Tuesday, August 23, 2016

Western Dressage

A couple of years ago, one of my friends went to a clinic on western dressage.  She was kind of excited about it because she liked the idea of working on dressage with her horse, but she rode in a western saddle and had no intention of switching over to a dressage saddle simply to do some basic dressage work with her horse.  At the time, I admit to thinking that western dressage was probably some kind of new way for quarter horses to gimp along in a pathetic, nose-to-the-ground, barely sound manner.  I'd shown in western pleasure and related classes at horse shows when I was a teenager and again when I was in my mid-twenties, and I eventually stopped because I couldn't stand the way the horses moved as well as some of the methods trainers used to get the horses to move that way.  So I didn't give the concept of western dressage another thought until recently.

I got this idea in my head that I wanted to do another local schooling show with Nimo.  Apparently the horror that was our last show had escaped my heat-fried brain, and I was under the impression that it would be fun.  (Why, oh why does my brain forget such important things!)  I've been feeling a bit ho hum about our dressage schooling and nothing perks me up and motivates me to practice like the fear of public humiliation, so I decided to enter a class in a little show that is part of a series held at the barn where I board.  But, in addition to being completely opposed to western showing, I've also become horrified by traditional dressage competitions over the past few years.  Of course, not everyone who competes ties her horse's mouth shut with a snug noseband or employs rollkur (i.e. hyperflexion aka low, deep, and round, which is now completely legal for the warm-up ring) or spurs her horse to the point of leaving blood, but the fact that so many top riders seem to do at least one of those things leaves a bad taste in my mouth.  And then there is my even more recently developed concern about the extended gaits (particularly the trot) not being that great for a horse's continued soundness.  Anyway, I've kind of sworn off the traditional dressage stuff and along with that, I've made the decision to sell my dressage saddle.  (That is probably worth a separate post, but the short version is that I like the saddle.  It fits Nimo and it fits me.  What I don't like is dressage and I have started to feel guilty whenever I use the dressage saddle.  Also, I can use the money I get from the saddle to buy a cart for Nimo...)

And that is when the idea of competing in western dressage occurred to me.  I did a little research and watched some YouTube videos and became reasonably assured that western dressage is actually a legitimate discipline that has so far escaped the long-reaching arm of the FEI and whose founders seem bound and determined to recognize the difference between a western horse expected to do a little work around the ranch or at least haul its rider around a few trails and a traditional dressage horse, whose movements should astound and amaze, but whose skills need not (and maybe even should not) surpass the way it looks in the arena.

If you happen to be interested in western dressage, there are a couple of books that you can get.  Well, actually, there are three, but I only got two of them because I was pretty sure the third was going to be superfluous, given that I already own about a million dressage books.  Anyway, the two I read are:

101 Western Dressage Exercises for Horse & Rider by Jec Aristotle Ballou.  I have two other books by this author (101 Dressage Exercises and Equine Fitness) and I adore them both, so when I saw she had a book related to western dressage, I snapped it up.  This book doesn't have much information on competitions, but it does have a lot of good exercises if you're looking to spice up your schooling routine.

Cowboy Dressage: Riding, Training, and Competing with Kindness as the Goal and Guiding Principle by Jessica Black.  This book gives a bit of the history behind the western dressage movement, which was apparently initiated by a gentleman named Eitan Beth-Halachmy.  It is also a big shot across the bow of traditional dressage and its associated competitions.  You can see by the title that western dressage started in part as a rebound away from the cruelty that is becoming so apparent at the highest levels of competitive dressage. 

However, much like with "natural horsemanship," I think there is a real risk that simply doing things differently (different saddle, different patterns, different thought process for developing patterns) can lead people to believe it is better, when over time, it becomes just as corrupt or abusive as the system it was trying to get away from.  I think there is a danger any time there is a competition associated with the activity because the competition becomes the reason for doing the activity, rather than being a place to showcase a particular horse's skill that has been developed as a way to improve its own athleticism in a specific job.

But, for now, it appears that the concept of western dressage is to utilize gymnastic exercises to strengthen a horse's working ability while riding in a western saddle.  I will point out that there are different ways to compete in western dressage.  The discipline formally called "Western Dressage" is sanctioned by the United States Equestrian Federation as well as several breed associations, so for those who must compete for not only ribbons, but also points and year-end awards, Western Dressage works well.  Cowboy Dressage is considered a different discipline.  It has different tests and competitions (which are non-existent here in Virginia) and does not have a sanctioning organization (which is actually kind of cool).  Then, there is the North American Western Dressage organization, whose main purpose appears to be to coordinate virtual showing and coaching, although it also has its own set of dressage tests as well groundwork tests and ranch horse tests.  I really like the idea of virtual shows because for $25-30, you can set up (or use someone else's) a dressage arena (using low-budget items like cones and buckets with letters on them), film yourself at your leisure (during a specified time frame), and submit your test for actual scoring and placing (with real ribbons) in a show.  It takes a lot of the stress out of the process and really reduces the cost.  You don't have to be a member of NAWD or USEF or any breed association or western dressage association to compete and you get scored by a real, licensed judge, with comments and maybe even a ribbon.  (And for those who still want to do traditional dressage, NAWD has an arm called Dressage on a Dime that also hosts virtual shows and coaching.)

I ended up going the Western Dressage (WD) route because the schooling shows in my area allow the USEF western dressage tests and do not appear to allow Cowboy Dressage or NAWD tests.  One thing I discovered is that WD tests are structured a bit differently than traditional dressage tests.  For one thing, there are 4 tests in each level (as opposed to the 3 tests at each level for traditional dressage).  The Intro level is only walk/jog (trot) unlike traditional dressage, which has incorporated canter into its third test in the Intro category.  The WD tests are a bit more fluid in terms of requirements as you go through the levels.  For example, there is a huge difference between traditional dressage's First Level, Test 3 and Second Level, Test 1.  It is a jump that is difficult to make because no collection is required in First Level, but you go straight into collected trot and shoulder-in for Second Level.  WD tests, on the other hand, seem to focus on helping horse and rider move up the levels by incorporating smaller-level changes as the tests progress, although the levels are not too far from traditional dressage in terms of requirements.

Of course, you're probably wondering about tack and clothing.  As it turns out, many endurance saddles (and even Australian stock saddles) are completely appropriate for WD competitions (but not necessarily for Cowboy Dressage, which takes a much stricter approach to tack).  Your saddle does not need a horn or any fancy silver - it just needs western-style fenders.  For example, my Specialized Eurolight is built on a western-style tree, so the addition of western fenders (as distinct from the 1 1/2" leathers that I normally ride in) makes it fit the definition of a western saddle for the purposes of competing.  I probably pushed the envelope a bit farther, but I ended up choosing to add the western fenders to my baroque, treeless saddle.  (I recently acquired a Barefoot Madrid, and I love it so much that I never want to sit in a treed saddle again!  I keep meaning to post about it, but haven't gotten around to it yet.)

The other great thing is that bitless bridles (with the exception of mechanical hackamores) are OK for competition, so I could continue using what I already ride in.  Most bits are legal too, although there are limits on the height of the port and length of the shanks for curb bits, and any bit that is traditionally considered an English bit is not allowed (think Kimberwick and Pelham), but the mouthpiece styles that are allowed are quite broad (much more broad than traditional dressage), which is great for people who ride horses with specific issues or sensitivities.

In terms of clothing, you need pants (doesn't matter what kind), boots (doesn't matter what kind), and a long-sleeved shirt (doesn't matter what kind).  You can wear a helmet (doesn't have to be western in style) or you can wear a traditional western hat.  Things like chaps, gloves, ties, jewelry are allowed, but considered optional.

I mean, seriously, I've never seen so few restrictions.  I felt like a whole new world opened up.  I really believe that dressage can be done in pretty much any tack or clothing that is comfortable for the horse and rider and fits well, and I think WD gets about as close to that concept as is possible, given our insistence on identifying tack with a particular discipline.

So, with all these positive things, I signed up to ride a WD Basic Level (similar to Training Level in traditional dressage), Test 1.  I choose this test for three reasons.  First, I felt like entering a new discipline means I should start near the beginning, even though Nimo and I have competed in First Level traditional dressage before.  Second, given Nimo's propensity to completely avoid the section of the arena near the judge (which creates a few problems when trying to do things like steer or perform a circle), I wanted a test that had as much activity away from C as possible.  The Basic Level, Test 1 has all of the circles at the opposite end of the arena and very little happens near the judge.  Third, Nimo has been demonstrating some stiffness for awhile that I haven't been able to overcome.  I'll talk about it a little more later, but I wanted to choose something below our normal working level to make the test less stressful and easier for him.

The day of the show dawned bright and sunny (dear Mother Nature, why can't you send clouds if the temperature is going to be 90 degrees???).  An added bonus was that there was going to be a hot air balloon show nearby, which meant the possibility of dozens of hot air balloons hovering over the arena.  Apparently, a couple of years ago, the organizers had to stop the show and spend an hour shouting at hot air balloonists that they could not all congregate their balloons right over the arena and hover while watching the competition because it was upsetting the horses.  I had a run in with a hot air balloon the night before, when the lady piloting the balloon decided to hover over the arena while I was trying to work Nimo and then land nearby.  (I'm told that the balloons are difficult to land accurately, but I have no sympathy for the idiot who wandered over the arena while blasting the gas on and off.  Had my horse been of a different mindset, I could have been thrown due to her stupidity.  Luckily Nimo remained alert and distracted but not panicked during the whole ordeal, but nothing that anyone can say will convince me that this woman was not a horrifying human being who lacked basic consideration for other members of her species.)

Because my ride time was at 2:35, I got to spend many of my waking hours fretting about the heat and the balloons and wondering if I should just give it up and enjoy the air conditioning like normal people.  But a friend of mine had agreed to come to the show to take pictures of us and she put together a great snack/beverage bag for me (who knew I could get crew for a dressage show!), so I reluctantly dragged myself out to the barn and got my horse ready.

As luck would have it, I think it was too hot for the balloons, so none were in sight as I started my warm-up.  And it was a few degrees cooler than it had been for most of the summer (I guess 90 is really better than 95).  Plus, I'd opted to wear my Kerrits Hybrid Riding Shirt instead of a long-sleeved western-style shirt, so I felt a bit cooler (at least mentally) in short sleeves.  I did wear full chaps (the Hobby Horse Ultra Suede ones are super lightweight and I wore them over my favorite riding tights instead of jeans for comfort).  The chaps combined with the riding tights felt more comfortable to me than jeans in the heat and humidity and the chaps camouflaged my Ariat Terrain boots and half chaps (yes, I wore half chaps under my chaps, but I can't imagine riding without half chaps - I love the support of the Terrains for my foot and ankle combined with the support for my leg from the chaps).  It turned out that I didn't need to worry about my clothing because one lady showed in her white dressage breeches (I think she was competing another horse in regular dressage) and some people wore tank tops.  The judge didn't seem to be concerned in the slightest bit.

