Sunday, March 22, 2015

Foxcatcher 25: T-minus 3 weeks

As I wrote in my last post, yesterday's ride was going to mark the time of my decision on whether Nimo and I would go to the Foxcatcher Endurance Ride this year.  I was planning to haul over to the Manassas Battlefield for a ride with USTR.  There are several members who are endurance riders, and I would be riding in their group so I could get a good pace and distance for conditioning purposes.

The ride didn't start until 11, which was nice, because it meant I didn't have to get up until a little after 7.  And I was able to stop by the grocery store and associated Starbucks for coffee on the way out to the barn.  (Every USTR ride includes a potluck lunch afterwards, which is so nice.  I, however, never seem to have enough time to make extra food, so chips and salsa were my contribution).

Everything worked like clockwork.  I got the trailer hooked up and tack loaded.  Luckily, I'd thought to make adjustments to my saddle the night before, so I didn't need to mess around with anything.  I've been experimenting with different pads and I was planning on giving my Supracor saddle pad another chance.  I have spent months despising that pad because it cost so much money and feels like a plywood board.  Plus, it is thick - maybe 3/4" - and it messes with my saddle fit.  For some reason, I have recently come to think more fondly of it, probably because it doesn't require washing in the washing machine like my other endurance pad, and laundry is a very dirty word in my house right now:)  Anyway, I made some adjustments to the shims in my Specialized endurance saddle and I wanted to test the fit on the ride.

My horse looked like a mud explosion, but it was too cold to really fix it, so I just put him in the trailer and planned to apologize to anyone who could see him and might possibly be offended by his muddy self.  He was wearing a blanket because I recently clipped him, so I figured his top half would be decent (although I later discovered he did manage to get quite a bit of mud under the blanket).

We got to the Battlefield earlier than I expected because traffic was light, so I had a chance to chat with a couple of people I knew.  (It's so cool that I know people now - I used to be terrified to go to these rides because I didn't know anyone, but now that I'm getting to know people, they are almost fun!)  And I scrubbed the mud that had dried on Nimo, but there was nothing I could do below his knees - the mud was thick and wet.  Plus, I figured within 10 minutes on the trail, all the horse's legs would look like Nimo's anyway:)  The ride organizer had assured everyone that the trails were not muddy.  Because I live near the park, I knew that was highly unlikely given the massive amounts of precipitation we've gotten during the past month as well as the rain/snow/sleet/and then rain again we got on Friday.  However, I needed the ride and there are sections of the trails in the park that are pretty firm, no matter what the moisture level, so I knew we'd be able to trot/canter at least some of the time.

I got Nimo saddled up and we were underway at 11:01.  I was riding with the "fast"group, which included just 4 of us.  The other three ladies were endurance riders of varying seriousness, so I was hopeful we'd be able to do a good pace.  The original plan was to do the 10-mile main bridle trail, along with a 4-mile side loop, but as we got on the trail and discovered how muddy it was, the other three ladies were of the belief that we should skip the 4-mile loop because it was likely to be the muddiest part of the ride.  Part of me understood - riding in mud is not fun for riders or horses and there is always the risk of slipping or a soft-tissue injury.  However, Nimo handles mud pretty well because he spends at least 22 hours a day in it and the mud was rarely deep enough to be truly difficult to get through (although one horse in a different group lost a Cavallo hoof boot - they were brand new and I suspect probably not fitted correctly), so I just wasn't that worried about it.

We trotted anywhere that there wasn't mud, and we managed to average out to a 5 mph pace, which Nimo handled quite easily.  In fact, after the first several miles, he even led a few times and did a pretty good job maintaining his pace.  And we did throw in an extra half-mile loop with a nice canter hill.  And Nimo actually cantered.  And it felt really good.  He was balanced and in control, even though 3 other horses were running with him.  As he took the lead (slowly and only by a few feet), one of the other horses started throwing a fit at being passed, and one of his reins snapped off.  His rider called out that she was in trouble, and I was able to easily slow Nimo down and have him immediately stand still while the other rider fixed her rein.

