Old Dominion hosted an Intro Endurance Ride in conjunction with its final ride of the season, a 30/30/50/50. The intro ride was set up to be 16 miles and to follow the second loop of the 50 mile ride. Apparently, it is typical for this loop to include the Indian Graves section of trail, which is notorious for its difficulty. Luckily, that section of the trail was replaced with something easier, and I heard several riders say they were very happy about the new trail.
While I could have set up camp the day before the ride, I really wasn't ready for horse camping yet, so I planned to arrive the morning of the ride, which was scheduled to begin at noon. My day started off at 6 am and we were on the road by 8:30. I had hoped to arrive by 10, so we would have 2 hours to settle and get ready. And, I probably would have met that goal if a piece of my hitch hadn't fallen off at exit #6 on I-66 west.
I have a weight distributing hitch for my trailer because the max tongue weight is 1,000 lbs, which is pretty substantial. Also, because it is an all-steel trailer and my horse is pretty big, I think the hitch helps stabilize everything. When I had hooked everything up that morning, I noticed the latch on one of the bars that connects to the trailer from the truck didn't feel quite right, but when I attached it, it seemed to be stable. But, I guess it really wasn't. I'm not really sure how it could even fall off, but apparently it did. Luckily, the car behind me was able to avoid it and I was able to get pulled over, so I could retrieve it. Because I had hauled the trailer without the weight-distributing portion of the hitch, I figured I could just keep going and investigate the situation later, but I did wonder if it was an omen...
Our trip out to ridecamp included a 12 mile section of Fort Valley Road, which is a constantly twisting road that goes through George Washington Forest. I felt terrible for the line of cars behind us, but there was no way to negotiate those turns with any speed while hauling a horse. And thanks to the tip from the organizer of the Intro Ride, we knew to take the second turn onto Seven Fountains Road instead of the first turn, thus saving us a nail-biting trip through an even worse road and crazily-narrow bridge. Apparently, the general directions do not make this information known...maybe due to a sick sense of humor???
We managed to arrive a little after 10. This is the ridecamp:
I didn't have any idea where the vet check was, but I didn't think we would be doing a vetting for this ride, and I had my bladder to consider, so I found a spot close to a water trough for the horses and a porta-potty:) At this point, I tried to check in, but I couldn't find anyone to check in with, so I unloaded and got Nimo set up with hay and water. There was supposed to be a ride briefing at 11, and I wanted to make sure I had my saddle packs ready to go, Nimo brushed, and all 4 boots on before then. No problem.
But where was the ride meeting? I went to the logical location - the main tent where other ride activities were held, but that wasn't right. I asked around, and no one knew anything about it. I finally figured out where the vet check was and headed over there to ask. I hated to bother anyone, but I was getting worried about finding the briefing. At the vet check, someone pointed me to the Ride Manager. Surely she would know? And that would be a no.
The Ride Manager had no idea about anything that was related to the Intro Ride. I would like to insert a comment here. Please understand that I think it is great that OD hosted this Intro Ride, but it really sucked that no one knew anything about the organization of the ride. As someone who had never been to a ridecamp before, I was feeling overwhelmed already, and it sure would have been nice to have a sign at the entrance to the camp for the people coming for the Intro Ride. I had to wander around camp for quite a while and ask a lot of people for help who probably had more important things to do. The woman who organized the ride had sent an e-mail, but she said she would be parked near the vet check and described her truck as a white Dodge Ram 2500 diesel with a DD LQ trailer. Here's the thing. Most of the trucks were white, I have no idea what DD LQ means, and of course, I didn't know where the vet check area was. I wasn't the only one confused. I ran into a couple of other ladies who were as clueless as I was and eventually, we were able to figure out where the truck and trailer were. When we got there, we explained they had been a little tough to find, and all we got from the organizer was a snide comment about people not reading their e-mails. Not really the best note to start off on...
Anyway, I got checked in and discovered that 19 people had signed up for the ride. The original plan had been to ride the trail as a group with an average pace of 4 mph. Because there were so many people, the organizer opted to have us ride at our own pace with she and her son acting as drag riders and essentially setting a minimum pace of 4 mph. She told us to follow the signs for the 50 second loop and we would be fine. As I would later discover, these directions ended up not being complete enough.
