Friday, April 24, 2015

Foxcatcher 25: What Worked and What Didn't

OK, here's the good, the bad, and the ugly about what worked and what didn't for this ride.

Going with a Friend

The single best thing that I did for this ride was to go with someone.  Having fellow blogger, Saiph, and her husband, Charles, with us helped keep me calmer and Saiph's horse, Lily, definitely helped Nimo be less anxious on the trail and in camp.  Plus Charles was a great crew.  If I could do every ride with them, I would.  Saiph and Charles are fun to be around and Charles' particular brand of humor makes it hard to get too upset about anything.  And Saiph convinced me that we would be OK starting a few minutes late to avoid the craziness that happens at the beginning of the ride.  Had I been on my own, I would have been very tempted to start on time because I would have been worried about taking advantage of every minute out on the trail.  As it was, our average pace ended up being just about perfect, leaving us 15 minutes to spare.  I'd still like to work on Nimo's ability to adjust his speed on the trail a little, but I'm feeling more confident that if we can do our next few rides with a buddy, it will help Nimo settle a bit, while still keeping his motivation.

Conditioning

I was convinced that I hadn't done a good enough job conditioning Nimo for this ride.  I barely eeked out an average of 1-2 rides a week during January and February and even March was dismal (60.5 miles) compared to what I did the month before the Fort Valley ride (100+ miles).  The one thing I was pretty consistent about was getting in one good conditioning ride of 10-ish miles almost every weekend, and I'm pretty sure that was what really helped.  Another thing we did was condition almost exclusively over easy to moderate rolling hills of the type that we saw at Foxcatcher, and we did occasional dressage lessons over cavaletti, which provided quite a bit of strength training.  I hadn't done a mountain ride since December because I became focused on working toward the Foxcatcher ride, and I didn't think we needed it.  More than one person told me that if we could do the majority of the Manassas Battlefield trails at a trot, we were in good shape for Foxcatcher but I absolutely did not believe them.  (Said people may now say, "I told you so!").  I still don't quite understand how Nimo was able to go farther and faster than we did in our conditioning rides and still be in such good shape at the vet checks, but something must have worked out:)

Clipping

I clipped Nimo within an inch of his life for this ride.  I used the medium blade for the Lister Star clippers, which is 2.5 mm.  I normally use a longer blade when I do clip and I never do a full body clip before May, but I was committed to making sure Nimo had the best chance to stay cool, given the ride temperature was projected to be near 70, so I shaved off all of his hair except for the hair below his knees and hocks and above his jawline on his head (henceforth to be referred to as the cap and stocking clip).  I didn't clip at all for the Fort Valley ride last year because it was fall and I didn't want to deal with blanketing all through the winter, but in the spring, I'm happy to shave off all the hair and use sheets and blankets for a couple of months.  I think the clip job definitely helped Nimo out because I didn't even see any sweat on him after the first loop, aside from a few dried flecks over his haunches, and all the sweat was dry coming off the second loop.  It definitely seemed worth it to clip, but I'm still on the fence about doing it for fall rides because Nimo does so well with his full winter coat and no blanket during all but the very worst winter weather, which means much less stress for me worrying about which blanket he should have and whether the barn staff got it right.  On the other hand, if I'm going to be competing him regularly, it's possible that I'll have to live with the clipping and the blanketing.

Braiding

I didn't braid Nimo's mane at all for this ride.  It had spent the winter getting matted and tangled and filthy and it was too cold before the ride for me to do a full bathing/conditioning/detangling session.  So I left it where it lay - half on one side and half on the other, and called it good.  I figured the clipping would play a larger role in his cooling anyway.  And someday soon I'm going to wash that mane...

Electrolytes

Sigh...I don't really have an e-lyte protocol.  It's not that I don't want one or that I think Nimo doesn't need one.  It's just that I can't get a good grasp on exactly what makes the most sense for him.  I think the first part of this post by Aarene Storms sums up many of my thoughts.  I've also spent a lot of time reading Mel's blog, where she discusses electrolytes (as well as other helpful stuff) a lot.

So here's what I do.  I give Nimo 1/2 tablespoon of Daily Red (essentially ground Redmond rock salt) twice a day (with each feeding of 1 1/2 pounds of Pacemaker FiberFocus).  On days I ride, he gets another 1/2 tablespoon with a mash of 1 1/2 pounds of FiberFocus after the ride.  Nimo also gets 5,500 mg of magnesium citrate each morning as well as 30 g of SmartDigest Ultra and 30 g of SmartDark & Handsome (which I pulled out of his feed a week before the ride because it contains paprika, an illegal substance for endurance riding - I will save my rant about that for another post).

For Foxcatcher, I added an extra 5,500 mg of magnesium citrate to his evening feed the night before the ride.  I have no explanation for why I did that instead of adding, say, more salt.  In hindsight, adding extra salt would make more sense.  I think I just wanted to do something and adding another packet of something seemed like a good idea.

On the day of the ride, Nimo got his regular feed (1 1/2 pounds of Pacemaker FiberFocus) which included 5,500 mg of magnesium citrate, 1/2 tablespoon Daily Red, and 30 g SmartDigest Ultra plus alfalfa and timothy/orchard grass hay.  During the first loop, he ate a few carrots.  At the hold, he ate a mash of 1 1/2 pounds FiberFocus with 1/2 tablespoon Daily Red plus he drank several gallons of water and ate timothy/orchard grass hay.  During the second loop, he ate a few carrots and drank quite a bit a couple of miles into the loop as well as a little bit more about halfway into the loop.  After the ride, he ate a mash of 1 1/2 pounds FiberFocus with 1/2 tablespoon of Daily Red plus half an apple and some more carrots plus timothy/orchard grass hay (he didn't seem to want alfalfa even though I offered it).  He also drank 7 plus gallons of water while he was pulsing down as well as more after he got back to his corral.  And for dinner, he got a mash of 1 1/2 pounds FiberFocus with 1/2 tablespoon of Daily Red and more giant mounds of hay.  That's it.  That was my "e-lyting."

At some point, I will do a specific analysis of what is in 2 tablespoons of Daily Red plus the magnesium citrate and compare it to other, commonly recommended brands of electrolytes, and try to come up with some kind of a plan for future rides, but my brain is just not up to it right now.  However, one thing I do like about Daily Red versus most of the other packaged electrolytes is that it does include more than just the main electrolytes (sodium chloride, potassium, calcium, magnesium) because it is an unprocessed salt with lots of trace minerals.  While I'm certainly not in a position of expertise to argue that focusing on 4 main electrolytes is a bad thing, it doesn't make sense to me that a performance horse would only use those 4 electrolytes and nothing else.  On the other hand, there is quite a bit of persuasive evidence that the use of some kind of electrolyte formula is beneficial for endurance horses, so those formulas must be providing some kind of assistance.  In the end, I suspect I'll end up incorporating some combination of Daily Red and a commercial electrolyte mix and that I'll be writing posts ad nauseam as I try to fine-tune the mixture.

Here's the thing.  Nimo did great during and after the ride.  He got all A's on his vet checks.  I realize that A's at the vet check isn't the only part of the story, and it is possible for a horse to run into trouble during recovery even if everything looks good at the final vet check.  Nimo seemed fine though.  He ate and drank well through the whole ride and after the ride was over.  He seemed to move well and though he was tired the night after the ride, I thought he came through the whole thing really well, especially because he was on the trailer for about 5 hours the day before the ride and the day after the ride.

So, I think I can assume that my minimal e-lyting worked for this ride.  Whether it will always work is a different story, and I know Mel has written that horses can adapt to e-lyting, so what works for awhile may not work forever.  Also, the temperature did approach 70, but the humidity level was pretty reasonable and the strong wind meant that cooling wasn't as much of an issue as it would be when temperatures and humidity are higher.  So, my search for a good e-lyte protocol is still in place, but I'm happy with how things worked at Foxcatcher.

