Sunday, June 29, 2014

Graves Mountain: An Epic Ride

My day started off with a 5 am alarm on Saturday, June 21.  I was planning to head down to Graves Mountain to meet up with riders from US Trail Ride to do some riding.  As you might have guessed from the name, Graves Mountain is, in fact, a mountain.  Nimo and I have been frequenting the same mountain trails for about a year now, and I've been looking for some other places to ride that will give us good conditioning for the rocks and climbs typical of Old Dominion endurance rides because those are the rides we'll most likely do (I absolutely swear that I am committed to doing the Fort Valley ride in October this year).  I have been contemplating joining the Shenandoah Trail Riders and Horseman's Association, but all of their organized rides are at least 4 hours of mountain riding, and I was worried that Nimo and I wouldn't be able to keep up with the probably much more experienced riders and horses (hint, foreshadowing...).

Anyway, I had e-mailed the USTR ride organizer a few days before the ride about the length and speed of the ride, in case I thought it would be too much for us.  She said no decisions had been made, and she would let the group decide.  If there were enough people of different levels, they would set up multiple groups.  I admit that answer was not exactly comforting, but I decided to go anyway.

We arrived at the resort on schedule, without incident.  One of the great things about riding at Graves Mountain is that you get to ride on a mountain, but the drive there (from where Nimo is) is pretty easy and involves zero mountain driving, unlike other places I ride, where I can expect a significant part of the drive to be on a tiny two lane mountain road shared with bicycles (why, oh why would you risk your life like that?), semis, and people driving luxury sports cars who cannot understand why you can't drive more than 35 mph up hills.

The day was supposed to be fairly cool (low 70s) and I was interested to see this:

Graves Mountain
Lots and lots of fog.  And despite the cooler temperature, I could feel that the humidity level was high (the National Weather Service would confirm my estimate of 90-100% humidity).  That kind of humidity is not great, regardless of temperature, because it really removes sweating as a cooling mechanism.  Normally, that might not be that big of a deal, if you're just doing a slower, shorter ride, but I was expecting a 10-15 mile ride through mostly mountains, and the kind of effort needed to do that is substantial for my big horse.

I parked my trailer, unloaded Nimo to get him started on munching hay and checked in with the group (most of the ladies had camped the night before, so they had gotten to know each other a little).  Apparently, the consensus was that there were two ladies who didn't want to go up the mountain at all because they either were not up for it or their horse wasn't conditioned properly.  The rest of the group (4 ladies) wanted to go up the mountain.  That was fine with me...Until the ride organizer said I should plan to be out on the trail for about 5-6 hours.  What????  I started internally hyperventilating.  The longest ride we've ever done was 4 hours on the Fort Valley Intro Ride last year.  We haven't done anything comparable yet this year.  I started worrying about our survival.

Then, the ride organizer casually mentioned that we should make sure we brought rain gear because it was likely to storm.  What????  I had brought a rain jacket out of habit, but the last I checked the forecast, it was supposed to be a nice day.  Gaaaa!!!!  And then, the ride organizer said maybe I should bring winter gear because the last time she'd ridden up the mountain, the temperature had started out as 70 and ended up with sleet.  Well, I did not bring winter gear because it is June and I am in Virginia and not in North Dakota (yes, there was once a blizzard the first weekend in June in ND, but that's another story).  However, my rain jacket did have some insulation, and I figured with the extra work we'd be doing with the climbing, that I would probably be fine...

Actually, that is not what I thought.  At the time, I think I my brain might have been shutting down and in denial about the stupidity of embarking on a ride that I was clearly NOT prepared for.  I wish I could say that I was channeling my inner Funder, but this ride did not seem like a good idea.  And yet, I absolutely saddled my horse, loaded up my largest pommel pack with snacks and drinks for me and snacks for Nimo, tied on my rain jacket, and mounted up.  One lady mentioned that there is a fine line between stupidity and ignorance, and I think I was firmly on the side of stupidity.

We started on a fairly level road that gradually started getting steeper and steeper.  After about 2 miles, we hit the actual trail up the mountain.  And then we proceeded to do 3 more grueling miles of climbing.  Yes, that's right, we started our ride with about 5 miles of climbing.  The trail was rocky, but not as bad as what would be on the OD rides.  However, much like the OD rides, there were no switchbacks in the trail - it was just a straight up the mountain.

I was riding with 4 other ladies.  Two were 100 mile endurance riders riding 50 mile endurance horses.  The other two ladies were not and adamantly would never be endurance riders.  But their horses had lots of trail experience.  We ended up taking several breaks while we climbed because the horses were working hard, but couldn't cool themselves well by sweating.  Nimo was literally emitting steam constantly, and my butt was overheating because the heat from Nimo's back was being conducted through the sheepskin saddle pad and through the actual seat of the saddle to me.  I could tell one of the endurance riders was concerned about Nimo's metabolic state because he was breathing hard and he had started out walking a little slowly.  I tried to reassure her that he was OK, that we'd been doing climbing, and that he would absolutely let me know if he felt like he needed a break.  As for the slow walking, that tends to be typical of Nimo.  He often starts rides out slowly, even in the arena.  Both he and I seem to need time to acclimate ourselves to riding and get warmed up.  But, I'm admittedly new to endurance stuff, so I understand why a successful endurance rider with a Decade Team horse under her belt might be concerned, so I appreciated her advice on cooling and resting techniques and despite a near run-in with a bear, we made it up the mountain in good shape.

Here's a picture of what we looked like near the top.  The fog was intense and visibility was pretty low:

Used with permission.  Photo by Janet van der Vaart.
 A five-mile climb was definitely the longest climb we have done, so I was a little worried about how Nimo would recover once we got to the top.  I expected him to drag along for half an hour.  But, after about 5 minutes, he perked right up and started asking to trot.  What??!!  And then, the ride organizer asked if we wanted to trot as a group, and so we did.  And that was the start of the surprises my horse had to offer during this ride.  My formerly pokey horse was trotting right along like he knew what he was doing - in fact, he even took the lead for a couple of miles as we rode along what I think was a Forest Service road (we were in the Shenandoah National Park at that point, I think).

