Wednesday, May 7, 2014

STRHA JPR or The Day Nimo Left His Brain in the Trailer

Last Saturday, the Shenandoah Trail Riders and Horseman's Association (STRHA) hosted a Judged Pleasure Ride (JPR) next to the George Washington National Forest near Maurertown, Virginia.  For those of you not from this area, there is a series of JPRs (this year, I think there are 5 events) referred to as the Crystal Crown series.  JPRs are trail rides that are usually between 5 and 10 miles long and there are 10 obstacles located along the trail.  Each horse/rider team is judged on how well they do going through, over, or around (Nimo's favorite method) each obstacle on a scale from 0 to 10, with 0 being not attempted and a 10 being perfect.  The obstacles range from natural phenomena like crossing a stream to ridiculous, wacked out crap that somebody thought of while on a crack bender.

We did at least a couple of JPRs last year, with some success.  This ride was a little different...

I should preface the story by saying that the paddocks out at the barn where Nimo is were completely ruined during this last wet winter.  There is no grass to be found, and this is Nimo's first spring ever without access to grass.  I've done some hand-grazing with him when I can, but it isn't the same.

So, bright and early on Saturday morning, I picked up Nimo at the barn.  Prior to loading him, I had to give him a bath because he was coated in mud.  And not the kind of mud that you can brush off.  This mud was so thick, it was impossible to get even a metal curry comb through it.  And the worst of it was that I had carefully bathed, conditioned, detangled, and braided his mane a few days earlier in an attempt to have it look nice for the event.  While the horse's appearance is not judged, I feel compelled to make an effort to have Nimo look good because people often like to take pictures of him at the obstacles.  (Note to self: My next horse will be short and ugly.)  Anyway, I didn't have enough time to redo his mane, so I sort of hosed off the worst of the mud and figured I'd try to do more with it once we got there.

It took us about an hour and 45 minutes to get to the location, although had I not gone the wrong way once and then missed another turn, it probably would have been more like an hour and a half.  Luckily, I miss turns and go the wrong way all the time, so I've become a bit of an expert at getting turned around.  And I figure it's more exciting for Nimo that way.

We parked, as is typical, in some generous soul's cow pasture, which had obviously not been grazed yet this year and obviously was not ruined by the wet winter.  (Someday I may post something about pasture management techniques that drive me crazy...)  I unloaded Nimo and he got his front feet off the trailer, buried his head in the grass and started eating for all he was worth.  I literally had to beat him to get his hind end off the trailer and out of the way so I could close the door.  I think he imagined that I had hauled him to heaven, and he had no intention of letting his blessed time go to waste.

Compassionately, I let him graze for awhile because the lady we were meeting to ride with wasn't there yet.  But then I had to get to work on unbraiding and brushing his mane out as well as cleaning up anything I missed with the hose.  There were still chunks of mud in his mane, and it turned out that when I tried to brush them out, all I did was more evenly distribute the filth throughout his mane.  So, I gave up on that, and let him eat some more.

Eventually, my friend and I had our horses saddled and ready to go, and shortly after we got on, we realized that both of our horses were acting a little more "up" than usual.  So for the first time ever, I rode around before starting the ride, which seems extremely counter-productive to me, but it was only a 7 mile ride, and the first 4 obstacles looked like they were in the first mile.  So after 10-15 minutes of attempting to settle our horses, we started the ride and immediately got to the first obstacle.

The point of obstacle 1 was to calmly walk your horse into a small, mushy creek, ask him to turn so that all 4 feet were in the water and then take a rope from a person and pull the rope toward you while keeping your horse still.  It is worth noting that there was a 4 foot length of 8" diameter corrugated pipe attached to the rope.  Nimo expressed his thoughts about this obstacle by first refusing to enter the water at all and then by backing up hysterically when I took the rope and pulled the pipe toward us.  We scored a 1 for attempting the obstacle.

A short distance later was obstacle 2.  This obstacle seemed straightforward enough.  There was a cattle panel type gate in a pen that needed to be opened by unfastening a chain.  Then, you were supposed to walk the horse through the gate into the pen and close the gate (and then maybe come back out again, but it's possible I wasn't paying that much attention to the directions because I thought it looked easy.)  I would like to say at this point that I have, in fact, successfully practiced opening and closing gates with Nimo and while it's not as pretty as a show horse, we can get the job done.  Except at this ride.  Nimo was convinced that the straw bales with fake turkeys sticking out of them were going to eat him and he refused to move laterally in any way.  And because lateral movement is really essential for opening and closing gates, we once again scored a whopping 1 point for attempting the obstacle.