At this point, I'm going to give a little advice:  Don't use scissor snaps on the ends of your reins to attach them to your bit/hackamore.  I used to use them, and I've had the snaps come undone twice during sort of critical moments on a conditioning ride.  I now have one rein attached directly to the hackamore and another with a different type of snap that doesn't have the scissor mechanism.  I don't have a picture of it, though, and it's not a common type of snap.  I think I picked it up for a different purpose and ended up swapping it with a scissor snap after a couple of near-catastrophes out on the trail.  I'm actually thinking about taking the snap off completely and just directly connecting the rein to the hackamore, though.  The reason I put the snaps on in the first place is because I imagined that I would be getting off my horse all the time and leading him/tailing him over difficult terrain.  That really hasn't happened much and my reins can be unbuckled easily enough that it isn't that big of a deal.  I'd rather not lose a rein when my horse is cantering down the trail.  Anyway, the rider whose rein came off had scissor snaps on, and that same rein actually came loose a second time during the ride.

After the rein was reattached, we got back underway, with Nimo in the lead for awhile.  Then, we alternated the positions of the horses quite a bit for the second half of the ride, which was a great training exercise.  And we did another short canter.  This time, a different horse acted up and almost went out of control.  It may have had to do with hearing Nimo cantering behind him and approaching (or it could just have been the excitement of cantering).  We never got very close because I'm a big believer in having LOTS of space when horses are cantering just because it takes some time to slow down and I was trying very hard not to have a repeat of the previous canter incident, but Nimo's thundering hooves probably do sound scary.  I feel a little bad that Nimo's canter may have caused a couple of problems for other riders, but I was surprised that experienced endurance horses would have trouble with cantering with other horses.  I just sort of assumed that they would be OK with it because I've been passed by so many of them in the past:)

I'm not really sure what I could have done differently in either case, though.  The first time, Nimo happened to be just behind and to the side of the lead horse when we started cantering.  His canter stride is pretty big, and over time, he just gradually drew even to the lead horse (we were still well to the side, though, with a good amount of space between the horses).  If I had tried to slow him, I think he would have broken into a trot because he doesn't really have a super slow, more collected canter like what you'll often see with Arabs.  And I really wanted to be able to do a forward, sustained canter for the whole hill (which wasn't very long).  If we had been trotting and came even with or slightly ahead of another horse, I wouldn't have given it another thought (and in fact, that happened several times during the ride before and after the cantering without a problem), and so I guess I didn't think about it at the canter either because this particular horse has been doing endurance for awhile and has a very experienced rider and Nimo's approach was just so gradual.  In the second case, the horse had been acting up a lot during the ride, which is why we stayed well back (like 50 feet back).  Still, Nimo did gradually start to catch up despite my best efforts to keep him cantering as slowly as possible, and I'm wondering if the horse got upset at hearing Nimo's impending approach.  Anyway, it all worked out OK, and neither of the riders seemed upset with me about the incidents, but I think I'm going back to just trotting Nimo in the back for group rides.  I don't want to be the cause of an accident, even if it is indirectly.

Because of the unpredictability of our pace, I didn't get much of a chance to take pictures, but I did take this one as we walked the last mile or so back to the trailers.  And yes, Nimo was leading.  In fact, I think he led much of the rest of the ride.  Before you think I should be proud of him, though, you should know that he was quite alarmed by the fence.  He was convinced that horse-eating monsters were lurking amongst the branches, so there was a lot of snorting and weaving as he tried to come up with a plan that would get him back to the trailer without being eaten.

All-in-all, the ride was awesome.  I enjoyed chatting with other endurance riders, and I gathered as much intelligence on the footing at the Foxcatcher ride as I could.  Nimo handled the pace really well, and could have gone faster and farther.  There was only one stop to pee near the end of the ride, which is quite typical, so whatever was bothering him during our last conditioning ride is apparently OK now.

All of that means that I'll be sending in our entry for the Foxcatcher ride tomorrow, and I'll be frantically cleaning out the truck, which still has a lot of stuff in it from our ride at Fort Valley last October.  (On second thought, maybe I can just leave everything in there...)