Heading to the warm-up area (photo by Leanne Edwards)
 As I warmed up, I asked my friend (who has an idiot-savant like gift for spotting lameness in horses - I've never seen anything like it, not even in vets) to watch Nimo for any gait asymmetry.  I first noticed a stiffness when we circled to the left in the arena (not so much out on the trails, though) back in January of this year.  I initially wrote it off as something that happens as you school your horse, because the stiffness usually doesn't last long and moves around as the horse learns different evasions to different techniques/movements.  Except that it didn't move around.  It stayed the same.  For months and months and months.  It didn't really seem to get any worse, except that I started noticing Nimo was having more trouble cantering, particularly on the left lead.  My dressage instructor didn't seem that concerned about it, but it has really been bothering me.  And during our warm-up, I couldn't deny the problem any longer.  Nimo was not only having trouble bending to the left, but he also had trouble bending to the right.  It was almost impossible for him to even pick up the canter on either lead, and I had to resort to using my whip a couple of times just to get a few strides of canter, which I really don't like to do.

I asked my friend what she saw and she said his stride looked even at all gaits, but he was holding his tail slightly to the right.  She thought I might be over-reacting to the situation when I said I thought I should scratch him from the competition and suggested that I do the test and if Nimo had trouble bending or cantering to just let it happen and decide what to do after the test.

I admit that I do have a tendency to overthink things and create a bit more drama than necessary, but I was worried about Nimo.  I did decide to compete, but I vowed I would not use the whip to get him to canter or hold his canter because I was pretty sure that he had something physical going on.  As the previous competitor exited the ring, I started walking Nimo around the outside of the dressage ring to see if there was anything that was going to bother him visually.  He did surprisingly well with the judge's stand and a circuit around the outside yielded no significant concerns for Nimo (that might be a first).  We turned around and headed back the other direction, when the whistle sounded, indicating that we had 45 seconds to get to the entrance of the arena and start our test.  It was kind of an awkward place to be, but I asked Nimo to trot, which he did, and he even trotted right by the judge's stand with a bit of snorting.  To make our 45 second window, I had to really push him out at the trot, and as we turned to enter, I pulled him back a bit, so we didn't blast into the arena.

And the second his head crossed into the arena, he got race brain.  I don't know how else to describe it.  He shifted gears and powered up his trot and went down the center line as if we were just starting a 25-mile endurance ride.  That was a bit problematic because we were supposed to halt at X, which is halfway down the arena for those who are lucky enough to have never tortured themselves with dressage work.  The problem was that we had significant velocity, and I was sure only a parachute shooting out behind us would be able to slow us down.  As we flew past X at the speed of sound, I was desperately trying to convince Nimo that we needed to do a halt and salute.  He didn't believe me at first, but eventually consented to slow down and halt somewhere significantly past X.  All I can say is that the judge must not have realized what happened and thought we did what we did on purpose, because we got our first 9 (out of 10 points for that movement).  Her vantage point may not have allowed her to see that we missed X by many, many feet (my friend watching from the opposite side said it wasn't as obvious as I thought it was).

I barely had time to salute and pick up the reins before Nimo was off again (although thankfully no longer at Warp 10 speed).  We trotted to C and turned left to trot down the long-side of the arena.  This WD test had an interesting way of changing direction.  We trotted to B (in the middle of the long side), crossed the width of the arena and turned right at E.

Trotting across the arena from B to E (photo by Leanne Edwards)
We continued to trot down the long side of the arena toward A, where our first two circles would start.  This test has a nice way of handling the trot and canter circles.  You trot a 20 meter circle at A and then repeat the same circle in a canter, so the rider and horse have a chance to set the circle while trotting and then they just have to hold the bend for the canter circle.  It's an easier way to accomplish the canter circle.

Coming down the long side toward A (photo by Leanne Edwards)
Our first canter circle (photo by Leanne Edwards)
Maybe because the set up for the canter is so nice in this test, Nimo actually picked up the canter without a problem, and held it for the entire 20-ish meter circle.  He was definitely leaning to the inside, though, and he absolutely made the circle a bit smaller than 20 meters.

But we survived.  The next part of the test was to cross the long diagonal of the arena while trotting.  In traditional dressage, First Level, long diagonals are for trot lengthenings, so as we turned to cross the arena, I could feel Nimo gear up for a lengthening (we haven't shown in almost 2 years and the horse still remembers!).  I spent the entire diagonal arguing with him about whether we were going to do a lengthening, so I was thankful to get to M, where we could walk.

Crossing the diagonal (photo by Leanne Edwards)
Because we were also approaching the judge's stand, Nimo took the opportunity to putz around at the walk and try to avoid going past it.  I was able to keep him on the rail, but it took some effort and the judge absolutely noticed the struggle (curse you, white gloves!) and took some points off, but I was actually pretty happy with the improvement.  At the last show, Nimo would not go anywhere near the rail in that section of the arena, so I figured we were doing pretty good.

After making it past the judge's stand, our next task was to do a free walk to X and then back to the same long side of the arena (basically a zig zag).  The judge thought we could have had more movement, but I was glad for the calm horse and the chance to breath for a minute before our next canter circle.

Free walk (photo by Leanne Edwards)
We started with a trot circle at A.

Trot circle (photo by Leanne Edwards)
Then, we did our canter circle.  Again, Nimo picked up the canter just fine and did a little better job on maintaining an actual 20 meter size.

Canter circle (photo by Leanne Edwards)
Sigh of relief!  Then, we trotted halfway down the arena, crossed the arena, kept trotting around past the judge (Nimo did OK!) and then crossed the diagonal again, where I once again had to convince Nimo that we were not doing a lengthening.

I have no idea what part of the test this is, but its a pretty good picture (photo by Leanne Edwards)
We finished up the test by heading up the center line (at a more moderate pace this time!), halting for approximately half a second and saluting before Nimo took off again.  In the picture below, my friend was off the center line, so we look at bit more crooked than we actually were, but you should be able to see that Nimo's tail is held slightly to the right.

Final halt and salute (photo by Leanne Edwards)
Our overall score was a 63.870, which is a decent score, and earned us a second place finish in our division.  But we should have been able to do this test in our sleep.  The judge's comments centered around needing more bend and a more consistent pace (that was probably due to our repeated discussions about lengthenings, so doesn't bother me too much), which are appropriate comments.  A few months ago, we probably would have score in the mid- to high-70s on this test.  And while scores, points, and ribbons don't matter that much to me (I did the show as a motivational tool rather than to get a ribbon), my horse's physical condition does. 

I know if you look at the pictures, Nimo probably looks like he's doing OK, but he isn't.  Something is really bothering him, and I'm not quite sure what it is yet.  I'm glad I did the show, because it helped confirm that there really is something going on, and I'm also glad that whatever it is isn't enough to affect the evenness of his gait...yet.  (Although if you blow up the trot picture just above the halt picture just above, you can see that his right hind leg is going to land just before his left foreleg - maybe not a big deal, but worth noting.)  But I'm sure it will if I don't address it.

I do have a plan, and it's one that I've been working on for awhile (because the stiffness I felt has been bothering me for awhile).  I started taking the In-Hand Therapy Course offered by Science of Motion several months ago.  You can read quite a bit about the SOM theories on the website (which is very unusual for something like this - usually you have to buy the class to learn much), and the class delves into those theories quite a bit more deeply.  Essentially, the course focuses on the biomechanics of horses, as determined by scientific research as well as on-the-ground work by Jean Luc Cornille.  It is not a course for the undetermined or easily frustrated, but I am learning a lot.  One of the things I've learned is that Nimo likely carries himself asymmetrically through his spine (although you don't necessarily need this course to figure that out - most horses are asymmetrical to some degree or other - the benefit of the course is that you learn how to correct the asymmetry and better understand why certain commonly applied theories don't make a lot of sense). 

To begin addressing that asymmetry, I recently began working with an instructor who understands and knows how to apply the SOM theories to riding (and in-hand work).  I intend to suspend regular dressage lessons and any intensive conditioning work for the time being as we work through the issue(s).  I am hopeful that through changing my position and the way Nimo moves, I will be able to correct the stiffness that I'm feeling in Nimo. 

I'm also planning to get Nimo's chiropractor out for a visit to see if he can identify a specific adjustment that is needed.  I know chiropractic care for horses is controversial, but this is someone that I trust and have used before.  I also believe that one adjustment is probably only a temporary fix.  A more permanent solution can only be obtained through correcting the cause of the misalignment, which is often easier said than done.

I will still be keeping our 5-6 days a week riding schedule, and I will still be out on the trails each weekend unless I discover a medical reason not to do those things.  I think too often, we think a horse needs rest to address a physical problem, when a different kind of motion may actually work better.  Time will tell if my plan helps, and I will, of course, post my discoveries on the blog.

Wednesday, August 10, 2016

Analyzing Nimo's Diet: Energy Requirements

Last week, I started a series of posts on analyzing Nimo's diet.  (You can read the first post here.)  You may remember that my primary resource is Nutrient Requirements of Horses: Sixth Revised Edition, which you can read online for free here or purchase here.

I began my analysis by calculating two numbers and choosing a category to use for the formulas I'll be selecting for different requirements as I go through the book.  As a reminder, they are:

Nimo's weight: 680 kg
Nimo's work load: Very Heavy
Nimo's food amount/day: 8.73 kg DM (dry matter)

After making the calculations above, the next step is to look at energy requirements.

When we think of energy requirements for people, we typically think in terms of calories.  The calories we see on food labels are actually kilocalories (see http://recipes.howstuffworks.com/question670.htm), but kilocalories are probably too small a measurement to be practical for horses.  Instead, megacalories (Mcal) is the measurement used.  A Mcal is 1,000 kilocalories. 

But, there is another layer to figuring out a horse's energy requirements, and that layer is a concept called "digestible energy" (DE).  Technically,
The apparent digestible energy (DE) content of a ration is calculated by subtracting the gross energy in the feces from the gross energy (intake energy) consumed by an animal.  The term "apparent" is used because some of the material excreted in the feces does not originate from the feed but from cells sloughed from the gastrointestinal tract and digestive secretions.  The true DE of a feed may be calculated if fecal endogenous losses are known.  Endogenous fecal energy losses are not routinely determined in studies with horses and thus most DE values represent apparent DE, not true DE.  (see Nutrient Requirements of Horses: Sixth Revised Edition, p. 3)
Clear as mud, right?  And determining DE can be complicated by the chemical composition of a particular feed as well the digestibility of what is in the feed.  Plus, calculating the DE of a feed can only determined with real accuracy through a feeding trial for horses (different species will get different levels of DE from the same feed!).  Nutrient Requirements does offer some formulas that can be used to estimate the DE of a particular feed on p. 4, and I may be coming back to those at a later date because the feeds that I use do not provide DE on the feed label.

