Monday, October 27, 2014

The OD Fort Valley 30 Mile Ride

When I opened the door of my truck and stepped outside to give Nimo his breakfast at about 5:50 am, the first thing I noticed was that there was a heavy frost all over everything.  I was really glad that I had decided to put Nimo's sheet on for the night.  I generally try not to blanket, but because we were in an area that tends to be a little colder than where he lives, I decided the last thing I needed was him getting chilled overnight.  Anyway, he was excited to eat, so I gave him some Fibregized and a flake of alfalfa hay.  The other thing I'd done the night before was to grab an extra bucket full of water, so I could top his water off in the morning without having to walk to the tank.  I was so glad I did that!

Then I was free to get back in my truck, turn on the heat and spend a blissful 25 minutes getting warm.  I made some wardrobe changes so I'd be ready for the day's freezing temperatures to rise into the 70s while we were riding and then I headed back out into the cold to take Nimo for a walk around camp.  I could tell he was done with being cooped up, especially because he's used to being turned out all night.  So for about 25 minutes, he walked and grazed his way around camp.

By 7, I wanted to be putting on his hoof boots, though.  The 50-mile riders were leaving at 7:30 and I knew Nimo would start getting antsy about all the activity soon, and the last thing I wanted to be doing was wrestling with hoof boots while he was dancing around.  I did manage to get his boots on without too much trouble, but he definitely started acting up while I was putting on the saddle.  He knew something was going on and he didn't want to be left out.  It was about then that Liz and Saiph came over to see if we needed anything.  I mostly wanted somebody else to do the ride for me, but I don't think that's what they meant by help:)  Just having them there was great, though.  Liz helped hold Nimo for me while I finished getting things ready and Saiph held him for me while I got on, which was no small feat given how excited he was!

So far, everything was pretty much going according to my plan.  The 30-mile ride started at 8, and I wanted to be on Nimo by 7:45 so I could walk him around to help him work through some of his anxiety.  My only real problem at that point was my stomach - it absolutely insisted that no food was to be allowed in it.  I decided to pack a couple of snack bars (which were currently in a frozen state), hoping that by the time they thawed, I'd be ready to eat something.

Nimo and I walking around camp just before the start of the ride.
Photo by Saiph

One other thing I wanted to do was find the other lady riding a big, black warmblood.  I'd met her the day before very briefly and several other riders have suggested over the past year or so that I get in touch with her because she's been riding her horse in LD's for several years and done well.  I'd been reluctant to approach her because I have trouble asking for help sometimes and I also worried that I would hold her back.  However, I'd kind of gotten over my worry about that because I really felt like I needed a riding buddy for this ride, and she seemed really nice.  I did manage to find her (there were only 41 of us starting in the 30-mile ride) and I asked if I could tag along, at least for the first few miles.  She said that I absolutely could and she was also sponsoring a junior, so she had no intention of going very fast.  (Said junior was on a gray Arabian, so that should have given me a clue about what "slow" meant.)

I continued to walk Nimo around camp until a couple of minutes before the start to help keep him calm.  And then, all of a sudden, it was time.  There was a lovely group of people waiting to send us off and we walked out onto the road.  I was expecting a controlled start because that was what they'd said the night before at the ride meeting.  It turns out that there might be some definitional confusion about what a controlled start means because I never saw the vehicle that was supposed to be keeping everyone to a walk when we started.  I convinced Nimo to walk for a couple of minutes, but after that, it was sort of a free-for-all and we were all trotting up the mountain.  Because I actually wanted Nimo to trot up the mountain in the first place, I was fine with the extra speed at this point and let him go at what I considered a reasonable speed.  However, I really wanted to stay at the back of the pack because I knew once we got to the top of the mountain, our pace would be slower than most.  It turns out that that particular strategy was easier said than done.

By the time we got to the top of the mountain (about a mile and a half later), I could tell I had a frantic horse on my hands.  Nimo was really anxious about being left behind and we somehow got stuck with a group of crazy people.  Well, actually, pretty much all the riders at that point were crazy.  And I don't meant the kind of crazy that makes you camp in freezing temperatures with your horse so that you can then ride 30 miles in the mountains the next day.  I mean the kind of crazy that is well above that level in the hierarchical structure of crazy.

These people would trot their horses over and down anything, which is the exact opposite of what I wanted.  There is a short level part of the trail at the top of the mountain, but it is fairly rocky and not really the terrain I want my horse trotting over.  I particularly did not want my horse trotting down the trail on this side of the mountain because of all the steep angles and rocks, which is what these nutcases were doing.  I tried holding Nimo back, but he was pulling for all he was worth, and when a big Friesian is pulling, it is not even in the same category as when a tiny Arab is pulling.  I know this because I used to have a tiny Arab who would get frustrated if she had to walk behind anyone, so I'm familiar with tiny Arab pulling.  But I wasn't all that familiar with big Friesian pulling.  I've been riding Nimo on a loose rein or very light contact on the trails the vast majority of the time, and even in the arena, I rarely use much more than 1-3 pounds of pressure on the reins.  This was not 1-3 pounds of pressure.  This felt like 50 pounds of pressure.  It literally was taking all of my strength to hold Nimo down to a sort of walk, slightly crazed and unstable trot down the mountain.  And people kept passing us.  I don't understand where they were coming from, because I'd sworn I was at the back of the pack, but they must have been late starters or just walked their horses up.  Why anyone would walk their horse up the mountain and trot down it is beyond me, but I have no other explanation for what was happening.  And I managed to lose my prospective riding buddy in the mess too, which meant we were on our own.  (I later found out that her horse went a little nuts with all the craziness too, and she got sucked along with the faster pace for longer than she wanted to be and over terrain that was not safe for her horse to trot.  Maybe we can work together next time to overcome the situation...)

As luck would have it, one of the gaiters on Nimo's front Easyboots ripped and the boot went flying (it probably wasn't meant for 10 mph trots down the side of rocky mountains).  At first, I was upset, but it gave me an excuse to get off and let some riders go by and Nimo seemed to calm down a little.  I put on a replacement boot that I was carrying, found a big rock, and got back on.  I was hopeful that we could settle on a slower pace.  Unfortunately, more riders just kept passing us and with each one, Nimo got more and more wound up.  My arms were already exhausted and I was freaking out because I never expected this behavior.  Nimo has been awesome when we've ridden with groups and by himself, so I just wasn't prepared for this level of anxiety from him.

Unfortunately, Nimo's anxiety and pulling seemed like it would never end.  Finally, by about mile 6 into the ride, I couldn't take it anymore.  We'd been passed by a couple of riders on a "walking break," which was awesome because with them walking, I got my first break from the pulling on the reins in an hour and got to drink some water too.  The problem was that they inexplicably walked on the flat part of the trail and then as soon as the trail went steeply downhill, they started trotting.  I absolutely made it clear to Nimo that we weren't trotting down this hill and then he started ripping the reins out of my hands, throwing me off balance in the saddle, and HE WAS NOT PAYING ATTENTION TO WHAT HIS FEET WERE DOING ON THE STEEP, SLIPPERY, ROCKY, RIGHT-NEXT-TO-A-PRECIPICE TRAIL.  I think this might be the first time I've ever gotten off a horse because I felt safer on the ground than on the horse.  I was really scared that Nimo was going to lose his footing and fall.  It turned out that I wasn't much safer on the ground because I couldn't walk very fast and Nimo kept running into me and trying to step on me and circling me on the trail.  Somehow we made it to the bottom and I just kept walking because there wasn't a good stump in sight.  I finally found one and tried to get back on, but my whole body was shaking with the fatigue of wrestling with Nimo (and maybe a little with fear too) and I literally could not get back on.  Plus, Nimo was dancing around, making it hard for me to even get my foot in the stirrup.  It was so frustrating!  We have practiced me getting on from rocks, stumps, logs, fences, pickup tail gates, trailer fenders, mounting blocks, and any other obstacle that I can get on from out on the trail with never a single issue.

So I kept walking and tried again to get on using a different log farther down the trail.  No go.  By this point, we were about halfway into the loop and I didn't know how we were going to get back to camp.  I was pretty sure we really were the last people on the trail now (I forgot about the drag riders) and I was too exhausted to keep going and Nimo was too much of a basketcase for me to get back on.  It is possible that I was on the verge of a complete breakdown, involving tears and the fetal position, except Nimo kept trying to step on me, which prevented me from really engaging in my pity party.

And then my knightess in shining armor arrived.  A lady on a white horse (okay, gray, but work with me here), came out of nowhere on the trail and asked if I needed help.  It turned out she was one of the Ride & Tie folks.  Her voice was so kind and she was exactly what I needed.  I asked if she would mind stopping for a minute while I got back on, and she was happy to do that.  I explained I'd been having some trouble with my horse and was trying to get him slowed down, so she offered to walk with me a little bit, although she needed to get moving because her partner was apparently very fast and he'd been running 4 miles already or something like that.  And while we were chatting, another lady came up behind us and asked if she could ride with us.  She was an experienced endurance rider on a young, green horse and she wanted to go slow, but her mare was acting the opposite of Nimo.  She was stalling and having trouble getting down the trail by herself.  So she needed a buddy.  WhoooHooo!  The three of us picked up the trot and rode together for awhile until it was time for the Ride & Tie lady to swap with her partner.  Her partner took off at a canter, which was too fast for our green horses, so the two of us stayed behind and just kept trotting.  It was about at this point that I got my horse back.  Nimo was motivated and forward-thinking without being stupid about it and he was happy to lead the way down the trail.  I was finally able to ride on just light contact and we started making really good time.  The other horse with us couldn't trot as fast as Nimo, so we would sometimes get a little far ahead.  It worked out OK, though, because then Nimo would want to walk for a bit, while the little Appy we were riding with kept her slower trot and caught up to us.

It seemed like no time before we were back at the mountain we'd climbed during the first couple miles of the trail.  We started back up and I looked at my watch for the first time in a long while.  I'd mostly been paying attention to the mileage on my GPS because I figured I'd blown the ride and I'd have to pull at the vet check because we'd be too far behind to catch up.  So it was a bit of a shock when I realized it was only 10:20.  My original plan was to be back at camp for the vet check by 11.  (There were two loops - the first one was 14 miles and the second one was 15 miles, with one vet check and 45 minute hold at base camp.)  With less than 3 miles to go, I realized that I might actually be able to make that target if Nimo could climb well and trot down the mountain on the other side (the other side was mostly a gravel road, so much safer to trot than the trail we'd been on earlier).  With my head back in the game, I waited to see how Nimo would do on the climb before hoping too much.  It's a fairly steep, long climb that was challenging for him at last year's Intro ride, but this time he did it without hesitation.  And at the top, once we got past some of the worst of the rocks, we started trotting, and we trotted and we trotted.