Camping for Nimo

Corral - I used the same 10' long by 5' high Economy Corral Panels that I used last year for Fort Valley.  However, I decided to have metal brackets installed on my trailer so that I could carry them outside the trailer instead of inside the trailer.  That way, I could haul a second horse and just have a better way of carrying them.  The problem ended up being that when I told the guys at the store doing the work that I wanted 12" of bracket space to haul 6 panels, they didn't believe me and made the brackets only wide enough to hold 4 panels.  I had actually expected that to happen, which is why I tried to find another place to do the work in the first place, but everyone was so jammed up with work, I couldn't get the work done until after the ride was over unless I used this particular store.  (I will say that the work done was excellent, but the gentlemen who work at this place don't have much experience working with horse trailers or apparently women who are capable of appropriately describing what they want, so every time I have them do work for me, something always gets screwed up.)  Luckily, I already had a contingency plan.  I planned to use the 4 panels and attach them with rope to the trailer, effectively using the trailer as a fifth panel.  That worked well and seemed to provide a large enough space for Nimo to be comfortable, although I managed to put a scratch in the trailer even though I wrapped a rag around the panel to keep it from scratching.  So I'll need to find a better way of preventing scratches on the trailer in the future, but otherwise the set-up worked.  The other thing I found out was that the padding I put on the end of the panels didn't prevent a couple of scratches to the trailer while I was hauling them, so I'll have to upgrade the padding there as well.  And finally, the cargo straps I used to keep the panels in place (the brackets only hold the panels from above) wouldn't stay tight enough to completely eliminate movement of the panels on less than completely smooth roads.  I can only hope that no major loads are secured using these poorly designed straps from Lowe's.  I'll be shopping around for some more secure straps before my next trip.

Water bucket - I've been using these buckets called Better Buckets for almost 2 years because the design seems to make it easier for horses to drink/eat out of them.  However, they don't work well for carrying water because they aren't stable unless they are braced on something.  And even the large one that I have didn't really hold enough water for Nimo at this ride.  I think I'll be upgrading to something in the 10-15 gallon capacity for future rides.  The reason I haven't gotten a larger bucket to sit on the ground already is because Nimo has a tendency to play in his water and stick his feet in it.  But I think he's finally growing out of that habit and I'm ready to at least give the larger bucket a try.

Camping for Me

Kodiak Canvas Short-Bed Full-Size Truck Tent - After sleeping in the backseat of my truck for the Fort Valley ride last year, I was bound and determined to improve my sleeping conditions for Foxcatcher.  I really wanted one of those campers that fits onto the back of your truck bed and includes things like a sink and shower, but the price tags ranging from $8-25K just didn't fit my budget, especially because I don't do any camping outside of endurance rides.  So, the truck tent seemed like a much more reasonably-priced substitute.  The Kodiak tent that I got is definitely on the higher-end of the prices, but I like that it is canvas.  I'm hard on my stuff, and I worried that the lighter-weight tent material in some other, less expensive models wouldn't survive my ownership long.

The best thing that I did was to set the tent up a few days before I left for Foxcatcher.  I had lots of "help" from my 2-year-old daughter, which I would not recommend.  I discovered setting up the tent is mostly a one-person job, although having someone standing on the ground to adjust some of the straps could be useful.  The first time I set up the tent, I spent some time being confused by the different poles because the directions weren't very clear.  Once I figured out where they went, though, it made sense.  There was definitely a lot of swearing while I set it up because I had to crawl inside the tent and place the poles, so before the first couple of poles were in place, I felt a bit claustrophobic as the tent just draped over me, and I'm pretty sure I looked like I had been chased by a bear for 7 miles by the time I was done.  However, by working through the process ahead of time, I was able to set it up fairly quickly at Foxcatcher.



The tent fits over the bed with the tail gate down, so there is room for a full-size cot, a large cooler, a suitcase, and a heater plus a little maneuvering room.  The height of the tent is 5 feet in the middle, which is perfect if you are sitting down and slightly annoying if you are standing up and taller than 5 feet.  However, the tent stayed secure even in the 30 mph gusts we had the day of the ride, and it was a huge improvement over sleeping in the truck.  And it does come down easier than it goes up, although I still haven't figured out how to fold it so that it fits in the micro-scopic bag it came with.  Overall, I was happy with the tent and will use it again.  And I recommend it as a great option if you want to camp in a tent but like the idea of sleeping off of the ground to avoid potential flooding and being run over by loose horses.

Earth Products Jamboree Military Style Folding Cot - There are maybe three options for sleeping in a truck tent.  You can sleep on a cot, an inflatable mattress, or some kind of thick mat.  I decided to go with a cot because I'm never happy with inflatable mattresses (and they can conduct cold air), and I wanted to save space so a fold-up cot seemed like a better idea than a huge mat that I would need to wrestle with.  Much like with the tent, I set up the cot a few days ahead of time in my living room.  I'm glad I did because it didn't come with any directions.  Luckily, this particular cot literally almost sets itself up.  It just sort of unfolds and goes into place.  At 77" long, there is plenty of room for even taller people and it felt really secure when I tried it out.  Even my 6'2" 200 pound husband thought it was comfortable.  And my daughter loved it so much, she wouldn't let me put it away.  She jumped on it and played on it for days and it was no worse for the wear.

My daughter testing out the cot

I meant to put it in the tent when it was set up to check how it fit, but I ran out of time, so the ride was the first time I set it up in the tent, and luckily it just fit:)  Sleeping on it wasn't the same is sleeping on a real bed with a high quality mattress, but I thought it was pretty comfortable.  The design of the cot means that there are no bars running across the middle, so there was nothing hard to make things uncomfortable.  And the material seemed pretty supportive.  And I had plenty of leg room.  And I had space to store some things underneath it.  And it sets up in about 2 minutes and doesn't require any kind of inflation.  Overall, I would give this cot 5 stars, and I definitely plan to use it again.

Teton Sports Celsius XXL Sleeping Bag - This is the same bag I used last year.  It didn't work then and the only reason it worked this year is because I had a heater (see below).  The bag is supposedly rated to 0 degrees, but I was only comfortable in it at room temperature.  That said, as long as I have a heater, it will be fine, so my plan is to use it until it is worn out, rather than replace it when I don't really need to.

Mr. Heater F232000 MH9BX Buddy 4,000-9,000 BTU Indoor-Safe Portable Radiant Heater - After nearly freezing to death at the Fort Valley ride last year, I was committed to staying warm at Foxcatcher.  I think it was Saiph who first mentioned this heater to me, and it seemed like a no-brainer.  I do admit to being a little wary about working with propane-powered devices, so I had some concerns, which Saiph's husband, Charles, thoughtfully expounded upon at the ride:)  Basically, I worried that despite being "indoor-safe," I would somehow die from propane fumes or that I would set myself or the tent on fire and burn to death.  But I really wanted to be warm, so I worked on overcoming my fears.


The first time I used it was at Foxcatcher, but the directions were pretty easy once I figured out how to get the cap off the 1-pound propane tank.  The pilot light came on really consistently and this little heater really put out a lot of heat.  We used it while sitting outside and it did really help keep the cold from seeping in.  However, during my first night in the tent, I couldn't find a happy medium and even on the low setting, the heater created a sauna in the tent, so I kept turning it off and on as I got too hot and then too cold.  That was still better than freezing to death, though:)  The second night, I got the venting in the tent just right (2 cross windows slightly open and the bottom of the tent door open) so the tent stayed 65-70 degrees all night.  The only issue I had was that the propane tank only lasts for 6 hours on low (3 hours on high), so I had to swap the tank in the middle of the night.  If there was a way for the propane tank to last 8-9 hours, I would give this heater about a million stars.  There is just nothing better than being able to be warm while sleeping!  If I hadn't had a cold that kept me from breathing well, I would have been super comfortable and I will never, ever give this heater up.