To start with, though, I just want to figure out how many Mcal Nimo needs each day, with the understanding that a Mcal is not just a Mcal, every horse is different, horses heavier than 600 kg may need a different formula for estimating energy requirements, the environment the horse lives and works in may change caloric needs, and the degree of difficulty of exercise each day may vary depending on footing, intensity of work, weight of the rider and tack, and temperature, so the calories needed will vary too.  For the sake of developing a baseline, I will be using this formula for horses in Very Heavy work from p. 26:

DE (Mcal/d) = (0.0363 x BW(kg)) x 1.9

Essentially, this formula calculates how many Mcal Nimo needs each day, based on his body weight in kilograms and given that he is working at the Very Heavy level.

The result is:  DE = 0.0363 x 680 x 1.9 = 46.9 Mcal

Now you might think that if Nimo is getting 46.9 Mcal every day, he should be in good shape.  As it turns out, not so much.  Certain things like the ratio of calcium to phosphorus can cause problems like weight loss if it isn't appropriate, no matter how many calories Nimo is eating.  In fact, deficiencies in protein or any number of vitamins and minerals can lead to serious physical symptoms no matter how much Nimo eats. 

Of course, the simplest way to figure out if Nimo is getting enough to eat is to look at him.  Nutrient Requirements doesn't go into body condition in this section of the book, but I think the vast majority of horse owners are aware of body condition scoring, where a horse is scored from 1 (emaciated and death is imminent) to 10 (put this horse on a diet now!!!).  Endurance horses typically score in the 3-5 range (at least based on what I've seen), and my preference is for Nimo to be at a 5.

Earlier this year, a vet scored Nimo as a 4 at the Cheshire CTR in May.  That kind of bothered me, not because the vet was necessarily wrong, but because I really do want to make sure Nimo is getting enough to eat and Friesians are not known for their super model slimness.  At the time, I was suspicious that Nimo was not getting enough to eat, not because the barn wasn't providing enough food but because the grass in his field was nonexistent due to overstocking and Nimo just didn't seem to want hay when he kept seeing grass growing on the other side of the fence.  The barn has since changed its management of the fields, and Nimo does have decent access to grass now, which made a nearly instant change in his weight and attitude. 

Here is how he looked last night:

The lighting isn't that great, but hopefully you can see that he's in pretty good shape:)
I'll come right out and say that I'm happy with his weight now.  Interestingly enough, when he was a bit thinner, tons of people felt compelled to tell me that he needed to eat more.  Now, at a body condition score of at most 1 point higher, a bunch of people have felt compelled to say things like, "Wow! He's not missing any meals, is he?"  I'm not sure if it is the body conscious society that we live in that compels us to constantly be looking at weight or if some people have even fewer verbal filters than I do (even I know not to comment on weight unless directly asked and then only if it is about an animal), but the constant comments about Nimo's weight are bizarre.  Anyway, I think that body condition does impact performance, and I think that carrying around as little weight as possible while still being healthy, well-nourished, and fit for the job would be a good goal.  Which is pretty much why I'm taking the time to do this analysis.

Even though I like the way he looks, I still want to make sure I'm looking at more than just the amount he's eating and the way he looks.  So, the next thing to do is to figure out how much Nimo needs of different nutrients and then analyze what he is eating to see if his diet is even in the ballpark. 

Before we get to vitamins and minerals, though, I want to spend the next three posts going through the main sources of energy:  carbohydrates, fat, and protein.  Horses need a combination of these sources, but it can be hard to know what the optimum combination is, and that is what I'll be trying to figure out during those posts:) 

Friday, August 5, 2016

Analyzing Nimo's Diet: Introduction

I've been meaning to do a series of posts analyzing Nimo's diet and discussing nutrition, but every time I tried to write the posts, I realized that it is a very complicated subject, and I doubted that I could even begin to do it justice.  However, I really need to do an analysis of what Nimo is eating.  I think it is particularly important for performance horses to have not just good, but excellent, nutrition, but I've also come to the conclusion that even pasture buddies need to have owners who pay attention to what they eat.  Equine nutrition is no longer as simple as "throw the horse out in the pasture and if his weight looks good, everything must be fine."   I've been experimenting with a lot of different types of feeds and supplements, and I feel like I'm starting to narrow down what I think is working, at least for now.  But I also have a couple of concerns that I'd like to examine more closely and scientifically.  So the next step is to figure out if what I think is going on is related to reality or just made up in my head.  You get to follow along with me while I work through the process!:)

The first step is consulting Nutrient Requirements of Horses: Sixth Revised Edition to find out what the basic nutrition requirements are specifically for Nimo.  If you have never read this book and you have a horse, my strong advice is to read it.  It is the source for almost every other equine nutrition book out there (at least the ones for lay people), and it has 341 pages of information on pretty much everything to do with feeding your horse.  If the price tag is too much for you, you can read it online for free here:  http://www.nap.edu/read/11653/chapter/1.  I also find the information published by Kentucky Equine Research (KER) to be helpful and sometimes more up-to-date than what is in Nutrient Requirements (which was published in 2007).  KER does manufacture and sell feed and supplements, so I'm not sure the research could be considered truly independent, but it seems legitimate to me and the company seems to be well-respected for its feed formulations here in Virginia.  KER's published research can be viewed here:  https://ker.com/published/.  And a lot of universities with strong agriculture programs will publish staff papers online, often through their extension programs, so that can be another good source of information.  Plus, there are the veterinary journals, but I haven't had the time or money to do a lot of searching in those as of yet.

For the purposes of this series of posts, I will be relying heavily on Nutrient Requirements, although I will try to add in other sources as well.  I hope to provide enough information so you can follow along with me, if you like.  (Or even better, double-check my work to make sure I haven't made a mistake!)

To start off, I need to make some determinations about things like Nimo's weight, his work level, and the total volume of food that he eats.  The reason is because the way nutrient requirements are determined is through formulas that typically involve one or more of those parameters.  I'm definitely going to be estimating all three numbers and obviously if my estimates are significantly off, it will affect the accuracy of the results.  (Problem number 1 with trying to figure out what to feed your horse!)

Nimo's Weight
Ideally I would drive Nimo to one of the area equine hospitals and ask if I could borrow a scale.  (Note that I have seen "horse-size" scales at some endurance rides, but surprise, surprise, they look much too small to accommodate Nimo's not insubstantial size!)  However, most people don't have access to a scale, so I opted to try one of the weight calculators available.  There are some formulas out there, too, but for the sake of brevity, I used this online calculator:  http://www.thehorse.com/articles/31852/adult-horse-weight-calculator.  Two measurements are needed to use the calculator:  the circumference of the girth area (as measured just behind the point of elbow and over the withers about one inch from their highest point) and the length of the horse from the point of shoulder to the point of buttocks.  The website has a short video to walk you through the measuring process, but I can see some room for error, which could definitely affect the results.  When I plugged Nimo's numbers (82" girth and 71" length) into the online calculator, I got 1447 lbs.  The calculator does note that it may not be as accurate for tall horses (is 17 hands tall?) and larger-boned horses, though, so I decided to bump the number up to an even 1500 lbs, or 680 kg (because all of the nutrient requirement formulas use weight in kg).

Work Level
Nutrient Requirements describes several work categories on p. 26 in Table 1-10, and I decided that Very Heavy is probably the best fit for Nimo based on the descriptions.  The Very Heavy category includes work that involves a mean heart rate of 110-150 bpm along with 6-12 hours a week of work.  Nimo is not always working that much, but right now, I'm riding 5-6 days a week with 4-5 days at 1-1.5 hours and 1 day at 2-3 hours.  The work involves dressage schooling during the week with a little hacking around the farm and endurance conditioning, including a lot of trotting and climbing, on the weekend.  The heat and humidity also add to the intensity of the work.

Weight of Food
Some of the formulas used in Nutrient Requirements use the total amount fed to the horse each day in terms of kg of dry matter (DM).  What that means is you can't just weigh the amount of food you feed; instead, you have to weigh the food (or estimate consumption for things like hay and pasture) and then convert that weight into dry matter.  Dry matter is basically the weight of the food after all moisture has been removed.  It allows all types of feeds to be compared equally, but it can be a bit tricky to calculate.

To come up with a reasonable estimate, the first thing I did was weigh the amount of concentrated food that Nimo gets each day.  (Note that while he does get a few supplements, the amounts are quite small and it didn't seem worth it to include them in this process.)  He gets:

Beet Pulp: 2.25 lbs
Oats: 3.5 lbs
Triple Crown Growth (textured feed): 4.125 lbs
Total concentrates =  9.875 lbs

Then I assumed that Nimo is eating about 2% of his body weight each day (typically horses eat between 1.5 and 3%), which is 30 lbs.  I subtracted the total concentrates from that amount to get 20.125 lbs.  From there, I decided to split that amount into hay and grass because Nimo spends about half his time in his stall eating hay and about half his time out in the pasture eating grass.  To make things slightly easier, I decided to use 10 lbs for hay and 10.125 pounds for grass.

So here's where we are in terms of total amount of food eaten each day:

Beet Pulp: 2.25 lbs
Oats: 3.5 lbs
TC Growth: 4.125 lbs
Hay: 10 lbs
Grass: 10.125 lbs

Now we have to convert all of those amounts to dry matter.  I found a couple of sources to help me estimate the dry matter of each type of food because I didn't want to spend my time using one of the assorted methods out there to actually evaporate the water myself.  If you are so inclined, though, check out this article for how to do it:  http://extension.uga.edu/publications/detail.cfm?number=SB58

For beet pulp, I found this article that describes how beet pulp is made and it states that the shreds are dried to 10% moisture, which means beet pulp is 90% dry matter.  So 2.25 x .90 = 2.025 lbs.

For oats, I found this article that lists oats as 90% dry matter (along with some other grains, if you happen to feed something other than oats).  So 3.5 x .90 = 3.15 lbs.

For TC Growth, I couldn't get any number off the feed bag or the Triple Crown website, but I did find this article that mentioned wet corn has a DM value of 74%.  I'm not really sure if wet corn and textured feed are quite the same in moisture content, but it seemed like a reasonable starting point. So 4.125 x .74 = 3.0525 lbs.

For the hay, I found this article that said hay is typically about 90% dry matter.  So 10 x .90 = 9 lbs.

And finally for the grass, I used the same article as for the hay.  The article stated that grass is typically 20% dry matter, so 10.125 x .20 = 2.025 lbs.

Now, I need to add up all of the DM values and convert the total to kg:

DM (kg) = 2.025 + 3.15 + 3.0525 + 9 + 2.025 = 19.2525 lbs x .45359237 = 8.73 kg

And finally, I have the three numbers that I need for calculating nutrient requirements!

Nimo's weight = 680 kg
Nimo's work level - Very Heavy
Nimo's food on a DM basis = 8.73 kg

That's it for today, but my next post will discuss energy requirements.  And if you notice any errors in my calculations or process, please let me know:)

Monday, July 4, 2016

Catching Up...

