Wednesday, October 28, 2015

Coconut for Horses?

Photo by Tom Woodward
I have long been aware of the health benefits attributed to incorporating coconut oil and other coconut products (provided they are from reputable sources) into human diets, and we always have at least one jar of coconut oil handy for cooking or for smoothies.  A few years ago, before I even started conditioning for endurance rides, I began to wonder if there were also health benefits for horses fed coconut oil.

Having to board my horse complicated any experimentation with coconut oil, though.  Feeding any kind of oil is messy, and I worried that either the barn manager wouldn't want to deal with it or that it wouldn't be consistently supplemented because it was messy.  And making up Nimo's feed myself would mean I would have to deal with the mess and be responsible for constantly bringing out pre-mixed bags of feed.  (I have since gotten over this objection, but at the time, it was a concern.)

And good quality coconut oil is expensive.  A gallon of it would cost over $100 from Tropical Traditions, which is where I get our coconut oil.  Feeding just 4 oz. a day would mean that I would go through a gallon a month plus the cost of Nimo's regular feed.

So I was delighted when I came across a product called CoolStance.  Coolstance is made from coconut oil and copra (dried coconut meal after it has been heated to extract the coconut oil).  It is specifically made for horses, and the company that makes it includes a lot of what look like legitimate scientific articles on its website.  These articles appear to support the company's claims for the nutritional benefits of its products.  However, there were three issues for me with feeding the product.  First was its availability.  No feed stores in my area carried it.  Second was its price.  The nearest location I could find it was New Country Organics in Waynesboro, Virginia.  It was too far away for me to justify driving, but shipping on a $30 bag of the feed was approximately $15, making the 44 pound bag cost about $45.  And even if I just fed 4 pounds a day, I was looking at a cost of $135 a month for feed.  Third was its palatability.  Nimo ate it, but not with any gusto, and he preferred even plain oats to the CoolStance.  So after probably about a year of feeding it, I gave it up and switched to Pennfield's Fibregized.  (I later switched to a different feed, but that is a different story...)  (Also, if anyone is interested in feeding copra-based products, you may want to check out this article published by Kentucky Equine Research on some things to be aware of.)

I still liked the idea of feeding a coconut product, though, and it has been in the back of my mind for a couple of years.  It finally occurred to me that I could try feeding shredded coconut.  Like the kind used in baking, only without any added sugar.  Theoretically, it should provide many of the same benefits of coconut oil, but without the mess and the expense.  The same company that I order coconut oil from also sells dried coconut products that are labeled as organic and glyphosate tested.  Regardless of whether I order shredded coconut, coconut flakes, or coconut chips, the price is $8.50 for a 2.2 pound bag, which seems really reasonable for a supplement that I would be feeding in small amounts.  So I decided to give it a try about 6 weeks ago.

The biggest change I noticed in Nimo within just a couple of weeks of starting to feed the dried coconut was that his coat got incredibly shiny.  (He also tried to break out of his stall to get to the feed before it got to him, so I'm guessing he liked the taste!)  You might say that was just due to the fat in the coconut, and I don't have a way of disproving that argument.  However, I have done fat supplementation before with ground flax seed, chia seeds, and general supplements that have Omega-3 added, and I have never noticed such a drastic change so quickly.  It wasn't that Nimo's coat was dull before I started feeding the dried coconut, but it really wasn't at its best.  And it hasn't been for quite awhile, if I'm honest about it, but I didn't realize how less-than-optimal that it was until I saw the change. 

I am planning to test Nimo's hay this winter (I wanted to last winter, but the cost of buying the core driller for sampling was a bit too much), so I can identify any potential nutritional deficiencies.  However, I did have his blood tested this spring (and have always done a blood test periodically his whole life), and no issues showed up (which doesn't mean there isn't a problem, just that what the test covered didn't show deficiencies).  I will say that I don't think the quality of forage at the boarding stable he is at is appropriate for performance horses, but I rarely see hay or grass that I am happy with, so that opinion isn't meant to be a specific criticism of the barn.  It's just the reality in this area that fields are typically overstocked and poorly managed (partly due to ignorance about pasture management and partly due to high land costs) and really awesome hay is incredibly expensive.  I do supplement with my own hay in small amounts, but depending on the results of the hay test this winter, I may make additional changes.

Anyway, back to the coconut.  Other than the shiny coat, I can't say that I've seen any other benefits.  Nimo had been on the coconut for maybe 3 weeks before the OD ride and his energy level didn't seem different than normal.  And three weeks after the ride, I still haven't noticed any other changes that I could attribute to the dried coconut.  However, the improvement in his coat leads me to believe that the supplement is helping him in some way, so I plan to continue using it unless I find information that suggests it is no longer a good idea.

In terms of the amount, I've been putting about 1/4 cup in both morning and evening feeds for a total of a 1/2 cup a day.  I don't have a basis for choosing that amount, other than that it seemed like an amount significant enough to have an impact, but not so much as to be costing me an arm and a leg.  With that amount, I think a 2.2 pound bag is lasting about 3 weeks, but I admit that I haven't tracked it that specifically, and I also have a three-year old who is my assistant, so it's possible that we are not super accurate with the amount:)  But at $8.50 a bag (plus shipping), I am pretty happy with the cost of this supplement, and it's possible that I could even reduce the amount a little now.

So this is my pretty unscientific, anecdotal experience with using dried coconut as a feed supplement.  If I do see additional benefits that I think are reasonably attributable to the dried coconut, I will post about them in the future, though.

Note:  All of the links in this post are for products I have used and the sources from which I have purchased them.  I receive no financial (or other) compensation from any of these companies (who probably don't know me from Adam), and I paid full retail price for all of the products.  I do encourage you to do your own research before purchasing a supplement or feed for your horse to make sure that the product is something that you are comfortable feeding.

Wednesday, October 21, 2015

Animal Lives Matter

"The greatness of a nation and its moral progress can be judged by the way its animals are treated."
-Mahatma Gandhi
If you don't live in Virginia and maybe even if you do, it is likely that you haven't heard about a terrible tragedy where over 100 horses, dogs, and cats were found on a farm in Orange County.  Neighbors had filed complaints about the number of animals on the property, but no one was prepared for the atrocities that they would find.  One of the rescuers posted these words about his experience on the Virginia Horse Network Facebook page:

Hey Folks, I know you all know me. Yeah Im the Mad Tack guy. I normally don't do posts like this, but I just had to share my experience from yesterday. I got called out to Somerset to help with horse transportation. When I arrived, I seriously cant tell you the horror story that was going on out there. The pictures that the news stories have been showing, don't even come close to whats out there. There were multiple dumpsters being loaded with carcasses of dead animals. The stench was unbearable. There were horses in every shape imaginable. I met the owner and she seriously has some mental issues and Im sure there will be a lot of legal proceedings and such Im not even going to go down that path. For the courts to decide. I hauled horses out of there from 11am to 7pm non stop. Please don't thank me or give me a pat on the back, that's not why I was there. The real ones that need a thank you are as follows. Orange County Sheriff and deputies. They did an amazing job and a lot of the deputies are not even horse people. I witnessed a deputy spend 40 minutes trying to get a horse to gain enough confidence with a little grain to slip a halter on, and once he was able to get the halter, realize that the horse was missing a chunk of his head. The vets and vet assistants there were unbelievable. They did a fantastic job!! And to all the rescues that were on sight, Hope's Legacy, CVHR, and Gentle Giants. (Im sure there were more, im sorry I don't know their names) They worked like a well oiled machine getting those horses moved out of there. They all deserve a round of applause. But heres the thing now. The rescues need some serious help and donations. They have all been flooded with horses that need some major care. All of the rescues have FB pages and websites and all have ways that monetary donations can be made. Saddlery Liquidators is a drop off point for CVHR and/or Orange County Animal Shelter. Mad Tack is a drop off point for Hope's Legacy Equine Rescue (and I saw somewhere that the new tack shop in Crozet has offered to be a drop off point. I apologize I do not know their name and please don't hold me to it if I am mistaken about that) Here's what we need desperately right now. First aid supplies (vet wrap, vetericyn, wormer, blu-kote, rain rot med, etc.) BLANKETS ANY SIZE, feed, hay (sorry I don't have equip to move round bales, only square), and of course money. Money for vets, farriers, fuel, etc. etc. I also want to let you know that these rescues are being inundated with calls, and messages, so please be patient for a reply, and don't be offended if they miss your comment on one of their posts. They are all working overtime. I know there is a major issue with cats and dogs too and honestly I wish I could answer your questions, but I do not know how to, I am only involved with the horse side of it. I would tell anyone interested in cats and dogs to call Orange County Animal Shelter to find out how to help. I was also told that Madison County Animal Shelter is taking over flows. Im sure all the surrounding counties have pitched in. So please contact any of them to see about help.

It's a pretty horrible situation.  And yet...It is not the lead story on any of the major news networks and even local TV stations and newspapers are reporting only very basic information.  If these animals had been people, this story would be blowing up news outlets all over the country and maybe even the world.  Reading about it makes me simultaneously want to throw up, cry hysterically, and wish that I was even a minor deity so that I could bring down the full wrath of a supernatural and almighty being on the woman who has done this to these animals.

Some may argue that animals aren't as important as people.  That the story of a white man killing a black man or the mass murder of school children or the suffering of tens of thousands in a foreign country is far more deserving of front page news.  And I would argue back that it is because we do these things to animals that we also do them to other people and that makes every case of animal abuse and neglect a big deal.  If a person can hate a puppy, there is no end to the hatred they can have toward another human being, especially if that person is different.  If a person can look into the eyes of a starving horse and feel nothing and do nothing or even intentionally cause it, there is no hope for any compassion toward a human being.

While I strongly suspect that anyone who reads my blog already cares a whole lot about animals, today I am writing for me.  I cannot be silent on this issue because hardly a day goes by when I don't read about things like a horse being dragged to death behind a trailer not 15 minutes from my house and criminal charges are not filed.  Or see the Humane Society commercials with Sarah MaLachlan singing in the background as images of shivering, dirty, starving cats and dogs fill up my TV screen.  

But it isn't just these horrifying cases where law enforcement steps in that bother me.  It is also all the average horse owners out there who haven't taken the time to educate themselves about basic horse care and so they don't know that throwing 2 flakes of hay twice a day to their horses isn't good enough.  They don't know that having a farrier who may or may not be any good at trimming feet work on their horses' feet every 12 weeks isn't good enough.  And it is all the amateur competitors out there who don't know that keeping their horse inside for all but 1-2 hours a day isn't good enough.  And it is all the professionals out there who use techniques like soring and rollkur and tying a horse's head to its side as if the horse is simply clay to be modeled into some idiot's vision of beauty.

It is also all the "farmers" and "ranchers" out there who raise livestock in Confined Animal Feeding Operations where the animals are housed in crowded conditions standing in their own feces, fed diets inappropriate for their species, or in the case of chickens, denied the ability to even peck at their food because part of their beaks are cut off, or in the case of pregnant sows, confined to a pen so small that they cannot turn around so as not to suffocate their young.

It is all the dog owners out there who don't understand even the very basics of dog communication and behavior and run around yelling, "He's friendly!" when their dogs bolt off leash and run enthusiastically toward my cowering and terrified dog.  It is all the guinea pig owners who don't know that guinea pigs are social animals and need another guinea pig to keep them company.

And it is even me, when I look back on what I did with my animals when I didn't know better.

I don't know how to stop the tragedies, except to write about them.  To expose them to the light of day so the full horror of what we permit can be viewed in its naked entirety and judged by the harshest standards.

I don't think hate crimes or school shootings or mass murders or genocide will ever stop until we learn how to treat every animal with compassion, whether it is with us for only a short while until it is slaughtered for food or if it is with us for decades as a faithful companion.  We need to do better when it comes to caring for our animals.  I need to do better.  

One of the major things that attracted me to the sport of endurance is how fundamentally important the welfare of the horse is.  Because of that emphasis, I am more knowledgeable about horse care and my horse's life is improved because of it.  But my learning isn't over.  I have vowed that I will never stop trying to educate myself about the animals whose lives are my responsibility.  They have forever homes with me, and I will never stop trying to meet their needs and finding ways to improve their environments, diets, and interaction with me.  Because their lives matter.

Tuesday, October 13, 2015

The OD 25

Let me start out by saying that whenever I hear "The OD," I get a little quiver of anxiety in my stomach.  While the ride is my ultimate goal, I am always aware of how challenging it is and that even horses who can do 100 miles elsewhere can't make it through the OD.  And my anxiety about the 100-mile ride has definitely transferred to the shorter distances, especially in light of Saiph's experience last year.  I had toyed with the idea of trying the OD 25 this past June, but I was not that secretly relieved when temperatures and humidity levels soared well into the 90s in the days before the ride and gave me an excuse to skip it. 

Instead, I planned to find another ride later in the year.  But I ended up not being able to go to the Ride Between the Rivers in West Virginia because of work commitments, I had out-of-town guests during the weekend of the CTR at Fair Hill, and Fort Valley was cancelled because of the National Championship ride being hosted here in Virginia.  So I was left with the Jersey Devil and Mustang Memorial rides in New Jersey as my last options.  I knew that the rides were sandy, but much like every other ride, some people said it was good and some people said it was hard on the horse.  I figured the worst that could happen would be that we would get through the first loop and I would have to pull Nimo because we either couldn't go fast enough or I was otherwise worried about the footing.  So I tentatively put one of the NJ rides on my radar. 

Then, Old Dominion announced that they would be squeezing an open 25-mile ride in between the 50- and 100-mile national championship rides.  The trail would be the same as it would have been for the June ride, and it would give me a chance to try the trail without the threat of the heat/humidity of summer.  I was still hesitant, though.  I hadn't conditioned Nimo in the mountains as heavily this year because I had initially been expecting to do a NJ ride this fall and I was worried about the difficulty of the OD trail.  So I talked to some people who had done it in the past and here are the things they said:  "Relative to the 50- and 100-mile rides, the 25-mile ride isn't as challenging,"  "It's not that bad," and "It's a little easier than Fort Valley."  It was the last one that convinced me.  Fort Valley is absolutely not an easy ride, but we survived it and I was pretty sure we could do something that was both 5 miles shorter and a "little easier."  In hindsight, I probably should have gotten more details on why that particular rider thought the OD 25 was easier than the Fort Valley 30, but at that point, I was ready to send in my entry.