Ultra Bright LED Lantern - I didn't really need to get this lantern, but it just seems like it isn't camping unless you have a lantern.  And I imagined using the loop at the top of my tent ceiling to hang it from to create a lovely homey atmosphere in my tent.  Well, I was too lazy to find a hook to use to hang the lantern, but it did provide a nice amount of light for its size.  It's pretty small - maybe 10 inches completely open, but it did produce a decent amount of light.  I wouldn't consider it bright enough to read by, but for just being able to see to get dressed or find something, it was fine.


KMASHI 10000mAh MP816 Dual USB Portable External Extended Battery Pack Power Bank Backup Charger - When I was at the Fort Valley ride, there was no good cell phone reception, so I just kept my phone off to conserve power.  However, I expected to be able to use my cell phone at Foxcatcher and I wanted to be sure I could use it to take pictures (ha! I literally took ONE picture), track miles, or call home.  I have an iPhone which generally needs to be charged every 36 hours under my normal usage and I would be gone for over 48 hours, so I wanted to be able to charge it in camp.  I discovered this nifty, inexpensive device, and it worked well to charge my phone on the second night.  It did only charge it to 98%, but that was perfectly fine for my use.  It's actually nice to have at home too, just in case the power goes out for an extended period of time, we'll have a way to charge our phones at least a couple of times.

Ivation Battery-Powered Handheld Portable Shower - I initially found this item when I was looking for ways to cool my horse at holds.  But it occurred to me it might be nice for me too after a ride.  I didn't need it for Nimo, but I did give it a try after the ride.  I filled a 5 gallon bucket to put the pump into and stood in a huge rubber feed bucket to catch the water.  I think that system would have worked really well if the water hadn't been at the temperature of hell frozen over.  The shower put out a nice amount of water while not going through the water so fast that I wouldn't have enough time to get clean (I think you could get maybe 5 minutes for 5 gallons of water).  And if it had been really hot outside, the water probably would have felt good.  I ended up taking the fastest shower ever and not worrying that much about being clean.  I will say that I think my initial plan to use this shower to help cool Nimo is still a good one and I'll keep the product for that and keep looking for a portable shower option for me.

Horse Gear

Saddle - You may remember that I got a Specialized Eurolight saddle last summer that I really like (click here to read about my demo experience).  The saddle worked great at the Fort Valley ride and I used it again for Foxcatcher, where it still worked great.  It's comfortable, can be adjusted for Nimo's ever-changing shape, and came with inexpensive plastic, wide endurance stirrups that really seem to help my comfort level. I had no rubs from the saddle (and neither did Nimo), so I will continue to use it.

Saddle pad - In the past, I've used this pad that Specialized makes to go with their saddles, but I've never been that happy with it.  It's fleecy, so it collects hay and hair and dirt and it doesn't seem to be that cooling of a pad.  Plus, there is this weird suede-like section on the bottom of the pad that goes over Nimo's withers and at the front part of the panel area.  I don't know that it bothered him, but I didn't like it being there or the stitching pattern on it.  I bought a Supracor saddle pad last year and I HATED it.  But it cost a lot of money, so I wasn't willing to pitch it.  I didn't like it because it was stiff and bulky and I couldn't figure out how to tell if my saddle fit correctly when it was on.  And it definitely wasn't cooling - Nimo would be lathered under the pad when he no other sweat on his body.

However, over the winter I spotted a few white hairs growing on Nimo's back.  They didn't look concentrated enough to be the result of pressure, but I couldn't be sure with Nimo's thick coat.  And with two saddles, I couldn't be sure which saddle or saddle pad might be the problem.  It occurred to me that it could be the result of too much heat and Saiph thought there was a possibility that it was the result of friction.  I ended up refitting both my saddles and I changed the pads I used just in case.  For my dressage saddle, I took the wool half pad out of rotation and just use a thin cotton pad.  For my endurance saddle, I brought back the Supracor.  I still am not convinced that I have the saddle fitted properly, but Saiph assured me there was good clearance over Nimo's spine (she could see it when she rode behind me at the ride) and the honeycomb pattern of the pad appears evenly distributed on the foam panels of the saddle.  Being who I am, I will probably keep messing with the fit of the saddle until I'm convinced it fits well, but I admit to liking that the Supracor is much easier to keep clean (no washing in the machine, just wiping with a rag) and I possibly don't hate it as much as I used to.

Saddle bags - I continued to use the Snug Pax Slimline English Pommel Pack that I used at Fort Valley.  I can fit 2 water bottles, 6 carrots, ride card, and a few other small items like hoof picks and chapstick.  The only thing that I keep meaning to improve upon is to add a snap to each side of the pack where the lower strap attaches to the saddle.  Right now, I've got to redo the strap through the buckle each time I attach it and unattach it, so if I add a snap to the strap before I run it through the buckle, I can just use the snap to attach it, saving me a few seconds.  It's not a big deal except when I'm trying to pull tack for a hold or at the end of the ride and seconds can count as I try to get Nimo pulsed down, so note to self:  Put snaps on the straps!

Bridle - Last year, I got a halter bridle from Taylored Tack.  (You can read my post about it and see pictures here.)  It was custom-made, but it is basically the Classic Jubilee Halter Bridle with the addition of double ears and Horse Shoe Brand hardware.  I used it with the Zilco flower hackamore that I've been riding with since last October.  Overall, the set-up works fine, but I'm starting to wonder if I can tweak it a bit.  I love having the bit hangers because I can pull the hackamore off for Nimo to eat better; however, I don't like that the flower hackamore does still constrict Nimo's ability to chew because it has to be attached snugly to stay balanced on his face.  I'm actually considering moving to an s-hack for future rides because the noseband is looser.  I still like the flower hackamore for riding, but the nose/jaw constriction is starting to bug me.  I don't know that I'd like the s-hack for dressage work, though, so I may end up using the s-hack for conditioning/endurance rides and keep the flower hackamore for dressage work.

Breastcollar - To quote what I said after my Fort Valley ride:  "I've had a Nunn Finer Hunting Breastplate for many years now.  It is brown with brass hardware and I have never really liked it, but it was all that was available in Nimo's size when I first went to the tack store.  It fits Nimo OK, but the straps that connect the neck strap to the saddle are a bit short and it is my plan to replace this piece of tack sooner rather than later.  That said, Nimo did not get any rubs or soreness from it and it definitely did what it was supposed to do."  Upgrading to a biothane breastcollar is still on my list of things to do.  Part of the issue is that I'll need to get a custom one made because Nimo's measurements don't match the standard.  It's not the size of his chest that is necessarily the issue, but the length of the straps that go between the neck of the breastcollar and attach to the saddle is much longer than normal, and I'm still undecided about exactly how I want to have them fit or whether I want to switch to a western-style collar that doesn't have the connecting strap over the withers area.  I'm concerned about pressure there, even though so far, it hasn't been an issue.

Girth - I'm still using my County Logic Dressage Girth that I got when Nimo was probably 4 years old.  For the Fort Valley ride, it worked great and it continued to cause no problems at Foxcatcher, even though many Arab owners gasped when I told them that I clipped Nimo's girth area.  (There are many great things about Arabians, but their thin, sensitive skin is not one of them.)  However, the leather is cracked and stiff, and it really needs to be replaced.  I want to try a mohair girth at some point in the near future and see how it works because it seems like it would be more comfortable and cooler than a leather girth.