It's been awhile since I posted, not because I have nothing to say, but more because I had so much to do that I lacked the time/motivation to post.  Life got a bit crazy starting in mid-May and I've been struggling just to remember what day it is since then.  Many of the things that have happened have been house-related, so I'll spare you the tedious details except to say that we now have a new kitchen faucet, a new dishwasher, a repaired roof beam, a repaired porch ceiling, a repaired roof leak, patched dry wall around the front door, patched dry wall in our downstairs hallway, an almost completed renovated guest bathroom, a new garage door opener, a new kitchen ceiling light, some new paint and baseboards in our family room, lots of new bookshelves and other storage capability to keep toddler toys off the floor (ha, ha, ha, but we tried!) and to get some of the stuff that belongs to my husband and I out of storage and available for use, a new dresser for our daughter's room, and some assorted decorations that have started to make the house feel a bit more like home.  My parents also came to visit for a week and then my in-laws came to visit for several days just 3 weeks later.  All of the home improvement plus home organization plus home decorating plus guests plus crazy work stuff plus all the regular things I try to do like cooking and cleaning and laundry and scrapbooking took their toll a few days ago, and I am currently on what I think might be the recuperating side of a nasty cold that resulted in conversations like this one:

My husband to my prone-hasn't-moved-in-several-hours body:  Do you want something to eat or is death so close that food would be wasted?

Me, trying to remember how to use words:  No food...wait...watermelon.  (I was pretty sure I was on death's door, and the idea of watermelon being my last meal seemed like A Good Thing.  I instantly regretted my choice, though, because it meant I had to turn over to eat it and then my daughter stole most of it anyway - apparently there is no moral code when your mother is dying...)

Thankfully, I think I'm going to live, so I wanted to get caught up on some of the horse-related happenings.

The Devil's Backbone
The weather took an unpleasant turn in mid-May and went from the misery of London (cold, rainy, dreary) to the misery of the tropics (hot, sunny, humid) practically overnight, leaving us without any sort of transition.  It was definitely a shock to my system and I suspect, to Nimo's.  That didn't stop us from heading down to Graves Mountain to tackle The Devil's Backbone trail again on the first 90+ degree weekend day we had.  And it was brutal.

You may remember that Nimo and I attempted that trail earlier in the spring but had to turn back because of the trail conditions.  So when I had the opportunity for a guide to take us on the trail again, I couldn't pass it up.  But the new heat and humidity combined with the steepest trail we've ever done made for a Nimo who was the sweatiest I've ever seen.  When I pressed my legs against his sides, I could feel the coating of sweat just pouring off of him.

We took it slow, though, and stopped several times to let the horses take short rests.  But there was no getting around what I estimate to be almost 2 miles of the steepest trail we've been on.  There were no switchbacks, although there were occasional changes in grade that offered brief periods of relief from the climb.  My understanding from local endurance riders is that horses that can handle The Devil's Backbone as well as other trails at Graves Mountain have no trouble with OD endurance rides.  And I now suspect that is likely true, although the Graves Mountain trails are not typically as rocky as the OD trails and The Devil's Backbone may actually have been easier if it had some rocks on it.

I didn't take any pictures of the trail itself because honestly, it doesn't look like much.  It's just a slightly overgrown wide path through the woods that in a picture probably wouldn't look that intimidating or impressive.  I did, however, snap a picture of the view when we were probably 2/3 of the way up the trail:

You can probably get an idea of the steepness by looking at how the height of the trees rapidly changes
I also got a picture when we made it to the top of the mountain:

Yes, there is a picnic table at the top - no one knows how it got there though!
After we got to the top and rested in the shade for a few minutes, we mounted back up and had to turn around to head back the way we'd come.  Normally, The Devil's Backbone is on both sides of the mountain, but recent logging activity and wet weather had made one side of the mountain impassable.  At this point, I can say that going up the trail is actually easier in some ways than going down.  And the descent is what separates this trail from the mountain climb of the OD's 25-mile ride.  At the OD, there is a fair amount of climbing, although only parts of it are as steep as what we did at Graves Mountain.  Once you get to the top at the OD ride, though, there is a flat ridge and then several miles of logging roads to get down.  While those roads are steep for trotting work, they are wide and easily negotiated.  On the Devil's Backbone trail, there is no relief for the horse in terms of being incredibly careful about where he puts his feet.  Nimo, being a downhill horse, seemed to be happier going down, but I felt like I was in a pretty precarious situation the whole way down the mountain because there was no horse in front of me.  The steep trail and challenge in the footing (the ground was wet in some places with slippery Virginia clay and there were sections of the trail that were almost washed out, so there were deep grooves to struggle through) meant Nimo's whole front end was significantly lower than the rest of him and he often had his head down as well.

I admit to being glad that we'd done the trail and equally glad when we made it to the bottom.  We rested the horses in a small stream in the shade for a few minutes and then rode the several miles back to the trailers on what was basically rolling hills or even level terrain.  There was one section of trail that was above a road and it really was a narrow trail with the potential for a horse to slip off the trail and fall down the mountain onto the road, but I didn't even notice how precarious our position was until one of the other riders I was with pointed it out and we had a discussion about it.  I'm not sure if that is a sign of our experience riding in the mountains or just the fatigue of the climb taking its toll on my feeble brain.

There were three of us riding that day and we (and our horses) all made it back to the trailers in good shape after having done about 11 miles.  It was a really good conditioning ride and I admit that I had pushed Nimo a bit to ride in the heat and humidity without much time to get acclimated as part of my decision-making process for whether we would go to the OD 25-mile ride in June.  He did well and I was pleased with how he seemed to recover, but I knew I needed a different kind of test for the following weekend.

Conditioning at Sky Meadows
After checking Nimo's climbing skills in the heat, I wanted to check out his ability to handle climbing and trotting in the heat.  So the weekend after riding at Graves Mountain, I met two other riders at Sky Meadows State Park.  Sky Meadows also has a mountain to climb, but it is not nearly as difficult as anything at Graves Mountain.  It is a shorter climb and it has more variation in the grade, so there are opportunities for the horse to recover a bit rather than have to slog for miles straight up.  I'd ridden with these riders before and I knew they liked to go a bit faster than Nimo and I normally would go, but that was a good thing in this case.

The temperature was not as warm as it had been (I think low- to mid-80s), but the humidity was high.  We ended up doing about 11 miles again at a significantly faster pace up the mountain than we would normally do.  And we did the climb twice.  And Nimo was game and mostly kept up with the other two horses, but I could tell that his recovery at the end of the ride was not good enough.  His heart rate did come down, although a little slower than usual, but what did not come down was his respiration.  He maintained a breaths per minute rate of about 120 for at least 15 minutes and the rate was slow to decrease despite me continually sponging and scraping.  I don't know for sure, but I think that kind of inverted respiration to heart rate would have gotten us a metabolic pull at an endurance ride.  I will say that I was never concerned about him in any way.  Panting is a normal response for him to heat and humidity and heavy work and he was eating his post-ride mash and not displaying any other signs that there was a problem.  He continued to recover in the trailer and seemed completely normal by the time I got him back to the barn.  I did not notice anything post-ride that would lead to believe that I'd pushed him harder than I should have or that he was sore or having any difficulty at all.  Still...

Decision Time - The OD 25
We were now a week out from the OD ride, and I started monitoring the forecast like a crazy, obsessed person.  My mood was completely contingent on the expected high temperature for the ride and the forecast fluctuated from 79 to over 90 during that week.  Finally, two days before the ride, I had to make the call.  The expected high was now 91 degrees and high humidity was also expected.

I knew Nimo could do the trail, but what I didn't know was how he would handle the heat and humidity in terms of pulsing down.  We'd only had about 2 and a half weeks of hot, humid weather at that point and I was concerned that wasn't enough time to acclimate him to it.  When we'd done the first loop of the OD 25 trail the previous fall, it was actually quite humid despite cooler temps in the low-70s, so I figured there was at least a possibility he would be OK, particularly because we'd be able to get through the most challenging part of the trail earlier in the morning.  And I knew that he would not push himself beyond his limits, but as I mentioned above, I thought if he was panting too heavily coming into the vet check, it would automatically trigger a metabolic pull, and I just couldn't handle going through that.  I've written about some struggles I've had with even just overtime and rider option rides in terms of the way vets see Nimo, and I am really uncomfortable with the way that the vets have handled what they perceived as problems that weren't.  I understand that their job is very important and I also understand an overreaction is better than an underreaction, but I knew I would not be up to dealing with a vet insisting on treatment just because Nimo was breathing hard.  Of course, it is entirely possible that I've blown this whole issue out of proportion in my head and I am concerned for nothing.

Regardless, I decided to e-mail the ride secretary and pull Nimo from the ride.  It was one of the hardest things I've done.  I felt that aside from the heat, we were so ready for the ride.  And I knew that there was at least a possibility that we could get a completion.  But I reminded myself that my goal of doing the OD 100 is mine, not Nimo's.  He has been working his butt off for me this year in completely miserable weather, from the rain/sleet/snow at Foxcatcher to the rain and mud at Cheshire to the extreme climb at Graves in the heat and the extreme (for him anyway) speed at Sky Meadows in the humidity.  Also, I really don't handle heat that well anymore.  For both our sakes, I decided to skip the ride and let it be a mystery as to what would have happened if we'd gone.  I was pretty bummed about it because I had friends riding and I wanted to see them do well plus it felt like we'd done all this preparation for nothing.  But as I've posted before, even if we never do another endurance ride, the journey so far has been worth it in terms of all the positive changes we've made in our partnership together as well as Nimo's confidence.

What's Next?
Missing the OD means that our next endurance ride on the schedule will likely be Fort Valley in October.  There is a tiny possibility of doing Ride Between The Rivers in August (it's in WV and often a bit cooler there, making it more doable), but it is a tough time of year for me to get off of work, so I'll have to play it by ear.

Harness Work
In the meantime, I have been getting at least the occasional ground driving session in, and I'm hopeful that I'll have a harness that fits Nimo by the fall.  I ordered the reins in May and they arrived in early June, so I've been excited to try them out several times.  My next steps will be to order things like a neck collar, saddle (name given to what the riders among us might call the surcingle part of the harness), headstall, and then the rest of the harness parts.  I'm ordering things piecemeal in part to spread the cost out and also because I just want to take it slow and make sure each component fits really well as opposed to trying to fit a whole harness at once.

Nimo graduated from the arena to the parking lot in front of the barn
Solving Crime
We are also doing fun stuff like the Glenmore Hunt Murder Mystery ride last weekend.  I rode with a couple of friends as a team.  The way it worked was much like the board game Clue, if you've ever played that (I hadn't).  There were quite a few teams (maybe 20-30) of between 2-10 riders each and we rode around to different "fixtures" on a farm.  At each fixture, we could ask the volunteer a question that identified a potential murderer, weapon, and location.  The volunteer had three cards that listed who was not the murderer, what was not the weapon, and where the murder did not take place.  If our question identified any of the things on the volunteer's cards, he/she could tell us, and we could cross that item off of our list.  We couldn't stay at any one fixture and keep asking questions.  Instead, we had to go to at least one other fixture before coming back.  There were seven fixtures located at the potential murder locations around the farm and the trail that included all the fixtures was probably a couple of miles or so.  We had two hours to figure out who the murderer was, as well as guess the correct weapon and location.