And that is how it came to be that on the morning of October 9, I was getting up around 7 am to get my horse ready for the OD 25.  We had a leisurely start time of 9:30, which was good and bad.  It was nice to be able to wake up without an alarm and have plenty of time to take care of Nimo and myself before starting the ride.  On the other hand, it would mean finishing in mid-afternoon and the heat of the day.  The temperature was expected to hit 75 and the humidity, well, it was going to be in the 80-100 percent range.  For those of you unfamiliar with Virginia humidity, let me just say that when the air is 100 percent saturated with moisture, the temperature is not the biggest concern.  I've done more than one mountain ride in the past with saturated to super-saturated air and cooler temperatures, and Nimo becomes my own personal, mobile sauna.  The steam just rises off of him, he's wet with sweat that can't evaporate and perform its cooling function, and the heat that comes through the saddle is phenomenal.  That said, we've done it, and I knew that Nimo could handle the conditions as long as I gave him chances to rest.  However, I figured there was a chance we'd end up coming in over time again.  But, I wouldn't know until we tried:)

The OD base camp on the morning of the ride.  This is about half of it - the other half was behind me.
I had packed a crew bag the night before because the mid-ride vet check would be an away check.  Luckily, Liz was helping me out with that and she was taking my stuff to the vet check area along with her stuff that morning.  I packed two flakes of hay (different kinds), feed for a mash, a small feed pan, a 5-gallon bucket, a sweat scraper, a small cooler with snacks for me and ice to use for ice water if Nimo needed extra cooling, more beverages for me to replenish what I drank on the trail, and two hoof boots to replace the ones on Nimo's hind feet if they failed during the first loop.  I was pretty happy with my preparedness and I sent the bag out with Liz at about 8 am.

There was also a Ride & Tie running concurrently with the 25-mile ride, and those teams were starting at 8:30.  I used that start as my trigger to start getting Nimo booted and saddled.  Prior to the Ride & Tie start, I got myself ready, dumped the water remaining in Nimo's bucket and filled it to the brim with fresh water, and picked all the poop out of his pen, partly so I'd have less to do after the ride and partly so any poop he left after the ride would be easy to find and use for diagnostic purposes if something didn't seem right.

Once the Ride & Tie started, I brought Nimo out of his pen and wrestled his hoof boots on.  He would be wearing Easyboot Trails up front and Easyboot Epics behind.  I'd had a chance to test the Trails pretty thoroughly before this ride, but I'd had only 2 conditioning rides with the Epics, so I was concerned about how well they would do on the ride.  I've had a cable snap and a gaiter rip on Epics at the Fort Valley ride on the crazy climb and descent, and I expected the climb on this ride to be worse, so I was worried about hardware issues.  Which is why I'd packed two spare hind boots in my crew bag and I would be carrying one spare with me on the saddle.  I was not, however, worried about the Trails.  I'd tested them in every condition I could imagine - mud, gravel, multiple creek crossings, humidity, extreme climbs, extreme rocks, and grass.  I'd also tested them multiple times with Nimo's crazy-fast trot, which has a lot of knee action.  They had no hardware that could fail, so I didn't bring a spare.

Once the boots were on, I saddled Nimo and got my pommel pack ready.  Once again, I was the queen of preparedness compared to previous rides.  I had a small ziploc bag with Nimo's feed in case he needed a snack out on the trail or his mash had disappeared at the hold, carrots to feed Nimo periodically throughout the first loop because I expected the trail to be mostly in the woods with no grass to eat, two Gatorade bottles for me, a snack bar for me, hoof pick, pliers, extra cotter pins (for the Epics), chapstick, Tylenol, and a small pocket knife.  I had an extra Epic hoof boot strapped to the cantle in a different bag, along with my sponge.

Then, with still a little time left, I put three braids in the thickest part of Nimo's mane to help with cooling and with 15 minutes to start time, I got on my horse.  I was planning to head to the start line to check in and then get together with the ladies I'd be riding with.  This plan worked really well up to the point when I realized that I'd forgotten my rider card.  I could either start on time and ride without it, or I could go back to get it and start late.  I opted to go back to get it because it would mean being able to start without the craziness of the mass start, but I couldn't tell one of the ladies I'd be riding with, so she would start without me (she did have someone else to ride with, though).  Another lady was with me, so I'd still have someone to ride with, though, and she was as anxious about the start as I was, so it ended up working out OK that I'd forgotten the card.

And then we blasted through base camp and over to the start line.  Both I and the lady I was riding with had already checked in, so we trotted the horses past the start line without stopping and got on with the ride.  Nimo felt awesome.  He was moving out with a beautiful trot, but because he couldn't see any other horses, he wasn't pulling and acting like a lunatic. 

We trotted down a gravel road for maybe a mile before turning into the woods.  My hope had been to make good time for the first 5 miles of the loop so that when we got to the climb, we could take it as slowly as the horses needed, and still have the ability to make up any time lost in the probably 7 miles before the end of the loop.  We kept the horses to a 6-7 mph average pace for the first 5 miles and then slowed down as I could feel the elevation increasing.  We took a short 2 minute break at the 5 mile point to let the horses grab a snack and so we could drink and then we proceeded with the climb.  I wasn't sure if we should ask the horses to trot or if we should start conserving their energy because I didn't know exactly how long the climb was or how difficult it would be for them.  Because it was the first ride for the lady and her horse that I was riding with, I finally decided that we would do minimal trotting and keep the horses to a walk for the most part. 

It wasn't long before the grade got steeper, but to to be honest, I was unimpressed.  It wasn't that the climb wasn't difficult, but the vision I'd had in my mind was so horrible that anything other than Mt. Doom and the Fires of Mordor was going to leave me feeling relieved.  So we climbed, and climbed, and climbed.  We kept thinking that we'd be getting to the top, but somehow we didn't.

When I thought we were at the top, but we weren't
And then it started raining.  Sigh...A thunderstorm (potentially severe) had been predicted for that day, but not until after the ride was finished.  However, the rain remained light and I think it provided a cooling effect for the horses, so it was good.  Taking pictures was not easy, though, because nothing was dry and apparently my iPhone screen doesn't function if it gets wet.  When I took the picture above, I had to hunt to find a two-inch section of fabric that somehow wasn't wet to dry the screen off to get the picture.

Anyway, we did finally reach the top of the mountain.  There were probably two short sections of the climb that I thought were truly difficult because of the steepness of the grade and the heavy rocks on the trail, but overall, it seemed pretty comparable to the climb up the backside of the mountain at the Fort Valley ride as you are coming to the end of the first loop.  I didn't pay attention to the exact distance of the climb and I suspect it could be subjective, depending on exactly what a person thinks is a true climb, but I would say that by halfway through the loop (7.5 miles) we were done with the climb, so it couldn't have been more than 2 miles and the most challenging portions were much, much shorter than that.

We had stopped to rest the horses for a minute or two during one of the steeper sections, but other than that, the horses had climbed slowly but steadily and I was expecting to give them maybe 5 minutes to recover once we got to the top and then start trotting again for as much of the remaining 7-8 miles as we could.  And this is when things started to not go according to what had been, up to that point, a very good plan...