Thursday, March 19, 2015

When It's Nothing

Sorry for the silence on the blog of late.  It's not so much that things have been busy, but rather that my mind has been elsewhere for awhile.  I've still been riding, but in the last month, we've been besieged by snow, sleet, ice, rain, and mud more than once, and I managed to come down with a plague that took me out of commission for a week.  And then my daughter came down with a different kind of plague that took her down for about 12 hours, but left an aftermath of exhaustion for my husband and I (it turns out that the stomach flu in toddlers can cause persistent diarrhea for days, which meant being up at all hours and doing a lot of laundry and then there was the diaper explosion at 4 am one day that involved poop everywhere except somehow in the diaper and has resulted in the procurement of two new pillows for the bed...I'll leave you to imagine exactly why).  Plus, my husband had a medical procedure (he's fine, but there was some drama), work has been crazy as grant-making season opens for the agency I work for, and my truck needed to have some work done.

All of that Life culminated in me needing to be a bit creative for this past Sunday's conditioning ride.  I'd originally planned to do a 14 mile ride over at Manassas Battlefield with USTR (a trail-riding organization in my area) on Saturday, but constant rain and mud the week prior to the ride as well as more rain the day of the ride meant it was postponed.  And my daughter was down with the stomach flu anyway, so I decided to scrap riding for the day.  However, I had already made plans with a friend who is not an endurance rider to do a kinder, gentler sort of ride on Sunday at Phelps Wildlife Management Area, but I needed to get a longer ride in somehow.

Luckily, we hadn't planned to meet until 11, so I came up with an idea that seemed awesome the day before and totally sucky the day of.  I decided to get to Phelps a couple of hours earlier than we planned so I could do a pre-ride at a faster pace, and get in at least 12 miles for the day.  The reason this idea was not my favorite on Sunday morning was because my alarm went off at 6:30, and I'd been up late the night before worrying over my daughter's health and trying to keep up with her because she'd slept all day, and was less than inclined to go to bed early or stay asleep, so I think I actually got about 2 hours of sleep and doing a double trail ride was not my idea of a restful Sunday.

The threat of the Foxcatcher 25 ride on April 11 loomed over my miserable head, though, and so I managed to drag myself out of bed, yell at my husband about how stupid endurance riding is, and stomp out the door to the barn.  Once I got the trailer hooked up and loaded, I was feeling better about life, and with the promise of a sunny, warm day, I perked up a bit.

My initial plan was to put in 6 miles before meeting up with my friend and then put in another 6 miles with her.  I wanted to keep a pace of at least 5 mph (I know, I know, those of you with fitter horses or Arabs are snorting now, but we're just coming out of winter and I was tired and there are a lot of hills...), but I wasn't sure how the footing would be.  I debated about hoof boots and finally decided to leave them off.  There are a lot of gravel roads, but Nimo is not usually too sensitive on them, especially when they are wet, and I knew parts of the park would be really muddy and hoof boots are worse than anything on mud, so I opted to see if we could manage without the boots.

As we started our ride, I could tell Nimo felt really good.  He was moving well on the gravel road we started on and he felt a little more forward than usual.  Especially when we ride alone, he has a tendency to putz around, so his motivation was a welcome change.  When I asked for trot, though, he was still a little hesitant.  Part of it was probably the footing, though.  His choices were gravel or mud and he finally settled on gravel.  As we warmed up, he got more motivated and when we turned around to head back to the trailer, he really poured on the speed, and I clocked his trot at 14 mph.

As I am prone to do when I ride, I got to thinking about stuff I've read in endurance books.  One of the things I remember reading had to do with "uphill" horses and "downhill" horses where uphill and downhill don't have anything to do with conformation and have everything to do with how a horse moves up and down hills.  I can't remember which book it was, but I remember the author writing something about how some horses seem to have a better aptitude for going up hills and some horses do better going down them.  Nimo is without question a downhill horse.  I've noticed that he tends to move so much better going downhill than up and while he huffs and puffs his way up, he generally ends up embedded in the butt of the horse in front of us on the way down.  And that isn't just at the walk.  He usually cries a bit and runs out of steam when trotting on the way up, but is quite happy to trot his heart out on the way down, and not in an unbalanced, out-of-control way.  Obviously more conditioning can help him with the uphill difficulty, but many other horses that we've ridden with just seem much more comfortable switching into a high-power gear for steep uphill trails, while Nimo is happy to walk them.