The three of us gamely wandered from fixture to fixture with our team captain formulating our strategy for our guesses because the other two of us were "clueless" (pun absolutely intended).  As our time wound down, the pacing part of my brain kicked in, and my sole contribution to the effort was to make sure we got the maximum number of fixtures in while still making it back to the finish on time. I think I did pretty good.  We made it back at 3:27 when the cut-off was 3:30 and I think we stopped at three fixtures in the last 12 minutes, all while keeping mostly to a walk, with just a short trot to energize everyone:)

Our team did correctly guess the murderer, but we were wrong on the weapon and location.  Still it was kind of a unique way to get 7-8 miles of riding in on a Saturday afternoon, and it was a nice way to break up our conditioning rides.

Nimo thinks he has spotted a clue!  Photo by Glenmore Hunt.

Nimo is tired of standing around waiting for clues and would like to get to the end of the trail!  Photo by Glenmore Hunt.
Nimo's Future Home
And last, but not least, a tiny amount of work has taken place on our much-in-the-future horse farm.  My dad helped us use what is often called a brush hog (e.g. giant lawn mower that can take down shrubs and small trees) to mow the front acre of our property.  It was quite overgrown and I was anxious to uncover what was underneath as well as to start more actively formulating a pasture-development strategy.  We have been hampered by a very wet spring and things finally dried out enough during my parents' visit so that we could get the truck in without danger of getting it stuck.

The Billy Goat, as rented from Home Depot - it has lots of work to do!

My dad showing us how it's done!

We got almost everything mowed, but a sudden storm meant having to leave a little for the next time.
Our next task at the property is to get a shed built.  Back in February when we ordered it, it seemed that June would be a perfectly reasonable time to build it, but time moved more quickly than we expected.  So the shed kit was delivered about 10 days ago and is now in a pile at our house while we figure out where we are going to put it and what we are going to put it on (poured concrete foundation, wood foundation, concrete blocks, concrete footers, bare ground, gravel...the choices are endless!)  I've got ideas of course, so it is merely the "small" matter of implementation.  Hopefully, one way or the other, the thing is built by the end of August, though, because we have a whole bunch of crap to put in it!

So that's it.  The last six weeks have flown by, and I'm hoping things will settle down a bit, so I can start posting regularly again:)

Saturday, May 21, 2016

And now for something completely different...

After not completing two very soggy rides (Foxcatcher and the Cheshire CTR) in the last month, I was ready for something a bit, you know, not riding and not wet.  Also not stressful and not requiring lots of packing and hauling.  I gave Nimo (and me) the week off after the Cheshire ride.  Physically, I doubt Nimo needed it, but the rain just kept raining here and I was tired of riding in the rain.  Actually, I was just tired of riding.  We'd been training pretty hard for about 2 and a half months and I decided we needed a break.

A friend of mine had previously mentioned that she was doing a driving clinic on May 7, and I remember telling her at the time that it sounded like fun but I was committed to my endurance training.  About 4 days before the clinic, she posted a reminder on Facebook, and all of a sudden, I was pretty interested.  I've briefly entertained the notion of training Nimo to drive on more than one occasion (because maybe I should actually do the one thing that Friesians are bred for with him), but I've never pursued it beyond doing some basic ground work because I didn't know anyone who drove horses and the whole idea seemed overwhelming.  Over the past couple of years, though, I've enviously watched as both Mel and Liz worked with Farley and Griffin on driving and more recently another lady I know has taught one of her horses to drive.  So when I saw the reminder about the clinic, I decided I was in.  The clinic was at Temple Hall Farm near Leesburg, Virginia, which meant less than an hour's drive for me, and all I had to bring was myself.

And so it was that I found myself on Kentucky Derby Day at a lovely working farm that is also open to visitors (for free!) six days a week (it is closed on Mondays to allow staff to get caught up with maintenance).  The most impressive thing about the farm is that it is home to at least a dozen male peacocks.  There are a few females too, but the males are the dominant display and they made their presence known...repeatedly.  To the point where I have decided that owning a peacock is not in my future.  I will simply enjoy them at other people's farms:)

One of the many peacocks on the farm.  They are surprisingly agile and unexpectedly vocal!
The driving clinic started at 9 am and was expected to go until 4 pm.  There were six of us in the class and we had two instructors.  One was the farm manager and the other was from the Shenandoah Carriage Company, a company that provides carriage rides for weddings and other special occasions.  Our agenda for the day was to learn how to harness and unharness the farm's team of Percherons, then ground drive the Percherons, and finally drive a wagon hooked up to said Percherons.  If that sounds like a tall order to you, know that I was pretty skeptical that all of that could happen in one day.  But both instructors seemed like knowledgeable and humorous guys and the class participants were game.

After a few introductory remarks about safety and their experience, the instructors led us to the barn where the Percherons had been stalled overnight so as to prevent them from becoming muddy disasters just prior to us having to wrangle harnesses on them.  It quickly became apparent that these Percherons were pretty special horses.  Their job was both to interact with the public, including completely clueless parents and their small children who routinely ran right up to and even underneath said horses, as well as to work by pulling a wagon seating up to 30 people around the farm and even do regular farm work like mowing, raking hay, and dragging logs.  Their names were Kit and Kernel, and while the farm manager said his favorite was Kit because of his extra personality with people, it was Kernel who endeared himself to me from the start.  He was an older horse (my guess is late teens) and life before coming to the farm had obviously not been easy for him.  He bore a permanent and quite extensive scar on his neck from an ill-fitting collar and another permanent rub across his nose from wearing an ill-fitting halter.  But he still had some personality left in him and used his eyes to beg for some petting, which he absolutely got from me:)

Even though the horses had been in all night, aside from the occasional shifting of weight or movement of a foot, they were very quiet and well-behaved as they stood tied in the exterior aisleway of the barn.  I did think it was funny when the farm manager explained that these were big horses with big feet, so we should be careful around them even though they seemed gentle, because getting stepped on by such a large animal would be painful.  The reason I though it was funny was because these Percherons were several inches shorter than Nimo and they looked so manageable to me as compared to my horse.  But I can see that if your riding horse was of more average size, these Percherons could seem intimidating.

The first step was for the instructors to demonstrate harnessing the horses.  I did manage to snap a few pictures of the process.

Demonstrating how the straps should fit - note the angle of the strap going between the horse's legs.
The back part of the harness, called the breeching (or britchen, depending on where you are from)
The holdback straps and traces (not attached to anything yet) - note the slack under the horse, which is needed to allow the harness to give as the cart or wagon moves, particularly on hills
Once we watched the horses harnessed and unharnessed (it's important to unharness the horse in a certain way so as to avoid tangling the assorted straps as well as getting them hung up on yourself or the horse), it was our turn.  Each of us practiced putting the harness on and taking the harness off under the watchful eye of the instructors.  Then, we worked together to put the harnesses on one more time because we had passed the first part of the course and the instructors were ready to see how we did with ground driving.  At first, I found the harness pretty intimidating, but after putting it on a couple of times and learning the function of each strap, it made a lot more sense.  I will say that carrying a harness and hoisting it on top of a large animal is not for the feeble-limbed, and I now understand why a lot of people drive minis and ponies!

The instructors demonstrated a couple of tips for harnessing a team, including how to run the lines (aka reins).  When driving a pair of horses, the driver only has two reins in his hands.  The way that is accomplished is to use a couple of connector straps in such a way that the line you hold in your right hand connects to the right side of the bit for both horses and the line you hold in your left hand connects to the left side of the bit for both horses.  That means there is some crossing of connector straps between the horses and it is super important to get that right.  The instructors disagreed on whether a strap was needed to connect the horses together as they were ground driven to be hooked up to a wagon, but for exclusive ground driving, the strap became important later on.

Once the horses were driven to a good place for us to start learning how to drive them, the instructors gave us some instructions on how to hold the lines and communicate with the horses.  And all six of us drove those horses without any trouble, because those horses are saints.  I can't imagine any skilled riding horse who would have so patiently tolerated six different idiots wandering around a field with them over the course of almost two hours.  We all had a little trouble getting the horses to walk off (drivers tend to use a lot of verbal commands and as riders, we were trying to do things like cluck, or shake the reins (it works in the movies!) instead of just authoritatively stating, "Walk On!"  I kept trying to walk up behind the horses to encourage them to move forward, which I only later realized was completely useless because the horses had blinders on and couldn't see me.  Although if they could have, I might have gotten kicked for my stupidity.  The farm manager also recommended pulling on one of the reins a bit to get the horses thinking about moving before giving the command to go forward (this idea would prove even more useful when the horses were hitched).

Holy crap, I'm ground driving a team of big horses!
I even got them to turn!
Turning the horses was not an exercise in subtlety, although I can see how it would become that way over time.  The way you turn a team to the right, for example, is to pull on the right line while simultaneously releasing with your left rein.  It doesn't sound hard, does it?  Ha, ha, ha...It turns out to be a little more difficult that you might think, especially if you want the horses to stay together and turn as one unit.  We mostly figured it out, though:)

Then, came the lesson on halt.  These horses pay no mind to any sort of namby, pamby, wishy, washy, feeble vocalizations to whoa.  A single commanding "Whoa!" is required while accompanied by a firm, but not harsh, pull on the lines.  I royally screwed up my first attempt as the horses happily wandered around, but after the first time, I got the hang of it and didn't have any problems after that (which is good, because halting is pretty much the most important thing that you ask the horses to do).

We finished our ground driving education with learning to back the horses.  Backing is necessary in limited cases (especially for a team which is hitched not by backing up to the wagon but by walking over the middle pole that connects the wagon to the horses), but it is still an important skill.  And it is hard on horses to back a lot too, which is why the continued patience of these horses was pretty amazing.  They backed many steps multiple times for all six of us.  And the connecting strap that held the two horses together near the back of the harness helped compensate for our not-yet-educated hands.

Apparently I wanted lots of space between me and the horses as they started backwards!
At this point, it was time for lunch, so we put the horses back in their stalls for some hay and water while we had barbecue from Red Hot and Blue.  We had a lot of fun chatting about our various experiences with horses and learning more about our instructors and the horses.  But soon it was time to head back out for the real fun - wagon driving!

We got the horses bridled again (they wore their harnesses during the break, which is something they are used to doing as part of their jobs) and then we learned about hitching horses to a wagon.  Basically there is what is called a team pole and a neck pole (I hope I'm getting the terminology right, here).  The team pole is  a wooden (or metal) pole that goes between the two horses and connects to the the hitch of the wagon (possibly called a doubletree, but don't quote me on that).  The team pole is attached to the middle of the neck pole at a right angle.  The neck pole connects to each horse's neck collar via a system of straps (sort of like a breast collar, but looser - remember the first picture with the instructor demonstrating the angle of the straps?).  Together these two poles, along with some leather straps called traces, sturdily connect the horses to the wagon.

Once the horses were hitched to the wagon, we all piled in and got more directions on how to drive a team of horses pulling a wagon full of people out in the wilderness.  Because there was no arena or even fencing to keep us on track.  We would be driving on the 6 mile trail that the farm manager made specifically to exercise the horses on days they were off or periods when they were not working to help keep them in shape.  (This trail is open to the public for riding and driving and even includes some logs for cross-country jumping...and creek crossings...)