The biggest issue was the rockiness of the trail once we got to the ridge at the top of the climb.  The terrain itself was lovely and perfectly trottable.  The rocks, not so much.  I realize that there are riders out there who probably trotted their horses over every rock we saw.  These horses are probably related to mountain goats.  I have ridden rocky trails and I have ridden them with experienced endurance riders.  Each time, I quiz them about what is normally done for pace over the rocks.  Every one of them has said that they would not trot their horses over the rocks, even though they know the front-runners do.  So, I think I've got a pretty good handle on what level of rockiness is considered trottable by at least some endurance riders.  There were sections of that ridge trail that were trottable, even with the rocks.  And we trotted those sections.  But there were a lot of other sections that both I and the lady I was with were not comfortable asking our horses to trot over.  And, we could not make up the time we lost on that climb.  Our pace stayed right at 4.5 mph and nothing we did could improve it.

And then, I realized something wasn't right with Nimo.  Walking was fine, but his movement didn't feel right at the trot.  He'd had two very bad slips over the rocks that were slick with rain and I started to worry that he might have injured himself.  I was getting ready to call out to the lady I was riding with (she was in front at the time) that I needed to stop to check Nimo's legs, when it finally occurred to me to check to see if he was still wearing his front boots.  The boots that I was convinced could never come off...

And you have probably already guessed by this point, but they were both gone.  Not just one of them, but both of them.  And I had no idea when we'd lost them.  I speculated that it might have been when Nimo slipped, and that had been a good mile ago.  So not good.  We stopped the horses and I got off to leave Nimo with the other rider.  I thought I might be able to make better time and see the boots more easily if I was on foot, plus the horses wouldn't have to do the extra mileage.  So I started jogging over the trail, but it was so rocky, I realized I'd have to walk to not injure myself because I was pretty sure that me spraining my ankle was not going to improve the situation.  And I walked and I hunted for those boots.  If I had lost hind boots, I would have just taken the loss and finished the loop without them, but there was no way to keep our pace at the trot if Nimo didn't have front boots.  It was just too rocky.

After maybe 5-10 minutes of mentally berating myself for not keeping track of those boots and for being so stupid as to not be able to imagine that they could come off, I ran into the drag riders.  And as luck would have it, they had my boots.  Yay!  And they said the rocky ridge trail would end soon and we'd have miles of gravel road to use to make up time before the vet check.  Yay again!

I got the boots back on Nimo and we moved as quickly as we could through the trail, but it was tough to keep them trotting for long because of the rocks.  Finally at about 10 miles in, we got to some water troughs, and let the horses drink.  Nimo typically does not drink before about 10 miles, so it was the perfect place for water (although we'd crossed a few creeks before then).  Both horses drank well, we did a little sponging (although I felt weird about it because I've been told it is rude to use drinking water for sponging, but the drag riders insisted that it was fine), and then we set off with relief, knowing that we'd be on the gravel road shortly.

Yeah, so about that gravel road.  It is about 5 miles long and downhill all the way (with a couple of shorter trail sections closer to the vet check).  And by downhill, I do not mean a gently-sloping downhill that is easily trotted.  Nope, I mean pretty much the exact same grade as the mountain at Fort Valley.  There is about a 1.5 mile section of a fairly steep grade of road coming down the mountain and into the vet check at Fort Valley.  Nimo happily trotted it last year, despite my better judgment, and he was fine.  Let me explain that trotting 1.5 miles of that grade downhill and trotting 5 miles of it are two different things.  After a couple of miles, I could tell the lady I was with was having trouble with it and so was I.  Also, Nimo's front boots were now coming off with frightening regularity.  We couldn't go more than a mile without me having to stop to retrieve them and put them back on.  And Nimo was starting to fuss about them.  He didn't want to move out as much and the gravel was a little slick with rain and leaves which was making both horses a little uncomfortable.

And somewhere on that downhill section of trail, I lost my will to live.  I knew we absolutely would not finish the first loop within 3 hours, which was the absolute maximum time we could take and still have a prayer of finishing the ride on time.  I knew the remaining 10 miles would be easier and we could probably make up some time, but the continued failure of my hoof boots did me in.  The idea of spending potentially 15 miles (5 of the current loop and 10 of the next) having to get off every mile to fix the boots was too much.  After I'd gotten off to fix the boots for what seemed like the 100th time, I fervently vowed that I would never do another endurance ride again.  I could not imagine why any person would ever do this stupid sport.  And I repeated my vow every time I had to fix the boots.  At one point, one of the drag riders (who were doing their best to give us room to ride our own ride) offered me duct tape to see if it would help to keep the boots from failing.  I knew it wouldn't, but I also know what it's like to watch someone having problems and feel the need to help.  So I let him put duct tape over the boots.  Of course, it wouldn't stick to the boots because they were covered in Virginia clay slime, but his hope was maybe it would add some stability to the boots and help keep the Velcro from coming undone.  I don't think it did, because I could hear the boots thwapping with every step, so they were loose, but they did stay on his feet for the last mile and a half into the vet check, which we mostly walked even though we could have trotted, because I wanted to shoot myself in the head after pitching those boots into the nearest ravine.

I really tried to keep it together, though, even though I wanted to scream.  As I've mentioned, it was the first ride for the lady I was with and she was remarkably cheerful through my whole ordeal, even though my boot problems were preventing her from riding faster.  The only person I had to blame was myself, and that was what really upset me.  I get that sometimes things just happen.  An accident on the highway backs up traffic and makes you late for an important appointment.  A wrong step leads to a sprained ankle that prevents you from riding in an important event.  A faulty electrical circuit burns a hole in your kitchen ceiling...But this boot issue was my fault.  I was so convinced that those boots could not fail that I made no contingency plan (although even having a spare with me would have done no good because both boots were failing).  I had made a plan for pretty much everything else, but not that.  And I felt so terrible about slowing down another rider.  I wish she would have left me to ride on ahead, but she was committed to staying with me because she felt uncomfortable on her own and also because she was just a lovely human being.  I know if the situation had been reversed, I would have stayed with her and not felt the slightest bit upset about it, but that didn't make me feel better.

Finally, we made it to the vet check.  Of course, everyone was concerned about explaining to us how we would have trouble finishing the ride in time.  I know they were just trying to be helpful, but we already understood the situation.  We planned to Rider Option (which means to pull the horse from the ride even though it is considered "fit to continue" by the vet), but we still needed to get the horses vetted.  We took the horses over to the water troughs to see if they wanted a drink, but I could tell Nimo really wanted to eat, so I easily found my crew bag (thanks Liz!) and mixed up a mash for Nimo and pulled his tack.  I gave him a few minutes to eat and then we headed over to the P&R area for a pulse.  He was at 60 bpm and the criteria was 64, so we were ready to vet through.