Hoof Boots - None.  I ended up not using hoof boots at all for this ride (although I brought 6 of them just in case).  There were a couple of places where I wondered whether I'd made the right decision because there were some sections of gravel and even paved road in both loops.  The majority of the gravel roads had room to ride on the grass next to them, though, so overall I was happy with not using hoof boots.  I think it's easier for Nimo to move without them, and I enjoyed the freedom of not having to worry about cables snapping and gaiters ripping.  Nimo has been doing his conditioning work since last November completely without hind boots and mostly without front boots, so he was used to being ridden on gravel with no protection.  I wouldn't do a ride with lots of rocks or gravel without hoof boots, but Foxcatcher generally had really good footing, and Nimo's hooves seemed to be in great shape after the ride, so I plan on not using hoof boots for future Foxcatcher rides (and I'm looking for more rides that I can do boot-free).  I will say that more than one person looked at me with concern and possibly horror when I said that I planned to have Nimo barefoot for the Foxcatcher ride.  I know it's a controversial subject, but I feel most comfortable riding Nimo completely barefoot.  He seems to have the best traction and moves most freely with nothing on his feet.  The boots are nice protection for rocky trails and gravel, but they add a lot of weight and when they fail on a ride, it is frustrating.  For some people, metal shoes are the solution, but my research has convinced me that metal shoes aren't a good choice for Nimo.  For longer distances that involve rocky terrain, I may consider glue-on boots or glue-on shoes like EasyShoes, but for now, barefoot with hoof boots when warranted is working.

Rider Gear

Boots - I normally ride in Ariat Terrains with half chaps, but over the winter I started riding in Dublin Pinnacle Boots.  (You can read my initial review of them here.)  I've grown to really like them because they are a one-step process instead of the two steps of putting on boots and half chaps.  They are not a light weight boot, so I wouldn't want to do a lot of hiking in them, but I like them for riding.  Plus they are waterproof and supportive.  They are warm, so they work better in lower temperatures, but for an April ride, they were a good choice.  And I'm kind of thinking about different possibilities for summer riding now.  I'm not sure I want to go back to both boots and half chaps, but I want the support of boots and half chaps combined with the simplicity of putting on one boot.  I'll have to do some investigation into my options...

Breeches - I'm still using the Soybu tights that I used for Fort Valley.  (You can read this blog post for more information.)  They still fit well and didn't cause any chafing.

Helmet - I'm still using the same helmet that I used for Fort Valley last year that I hate.  It's just an inexpensive helmet whose brand I can never remember.  I absolutely need to replace it and I just haven't gotten around to it.  The biggest issue is that it isn't the right shape for my head.  I think I need more of an oval shape, so even when adjusted correctly, the helmet fits more snugly around the front and back of my head with too much room on the sides.  I also want one without the "dial-fit" system.  I like having a helmet that is the right size without adjustment, so I really just need to go to the tack store and try on helmets for awhile.

Food and Drinks for Me

I packed a huge assortment of food and beverages:  bananas, apples, yogurt, hummus and pita chips, cream cheese and bagels, Utz Salt & Vinegar chips, egg salad and bread, coleslaw, snack crackers, chocolate, root beer, ginger beer, milk, gatorade, mineral water, plain water, and wine.  While I didn't eat or drink even half the stuff I packed, I had lots of good choices and I ate much better than at the Fort Valley ride.  The other thing I did was to mix half Gatorade and half water in the bottles for my ride.  I have found that the half-and-half mixture seems to work better than Gatorade or water alone.  I didn't crave any salty snacks after the ride, so I think I did better on my salt intake than usual, although I did still have a couple of leg cramps later in the afternoon.  Had I eaten a banana after the ride like I had planned, that may have solved the problem, but overall, I was in better shape nutritionally than at Fort Valley.

So there you have it.  Most of the stuff worked the way it was supposed to and the few things that didn't were generally things that I already knew were a problem, but I put off replacing or fixing because I had other priorities.  Hopefully, I'll be able to make improvements for each ride in the future, and I'm sure that by the time I've fixed all the problems I've identified here, I'll have new ones to take care of:)

Saturday, April 18, 2015

Foxcatcher 25

After getting dressed, feeding Nimo, and drinking some coffee that Saiph thoughtfully brought for me, I was starting to feel like there was a possibility I might actually make it to saddling Nimo and getting on.  But first, breakfast.  I had an epic fail at the Fort Valley ride last year in terms of eating breakfast.  I was so anxious about the ride that my stomach was super insistent that there would be no food.  And while I did end up snarfing down a snack bar on the trail, I really wanted to do better for this ride.  And I did.  My initial plan was to eat a bagel with cream cheese, but because I brilliantly put all the little food containers on the bottom of the cooler and then put 20 pounds of ice on top of them, I eventually lost all hope of finding the cream cheese and settled on some cole slaw instead.  That turned out to be a good choice, and I felt pretty happy with my selection because it involved eating real food and because eating cole slaw for breakfast is just completely random.

After eating and pretty much aimlessly wandering around for awhile, I finally started tacking up Nimo around 6:30.  The ride started at 7, but Saiph and I intended to avoid the crazed start by leaving a few minutes late.  Also, I had decided to forego hoof boots in their entirety for the first loop, so that was a huge time saver.  I had brought 6 pairs of hoof boots just in case, but Nimo has been training on gravel for the past few months and based on the pictures I'd seen and talking to people, I decided hoof protection just wasn't going to be needed.  I figured I could always put hoof boots on for the second loop if I changed my mind after seeing the trail.

The great thing about Nimo was that he was calm enough that I was able to tack him up in his pen without tying him.  He did move a little, but it was nothing like the raging lunatic he was at Fort Valley when he saw all the horses getting ready.  Plus, the 50-milers left 30 minutes before the 30-milers did, so he saw horses leaving and that freaked him out.  At Foxcatcher, the start time is the same for both 50-milers and 25-milers, so there was none of that extra commotion going on.  And we had Lily this time.  Nimo is normally pretty good by himself and he's used to doing things by himself, but I have no doubt that having a buddy made a difference to him.

And then a few minutes before 7, it was time to get on.  Nimo did start to act a little antsy at this point, but he was still on a much lower level than at Fort Valley.  I did have Charles hold him for me so I could get on, but after that, he was manageable.  Once Saiph was on Lily, we did an energetic walk around the camp area and then headed toward the start line, which was across the road in in a field near base camp.  We ended up starting about 10 minutes late, but it was worth it because the horses just walked out like it was no big deal.  And we weren't the only ones with the plan to leave a little late, but all the horses were walking calmly and there was zero excitement.

Both Lily and Nimo seemed like they were ready to move out, though, and after maybe 5-8 minutes, we figured it was time to start trotting.  So we did.  And the horses were great and I think we even passed a few people before getting to the ride photographer.  I intended to insert our ride photo here, but despite ordering a digital copy of the photo several days ago, the photographer still hasn't allowed access to it, so unfortunately you'll just have to use your imagination:)

It wasn't long before we caught up to a group of three riders, one of whom I knew.  Nimo fixed this group in his sights as the one to be with, so we stayed with them for quite a few miles, until about halfway through the first loop of 15 miles.  The pace the group was keeping ended up being just a little bit too fast for us, though.  I think we did 7 miles in just over an hour and while it was kind of cool to get through so much of the loop so quickly, I started looking for a way to separate Nimo from his quarry.  Despite trying to keep him down to a walk, though, he just couldn't handle seeing them drift away.  He wasn't out-of-control like at Fort Valley, but he did still have a lot of motivation and I wanted to find a way to slow him down without fighting with him.

