Sunday, September 22, 2013

Breaking the 10-Mile Barrier

I realize that for people who routinely compete in 50 mile rides, 10 miles probably seems like nothing.  But for someone who has mostly done arena work and 3-5 mile trail rides for years and years, 10 miles seems like a big deal.  It didn't used to be a big deal for me when I was a kid and probably rode my horse 10-12 miles several days a week.  But, now that I'm older, any ride that lasts longer than an hour and a half starts to tread on the territory of "Are my hips supposed to feel like that?" and "Why is my back sore?"

Anyway, I decided to take the plunge this weekend and break the 10-mile barrier that is mostly in my brain.  Last weekend, we put in 17 miles, with 9 on Saturday and 8 on Sunday, so I thought we were ready to transition from spreading the miles over 2 days and just do longer rides on one day, with more of a rest during the week.  I originally planned to do 11 miles at the Shenandoah National Park and do some serious climbing.  However, the weather forecast changed my mind.  Apparently, the area was expecting a mild cold front preceded by a lovely band of storms.  The meteorologist explained that the storm was moving at an unpredictable speed, but his best guess was rain starting around 10 am on Saturday in the Shenandoahs with rain hitting DC around 3 pm.  Great.  I wasn't super comfortable with the idea of being by myself out in the mountains on the longest ride I've done yet over pretty rugged terrain.

So, I opted to ride at the Shenandoah River State Park, which is actually near the National Park, but has much less rugged terrain.  Plus, the trails are looped in such a way that if things got bad, I could get back to the trailer within 2-3 miles at any given time.  And since the trails are easier there, I decided to add another mile to the ride.  (At this point, if Nimo could read this blog, he would be demanding input into the decision-making process...)

Because I still am not focused on speed, I knew it would probably take us about 4 hours to do 12 miles, so I packed a variety of horsey snacks and a PB&J for me.  I had thought about bringing a beverage other than water for me, but the coconut water that I bought as a healthy option turned out not to be something that I enjoyed.  I figure the most important thing during our rides is to bring snacks and beverages that appeal to both of us, so we keep hydrated and fueled.  I also had to be cognizant of the fact that it was likely to be raining/storming during our ride, so I unearthed a supposedly water-proof light jacket and some plastic bags to keep my cell phone and map dry.

After throwing a bunch of crap in the truck, I headed out the door.  I had initially imagined that I might get out to the park before 10 am so that I could at least get saddled and start the ride while it was still dry out.  This was a serious miscalculation on my part.  Apparently, I failed to factor in that I have a one-year old who eats a better variety of foods than I ever have and a husband who is baffled about how to select such foods.  So, after solving a multitude of household problems, I finally headed out the door around 8:30.

And I soon learned that the meteorologist didn't know anything about predicting weather.  It was already raining as I drove to the barn.  Luckily, it was light rain and sort of let up while I hooked up the trailer and loaded my tack.  Nimo definitely gave me the eyeball look that said, "Did you know it's supposed to rain today?  Why are we riding in the rain?  I think that you might be an idiot.  Why didn't I get a better owner?"

But, I'm an endurance rider now, so I ride in anything, right?  This is what our destination looked like as I drove out to it.

It still looked like that as I got closer:

I did take heart because the sky was more of a pale, cloudy color rather than the deep blue-gray of an angry storm, so I hoped that we would just have rain and not storms.

As an aside, here is what my horse looks like after he has apparently fully recovered from his weight-loss incident:

As you can see, he is a perfectly good weight now.  I wish I had taken a before photo to show how sunken his flanks were and how his back was a shelf with no muscle or fat over it at all.  I am so surprised at how quickly he bounced back.  And of course, he's busy stuffing his face like he'll never see food again, which is pretty typical.

Back to the ride...I recently got a Deluxe Stowaway Pommel Pack from Easy Care when I ordered a bunch of other stuff.  I needed something a little bigger so I could start packing snacks for Nimo, and I figured this would work.  Here's how it looks on Nimo, although it's a little hard to see with the jacket I strapped to it.