I picked up the pink and black checkered ribbon to put in Nimo's tail that would designate us as newbies so competitive riders might take pity on us if they needed to pass, and I headed back to my trailer to get saddled up. I had enough time to get all my gear on and grab a bite to eat. I have to admit, my stomach was a little unsettled. I guess I was a little nervous about the trail. I'd heard how difficult it could be and I hoped that we could keep up. The pace would be a little faster than we typically ride and the distance would be one mile longer than the longest ride we've done, so I worried that our preparation wasn't enough.
Here's Nimo all ready to go:
And just a word about the saddle pad. It is one of my favorites because it is actually very well-made and durable, but the real reason I was riding in it was because it was the only clean one...I figured if endurance riders dress their horses up in all sorts of colors, I could at least have a flamboyant saddle pad:)
Here's the ribbon designating us as newbies:
We made our way over to the meeting place for the start of the ride. Our leader would be an experienced rider on an Appaloosa. After waiting for a few minutes, we were off. And the last I saw of our leader was her horse's butt as she sprinted up the steep hill that marked the start of the ride. Nimo tried to keep up, but trotting up substantial hills was not part of our conditioning work up to this point, and honestly, I really hadn't expected that it would ever be something we would do. I read Karon Chaton's post about longevity and one of the things she recommended was walking up steep hills and trotting once you get to the top. I am sometimes guilty of not taking perfectly good advice, but this tip as well as others she said made a lot of sense to me, and I honestly expected that an experienced rider would follow it. I was very wrong. Just minutes into the ride, Nimo and I were the only ones walking and the drag riders had already caught up to us. But there really wasn't anything I could do about it. Nimo was sweating the foamy sweat that tells me I'm pushing too hard and we still had 15 miles to go.
So we walked. When we finally got to the top of the mountain, the trail leveled off. Perfect for trotting, right? Not so much. It was crazy rocky. It was at this point that the drag riders started the lecturing that would continue for the rest of the ride...I was told that I really needed to trot my horse over this footing or I'd never make the pace for the ride.
Interjection: I don't have the space to go into everything, but there was a lot of talking about pacing and cooling. I don't think any other Intro Riders got these lectures. I'm positive that the young man giving me the information was doing it out of kindness and not to imply that I was stupid or incapable, but by the end of the ride, I was feeling a little bit like I appeared too stupid to ride my horse in a real ride without an extreme amount of help. I am beginning to think that because I'm riding a big horse, people feel compelled to give me information that they wouldn't feel necessary to give to people riding Arabs. The thing is, I do understand that I have a different set of challenges than most people doing endurance riding. On the other hand, it is extremely unlikely that I will have to worry about overworking my horse to the point that he ties-up or has other metabolic issues. His temperament just won't allow it. Having owned an Arab for many years, and having absolutely ridden her to the point were she overdid it and tied-up, I fully understand the problem. Arabs and other hot-blooded horses will work themselves to death without even being asked. They need to be monitored. My horse is very unlikely to do that. I found during the ride, that as he got more tired, he stopped wanted to keep up with horses in front of him and did a good job pacing himself. Enough said...
Not knowing what the rest of the ride terrain was, but thinking that this might be the best I was going to get, I was definitely thinking that endurance riding wasn't for us, and I was going to have to give up and head back.
One of the drag riders decided he would have his horse trot over the trail to show Nimo how it was done, thinking Nimo would follow him. Interestingly, his horse absolutely refused to trot. And this horse had been over the same trail the day before. Then, I asked Nimo to trot, pretty sure he wouldn't, and get this. He absolutely trotted! It was not easy going, he would slow down or walk when we got to some of the bigger boulders, but we did make it through at a quicker pace, leading the two drag horses.
However, I was pretty relieved when we got to the downhill portion of the trail where it was clearly inadvisable to trot. I have to admit, it was pretty rugged, and at some point going down the very-rocky, very downhill portion of the trail, the cable on Nimo's LF boot snapped. There was no good place to stop, though, and I was feeling intense pressure to keep moving. And this is the first time that I noticed Nimo was definitely more sure-footed and faster-moving than the horses we had caught up with. That's right. Several riders who had trotted up that first climb were now lagging behind and we caught up to them and really wanted to pass them, but we couldn't because there was no room.