As luck would have it, we stopped at a creek for the horses to drink and Saiph, being in possession of a few more functioning brain cells than I was at the time, urged Lily to head upstream a bit to get the horses focused on something other than keeping up with the group.  Nimo didn't drink (which is typical for him), but he did eat some carrots.  And then Lily did something that was simultaneously impressive and scary dangerous.  She went straight up a 10 foot, nearly 90 degree embankment on the side of the creek.  It happened so effortlessly and so fast.  Unfortunately, as Lily got to the top, she brought her hind end almost even with her front end and was in danger of falling back down into the creek because her balance was precarious.  Thankfully, Saiph had the presence of mind to bail off at that moment, which probably saved Lily from falling.  Neither was hurt, but I will possibly have PTSD for the rest of my life.  The whole event probably took 1.5 seconds, but I can still see it play out in slow motion in my mind, and all I can say is that Lily and Saiph had a great set of guardian angels:)  (You can read Saiph's description of what happened in this post.)

Once I realized that we were all going to live and I started breathing again, we headed out down the trail.  Saiph was laughing about the whole thing pretty quickly (although she said it was either that or crying, which I believe), and we were back on the trail in surprisingly short order.  I did insist that we walk for a few minutes, though, because I was possibly still hyperventilating.

Anyway, soon we were back up to trotting, but without the group in front of us that had been so inspiring to Nimo, so we were able to pace ourselves a little more slowly.  And we rode through such beautiful fields, forest trails, scenic gravel roads, and history.

Fields at Foxcatcher (photo by Saiph)
Gravel roads at Foxcatcher (photo by Saiph)
An old mill, I think (photo by Saiph)
And then there were the bridges and tunnels.  We already knew about them, but there really were a lot of them.  And some of them actually were kind of scary.  One of the first tunnels we did went fine for Nimo and Lily as well as the group in front of us, but two horses violently spooked and galloped out of control for a few seconds when a car went over top of them while they were in the tunnel.  Everybody was OK, but it wasn't the first time I was glad Nimo had a buddy.  There were some sort of normal bridges over water, but there were several that acted as overpasses over well-traveled highways.  And they had open metal gridwork on the sides, meaning the horses could see the cars passing underneath them, which was definitely disconcerting for them.  Lily was really solid on them, though, and Nimo followed her lead.  (Thank you, Lily!)

Covered bridge (photo by Saiph)
As we were winding up the last few miles of the first loop, we were joined by a lady riding by herself.  She said she normally rode with her daughter, but boys had sucked her daughter's attention recently, so she was on her own.  We were happy to ride with her and I think I might owe the highlight of this ride to her.  At one point, her horse started cantering through a field.  And Nimo was happily trotting near her and then he just started cantering too.  And he cantered.  And he cantered.  And he cantered.  I kept expecting him to break into a trot like he usually does after a short canter, but he didn't.  He cantered like it was no big deal.  His canter was balanced and smooth and in control and I had no worries about him taking off or falling or any of the things that have often worried me about his canter in the past.  And I felt this huge bubble of pure joy building in my chest.  I wanted to yell and tell somebody how fantastic the whole experience was, and because it turns out that I'm not very articulate in these kinds of moments, I turned to the lady I'd just met a couple of miles ago and said, "Holy Fucking Shit!  We're cantering!"  She looked at me like she didn't know what the hell was going on, and that's OK.  Her horse probably canters like that all the time.  But mine doesn't.  In fact, Nimo never has cantered like that before.

When I was growing up, we drove a lot as a family.  Our relatives lived 2-4 hours away and my dad liked to take us on extended camping trips in the summer.  So I spent a lot of time in the car.  And when I wasn't fighting with my brother about who was touching whom or who had taken more than his share of the seat, I was often staring out the window imagining that I was riding the Black Stallion and he was cantering next to the car in the beautiful wide open ditches that are common in North Dakota and surrounding states.  And I would just be lulled into this dreamlike state where my horse and I were cantering through these ditches for miles and miles and miles.  I did eventually get my own white Arabian mare and I did canter her a lot in real life through those ditches, but there was always an element of hurry to our rides.  She was a mare who liked to get wherever it was she was going as fast as possible.  She wasn't unsafe or out of control, but she was urgent.  The canter I had on Nimo wasn't urgent, it was just an in the moment, feeling good kind of canter, and it was the kind of supreme bliss I'd always imagined when I was a kid.

And it wasn't long after that canter that we hit the 1 mile marker indicating we had just a mile left to camp (brilliant, awesome idea that all rides should have, BTW).  So we slowed the horses to a walk, which kind of traumatized them, I think.  They were in the zone and wanted to keep trotting, so somehow we thought it would be a good idea to get off the horses and hand walk them in because, you know, it would be more fun to wrestle with a 1500 pound animal on the ground than in the saddle.  This turns out not to be true, in case you were wondering.  Within 3 seconds of dismounting, I realized my mistake, but there was no way to get back on.  And to compound the issue of my horse still being pretty forward, we kept getting passed by horses whose riders apparently thought it was just fine to trot or canter into the vet check.  So I spent a bunch of time yelling at Nimo to slow down and then I heard Saiph call to me.  I turned around and she was tailing Lily up a short hill.  I had to laugh.  It was a great idea and I wish I'd worked on it with Nimo, but he probably still would have been walking too fast.  We did eventually get the horses a bit more civilized and walked into camp only slightly gasping for breath.

Walking to camp at the end of the first loop (photo by Saiph)
Saiph's husband, Charles, was crewing for us and I'd asked him to set up a sloppy mash for Nimo, which he did.  Nimo dug right in and Charles started checking pulses for us.  Lily was already down (the threshold at this vet check was 64 bpm) and when Charles checked Nimo, he was at 56, so we were good to go to get our official pulse-down time.  Within the couple of minutes it took to get to the official pulse-taker, Nimo was already down to 52 and our in-time was 9:32, meaning that we'd done the first 15 miles in probably 2 hours and 15 minutes, given our late start and the time it had taken to get in to the vet check and crewing area.

Another minute or two, and we were with a vet.  Nimo's pulse had continued to drop and he was at 48 bpm by this point, which I was happy to see.  He stood quietly for the exam, did a nice trot out, and got all A's for the check.  The only thing that I was slightly concerned about was that his CRI was 48/52.  The vet thought it was fine given that everything else looked good, but I filed away the info for future reference.

Nimo and I at the first vet check (photo by Charles)

Lily had vetted through just fine too, so we headed over to the trailer to give the horses a chance to eat, drink, and chill.  I should note that I still had Nimo's tack on and I had not braided his mane, so I was pretty happy with his recovery.  I pulled his tack at the trailer and got him set up with more mash, water, and hay.  Then I went to my cooler in search of something to eat.  I eventually settled on egg salad and pita chips because why not?  And I downed a small bottle of something called ginger beer.  It's not alcoholic, although I think it is supposed to be used as a drink mixer.  Anyway, I like it on its own.  To me it tastes like peppery soda and for some reason, it makes my stomach happy.  Then I topped off my water bottles, sat in a chair for 5 minutes, and retacked my horse.

Our out-time was 10:24, and I think we missed it by a few minutes, but we had until 1 pm to do the last 10 miles, so I wasn't that worried about making sure we took advantage of every minute.  I will say that Nimo was not his former, motivated self for the first 4 miles of the second loop.  And, to be honest, I was pretty sure Lily was going to have to pull him the whole 10 miles.  But then he caught sight of two horses in the distance, and it was like a switch flicked on his brain.  He perked right up, moved into his power trot gear and focused on catching up to those two horses as if nothing else mattered in the world.  He wasn't out of control about it, but he was moving.  Within a mile, we had caught up to them.  At that point, we all stopped at a creek and Nimo drank just a little (he actually drank quite a bit about 2 miles earlier when Saiph wanted to let Lily drink at a creek, so I wasn't too worried about hydration) and then he was ready to go.  I really thought that after he had caught up to those horses, he would go back to his less motivated self, but he didn't.  He kept right on going and alternated with Lily for the lead on the trail.