Unfortunately, Nimo was not happy about the away check.  I could tell he was stressed because he kept moving while the vet took his heart rate, which is absolutely not normal.  In fact, I don't think he has ever failed to have good manners at a vet check before.  Anyway, his heart rate went up to 64, but because he was still at the threshold, we continued the vetting.  Nimo got A-'s all the way down the rider card, which was good.  But the trot out sucked.  Again, Nimo always does a nice job on them, but there was a fallen tree at the end of the lane for the trot out and he was spooking at it and not wanted to trot.  We did eventually get past it and he trotted out for the whole way back to the vet, but it was frustrating.  His CRI was 64/64, which was fine, but I could tell that away checks may be something we struggle with a little.  Nimo is very much a creature of habit and I think the difference between an in-camp check and an away check was making him a little anxious.  Anyway, I ditched the front boots and headed back to our spot in the crew area to let Nimo finish his mash, which he happily did.

When I had vetted Nimo, I told the vet that despite him passing the vet check with no concerns (other than that he was clearly not as calm as I would like him to be), we would be using the Rider Option to pull because I didn't have spare hoof boots for his front feet and even if I did, we had no hope of making it to the end of the ride in time.  The lady I was riding with also planned to RO, so the plan was that we would give the horses maybe 15 minutes to eat, drink, and chill, and then we would hop on the "ambulance" for a ride back to base camp, which wasn't very far away by road.

Nimo was uncomfortable with the waiting.  I'm not sure what he was expecting, but after he finished his mash, he started wandering around the crew area.  In hindsight, I think that may have been when he realized we were on an endurance ride, and he started to worry about catching up to the other horses.  There were still a few horses at the check and they started leaving while we were there, so that may have been a trigger as well.  I let him snatch bites of leftover hay and grain that had been dumped on the ground because I knew we were the last ones through, but he couldn't stop moving.  I was also pretty sure he was thirsty because we kept going by the water troughs, but he was too anxious to drink.  So we decided to just load the horses and get them back to base camp so Nimo could settle.

The trip back to base camp was uneventful and blissfully short.  The volunteer hauling us was actually a vet who ended up not being needed for vet duties, so he volunteered to drive the ambulance from the vet check.  He was a great person and very nice, and I felt a little guilty about using his time for such a stupid thing as hoof boot issues. 

We pulled up to the gate to base camp and stopped.  I figured our driver had other duties and didn't want to bother with driving all the way down to where our trailers were, which was fine.  We could certainly walk our horses the final distance.  But that was when he told us we had to see the treatment vet because we had RO'ed.  What?  While the RO can be used when riders feel that something just isn't right with their horses that the vet couldn't identify and so passed the horse at the vet check, that wasn't the case here.  Both of our horses had passed the vet checks without a problem and I couldn't fathom why this would be a rule.

So, poor Nimo, who was confused and worried, had to be dropped off at base camp after riding in a trailer that was new to him and then go see a vet again.  Well, we didn't know where the treatment vet was, but I assumed the vet was in the same area as the regular ride vets.  As it turned out, that wasn't quite true, so we had to ask several people to find our way.  When we got to the treatment vet, she was with two other people and their horses explaining about electrolytes.  So we waited for several minutes.  Then she checked out our horses.  The other horse was "released," but Nimo was not.  The reason?  His heart rate was too high at 52 bpm and his gut sounds were not "loud enough."  Seriously?  I think 52 bpm is perfectly appropriate given the circumstances because he was clearly stressed at being in that area and as for his gut sounds, the best thing for improving them would have been for me to be able to immediately take him back to his pen to eat, drink, and relax, not wander around camp and wait and continue to stress him out.

So, my orders were to come back in half an hour for a recheck.  Look, I really want to be respectful here, but it's a bit of a struggle.  One of the biggest attractions about endurance riding is how the horse's welfare is always supposed to come first.  But I've got to say that this whole process didn't seem like the best thing for my horse.  For one thing, simply walking back to my trailer and back again would take probably 20 minutes.  So I'm supposed to give him 10 minutes to recover and then come back?  That doesn't make any sense.

Admittedly, Nimo had only done 15 miles, but I could tell he really wanted to eat and drink and relax, which is what we normally do after every single ride.  Nimo is very much a creature of habit and I think with the away check, the trailer ride, and the treatment vet process, he was getting more and more anxious.  I realize that endurance horses have to be able to handle problems, but with Nimo, that is going to be a training effort over time and I felt that there was no reason for this particular issue to have even occurred.

So we headed back to the trailer, where Nimo promptly drank several gallons of water, peed (a lovely light yellow color), and ate his mash.  Then he started relaxing and it broke my heart to have to get him again and lead him all the way back to the treatment vet.  The closer we got, the more wound up he became.  Again, he wouldn't stand still, and his heart rate was 60 bpm.  I know that a falling and spiking heart rate can be an indication of recovery problems, but I know my horse, and it was because of the stress of the situation.  He was all by himself (his riding buddy had been with him before) in sort of secluded area, and it was really bothering him.  The vet decided she was now happy with his hindgut sounds but not with his foregut sounds, so guess what?  Recheck in an hour.

I was really trying very hard at this point to be polite.  If my horse was truly having a recovery issue, the last thing I needed to be doing with him was to keep dragging him all over base camp.  I do believe the vet absolutely had my horse's welfare as her priority, but I was starting to feel trapped into a cycle that I didn't think was in my horse's best interest.

I brought Nimo back to his pen where he drank more water, pooped (completely normal, btw), and started munching on hay after maybe 15 minutes of relaxing.  A couple of people stopped by to chat and then Liz came over, which was really nice, because it took my mind off of my irritation. 

I decided to take down my tent and pack up everything except Nimo's pen while I was fuming about the vet situation.  I had originally planned to stay that night, but with everything that happened, I was feeling a little raw emotionally and I just couldn't face more people and talk about the ride.  I know that in the grand scheme of things it really wasn't that big of a deal.  My horse was OK, I was OK, the lady I was riding with was OK, and her horse was OK.  The thunderstorm that was predicted hadn't come yet, and things could have been much worse.  I think the reason I was so bothered was because it was my mistake and it affected other people (the lady I was riding with, the drag riders, the volunteers at the hold).  I'm sure all these other people were probably not irritated and understood the situation, but I hate inconveniencing other people.  And I was a little disappointed that we hadn't been able to finish the ride.

Anyway, as luck would have it, the treatment vet came to me.  I guess she was in the area looking at another horse, so she asked if she could do Nimo's recheck while she was there.  Hallelujah!  This time, she was happy with his gut sounds and his heart rate was in the 40's (I can't remember the number - I was just so relieved!), so we were released to go home.

I finished packing up Nimo's pen, got him loaded, and we were on the road by a little after 5, I think.  And then I had about 2 hours of driving to think.  And the weirdest thing happened.  All I could do was strategize about how I could tweak my gear and my riding plan so that we could try again next year.  I'd gone from a very low point of never wanting to see a ride camp again to not being able to wait to try out new hoof boots and set up my ride schedule for the next season.  All I can say is that endurance is somehow an addictive sport!:)

Sunday, October 11, 2015

The OD 25 T-1 Days

Base camp for the OD ride is only about 2 hours from where I board Nimo, so I figured I could sleep in a bit and still manage to leave my house at about 9 am.  As it turned out, it was closer to 9:45, but not a big deal.  I had thoughtfully packed the truck and the trailer in the few days prior, so all I had to do the morning we left was to pack the food and some clothes, because I inconsiderately waited to do laundry until the night before...some habits die hard:)

I stopped for gas on the way out to the barn, and then all I had to do was grab a couple of things from my tack locker and load my horse.  So, we were on the road by about 10:30.