I have this image in my head from last year's ride.  It was when we were first going up the mountain and I guess either the 30-milers or the 50-milers were already starting to come back down to finish their first loop.  There was a lady whose horse was trotting down that mountain toward us and the grin on her face was like nothing I could even imagine.  She was so clearly having the time of her life, and I remember thinking that trotting down that steep of an incline on gravel was flat out dangerous and that Nimo and I would never be able to do that.  It turns out that I was wrong.  Because as we trotted down that mountain toward base camp, I realized Nimo was so balanced and moving so well that I WAS HAVING FUN!!!  And I had the exact same loopy grin on my face as that lady from last year did.  And it didn't matter anymore that I wanted to quit just a few miles ago and I could hardly even feel the soreness in my arms from holding Nimo back for so many miles.

Photo by Becky Pearman

It seemed like no time before we were on the paved road leading to the entrance of base camp.  From there it was a quarter mile to the vet check, and I wanted to get off at that point and walk Nimo in to try to get him pulsed down as fast as possible so as not to lose any time.  I mentioned to my riding partner that I was going to get off and walk in and she planned to do the same, so just as we were getting to the bridge to turn into camp, I got off.  And then I realized that my crew was waiting for me right there (even though I'd never mentioned anything about my plan to them - possibly because I didn't really think we'd make it that far).  Liz and Saiph and Charles were all there and Liz and Saiph pulled Nimo's saddle off while I kept him walking.  I have to admit I felt a little bit like royalty at that point.  How cool to have people!

Me with Nimo and Saiph.  Photo by Saiph's husband, Charles.
So we walked into the vet check and I took Nimo to the water tanks right away.  He drank a lot and then, probably to the surprise of more than one person, I took him straight to the P&R area for a courtesy pulse.  I was almost positive he was already down and I wanted to get him vetted as soon as possible.  And I was right.  He pulsed in at 59, so we were good to go.  He vetted through with all A's!

Vetting in.  Photo by Liz Stout.
Then, we headed to the trailer to give him a break and something to eat.  On the way there, he peed and it looked good, so I was thrilled about that, given that he hadn't drunk any water on the first loop at all and he'd sweated more than I wanted.  Liz held Nimo's food for him because apparently he was now accustomed to being treated like royalty.  Most of what happened is kind of a blur, but somehow I ate and drank something and Nimo ate and then I put his tack back on and headed back to the vetting area so I could check in with the out-timer for our second loop.  I wished Liz and Saiph and Charles good bye at that point because I knew they had to head back home, but it was so amazing to have them there for me.

Team Nimo with Liz and Saiph.  Photo by Liz Stout.
After I got to the vet area, I ran into my riding partner from the first loop.  Her horse had taken a few minutes longer to pulse down than Nimo, so her out time was about 5 minutes after mine.  I told her I was just going to walk for a few minutes anyway to get Nimo warmed up again, so I'd just walk until she caught up.  We ended up leaving the hold about 2 minutes after our out time, but given that it was impossible to walk anywhere with my horse without being stopped by someone who wanted to pet him or ask questions about him, I figured that was pretty good.

Nimo was definitely a little slow for the first few minutes.  I think he really thought he was done, so this part of the ride was hard for him.  After a few minutes, though, his riding buddy caught up and we were off and trotting.  I could tell that this loop was going to be tougher because Nimo lacked the motivation he'd had for the first loop.  And while my arms paid a heavy price for that motivation, I kind of missed it at this point.  So, the other lady and I ended up leapfrogging the horses for many, many miles.  When one of them would get tired or hesitate, the other one would just pass and keep going.  It made the miles go by pretty quickly and the lady I was riding with was really happy about it because her mare had trouble with horses passing or just being next to her.  Nimo was completely oblivious to the Appy mare's pinned ears and tail swishing because I think he really believes that everyone adores him.  So he would just quietly trot next to or pass the mare and gradually she got desensitized to him.

I'd heard from Liz and Saiph that this loop was easier than the first one (the second loop of the 30 and the third loop of the 50 were the same) with the exception of some climbing in the early and middle part of the loop.  I guess that was probably true overall, but the climb in early part of the loop nearly killed all four of us.  I could tell Nimo was struggling with the climb, so I got off in an attempt to help him.  The other lady did the same for her horse who was also dragging a bit.  But then I realized why Nimo was having such a hard time - it was a steep and fairly long climb!  I actually nearly died at least three times trying to get up the stupid hill and I'm not sure who was the most relieved when we finally got to a different part of the trail that wasn't so steep.

Luckily, it wasn't long after that climb that we crossed a nice creek.  Both horses drank and we let them stand in the water for a few minutes to help cool them.  The temperature was approaching 70 degrees (maybe a little more) and I was starting to worry about Nimo getting overheated.  He wasn't sweating a huge amount and there was no lather like in the first loop, so that was good, but I wanted to make sure it stayed that way.  I knew there were several creek crossings in this loop, so I was hoping to take advantage of them.

But as the miles went by, I could tell that Nimo was getting more and more tired.  He was trotting less and less distance before he wanted a walk break, even on the easy fields we were often riding in.  And instead of him pulling the Appy along, she was now pulling him along.  And when we got about 4 miles from the end of the loop, I knew he was done.  So I told our riding partner that she should go on ahead because if she could keep the pace we'd been keeping, I thought she had a chance of making it on time.  She'd said she didn't care if she went over time, but I could tell she really wanted to try to make it, so I sent her on ahead.  Nimo was only mildly concerned about her leaving, which was a testament to how tired he was, and I figured we'd probably come in about a half hour over time, but hopefully still in good shape.

And I made my peace with my decision.  Because after all my anxiety about this ride and my belief that we couldn't do it, I realized that I really wanted us to come in on time and pulse down and get a completion.  When that goal was so close and tangible, it was hard to deny how much it meant to me.  But I also knew that if I pushed Nimo any more, I would risk his health, and I hope to have many more rides on this wonderful, giant, pain-in-the-butt horse.  So we walked all the way back to camp, even when we got lapped by the 50-milers on their third loop and Nimo wanted to try to keep up with them.  It turned out it my GPS had missed about a mile somewhere and my estimate of a half hour over time was way off.  We ended up coming in a mere 7 minutes after the cut-off time of 3:15.  (Our riding partner for the loop had made it in on time and pulsed down with literally not a minute to spare.)

Because we were over time, I hadn't gotten off to walk Nimo in to the vet check because I figured we probably had some time to pulse down.  My plan was to get our in-time, stop by the water tanks for Nimo to drink and then head to the trailer for me to pull tack, sponge Nimo, get him something to eat, and then head back over for the final vet check.  Something went horribly wrong with that plan because the in-timer insisted I check in with the vets first.  I did stop by the water tanks first and Nimo drank.  Then I went to the P&R area to explain we were over time and I'd be back in 15-20 minutes for the final vet check.

Weeeellllll, here's what happened.  Everybody started freaking out that we were over time.  The P&R lady insisted on taking a pulse right then.  Nimo was at 79, which wasn't great, but we'd only been there for 2 minutes, so I said I wanted to pull his tack and get him something to eat.  I was told I needed to pull his tack right then.  So I did.  Then I was basically forced to vet in right away.  Nimo's pulse was 68 by the end of the vet exam, which indicated to me that he was coming down pretty well and that if I could just get him to the trailer and let him eat and rest, he'd be fine.  I reiterated my desire to do just that.  Instead, I was essentially forced to go to the treatment vet and wait for a good 5 minutes while the ride vet explained the situation to the treatment vet, who was currently in the process of treating the Ride & Tie horse whose rider had helped us in the first loop with fluids.  And I knew that the other big, black warmblood had come in on time, but wasn't pulsing down and so she probably needed help.  Plus there was another 30 mile rider just behind me and another one still on the trail, so they might have needed help too.  Eventually, it was decided that I could take Nimo back to the trailer and let him rest and eat.  Sigh...

I got Nimo set up with food and water and then I had to walk all the way back to the vet check to get my tack.  Because I was parked pretty much as far away from the vet area as it was possible to be, that was a long haul.  And while I remember Liz saying my saddle felt light when she carried it after our first vet check, the thing seemed like it weighed 50 pounds to me.  So I literally dragged it on the ground all the way back to the trailer because I was incapable of lifting it.  And finally, I got to sit down and get something to drink and eat.  I watched Nimo and he ate and drank and then took a little half-doze.

Because I'd said I would report on Nimo's progress after about half an hour, I then had to walk back to the treatment vet and let her know how he was doing.  And she decided she really wanted to see him with her own eyes.  So I walked back to the trailer and saw that Nimo was busy stuffing his face with hay.  I really didn't want to interrupt that, so I waited a few minutes, and then got him out of his pen and we started toward the treatment vet's area.  It literally took us 45 minutes because so many people stopped us to talk.  They wanted to know how we did.  And when I explained we'd finished but at 7 minutes over time, most of them averted their eyes or looked embarrassed and quietly slunk away.  A few said things like, "Well, you'll know better next time" and "I hope you learned something" or they went through the typical laundry list of ideas for cooling.

The thing is, I don't think I really made any mistakes on the ride.  Definitely a few things didn't work out the way I'd expected or hoped, but I did the best I could with the horse I had.  And to be honest, I thought it was pretty awesome that we finished at all and so close to the maximum time.  I mean, do 7 minutes really matter when you've been on the trail for over 7 hours?  I get that there has to be a cut-off time and I'm OK with not getting a completion, but I don't think that being over time should be such a bad thing.  I took care of my horse and I really expected to get some exclamations of congratulations or even something along the lines of, "It's great that you didn't push your horse too hard on his first ride."  I was really proud of us (although possibly too tired to articulate that point at the time).  Yes, I could have clipped him, but I had a reason for not doing it.  Yes, I could have sponged him with cold water, but he wasn't really sweating, and he really hates being sponged with cold water unless he's really hot.  I think the slower recovery was just the miles.  The heat may have been a minor factor, but if I had to do the ride over again, I would do exactly what I did with the exception of checking in with the vet when we got back.  If we go over time again, I'm totally slinking off to the trailer first unless I think Nimo is in trouble.

