Thursday, November 28, 2013

Cold weather riding

Winter arrived in Virginia last Sunday.  We went from typical fall weather to full-on winter temps overnight.  There was no transition, and we pretty much skipped the month of December.  Winter temps in Virginia usually aren’t too bad.  January and February can be chilly, with temps ranging from the teens at night to mid-thirties during the day, but there are typically quite a few warmer days with highs in the 40s and 50s.  However, apparently a colder than usual winter has been predicted, and so far, that is true.

I admit that I wasn’t ready.  I saw the forecast, but I made plans to meet a friend to ride on Sunday anyway.  I guess I was in denial.  But being in denial doesn't mean the thing you're worried about won't happen.

Sunday dawned frigid and windy.  By frigid, I mean 26 degrees and by windy, I mean gusts of probably 30 mph.  The high was only supposed to be 36 degrees.  We had made plans to ride at the Phelps Wildlife Management Area on Sunday because there is normally hunting there, but Sundays are no hunting days.  Phelps used to be quite low on my list of places to ride because we could never find the trails.  The last time we rode there, though, we finally started to figure things out, after trying several times, parking in different lots, and wandering around a lot.  For those readers who might theoretically ride there, the Sumerduck lot, which is just past the entrance to the park ranger's house as you head south on Sumerduck road, is the best parking lot we've found so far, with respect to access to the trails/roads.  I love that we have to pay to ride there, but no one can be bothered to use the money to produce either a useful map or mark any trails.

I kept expecting my riding buddy to text me and back out of our ride, but she never did, so I was forced into hooking up the trailer and loading my tack and horse.  I figured it probably wouldn't be too bad once we got riding, but that wind gave me some post-traumatic stress flashbacks to my life in ND, where the minimum wind is 25 mph and it goes up from there.  Winters can be particularly brutal with -30 temps plus nasty winds that create wind chills in the -60 to -80 degree range.  And yes, I've ridden in that weather because I was an idiot, but also because if you don't ride in that weather, you may not ride for awhile.

Anyway, we arrived at the park, saddled up, and started riding.  Perhaps stupidly, we went a different way than we had the last time.  But we're smart women, right?  (Actually, I'm one of the most directionally challenged people in the world, but even I can remember if I turned left or right at an intersection...)  We actually had a really great ride.  There were leaves on the ground, crunching as the horses stepped on them, which is one of my very favorite sounds.  Ever since I was a kid, I have loved riding through dead leaves in the fall.  We did some trotting on the hills and even did 2 short canters up hills.  WhooHoo!  One of my goals with Nimo is to start legitimate canter work on our conditioning rides, so this was a great start.  In fact, I think Nimo might have even galloped a few strides on our second canter, so I'm excited to start doing more canter work with him.

However, as we were riding back to the trailers, we realized that we were not on the right trail.  After trying a couple of different options, we eventually turned the decision-making over to my friend's horse.  He is a very centered Irish Draught Horse and we figured he might be the one most likely to find the trailer.  (My horse is happy as long as he can find something to eat, so he isn't really that inspired to find the trailer.)  And kudos to this lovely animal, because he absolutely found the way back.  It was not the way that we came, but we ended up riding for almost 2 and a half hours, so I was pretty happy to get back to the trailer any way we could.  Next time, I'm definitely bringing some clothes pins with ribbons to mark the turns, so we can find our way back more effectively.

Despite getting lost and the cold wind, it was definitely a fun ride.  And it gave me a chance to evaluate my winter riding gear.  It is doubtful that I'll ride when it is much colder that it was on Sunday, so I now know that my gloves are pretty effective (Heritage extreme winter riding gloves), my breeches (Kerritts Power Stretch Tights) could use a little supplementation with maybe some silk tights, my jacket could use another layer on windy or especially cold days, I really need to remember to wear my half chaps (Tredstep Deluxe Leather Half Chaps), and I really need to find the special earmuffs I have for my helmet.

If anyone has any gear that works well for them during cold rides, please post a comment about it.  I love finding out what works for others, and because I still need to improve my own gear a little, I'd love to hear from you!

And Happy Thanksgiving!