I packed three water bottles, a small ziploc bag of feed for Nimo, an apple, 4 carrots, a random plastic bag in case I needed to try Funder's idea of lining my helmet so I could offer my horse a drink of water, a paper plate that I sort of folded accordion style to use to feed Nimo off of, a hoof pick, needle-nosed pliers, and extra buckle locking pins for my Easyboots, just in case.  There was still a little bit of room, but I ended up packing my sandwich in my waist bag, along with my cell phone, map, and pocket knife.

I should mention that it was not, in fact, raining yet at the park.  I drove through some rain to get there, but it looked like the rain hadn't gotten to this area yet.  Whew!  So, off we headed on our journey.

The ride pretty much went as planned until I got to the river section of the trail.  My plan was to do about 9 miles in the forest with the more difficult trails and do about 3 miles in the middle of the ride by the river.  The river trails are pretty flat, so it would be a nice break.  Plus, there is a lot of nice grass, and I figured we could stop for a snack there.

That didn't happen.  For one thing, when we got to the open space, Nimo acted like we were in some kind of danger zone.  He got hyper-alert and snorty, which was weird.  The only thing I can think is that we could hear some people obviously having a ridiculous amount of fun on the water, but we couldn't see them, so maybe Nimo was having trouble figuring out what the sound was.

I had planned to do some trotting since these were easy trails, and what we did instead was amped up trotting for 20-50 feet followed by an unpredictable and abrupt halt as Nimo repeatedly tried to tell me that I was asking him to go into unsafe territory.  It was totally obnoxious.  And, as it turned out, completely on the mark.

As we were getting close to the point of turning around, we happened upon a group of people sitting by the river with their very large Rottweiler.  They were partially hidden by bushes and just as we came into view of the dog, I thought, "I wonder if..."  I didn't have time to finish my thought because that dog jumped up and came at us snarling, growling, and barking.  Any thoughts I had were left in that spot because Nimo did an abrupt 180 spin and bolted for the next county as the dog chased us, still growling and barking.

As Nimo ran, I had time to wonder if he could actually outrun a Rottweiler because we don't actually practice running.  I also wondered how much longer I could hang on because Nimo's spooky gallop is ridiculously bouncy and wobbly as he tries to decide whether he's going to keep going in the direction he's already going or abruptly change direction.  I knew I'd be screwed if he did anything other than a straight line because my balance wasn't stable.

Luckily, the dog's owner managed to call him off.  I got Nimo slowed down and assessed the situation.  Boots?  Check.  Pommel pack?  Check.  Saddle?  Check.  Rider?  Check.  Extreme amounts of adrenaline?  Check.  What could have been a bad fall turned out OK, probably because Nimo has spent the majority of his life trying to teach me better balance by routinely speed-trotting and halting unpredictably and by performing the spin and bolt at unexpected moments.  He actually used to buck while bolting too, but apparently has given that up with age.  He has only managed to unseat me once during a spin and bolt and that was because the saddle slipped.  I'm pretty sure I owe my breastcollar a lot at this point because I don't think the saddle would have held otherwise.

I should also mention that Nimo is no longer prone to spinning and bolting and that it was absolutely justified in this case.  I think if he had stayed in place, that dog would have attacked him.  Honestly, I'm not sure if even a very seasoned horse would have stayed with such a large dog coming at him from behind bushes while growling and barking.  It was definitely the kind of situation where millions of years of instincts overrode any training.

After getting my wits back, I thought about whether we should just call it a day and head back or if we should return to the scene of the crime so I could listen to the dog owner's heartfelt apology for nearly causing a bad accident.  My husband and I currently have a very "special" German Shepherd who is now a lovely dog, but was a basketcase from puppyhood who took years of training before she would feel comfortable on walks.  She was absolutely terrified of new people and dogs and when I would be out walking her, trying to work with her on her fear, we would be routinely assaulted by other people's dogs who were off the leash and running for us.  These owners would always yell, "Don't worry, he's friendly!"  Apparently, they couldn't understand how how their dog could be friendly, but mine wasn't.  I once gave a lecture to a woman whose 2 energetic border collies came running up to my terrified puppy, but I doubted it made a difference.  Our dog is now a joy to walk because she absolutely ignores any dog who is hysterically barking at her.  And, if like our idiot neighbors, someone lets their dog or dogs run loose in the yard and they come after our dog, all she does is quietly move away onto the street.

