Monday, May 12, 2014

A Mother's Day Ride

One of the things I love about my husband is that he didn't even question me when I said I was planning to haul Nimo out to the Shenandoah National Park for some mountain climbing on Mother's Day.  I realize that it might be more typical to go to the spa, have a family outing, or just relax, but I have to admit that I was ready for a ride in a familiar location by ourselves going a slow enough pace to relax and take pictures.  I've been focused on dressage lessons and conditioning for a few months, and it was just time to take a break from that and remember why I'm training for endurance rides in the first place - because I love riding and I love being with my horse.  Nimo definitely has his moments, but overall he's a pretty good guy, and I wanted to enjoy him, rather than do any specific kind of training.  I wasn't leaving my conditioning completely behind, though, because we haven't ridden this trail since last fall, and it is much closer to the type of climbing I'm likely to see at OD rides than other places I ride.  So I figured we'd go slow, stop for pictures, hang out in streams, and enjoy the beautiful day.

It's about an hour and 15 minute haul from Nimo's barn, and this is what the Shenandoah Mountains look like as we approach from the intersection of 211 and 522:

We parked at the 4-H center near Front Royal and I was surprised to see a couple of endurance riders pulling in just in front of me.  I know that this section of trail is often used for conditioning, but I've never seen anyone else there unless I was meeting someone to ride.  I decided to give these riders a head start because I expected them to be riding faster and longer than me, and I didn't want to get in their way or have Nimo worry about keeping up with them.  Nimo actually did really well when the two riders took off.  He whinnied once and then was happy to hang out while I got him tacked up.  The other thing he did really well was hold his ground when faced with a speeding motorcycle just after we got on the road.  Nimo actually handles traffic pretty well (as long as he doesn't have to wait too long), but motorcycles are a lot like bicycles, which are not Nimo's favorite mode of non-horse transportation.  We were unfortunately in a place where there was just a small amount of room to get off the road, and while the motorcyclist did move over a little and slow down a little, it wasn't enough to make me comfortable.  I could tell Nimo was VERY alert, but he faced the motorcycle without moving and then we were on our way.  Whew!

The best thing about this trail is that it is 2.5 miles up a mountain.  The grade fluctuates from easy to steep and everything in between throughout the trail, which makes for a great workout.  We started off by riding on a county road to a boundary access point to the park, which looks like this:

Shortly after entering the park, we crossed a stream.

I finally remembered to bring my sponge-on-a-leash that I bought last fall after it was too cold to really use it.  I had practiced swinging it around while riding, but hadn't actually dipped it in a creek and dripped water on Nimo yet.  Because it was 80 degrees out, I figured this was the perfect opportunity.  For whatever reason, Nimo loves this little creek and never wants to leave it once he gets in, so we just hung out for a while and I dipped the sponge and whacked Nimo's legs and head with it.  Aside from briefly assessing the sponge's potential as food, Nimo ignored it, so I can finally check that training task off my list!

Just after the creek, we got to a giant tree that was blocking the trail:

It may not look that big in the picture, but at it's lowest point, it was still much higher than Nimo's knee (and there was a hole made by another tree's roots coming out just on the other side of the lowest point, making it impossible to go over the tree at that point anyway).  And it was made more difficult because we were going up hill.  I decided that because I had a perfect mounting block, I'd just get off and help Nimo figure out how to get over the tree.  He ended up sort of climbing over it (all the while groaning about why I make him do these stupid things), and then I got back on and we kept going up, and up, and up.

There are a lot of smaller diameter logs used as what must be erosion control for the trail.  They usually look like this:

There are also mini-rock walls that serve the same function.  And they probably do help with erosion control, but they definitely add to the difficulty of the trail because of all the additional stepping that must be done to get over them.  And there is one section that is borderline dangerous:


These steps lead up to Skyline Drive (one of the most heralded roads along which to see fall color in this area).  They are probably great for hikers and they aren't too bad for horses going up.  But coming back down them means the horses are likely to step just behind the logs, which are unstable and may slide forward, especially if the footing is muddy.  I always hold my breath a bit because in addition to negotiating the steps up, we have to stop before crossing the road due to typically moderate traffic who probably can't see us coming out of the woods very well.  It's the one feature of this trail that I really don't like.  But we got through it just fine.  I've even learned to trust Nimo more coming down the steps by dropping my reins to the buckle and giving him his head.  I always feel like I'm going to shoot right over his head, but so far, so good:)

My original plan was actually to stop the ride just shy of the infamous steps and turn around, but Nimo felt pretty good (likely because of the frequent breaks he insisted that he needed), so I decided to cross Skyline Drive to head a short distance down the logging road/hiking path on the other side.

There are always hikers here, who many times want to pet Nimo and take his picture.  While I absolutely understand that Nimo is a beautiful horse, I sometimes feel a little bit like a tourist attraction instead of a fellow visitor to the park.  Luckily today there were no photo requests (or even worse, people taking pictures without asking), although there were a few families out and about.  To give Nimo a breather before we turned around, I stopped him and gave him some carrots and just enjoyed the day.

Our trip down the mountain was pretty uneventful, and Nimo even figured out how to get over the fallen tree that had stumped him (pun totally intended!) on the way up.  It wasn't pretty, but he got the job done:)

We took one more break in Nimo's favorite stream:


And about 15 minutes from the trailer, I got off and walked the remaining distance with Nimo.  I've been planning to start walking more with him to help me get in better shape for our rides, and I have been procrastinating about it.  I actually enjoy hiking, so it was really a mental thing of realizing that we're not just trail riding anymore where no self-respecting rider would walk when she could ride.  Instead, I need to think of our rides as more of a team effort where my job isn't just to sit there and steer, but to be able to help by carrying my own self around to give Nimo a break if he needs it.  I even got to thinking that I might try to work up to hiking this trail with Nimo to make sure I can handle a couple of miles of fairly rugged uphill terrain.

All in all, it was a great ride.  We got some climbing work in, we practiced with our sponge-on-a-leash, and we just rode and enjoyed nature and each other's company.


  1. Sounds like a really amazing ride!

  2. What gorgeous trails! Sounds like it was a very productive training and conditioning ride. :)

  3. Apparently, Blogger ate Funder's comment before it published. Here's what she said:

    "Gorgeous! Now that it's not snowing (much) on you anymore, you're making me miss VA!

    Be careful. Hiking is the first step in a treacherous path that leads to ride'n'tying. :)

    1. Haha! I KNEW you would mention Ride & Tie! I'm absolutely terrified of even contemplating it, but when I was writing the post, I considered it for one tiny second...