The road was actually a downhill incline - not steep, but definitely downhill.  I have heard that there are horses who do better uphill and horses who do better downhill.  I'm pretty sure my horse is a downhill horse.  He was completely balanced and so adjustable.  Two of the horses we were riding with were gaited and the other two were tiny Arabs.  I had no trouble adjusting Nimo's trot to match any horse's pace and we trotted off and on for miles.  Nimo would happily have trotted more, but two of the non-endurance riders wanted to save their horses, so we slowed our pace.

We also had lots of opportunities to ride through water.  We went in and out of the river we were following several times to give the horses an opportunity to drink and also to see some cool waterfalls (why, oh why, did I leave my camera at home?).

We did stop for a short lunch break near the halfway point of the ride and I fed Nimo some mash I had brought along.  I was a little concerned because he wasn't drinking, but I have to admit I didn't feel much like drinking either.  The temperature had cooled as we'd gone up the mountain and with all the fog, I just didn't feel that thirsty.  Nimo has become pretty good at drinking on trails, so I decided to not worry too much and let him take care of himself.  Although I did periodically give him carrots just to make sure he had something going through his stomach with moisture in it.

After the lunch break, Nimo was even more energized than before.  He kept asking to trot.  Finally, I couldn't contain him anymore.  We got to what I thought was a fairly significant, steep climb (maybe a mile?).  And Nimo really wanted to trot it.  Which surprised the hell out of me.  We NEVER trot steep inclines.  We huff and puff our way up them.  So, I decided to let Nimo trot.  I figured he'd go about 20 feet before he quit.  Well, don't you know, that horse trotted almost the whole climb.  We slowed down a bit for one of the endurance riders who was having a little trouble with her horse.  He was fairly new to her and was acting a little too forward, so she wanted to practice having him trot behind the group and asked if we could keep pace with her.  Nimo was happy to do that.  And we did walk for about a minute as we got closer to the top, but otherwise, we trotted the whole way.  It was an eye-opening experience for me - maybe, just maybe, I have been underestimating my horse's fitness and motivation...

Finally, we turned off the road and started our descent.  And this section of trail proved to be quite tricky.  The mountain had gotten 4 inches of rain a couple of days prior to our ride, so the trails were slick.  They weren't very rocky, so the main surface was Virginia clay.  For those of you who have never experienced Virginia clay, it is rock-hard when dry and slippery and thick when wet.

I had started off the ride with 4 Easyboot Epics, but I pulled the 2 hind boots at our lunch break because they really were too loose (I think I might, might, might be able to squeeze Nimo's hinds into a size 4 Glove after his next trim!) and had started to turn.  It turned out to be really good that I'd done that because Easyboots on mud are not good.  My poor horse was having real trouble with traction, as were all the horses, but I noticed the ones with shoes were doing the best.  Of course, they also had tiny Arab feet.

At one point, Nimo lost traction on all 4 feet and we started "skiing" down the mountain.  We were bringing up the rear and closing in pretty rapidly on the horse in front of us - a tiny Arab with no hope of withstanding the Friesian onslaught behind her.  I think it's possible that I started yelling obscenities and the rider in front of me quickly realized what was happening and urged her horse to move faster.  I tried to turn Nimo into a tree (I know, that doesn't sound nice, but I thought running into a tree would be better than the tangled mess if we ran into the horse in front of us and started a chain reaction of horses falling).  In the end, we missed the tree, the horse in front of us speeded up a bit, and Nimo finally got control of his feet.  Deep breath...I have to admit that I was the only one really excited during this situation.  Nimo never lost his balance and never freaked out.  And once he recovered traction, he just kept plodding on as if nothing had happened.  And the rider in front of me started joking about the whole thing.

In fact, the ladies that I was riding with were laughing and joking the whole ride, except when the trail required full attention.  It was a ton of fun to be with them because they were just so happy.  We did have to take a break from the joking for a short while, though, when one lady got hung up on a tree.  She was behind me, so I just heard her yelling for us to stop.  We stopped and I turned around and she was quite clearly in pain.  Apparently, somehow a tree branch had gotten stuck under one of her ribs and she had trouble getting free.  That rib had been bruised in some kind of accident recently, so she was in a lot of pain.  We just rested for awhile to let her get her breath back and work through some of the pain.  There wasn't much more we could do for her because we were out in the middle of nowhere with no cell phone reception and miles of trail to go.

She was a trooper, though, and with only minimal complaining, said she was ready to go on after a few minutes.  We decided to sandwich her in between us, so if she started to feel dizzy or needed to stop, we could better monitor her.  Nimo and I picked up the rear again.  And I kid you not, this poor woman was attacked by another tree just minutes later.  I wouldn't have believed it if I hadn't seen it.  The forest was dense and the trail was really just a deer path through the woods, so we were getting brushed by shrubs and trees all the time.  As this woman was riding past a 6-8 foot juniper tree, one of the branches got caught in her helmet vent.  And she could not get loose.  Her horse was stopped and the rider kept leaning further and further away from the tree, but the tree held on for dear life and would not let go.  Finally, the rider had leaned so far over that she just fell off her horse.  It was ones of the funniest things I've ever seen.  I had to stifle my laughter while I asked if she was OK and yelled for everyone to stop again.  When she said she was OK, I busted out laughing and then so did she, and then so did everyone else, even though they had no idea what we were laughing about.  I think it was partly just a release of tension from the technical riding down the slippery trail and the woman's previous injury, but we must have just sat there laughing for a good five minutes.  And then it started to rain...

The other riders pulled on their rain gear, but I opted to leave mine off.  I think the temperature was somewhere around 65 degrees and I wasn't cold, and because I had recently been brushed by poison oak, I thought getting some water on my arm might be a good idea.  Also, a bird had pooped on my shirt and I had a lot of goo from Nimo's mash smeared all over me.  Plus, the rain wasn't bad.  The forest canopy was protecting us from the worst of it, so it was more like dripping than a steady rain.  Oh, and the ride organizer said we only had about a mile left to go.  At that point, my GPS said we'd gone 12.7 miles...

