and delighted in all the special treats like apples, carrots and grain she was allowed to eat. When I saddled up again she gave me a WTF look because she thought she was done. This is the first time she was ever asked to do 3 loops and she was certain that I couldn't count!
We headed off in the opposite direction as the other 2 loops. Instead of going back up the mountain this loop winds in and out of local horse farms and the surrounding countryside. This loop is much more tame until you hit a long, steep climb in a cut over area that seems to go up and up only to go back down once you get up there! By this time I could tell that Summer's climbing muscles were getting a little tired, understandably , so I got off and walked the steep downhill to give her a break. We came to a field where I let her graze for a few minutes and when I got back on I could feel her energy return. The sun was starting to get low and the angle of the light enhanced the scenery, giving a magical cast to the autumn colors. The last part of the trail winds back and forth around and through a series of fields and hedges and just when you think you are almost there it takes a turn away. Eventually we came to a turn I recognized as the last turn before the finish line. We had been riding the whole loop by ourselves but when we saw the finish line tent I put my leg on Summer and she surged forward at an energetic trot as if she was racing a competitor to the finish. I had a lot of horse left and it was a good feeling to know. Once again she vetted through with As from the vet and we had our first 50 mile completion!! A very proud moment for this horse mom!!!