Anyway, the treatment vet pronounced Nimo OK once we finally got there and when I asked specifically about sponging him off, she actually told me to wait until we got home and use warm water.  His pulse was still a little higher than I would have liked (56), but the vet said his gut sounds were good, skin tenting was good, and overall appearance was good.  His capillary refill time was a bit slow, but otherwise he was in good shape.

And once again I tried to journey back to my trailer, but more people wanted to talk to us.  I don't mean to sound ungrateful.  I really enjoyed meeting so many friendly people who were obviously interested in how we were doing.  But I hadn't gotten much of a chance to sit down and rest myself and while Nimo adores being doted on and fawned over, he really needed rest too.  Plus, I still had to load all my stuff and drive 2 hours back to the barn before I could go home and crash.

There was one thing that I wanted to wait for Nimo to do before we left and that was to pee.  I hadn't really talked about that with the treatment vet, but it was something that was on my mind.  And I made an internal decision that no matter how exhausted I was or how late it was, we wouldn't leave until Nimo peed.  As it happened, he peed on the way back to the trailer.  It looked a little dark, but definitely not bad and there was a lot of it, so I figured he was probably mildly dehydrated but otherwise just tired and getting him home would probably be the best thing for him.

So, I loaded up all of my crap which was strewn all around my truck and trailer and even in the general vicinity around my truck and trailer.  I assure you that I did not improve the organization of my stuff by loading it.  I think I could have rivaled a teenage boy in terms of messiness.  (It's possible that I kind of want to set fire to my truck instead of unloading it and just buy new crap.)  And those 50 pound corral panels were definitely not my favorite thing.  It turns out 50 pounds weighs a lot more after you've ridden 30 miles than before.

But by shortly after 6:30, I was on the road.  I'd hoped to leave a little sooner so I could do the first 11 miles of the trip in daylight, but it was not to be.  Those 11 miles wind through the George Washington National Forest and the road is only about 6 inches wider than my trailer with no shoulder.  There aren't any steep hills, but the sharp curves mean I have to go slow, which causes a traffic back-up behind me and the darker it is, the slower I have to go.  So I'm sure I annoyed at least 50 people, but we made it in good shape and the rest of the trip was an easy drive.

I pulled into the barn around 8:30, gave Nimo some dinner and turned him out for the night.  Then I took about 30 ibuprofen tablets to address my headache (likely due to a combination of stress, dehydration, and exhaustion), and drove home.  The funny thing is that I called my husband to tell him I was about 30 minutes out and he sounded so exhausted.  It turns out that watching a two-year old for 2 days might be more work than camping with your horse and riding for 30 miles!

Sunday, October 26, 2014

The OD Fort Valley 30 Mile Ride T-1

My plan for the Fort Valley ride was to leave the barn around 10 am and get to base camp at about noon.  Check-in didn't start until 2 and vetting in didn't start until 3, so arriving between noon and 1 would give me plenty of time to get Nimo settled in ahead of time.  I also wanted to make sure I had taken care of all my stuff before Liz and Saiph were done with the 50-mile ride that they were doing.  I didn't really know how long they were expecting to take to finish, but I wanted to be able to help out if I could.

The first thing I needed to do was to pack all my stuff.  I'm sure you're thinking that I should have done that already and you would be right.  However, I am a procrastinator through and through and I figured that picking up the corral panels I needed for Nimo's pen on the Monday before the ride was advance planning.  So that's how it came to be Friday morning with none of my stuff packed.  Luckily, I had thought about what I needed to bring and how I would organize the truck and trailer.  I even made a bunch of lists on my phone, so I wouldn't forget anything.  Then I decided that the lists were really just too overwhelming because there were so many things on them, so I never looked at them again.

The corral panels were already loaded from when I had picked them up, so I spent a few minutes re-organizing things in the trailer so there would be room for Nimo.  Then I just started putting things I thought I would need into the truck - water, food, clothes, sleeping bag, pillow.  When it looked like I'd packed enough stuff, I quit, took a shower, and headed out for the barn.

At the barn, there wasn't much to pack aside from the usual things I pack for our conditioning rides.  I threw in an extra set of brushes, a bale of hay, and just random stuff that I thought might be useful - hoof rasp, extra bucket, clippers, yarn (for braiding Nimo's mane), extra shims for the saddle, extra saddle pad...Anyway, once I looked in my tack locker and didn't see anything else that looked like I might need it, I got Nimo, washed his mane (to make braiding easier) and loaded him.  He was not super happy about sharing his space with the corral panels, and my intention is to eventually have them mounted on brackets on the outside of the trailer (I'll probably get that done a week before my next ride...), but we were all set.

And we headed out (about half an hour after I'd planned, but no big deal).  Our trip to base camp was remarkably uneventful.  Because we did the Intro ride at Fort Valley last year, I sort of remembered the way, which was good, because the OD directions were not that great.  In fact, I'm not sure how I figured out how to get there last year.  I must have spent some time looking at maps (and I do have a vague memory about having to turn around at one point).  Anyway, I know the area a little better now, so aside from a minor panic attack when I thought I might have missed a turn (turning around in the mountains on tiny roads with no shoulders is doable but not fun), we made it there with no problem.

I got Nimo out of the trailer, tied him up with some hay, and unloaded the corral panels.  They weigh about 50 pounds each, so they aren't the light-weight kind, but I was able to get Nimo's pen set up in less than 10 minutes while people with the electric fencing were still messing around with their set-ups.  I choose these corral panels because Nimo is a big horse who isn't necessarily that phased by electricity.  I've seen him get shocked by electric wire and just sort of blink, so I didn't feel comfortable using an electric pen for him.  And I didn't want to use the lighter-weight panels because they tend to be short with big spaces between the bars that are perfect for enterprising horses (like Nimo) to insert their heads and legs through.  Anyway, I was pretty happy with his pen, which was sort of a diamond shape made out of 6 10-foot long panels that were 5 feet high.  The space was bigger than a typical stall, so he had plenty of room to move around.  I was kind of worried that he would be anxious in the new set-up, but he settled right in eating grass and was perfectly happy.

With Nimo taken care of, I re-organized my stuff so I could sleep in the back seat of the truck and then I walked around camp to get oriented and I checked the vet check to see if Liz and Saiph happened to be vetting in (they weren't).  With some time to kill before I needed to check in, I set up my chair, grabbed a soda, and ate leftover pizza for lunch.  At about 2 o'clock, I wandered over to the registration area and checked-in.  The ride packet was basically a schedule of the ride times, my ride card, and two meal tickets.  I have to admit that I was expecting a bit more, like maybe a map or information about how the trails were marked or any trouble spots.

Then I just hung out for awhile until we could vet in.  (For those without an endurance background, the vet-in process is a quick exam that checks things like heart rate, capillary re-fill, gut sounds, general appearance and soundness and fitness through a trot-out that involves trotting 125 feet, turning around at the walk, and then trotting 125 feet back.  The process is repeated after each loop during the ride and at the end to make sure the horse is still in good shape and recovering well.)  About 20 minutes before the vetting, I got Nimo out of his pen and let him walk around and eat grass.  Finally it was time to head over to the vetting area.  And we got quite the reception.  I know one of the ladies who was volunteering there, and she adores Nimo, so she made a big fuss over him.  And then other people started making a big fuss over him and one guy (I think maybe a vet) wanted his picture taken with Nimo.  It was kind of crazy.  On the one hand, it's awesome that everyone was so supportive of me riding a non-Arab (actually, I think it might just be the novelty of a Friesian), but it was a little overwhelming.  We vetted through just fine, although there was a bit of a struggle to see who would actually get to vet him because more than one person wanted to do it.  I should probably disclose that I have never practiced the trot-out with Nimo.  We did it last year at the Endurance 101 clinic and he was fine, and I do ground work with him occasionally, and he follows me pretty well, so I never felt compelled to work on it (there's that procrastination thing again).  That said, while Nimo was a bit slow to start trotting, he otherwise handled the exam and trot-out just fine.  (Yay for procrastination.)  We got all A's!

Nimo in his pen after the vet-check.

After we finished the exam, more people wanted to fawn over Nimo and chat, so we hung out there for awhile before heading back to the trailer.  It was at that point that my suspicion that I managed to park behind Liz and Saiph was confirmed.  I thought I recognized their trucks and trailers and when we were coming back from the vetting, there they were!  They were in the middle of a hold before their last loop.  I put Nimo away and came back over to see if they needed anything.  There really wasn't much I could do at that point, and Saiph had trained her husband, Charles, very well, so I just chatted for a few minutes and wished them luck.

While they were gone, I decided to relax a little with a book and then braid Nimo's mane.  The temperature would be quite cool that evening, but the high for the next day was expected to be 70 or above and I wanted to braid Nimo's mane to help with cooling because he already had about half of his winter coat grown in.  I do want to say that I also considered clipping him before the ride.  But with winter approaching, I didn't want to have to blanket through the winter just because of one ride.  I thought about just doing the jugular area, but I finally decided against any clipping (although I did bring my cordless clippers in case I changed my mind).  My plan was just to keep an eye on him and if he looked like he was overheating, we'd slow down or pull.

I also braided green and red ribbons into Nimo's tail.  The ride management was pretty insistent that new riders/horses have a green ribbon in the tail and I added the red ribbon to help keep people from riding up on Nimo's butt before passing.  He is not a kicker except in the situation where somebody comes up behind us much faster than we are going and comes in close beside us.  He's never made contact with anyone, but he has given warning kicks and pinned his ears a few times, so I wanted to at least give people fair warning.  My personal feeling is that if you engage in that kind of rude trail behavior, you sort of deserve what you get, but on the other hand, I didn't want someone's horse to get kicked because the rider was an idiot.

Probably around 6:30, I headed back over to the vet check area to see if Liz and Saiph were back yet because Liz had mentioned that their goal was to get back by about 6:30.  As it turned out, they were back.  I'll let Liz and Saiph tell their stories, but one thing I was able to do was to get Liz a jacket because she was still in a t-shirt and with darkness falling, the temperature had come way down from the high of 70, so she was freezing.

Around 7:30, I headed over to get dinner and attend the ride meeting.  Dinner was the biggest taco salad I've ever seen and PUMPKIN PIE.  I love pumpkin pie.  I would eat 3 pieces every day if I could.  And there has been a severe shortage of pumpkin pie in our area.  I love the pie that our grocery store bakery makes and for some reason, they no longer make it.  Ever.  And while I'm perfectly capable of making my own pumpkin pie, it's always better from the grocery store.  So I haven't had pumpkin pie in forever and it made my day that I got a piece.