Despite this motivation, I'll admit that the miles on the second loop seemed to take forever.  I was feeling pretty tired (I was actually in the process of getting a cold and combined with a lack of sleep, I was not at my perkiest) and soreness was creeping in.  And by creeping in, I mean that part of my left calf was numb, my right knee felt like it was broken, and I was pretty sure my lips had been dried right off my face.  And Saiph was truly blessed to be able to ride with Whiny Gail for the rest of the loop.  Whiny Gail complains about a lot of things all the time, and my husband tells me she is really not that fun to be around.  However, Saiph was very kind and tried to tell me that I was funnier than I was irritating.

Because we'd been making such good time, we decided that we had the time to walk the last 2 miles in and still get to camp by 12:30, so when my GPS said 8 miles, I collapsed into the saddle and announced that we were done.  Until we got to the 1 mile marker and realized that somehow there was a mismatch in what our GPS data was showing and what the ride management had marked.  Gaa!  We had 1-1.5 miles extra to do!  Saiph asked if I wanted to trot and I said, "No," then looked at my watch and realized we had 12 minutes to get to camp by 12:30, and changed my answer to, "Yes."  The horses did great when we asked for more speed.  Lily lead the way up hills and Nimo happily trotted.  We trotted for maybe half a mile and than walked the last half mile in.

We found our spot in the crewing area, and I started yanking off Nimo's tack.  And by yanking, I mean moving really slowly and sort of dropping it randomly on the ground.  Nimo also got a drink of water and ate part of an apple.  Plus, I'd fed him some carrots while we waiting to get our in-time of 12:33, so I felt like it was worth a shot to see if we were pulsed down.  There was quite a line at the vetting area, and things were feeling a bit like controlled chaos.  Unfortunately, the first time Nimo's pulse was checked at 12:41, it was still at 64 (he had to be down to 60), so we had to get out of line.  I used the opportunity to ask Charles to bring Nimo more water because I knew he was still thirsty.  Nimo drank probably 3 more gallons and then we headed to get a recheck on pulse.  And at 12:46, Nimo pulsed in at 56 bpm.  Next we headed to the vet, where he was down to 52 bpm.  And we did the exam and trot out, and suddenly, it was all over.  Nimo's CRI was 52/52 (better than at the first vet check) and he had all A's on the exam.  We had our first completion!

It felt amazing to be done and to be done on time and with Nimo feeling so good.  I think having Saiph and Lily with us every step of the way and having Charles on our crew was so helpful and made such a huge difference in how the ride felt.  I had so much fun out on the trail (even when I thought my knee was going to need to be amputated).  And just knowing that there was an extra pair of hands to hold Nimo or bring water was such a relief.

When I first started training for an endurance ride, one of the things that attracted me to the sport was the idea of camaraderie. All the people I met and whose blogs I followed seemed like the kind of people I'd want to know better.  Yet, when it came to the actual work of conditioning, I was usually on my own.  And at Fort Valley, while I knew a few people there, and was able to meet and ride with a very nice lady, it wasn't quite the same as riding with a friend.  So having the opportunity to camp and ride with Saiph (and Charles) made this ride feel like I initially thought it would over 2 years ago when I first got this wacky idea in my head.  Sharing the experience with someone you know and like really adds to the enjoyment of it, and I'm just ridiculously thrilled that it all worked out.  And, of course, I can't wait to do it again:)

Two happy riders!  (photo by Charles)

Tuesday, April 14, 2015

Foxcatcher 25: T - 1 Day

The day before the Foxcatcher ride, I was up at 5:30 a.m.  I wanted to take a quick shower (who knew when I'd next have the opportunity?), clean the guinea pigs' cage, and pack the foods that needed to be kept cold.  Once I had the cooler packed, I loaded the last few items into the truck and headed out to the barn at 7.  At this point, I must confess to a bit of sadness about leaving my daughter.  As much as I joke about needing some space and downtime from being a parent, knowing that I wouldn't see her until Sunday afternoon made it hard to leave.  I gave my best smile to her, though, and went out the door, so she wouldn't see my reluctance and start crying.

On the way out to the barn, I realized I forgot to pack my pillow, but with all the extra clothes and blankets I had, I figured I could work something out, and I felt pretty good that it was the only thing that I forgot.

At the barn, there was some initial confusion about whether Nimo had breakfast, so he ended up eating twice.  It wasn't that big of a deal, because he only gets 1 1/2 pounds of food and he would be working pretty hard the next day, plus he had a long trailer ride in front of him.  And then I had to hose off his crazy muddy legs and hooves.  So I ended up getting on the road about 15 minutes later than I planned, but all-in-all not too bad of a start.

The main reason the timing mattered was because I was picking up a passenger on the way to the ride.  It so happens that where Saiph's horse, Lily, lives is sort of on the way to the ride location for me and because Saiph doesn't have a trailer yet, we worked it out so that I could pick up Lily.  I was interested to see how things went in the trailer because the middle divider in my trailer is pretty anemic - it is just two horizontal bars across the middle with butt bars at the back.  There is no divider at all for the head area.  It normally doesn't matter because I never use it when I'm hauling Nimo by himself and in fact, I've never hauled another horse in my current trailer.  Luckily Lily and Nimo have met before and both of them are pretty laid back horses, so I crossed my fingers when Saiph loaded Lily.  And everything was fine.  The horses seemed content to hang out with each other, so we got on the road for what was the second half of the trip for Nimo and I.

Lily and Nimo on the trailer (photo by Saiph)

Saiph rode with me while Charles followed in their truck behind us.  It was great to have another person to talk to on the 2 1/2 hour trip, and it was also wonderful to have a navigator.  Neither Saiph nor I knew the area too well, but between the two of us and the directions the ride provided, we got to base camp without any trouble.

Saiph was planning to tie a line to a tree or trees for Lily and I had a pen made from cattle panels for Nimo, so we looked for a parking spot to accommodate both set-ups. We found a great one shortly after getting there, so we pulled in and got to work getting things set up and getting checked in.

Our campsite from the side (photo by Saiph)
Our campsite from the back (photo by Saiph)
Charles and I grazing Lily and Nimo (photo by Saiph)
Saiph wanted to vet in shortly after we got camp set up, although I initially wanted to wait a bit longer because Nimo had been on the trailer from about 8 until after 1, and I wanted to make sure he had an opportunity to recover before the vetting.  At first, I was just going to bring Nimo over to the vetting area, so Lily could have a friend, and wait another hour to vet Nimo in, but I eventually decided to just vet him in at the same time as Lily.  There was nobody else there and it occurred to me that it would be nicer to vet in without a crowd.  Although, when I saw the vetting area, I was pretty sure it would be a disaster no matter what.  The lanes for the vetting were divided by white ground poles, which have historically terrified Nimo, so I sort of imagined him refusing to even go down the lane, much less trot.  As it turned out, he was a very good boy, and stood quite nicely for the vet and did an animated trot that even included some spunkiness in the form of playfully half-rearing up as we trotted back to the vet.  He definitely let it be known that he felt good and he vetted through with a heart rate of 36 bpm and all A's.

Vetting area with horse-eating ground poles
Just after vetting in (photo by Saiph)
We returned to camp and chatted and took care of the horses for awhile and then a little after 4, we saddled up to do a short ride around the beginning of the trail to assess the starting line and to see if we could find one of the infamous tunnels that more than one person said Nimo and I wouldn't fit through.  So we spent about half an hour exploring.  Nimo felt very fresh and I could feel that there were a couple of enthusiastic bucks just waiting below the surface, but he kept it together.  And we found a tunnel to practice on.  It turns out that the "tunnels" are giant metal culverts that go under existing roads.  They are actually a pretty good size and I didn't even feel like I needed to bend over to get through it.  The tunnel was scary for the horses, but with Lily leading the way, Nimo did go through it without much fuss and I felt infinitely better about the ride the next day.

