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.|
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|
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!:)