We continued down the mountain and things were going well for awhile.  The trail was still slippery, but Nimo was doing OK, and then we got to a section which was quite steep and I could see all the horses ahead of us really struggling to keep their feet under them.  In fact, the horse in front of us went down to his knees.  That was enough to convince me that we needed to get better footing.  The only option was to try to negotiate the 6-8 foot tall weeds and brush to one side.  At first Nimo was not convinced that thrashing his way through the brush was a good decision.  And then he fell down on his knees, scrambled back up and got off the trail.  And so he forged his way through a jungle the rest of the way down the steep trail.

By now, we'd lost the protection of the woods and it was raining really hard.  There was also a lot of thunder and lightning.  Any mostly level spot on the trail was covered in 2 plus inches of water and anything downhill was a small creek.  Visibility was bad, we were very wet - I could feel the water running down the back of my legs through my half chaps, and into my boots, which were sloshing with water - and we discovered that the way we'd planned to get back to camp was closed.  The ride organizer had a trail map and knew the trails fairly well, so she plotted another route as the wind picked up.

After about another mile, we got to the scariest part of the trail.  It was essentially a ravine and the trail was at the bottom of it, covered in running water and only one hoof's width wide.  It was steep and the first 3 horses through it really had trouble.  Nimo took one look and clearly told me he couldn't do it with me on him.  And I believed him.  He had negotiated some pretty rough stuff without complaint and I had no reason to think he was lying to me.  One other horse didn't want to do it either.  So I got off and as soon as my feet touched the ground they slid right out from under me and I fell under Nimo.  I have no idea how any of those horses were standing.  Everything was as slick as ice.  I had to grab onto Nimo and my tack to get myself standing.

I knew if I just led Nimo down the trail, and he slipped, I would be toast.  And I didn't want to go behind him because then I wouldn't be able to see what was going on in front and I didn't think I could keep my footing.  Plus, the forest shrubs were too dense and Nimo was too big to get him through it, but I thought I could maneuver through it.  I decided the plan would be that I would climb along the top of the ravine while keeping Nimo on the trail below me.  So that's what we did.  I would go ahead on the top of the ravine while struggling through thorny vines and scrubby trees until I reached the end of the lead.  Then I would coax Nimo forward until he was even with me.  And then, I'd go forward a little more.  We inched our way down the hill, with me sometimes having to hang onto a vine while leaning out over the ravine (I was 6-8 feet above the trail) and sort of rappelling my way down.  Nimo's feet were so big, he could only get one hoof on the trail, so his feet were spread one behind the other and he sort of scuffled down the trail.  And finally, after what seemed like an eternity, we made it!

I decided I wouldn't get back on (I was again assured there was less than a mile left to go - this became a running joke for us) in case we hit anymore rough patches.  And that's when I found out we still had two river crossings to go.  So, I got back on and we crossed what were probably normally just little creeks, but with all the rain had become 3 foot deep streams, with very strong currents and huge boulders that couldn't be seen.  I have no idea how those horses didn't fall, but none of them had any trouble.

And then finally, we were back at camp - over 6 hours (and 16.4 miles) after we'd left.  And the rain stopped.  And I realized that I had just had the most fun I'd had in a really long time.

The thing is, I should have been miserable.  I was soaking wet, I'd been in the saddle for over 6 hours, and we'd negotiated the roughest terrain we'd ever been on.  But being with ladies who were in good spirits the whole ride and being constantly surprised by Nimo's resiliency and motivation was the formula for an awesome ride.  Even when we were negotiating that bit of trail where I had to get off, I was having fun.  The other riders were worried about us, especially because we were on a ridge and there was a lot of lightning.  But I never heard the thunder or saw the lightning.  I just focused on one step at a time, and it was so unbelievably cool to be problem-solving with my horse as my partner.

After the ride, Nimo was starving, so I let him graze for about 45 minutes.  He even rolled on the end of the lead and then I set him up with a mash, hay, and water.  He alternately ate, drank, and slept for the next few hours while I hung out with my new friends (I think you automatically become friends with the people who are with you on this kind of adventure).  I will say that I think Nimo did lose weight on the ride.  He was a little sunken in at his flank area.  I don't think he drank or ate enough on the ride, but I think that was the result of the constant wetness and lower temperature.  I don't think I ate or drank enough either for the same reasons.  It would be unusual for us to experience that kind of temperature/humidity/rain combination for a ride in the future, but I'm going to try to think about how I might manage that situation if it happens again.

Here's how Nimo looked about 2 hours after the ride:

He seemed to recover well.  In fact, he recovered so well that I took him to a dressage lesson the next day.  I really wanted to find out if he had any soreness or stiffness and I figured we could use loosening and stretching exercises to help him if he had any issues.  As it turned out, he really didn't seem sore at all, just a little tired.  I did decide to give him the rest of the week off because he'd worked hard and done so well.

The great thing about this ride was that mentally I'd finally broken through the time issue of a 6 hour ride.  I have been freaking out about how on earth we would manage to continue for SIX WHOLE HOURS.  While the distance we did was not as far as an LD would be, the time was, and if we can do 6 hours on Graves Mountain, we can do 6 hours at Fort Valley:)  Another really cool thing was that the lady who'd been concerned about Nimo as we'd done the climb at the beginning of the ride totally changed her mind about him by the end.  When I told her I was just going for ride completions, she told me she thought we should be setting our sights a little higher.  She was really impressed with the way Nimo handled himself and how he really did perk up once we got to the top of the mountain and trotted so well.  I'm not sure I'm ready to contemplate that level of riding just yet, but it made me happy to know that an experienced endurance rider saw the same thing that I see in Nimo - the ability and fortitude to get through some extreme trails while not being an idiot.