Out of curiosity, I waited to deal with the boot with the snapped cable to see how long it would stay on. It continued to stay on through more downhill, rocky trails and even some trotting - at least a mile, maybe more. Finally, we got to a place where riders were beginning to separate due to different rates of speed and there was a good place to get off and replace the boot. A couple riders waited for me, which was really nice, and I got back on and we were on our way. I'm sure the organizer had some choice words for me in her head as she waited because she had made her views on boots pretty clear, and they weren't positive. I knew I was likely to snap at least one cable just because the force of my horse's giant feet, steep downhills, and crazy rocks were going to stress the hardware on the boots, but there is no way for me to find out how my boots perform on rides without taking them on rides.
As it turned out, my fears that the crazy rocks would litter the entire 16 miles were unfounded. We actually encountered some gravel roads and just nice trails with minimal rocks. There were also miles of less steep elevation changes that allowed us to do some trotting without Nimo getting too overworked. The only real problem I had for the next many, many miles was that we were alternating with moving a little ahead of the drag riders to kind of being pushed along by them. I actually had my GPS on, so I was monitoring our pacing. It varied, but for all of the ride, until the very end, our average speed was over 4 mph. At one point, I think we were at 5.6 mph, which is actually a pretty legitimate speed for us, even at a real ride.
Again, I refer back to Karon Chaton's post, where she advises riding your own ride. I found that without a doubt, Nimo worked best when we were alone. If he could see horses ahead, he kept trying to go faster and if he could see horses behind, he tried to slow down. On our own, he did awesome. He happily trotted trails we'd never been on before on a completely loose rein at a reasonable speed. He negotiated small ditch/creek things that normally worry him without a problem.
At about 8 miles, I really wanted to stop and give Nimo something to eat and get a drink and a snack for me too. I had let a couple riders go ahead of us that we'd been riding with and waited for them to be out of sight, so we could stop. I also looked for an area with good stumps. When I found what looked like a good place, I got off and gave Nimo a couple of apples. I hoped to give him some Fibregized too, but the drag riders caught up to us and I felt pressured to keep moving. So I got back on...
The next few miles were fairly uneventful, until we encountered what I think is the steepest downhill descent we've ever done (and possibly that I've ever done on any other horse). It seemed like Man from Snowy River steep. And to top it off, halfway down, we ran into 2 bicyclists (WTF? Who in their right minds would ride a bike UP that hill?). And guess what? They also had an unleashed Rottweiler. Some of you may remember my experience with an unleashed Rottweiler at Andy Guest Park a few weeks ago. And judging by Nimo's attitude, he remembered too.
The bicyclists had nicely pulled off the trail for us, but there was one on each side, forming a bicycle tunnel. And the owner of the dog had a hold of the dog's collar, but the dog was growling and lunging. And I had nowhere to go but forward. Riders were coming behind us and there was no room on the side of the trail. If my horse decided to blow up, it was going to be bad. I just tried to keep Nimo moving forward one step at a time, and somehow, we made it. Big sigh of relief:)
A little later, we encountered this lovely flat trail with nice footing, and we just trotted along. A couple of riders were still behind us, but I felt like we were going at their pace. Just when I decided we needed to walk for a bit, I asked if the riders behind would like to pass. They declined, opting to take a water break instead. I decided to keep going, and once again wrestled with my saddle pack to get a drink. For some reason, up until that point, I had been completely stupid about getting my drink out of the pack. I wrestled and swore at it because I couldn't get the bottle out. Why was the stupid strap that kept the bottle in so tight? How had it been so easy to get the bottle in the pack in the first place? Eureka! It's because the strap has VELCRO on it. Idiot, you can just pull the strap up to release the bottle. Wow, it really is true that you lose IQ points out on the trail. Of course, I think typically, the IQ loss doesn't start so early...
A few minutes later, I had another epiphany. Lately, I've been getting this terrible pain in my neck/upper back after riding. I've been getting physical therapy every week for it, but I was trying to figure out why. I realized it's because my damn helmet is so heavy! I love my helmet, which is a Charles Owen, black velvet covered helmet, but the thing has got to go. On long rides, it's killing me. I need to get something super light weight and soon. Mystery solved.
Then, I got to a fork in the trail, and there was no obvious choice. I walked one way a little bit looking for a ribbon and then the other way. No ribbons. It appeared that one way went to a house, so I decided the other way made more sense, although I knew at least part of the trail was on private land. It turns out that I made the correct choice. I found some ribbons and then a lovely volunteer making sure riders were going the right direction at another turn in the trail. It was so nice to see his smiling face!