It was really dark by then and while I did know some people at the ride, I couldn't see well enough to find someone I knew, so I just sat wherever (Liz and Saiph were still taking care of their horses).  The ride meeting was supposed to start at 7:30, but it took awhile to get going.  Anyway, first they went through information about the Asgard Arabian that was going to be raffled off, the vendors and sponsors, and the awards for that day's rides (the Fort Valley ride offers 30 and 50 mile rides on both Friday and Saturday), and then finally they started talking about the trails.  To be honest, it wasn't really that helpful.  For one thing, it was getting cold, and I was freezing.  I don't focus well when I'm cold and what I really wanted was a 5-minute summary of how the trail was marked, any potential trouble spots, and the pulse cut-off (sometimes the pulse cut-off is 64 and sometimes it is 60).  I also really wanted a trail map.  It's not that I'm a great map reader, but even a general map that isn't drawn to scale can help if there is a trail junction and you're not sure which way to go.  Plus, it sounded like a few riders had gone off trail during Friday's rides due to missing ribbons or a confusing turn, and I wanted to make sure that didn't happen to me.  I expected it to be a struggle to ride the miles we were supposed to ride and I didn't want to add anything.  Anyway, there was no map, so I would have to rely on the trail markings to get through.  And while the pulse cut-off for the 50-milers was 64, it was 60 for the 30-milers.  And we were reminded that the 50-milers had 30 minutes to pulse down after finishing and those 30 minutes would not be counted as ride time, but the 30-milers had to be pulsed down to 60 by the end of the maximum ride time.  Let me just say that as a newcomer, that discrepancy seems stupid.  I don't understand it.  I get that riding 50 miles is harder than riding 30 miles, but to have to factor pulse-down time into your ride time is annoying.  I could see if they said that you had to be pulsed down in a shorter amount of time for a 25-30 mile distance (say 15-20 minutes instead of 30), but it's very frustrating to have a different standard.

After the meeting, I tracked down Liz and Saiph and mostly hung out with them for the rest of the evening.  I did do about a half hour walking/grazing session with Nimo before bed and then I climbed into my truck for what I was desperately hoping would be a full night's sleep...Yeah, right.  I had purchased a sleeping bag that was rated for 0 degrees because the temperature was supposed to be around 40, but in the mountains, it can be hard to predict and and it can get cold.  So I figured I'd be really overshooting what I needed with my super fabulously-reviewed sleeping bag.  I changed into my breeches for the next day (they are so comfortable and I figured it would save time the next morning) and put another pair of pants over them.  Then I put on my t-shirt for riding and a fleece jacket on top.  And for good measure, I dragged one of Nimo's fleece coolers into the sleeping bag too.  Then I climbed into my sleeping bag and expected to be overcome with warmth and happiness while I drifted off to a peaceful sleep.

That did not happen.  The temperature continued to fall and I got colder and colder.  By 1 o'clock I was shivering and in danger of hypothermia.  Remembering Saiph's post about having to turn on the truck to warm up last year when she rode at Fort Valley, I started my truck and turned the heat on full blast for about 25 minutes (I read somewhere that you should run your car/truck for at least 20 minutes if you start it or you risk running down the battery).  That got me toasty warm, but I was faced with the dilemma of knowing that as soon as I turned the truck off, the temperature would rapidly get colder again (my truck thermometer said it was 36 degrees outside).  So I put on another sweatshirt with a hood and then my light winter jacket with a hood on top of that.  I put both hoods on my head and in a fit of inspiration I put my Back on Track mini-blanket on my pillow.  If you've never tried the Back on Track products, they are basically ceramic-infused material that is supposed to reflect your body heat back to you to create a gentle warming for healing sore muscles.  I've had some success with the mini-blanket and sometimes sleep on it if my shoulder that is prone to spasms is bothering me.  Anyway, it occurred to me that the worst problem was how cold my head felt, so I wondered if the heat from the mini-blanket would help.  And it did.  With my added layers and the warm blanket on my pillow, I finally managed to drift off to sleep for maybe an hour or two.  When I woke up, I wasn't sure what time it was, but I still felt warm.  I was however, uncomfortable from sleeping on the stupid truck seat.  There wasn't a good way to turn over and even shifting to my back ruined the effect of having my check on the blanket on my pillow.  So I tossed and turned and finally heard some kind of crazy commotion at around 4:30.  The hunting dogs on the property we were staying at went nuts and then somebody was talking on the loudspeaker and it was colossally annoying.  I wasn't able to get back to sleep and I could tell Nimo was up and would very much like breakfast.  I ignored him, not wanted to get out of the truck, but by 5:50, I decided it was time to get up and start getting ready for our big ride.

Wednesday, October 22, 2014

A Practice LD and Pre-Ride Thoughts

Nimo looking out over the Battlefield
One of the things I've been meaning to do is to run through a 20-ish mile ride with Nimo where I practice doing a loop, stopping at the trailer for a pretend hold and going through the motions of pulling tack, feeding and sponging Nimo, and getting myself a snack, and then going out for the second half of the ride.  I finally managed to pull it off this past Saturday at Manassas Battlefield.  I don't ride there often anymore for reasons that will probably become apparent throughout this post, but there is a main bridle trail that is 10 miles (making it perfect for practicing a two-loop 20 mile ride), there is good water available on the trail, and several places with good grass to eat, and the parking lot is in good shape.  This ride ended up only being about 18 miles because there is this section of the main bridle trail that I somehow always miss, but mileage aside, everything else worked basically the way it was supposed know, sort of.

By the time I dragged myself out to the barn, it was well past 10 am, but I figured that was a good thing because the Battlefield is a popular hiking and riding location, and I was hoping a late start would mean fewer people out on the trails.  Of course, I ended up being even later than I expected because despite very carefully placing the bag full of water bottles and carrots near the door so I wouldn't forget them, I forgot the bag with the water and carrots.  Luckily, our house is virtually on the way to the Battlefield from the barn, so I swung by and got the forgotten bag.

When I got to the Battlefield, it was near 1 pm and there were only a couple of trailers, so I was hopeful that the trails wouldn't be too congested.  Plus, the wind was crazy and I figured that might keep people home because unlike where I grew up in North Dakota, where the wind routinely blows at 20-30 mph, it is unusual in this area.  This typical lack of wind is one of my very favorite things about Virginia.

Anyway, I got Nimo outfitted with everything I expect to take on our upcoming LD at Fort Valley, with the exception of a spare boot because I basically just forgot it, and we set out on our mission of the day.  As it turned out, neither the wind nor the time of day was an impediment to other trail users, so my plan to keep a 5-6 mph pace went down the drain pretty quickly.  Also, there were random mud pockets, so what with the hikers, the horses, and the mud, I found it hard to get to 5 mph.  We did get pretty close, but I admit to being so frustrated much of the time.  There are actually people-only trails and I can never understand why the hikers don't use those.  One lady was even doing some kind of interval sprint work and must have gotten in my way at least 6 times.  I don't mean to imply that hikers shouldn't be able to use the trails, but this lady was literally doing her fitness crap on the horse trail that was right next to the people trail and she never once yielded the trail to me.  By the last time I came up to her, I'd had it and I just kept going and hollered that I was passing on her right. (I had to go off the trail to get around her and the right was the only place I could go.)  Nimo was in the zone and doing about a 12 mph trot and I didn't want to lose momentum.  I have to give her credit, though, because she looked remarkably unphased when we thundered past her.

Another thing that has gotten obnoxious is all the highway crossings.  Completing the main bridle trail requires crossing 4 major highways (and 2 minor roads) where the sight line is not good and the cars don't slow down.  It's basically a free-for-all and I'm incredibly lucky to have a horse who is solid in traffic.  Several months ago, a lady and her horse were crossing the road and a motorcyclist charged her horse, who spooked.  She fell and broke her arm.  Luckily, her horse did not run far and there were no other injuries, but a loose horse running down a busy road could have meant instant death for anyone in a car that hit him and the horse probably wouldn't have survived either.  It's a terrible situation that will probably get worse before it gets better, so one of the reasons I don't ride at the Battlefield much anymore is because of the traffic situation.

We did get our first loop of 9 miles done in an almost reasonable time, though, so I was feeling pretty good about things at that point.  Nimo had done an awesome job of drinking and eating on the trail and he came in to our "hold" starving and happily gobbled up his mash, carrots, a banana, and some hay.  I pulled his tack, but ended up not sponging much because the wind was pretty cold.  I grabbed a PB&J sandwich, peed (yay for me for drinking enough water on the trail), and replenished my water.  It seemed like no time before I needed to put the saddle back on (I had decided on a 35 minute hold).  So I tacked back up and we headed out, much to Nimo's confusion.

He actually did pretty good as we got back on the trail, but he did stop a few times and try to indicate that he thought I was obviously smoking crack.  I had hoped that because we were now in late afternoon, the people on the trails would diminish, but there were still enough that we continued to have trouble maintaining a trot for very long.  However, Nimo did keep drinking and eating well, which was great.  And somehow he figured out when we were halfway through the loop.  We have been on the main bridle trail a couple of times before, but not for many months, and for our first loop, I had screwed up a turn and so we ended up doing a different trail.  Anyway, Nimo somehow knew when we were about 5 miles from the trailer because his trot work got just a little more motivated and he was just a little bit more focused.  Unfortunately, we still kept running into people who apparently thought it was a good idea to bring multiple small children onto a horse trail and sort of set them loose.  And said people did not feel that there was really any need to get said children under control so the giant horse would not step on them.  I always try to slow to a walk and be careful passing hikers (except for that crazy fitness lady earlier in the ride), but I've gotten used to riding on trails where the hikers are very polite and ALWAYS stop and pull off the trail when possible to give us space to pass.  I found out that I really don't have patience anymore for people who can't recognize that no matter how under control a horse appears to be, he is still a horse and any young children in particular should be kept a safe distance from said horse.  Nimo tends to get a little spooky around people who are carrying enormous backpacks (WHY do you need an actual backpack like the kind you use for multi-day hiking trips into the wilderness to walk down the path for 2 miles from your car?) and have energetic children, and because I do value at least the life of the kids (I remain unconvinced about their parents at this time), I worry that his concern will translate into somebody (probably me) getting hurt.  Everything was fine, but there were a couple of dicey moments when I would have liked to have yelled at the parents, but was too busy keeping Nimo from freaking out.