Thursday, June 26, 2014

Volunteering at the OD, part 2

So, Saturday, June 14 started at about 6 am for me.  My lovely early-riser of a daughter had me up before my alarm, and I was on the road by 7:30, waving enthusiastically to my smiling daughter and my possibly not-smiling-quite-so-much husband:)  I had to stop for gas and snacks on the way back out to Orkney Springs and my goal was to be at the Laurel Run vet check by 9:30.

I'm terrible with directions, especially ones that involve phrases like, "and then turn right at the church with the logs piled by it, but if you get to the stop sign by the large field, you've gone too far."  I like directions that involve legitimate road names, because I have a tendency to not "see" landmarks when I'm in a new place.  The directions to the Laurel Run vet check definitely included some of the former language, so I wasn't sure if I would ever get there.  After what seemed like an eternity, though, I knew I was close.  I got really excited when I realized I was behind the supply truck for the vet check, so I figured I could just follow it in and not worry about some furnace-type landmark I was supposed to use.  What I didn't realize was that the truck was not going to Laurel Run, so I ended up driving an extra few miles and had to turn around.  Eventually I managed to get to the vet check, carefully park along a Forest Service road (not far enough off the road would lead to my truck getting smacked by a passing vehicle, but too far would mean a sudden descent into a ravine), and lug my chair and backpack of assorted food, beverage, and entertainment items into the vet check.

Unlike when I volunteered at No Frills, there was not a super obvious organizational structure to the proceedings.  I asked a couple of people where the Station Head was, so I could check in and confirm my responsibilities, but no one really knew where he was.  After waiting around for a while, I did manage to track him down. I confirmed I'd be working with the in/out-timer group and so I headed back to the in/out-timer station and started meeting the other volunteers.  Initially I thought there were just 2 of us, so I was surprised to discover that there were about 7 of us.  That seemed like waaaayyyyy too many people.  I thought that I might see if the crewing volunteers needed more help because, in my experience, too many bodies can make things worse.

A very experienced rider/volunteer was working with us, and thankfully, she seemed to have a vision for how we would be organized.  I guess the plan was to start out with more volunteers than we probably explicitly needed, which would allow new people to learn the ropes and help out during large volume times.  Also, at about 2:30, several people would be moving from the Laurel Run vet check to the Big 92 vet check, so our numbers would be thinning.

Things did start off pretty slow at first.  What we decided that I would do is help both the master timer and the out-timer keep track of information and also work with another volunteer who was inputting rider times into a master spreadsheet for all vet checks as a way to help ride management keep tabs on who was where when.  This master spreadsheet was accompanied by a large screen the width of an SUV backseat, and it was pretty cool to watch as riders started coming in and data was entered.

The Laurel Run vet check would be used as the 2nd and 5th vet check by the 100 milers and as the 2nd vet check by the 50 milers.  So, what started out slow got crazy busy as 100 milers started intermingling with 50 milers in late morning and early afternoon.  All of a sudden, it seemed like we just couldn't keep up with the influx of riders combined with the riders who needed out times and then the other riders who needed to actually leave the vet check.

I should note that the OD uses a slightly different system for assigning times.  I'm told it is to expedite riders through the in-gate, and it did do that, but I think it also caused some confusion later.  What we did was give the riders a yellow "hold slip" with their number and in-time as they came into the check, so they didn't have to get their rider card out.  Then, they'd pulse down and go to the P&R station to get a pulse time, where the P&R volunteers were supposed to write the pulse time on the rider card and hold slip.  Next, they would have to come back to the in-gate to get an out-time from us written on both the hold slip and the rider card, before going back to the crewing area (Laurel Run was an away check for the 2nd check for 100 milers and 50 milers).  Finally, they would have to give the yellow slip to me on their way out, so we could confirm they left at their appropriate time.

We had a volunteer who spent most of his time running the hold slips for the riders from the P&R station to the crewing area, but some riders didn't know that, so they felt they were wasting valuable time obtaining an out-time from us.  And, I can see why they would think that.  One lady in particular got very frustrated because she had to wait for 2-3 minutes because we had so many hold slips to assign out-times to that we had a bottleneck.  The hold was a 45 minute hold, but for anyone trying to be competitive and take good care of their horse, waiting minutes for an out-time probably seemed endless.

And what seemed like a no-fail system when we had 7 people standing around doing nothing quickly became a jumbled mess of yellow slips, rider cards, timer sheets, and scratch paper as we tried to make sure we got all times recorded on yellow slips, rider cards, the master timer sheet, and the out-timer sheet.  Plus, we had to check that the pulse times were recorded on the rider cards because sometimes the P&R people didn't do that (probably because they were busy too).  Meanwhile, ride managers were insistent that we also communicate the times to the Keeper of the Master spreadsheet and we had a radio operator in the background with communications coming from other vet checks to add to the general information overload.

And then the "special needs" started to come in.  We had gotten information that one rider had turned around shortly after leaving the vet check because her horse was tying up.  We had an ambulance trailer on standby and we knew her number, but it turned out that she wasn't the owner of the horse.  The owner was back at base camp, so we needed our ham radio operator (other kinds of communication like cell phones were spotty and didn't work everywhere) to get in touch with base camp, have base camp find the owner, and then get the rider and the owner talking to get treatment authorized (the vets did start some immediate basic procedures, though).  Then, an irate hiker came in and wanted to know why she couldn't find a trail head.  I'm guessing it was because the directions she had sucked, but when I didn't have a map and the ability to help her get to the trail head in the middle of my volunteer responsibilities, she got quite upset.  Next, two riders had their cards held by the vet, who still wanted an out-time for the yellow slips, so we had to make a note to get the rider cards if everything worked out OK. (Note:  Everything did work out OK for these riders - to read their stories, hop on over to Liz's and Saiph's blogs.) Other volunteers and crew members also believed the in-timer tent should be full of maps and helpful people who knew how they could get to other vet checks or back to base camp.  We did the best we could, but there were a lot of confused people driving around out there...