Sighing with exasperation, we moved on to the third obstacle.  This is where I began to suspect illicit drug use on the part of the obstacle designers.  Often there is a ground pole obstacle where the poles form an L-shape that the horse must walk through and then back through.  We're not brilliant at that type of obstacle, but we can usually eek out a few points.  This obstacle was an L on steroids.  See the diagram below:
We were supposed to walk through it and then back through it.  I would like to note that the poles were about 3 feet apart, so it was really tight for a bigger horse.  I was incredibly impressed that Nimo was able to walk through it without stepping out of it.  When I asked him to back, though, you would have thought I'd just asked him to jump out of an airplane without a parachute.  I think we left every single pole randomly distributed around the field by the time we were done.  I thought the rearranging of the poles could be considered artistic, but the judge thought our effort was worth 1 point.

It was about now that I started whining a lot to my poor friend about how I probably shouldn't do these rides with Nimo anymore because his temperament was clearly unsuited to doing obstacles and how I was just wasting my money.  Also, there could have been some sniffling and wondering why my horse was doing so poorly on this ride when he had done reasonably well last year.

My whining was totally upheld as we approached obstacle number 4.  Just before we got there, Nimo spooked pretty violently at a few fence posts lying on the ground.  I couldn't wait to see what he do when he saw the old oil drum with a life-sized inflatable shark mounted on the top of it, with a giant inflatable fish hanging of the side of it, and a colorful fishing rod and fish on a plaque sitting on top of it.  Apparently, the objective was to convince your horse to get close enough to the oil drum to pick up the fishing rod, and then walk your horse over to a kiddie wading pool with a giant beach ball floating in it, where you would attempt to snag a magnetized fish out of the water and return it and the fishing pole back to the oil drum.  As it turns out, I was able to get Nimo reasonably close to the oil drum and I may have had a chance at getting the fishing rod, but the fish on the plaque was a motion-detecting singing fish.  So, when it sensed Nimo's motion, the fish started singing.  Nimo bolted sideways about 50 feet.  I'm still not sure how I didn't fall off.

However, I expeditiously decided to get off before doing any more.  We were actually near my trailer, so I could get back on after the obstacle, but I was starting to get sick of the colossal fails for each obstacle and I didn't think it would be a good idea to continue letting Nimo get more and more hysterical.  Because there was no one right behind us, the judge gave me permission to walk on foot while taking Nimo through the obstacle.  I did get him back to the oil drum and over to the pool, but I could tell his attention just wasn't on me or the work we were doing.  This judge gave us a whole 2 points for being able to walk up to the oil drum and pool even though I wasn't mounted.  She was being generous and at that point, I was starting to get really aggravated.

I honestly thought about bailing on the whole ride because I was now imagining 6 more miles of torture.  But my friend wanted to keep going and her horse was not being quite the nutcase that mine was, and we had hauled a bit of a distance, and paid money, plus the scenery and the weather were beautiful.  So we rode for awhile, and I could feel Nimo starting to settle.  We got into the woods, and actually got some distance in before the next obstacle.

Obstacle 5 was one of those big tractor tires that had been turned inside out, with the side of the tire cut off.  The objective was to walk your horse into the tire, and then have him move just his front feet out of the tire before sidepassing around the circumference of the tire with the horse's hind feet still in the tire.  I actually didn't think Nimo would go near the tire, but he did walk up to it and even put one front foot inside it briefly.  While we still scored only 1 point, I started feeling better about Nimo's state of mind because he remained calm the whole time we worked the obstacle.

Obstacle 6 was where things started to turn around a little.  We got some more riding in and then we got to a section of the trail marked by ribbons.  The point was to move the horse through a kind of rough trail with rocks and fallen logs while staying to the right of the ribbons.  The obstacle designer had probably imagined the horses would pick their way through the trail with care, but Nimo blasted through it like it was flat ground.  We only lost one point (scoring 9) because Nimo stepped over a rock instead of around it.  I had expected to lose another point because I whacked my head on a tree branch when we were going through the trail, but when I asked the judge about it, she just laughed and said they didn't care about the rider, just that the horse followed the path.