And finally, we made it back to the trailer.  Nimo felt a little tired, but I'm pretty confident that we could have done that loop one more time.  Mentally, it would have been very hard, but physically, I think we could have done it.  Overall, I was pretty happy with the way things worked, with the exception of Nimo's hind boots.  I've been meaning to post about them (in fact, I had the whole post written and then I realized that what I thought was working really well may not have been, so I scrapped it).  I had used the Easyboot Epics last year and Nimo hated them.  He would stomp his feet and kick out in irritation, but because the OD requires four boots or shoes, there wasn't much I could do.  He seemed to work OK in them, but because I don't normally ride in hind boots, I'd put off dealing with the situation until a couple of months ago when I bought a pair of Cavallo Simple boots.  Another reason I'd put off buying new hind boots is because Nimo's hind feet have been changing since I started trimming them a little over a year ago.  I think the changes are good - there seems to be less flaring and the hoof just looks better to me, but I was reluctant to invest in new boots if they weren't going to fit for long.

I got the Cavallos because they don't have gaiters, and I thought that might be what was bothering Nimo about the Epics.  I initially was concerned about heel rubs, but that hasn't been an issue, and he definitely seemed to be much happier in them than the Epics.  In fact, they were working pretty well until I trimmed his feet last week.  Then, I noticed that instead of there being just a little space between the side of the hoof and the boot, there was more space - maybe too much space.  I was worried that the boots would turn or rub with the extra room.  They didn't, but at the end of our ride, I saw that Nimo had a scrape on the inside of his left hind fetlock.  It didn't look serious, but it bothered me.  I'm not sure if it was a one-time thing, because he did trip over something about half a mile from the trailer, or if it's going to be a constant issue.  Either way, I think I'll be trying a different set of boots, but there just isn't enough time to order a new pair, test them, and break them in before our Fort Valley ride on Saturday.  So either the ones I have will work OK and we'll do the ride, or we'll end up pulling after the first loop if there is too much interference.  I may also talk to the ride vet about it if there is time during the initial vet-in.  I could wrap that leg to protect it, and I might do that, but my thought is that if the boot is causing interference injuries, I shouldn't be riding in it in the first place.

And this brings me to where I think we are in terms of preparation for the Fort Valley ride.  The LD is 30 miles, which pretty much freaked me out when I found out.  I had been planning on a 25 mile ride and that is, in fact, how it was listed on the OD's website until the entry form came out in mid-September.  I realize that for riders who are experienced at LDs or longer distances, 5 miles either way probably doesn't seem like a big deal.  For us, though, it really is.  (It wasn't that long ago when riding 5 miles in one ride was an accomplishment!)  That is an hour longer that we have to ride, and those 5 miles are unlikely to be flat, so they are going to be real work.  Despite my best efforts to improve our pacing these past 2-3 months, I still feel like we have a lot of room for improvement, especially on hills.  In fact, it wasn't until maybe the last 5 weeks where we've finally been able to trot faster than 6-7 mph for longer than 15 seconds at a time when we are by ourselves.  When we're with other horses, Nimo is generally much more forward, but we usually train by ourselves because my other riding friends think we are crazy, so it is rare that we have the opportunity to do a group ride at a distance and speed appropriate for our conditioning.  Nimo's confidence when we're on our own has been gradually improving and that means that he will trot for several minutes at a time and will sometimes even approach the 10-12 mph speed.  I know he can hold that speed for at least 4 miles on flat ground because that's what he does at the farm where I board him (we only have a couple of miles of flat trails, so I try to trot him as fast as possible over them when we ride at the barn), but hill work is another story.  Again, we're getting better, but we've got a ways to go before I'm going to feel like we're where we should be for the terrain we'll see at rides.

Here's the math for Fort Valley.  I don't know if the first loop will be 15 miles, but assuming that it is, here is what we need to be able to do.  The first and last 3 miles are a mountain, so my initial expectation was that we'd be walking those miles.  That leaves 9 miles for the rest of the loop.  Assuming that we are able to walk 3 mph over the mountain, we'll take a full 2 hours for those 6 miles.  To do the 15 miles in 3 hours, which is really the maximum time we should take, assuming there is a 45 minute hold and a 10 minute P&R gate and the total time we have is 7 hours, 15 minutes, we'd have to trot those remaining 9 miles at a speed of at least 9 mph.  Honestly, that's not going to happen.  I think we can trot the vast majority of those 9 miles, but there are going to be some hills that we're either going to have to walk up or walk down due to steepness or footing.  When I realized the situation, I figured that despite my reluctance to add more work before our ride, I'm going to have to warm Nimo up ahead of the ride, so that we can take advantage of a short, flat stretch at the beginning of the ride and we're going to have to do some trotting up that mountain in the beginning and we're probably going to have to trot most of the way down it when we're coming back.  On the away side of the mountain, it is too rocky and steep to trot, period.  However, the camp-facing side of the mountain is partially paved and graveled, so technically, we probably could do some trotting if we had to, although I'm not crazy about trotting down anything.

So let's assume that we do manage to trot part of the mountain and trot most of the other miles and we get into the hold after 3 hours of riding.  Then, WE HAVE TO GO OUT AND DO IT AGAIN.  Unlike at other OD rides, the vet checks are in base camp, which means we'll have to do that damn 3 mile mountain again out and back for the second loop (unless the second loop goes someplace else, which would make me eternally grateful).  I think I can take advantage of Nimo's enthusiasm for the first loop, but I seriously question how motivated he's going to be for the second loop.  If we were with other horses (which is always a possibility), I think our chances would be better, but Nimo is good about letting me know when he needs a break, and if that means letting the other horses go on ahead, he's OK with that.  So even if we start with other horses, we might end up letting them go on without us.  In case you hadn't noticed, I'm kind of having a panic attack...

One thing that has really been bothering me lately, especially in light of my previously-demonstrated brilliant math skills, is that I've seen a lot of people, either in books or on the AERC Facebook page, trivialize the lower distances of endurance riding.  In fact, the Fort Valley ride is offering a 15-mile Intro ride again this year, although it is much more formal than what I did last year.  In the Intro ride information, it states, " should easily be able to finish within 3 hours."  Well, I did the 15-mile ride last year and we didn't finish in 3 hours.  It took us 4 hours and it felt like a lot of work to me.  I think we could have gone a little faster, but I had a lot going on mentally and there was no time limit, so I was worried more about doing the distance and just getting through it.

I think there are plenty of horses out there for whom 15 or even 30 miles probably is relatively easy.  I had an Arabian mare for 15 years and even when she hit her mid-20's, she was still very forward thinking and fearless about trails.  She would have been a perfect endurance horse had I known the sport existed then, but Nimo is pretty much her polar opposite.  He worries about his footing on trails.  He thinks bears will jump out of bushes and eat him.  He fears drowning in tiny little ditches.  He's not forward thinking at all.  While he is capable of moving along a very good pace, it's not his preference unless there is a specific reason that makes sense to him (e.g. other horses are going that speed in that direction).

I guess I'm expressing these concerns not because I want to make excuses for us, but because I'm frustrated that I keep reading so much about how easy these lower distances are and my experience has been anything but easy so far, and I haven't even completed an LD yet.  I actually saw a Facebook comment by some idiot that said a horse should be able to do an LD just out of the pasture without any additional conditioning.  I won't deny that there may be horses out there that could do that, but just because they can, doesn't mean they should.  I think the research is pretty clear that while a horse's cardiovascular system adjusts to new exercise fairly quickly and muscles and other soft tissues adjust over a period of 6-12 months, bone takes 2 plus years to remodel to the work.  That means you have to be doing 30 miles on a regular basis for 2 plus years for the bone to remodel to accommodate that work.  I am absolutely not interested in taking short-cuts with my horse's conditioning because I want my horse to last for many, many years, and I struggle when I see people sort of glossing over this information.

Anyway, I've tried to recognize that my horse is not an Arabian and he is probably not even the 17th choice in a line of horse breeds that would be considered suitable for endurance.  On the one hand, I see that any breed is supposed to be able to compete, but on the other, it's obvious that certain breeds (and certain horses within those breeds) are going to have a much harder time.  I'm not saying endurance should be made easier to accommodate non-Arabs, but I will say that other disciplines (I'm thinking dressage, eventing, and jumping here) have a much more gradual process for working your way up through the sport and that is the kind of background I have.  And I've never heard a Grand Prix dressage rider say that Intro Level dressage isn't dressage (even if they may think it).  Of course, the two levels are wildly different in terms of what is required of horse and rider, but Intro dressage is still dressage.  Whereas with endurance riding, LDs aren't even considered endurance.  Until I've successfully completed a 50 mile ride with my horse, I can't even be officially considered an endurance rider, no matter how hard I've worked to get to an LD ride.  It's kind of disheartening, honestly.  I do understand that there is an incredible amount of work that goes into putting on a ride, and to offer shorter/slower distances would probably be too burdensome.  And I know that there are other distance riding organizations that do offer different experiences, but I find all the additional rules to be super annoying and I'm having enough trouble learning the few that AERC has and just getting the basics together.  Plus, the OD rides are a very reasonable distance for hauling and I don't have to teach my horse how to cross a teeter-totter bridge.  So, I guess it is simply my wish that more experienced people would stop saying things like, "LDs are easy" because it is really misleading for those of us without the ideal endurance horse and/or the ideal training/conditioning situation.  I have to haul 30-90 minutes each way for every single conditioning ride I do and that in and of itself is very challenging.

Luckily, my sense of self-worth doesn't depend on whether or not a random guy on Facebook or even the AERC approves of my miles or thinks I'm worthy.  The journey that Nimo and I have had so far has created so many positive changes and it is worth it for those changes alone, even if we never do a "real" endurance ride.  That said, I hope we can give the Fort Valley ride our best shot and if we come in over time or have to pull mid-way through, I've given myself permission not to be too hard on us.  I really did think that we would be successfully completing LDs by now, but life has a way of adding unexpected challenges.  And being the kind of person who likes to do things well, it's hard for me to acknowledge that we still have a lot of work to do and that our ride on Saturday may not be "successful" based on the AERC criteria.  I've struggled a lot over the past few weeks in terms of deciding whether we should do at all or just do the Intro ride again.  But much like the dressage show that we did last month, my attitude has become that we just need to do it.  Nimo will let me know if I'm pushing him too hard, and I'll have an opportunity in the middle of the ride to quit if I think that is the best option.  But I don't think we'll ever be truly ready until we've gone to at least a couple of rides, so we can get the hang of it.  So, here's to T-3 days for Fort Valley!