Wednesday, November 20, 2013

Glenmore Hunt Club Fall Hunter Pace

Several years ago, I first heard about the concept of a hunter pace, and I really wanted to try it.  For those who aren't familiar with hunter paces, here's the general idea.  Pairs of horse/rider teams complete a cross-country course set with jumps that are similar to what would be encountered during an actual hunt.  There are different divisions and my research indicates that hunter paces vary depending on the club sponsoring the event and even the region.  The variances can include the speed at which the competitors ride the course, the number of miles and jumps on the course, the height of the jumps, whether the jumps are optional for one or both riders, the dress code, and even the style of tack allowed.

Anyway, Friesians aren't really known for their jumping ability, and I could never find anyone to ride with me...until this past weekend.  A trail riding buddy of mine suggested we try the Glenmore Hunt Club's Fall Hunter Pace, and I leaped at the chance to give it a try.  This particular hunter pace was a perfect fit for us because it included a trail riding division which allowed western tack (my friend rides in a western saddle) and which made jumping completely optional.  There was no minimum or maximum speed, but the team that completed the course closest to the optimal time set by the sponsor of the event would be the winner for each division.  And presumably the optimal times for the different divisions would range from full hunt pace for the most expert division to something much slower for our division.  The interesting thing about this hunter pace (and many others) is that the optimal time is a secret.  You have to guess what the optimal pace is based on your division and the terrain and ride your horse as close as you can to what you think you should be doing.  Of course I have no idea what an optimal hunter pace is because I am positive that no respectable hunt club would let me or my horse within 10 miles of them if they had a choice.  Nimo and I just don't have the hygiene skills required of hunt club participants.

So, on Sunday morning, we set out for the Staunton, Virginia area without really knowing what to expect, other than a few basic guidelines.  It was a fairly long drive - over 2 hours - and we arrived at about 10:45.  After checking in and tacking up, we ended up waiting for awhile to see how the start was supposed to work.  There were no assigned start times and it was basically just a line of teams with 1 minute or so between starts.  After figuring that out, we got in line.

Nimo was totally jacked up.  He was fresh and ready to get going, so I ended up walking him in circles while we waited our turn.  Once we got started, it was apparent that both horses were feeling their oats, so after a warming up at the walk for about 10 minutes, we trotted when we could to get some of the kinks worked out.

At first, the terrain seemed a little hilly, but nothing too exciting, and Nimo and I were even able to jump a few of the early jumps because they were essentially just big logs.  Once the coops started coming up, we had to bail around them because they were just a little bigger than we were used to, but I think by next year, we could do at least a couple of them if we practice.

Then we also noticed that despite the rolling hills appearance of the terrain, we were actually in the mountains.  Those mountains meant a lot of climbing and very little flat land.

We did ride through some forest:

And a lot of fields:

And we even saw some cows:

Warning: Cows are much closer than they appear!
And it became apparent that we were riding through what was actually pretty rough terrain, although the footing was always really good, with very few rocks.  We did our best to pretend to be hunter riders, though.  We trotted up quite a few hills, but in the end, it was clear that seasoned hunt horses are at least as conditioned as endurance horses and can cover ground at a pace that we can only imagine.  I could not believe the speed at which most of the teams covered ground, especially with pretty much only steep hills to go up and down.  And I should note that I did not see a single Arab, and I did see several heavier-type horses.  There is no question in my mind that the 6.5-7 miles that this ride covered were overall more difficult as a whole than any 6-7 mile section of the OD Intro Ride that I did last month.  There was virtually no level ground during the whole ride and most of the hills were pretty steep, and some were even fairly long.  Our horses did great, though, and we definitely could have easily handled more distance.

And we had an absolute blast.  Part of the reason I have so few pictures is because I was having so much fun.  I loved doing the little log jumps and Nimo started getting the hang of them.  At first he literally jumped with his front end, paused, and then jumped with his back end, but he was doing the logs more smoothly later in the ride.

The other reason I have so few pictures is because many of the ones I took were of the ground (see below).  I just got a new iPhone after having had an HTC for several years, and apparently there is a learning curve.  And I had to keep brushing the hay dust off the phone every time I took it out of my pocket.  (Note to self: empty pockets of hay dust before my next ride.)