After riding a short distance (still in the woods), we got to the seventh obstacle, which may now be my favorite obstacle ever in the history of JPRs.  There was a steep hill (and by steep, I mean mountain steep, not just a hill) with three giant railroad tie steps in it, creating something like a series of bank jumps that you might see on a cross country course, except that there wasn't enough room for the horse to get all of his feet on each step.  So, the horse would really need to go up these steps as true steps.  I didn't even think about it.  I just pointed Nimo at it and he didn't hesitate to take the first step - he did briefly think about ducking to the side, but I caught him and he did all three steps!  It was a crazy feeling because I had to get way out of the saddle, grab a hunk of mane to keep from tumbling backwards, and I felt Nimo's stifle hit my foot with each step because of the extreme angle and effort required.  It was one of the most awesome things I've ever done on a horse, and it made the whole ride worth the trip.

We ended up riding probably a couple of miles before the eighth obstacle, and even got a little climbing in, which was great for conditioning, especially because we haven't been doing enough of it.  I also want to depart just momentarily from the description of obstacles.  Funder recently did a post about her thoughts on lead sled dogs and lead horses on trails and how challenging it can be to take the lead all the time.  I agreed with what she said, but didn't really give it much more thought until this ride.  As we headed up a hill for our final loop of the trail, Nimo balked.  He just stopped dead even though he had plenty of energy.  At first I thought he had to pee, but he didn't.  He finally started moving again after my friend asked her horse to move.  Nimo, who had been mostly leading up to that point (at least to my recollection), very much wanted his riding buddy to get in front.  Nimo spent the next couple of miles being a follower, and then charged out in front again for the rest of the ride.  It seemed as if he needed a rest from being in front and then after he got it, was perfectly happy to be in front again.

Anyway, back to obstacle 8.  This one is the obstacle I was thinking of when I wrote, "ridiculous, wacked out crap that somebody thought of while on a crack bender."  The obstacle was simple in concept - you just needed to continue walking your horse down the road.  It was what was on the side of the road that made things interesting.  On both sides of the road, there were colorful pinwheels whirling in the wind AND there were two girls peddling their hearts out on stationary bikes AND one of the girls was twirling an umbrella AND there may have been some other crap too, but that's what I remember.  So basically, it was the Tunnel of Horrors.  I did manage to get Nimo to walk through it after I asked the girls to stop peddling and twirling the umbrella.  I figured just walking past all that stuff was good enough.  (We got 2 points!)

Obstacle 9 was the requisite "car wash" obstacle.  I will never understand why this obstacle is so popular.  I think the original goal was to simulate hanging vines that your horse has to ride through on a rugged trail.  But, the way the vines are simulated is to hang strips of black plastic (or some other material) off of a tree branch in such a way that the horse can't really see through to the other side.  So it probably seems to the horse that you are asking it to go through a solid wall.  I did convince Nimo to walk up to the plastic and sniff it (which I considered to be a huge victory), but I couldn't get him through it until I got off (with the judge's permission).  Then, there was a lovely surprise on the other side of the plastic - crazy colorful styrofoam "fingers" whirling around on containers hung from the tree.  Amazingly, Nimo didn't freak out too much, and we racked up another 2 points.

And finally, after riding maybe another mile, we got to the final obstacle, which was thankfully another natural one.  This one was a square formed from logs.  The objective was to walk your horse into the square, turn 360 degrees, and walk out.  Not hard, but when we've done it at other rides, the square was made of ground poles instead of logs, and the square was usually pretty tight for a big horse.  This square was not exactly roomy, but it was doable.  What I could not believe was how differently Nimo handled it compared to other rides.  Usually, it's a disaster, much like that steroid L we did earlier.  This time, Nimo calmly walked into the square, stopped with all 4 feet in the square, executed a beautiful, smooth 360, and walked out.  Wheee!  10 points for us!

After another mile, we were back at the trailers, and I had some reflecting to do.  I think it is possible that when Nimo saw all the gorgeous grass, he did, in fact, leave his brain in the trailer.  And I know that horses are like people - not every ride is going to be perfect.  I also think it's possible that he has been conditioned enough on trails now that he really needs to get some miles in before he's mentally ready to face challenging obstacles.  But, I also noticed that the 3 obstacles that were very much like things we would see out on the trail were ones that he had no problem with.

The Crystal Crown series is quite competitive (the last ride had over 140 riders), so I can see that obstacles need to be set up in such a way as to discriminate among the entries.  Yet, I can't help but think that JPRs are going the way of the trail classes I used to compete in when I was younger.  I think at one point, the course designers even came up some kind of a teeter totter bridge for the horses to go over, and you had to stop your horse at just the right point in the middle while crossing the bridge for it to balance perfectly with both ends off the ground to get full points.