Anyway, Nimo did such a great job trotting that I decided to tack on an extra mile because we had the time before meeting my friend.  The only thing that seemed amiss was that he stopped a few times to pee.  That isn't normal.  In fact, while Nimo will pee out on the trail, it is generally only once, maybe twice, on very long rides.  And I knew he had peed before we left the barn because I saw him, so the first time he peed on the trail, I thought it was strange.  After 3 more times, I was getting concerned.  He didn't seem to be in pain and there was definitely something coming out each time, so I decided to keep an eye on the situation but continue with my plans for a short break at the trailer and a second ride.

Nimo drank on the trail during the first part of our ride, so I just gave him some feed at the trailer while my friend saddled up.  He is standing a little parked out in the picture, but I think it is just because he was reaching into the bucket for food and he was too lazy to move his hind legs.  And yes, I totally and unsafely draped my noseband and reins over his neck and saddle because I was too lazy to store them properly for 15 minutes.

So after a quick break, we were underway for phase 2 of our ride.  We ended up doing another 7 miles, mostly walking, for this part of the ride, which gave us 14 miles for the day.  During the second part of the ride, Nimo still stopped to pee several times and even moaned a little the last time.  However, he seemed quite willing to move forward and his movement felt great.  After the ride, he ate his mash and drank about a gallon of water, which is pretty normal.  The only problem I could think of was some kind of urinary tract infection.

Honestly, normally I would have let things play out for a couple of days before calling the vet.  I have discovered that having a vet do diagnostic work is generally many hundreds of dollars at a minimum and having just paid a sum that would have bought me a second, very nice horse for truck repairs, I was not crazy about incurring another significant expense.  Once again, though, the specter of the Foxcatcher 25 ride loomed over me and the thought of missing it just because I delayed getting treatment for Nimo was too much.  I also needed to have the vet out to renew Nimo's Coggins test, so I figured I might as well have them check him out while they were there.

So on Tuesday, they came out and gave him a physical exam, a sheath cleaning, and took some blood for testing.  (I was supposed to have gotten them a urine sample before they came, but you try to convince a horse to pee when he doesn't want to.)  Based on the physical exam, he was in perfect health and his sheath was clean with no bean, but the vet assured me that if there was a UTI, the white blood cell count would be high and so would another value (possibly it started with an F, but it wasn't something I was familiar with).  She also said that if there was a problem with kidney function that would show up.  I asked what her thoughts were based on what she currently knew and she said she thought it was either a UTI or nothing.  That's right, nothing.  She said it was possible that his sheath may have gotten irritated for some reason, and by continuing to pee, Nimo worked it out.

I have to admit that after spending $400 on diagnostics, I was kind of hoping for a UTI, because if it was nothing, I could have avoided all that expense by simply waiting a few days, like I normally would have.  Well, guess what?  It's probably nothing.  Nimo's bloodwork came back with all values normal and the vet suspects a minor irritation that just needed time to get worked out.  On the one hand, I'm relieved Nimo is in good health.  On the other, I'm worried that it actually is something that isn't showing up because it's weird or in the early stages.  Nimo has seemed the picture of health all week, so I guess the next test will be this Saturday, when we do a hopefully brisk 14 mile ride with USTR.  If he pees more than usual, I may end up taking him to Virginia Tech's Marion duPont Scott Equine Medical Center up in Leesburg just to see if there are any other tests that they can perform.  In my experience, their prices tend to be quite reasonable for the work they do and they can often catch things other vets miss either because their equipment is better or their training is more up-to-date.

So I'm crossing my fingers for Nimo's health to continue to be great and I'm hopeful that we'll be able to keep up with the "big" girls on Saturday's ride.  There are usually several endurance riders and lots of Arabs at the USTR rides, so I like to see if we can keep up as way of measuring Nimo's fitness.  If all goes well, I think we might actually make it to a ride next month:)