Thursday, October 16, 2014

How Things Change...

A little over a year ago, an area endurance rider offered to show me the trails out at the Shenandoah River State Park (aka Andy Guest).  She said that a lot of endurance riders used the park as a training/conditioning area, and I was anxious to see what “real” endurance terrain looked like.  At the time, I thought the trails were rocky and steep in places, but I could see potential for trotting some parts of the trail with an experienced endurance horse.

Over the last year, we’ve ridden at the park many times, and it has become one of my favorite conditioning places because the trails are really well-maintained and there’s decent parking for trailers.  When we first rode there, we did a 10 mile ride (our first at that distance) and Nimo was wiped out by the end.  I ended up getting off and walking him the last ¼ mile or so back to the trailers because he just stopped and refused to go any further.

Now, we routinely do 10+ mile rides there and over the last few months, I’ve started to integrate some trot work as we’ve gotten more comfortable with the trails.  I’ve come to believe that they aren’t really that steep (or that rocky), but there are a lot of short (like 6-15 feet), steep elevation changes that make trotting the trails feel sort of like a roller coaster in many places.  And the rocks on the trail can be intimidating to riders who do not spend their trail hours figuring out how their horse can go faster.  (During a recent ride at the park, a friend that I was riding with very diplomatically pointed out that horses not wearing hoof boots might not feel that comfortable trotting over the rocks while I was exuberantly leading a group of 3 other horse/rider pairs and thinking how great it was that we could trot on those trailsJ  As I later discovered, the wearing of hoof boots makes no difference to experienced endurance horses over those trails.)
Anyway, this past Sunday, I rode with a group of USTR riders at Andy Guest.  I normally condition on my own, but that’s lonely work, and I was starting to miss the company of people.  Plus, there are quite a few endurance riders who are members of USTR, so I like to go on the occasional ride with them to glean tidbits of useful information.  On this ride, there were about 15 of us, so the ride organizer split us into groups based on how far and fast we wanted to go.  I signed up for the far and fast group, which ended up being three of us.  One of the ladies had just started endurance riding this year and had two LDs and a 50 (at Ride Between the Rivers in WV) under her belt and the other lady had well over a decade of experience at doing 50s just on the one horse she was riding.  Both other horses were Arabs.
We walked the first mile to mile and a half and then we started trotting, and trotting, and trotting.  Luckily the temperature was fairly cool (upper 50s), so Nimo handled the pace pretty well until a particularly long string of gradual hills when he informed me that he needed a break.  (He informs me by not trotting anymore and huffing and puffing.)  So we walked for maybe 10 minutes or so and then trotted most of the time, including down a section of trail that I once considered the steepest descent I had ever done.  It no longer seemed like that big of a deal.  (Although I confess to being a little concerned about all the trotting down hills that I feel like we have to do to make time.  I’ve actually added some pads to Nimo’s hoof boots in a desperate attempt to alleviate some of the concussion until his conditioning improves to the point that he can trot up miles of hills without a break, so he can walk down the hill and still maintain an overall ride pace.)
We did stop for a few minutes to let the horses eat grass about halfway through the ride and did a little walking by the Shenandoah River.  And then we were off again, with the other two riders doing quite a bit of cantering at this point.  Luckily, Nimo could easily keep up by trotting because neither of us is that comfortable doing a lot of cantering on the trails.  In fact, I doubt that I will ever ask for much canter from him because it’s just not an efficient gait.
The original estimate of mileage for our trail was 12-14 miles.  The other two ladies I was with had never ridden at the park before, so they were determined to try to follow a trail that had been marked just for us and use a park map.  I was so familiar with the trails that I didn’t see any point in that, particularly because we got confused at least 3 times about which way we were supposed to go based on the ribbons.  (I assume that is good practice for me when I get confused at a ride.)  I kept trying to convince the other ladies that I knew where I was going without the ribbons, but I don’t think they believed me.  Had they known me very well, I could probably understand that because I am not that great at navigation, but I’ve gotten turned around so many times at this particular park that I think I could be dropped blind-folded anywhere on the trail system and get myself out without any problem.
Anyway, due to the confusion, I think we actually ended up doing at least a couple of miles and maybe more than we were originally intended to do.  The reason I think that is number one because one of the ladies kept saying, “Haven’t we been through here before?”  (The answer was yes, but I started to keep my mouth shut because it didn’t seem to help to explain anything.)  Number two, our pace felt very fast to me.  We were mostly moving along at 10+ mph and we rode for 3 hours.  I didn’t bring my GPS with me because I’ve been trying to practice without it sometimes in case it has a breakdown at the Fort Valley ride.  That way, I figure at least I’ll have some idea of the pace we should be doing even without a GPS to guide me.  We did walk the last mile and a half back to the trailers, sort of at my request, because I was not bringing a hot horse to the parking lot.  However, one of the ladies (the one who just started endurance riding) went on ahead because her horse literally would not slow down.  (Crazy Arabs…)  Nimo actually acted pretty fresh on the final walk too, which I took as a good sign, but I made him walk anyway.
Despite a few glitches in the ride, it was a really great experience to ride with people who’ve done 50s before.  It gave me a great idea of pacing and what terrain Nimo can actually trot (I try to be as conservative as I can, and I don’t plan to change that any time soon, but it’s nice to know what he’s capable of in case I need to use that capability).  I know that our pace was not as fast as the one lady wanted to go (which I think was at a canter for the whole ride, regardless of terrain and footing), but the more experienced rider said that the pace we did was pretty consistent with what she does on rides.  I will note that while this lady rides an Arab, the horse is now 17 years old with over 10 years of endurance riding.  They have finished in the top 10 on occasion, but her goal is not to race, so she is more conservative in her pace than probably a lot of Arabian riders, which probably means I could ride half as fast as we did during the ride and still finish on timeJ.
However, lest you think my ride was free of the usual drama that has plagued me during the past 18+ months, let me assure you that was not the case.  The ride had been postponed from the previous day due to a rainy forecast.  As it turned out, it never rained on Saturday, but it did start to rain just after we got back from our ride.  It wasn’t a hard rain, but I had neither a cooler nor a rain sheet with me.  It was so stupid.  I always carry at least one or the other and often both with me, but in a fit of organization and planning, I had been washing and storing all my coolers and blankets.  The cooler that I normally would have had with me was sitting on the freezer in the garage, clean and ready to take with me, but I just spaced bringing it.  I didn’t think it was going to rain and I didn’t expect to need a cooler because the temperature was near 60.  So please learn from me – ALWAYS BRING A COOLER AND A RAINSHEET.
Here’s what happened:  I felt like Nimo was sufficiently cooled out when we got back to the trailer.  After all we’d walked the last mile and a half and the temperature was cool enough that most of the sweat that wasn’t under his saddle pad was already dry.  I carefully sponged off some of the worst crusty sweat, but because it was cool outside and the only water I had was cold, I just did the bear minimum of sponging.  Nimo ate some of his mash and carrots and then rested and then ate some more while I had a quick lunch with the other riders.  Then I loaded him in the trailer.  I didn’t pay a lot of attention to him at first.  Once I got him loaded, I packed up the remaining few things I had sitting out, checked in with the ride organizer that we were in good shape, and then went to shut the side door to the trailer.  That was when I realized Nimo was shivering.  Not good.
Interestingly, one of the other horses we rode with had a bout of shivering shortly after getting back to the trailer.  She was wearing two coolers at the time, but after her owner walked her for a few minutes, she seemed fine.
Anyway, back to my horse.  My first thought was that I should have brought the stupid cooler, or a rain sheet.  My second thought was to see if I could borrow one for a few minutes to see if it helped.  The problem was, I was the last to leave and there is no cell phone service for miles, so I couldn’t call anyone back.  I finally decided that we’d just have to head home.  It was about an hour and 20 minute drive and my trailer is an open stock trailer, but I figured at least Nimo would be out of the rain.
As I drove as fast as I dared (I’m normally kind of a slow driver when I’m hauling a trailer just because the other drivers on the road are IDIOTS in Virginia), I began to worry that it might be more than just a chill.  What if I’d pushed Nimo too hard?  After all, while we’d ridden quite a bit at the park and done 12-15 mile rides pretty regularly, we hadn’t done them at the pace we did today.  What if this was a metabolic incident and he was slowly dying in the trailer?  Should I have left him in the parking lot and hiked to the ranger station to see if he could call for a vet?
Then I thought maybe I should call my vet while I was driving home to see if someone could meet me at the barn.  Or maybe I should just drive straight to the nearest equine hospital (it would only take another 15 minutes over our drive home to get there).  Or should I call my husband and have him bring some blankets to the barn?  (I dismissed that one almost immediately as I imagined trying to explain the blanket organization system in the garage.  Me:  “No, it’s the black sheet with the gray trim and blue piping.”  My husband: “What the hell is piping?”)  I waited anxiously for a crash in the trailer indicating that Nimo had fallen down and was nearing death.  I wondered if I would be able to keep control of the truck and trailer if he did and which vet would be the closest to call for help.
Finally, common sense prevailed and I just drove to the barn.  I ran to the trailer door to see how Nimo was doing, expecting glassy eyes and wobbly legs.  Yeah, he was totally fine.  He was completely dry, his temperature was good and he was HUNGRY.  I turned him out in his paddock first because he drinks better from a tank than a bucket and I wanted him to drink before he ate.  So he drank a little, then ate his dinner, then ate some grass, then drank some more, then rolled, and then worked on inhaling all the grass he could find.  I watched him move and determined that there didn’t appear to be any stiffness, so I pronounced him at least fit to continue grazing all night, and dragged myself home to whine to my husband about how I didn’t drink enough on the ride, so now I didn’t feel that great.
Which brings me to one other thing that I could have done better on this ride.  I could have taken care of myself a little instead of focusing on my horse (and I didn’t even do that right).  I have actually done very well in recent months and even have a system that I try to use every time I ride.  I have found that having a sandwich just before I ride is enough so I don’t have to bring snacks (which always seem to melt in my saddle bags).  Then I eat something shortly after the ride is over.  Most importantly, though, I MUST drink at least a few sips of water every 15-20 minutes or I pay a high price later, which is a headache, back muscle spasm, exhaustion, and generally crappy feeling that doesn’t go away until the next day.  If I eat and drink properly, I end up feeling pretty good after our rides, so I’ve been pretty committed to doing things right…until this ride.
I only drank once on this ride when we stopped to let the horses eat because I was focused on making sure Nimo was handling the pace OK and the weather was cooler than it has been, so I didn’t feel thirsty.  Plus, I neither ate before the ride nor did I bring a snack, so despite the fact that I ate pretty well after the ride, it wasn’t enough to overcome the fact that I hadn’t had anything to eat for 7 hours.
And I was trying out holding a half seat for as much of the trotting as possible because I wanted to save Nimo’s back as much as possible by avoiding posting/bouncing on him for the trot.  That extra effort cost me extremely sore calves/lower legs and the ability to go up and down stairs without crying for three days.
Anyway, there was a lot that was good about this ride and the things that I didn't do right do not appear to have caused any lasting effects.  Note to self:  1) ALWAYS BRING A COOLER AND A RAINSHEET.  2) ALWAYS EAT BEFORE THE RIDE.  3) ALWAYS DRINK WATER EVERY 15-20 MINUTES DURING THE RIDE.  4) Reconsider the half seat as a human torture method instead of a horse back-saving method.