I observed several people drive before I took the lines.  But nothing truly prepared me for the experience.  One of the instructors was sitting next to me to help in case of trouble, but it was pretty much on my mind that I was responsible for driving these horses and not having some kind of horrific accident with nine people in the wagon (six participants, two instructors, and one assistant).  Driving a wagon is much different than ground driving.  There was a power that came from those horses that is like nothing else I've ever felt.  They were beautifully behaved, but when they started forward, I almost came out of my seat because I wasn't prepared for the movement on the lines as the horses pulled the wagon.  It wasn't difficult to adjust to, though, and I got to do a creek crossing through water that was probably 12-15 inches deep (so cool!), and near the end, my instructor worked with me to fine-tune my steering skills, so I was able to run the wagon pretty close to trees without getting hung up and avoid some of the worst mud, so the horses wouldn't have to work so hard to pull.  And I was pretty much hooked on driving.  I seriously need a team of Percherons NOW!

Don't get me wrong, I love riding.  The connection is much different and much more intimate than with driving, but I can see how people become fans of driving.  There is something so amazing about being able to communicate with a horse in that way and driving through the countryside was so absolutely pleasant.  I can't describe it any better than that.  Plus, I felt a bit like someone from the 1800s when we went through uneven ground or hills - it was like living a piece of history.

I'm driving!!!
And so it looks like our journey will include a new and exciting activity - driving!  Now that I've had some legitimate instruction, I feel much better about undertaking teaching Nimo than I did before.  Of course, driving a single horse is different (and not necessarily any easier) than driving a team, so I'm thankful that the farm is planning to do another clinic with topics like driving a single horse, doing an obstacle course, and even dragging logs (OMG - I must do that before I die!).  In the meantime, though, I'm starting to educate myself a bit more by reading some books and watching DVDs.

I also resuscitated my ground driving sessions with Nimo.  While his temperament is not necessarily the same as the Percherons (who seemed pretty much unflappable and very good at their jobs as opposed to a horse who is still afraid of stumps in the woods), Nimo seems to be awesome at tolerating me attempting to hook multiple long lines to him and convincing him to wander around the arena.  Even at age two, when I first started lunging him (not for more than 5-10 minutes at time and only at the walk and trot), he was so tolerant of the process.  He will literally stand forever while I hook things up, realize they aren't right, fix them, still am not happy, and tweak them again.  Having long lines wrap around his body (using double lines to lunge, anyone?), even his hocks and lower hind legs is a non-event for him.  He is a little uncertain about moving forward with me behind him, but after only two sessions, that is improving, and he isn't bothered in the slightest by me moving in and out of his vision behind him.  (If you've never done it, ground driving requires standing just to the inside of the horse and then crossing behind him to the other side when you make a turn.)  Of course, hitching him to a cart may be another story, but now I have a plan and it honestly shouldn't take that long if I can stick with it.

So stay tuned, because my driving whip and neck-collar measuring device just arrived today and I've got driving lines on order!

Monday, May 9, 2016

Cheshire 26 CTR

After we didn't finish the Foxcatcher 25 ride, I decided to change my ride plan a little for this year.  I originally intended to go to the OD's No Frills 30 ride, but I just wasn't sure we were ready for it without the full 25 miles of the Foxcatcher ride to help us prepare.  So in a fit of inspiration, I joined the Eastern Competitive Trail Ride Association, and registered for a 26 mile ride on May 1 in Pennsylvania.  Given its location not too far from where Foxcatcher was held and the description of the ride as "hunt country," I anticipated that it would be a great way to reproduce the Foxcatcher ride.  And given its timing of three-weeks post-Foxcatcher, I expected there to be no snow:)

Because I am so much more on the ball this year than last year, I spent the week before the ride actually packing (well, more like unpacking from Foxcatcher and repacking, but still, I'm counting it) and getting Nimo ready.  I wanted to do a full body clip, but it there is seriously a lot of hair on that horse, so I did a little every day until the night before we left, when I finished clipping.  Then, I bathed him (with soap!) and washed his mane and tail and braided them too.

Possibly the cleanest my horse has been in at least 5 years!
The day before the ride, I pulled out out of the barn at 9 am (on time again!), and headed up to Pennsylvania via the Beltway and I-95.  Just like when I drove to Foxcatcher in Maryland, I had to battle nasty traffic on the Beltway, but the traffic on I-95 moved surprisingly quickly, so we made it to the ride area without incident in about 4 and a half hours.

The information I had said that registration opened at 3 p.m. and the vetting in process started at 4 p.m.  However, it was a little confusing because I also had information that said the vetting in would be the morning of the ride.  I did confirm that I would be able to vet Nimo in the day before the ride when I checked in, so that made me feel better.  I admit that the idea of having to go through the vet check before the ride was giving me some anxiety, so I was glad to be able to get it over with.  I also found out that we'd be going out in groups of five, which made me feel better.  I knew that my group wouldn't necessarily stay together for the whole ride, but given that Nimo can be pretty "up" at the start of the ride, I was glad to have some company to start with. 

While I waited for the vet to arrive, I set up camp.  I used my usual truck tent for me and cattle panels for Nimo.  I also had a small gas grill to make dinner with that I purchased just for the ride because dinner is not included with the ride entry.  But I was looking forward to testing it out and I had a seriously gourmet variety of soup to try out:)

Please note the "Sky of Doom" overhead...also my finger partially covering the lens
A little after 4 p.m., I wandered down to the area that I thought would be used for the vet area.  Nothing.  I checked in with a few people (everyone was very friendly) to see if they knew anything.  Nada.  So I just chilled.  I chatted with the other riders near me and hung out.  And then I started to get a bit anxious.  Because it was almost 5 p.m. and no vet.  I wanted to take Nimo on a walk around the camp area to keep him from getting so bored that he disassembled his pen, but I didn't really know what was going on and neither did anybody else.  There was a sort of lassez-faire attitude that was giving me heart palpitations.

I decided to take Nimo for a walk and just go up and down the road through camp so I could keep an eye on things.  Finally, at about 5:20, one of the volunteers told me that the vet had arrived.  I started to head over to vet in, but she told me that they would need at least 5 minutes to get set up.  Fair enough.  So I walked Nimo for about 10 more minutes just so I wasn't pestering somebody AGAIN (I may now be known as the most annoying person ever).

When I walked over to the vet area, there were six horses in front of us and it looked like the vet was just getting started.  No big deal, right?  Yeah, so the first thing I discovered about the differences between endurance rides and CTRs is that the vetting in process is a bit different.  And by different, I mean aggravating beyond all hell.

To be clear, I knew that the vet check was more detailed than at an endurance ride.  I'd even made the effort to skim the rules a couple of times before going to the ride.  And I admit my eyes kind of glazed over.  I really didn't care about all the points (or lack thereof) and placings and awards.  All I wanted to do was finish the ride with both me and my horse alive and well.  I also knew that some people consider the vetting process to be a bit nit-picky and I totally mentally prepared myself for that.  I made my peace with it and was determined to be respectful because honestly, I was just really excited to have the opportunity to go to more rides in my area.  And if that meant following a different process, that was fine.  I could come in last place every time and be perfectly happy.

But as I waited and waited and waited and waited and waited, I started to feel more than a twinge of annoyance.  It took over 50 minutes before Nimo and I saw the vet.  That means it took 50 minutes to examine 6 horses.  While this was a small ride (only 38 people had pre-registered), that kind of time to get through the horses seemed like a lot.

For those of you who have not been to a CTR before, I'll describe the way the process worked at this ride.  There were two "judges" (and I think both were also vets, but don't quote me on that).  One judge examined some of the criteria and the other judge did the rest of it.  For us, our first judge checked Nimo's body for blemishes.  At first I worried that Nimo would be antsy because the process was taking so long, but he actually thought he was getting a full body massage, so he was very, very good.  The first judge put her hands all over Nimo's body above his legs.  And this is where the demoralization process starts.  In keeping with the advice I'd received, I dutifully reported the large bug bite on Nimo's side that the judge somehow missed.  I was under the impression that the point of the initial vet check is to establish a base line for the horse that he will be judged against at the end of the ride.  However, apparently, if you allow your horse to be bitten by a bug, that is a half point deduction.  Also, if your horse has bulgy shoulders, that might cause a problem and require a lot of discussion and thought (I have no idea if any points were deducted for that, but it seemed to be a cause for concern even though the judge eventually decided that maybe it was OK because it appeared to be exactly the same on both sides, possibly meaning that it wasn't an injury or major defect, but just an idiosyncrasy of the individual horse).  Oh, and Nimo is apparently "a bit ticklish" on his girth line.  Seriously?  I watched Nimo really closely the first time after the judge said it because I was unaware of his ticklishness.  I couldn't see anything.  Maybe the judge was feeling a flinch under her hand?  And I don't know if we lost any points for it.  It could just have been a comment for later so that if a different judge felt a flinch, he/she would know it was likely normal and not the result of the girth causing a problem.  But it was weird.

And then we waited.  The other judge was examining another horse and I guess his part of the examination took longer than the first judge's exam.  Finally, he got to us and took a look (and feel) of Nimo's legs and gums and hydration status (skin pinch).  He also took a heart rate and listened to gut sounds.  Once again I dutifully reported an old callous caused by hoof boot interference a couple of years ago and got a half point deduction for that.  We also lost half a point on the skin pinch.  And that was when I started to internally lose it.  I had seen Nimo pee twice since we got to camp - both times had a large volume and were very light and clear in color.  I have no idea how he could have been better hydrated.  Plus he was eating the tallest grass ever that was soaking with water.  And I had seen the skin pinch.  I'm not sure how the skin could have retracted faster.  I do get that the judge probably has done this a million times and is much more capable of setting a standard than I am, but again, I really thought that the point was to compare the beginning of the ride to the end of the ride for the horse not against a general standard (note to self, maybe read the rules more carefully next time...).

After the examination, the next step was to do the trot out.  I'd already noticed that the pattern was a little different than for endurance rides.  I checked with the judge to make sure I understood what it was - trot out to the cone, do a circle at the trot to the left, reverse, and do a circle at the trot to the right, and then trot back.  Whew!  Lots of trotting (and running!) compared to the endurance trot to the cone, walk around the cone, and trot back.  I wasn't sure how Nimo would handle it, but I figured we'd give it a try.  Everything went fine until we started on our trot circle to the right.  I was still leading him from his left and when I went to turn him right, he thought he was going straight and we tripped over each other's feet.  We were both fine and I chalked it up to a miscommunication.  Nimo was a little reluctant to go back to trotting, but he did and we finished the circle and trotted back.  At this point, NO ONE said anything to me about the right circle.  And maybe they couldn't.  But I had been really clear that I was new to CTRs and I had seen several different people do the trot pattern, each a bit differently, so I was unaware of any particular standard.

