January 30 2023
by Maria Phillips
photo by Harrison Phillips
Now that I have posted the ride photos from the Hokey Pokey, I can finally share my own ride pics and give a run down on my return to distance riding after a 4 year hiatus.
I haven't done a 50 in 6 years and I haven't done a 25 in 4 years. (Primarily due to retiring my 50 mile paso mare and spending years finding two young replacements and then growing afore mentioned replacements.)
This past weekend was my very much anticipated return to the sport. It would be my first ride in 4 years, my first ride since my mastectomy and my debilitating Meniere's diagnosis (a balance destroying inner ear disorder that damages hearing and the vestibular system...permanently).
This was also the debut ride for my 7yr old buckskin paso mare Zorra. She was saddle broke at 5 and was lightly ridden up until last summer. She started her long slow distance conditioning in earnest during the worst of the summer heat. We walked and walked and walked. 15 to 30 miles a week walking...All summer. In the fall I was happy with her base level of LSD and started slowly working on her cardio fitness. She was still doing 15-30 miles a week but I carefully started increasing her avg speed. By January we were doing 18-20 mile rides at an avg speed of 5.5 to 6mph. Not setting any speed records but enough to finish within time cut offs. It was then time to start winding down on conditioning and letting her rest before her first 25 on the 28th.
Her rest period also coincide with when I was having my peak Meniere's flare up and spent many days very dizzy or having a complete vestibular melt down and puking in buckets for hours until my heavy hitting medication sedated me enough to sleep through it. I wasn't sure if I'd even be able to race this season at all.
Then the Monday before the ride, I became terribly ill with the world's worst man cold. Two covid tests said I wasn't dying but choking on gallons of head snot combined with my constantly wobbly inner ear was less than ideal. There was absolutely no way I could ride in a race. I was ready to send my husband to the race to shoot it without me and scratch my horse.
But luckily I made a fast recovery by Wed evening. (I attribute this fast healing to my adorable plethora of chicks that arrived in the mail and cheered me immensely).
That left just one day to pack my horse trailer for the trip. I hate packing my trailer, especially on the heels of Near Death By Snot. But my ever loving husband came to the rescue and took the brunt of all the heavy lifting for me.
We both arrived to the ride around 1pm Friday, me in the truck and trailer and my husband in his car. We got parked, Zorra set up on the high tie and tucked in with mash, hay and water and then ran out on trail to find some shoot locations for him. (Thanks again Shelley Scott-Jones for the trail maps and all the help!)
After settling on shoot locations it was back to camp for the vet in. Harrison took care of camera duties while I vetted in Zorra. She behaved beautifully for the vets and scored well on her card. The rest of the evening was spent stuffing my horse full of mash, setting things up for the holds the next day and fraternizing with my good buddies Lindsay and Ed. Harrison left to go home to take care of our animals and would return in the morning at 8am.
The next morning all was well at the start. I left about 15 minutes after everyone else on foot leading Zorra who was slightly excited. After about 100 yards I got back on because I'm a hobbit who's not designed for walking. Also, I'm not a peasant. I ride the horse that I pay for.
Zorra was forward but rate-able for the first 4 miles. We got our photos taken and then everything afterwards was smooth sailing on a loose rein. Which was a good thing because it was then that I realized that I had forgotten to zip up my sports bra compression cooker before I mounted up. I was wearing three long sleeve shirts, a fat scarf, a large fluffy jacket and a Hit Air vest. Extricating my boobage and bra zipper from that 6 layer clothing cake was no small task and I was grateful that we had started so late and no one was around to see me rifling and fumbling through half my wardrobe. After that was sorted we did a few more miles and I suddenly became aware that I had made yet another wardrobe mistake. My tried and tested long distance safe pantaloons were no longer safe. They were rapidly becoming a cheese grater. I think this might have been because I was wearing two pairs of riding tights and the additional layers were causing some unanticipated movement in my basement closet. But if any of you remember my story from Yellow Hammer 2016..... Chapstick to the rescue. Zorra was a saint and just maintained her 6mph shuffle while I stuffed the reins in my mouth and slathered what needed to be slathered in a blissful layer of Riding Warehouse brand chapstick.
Eventually after I had sorted myself out, we passed 4 horses in two groups of 2 and she behaved beautifully for that too. We kept going until we sailed through our first loop averaging a steady 6mph speed, nailing our training speed perfectly. Our first hold was also no issue. She wasn't a fan of her elecrolyte tubes but she took them anyways and did a good job of eating her wet mash soup and hay.
Our second loop was the last 10 miles. We did a steady 6mph average again and met some other horses on the two way part of the trail which she also tolerated very well. I had a moment of worry when the first two horses came around a turn at a canter and I thought that she might have a flash back to when the herd of horses charged her. I called out a slightly nervous "Helloooo!" and they immediately dropped to a trot and asked if a trot was ok or if they should walk. Zorra said a trot was fine, thanks for asking.
Thus far I had spent the entire day not drunk, not dizzy, tipsy or off kilter. It was absolutely a wonderful day for both my medical issues and my horse's behavior. I couldn't have asked for either to be better. I felt like a normal human being for once and my green, first time endurance horse was acting like calm cool and collected pro at this endurance thing. It was such a joyous thing to ride in a race and not have my arms pulled off or worry about my horse riding so fast she'd crash headlong into the treatment vet on the way into camp.
We arrived back to camp and made it to the final vet check quickly since she pulsed down well. But that is where my perfect day ended. She was all A's except for gait. She was tight behind. I spent the rest of the hold forcefully massaging a buckskin horse butt.... to no avail. She was better but still not "fit to continue".
It was a bummer that my first pull happened at my come back ride after so many set backs and years of preparation. But it's still a win in my book. My new prospect went the distance, she ate, drank, and camped well. She blew me away with how cool headed she was on trail and I had my very first loose rein race. I couldn't be prouder of her...and proud of myself too. It hasn't been a walk in the park with my balance and hearing issues. I struggle with feeling handicapped by these debilitating and unpredictable attacks. But this weekend I was just a normal rider and I was able to go the distance too.
So we'll just try again next time. I don't think I did anything "wrong" to cause the tight butt muscles. She was electrolyted well and I'm confident on her fitness level and the pace we rode (we turtled). It might just have been bad luck, or maybe it was more road riding than she was used to, or the cold morning air (she did wear a rump rug for 5 miles). Either way, I'll play around with her elytes a bit and increase her levels of a few key muscle elytes and see where that gets us next time.
I want to give a special thanks to Lindsay and Ed who helped me at the vet checks and did their best to help us earn a completion. They both have been great mentors and friends over the years.
And another special thank you to my husband for being so incredibly supportive in all aspects of my life but especially this expensive, time consuming and exhausting horse hobby of mine. He graciously filled in for me as ride photographer for this ride so I could actually ride. I would not be able to afford to return to competition without his help behind the camera.
And of course one final thank you to all the folks who spared their own time, effort (and probably sanity) to put on this ride. None of us could do it without ya'll!