Lunch time came and went and we used any downtime to try to make sure we had all the information recorded in all the right places.  Plus, we'd check to see if there were riders who should have left who hadn't, so we could make sure everything was going OK.  Eventually, around 2 pm, things started to slow down and I grabbed a sandwich.  We patted ourselves on the back, breathed a sigh of relief, and prepared for what I hoped would be a nice break while the vet check was closed from 2:45 to 6:15.

Once we'd gotten all the out-times reported to the master spreadsheet, we took some time to relax and chat, and the Station Head made burgers and hot dogs for us.  By about 4-ish, I was hoping to head to my truck to take a nap or read and get some alone time.  I'm a bit introverted, so I find that I need to be alone to recharge my batteries after a lot of interactions.

However, it was about this time that the drag riders for the loop were coming in, and they needed help with their horses.  So I stayed to chat with them and hold one of the horses for a rider who needed some food and relaxation.  Drag riding for the OD is not easy, and the trail to Laurel Run had some kind of crazy mountain climb that was pretty taxing from what I heard.  The plan was for the drag riders to load their horses into a waiting trailer and haul back to base camp.

That plan ended up with a bit of a wrinkle.  One of the horses loaded into the trailer, but as soon as the butt-bar was up, the mare freaked out.  She slammed against the butt-bar and bent it so that it couldn't be removed.  Meanwhile, she was still panicking in the trailer and slipping and kicking.  Her owner was in there with her, also in a state of panic.  I called for help because we needed something like a hammer I'd seen elsewhere in the area and somebody strong to use it to see if we could get the butt-bar removed.

But the mare would not wait and she somehow figured out how to lower her whole body and slide underneath the middle divider (about the height of a butt-bar) and out under the butt-bar on the other side of the trailer.  Her owner was hanging on for dear life, and I tried to let her know it was OK to let got of the lead (I was right behind the mare and could see she was going to clear all the metal with her body, but having her head and neck hung up with the lead would mean she'd slam the middle of her neck into the butt-bar on the way out).  Even though I don't think the owner believed me, she did eventually have to let go because the mare was committed to her exit strategy and thankfully, she managed to avoid all but some fairly superficial scratches on her legs.  Luckily, despite the vet check being officially closed, we still had one vet, who was able to treat the horse's wounds.

I ended up holding the uninjured drag horse while everyone focused on calming the panicked owner of the injured horse and getting some treatment for the horse.  Of course, the owner was not interested in putting her horse back on that particular trailer, so that meant lining up a new trailer to come.  The Station Head decided we'd keep the current trailer as an ambulance and see if we could catch another ambulance trailer coming from a different vet check.

What ended up happening is that our distress call brought two trailers.  One of the trailers already had a horse on it, and because we needed room for two horses, I directed the driver through the vet check area so she could get turned around and headed to base camp.  The second trailer driver had no idea what was going on (she was just told to head to the vet check) and she parked on the side of the road near the vet check.  I think that worked well because the road was fairly level there.  I tried to be encouraging as the owner of the injured horse worked up the courage to load her horse onto a new trailer.  In fact, the mare did just fine.  I actually think the reason she flipped out earlier was because the trailer she loaded into was parked on an incline and had wet hay as bedding, which made the floor slippery.  I think she just didn't feel safe.  The new trailer was much newer, with shavings on the mats, and probably seemed safer to her.

Anyway, after all that excitement, it was getting close to 6 pm, and my plans for a nap were set aside.  There were only 3 of us left for the various timing functions, so I was taking over as the official out-timer.  We made sure we had fresh copies of the rider list and re-coordinated our roles.  We no longer had crew volunteers because the vet check would only be for the 100 milers and with less crowding, we had more space.  It would have been nice if someone had told me that before the first crew arrived...

Also, it would have been helpful if someone had told me what to do with the crews that were arriving in giant dually pick-ups, or even semi-trucks.  I ended up making the call to have them park on the road and lug their stuff in to the crew area.  We had lost the ability to use the crew area as a drive-through to turn around because somehow in all the ambulance/drag horse trailer mess, we'd ended up with two ambulance trailers that needed space to park near the area where the horses would be, and the thought of 10 giant trucks, plus crew, plus all the crap they were lugging in, plus riders, and horses was too much for me to see my way to sanity.  I was later questioned about this decision by a ride manager, but by then it was 10:30 at night and I was possibly less-than-receptive about people telling me what to do:)

Things worked a lot better now because we had fewer horses coming in and the riders were too tired to be fussy if getting a time took a little longer than expected (except for the lady who was still mad at me from the first time she'd been through - you'd think that another 50 miles of riding would have taken that spunk right out of her, but she was hanging on to it).

One really cool thing about being at the Laurel Run check was that I got to see the 14-year old girl who would eventually set the record of being the youngest rider to win the OD 100 mile ride.  I kid you not, her lovely horse looked as fresh as if he'd never been ridden when she came through at about 7 pm, with a little over 20 miles to go before the end.  Her dad was her only crew and while she looked pretty serious, she also had her sh*t together.  She headed out for the next vet check over an hour and a half before we saw another rider.

It's possible that the finish would have been more competitive, but the two riders behind her ended up taking a wrong turn on the trail.  The Station Head actually sent a Search & Rescue team out to look for them because we knew the time they'd left Bird Haven (the previous vet check) and they were very overdue.  And it was getting dark.  One really useful piece of information that I learned is that if you are lost out on an OD trail after dark, you should expect to find your own way, or hunker down for the night.  They will not send S&R teams out after dark because the trails are so treacherous.  (This information might also make a non-endurance person wonder why any horses and riders would be on the trails after dark...).  The S&R team did not find the missing riders, but they did eventually come in, mad at themselves for missing a turn and going TEN miles out of their way.  They got vetted in and released OK, and I think they managed to finish the ride.