Our trip out to Orkney Springs, VA (where base camp is located), was thankfully uneventful despite the ever-increasing truck traffic on I-81.  And my truck handled the final 15 miles of the trip pretty well, even though there were a couple of hills which definitely taxed its transmission.  I shudder to think about hauling a longer, heavier rig through those twists and turns, and it makes me glad that I stuck with a simple 2-horse bumper pull trailer.  I envy the living quarters of those bigger trailers, but I don't envy having to maneuver them!

We pulled into base camp a little after 12:30, I think.  I didn't really pay that much attention to the time because we had plenty of it.  Which is exactly what I wanted.  I've been over-scheduling myself a bit these past few months and constantly feeling like I'm fighting for time, so I was hoping to have the luxury of lots of time to find parking, set up camp, and vet in.

I've been to the OD base camp before, when I volunteered last year, so I knew what to expect.  It is an efficient base camp, with room for lots and lots of rigs, but I sort of feel claustrophobic and overwhelmed there.  Luckily, because the OD was running the National Championships for the 50- and 100-mile rides (with an open 25-mile ride squeezed in between) and those rides were scheduled on Thursday and Saturday, it seemed like the camp was a little less frenzied than what I'd seen before at the regular OD ride where all 3 distances run on the same day.

We were easily able to find a parking spot with close proximity to a porta-potty and water trough, and it wasn't long before I had everything set up.

I really like the way this set-up is working for us
Ahhh...Home sweet home:)
After piddling around for a little longer, I decided to take Nimo over to the vetting area to get vetted in.  (If I can, I like to give him a couple of hours to settle before the vetting, just in case he has some de-stressing to do from the trip.)  I could tell he was on high alert, so it wasn't surprising that his heart rate was a little high - 44 bpm - but he stood like a statue for his exam and did a nice job on his trot-out.  He got all As on his score card and after marking him with his number, we headed back to our little camp.

Then I wandered a bit to find the lady I would be riding with the next day.  I originally planned to ride with someone else, but her horse ended up with a physical issue, so she couldn't come.  Luckily I was able to find another rider that I knew to ride with because I had no intention of repeating the fire-breathing dragon experience from our first ride at Fort Valley.  Nimo really needs a buddy to help him overcome the start-line excitement and to help pull him along when the going gets tough or he starts getting tired.  Anyway, I checked in with her and felt comfortable that we'd be in good company the next day.

Later, as more riders pulled in, I met my neighbor, who was planning to do her first ride.  She seemed like a lovely person and remembering how anxious I felt the day of my first ride, I asked if she would like to ride with us the next day.  I figured it would be helpful for her to have a small group to ride with and with more of us, we could always split up if some of us decided a different pace would work better for our horses.  She looked relieved and accepted my invitation, which made me happy.  I'm really not experienced enough to be offering advice to anyone, but I still know very much how it feels to be new, so I can at least commiserate.

I still had time to relax, so I took a little break in my tent.  Soon, I heard a familiar voice calling my name.  "Gail!  It's Liz!"  Yay!  I knew fellow blogger, Liz, was coming to the ride, but I had just assumed she would be doing the 50-mile ride.  As it turned out, she was doing the 25-mile ride, because she hadn't been able to fit the two qualifying rides into her schedule to be able to compete in the 50-mile ride.  I knew she'd be going fast, so we wouldn't be able to ride with her, but it was great to have a friend at the ride whom I could pester with last-minute questions and just hang out with.

Soon it was time for dinner and the ride meeting.  We had awesome homemade beef stew with salad and warm bread, plus homemade brownies.  I'm not sure there is a more perfect pre-ride meal out there:)  The ride meeting was blissfully short.  The good news was that the maximum pulse rate at the hold would be 64 bpm instead of 60, likely due to both the difficulty of the ride as well as the expected heat and humidity the next day.  And then the vet said, "And don't underestimate the climb that starts about 5 miles into the first loop."  I knew about the climb.  I'd heard stories about the climb, but hearing the vet mention it gave me some minor heart palpitations.  I decided that maybe a glass of wine was in order.

I was able to chat with Liz a bit more after dinner and then I headed into my tent for some blissful alone time.  I didn't have cell service, so I read a bit, played some solitaire, and just enjoyed the time.  Then, I checked on Nimo and took him for a walk around camp for about a half hour before heading to bed.  I wish I could say I slept dreamlessly and for 9 hours, but yeah, that didn't happen.  I was comfortable and warm enough, even without a heater, because the low temperature never got much below 50, but typical pre-ride jitters and the unfamiliar noises kept me awake much of the night.

Saturday, October 10, 2015

The OD 25 Pre-Ride Preparation

I like to keep track of what I do prior to an endurance ride, so I can figure out what works and what doesn't.  Also, for anyone who is new to endurance riding, seeing what someone else does may be helpful (if only to decide what NOT to do!).

Here's what I did as the days counted down to the OD 25-mile ride.

T-5 days
After what seemed like 40 days and 40 nights of rain, we finally got a break from the constant downpours that had been plaguing us for the last week, so I took advantage of the opportunity to head over to Phelps WMA for one last conditioning ride before the OD.  I hoped to put in 10-12 miles, but at a slower pace.  I didn't want to create any new soreness or test Nimo's fitness with only 5 days to go before the OD, so my plan was just to get time in the saddle.

Our slower speed gave me a chance to snap a few photos along the way.  The day was pretty dismal, so the lighting isn't that great, but hopefully you'll be able to see  that the park is actually a pretty nice place to ride.  It doesn't have what I would consider really challenging trails unless you ride the gas pipeline or the utility easement, where there are steep undulating hills, but the terrain is great for trotting or canter work over easy to moderate hills and the plethora of gravel roads is awesome when every other place is under water and muddy.

At the start of our ride
Scenic pond that people actually fish from
Nimo's favorite stream to drink from
Crazy farm equipment that makes Nimo extremely suspicious!
Beautiful open fields!
One final shot near the end of our ride
We managed to get in about 11 miles, which were mostly walking with some trotting.  All in all, it was a nice relaxing ride and we pretty much had the park to ourselves because the weather was still pretty dreary.

T-4 days
I like to do a bodywork session with Nimo a few days before a ride, so I can identify and hopefully work out any kinks that might give him trouble out on the trail.  I use the Masterson Method because it isn't as intensive as some of the other massage techniques and it seems fairly easy to learn.  I generally focus on the bladder meridian, which seems to get to the majority of tense areas.  Then I'll finish by working on the hip joint, the stifle, and the chest and shoulder area.  I tend not to do the stretches that are associated with the Masterson Method and just do the light touches.  If you aren't familiar with the method or would like more information, here is a YouTube video showing the bladder meridian technique:

I had hoped to show you a before and after picture of Nimo, but all I got was the before picture due to Nimo's obsessive curiosity about my phone.

Before bodywork
You can see that in the above picture, Nimo is standing in a fairly balanced way, which means that he probably doesn't have a huge amount of serious tension anywhere.  I confirmed that when I did the bodywork.  He still carries some tension in his poll, but not as much as he used to.  I also identified some tension mid-neck on both sides, mid-cannon bone on his left front leg, and on his left stifle.  He released a lot of tension by licking and chewing, along with some snorting, but I didn't get the huge yawns that I will get sometimes if he's had a lot of tension building somewhere.  At the conclusion of my session, which probably took about an hour, he was standing with his hind legs more underneath himself, with his left hind cocked and his right front slightly stretched in front of him. 

