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.


  1. What a great transformation! Can't wait to see y'all next weekend and crew for you. I know you'll rock it. =)

    1. Thanks, Liz:) And I'm beyond thrilled about your offer to crew for us. I fully expected to have to do it on our own, so seeing a knowledgeable, friendly face will be so awesome!

  2. Anyone with 10+ years of experience with one horse is well worth listening to! If you're moving along mostly at 10+ mph, I suspect you'll be just fine. Miss Fetti is still unconvinced that she can trot that fast most days, and we're still trucking on through 25s without too much trouble. Have fun!!

    Ponder ponder. You've found that sips every 15-20 minutes trumps longer drinks every hour? I may have to try that out for my next long ride.

    1. Thanks, Figure:). I'm not sure I'll be having fun until it's over and we're hopefully successful, though. And yes, I have found that drinking more frequently, even just smaller amounts, was better for me than larger amounts every hour or so. In fact, I might go farther and say that I could get away with a little less total water when I drink frequently. I'm not sure why exactly, but maybe I'm just very sensitive to dehydration?