Anyway, my point is that I have listened to apology after apology from people with loose dogs and have very little patience for it anymore.  And in this case, I don't think the owner could even say the dog was friendly.  The fact is that the park requires dogs to be on a leash and the guy shouldn't have had his dog near a trail without a leash.  In the end, I decided to go back to the people so that Nimo could see we wouldn't be attacked again.  And yes, I was subjected to the apology and the explanation that the dog had never seen a horse before.  (Well then, don't leave your dog off-leash next to a horse trail...)  I accepted the apology, listened to how beautiful my horse was, and headed back out.

Here is a shot from the River Trail:

Unfortunately, Nimo was now too rattled to take the break to eat that I had planned, so we started back to the trailer.  I thought maybe if we did a hard climb, he'd use up his adrenaline, and would be settled enough to eat when we got to the top of the climb.  That turned out to be a good strategy.

I got off at the top of what is probably the most difficult climb in the park and gave Nimo an apple and some carrots.  I also had brought some of his feed.  When I offered it to him, I got the instant message that any snacks on the trail are to be special and that his regular feed is unacceptable.  Apparently, I will be driving to the feed store today to find something tasty:)

I stayed on the ground and just walked Nimo for about half a mile while I ate my sandwich.  After finding a downed tree to use as a mounting block, I got back on and we started the last 5 miles of our ride.  At this point, it started raining.  Luckily, riding in the forest has its benefits.  The canopy kept most of the rain from reaching us, the temperature dropped a couple of degrees, and the extreme mugginess dried out, making the remainder of our ride quite pleasant.  I never needed my jacket, and Nimo was able to cool down after a sweaty climb.

We ended up doing 12.3 miles in 4 hours, and aside from the crazy dog, I was pretty happy with the way things went.  Nimo was a little tired, but otherwise in good shape after the ride.  I'm giving him a couple of days off and planning to try to hit 15 miles next weekend.  My strategy has been to get the distance before speed, so if we can do 15 miles next weekend, I will have 2 additional weeks to add intensity and speed before the Old Dominion Intro 15 mile ride I'm planning to do on Oct. 26.  I realize that isn't a lot of time, but the ride we're going on isn't competitive and is meant as an introduction, so I'm not too worried about having Nimo at the top of his game.  I just want to make sure he can do the distance.

One weekend before the Intro Ride is reserved for an endurance clinic.  We will be doing a short practice ride that weekend, but I don't expect Nimo to put in 15 miles after hauling to a clinic.  It'll be enough for him just to get the experience of going.  So, my plan is to do 15 miles of easier terrain next weekend, the clinic the following weekend, then 15 miles of real climbing, followed by 15 miles of easier terrain with some added trot work.  I'll probably just do one light ride in the middle of the week and then we're on for our first real ride!


  1. Ohhhh, the my-dog-is-friendly thing makes me nuts. I have two reactive dogs right now -- the young giant-headed one is reactive but social, the old one that everybody always gravitate towards was for the longest time reactive but...not. The people who used to _argue_ with me about whether their dog should meet mine were the worst. And even the one with impeccable dog/dog manners is still supposed to be paying attention to me while she's out in the world, and that's hard enough for her at this point without somebody else's dog all up in her face...

    I hate to be the fun police, but seriously, people!

    Er. :-p Congrats on your mileage accomplishment! Sounds like a pretty good outing, rude folks aside.

  2. I just love following your stories. I was facing the same challenges like, what, four years ago? and it's really cool to watch somebody else step up to it too. Good ride, good Nimo!

    Charging dogs are no fun. Hope the humans learned something. :( It's very considerate of your horse to have prepared you so well for a high-speed departure!

    1. Thanks, Funder! Your support has made a huge contribution to my motivation:)