We rode about 30 minutes and then untacked the horses and got them settled back in.  At about 6, we headed over to the ride meeting and dinner.  The ride meeting was blissfully short and dinner was delicious with breadsticks, salad, lasagna, and peach cake. 

Getting dinner (photo by Saiph)
Dinner in a tent!  (photo by Saiph)
Saiph and I chatting after dinner (photo by Charles)
After dinner, we mostly just talked about our plans for the ride and had fun just chatting and enjoying each other's company.  Saiph is a really lovely person to talk to with lots of interesting stories about her horses and her job as a vet tech and her husband, Charles, is particularly entertaining company as well, so we laughed a lot and for me, it was a great way to destress and not spend a bunch of time obsessing about all the things that could go wrong the next day.

We headed to bed maybe a little after 10, after a final check on the horses, who were doing so well.  They were calm and eating and drinking and it made me feel good to know Nimo would have a friend through the night.

Lily and Nimo (photo by Saiph)

Nimo in the light of the camp lights (photo by Charles)
I was excited to try out my new truck tent and cot and especially my new portable propane heater.  I had gotten the heater up and running earlier in the night when the temperature had started falling and it emitted a pretty good amount of heat.  As it turned out, it produced so much heat, even on the low setting, that I spent much of the night either turning it on or off because I was too hot or too cold.  So I didn't sleep that well, but I was much more comfortable sleeping on a cot in a tent than I had been sleeping in the back seat of my truck at the Fort Valley ride last October.  And I was much warmer overall.  Still, it felt like no time at all before my alarm went off at 5:30.  In fact, Saiph had to call to me to make sure I was up (she sounded remarkably chipper for that time of the morning) and she was kind enough to get me some coffee so I could turn into a human being.  And then it was time to get ready...

(Note: To read Saiph's version of events, click here.)

Monday, April 13, 2015

We Now Interrupt Our Scheduled Programming

While I am excited to post my adventure at the Foxcatcher Endurance Ride this past weekend, I'd first like to share a story with you.  I invite you to jump over to a blog post by Saiph, who has written a beautiful story about a fellow blogger named Liz and her husky Kenai.  I can't even begin to do justice to what she wrote, so I'll just say that if you happen to have a few dollars to spare and you are as moved by Kenai's story as I was, please consider donating even a small amount to Kenai's cause through the GoFundMe account that Saiph has set up.

And stay tuned for tomorrow's post about Foxcatcher!

Thursday, April 9, 2015

Foxcatcher 25: T - 2 Days

It's a little after 10 pm, and I'm winding down for the night.  It's been a busy day with work and getting ready to head out to Maryland tomorrow for the Foxcatcher 25.  I'm writing because I want to document how I feel before each ride and reflect on things that seem like they are working and other things that I'm worried about.

In many ways, I feel so much more prepared for this ride than for our first ride at Fort Valley last October.  I've made a significant upgrade to my sleeping accommodations (a tent and cot instead of my truck's backseat) as well as just being more organized and better prepared with an assortment of clean clothes and food and beverages.  I've also got the truck and trailer almost all packed, with the exception of a few things that can't be loaded until tomorrow.  My hope is that my morning packing process will be streamlined and without the low level of panic that I had last time:)

Of course, there is still a nagging feeling that I haven't conditioned Nimo enough, which is really true.  Our miles for the past two months don't even amount to half the miles we did to prepare for Fort Valley.  A large part of the reason is just bad weather and a little bit of it is just life.  I'm hoping the base fitness level Nimo had in the fall will help, and we have been doing at least one 10-14 mile conditioning ride each week over the type of terrain we'll see at Foxcatcher for the vast majority of the past 3 months.  We've also been doing fairly regular dressage lessons over cavalletti and the occasional ride around the farm.  He feels fit to me and has been handling conditioning well, but the little voice in my head keeps reminding me that he's not an Arab and I should be doing a better job putting miles in.  I guess we'll see.  I have no doubts whatsoever about his ability to do the first loop and if all else fails, we can just slow down for the second and maybe come in over time like we did in Fort Valley.  I'd definitely like to get a real completion for this ride, but I feel like it's too early in our endurance career to know for sure what works and what doesn't in terms of ride prep.

And then there have been the informative endurance folks I've chatted with about the Foxcatcher ride.  Not a single one of them mentioned how fantastic this ride is for those of us who are just getting started.  In fact, all of them pointed out all of the problems I can expect and most of them just wondered why I wasn't going to the No Frills ride instead.  (The reason I'm not doing No Frills is almost solely due to terrain.  No Frills is a true mountain ride and we just haven't been working in the mountains.  Whereas Foxcatcher is rolling hills and that is what we've been riding on.)

In case you've never done Foxcatcher before, here are the reasons you shouldn't do it, based on what others have told me:

1)  The start of the ride is in a big field and all of the horses are nutjobs.  Some people get bucked off and your horse is likely to act like an uncontrollable idiot.

2)  The rolling terrain seems easy, but it isn't.  It can suck the life out of an unprepared horse.

3)  A lot of the "trail" is on the side of a grassy hill, which means the footing is uneven side-to-side and more challenging for your horse.

4)  The grass will be slick with dew in the morning and slippery, especially if your horse has hoof boots on.

5)  There could be muddy, slippery spots if it rains a lot before the ride, which it has.

6)  There will likely be a 40 degree temperature change between the start of the ride and the end of the ride.

7)  There are crazy bridges that are covered, or somehow wacky.

8)  The tunnels.  (Apparently there are tunnels that go under roads and the height is meant for the less endowed.)

Out of all of those reasons, the only one that seriously concerns me is #1.  Nimo did have "race brain" for the first 9-ish miles of Fort Valley and this time there won't be a mountain to slow him down at the beginning.  On the other hand, there won't be a rocky mountain for him to try to trot down at the beginning either.  As a pre-emptive strike against Nimo's expected difficulty, I've arranged to ride with a friend, and I'm hopeful that will help.  Once we found someone to ride with at Fort Valley, Nimo settled quite a bit, so with any luck, having a buddy from the start will keep him from fighting to catch up to the front-runners.

As for the other obstacles, we train on rolling hills, uneven terrain, and mud, so I'm comfortable Nimo can handle it.  (Plus I'm planning to ride him sans hoof boots.)  If somehow the life gets sucked out of him, we'll slow down or I'll pull him at the hold.  I think the bridges will be OK as long as we are with another horse who is not terrified.  We have done tunnels before at Rock Creek Park in DC, and if I have to get off for us to get through them, that's what I'll do.  The temperature change is likely to be closer to 25 degrees, according to the forecast, with a high in the mid-60s.  Nimo is sporting a nearly full body clip, though, so I expect the temperature to be less of a concern than it was at Fort Valley, where the temperature went from freezing or below to above 70 and Nimo wasn't clipped.

In the end, everyone has a different perspective on every ride, and I'm determined to listen to the cautions of more experienced riders, but also try to make my own way.  If I didn't do a ride simply because someone else thought it had problems, I don't think I'd do any rides.  It seems like they are all either too rocky or too technical or too sandy or too easy.  Or the camping/parking is too rough.  Or something else.  So, the only way to know if Foxcatcher will be a regular occurrence on our ride calendar for future years is to try it.

Thursday, April 2, 2015

Training Milestone: Asking instead of Insisting

I've long admired the training techniques of Mark Rashid.  I've had the opportunity to participate and audit several of his clinics over the years and I've read most of his books.  I also have his video set, Finding the Try.  Despite my attempts to emulate his philosophy, though, I find that I generally fall short of both his patience and his astounding sense of timing.

