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.


  1. That photo of the group in the mist is beautiful!

    I found myself grinning from ear to ear the further along I read on this post. I was so happy for you when you mentioned the compliment from the endurance rider at the end!

    What a great ride, despite the footing and the rain! And how wonderful that you found this group to ride with! You've done a really fantastic job conditioning Nimo and it's one of the many reasons why I enjoy reading your blog so much. It is an amazing feeling when we realize that everything we've done in our training/conditioning has prepared them for the challenges that we expect them to meet and surpass. I think it's another one of those things that experienced endurance riders don't mention that ends up adding to the list of reasons of why it's such a great sport: you're the one making the decisions and preparing your horse for something that ultimately you can't warn them about in advance. That, in the beginning, you really have no idea what it's going to be like until you've already done it. You can't tell them, "Get ready: we're going to be riding for 6 hours today!" Or, "Don't be so excited now - we're doing 50 miles today!" You just have to trust that all of the months of conditioning you've put in together will be enough. And we just don't know for sure until we put the horse to the test. And then they prove that yes, what we've done for them is exactly what we needed to be doing to the point where we realize the horse is even having *fun* doing their expected's just an indescribable feeling and it just makes our bond with our partner that much stronger. :)

  2. And this is what it's all about. This. Right. Here. Controlled chaos; weather snafus; tricky trail; fun on foot when conditions aren't conducive to riding; and laughter over ridiculous moments. THAT is why I enjoy getting out and partaking in endurance. It's a whole lot of fun working through controlled chaos mile after mile.

  3. I saved this to read later, but I didn't really mean to wait a week to read it. ;)

    What a fabulous story and what an amazing adventure! That's endurance, right there: riding for six hours in shitty weather over shitty terrain and loving it. Very cool! Good job, both of you.

    (Also: I hate rain. Can't stand it. Don't know if I could've hacked that ride in spirits as good as yours. Ugh. Please, snow or sweltering summers, but no rain.)