Anyway, we had riders trickling in until around 11:30 and with the vet check scheduled to close at 12:30, we had a ride manager stop by to go through our list of riders and confirm all pulls to make sure we were waiting for the right people.  By midnight, we confirmed that all riders that needed to be at the vet check were there and we just had a couple still waiting for the end of their hold time, so we started taking down the lights, tents, and assorted stuff that had accumulated throughout the day.  By 12:30, all riders were back out on the trail, the vet check was taken down, and I was on my way home.  Traffic was luckily great (I know, who would think you would need to worry about traffic in the middle of the night, but I-81, which is part of my way home, is a major trucking route, so can jam up at any time), and I was in bed by 3 am.

I have to say that this experience was so educational for me.  It wasn't fun in the way that crewing at No Frills was fun.  At No Frills, I had a shorter day, a smaller set of riders to work with, and I felt more tied to the riders because I was so directly helping them.  At the OD, things were more overwhelming at first, and it was a long, long day.  I discovered that being a timer is probably viewed more as a necessary evil than a true help, but that's OK.  There are certain practicalities to running an endurance ride, and not everything can be for the sole purpose of making a rider's life easier.  Sometimes things need to be done because it is an organized, sanctioned, competitive event.  The jury is still out for me whether the yellow hold slips were more beneficial than not having them, but they did end up saving our behinds a couple of times when a piece of information was missing from the master time sheet.  Because I personally pulled every single yellow slip, we always had the "official" pulse and out times for every rider.

Plus, all the volunteers were such hard workers.  There were several young people (ga! I'm so old now!) who were work horses and even us old folks were able to keep up a steady pace.  I enjoyed getting to know the ladies I was working with and I now understand the ins and outs (ha, pun intended) of how the times work.  But, my absolute favorite part was seeing the riders leaving the vet check when they were smiling ear-to-ear, even after they'd ridden nearly 80 miles and it was dark.  While I strongly suspect I will be more serious and possibly super-whiny at the rides I do, I am now going to make an effort to smile on my way out of the hold, because it was so motivating to know that there were riders having fun, and it made my long day so very worth it.

Friday, June 20, 2014

Volunteering at the OD, part one

The OD is essentially the East Coast's version of the Tevis Cup.  It is managed by Old Dominion Endurance Rides and offers distances of 25, 50, and 100 miles.  The terrain is very rugged and heat and humidity can be a factor, making it one of the most challenging rides in the country.  Because of those potential challenges, I hemmed and hawed with myself about whether I should make the 25 mile OD Nimo's and my first endurance ride or if we should sit it out and I could use the ride to get more volunteer experience.

Finally, at about 3 weeks before the ride, I had to make the call.  We had had an usually warm and humid spring. Nimo still didn't have quite the climbing conditioning that I wanted him to have for an OD ride.  I'd had a lot of fun volunteering at the OD No Frills ride back in April and I'd been told that if I volunteered for the Laurel Run away hold, I'd be done by 2:45, making it a fairly easy day.  And so I decided to be a volunteer instead of riding.  I made sure the volunteer coordinator knew my preference for the Laurel Run hold (this would come back to haunt me...), and I went on about my life.

(Note:  There is going to be a negative overtone to this post because that was my experience.  However, I don't want anyone to think that volunteering isn't valuable or that I regret volunteering in any way.  There was just a set of circumstances that ended up making my experience less than optimal.  And while I could have "spruced up" the description of my experience a little, I ended up deciding to tell it like I felt it.  Just because I did have a less than perfect/happy time, it should not be construed to mean that there was anything wrong with the ride management, the volunteer coordinator, or the alignment of the universe.  Sometimes things just don't work out as well as you hope...)

About a week before the ride, lots of e-mails started coming out for the volunteers with lots of attachments.  And by lots, I mean like 10.  At one point, I realized I would need to organize all of this information, so the Thursday before the ride, I started reading, printing, and organizing the volunteer handouts, which consisted of ride and hold schedules, volunteer names and contact info, procedures for the volunteers to follow, maps, directions, and generally more information than could fit into one person's head.  So I put everything into a binder in hopes of making sense of it all.

And that was when I discovered that by requesting to volunteer at the Laurel Run hold, I would not in fact be done at 2:45 in the afternoon.  Instead, I would be done at 12:30 or later the next morning.  While it is true that the Laurel Run hold was closed by 2:45 for the 50 milers, it was re-opened at 6:15 until 12:30 am for the 100 milers to come back through.  Had I known that earlier, I probably could have worked something out.  But, with less than 2 days before the ride, I knew any requests from me could put the ride management in a bind by not having enough volunteer coverage.  So, I negotiated with my husband.  (Remember that the day after the ride was Father's Day.)  And bless him, he agreed to keep down the fort all day and night on Saturday and allow me a few hours sleep Sunday morning before getting his requisite Father's Day "alone time."  (My husband and I have found that we don't really want gifts anymore - just some time to do our own thing and get a break from the fun, but exhausting, world of parenting with no extended family to help with child care.)

I have to admit that I was a little angry about the miscommunication on the time needed for volunteering and in hindsight, I really should have confirmed the time I would be volunteering as soon as I submitted my name, so the person I was most angry with was myself.  I absolutely understand that these rides need a lot of volunteers and that many people give much more of their time that I do.  But, I work and I take care of my daughter every day and I try to condition for endurance riding and sometimes I even shower or eat (it's often an either or kind of situation...).  Generally, volunteers are not women with very young children at home because it's just too much.  And I have recently given myself permission not to be Supermom, Superwoman, or any other Super-being.  I've decided that it doesn't matter if something can be done or if someone else I've heard of or know has done it.  If it feels like it's too much for me, then it's too much for me, and I don't have to apologize or feel guilty about saying no or not doing it.

That said, I felt like I was boxed in to this task, so I mentally prepared for what would be a very long day.  The one good thing is that I didn't need to be at the hold location until about 9:30 in the morning, so at least I didn't have to get up super early.  Because I live about an hour and 45 minutes from the ride location, I decided to drive in the day of the ride and drive home after I was done.