And Nimo seemed to sense we were in the homestretch. We had about 5 miles to go, and he happily trotted up a gentle hill, keeping us ahead of the riders we left behind. Eventually, they caught up to us and passed, but they didn't end up being ahead for long. There weren't a lot of opportunities for trotting because the terrain was a sort of rolling, forest path. At one point, the lead horse needed to stop for a rest, signaling that she was getting tired...
When we had about 4 miles to go, we got to a section of trail where the choices were to take the 50 loop 2 or follow the sign to the vet check. I'd seen the sign before and was confused. Were we supposed to do the loop again? I had forgotten that all vet checks were at the ridecamp, and I wasn't quite certain where we were. Luckily, I was with the drag riders at this point, so they told me to follow the Vet Check sign. And then the discussion about whether the other riders would have figured that out ensued. And there was an assessment that hopefully, they would eventually figure it out if they kept taking the loop. And there was a comment that any Intro Rider who was behind at this point would be on their own...Not cool at all. I'm still a little angry about this. The Intro Ride trail should have been clearly marked. It's an Intro Ride, for God's sake. You have to assume that you've got inexperienced riders on the trail. Plus, we hadn't gotten a map and I know this information wasn't given at the ride briefing...If I had been on my own, I'm not sure what I would have done.
We continued riding with these 2 ladies and the drag riders until the final climb. Brutally, with only 3 miles to go, we got to what I consider to be the most difficult climb of the ride. It was the mountain we'd gone down at the beginning of the ride that had caused my boot cable to snap. The other two ladies were in front of us and the drag riders were behind us. I could tell pretty quickly that Nimo was moving at a faster pace. The lead horse kept having to stop to rest. I could have asked to pass, but it wasn't a competition, we were near the end, my horse was doing great, and we had nothing to prove. However, at one point, it became clear that the lead horse was really having trouble and her rider asked if Nimo could go in front. I guess she thought her horse was just tired of leading. I admit it is hard work to lead, but that horse was just plain done in. Nimo, on the other hand, was not.
We haven't done a huge amount of steep climbing, but I suspect we'd done quite a bit more than those ladies. Here's what the trail looked like:
Also, we'd ridden more conservatively, so my horse had something left to give. So, I moved Nimo up front, and we left those riders behind. He powered up the mountain, only taking a couple of short breaks, one of which allowed me to take this picture:
There wasn't any final ceremony for the Intro Ride, which was kind of disappointing. I would have liked to have visited with other riders who participated to get their thoughts. I think a lot of them were actually experienced riders maybe on green horses. I say that just because of the tack they had and the speed they went.
So here are my final conclusions on the ride.
1. That OD hosted the ride at all. I don't think it's common to offer Intro Rides, and it was great to go a shorter distance, learn the terrain, and just try out our equipment on a "real" ride.
2. Nimo did awesome. He was a rock star. He did a longer distance at a faster pace than we normally go, and he handled it really well. Now I know exactly what we need to do to improve and get ready for an LD. Also, I learned that Nimo is likely to move uphill more slowly and downhill more quickly than many other horses. I'll need to use that to our advantage on rides. I could have taken a longer break at 8 miles if I had been able to take advantage of Nimo's faster pace downhill.
Things That Could Be Improved
1. Provide better guidance at the ridecamp for people coming in for the Intro Ride would be great. Even though the bulk of the participants were probably experienced, it gives a bad impression to newbies to have to hunt for information. One sign at the entrance to ride camp explaining where the organizer's trailer was would have been great.
2. Give better directions for the trail, either with a map or signs on the trail. If I hadn't been with the drag riders at one point, I would have been seriously confused and could have ended up wandering around forever.
3. Have a check-in/check-out system for the Intro Ride. The organizer had no way of knowing if all the Intro Ride participants ever came back.
4. Offer a debrief for the ride, if riders want to stay, just to go over lessons learned and answer any questions.
As for our future plans, I'm giving Nimo a week off and then we'll do some shorter-distance "fun" rides in November. Starting in December, we'll get back to more disciplined conditioning work. I'd like to do a 25/30 in April next year, which is when the ride season starts in this area. I'm hoping to focus a little more on speed for December/January and then start adding climbing and distance back in for February/March. Our work will depend on the weather, though. If we have a typical mild winter, we'll have no problem keeping to a schedule, but if we have lots of snow/ice, I may need to adjust a bit. Anyway, I'm definitely ready for more!