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).


  1. Is your sleeping bag a 0 degree women's rating? The rating for men and women are actually about 20 degrees different. I learned this after freezing in my husband's old sleeping bag for years before getting a new one made for women when the salesperson explained the difference. It's so much warmer.

    I have the same helmet and love it.

    1. I actually don't know, Olivia. I'm going to guess it would be for a man because I think the bag is either extra wide or extra long. But thanks for the tip - I'll definitely pay attention next time I buy a bag:)

  2. When we were in America this year, my sister asked if we'd like to go camping in one of our popular spots, for old time's sake. I said, "Why would I want to camp without my horse?"

    I don't know if you read my blog but I'm trying to buy a horse who seems to be a bitless horse, and I found a new design today, I think from Zilco also? :

    If I were to go bitless I'd like the noseband to be extremely comfortable and wide. The Zilco neoprene padding is awesome, it's like what I have on my Zilco SS bridle. The "Star" resembles the LG Zaum you blogged about, but also comes in brass? If you're like me and Saiph, always trying to match hardware: ) I like that they offer it with fleece, but I would never use fleece because it just absorbs debris and doesn't remain soft on the nose. I like what you use, and the padded thick leather ones that seem to come with the Star.

    1. I do read your blog, lytha, although not as often as I wish I could. There are so many good blogs that it seems like there is enough time to read them all!

      I like the Star Wheel hackamore you referenced. It's not by Zilco, though. Maybe a company in Sweden? I would like to try it because it looks a little more elegant than the Zilcco flower hackamore that I have, although the Zilco works quite well.

      Good luck with your potential new horse!

  3. Horse camping really is so much fun. For me, it plays to my inner child that wants nothing more than to wake up next to my own horse. I never grow tired of the thrill of *actually* doing it.