One other thing about volunteering for the OD ride that caused a bit of difficulty for me was that there was volunteer meeting at 5 on Friday before the ride.  That meant I'd need to drive down for the meeting and I would need to bring my daughter, Gemma, with me because my husband wouldn't be home from work before I needed to leave.  For those of you who don't have kids, but do have pets - it's not the same thing.  If I'm taking the dog somewhere, I pack some treats and some water and throw the dog in the truck.  If I'm taking my child somewhere, it requires at least 24 hours of advance planning because things like meal times and nap times may need to be shifted to accommodate travel time.  I also have to figure out what snacks and drinks to make and bring, and in this case, I had to plan for dinner too.  And diaper changes.  And clothing changes (because sometimes meals and diaper changes do not go as planned and there was a threat of rain...)

I won't bore you with the minute details, but I worked out an ambitious schedule which I hoped would allow me to push my daughter's nap time from 1 pm to 2:30-ish.  And I was completely successful.  While I left the house 15 minutes later than planned, I achieved nap time within 15 minutes of leaving and my daughter slept all the way to ride camp.  I now count this nap among my Top Ten Life Accomplishments.

Once I got to ride camp, I began to understand that the OD is not like the No Frills or the Fort Valley rides.  I wish I'd gotten a picture as I pulled into camp, because it was packed with trucks and trailers (very well-organized, but full!).  No Frills and Fort Valley had plenty of parking, but by 4:45 on Friday, the OD ride camp was very full.  I don't know where they parked the rigs coming in after me.  I ended up parking in a ditch, along with other volunteers, because that was all that was available and we didn't want to take up trailer space.

When I checked in, I was told to get a ride t-shirt, which I needed to wear to identify me as a volunteer.  I had to hoof it to the registration building and once there, had to wait for about 15 minutes as a couple of volunteers had difficulty with the t-shirt distribution system.  Apparently, t-shirts could only be dispensed by one person, who still needed to count the t-shirts in a recently delivered box before any t-shirts could be dispensed.  And said volunteer was very busy contemplating the meaning of life (or something), so the t-shirts could not be counted at that moment.  Finally, another volunteer, who perhaps recognized that standing in a crowded, small room with frantic activity is not the best place for a woman with a 20-month old, went over to the designated t-shirt box, counted the t-shirts (I believe there were about 50) and officially dispensed the t-shirt.

Once I got back to the volunteer meeting, I realized it had already started.  So I got my binder open and tried to get caught up while Gemma admired the horses doing their vet-ins and trot-outs nearby.  I'll be honest, I truly wish I could say that this meeting was helpful.  But it really wasn't.  I already knew what endurance riding was and had already volunteered at a ride, meaning that the first 20 minutes didn't apply to me.  Then, there was a lot of discussion about how important time is to a rider, so the in- and out-timers really needed to be understanding of that.  While I was scheduled to be either an in- or an out-timer, many of the people at the meeting were not, so I can't imagine how this information was helpful to anyone who wasn't a timer.  And what I discovered the next day is that nothing can really prepare you for being an out-timer except actually doing it...

Luckily, before I decided to shoot myself to put myself out of my misery, thunder started rumbling in the distance, causing the meeting leader to quickly conclude the proceedings.  I should probably mention that I spend an inordinate amount of time in generally useless meetings for work, so my opinion of meetings is very low and I have virtually zero tolerance for anything other than the most efficient presentation of immediately relevant information.  It is entirely possible that other people found the volunteer meeting to be very valuable.

And, while I had hoped to see if I could find Liz and another lady I knew before I headed home (I didn't know Saiph was riding until I saw her the next day at the vet check), the threat of a storm sent me scurrying to the truck with Gemma valiantly trying to tell me she wanted to see more horses and pet more dogs (one of the volunteers brought her lovable chocolate lab over for Gemma to pet and she was in love).  We had a quick dinner and I got on the road, trying to outrun the storm.  As it turned out, the storm was coming from the direction of my house, and while it never really affected the ride camp, it did make much of my drive back home challenging, especially because Gemma was well-rested and not ready for another nap.  (I consider my ability to sing Old MacDonald Had a Farm while producing realistic animal noises for about an hour while driving in a colossal downpour to be among my Top Fifteen Life Accomplishments.)

Now all I had to do was pack my backpack with supplies, try to get some sleep, and be an out-timer from 10 am until 12:30 am the following morning:)

Wednesday, June 11, 2014

Spray Shampoo

Washing Nimo's coat is always a bit of an exercise because it is very dense (even in summer) and for whatever reason (maybe a lot of lanolin? or possibly just the general state of filth in which Nimo prefers to live), it is difficult to get shampoo to penetrate to the skin.  So, for the last 11 years, I have been applying globs of shampoo that usually partially fall off and definitely aren't evenly distributed directly to the coat and then using some kind of scrubby mitt to work the soap into the hair.

I typically use Mane 'n Tail shampoo, but I recently ordered a bottle of Zephyr's Clean and Calm Shampoo as part of an order from Uckele Health & Nutrition.  The stuff isn't cheap, but as part of my search for a good natural shampoo, I thought it would be worth a try, particularly because I don't bathe Nimo that often.

I admit that I was disappointed when the shampoo first came because I could tell it was a liquid, not the thick goo I'm used to, and I couldn't figure out how it would work with my handful of goo application method.  Then, it occurred to me that I could put the shampoo into a spray bottle and spray it on!  This was a revolutionary breakthrough for me.  No more wasted shampoo all over the floor!  No more uneven coverage!

So, I bought an empty spray bottle at Bed Bath and Beyond and dumped the shampoo into it.

I've been using the shampoo to spray Nimo for the occasional bath.  I also use it just on the saddle area once or twice a week, because he got a nasty fungus there last year that actually damaged the skin so badly that white hairs grew back, so I'm thinking that just hosing the area off isn't good enough and some soap would be helpful.  So far, I love this new method of cleaning my horse...with one exception.  I need to cover my nose and mouth with my shirt while I spray or otherwise the mist is fine enough that I inhale it, which is a bit unpleasant.  Because of that, I don't use the spray near Nimo's head.  It's entirely possible that a different sprayer would use a coarser spray and minimize the issue, though.