Anyway, the ride was tons of fun.  It took us about 1:45 to go what I estimate is 6.5-7 miles (I'm still enforcing my GPS ban for this month), which was a great pace for us, given the terrain.  I never found out what the optimal time was for our division or where we finished in relation to that time, but I got the sense that this ride was really meant for people to just have fun, rather than to obsess about competition.  I'm definitely planning to keep my eye open for more hunter paces, because I can see that they will make great conditioning rides, be a blast, and give us the opportunity to ride through private land that isn't normally available.

Monday, November 11, 2013

Back in the Saddle

After 2 weeks of riding vacay, Nimo and I were back at work this past Saturday.  I had originally intended to take only a week off after the OD Intro Endurance Ride, but life happened and it ended up being longer.  For some reason, the month of November seems to usher in a new level of errand-running and Things To Do.  Perhaps it's the upcoming holidays or maybe it just seems extra busy because my expectation is that things will slow down, and they don't.  However, even though we are riding again, we're going to spend a few weeks just doing fun rides and some arena work before getting back down to the business of serious conditioning.

Anyway, we returned to work via the Blue Ridge Center for Therapeutic Horsemanship Benefit Ride.  It was held at the scenic Blandy Experimental Farm, which hosts an arboretum and about 7.5 miles of bridle paths.  I rode at the farm back in June and really loved the trails, so I was excited to get another chance to see them and maybe explore a bit more.

View of the arboretum from the horse trailer parking lot
As I was checking in, one of the volunteers asked if I would give an interview to a gentleman from a local news channel (who was presumably trying to do a human interest story and not a story on people who get up in the dark so they can hook up their trailers in freezing temperatures, load their horses and their tack, and then drive over an hour just to ride for a few miles).  I admit to being a little flustered.  Of course, I'm happy to help because I think therapeutic riding is wonderful, and I want to support it any way that I can.  However, I am the mother of a one-year old who does not sleep according to any logic or what any of the books on baby sleeping say.  I am chronically sleep-deprived, and as a result, I often appear to be a bit dim-witted and my hygiene is not what it used to be.  This particular morning, it had been 2 days since my last shower, and I was wearing the same clothes I'd worn the day before, which included the tomato sauce stain on my shirt from the previous day's lunch.  Also, my daughter woke up at 2:30 that morning and didn't go back to all.  My husband did relieve me at one point, and I was able to get about 45 minutes extra sleep, but I was really running on low and I had the bags under my eyes to prove it.  I had even strongly considered bailing out on the ride, but I was meeting someone, and I didn't want to disappoint (although one could argue that my presence was not that great in the first place).

So, against my better judgment, I did the interview and I'm sure whoever edits the footage will be swearing my name because he/she will have to figure out a way to somehow get across that therapeutic riding is a wonderful cause to support using my barely intelligible phrases.  And I should mention that the news guy also filmed me unloading my horse and then frantically brushing him because, of course, his hygiene has suffered too, and he was filthy when I unloaded him.  I think a few other people were filmed too, and I can only hope that they provided more worthy film than I did.

I did get a chance to ride, and one of the ladies I rode with was quite familiar with the trails, so she showed us around, and I got to know a section of the park I hadn't seen the last time.  There are definitely some great trails for trot/canter sets, and I will absolutely come back when there is no chance of being on camera to see if I can come up with a good work out for Nimo.

Here's another picture from the trailer parking area:

You can see the mountains in the distance (I think the Blue Ridge Mountains, but I'm not positive about that - all the mountain ranges look the same to me).  I think the farm probably looked like that at one time, but after all the trees were taken down for agriculture, the farm looks more like the rolling hills from North Dakota, but with trees, green grass, and tolerable weather.  It ended up being a gorgeous day with all sun and a temperature of about 60 degrees.

My 15 minutes notwithstanding, it ended up being an awesome day for riding and while I didn't ride with a watch or GPS (both are banned for the month of November to give me a break from my obsession with constantly tracking mileage and speed), I estimate that we probably rode a couple of hours.  We mostly walked, but did a little trotting, and when we were done, Nimo felt like he could do the same ride again and again.  He clearly felt good (not stiff or sore) and was very ready to get back to work, which is great.  I had worried that with so much time off, he would need a few rides to get back up to speed, but that doesn't appear to be the case.  Next week, we're going to be brave and try a Hunter Pace, something I've always wanted to do.  And don't ask me what a Hunter Pace is or how it works because I have only the slimmest of ideas.  I'm hopeful that someone will explain it to me when I sign in at the ride!:)