|Nimo looking out over the Battlefield|
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, "...you 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!