I will note that when I was writing this blog post, I finally read the whole description for the shampoo, which says, "Our shampoos contain no artificial thickeners, scents, or colors.  Easy to use - wet one side of your horse, spray on the shampoo, curry or scrub horse.  Same for the other side, then rinse the entire body.  Due to the purity of Zephyr's Calm and Clean Shampoo, it rinses very quickly and completely.  You can spray it on, or pour some in a bucket of water for use with a sponge.  We prefer the spray as it's economical for overall body and perfect for spot cleaning..."  Had I read that when I ordered the shampoo, it's possible that it wouldn't have taken so long for me to figure out that I should use it as a spray:)  However, in my defense, I think the bottle should have come with a sprayer, especially for $35.

Anyway, I love the new method of cleaning my horse and I'm just wishing I had figured it out 10 years ago:)

Saturday, June 7, 2014

Nimo gets a new bridle

Ever since last year's Endurance 101 Clinic, I've been drooling over the bridles at Taylored Tack.  One of the ladies at the tack booth had a couple of Amanda's bridles with the beaded browbands, and they were just stunning.  However, that beauty comes with a bit of a price tag, and I wasn't quite ready to give up on the Micklem Bridle that I was using and that Nimo seemed to really like.

Over time, though, I've noticed that Nimo's manners on the trails have improved and that his main issues  tend to be related more to going forward than to needing to be restrained, so I thought that maybe he would do OK in just a regular bridle with no noseband for our trail rides.  And I really liked the idea of having biothane tack because I totally suck at cleaning tack.  Having something that only needed to be wiped off with water seemed like a much better fit for my cleaning skills.  And then let's talk about the colors.  Living in the dressage world, where "color" is defined as muted gray, navy, and beige, the idea of having something with blue or red or green really appealed to me.

But there were so many colors and designs, that I had trouble figuring out what to get.  I knew I wanted something with a halter component so I could take off the bit at holds, but beyond that I was stuck.  Should I get the Ride - N - Tie Bridle?  Should I get a regular halter and headstall to wear together?  Should I get a halter bridle, which was basically just a halter with a browband and bit hangers?  Or should I get one of the sidepulls or hackamores with bit hangers and see if I could train Nimo to eventually be ridden without a bit?  And what about the overlays and the colors and the overlay/color combinations?  Gaaaa!  It made my head hurt.

Eventually, though, I was able to settle on something.  I knew I wanted a halter, so I started with that.  Then, I decided against having a browband, as mouth-watering as they look.  Nimo's forelock is pretty substantial, and I knew it would just cover up the gorgeousness.  Instead, I recalled my western pleasure days where I showed with a double ear bridle.  I still have the headstall because I love the double ear look.  I saw on the website that there was a one ear headstall, so I wondered if I could have a double ear halter with bit hangers.  As it turns out, the answer is yes.  I called Amanda, and explained what I was looking for, and she said she could do it.  Yippee!  The other thing I needed to choose was a color.  I already knew I wanted one of the overlays that Amanda offers for the ears and reins, and I just kept coming back to the Fire Dance overlay with royal blue beta as the base.  So, that was what I got.  And for good measure, I added in the Horse Shoe Brand stainless steel hardware for some extra bling:)

I needed to order the bridle in a custom size for Nimo's giant head, but I couldn't believe how fast Amanda made the bridle and shipped it to me.  I think the whole time from ordering to receiving it was about 2 weeks.  So without further ado, here's Nimo's fantastic new bridle:

I love that it is beautiful, functional, and ridiculously easy to keep clean.  We've done several rides in it now, and Nimo has no trouble with new headstall.  I still use my Micklem Bridle for our dressage work because I think the design helps stabilize the bit and headstall, but for trail work, I don't think we need that same level of stability.  And I never have to feel guilty about the noseband interfering with Nimo's ability to eat, plus the bit hangers make it easy to take the bit out and put it back on.  It is possible that a side pull or hackamore may be in our future, but I decided to get something that is closest to what works for us now and worry about making changes later as we get more experienced.  Now I just need to get a matching breast collar...:)

Sunday, June 1, 2014

I have a ride calendar!

I've been envying other bloggers with their ride calendars like this one from Funder.  And it occurred to me that having a written record of the month and my rides, as well as other horse and fitness stuff might help keep me on track a little bit better.  I've been struggling with some weather- and motivation-related issues for months, and I needed to get them under control.  So I went to the local office supply store and bought myself a calendar in March.

March and April totally sucked and that was much clearer on my calendar, which showed a whopping 37 miles in March and even less in April.  Finally, in May, I was able to get everything together and start actually working toward the conditioning plan I posted about in March.  I didn't get to my goal of riding 4 days a week with 2 active rest days, but I made significant progress.  Part of the reason I didn't reach my goal was because I figured it was something we needed to work up to, especially given our lackluster performance so far this year.

Another reason was because I noticed Nimo losing a little weight.  I guess that makes sense given that he started working more, so I backed off on riding a little while I worked on increasing his feed.  Now, I think we're in good shape.  He's put on a small amount of weight and is really looking good, so my plan is to remember to increase feed when I increase work and remember to feed extra on hard workout days.  It's such a weird problem for me to have with him because he's always been such an easy keeper that unless he's in regular work, he looks a little pregnant (or a lot pregnant the one year we had a billion feet of snow, so I didn't ride for 3 months).

Anyway, the grand total for May is 74.5 miles.  That includes about 20-25 miles of dressage schooling (it's hard to measure distance in the arena, and I often combine my arena work with a mile or two of walking around the farm) and a few miles of handwalking.  The rest is all trails.  To help me get in better shape, I've been trying to handwalk Nimo the last mile of our rides and throw in an active rest day once a week where I just handwalk him down the driveway for a mile.  I'm expecting to use those handwalking sessions to work on our trot-outs a little later this summer and maybe increase the distance to up to 3 miles.