Later, another rider who had watched my trot-out told me that my horse's movement was really lovely, but that I "needed to learn to lead" my horse from his right to do the right circle.  She was very nice about the comment and I just thanked her for her help, but I am going to ask, "How was I supposed to know that?"  I double-checked the rules and there isn't anything in there about using a clicker to cue the circles (some people did that) or using a lunge line to do the circles (others did that) or just switching the side the horse is led from (still others did that).  It was at that point that I realized the vetting process is not about assessing the horse's physical state for going out on the trail.  It is about showmanship.  I hate showmanship.  I have competed in showmanship at halter many times and I hated it then.  It turns out I still hate it.  But I get it.  CTRs are about something different than endurance.  So I continued with my attempt to accept the differences between CTRs and endurance and be thankful for the opportunity to compete.

Anyway, finally, Nimo was done with being vetted.  At this point, aside from some comments specifically stating points were being deducted, I had no idea what our point total was or how we were doing, relatively speaking.  I don't even know what Nimo's heart rate was because the judge didn't tell me.  But, I let that go in the spirit of going with the flow of things, and got Nimo his dinner and hoped to start on mine soon.

I also really wanted to know about the ride meeting.  At endurance rides, the ride meetings are the night before the ride.  At CTRs, it's anyone's guess, apparently.  No one I asked had any idea.  Finally, someone suggested that it might be in the morning before the ride.  What?!  So I asked what time.  No idea.  I started twitching a bit at this point.  I have been really trying and mostly succeeding at a going-with-the-flow lifestyle.  I try not to set too many appointments because it can be challenging to get to them on time and it stresses me out to try.  (It's amazing how quickly a toddler can end up naked or not know what happened to her red shoes and refuse to wear any other shoes when you have to leave the house in 5 minutes.)  But even with training and endurance rides, I feel like I have the general idea and I don't sweat the details whenever possible.  At this point, though, I was really feeling stressed.  Not having the information from the ride meeting really upset me.  I didn't know how the trail would be marked.  I didn't know how the two loops would work (assuming there were two loops and not one big loop).  I didn't know where the P&R area would be or where I could leave my crew bag so I could have food for Nimo during the hold.  No one else knew these things either.  Unlike me, though, it didn't seem to bother them a bit.

As luck would have it, the ladies camping next to me invited me to their dinner, which was really delicious.  We chatted for maybe a couple of hours (and I grilled them with questions, many of which they did not know the answers to...), but after the sun went down, the temperature got quite cold and we all headed to our warmer trailers and tents with heaters.  I hung out in my tent for awhile reading (and checking the rules again) and getting warmed up with my heater.  A little after 10, I checked on Nimo.  Then I read some more while I waited for the propane tank on my heater to run out because I was planning on going through the night without it.  The temperature was cool - maybe mid-40s, but I just didn't think I was going to need the heater to be comfortable for sleeping, so I just wanted to run the tank down, which it did around 11.

By then, a light rain was falling.  I knew from the forecast that it would continue all night and all of the next day, but having just done a ride in the rain, that was one thing I wasn't too concerned about.  Somehow, I managed to fall asleep and spend a blissful 3 hours in a row sleeping.  I woke up around 2 and checked on Nimo.  The rain had stopped for awhile and the temperature didn't feel too bad.  I dozed on and off, being perfectly warm without my heater, got up at 4:30, snuggled in bed a bit longer, and finally got up a little after 6.  The ride didn't start until 9, and I knew horses were going to be vetted in that morning.  Apparently, some people just come the morning of the ride (these are certifiably crazy people!).

After feeding Nimo his breakfast and checking to make sure he was dry under his sheet, I headed over to the registration area to get coffee.  There was no coffee yet.  At 6:30 a.m.  I reminded myself one more time that I was in a different environment and to get over it.  I took Nimo for a half hour walk to stretch and graze.  By 7-ish, there was coffee.  But no word yet on the ride meeting.  I was informed it would be at some point before the ride after everyone finished vetting in.  That point in time was as yet unknown.

I headed back to my tent and changed into my riding clothes and got last minute things ready.  I added a couple of things to my crew bag and saddle bags.  I put the trail map in a ziploc bag and I donned my super raincoat.  I had worn a lesser raincoat for morning chores because the tall grass and rain was impossible to escape.  I figured I would put my riding stuff on just before getting Nimo ready so I could start the ride as dry as possible.

At about 8:15, I wandered down to the registration area one more time to check on a ride meeting.  If there wasn't one yet, I needed to get Nimo ready.  While I was there, finally, someone said the ride meeting would be starting in 5 minutes.

And so, at about 8:30 am, the ride meeting finally started.  The ride manager explained how the trail was marked and that we would do the same 13-mile loop twice from the same direction.  I guess normally the loop was done in one direction the first time and in reverse the second time. That sounded like a disaster waiting to happen in terms of trail markings, so I was glad to be doing it the same direction.  Then there was a heated discussion about how much time we had to complete the trail.  And how much time the hold would be.  In the end, it was decided that the hold would only be 20 minutes because it wasn't hot outside.  And to be honest, I never did understand what the optimal time was.  It was either 4 hours and 10 minutes to 4 hours and 40 minutes or 4 hours and 20 minutes to 4 hours and 50 minutes.  I gave up and decided it didn't matter to me anyway.  Then, I found out that the start order that I'd been given in writing the afternoon before was out-of-date and I would be starting with a different group at an unknown time.  That's right, people.  I wasn't given a start time.  (FYI to non-CTR folks, there is a different starting process for CTRs.  Instead of starting all at once - or just at some point within 10-15 minutes of the official start time, each rider has a different start time or starts in small groups.  At this ride, I originally thought I was going out in the second group of 5 and found out I'd be going out in the third group of 4.)  And there was no discussion of where the P&R area was or where I could put my crew bag.

At 8:45, the meeting was over and I was in a state of panic.  I thought that the delay in the ride meeting would delay the start of the ride, and it didn't.  The ride started in 15 minutes and my horse wasn't ready.  No one else was saddled either, but I guess they must work faster than I do.

I moved as fast as I could back to the trailer, but it was hard going in the mud.  I grabbed Nimo and started throwing on tack as fast as I could while hyperventilating.  I tried to keep the sheet over him and the saddle so things wouldn't get wet and I added a rump rug because he was clipped and it was still cool outside.  Somehow, I got Nimo ready and got mounted.  The time was 9:08.

I tried to move Nimo forward to rush to the start line and he froze.  He wouldn't move at all.  Finally, I got a step or two, but his back felt like a block of wood.  After a couple of minutes of him not wanting to move and me frantically trying to remember if I'd done something stupid like forget to put the saddle pad on, I decided that maybe he was reacting to the rump rug.  I've ridden him in quarter sheets before, but not for a long time, so I thought maybe it was bothering him.  Luckily, I'd tied it on using quick release knots, so I had off of him in seconds.  But that wasn't it.

I tried to breathe and calm down and relax because I thought maybe my panic was feeding in to him.  Finally, I got him moving and after a few strides, he seemed to settle and his back started to feel better.  We made it to the start line at 9:12.  That's when I was informed that my start time was 9:07.  Great.  Good to know.  Thanks.

I had missed my group and we were starting alone.  I didn't know what that meant for Nimo's behavior.  As it turned out, that horse was a blessed saint.  He walked the first 10 minutes out of the start.  Normally, I wouldn't have walked him so long, but because we'd had zero chance to warm up, I felt like I had to in order to allow him to warm up properly, especially because of what I'd felt in his back when I first got on.  Even though he could see horses in front of us (the start was along a field) and one of those horses was a complete basketcase (whose rider had gotten off and eventually decided to lead him back to camp), he walked.  And I finally calmed down and got myself together.

And then I asked him to trot and he switched gears, but not in a bad way.  He was pretty forward, but not out-of-control, and in no time, we caught up to a pair of riders and soon passed them.  We played leap-frog a bit with those riders as well as another group (I think the group that started after us) for a few miles, but eventually, we settled into a pace with a group of 5 other riders.  They were going pretty much exactly the pace that I wanted to go and I didn't think we could maintain enough speed to pass for good, so we rode with them for the majority of the loop.

The loop was mostly hills over grass, with a couple of sections through woods and on roads.  The wooded sections were the worst because the slick mud made them almost impossible to trot.  In fact, I thought Nimo pulled a tendon/ligament on one section because he felt almost 3-legged lame to me.  I was trying to figure out what to do because we were on a very steep hill with very bad footing.  Nimo seemed really willing to move forward, so I decided to wait until we got to the top.  Once we did and the footing got better, Nimo was fine, so I think it was just so slick that he couldn't keep traction.  At that point, we were on our own, so I don't know if anyone else had that much trouble with it, but I was glad to see that section of trail go.

Probably about 8 miles into the loop, the group I was riding with thought we might not be on the trail, so we had a consultation.  My opinion was that we were good because I remembered from the ride meeting that there was a 2-3 mile section of trail in some kind of park/preserve area where the only trail markings would be those of the park, not the ride.  We were supposed to follow the red arrows.  Which we were.  A couple of other riders caught up to us while we were milling around and discussing and assured us that we were correct - they knew the trails and the ride.  Reassured, we moved out.

It was at this point that Nimo had enough with the stopping and milling and slow trotting.  He really wanted to trot on.  The ladies who had caught up to us were in the front of our group now, and I moved Nimo over to pass them on the right.  I was a couple of horse lengths behind them and I literally had my mouth open to say that I would be passing, and one of the horses in front of us started acting up and moving sideways.  I leg-yielded Nimo over as well to try to stay out of the way, but I didn't think I could stop because there were several people trotting at a pretty good speed behind us.  The horse in front kept crow-hopping and moving over, so I kept moving Nimo too.  I wasn't sure what was going on.  We were fairly close, but not close enough to be rude, so I wasn't sure if the horse was reacting to Nimo or just reacting.  I'd seen at least two horses completely lose it so far, so it wouldn't have been unexpected for another one to freak out.  Finally, the rider said the horse didn't like to be passed.  Her partner said what I was thinking, which is maybe that you shouldn't ride at the front of a group and that they either had to go faster or move behind the group.  I guess they decided to slow down, which was a wise choice given the footing.

Nimo did not make the same choice.  Once I gave him the OK to move out, he took off at his fastest trot.  There was one horse in front of us and we passed him.  Then the two horses played leap-frog with each other for the next several miles.  Nimo had a really bad slip coming around a turn that pretty much stopped my heart and after that he agreed to back off a bit, but both horses ended up being well-matched in pace.  A third horse from the group I'd been riding with eventually joined us and the three of us rode loosely together for the rest of the loop, leaving the rest of group behind.

We trotted as much of the trail as we could, only slowing down for the section in the woods a couple of miles out from the finish line.  It was the same section we'd done at the beginning of the ride that made me think Nimo was lame, and it was not more fun going down than up.  Nimo ended up trotting with his front legs and sliding on his hind legs to get down.  It was actually a very balanced movement that was easy to ride, but the theory behind had my brain screaming a bit.