T-3 days
I wanted to do a touch-up trim on all four feet, just to make sure his hoof boots would fit.  But I didn't want to trim too much and risk affecting the effectiveness of the fit.  So on his fronts, I just did a light rasping all around and on his hinds, I took a little off the quarters and the toe, but left the rest alone.  I plan to do a full trim after the ride and make sure the hooves are trimmed properly, but I expected the OD trail to be quite rocky and I decided boot fit was more important than a full trim.

The only tools I need to do a trim these days!
T-2 days
Clipping.  Ahhh, clipping.  I debated and debated about whether to clip.  I really didn't want to because I prefer Nimo to be blanketless for all but the most severe of winter weather.  He seems to be happier that way and it saves me worrying about whether the barn staff got the right blanket on or if the waterproofing worked or if he somehow managed to extract himself from the blanket and froze to death overnight.  However, as ride day approached, I could see that not only was the temperature expected to be in the mid-70s, but the humidity level was predicted to be about 80%.  So, I cringed and cried a little inside and then got out my body clippers and shaved my horse from neck to tail.  I left the hair on his head and his legs, but otherwise, I gave him a full body clip.  As it turned out, his hair wasn't as long as I thought it was, so the clipping didn't take much off in most areas.  That actually made me feel better because I'm hopeful he'll still grow some winter coat and be able to be unblanketed on milder days.

It doesn't look like he is clipped, but the evidence is on the floor!
And so, by 8:30 that night, Nimo was essentially ready for the ride.  I planned to leave the next day for the ride, and you can read about how our trip went in my next post:)

Monday, October 5, 2015

Camping at Graves Mountain

Nimo and I first had the opportunity to ride at Graves Mountain (located in Syria, Virginia) last year with some ladies from USTR.  Despite all the conditioning rides we had done up to that point, that ride definitely tested us.  There was a major climb at the beginning and on our descent, a terrible thunderstorm nearly drowned us with rain.  The trail was so slick as the rain washed over it, the thunder deafened us, the lightning blinded us, but strangely enough, we actually had a lot of fun.  The ladies I rode with were seasoned trail/endurance riders and their horses were unflappable, which I’m sure gave Nimo the confidence he needed to also be unflappable, even when he lost traction on all four hooves and slid uncontrollably down the mountain for a short distance.  It was an epic adventure that I’m sure I’ll remember my whole life.  That said, I was kind of hoping for something a little less eventful this year:)

I had two goals for our Graves Mountain trip this year.  First, I knew the trails were pretty rugged, so I was hoping to put Nimo’s new Easyboot Trails, which were on his front feet, through more testing to make sure there would be no chafing or other issues with the boots.  And I had new Easyboot Epics on Nimo’s hind feet that had never been ridden in, so I was interested to see how they would perform.  Second, I just wanted to camp with my horse.  When we went last year, I hauled in the morning of the ride because Graves Mountain is only about an hour away from Nimo’s barn.  I remember being terrified of camping and feeling woefully inadequate and unprepared.  Well, fast forward to having camped with Nimo twice at endurance rides, and I was no longer anxious about it, and was actually looking forward to having some down time.  Plus, it would give me a chance to make sure all my equipment was still functional before needing it for the OD ride, which would be two weeks later.

As the day for the trip approached, I realized there was a good chance that there would be rain.  I have to admit, I wasn’t super excited about camping and riding in the rain.  On the other hand, it would be a great way to test the waterproofing on my tent and figure out how I wanted to handle riding in the rain.  By being so close to home, I could either head home if I was too miserable or have my husband come out with reinforcements.  So I packed a few extra clothes and a poncho in case we got wet, and set out for the barn as soon as my husband got home from work on Friday evening.  He was unfortunately running a little late because of bad traffic, which meant that I would be running a little late too for leaving the barn.  I had hoped to get to the camp site before dark so things would be easier to set up and also because the rain wasn’t supposed to start until later in the evening.  But alas, the best laid plans and all that…

The rain started as we were on the road and while it wasn’t heavy, it was steady.  The traffic was also awful due to a Special Event.  (The worst thing besides an accident on northern Virginia roads is a “Special Event.”  Even though police are typically used to help route traffic, lines get longer and the speed gets slower.  I’ve seen traffic back-ups as long as 5 miles for these kinds of events, and I often wonder if the money donated or the fun had is worth it for the rest of us.  But I digress…)  Anyway, eventually we got out of the bad traffic and we arrived at Graves Mountain around 6:45.
View of Graves Mountain from my truck
It was still light out, although it was also still raining.  Once I got parked, I unloaded Nimo and set up his pen, which is made out of 6 cattle panels.  It didn’t take long – maybe 10-15 minutes – so that was good.  Then, I got my tent out.  At this point, one of the other USTR members came over to check on how I was doing.  Darkness was falling and the rain was continuing, so she was concerned about me trying to get my tent set up.  I insisted that I really did want to set it up, that I didn’t mind getting wet (the temperature was still in the mid-60s), and that it was pretty much a one-person job (which it pretty much is).  This kind lady stayed with me anyway and gave me moral support while I put the tent up.  It took me about 3 times as long as it should have because I screwed up one of the poles and didn’t realize it at first.  Plus it was dark and raining and I hadn’t brought the directions or even bothered to read them before I came (because where is the fun in that?). 

At one point, I mentioned that I was really looking forward to this camping trip, even though it would only be for one night, because I wanted a bit of a break from my daughter, who tends to be really stubborn and insists on doing things herself even when she really needs help.  And then I said, “I don’t know where she gets that from.”  Long pause.  The lady tactfully said, “You’re joking, right?”  Yeah:)  But being around someone like me is really draining (my husband can absolutely attest to that, especially because there are now two of us in the family!), so while I see the humor in the situation, it doesn’t diminish my need for a break!  After what seemed like an interminably long time, I got the tent up and headed over to the lovely canopied area where dinner was being saved for me.  (How awesome is that?)

While I was having dinner (grilled salmon and assorted side dishes), I got a couple of offers to sleep in fabulous living quarters/RVs from very nice people who worried my tent would leak or be too cold.  I did promise to take up one of the ladies on her offer if my tent leaked, but with the low expected to be 59 degrees, I figured heat wouldn’t be an issue.  Plus, I had brought a small heater if I did start to get cold.  Also, I just kind of wanted to be on my own for a night.  I really like all the USTR members a lot and enjoy talking to them, but as an introvert, sometimes I desperately need alone time to recharge, even if it is in a leaky, cold tent:)

As it turned out, my tent did not leak nor did I get cold.  Despite the steady rain all night, not a single drop of water got into my tent.  And my sleeping bag, which has performed extremely unsatisfactorily, despite its temperature rating of 0 degrees, finally worked really well.  It turns out that it should have been rated for 55 degrees:)  So I was dry and toasty warm (even without a heater) all night.  I didn’t actually get that much sleep, though, because I spent a lot of time reveling in how nice the rain sounded and how comfortable and warm I was.