Friday, October 3, 2014

Dressage: It's Not about the Ribbons, part 2

(Note: This is a ridiculously long post, so skip to the end for a picture if you can't take all the minute detail.)

So, the day of the show finally arrived.  And wouldn't you know it.  Temperatures for the two weeks before the show were beautiful and temperatures for the indefinite future after the show were beautiful, but the day of the show was HOT.  As in upper-80's/near 90 hot.  The kind of hot you do not wear a polyester show jacket for.  And my ride times were 3:42 and 4:18, the peak of the heat.  And I was still sick (my primary problem was congestion at this point, but I was also just plain tired).  And the dear friend who was supposed to be my moral support was down for the count with a migraine, so I was on my own.

I first stuffed myself into my control-top white tights.  (Dear God, why are these even available for sale?  It's like being stuffed into a sausage casing.)  And I added the breeches, assorted female undergarments to prevent things like muffin top and any undesirable movement, and show shirt.  I topped all that off with a yoga pants to keep the breeches clean and a T-shirt that said "Have you hugged your chickens today?" to keep my shirt clean (and to give me a mental boost because the t-shirt makes me happy).  And I loaded all my crap into the truck.  And then I wanted to lay down and die.  I was sweating and exhausted and I hadn't even gotten to the barn yet.  (Random thought:  There should be a dressage test for endurance riders, where your horse wears his regular endurance tack and you wear your regular endurance clothes and you get bonus points if you have a functional tack repair made with duct tape or baling twine and more bonus points if the colors of your outfit are hard for normal people to look at.)

I'd given Nimo a full bath the day before, so he was mostly clean when I got to the barn.  I brushed him and then braided his mane.  And then I stripped off my sacrifice clothes and put on my tall boots, stock tie, jacket, helmet, and gloves.  At that point, I felt so loaded down and wrapped up that getting on Nimo was a bit of an exercise, which was unfortunately observed by more than one person and to those people I sincerely apologize for my especially ungraceful mounting procedure.

For the warm up, I'd intended to keep it brief, but I could tell Nimo was frazzled by all the activity on the farm.  There were easy-ups, a barbeque, horse trailers everywhere, and lots of horses he didn't know.  I knew immediately we weren't going to have a good ride.  I realize that sounds like a defeatist attitude, but I've done enough shows with him to be able to tell when we're going to click and when he's going to be too distracted.  I'd been hoping that being in familiar territory would help, but I was seriously mistaken.  This horse will slide down a muddy mountain in the middle of a rainstorm, but an easy-up will send him leaping into my lap.  (Note to self:  Do more bomb-proofing clinics.)

It was at this point that I realized that my stirrups were too long.  I had gone back and forth on the length and finally decided to go with the longer length because anything shorter caused my knee to hit the thigh block and push me back in the saddle, so I always felt like I was struggling for my position.  However, stirrups that were too long made it hard for me to keep my heel down and hard for my feet to even stay in the stirrups.  I debated about adjusting the stirrup length and finally decided against, promising myself that I would just be really careful about my heels...

And I next realized that Nimo really is not fond of his old bit, a Myler MB-02 snaffle mouthpiece with eggbutt cheeks. His new bit was still a Myler, but with the MB-04 mouthpiece and d-ring cheeks with hooks for the headstall and reins.  According to the USEF, the organization that sets the dressage rules for Training Level through Fourth Level dressage tests, the MB-04 mouthpiece was legal, as was a d-ring cheek piece.  However, the hooks (or slots in the d-ring for the headstall and reins) were not.  I had originally purchased the bit as a second bit for my endurance bridle, but Nimo had gone so well in it that I was also using it for my dressage work.  The advantage of the MB-04 mouthpiece was that it had a low, wide port that offered more tongue relief.  The hooks on the cheek pieces gave the bit more stability in his mouth, which I found attractive for longer rides where I wouldn't be riding on contact as much.  Here is a picture of the mouthpiece, so you can see how slight the port is:


Anyway, I found that Nimo seemed much happier in this bit and it was much easier to get him "on the bit" when schooling.  But, I couldn't justify buying a whole new bit that was legal just for one schooling show because I still had some experimentation planned with bits or lack thereof (more on that in another post).  So I decided to ride him in his old bit.  And to be honest, I can't say for sure that the difficulty I had in getting him to be responsive to my aids and move forward in a First Level "frame" was totally due to the bit.  He really had his head up in the air and was definitely struggling to understand how his whole quiet barn world had seemingly changed overnight.

And then after some walking, snorting, eyeballing, trotting, cantering, and general lack of suppleness, it was time for our first test.

I walked Nimo up to the judge's table, which was under an easy-up, to check in.  This set-up was very helpful for the judge and scribe, but not super helpful for me, because Nimo was convinced that bears somehow lived under the easy-up, it was just that he couldn't see them (you know, the INVISIBLE bears).  He tried very hard to express his worry about his safety by snorting and trying to exit the arena as expeditiously as possible.  I eventually made it clear that we were going to have to walk next to the easy-up and I did get him to walk by it in both directions without being too much of an idiot (judges at schooling shows are generally pretty tolerant of spooky horses and are happy to give you a minute or two to help your horse overcome his fears).  I actually thought that we might be OK...

And so we turned away from the judge's table at C and proceeded to start trotting down the outside of the long side of the dressage arena while the judge rang the bell that signaled that we had 45 seconds to get to A.  For those of you not familiar with the way dressage arenas are set up, below is a diagram.  Note that the short side is 20 meters (or about 66 feet) and the long side is 60 meters (or close to 200 feet).  All riders enter at A.  The letters are supposedly for marking transition points between movements, depending on how exact you want to be...

My first test was First Level Test 1, of which I've got a sort of small, hard-to-read diagram of below so you can follow along with our test if your eyes work really well.  I liked the format of Jitterbug's Guide to Dressage Tests so much, that I'm going to copy it for the description of how our test went.  However, instead of just including the horse's point of view, I'll include mine and the judge's (from her notes on my score sheet) too, you know, so you're getting the whole picture:)  Each numbered movement gets a score from 0 (not done at all, even the tiniest bit) to 10 (so perfect you should be a famous dressage master!).  Some of the movements get coefficients of 2, so if you're smart, you focus on doing those movements especially well, so you get the most points.  I am not smart...

1.  Enter at A in working trot.  Halt at X and salute.  Proceed at working trot.

Nimo:  Dear God, what in the name of all that's holy is that giant blue tent at the end of the arena?  I do NOT want to go this way!

Me:  Oh my God, why are you being such a baby about the stupid blue easy-up?  We JUST walked past it 85 times in both directions!  Keep trotting!

Judge:  Straight into halt, then tense.  (This was an understatement, but at least I got a halt.) = 6 points

2.  Track left.  Half circle left 10 meters.  Half circle right 10 meters.

Nimo:  I will NOT go on the rail near C to make the turn to the left.  That Thing is there!  But I consent to sort of doing the stupid half circles.  However, I wish to lodge a protest that we did not go in a straight line across the arena.  Why can't we take the most direct route?

Me:  Thank God, we can do these half circles.  Not the greatest, but not embarrassing.

Judge:  Need more supple bend.  (She's not wrong.) = 6 points

3.  Lengthen stride in trot across the diagonal.  Continue in working trot.

Nimo:  I really don't want to do a lengthening now - you've been mean to me and it's hot outside.

Me:  Gaaa!  Just go!

Judge:  Clear ground cover and lift but tight in the back.  (She means we managed to get from point A to point B, but Nimo's head was up in the stratosphere.)  = 6.5 points

4.  Circle left on a 20 meter circle, while allowing the horse to stretch forward and down, aka, the Stretchy Chewy Circle, because the horse is supposed to fluidly stretch forward and down into the increasing length of rein you're giving while neither increasing nor decreasing his tempo and you get bonus points if the horse looks like he's super relaxed and softly chewing the bit.

Nimo:  I'm not putting my head down.  That scary Bear Tent is still there and I need to focus!

Me:  Sigh...Just keep trotting.

Judge:  No stretch.  (No explanation needed here.) = 5 points

5.  Medium walk.

Nimo:  Aaaahhhh, finally the walk.  I'm so done with the trotting.

Me:  At least you're walking.

Judge:  Abrupt and pulled into walk.  (She misinterpreted what she saw which was Nimo completely collapsing into the walk.  She probably figured I yanked on him, when really all I did was think, "Walk."  I've never ridden a horse so happy to slow down.) = 5 points

6.  Free walk across the diagonal to P (not F, dummy).

Nimo:  Yee Haw!  I'm walking, I'm walking.

Me:  Not bad, but oh S*&#!  We're supposed to go to P, not F.  Gaaa!  Maybe if I ease Nimo over, the judge won't notice I overshot the letter.

Judge:  Horse grabs rein rather than taking what was offered.  = 6x2 = 12 points

7.  Working trot at F.  Then working canter right lead at A.

Nimo:  Seriously, I have to canter?  It's hot out here, and I really wanted to keep walking!

Me:  Oh, thank God, he cantered.