It was shortly after that point that the three of us realized we were probably not on the right trail.  On CTRs, the trail includes count-down mile markers for the last 5 miles.  The last one we'd seen was for 3 miles to go and we knew we should have seen the 2 mile marker by that time.  I knew from the map that there was a short section of trail that was the same on the way out and the way back, but it seemed like we'd been on the same trail for longer than a short section.  But here was the kicker.  The trail was marked correctly for the direction we were going in.  The trail was mostly marked with ribbons, but for most of the turns, there were separate signs, marked with blue rectangles to indicate the direction of the turn and then that you were going straight after the turn.  And we had those markers facing us.  And we could see that there were other markers facing the other way.  So we couldn't figure out what was going on.  We were convinced we weren't on the right trail, but the trail markers said we were.

Eventually, we gave up trying to figure out what happened, because we had no way of knowing when we'd gone of the trail.  And there was no way I wanted to put Nimo through going up that steep, muddy hill in the woods again just for the possibility that we might discover where we went off trail.  And with CTRs, the time is so tight to complete the trail (only a half hour leeway) and we were really pushing the bounds of what was theoretically possible, so all three of us decided to just finish the ride by following the trail back to camp.

It was a sort of anti-climactic ride from that point on.  I knew for the last 2-3 miles that we wouldn't be getting a completion for the ride, but Nimo still was happy to keep going and had no idea that his rider had screwed up.  We finished the loop (with at least an extra mile according to my GPS) two and a half hours after we should have started (remember that we started 5 minutes late).

The volunteer near the start line tried to explain to us where we went wrong on the trail (how he could possibly know, I'm not sure, but maybe we weren't the first ones to go off the trail) and assured us we could ride back out to the place we'd left the right trail and still complete the loop, but that would have meant riding out for as much as 3 miles, thereby adding up to 6 miles to our first loop and making it impossible to finish on time (there is a half hour "grace period" before and after the optimal time that just means you accumulate points for coming in over time, but I didn't think we could even make that if we hadn't messed up the loop).  Had we not gone off trail, I would have tried to complete the second loop, but given our time, it is unlikely we would have been able to get a completion anyway.  With a 20 minute hold, we would have been at 2 hours and 50 minutes in going out for the second loop.  That would mean doing the 13 mile loop in 2 hours or less to finish within the optimal time.  And even if Nimo could have done exactly what he did the first time, we would still be cutting it crazy close to the cut off for the grace period.

But I want to say something about our time here, because I know that doing 13 (or 14 if we're going to be exact) miles in 2 and a half hours doesn't seem that impressive.  However, as we were coming in, a lady was going out.  I overheard the volunteers say she was the first person back out on the trail (there were maybe 5 or 6 riders in the P&R and vetting area at that point).  Assuming she had only been there for 20 minutes for the hold (for CTRs, your hold time starts the minute you come in to camp, not after you pulse-down as it does for endurance rides), that means we were only 20 minutes behind the first rider, who had absolutely left before we did (as much as 12 minutes before we did), because no one passed us on the trail except for the 2 people I finished with.  So in my mind, that means that Nimo did exactly what he was supposed to do and went as fast as he could based on the trail conditions, and when I realized that, I was pretty proud of him.

So now let's talk for just a minute about the hold process.  Unlike endurance rides that have crewing areas near the P&R and vet areas, so riders can give their horses food and water, this ride did not have anything like that.  The P&R area was literally some tall grass.  No water for the horses, no place for rider supplies.  And given how long it takes to vet through (I waited more than 10 minutes for 2 horses in front of me to be examined despite the shorter process used for the mid-ride holds that is similar to endurance rides, and I didn't even have to go through P&R because I was essentially disqualified for going off trail), I can't imagine how a person could even get through the hold in 20 minutes.  I think if you came in with a small group or a number of people came in close together, you could need as much as 30-40 minutes just because of how long it takes to get vetted and that doesn't include any time to take care of your horse (or yourself).  I think it is possible that the expectation is that you will feed and water your horse and yourself on the trail, so the hold is literally just to make sure your horse is pulsed down and fit to continue.  But I really wasn't mentally prepared for that and Nimo went as fast as he could for the trail conditions (he even did a couple of short canters!), so there was no time for him to eat and drink on the trail.  Part of the issue was the footing.  It was just too muddy in certain places to trot, but normally we would have been able to.  Also, given our late start and the need to walk Nimo a bit more at the beginning because of now warm-up time, we started the loop in the hole.  And the extra mile or so we did because we went off trail certainly didn't help our time.

Anyway, I probably got a huge point deduction just for Nimo's bad behavior at the vetting (Horse Turns into Crazy Lunatic: -107 points).  As luck would have it, while we were waiting, three of the group members that we had ridden with for the majority of the loop went back out right next to us.  And Nimo lost his shit.  He was hysterical that he couldn't go with them, nevermind that he wasn't even wearing a saddle or bridle at that point.  So he would not stand still for the vet to get his heart rate or listen to his gut sounds.  Eventually, the vet might have either given up (although he told me he got what he needed) or saw the look on my face, which by that time was possibly approaching something significantly worse than Resting Bitch Face, and decided discretion was the better part of valor.  I actually had to beat Nimo to get him to go back to the trailer because he was so determined to go back out on the trail, with or without me (Rider Beats Horse: -243 points).

So there you have it.  Our completely failed attempt at doing a CTR.  I know that I have readers who are successful at CTRs (and who presumably enjoy it).  You have my utmost admiration.  I could not do what you do.  In fact, if I never ever end up within 100 miles of a CTR again, it will be too soon.  Ever.  Seriously EVER.

I cannot handle the uncertainty of when the vetting starts.  I cannot handle the length of time it takes to go through the vetting process.  I find the idea of deducting points for real or perceived deficiencies in my horse before I even saddle him to be psychologically demoralizing (unlike endurance events where your horse will typically get all A's for a similar process, which creates a very different psychological effect).  I cannot handle having the ride meeting start and end just before I'm supposed to be out on the trail.  Yes, in the future, I could saddle my horse before the ride meeting (assuming I knew when it would start), but then I leave him for 20-30 minutes in a state of not knowing what's going on, so I'm just passing the issue from me to him.  I cannot handle the idea that the duration of the hold and the optimal time of the ride may not be determined until after a 5-10 minute discussion at the ride meeting.  I cannot handle a 20 minute hold whose sole purpose is to somehow get my horse to be vetted.  I cannot handle the "optimal" pace requirement.  In an endurance ride, a quicker pace during the first loop nets either finishing the ride a little early or being able to slow down during the second loop or even taking a bit more time during the hold if needed.  And I don't know how the end of ride vet check works, but I'm going to assume it would annoy me at least as much as the first one, so I'm going to go out on a limb and say that I can't handle that either.  Plus, the lunch that is included with the ride entry isn't available until after 3 pm.  By then, I have already starved to death because of all the energy I previously expended on being stressed.

But lest you feel sorry for me because I am easily stressed and annoyed or because you think I may have wasted my time on this ride, let me assure you that is not the case.  Despite how miserable the weather was, how crappy the footing was, how uncertain some processes were, and how long other processes took, I am very glad that I did this ride.

For one thing, I no longer have to wonder if I choose the wrong type of distance riding to start with.  I admit to a little part of me wondering if I really belonged in the endurance world with my horse who only does 25-30 mile rides and with my goal to merely finish a ride, rather than race my horse, especially after I read John Crandell's article.  I can now say with certainty that if a CTR had been my first ride, I would never have done a second one.  My goal is not to accrue points or be placed or win an award.  I don't care if I look like an idiot when I trot out my horse (Rider Can't Run in a Straight Line: -16 points; Also, Rider Can't Run in a Circle: -19 points).  It doesn't matter to me if we finish last (Rider Apathy: -7 points).  I left the world of showing long ago, and while I have dabbled a couple of times with dressage schooling shows in recent memory, I am pretty sure that I won't dabble any more unless I do something like show up with my horse in a bitless bridle, riding in a treeless non-dressage saddle, my horse barefoot and unbraided, and in an outfit that doesn't match.  I don't like unnecessary rules and procedures.  I don't want to be rushed when I'm trying to do something I love.  I do want to go out and ride the trail to the best of my horse's and my ability on that day, but I don't need a clock or a scoresheet hanging over my head while I do it.  Please understand that I'm not saying CTRs are a bad thing; I'm just saying they aren't for me.  Ever.  Seriously EVER.

And, after all the stress and rushing at the Cheshire ride, our upcoming endurance ride (the OD 25 in June) seems literally like a luxury ride when it used to send me into spasms of terror.  I mean all I have to do is ride 25 miles, which includes a bit of climbing and a bunch of trotting downhill and going over a few rocks.  There's no training my horse to do perfect circles with a clicker command.  There's no trying to convince my horse to get himself even more hydrated for a skin pinch test.  There's no working with him so he isn't ticklish at his girth area.  We just have to ride.  Which is what I want to do, and based on Nimo's reaction at not being able to go back out on the trail, what he wants to do too.

Finally, I learned that I really can drive my truck and trailer through mud.  Leaving camp after the continuous rain that the area has been having for weeks and most especially the day of the ride meant that there was a new challenge.  I thankfully put my truck in 4-wheel drive to pull out of the wet grass we were parked in, thinking that would be the worst of my problems.  I realized my mistake when I pulled out on to the "road" leading the the exit.  A lady had actually exploded past me as I was just starting to pull forward (it wasn't her fault - she had parked down the hill and really needed a lot of momentum, so she couldn't slow down or she risked getting stuck and she likely started her ascent well before I started mine), so I ended up following her down the hill.  Which was less than optimal.

The road had quickly turned into a quagmire and as I watched, the trailer in front of me began to slide at the bottom of the hill.  Somehow the driver was able to keep going, but I wasn't sure for how much longer.  Just after I passed the vetting area and volunteer tent, my trailer slid left and kept sliding.  My truck started fishtailing and my dashboard started flashing, telling me that I didn't have good traction for either of my axles (thank you, oh Nissan, God of the Obvious).  But I knew if I stopped, we'd be stuck, and I'll be honest, I really didn't want to spend any more time at that particular location.  So I kept my foot on the accelerator and watched as giant globs of mud started flying more than 10 feet in the air as my tires spun and struggled to find purchase in the ever-deeper mud.  (I sincerely apologize to those volunteers whose cars are now coated in mud.  Hopefully, the rain washed it off over time.)  Somehow, despite the fact that I don't think I had much control over either the truck or trailer, the whole rig proceeded forward.  In fact, we were proceeding forward slightly more quickly than the truck and trailer in front of me.  Which gave me something new to worry about.  If the lady in front of me got stuck, I might hit her.  I started willing both her truck and mine to keep going and because we both must be awesome drivers (or plain stupid, I'm not sure which), we both made it out.  Whether anyone made it out behind us is anyone's guess, though.

I breathed a sigh of relief when I got to pavement (Nimo probably did too!), and we made it all the way back to the barn in 4 hours without any more issues.  And therein ends my brief foray into the competitive trail ride world.  May those of you who continue to do it be blessed with healthy horses, beautiful presentation skills, endless patience, and nerves of steel:)