I recently had the chance to revisit practicing both patience and timing on my last conditioning ride at Phelps Wildlife Management Area this past Sunday.  I originally intended to crank out a longer and faster ride, but Nimo's celebrity status cost me a bit in terms of time.  We were delayed even getting out on the trail because of chatting with a couple of endurance ladies who wanted to know more about him, and we got hung up on the trail when we ran into a couple of Friesian fans.  I had actually sort of forgotten how inconvenient it is to ride a Friesian because the trails have been pretty barren these past few months, but the advent of nicer weather has brought out more riders.  Please don't misunderstand me - I love talking to people about my horse and everyone I meet is always overwhelmingly nice and pleasant, but it does put a bit of a crimp in my plans to move out at a faster pace, and I do find myself a little frustrated about it sometimes.  Hopefully, someday I'll find a way to balance Nimo's celebrity with my conditioning goals.

Anyway, because of a lengthy chat before we even got started on our ride and because the idea of following someone on the trail didn't appeal to me, I ended up deviating from my initial plan to ride a set of trails that I knew well to achieve a certain mileage and pace, and ended up shooting off onto a side trail.  As luck would have it, the side trail took me to the power line easement that runs through the park.  Both this easement and the one for a gas pipeline offer a really nice set of steep, rolling hills that are great for adding a lot of intensity to Nimo's workout.  They are often too muddy to ride because at the bottom of each hill lies a boggy mess, but despite a lot of recent moisture, they didn't look too bad, so I decided to risk it.

A view of the hills along the powerlines
In addition to the muddiness, though, there is another reason that I don't ride the easement hills as often as I should for conditioning purposes.  Nimo is really awful about crossing the boggy sections at the bottom of each hill.  For the most part, these sections are quite small and easily stepped over and it makes no sense to me how a horse who happily crosses larger streams and rivers could be so reluctant to step over the tiniest of ditches with water in them.  Every time we end up by ourselves with small ditches to cross, we get into a huge argument about it.  And I hate it.  I don't want to fight with my horse.  I want him to cross the ditch because he feels comfortable and not because I've terrorized him into it or gave up and got off to lead him over it.

I'm not really sure what it is that bothers Nimo so much about these small ditches - it could be a depth perception issue, a concern about footing, or just a long history of having trouble with them that keeps us from communicating well when we get to them.  During our last ride at Phelps, we worked on them, and I did a lot better about remaining calm, but I lost it on the last ditch we had to cross because it was one Nimo had crossed many times before and it is just not that big of a deal (in my mind).  I got so frustrated when Nimo wouldn't cross that I used the whip way too much and he got so wound up that even after I got off and tried to lead him across, it took several minutes.

Anyway, I was bound and determined during this ride that I would not lose my cool and I mentally mapped out a path that would not take us over any ditches that were quite familiar to us and might possibly send me into the no-patience zone.  That meant, of course, that we might get lost in the 4,000 acres of unmarked trails, but I decided it was worth the risk.  I had my cell phone with me and the reception is generally pretty good in the park, plus I was mapping my ride, so I figured I could always just retrace my steps.

Of course, we encountered one of those objectionable ditches right away.  My goals were fairly simple.  I wanted to keep both of us from "escalating" into a state where we're not communicating well and I wanted to maintain forward motion.  To do that, I asked Nimo to keep moving forward until he indicated he was uncomfortable by tensing up and fidgeting.  Then I allowed him to stop, but he had to face the ditch.  After a few seconds, I asked him to move forward with either a cluck, a light tap of my legs, or a light tap of my whip.  As long as he moved even one foot slightly forward, I released the pressure to go forward.  If he backed up or whirled away, I just reset him facing the ditch again and started over.  I was very careful to modulate the pressure of my legs and the tapping of the whip so that the pressure was always light.  If he resisted moving forward, I would just lightly and quickly tap with the whip while clucking until he moved forward.

I have to admit that the first ditch we did was not pretty.  It took maybe 10 minutes to get across and Nimo definitely ducked and weaved and spun around.  But I kept at it without escalating my aids.  And we did get across.  The next 3 ditches went faster, but still required some time.  At the last ditch we got to, Nimo wanted to go one way, but I thought the other way was better.  The way Nimo wanted to go had several 3-4" logs lined up at the bottom of the ditch to provide support, but I thought it looked unstable and like a soft tissue injury waiting to happen.  So I asked Nimo to cross further down, where there was more mud.  We slowly worked up to the ditch and then one of Nimo's front feet sank deep into the mud and I knew that was the end of his confidence in crossing at that point.  So I let him head over to where he had originally wanted to cross and decided to let him attempt it.  And he carefully stepped through the mud and logs with hardly any encouragement from me and cheerfully trotted up the hill on the other side.

We did the rest of our ride without getting lost and with Nimo doing a pretty good job of consistently trotting (except for the incident involving a small log in the middle of the road - Nimo was terrified and it took a good 5 minutes to convince him that it was actually a log instead of a horse-eating troll).  He even volunteered to canter at one point and seemed like he was starting to get the idea of walking where he had to and trotting where he could.

Nice non-boggy roads run throughout the park
I feel pretty good about this ride even though I didn't make my initial goals on distance and pace (we did still get 11 miles in, so it wasn't a total loss in terms of distance).  I've been struggling with communicating better with Nimo for a very long time.  And I have made a lot of progress over the years, but this is the first ride we've done where I was able to keep it together for the whole ride and really focus on the timing of my aids and on looking for that "try" so I could provide instant feedback and encouragement.  I also believe that I still have a lot of room to improve, but I finally have some level of confidence in my ability to improve.

The idea of asking instead of insisting is one that has recently become quite a bit more important and relevant to me.  Those of you who have children probably know that one of the biggest challenges is what discipline (or lack thereof) strategy to use and if you are a new parent, you can be assured that many other parents will be happy to tell you how you are doing it wrong.  I have found that I just can't deal with major conflicts unless they are absolutely necessary.  A sort of "pick your battles" strategy, if you will.  And my daughter is unquestionably my progeny because the second she senses that I am immovable on an issue ("You must eat a piece of salmon before you can have a piece of bread"), the game is over.  She will not ever give in.  She once went on a 6-hour hunger strike when she was 6 months old because I insisted she use a different nipple on the bottle.  I eventually gave in because 6 month old babies have to eat.  I don't wish to incite any kind of parental conflict here because I really do believe that each child is different and must be handled according to their temperament and a parent's comfort level, but I do want to say that I have had to rethink how I interact with my child, and in so doing, I realized I had to rethink how I interact with my horse.  Because in many ways, they are the same.  Insisting that something must be a certain way is a useless exercise (unless it involves a safety issue like moving said child out of the way of oncoming traffic).

And before you condemn me for "giving in" or "spoiling" my child, I'll give you one more piece of information about my thought process.  There was recently a time when a person in a position of psuedo-authority over me told me that she "insisted" that I absolutely must do something.  My immediate reaction was that I wasn't going to do it, no matter what, even if it meant that I would go to jail (not a likely outcome, but a slight risk).  Now, I hadn't been inclined to do that particular action in the first place, but her "insistence" on it meant that I would never, ever do it, and I absolutely found a work-around so that I didn't have to.  Nobody likes being told what to do, especially in situations where they feel like they have a bit of knowledge about the subject, and I am known for being "contrary."  But this particular situation brought home to me an important point about my interactions with others, including my child and my horse.  Yes, there may be times when something really does have to be done a certain way, like wearing a helmet to ride or putting on a seat belt in a car or giving me a safe amount of distance while being led, but the vast majority of things are negotiable in some way.  I don't claim to be an expert on raising a child or training a horse, but I do know that if I can avoid insisting on something, my outcomes are likely to be more pleasant and they may even be what I wanted in the first place, but without all the drama to get there.  So, my goal in the future is to ask instead of insist and work on my ability to be patient and look for ways that I can encourage the behavior I want without becoming so invested in the outcome that I have to force the issue.