Judge:  Strides very short but obedient.  (Picture me hysterically laughing at the word "obedient.") = 6x2 = 12 points

8.  Circle right 15 meters in canter.

Nimo:  Wheeeeee!  I'm gonna be a barrel racer someday!

Me:  What the...?  The circle is supposed to be 15 meters, not 8!

Judge:  Circle very small and lacks balance.  = 5.5 points  (This score was a gift!)

9.  Lengthen stride in canter.  Then return to working canter and begin crossing the diagonal.

Nimo:  I feel very uncomfortable going fast in this arena.  I guess you didn't notice that there is a photographer standing at the side of the arena and I don't know her and she's next to the building where the scary horse-eating badger lives and she probably doesn't know it so maybe we should tell her.

Me:  Just canter, you idiot.

Judge:  Bold, but doesn't come back and lacks balance.  (Picture me laughing hysterically at the word "bold."  Also, I think Nimo completely stopped cantering well before we were supposed to and I totally gave up and just pretended that I thought we were supposed to be trotting.) = 5.5 points

10.  Begin working trot at X (in the middle of the arena).

Nimo:  Well, I'm already trotting, so that was easy, but I do not want to go back to where the blue tent is!

Me:  Why are you doing this to me?  You've seen the stupid tent 100 times now!

Judge:  Resisting rider.  (I really wanted to beat him at this point.)  = 6 points

11.  Working canter left lead at C.

Nimo:  This is craziness, I can't canter under these conditions!

Me:  OMG, it's an mf-ing tent!

Judge:  Canter starts from front end not hind.  (I consider it an amazing achievement that Nimo cantered at all here.)  = 6x2 = 12 points

12.  Circle left 15 meters in canter.

Nimo:  I'm exhausted.  I don't think I can do this anymore.

Me:  Ack, my mouth is so dry.  Why is there no water?

Judge:  Unbalanced.  = 5.5 points

13.  Lengthen stride in canter.  Then return to working canter.

Nimo:  Wheezing...

Me:  Wheezing...

Judge:  Shows some length but breaks.  (What she means is we somehow did a lengthening, but then collapsed into a trot from lack of oxygen.)

14.  Working trot at C.

Nimo:  Gasp, gasp, gasp...

Me:  Gasp, gasp, gasp...

Judge:  Some length.  (I have no idea what that means - she probably should have put "some movement" because things were getting pretty dire at that point.)  = 5x2 = 10 points

15.  Lengthen stride in trot across the diagonal.

Nimo:  [Panting]  Maybe I can do it.

Me:  Where am I?  Why is everything going black?

Judge:  [No comment]  (She's probably so thrilled we're almost done, she gives us pity points.) = 6 points

16.  Trot down centerline and halt and salute at X.

Nimo:  Why are we going back THERE?

Me:  We're almost done, just keep trotting.  Why is X so far away?

Judge:  [No comment]  (What she means is, Hurray! They're done!) = 8 points

And so that concludes our first dressage test in several years.  We got a whopping 57.580%, which was actually probably a gift, given our performance.  But it wasn't over.  Because, you see, there is this expectation that the judge will talk to you after your test and tell you what you did wrong.  It's always so helpful because, of course, the judge thinks that you don't know you had a crappy test, so she's going to nurture you by itemizing your problems.  Several years ago, I went through almost getting a masters degree in secondary education (long story), so I feel like I have some insight into how learning works and how teaching works and I can unequivocally say that the typical end-of-the-test discussion is not super useful.  What would be useful is for the judge to pick the one thing that you did the best and talk about that.  It provides encouragement without negativity and "constructive criticism" and helps the rider identify what went right instead of focusing on what went wrong.

Anyway, I prepared myself for what was likely to be a slightly painful rendition of our faults.  I figured the judge would tell me to shorten my stirrups or maybe learn how to control my horse at the canter.  But here's what she led with:  "Why are you wearing a jacket and stock tie?  Take them off.  I'm absolutely not impressed.  It's too hot to be wearing them."

Ummm, what?  She was right.  It was hot, and I was under no obligation to wear the jacket.  But I assumed it was my choice, and while I didn't expect her to be impressed necessarily, I assumed she would value the fact that I took the time to groom and braid my horse and to make sure I was presentable.  I admit to being a bit pissed off at this point.

Then she said, "I could tell that you were having trouble with the pattern, so you probably want to go back to Training Level, where things are a bit easier, until you aren't so nervous."  Again, she was right.  I did have trouble with the pattern in a few places, although some of them were just because I was dealing with a 1500 pound nutcase.  I also admit to being deliberately inaccurate in a couple of places just for convenience.  Plus, memorizing this test gave me some trouble and I still felt a little hesitant about it, so that probably showed.  However, I'm pretty sure I would have had the same trouble if I'd had to learn a Training Level test.  And Nimo certainly wouldn't have behaved any better at a lower level test.  And my nerves were mild and still would have been there even if we'd shown at a lower level.  I explained to the judge that it was our first time at First Level and our first time in the show ring in many years, so we were probably a bit rusty and needed to improve.  (This sucking it up and making nice with the judge when all I want to do is whine and make excuses is particularly difficult for me, but necessary because, in this case, I still had another test in front of that judge and could easily see her at another show.)  But I honestly believed then and I believe now that First Level was the right choice for us.  We can do all the movements the tests require (except for counter-canter, but that isn't until the 3rd test), and I don't know how we'll get any better at showing those movements unless we compete at that level.

And that was the end of our discussion with the judge.  I don't mean to imply that she was mean - she wasn't really, but, as expected, they were not super helpful comments.  And as a parting comment, I smiled and said, "See you in 20 minutes when we're going to do First Level, Test 2!"

I probably should have gotten off my horse and given him a break because of the heat, but with our next test so soon, I knew that keeping him walking would be best, and I still wanted to try to get some suppleness from him.  So we walked back into the barn to get out of the sun for a few minutes and for me to get some water because I swear to you, my mouth has never been so dry in all my life.  There was not a drop of moisture to be found.  I'm not sure if it was nerves or the heat or being sick, but it was really unpleasant.  The water helped some, but I still felt like I'd spent the last hour licking a super absorbent towel.

So after a few minutes, we headed back out to the arena for a little bit more warm-up, which didn't really happen because the lady riding before us was doing a musical freestyle.  That meant a giant boombox blasting out some kind of heavy classical music (the horse was also a Friesian and spectacularly more balanced and connected to his functioning brain than Nimo).  Anyway, Nimo freaked out about the music, so I spent the whole freestyle just trying to get him to walk.  I then had just a couple of minutes to quickly do a couple of canter transitions and leg yields before I was up again.

I checked in at the judge's table and chatted pleasantly with the judge for a few minutes as I tried to convince her that a dressage test for endurance riders would be a good idea (which, BTW, she thought it was), and then we trotted around the arena for the beginning of our second test.

I will spare you the running commentary through this test because it was remarkably similar to the last test, except for 4 things.  In the interest of full disclosure, I admit to LOSING MY STIRRUP after a nasty canter-to-trot transition.  It is possibly the most embarrassing thing that has ever happened to me in a dressage test, and I've had a lot of embarrassing things happen, just on this day alone.  I don't know if the judge knew what happened because she was on the other side of my horse at the time, but it is possible that I started swearing and inappropriately verbalizing about my horse's lack of attributes.  We got a 4 for that particular movement.

On to the good things, though.  About midway through the test, Nimo and I finally started to connect a little.  We got a 7 on our free walk as Nimo started to relax a bit.  Then as we neared the end of the test, there was a lengthening at the canter and Nimo came together a little more.  We got a 7 for that lengthening, which I'm really pleased about.  Shortly after that canter lengthening was the final trot lengthening, and we got a 7.5.  That final crossing of the diagonal, Nimo's brain started to focus on me and we achieved the First Level rounded frame with a swinging back and nice forward movement.  It kind of sucks that it took so long for us to get there, but at least we got there.  I was kind of despairing that I would ever see my fantastic horse again, so even though it was the second-to-last movement in the test, I was grateful to get it.

The judge noted our improvements during this test, and I think she started to understand that we were capable of the First Level movements, but got off to a rough start.  She did absolutely chastise me for continuing to wear my jacket.  I tried to explain that aside from my see-through white show shirt, all I had was my "Have you hugged your chickens today" t-shirt, but she was adamant that I was torturing myself for no reason.  (Oh, there was a reason and you'll see it below.)

And that was it.  Weeks worth of work (well, really months and even years, if you think about all the training and lessons we've done to get where we are now) all boiled down to about 10-12 minutes of ride time.  We had a lot of things go wrong, but we did have a few things go right.  And now I'm more sure than ever that doing the show was the best thing for me, even with all the issues leading up to it.  (I'll leave it up to Nimo to explain his feelings on the matter...)  We essentially had one of the worst rides ever, so really the worst is over and I've set the bar pretty low for the next show, which takes the pressure off in a weird sort of way.  Part of me wishes we could have had one of those ABC Family movie moments where all our hard work paid off and we won the class and bunches of people applauded our amazing comeback.  But the rest of me is OK with the fact that we still have work to do, because dressage isn't about the ribbons for us - it's about the development of the two of us together, for better or for worse.

As for our ribbons, we got a 3rd and 4th place (I beat myself) because there were only 3 people at the show who did First Level at all, so instead of just competing against people doing the same level and same test, we First Level competitors competed against each other regardless of test.  Everyone else did Intro and Training Levels, and the show was full, so that's a lot of people still doing Intro and Training Level.  I don't mean any disrespect to those who compete at those levels.  That was me for a long time.  And no one should feel pressured to move up if they're not ready, but I'm glad that I got out of the cycle.  Nimo and I can do more and be better.

I still have concerns about being part of the competitive dressage world, but it has occurred to me that my voice will never be heard if I don't participate.  Assuming Nimo and I can eventually keep it together for a whole test, we have an opportunity to compete in the right way and maybe someday I can convince somebody important that white breeches should never be allowed in the show ring again!:)

Now, for those of you who stuck with me this long (or those who value their time and skipped to the end), here is the reason why I wore my formal show attire - a professional photographer was at the show.  The prices for digital photos were crazy expensive, but I bought one so you could see what we looked like.  And possibly so you could marvel over the expression on my face, which is sort of indescribable.  But it was either a variation of that or a maniacal grin reminiscent of a serial killer in the middle of a killing spree.  And I realize that I look really stiff, but it was a hell of a ride.  Enjoy!

Photo by Katherine A. Turnbull at