I've seen Nimo do some pretty amazing things out on trails, including crossing deep rivers and going through a different kind of Tunnel of Horrors that included a steep, narrow, downhill trail with two mountain bikes and their riders on either side, one of whom was barely holding on to an unleashed Rottweiler.  I think it would be great if he could calmly do all the fancy obstacles too, and maybe someday he will.  But he's already developed many of the skills that are really needed to get us through the challenges that we will face and nothing that is simulated can ever substitute for a truly rugged trail.


  1. Oh god, Gail, I am literally laughing out loud.

    Pro tip for next horse: stick with the dark-colored ones. People also love taking pictures of Dixie. She's usually green and yellow.

    I did a quite reasonable trail trial ride back in 2010, with mostly-natural obstacles and situations. Stuff like "take the jacket out of the mailbox and put it on while mounted" - not usual trail obstacles, but not completely cracked out. Needless to say I got a lot of 1's because Dixie had almost no brain back then. I'm kind of tempted to take her to one again, because she still won't pivot or sidepass but she's much more sensible.

    I lost it when you discovered the Billy Big Mouth Singing Bass. I think I'd have fallen off laughing as my horse teleported away. Good try, Nimo!

    1. I hear you about any unusual coloring attracting attention. I think my only options are bay and chestnut with little or no white markings. Plus, I'm thinking dirt would probably blend in better:) As for that fish, I might have to get one and practice with it. We do ride in some remote locations, so I guess anything is possible out on the trail...

  2. Started laughing at "my next horse will be short and ugly" and didn't stop until the end. A++++++.

    The singing fish, OMG. I can totally see how that would have seemed like a good idea at a late-night punch-drunk ride-planning meeting and how it would have seemed like ABSOLUTELY THE LAST STRAW during the actual ride. LOL forever!

    Yay for Nimo killing it on the natural obstacles and yay for you for appreciating him (and letting him live early on). :)

    1. Thanks, Hannah:) I can see that it would be hard to keep coming up with original ideas for the obstacles and I'm sure that damn fish seemed like a clever idea, but I could have done without the check from Nimo to see if I could really stay in the saddle.

  3. Although it is good to know what types of things will set your horse off, when the hell are you ever really going to have to deal with an inflatable shark and singing wide-mouth bass? I would much rather do rides with actual obstacles - ie, downed tree across the trail, creek you have to cross where the water is belly deep, the steep hillside with steps you go up (our trails here actually have those in many of the steep places), raising or lowering something heavy out of a tree (protection for camp goods from bears), approaching and standing quietly near a fire, putting on and taking off of clothing or rain gear, opening and closing gates, sidepassing to maneuver around an obstacle. All of those things are useful IRL. The other stuff may be fun to play with in an arena doing bonding and training exercises, but I prefer to have real life crap on the trail. Here, getting your horse to stand calmly while some idiot rides his bike up your horse's butt is important.

    1. Karen, I like your ideas for obstacles - you should be a course designer!:)

  4. OK, I totally want an inflatable shark.

    The rest is ridiculous! I think Nimo is smart to try to take the easiest path around something (also not something I reprimand my horse for) but I think so many of those obstacles are over the top. I totally understand making the horse listen to you in difficult situations, but pinwheels, bikes and umbrellas? Maybe for parade training! I do think that steep bank steps obstacle sounds great, and perfect training for a tough trail horse, so good job doing the few that really count.

    We had a mini version of this at my ranch when I first got my horse. He wasn't afraid of much, but then he went up to the large plastic bear draped with smelly fabric and BIT the ear off of it. The instructor was mortified. I was kind-of proud...we haven't done anything since then.

    Next time I encounter a singing fish on the trail, I'll totally think of you.

    1. OMG, I love that your horse bit an obstacle! It will now forever be my dream that Nimo does that someday:)

  5. Oh my gosh Gail! I was reading this during a rare slow moment at work and could NOT. STOP. LAUGHING! I'm so happy for you that Nimo was able to keep his wits together for most of that, even the obstacles where you only got 1s. I wonder how others did...those were just outrageous! I personally can't think of a single horse I know that would have stood for that singing bass or walked through the Tunnel of Horrors with the pedaling girls and the twirling umbrellas and pinwheels...

  6. OMG! This is one of the funniest things I've read in a long time. I think you should send this to a magazine. All laughing aside, though, such ridiculous obstacles (I'm thinking of the twirling umbrellas, etc) would upset even the calmest horse and would seem to accomplish nothing more than putting a lot of riders in danger of injury when their horses lose it!!!

  7. Dude. I'm with you on the cracked out honkies. Jeebus. Kudos to you for getting through the day. The obstacles you excelled at sound like the most fun for me. I don't think Q would EVER do one of these rides. Griffin might consider it... lol