By morning, the rain seemed like it was tapering off to drizzle and mist.  The night before, we had decided to have breakfast first and then assess the weather to determine what we would do for a ride.  A lot of people had canceled their plans to come for the ride on Saturday because of the weather, so there would be only four of us who wanted to do a more rugged ride (2 others planned to ride on less rugged trails).  Two of the ladies had ridden 22 miles the day before, so while they were open to doing a ride, they were worried their horses couldn’t handle another really long ride (typically the ride up the mountain and back is 15-16 miles).  Also, there was some concern that it could still rain and we’d be caught on slippery trails.  The four of us were four of the five who had ridden on last year’s ride and there was a collective desire to avoid near-death experiences on the mountain again.

We ended up deciding to leave camp at about 9:45 and do a shorter ride (about 8-9 miles) that would take us only half-way up the mountain, but would still include some more rugged climbing, so I could test Nimo’s hoof boots.  As luck would have it, the rain, drizzle, and mist had all ended by the time we left and we actually ended up seeing some blue sky during our ride!

The first couple of miles were on pavement/gravel road and were pretty easy.  I think there was a slight grade increase, but I don’t think Nimo felt it at all.  He was so ready to go!  In fact, when I first got on, I thought he was going to buck.  He felt very compact and tense and excited.  But instead of running around like a lunatic, he stood completely still.  It was very strange.  He was literally bursting with energy, but he refused to move forward.  At first, I worried that maybe something was wrong with the saddle fit and then I suspected it was wearing the new boots on his hind feet.  But after a few minutes, he started walking on his own and gradually the feeling that he was going to lose it wore off and faded to just regular excitement about getting on the trail.  The only explanation I have is that by refusing to go forward until he felt ready to handle himself, he was correcting his potentially bad behavior before it happened.  He has never acted quite that way before, so I’m only guessing…

Anyway, because we were on slick, wet pavement to begin with, the plan was to walk the horses until we got to safer footing.  The other three horses had shoes on so that was a smart way to handle the footing.  Nimo, however, disagreed with this plan because he was in boots and felt very comfortable on the pavement.  Because the other horses we were with were gaited or just extremely fast walkers, Nimo was able to trot a little anyway to keep up.  When we finally got to the gravel and started trotting, he was in heaven.  On one section of the road, the lead horse really moved out (she’s apparently been clocked at 16 mph for her trot), and Nimo was happy to keep up.  I don’t think we quite got to 16 mph, but maybe 13.  I’ve clocked Nimo at almost 15 mph for his trot and I didn’t feel like we hit his maximum speed this time, but it was fun to really let the horses move out.

Then, we crossed a bridge, which Nimo bravely crossed first when the other horses didn’t want to, and headed up the mountain.  Eventually, we got on Forest Service trails in the Shenandoah National Park and the rocky, ruggedness set in.  Some sections were crazy with rocks.  I wish I had taken a picture but I didn’t bring a phone or camera because of the threat of rain.  The only way I can describe one section is that it was like a cobblestone road gone horribly wrong.  There was almost an even, regular design to the large, angled rocks that had soft-tissue injury written all over it.  And Nimo desperately wanted to trot that section.  In fact, he really wanted to trot the whole ride until we really started climbing.  Then he settled into a workhorse mode as we made our way up the mountain.

And then we hit the part of the trail where I said, “Oh, shit!”  It was the steepest thing I have ever seen and it looked sort of like how I imagine Cougar Rock on the Tevis ride looks (minus the actual rock part).  Nimo didn’t hesitate and he just plowed into it.  But as he climbed, I could feel the effort that every step took.  He moved more slowly and deliberately and there was a moment when I knew he wanted to quit.  I knew how he felt because I’ve done my share of hiking and I know that moment when you’re climbing something steep and it feels like all your muscles are on fire and you can’t get enough air and you wish you could just sit down, but there’s no good place to rest and you know you’re almost at the top, so you internally kick yourself to keep going.  And I felt him go through that mental exercise.  I can’t really explain it.  But it was like he almost stopped from the effort and then convinced himself to keep going.  I didn’t use my legs or my whip or my voice.  I just sat quietly while he worked through the climb.  Because at some point, what we are doing has to be his choice.  And then we were out of it.  The grade changed just a little and became less steep and Nimo was ready to keep going with vigor.  But some of the horses were not.  So we found a half-way decent place to stop and let the horses rest for a few minutes.  Nimo tolerated the rest for about a minute and then he started pacing a bit because he really wanted to keep going.  It was a fascinating change from last year.  When we climbed the mountain last year, we did rest several times and Nimo was more than happy to take a break.  This year, we rested 3 times and all three times, Nimo was impatient with the wait and clearly didn’t need or want the rest.

It wasn’t long after that, maybe a mile or so that we got to the top of our climb and started our descent.  Nimo loves the descent and always does a nice job of moving out but being careful about rocks (except at Fort Valley - then he has some kind of death wish).  The rest of the trail was uneventful, except for a short stop when I got off to fix my saddle.  It had slid back a little too far and needed adjustment.  I’d been trying a new mohair girth, and I hadn’t been able to get it quite tight enough, so it will not make the cut for the upcoming OD ride.  Hopefully, after I spend some more time using it, I’ll get the hang of it, but for now, I’ll stick to my old County Logic girth.

Nimo was so motivated the whole ride.  I think he would have been quite happy to do the same ride over again.  He kept asking to trot the whole way back to camp and he clearly had tons of energy left.  Plus, the boots worked!  No turning, no slipping, no rubs, no hardware or gaiter failures.  So for now, Nimo will be wearing Easyboot Trails on his front feet and Easyboot Epics on his hind feet.  The other thing that worked was my new helmet.  You may remember that my previous trail/endurance helmet bit the dust earlier this year, and I just got around to buying a replacement.  (I’ve been doing all my rides with my Charles Owen dressage helmet, which is comfortable, but too heavy and hot for endurance rides.)  Following the advice of several of my readers, I purchased the Tipperary Sportage.  It’s not quite perfect, but it is definitely better than my last helmet and was not too much of a burden on my pocketbook, so hurray for a new helmet!  And thanks to all of you who recommended it:)

After the ride, we had taco soup, because one of the ladies has an awesome husband who heated up the soup for us while we were riding.  It was a perfect lunch after a great ride.  I really love the USTR rides because they are so well-organized, there is always good food, and the members are such lovely people.

My initial plan had been to stay the afternoon and hang out and rest for a while, have dinner with the group, and then head home.  However, the impending threat of rain made everyone decide to pack up during the afternoon, so I did too.  I would have liked to have stayed a little longer, but I could tell Nimo was anxious about everyone leaving, so I hurried and packed our stuff too.  And about half an hour after we got on the road, it started raining again, so it worked out for the best, except that I possibly made some poor choices about what things to pack in the cab of the truck and what things to put in the bed, which resulted in a tent being draped over the guest bed to dry and a cot hanging out on the front porch…

So, no epic adventure this year, but all things look good for the upcoming OD ride, and I’ve realized that I want to do more camping with my horse.  It was really nice to camp without the pressure of an endurance ride, so I think my goals for next year will include doing a couple of camping trips, maybe even for more than one night if I can swing it with my husband (or at Graves Mountain, there is a lodge for those who aren’t campers, so that might work too).