For those of you unfamiliar with the concept, hunter paces are long cross-country courses (typically 6-10 miles). There are natural jumps out on the trail like coops and big logs and there may be gates to open or other obstacles to get through. Competitors ride with a partner and the goal is to get through the course in the "optimum" time. How the optimum time is determined can vary by event, but at the Glenmore Hunter Pace, it is determined by averaging the ride times of everyone competing in a particular division on the day of the event. So the optimum time is unknown to everyone prior to the ride and it varies from year to year, depending on the weather, the footing, and the composition of rider/horse teams in the division.
Typically, English hunt attire is required, but many hunt clubs host "fun" hunter paces in the fall that don't require that level of formality. For the Glenmore event, you don't even have to ride in English tack. There is actually a division specifically for western riders and I have entered both that division as well as one of the English divisions and ridden in my endurance saddle (and bright blue beta biothane bridle) for both without even the slightest raised eyebrow.
This year, because my partner was riding a horse who is literally the perfect horse for a leisurely hunter pace, we entered the Hilltopper division, which is for riders with English tack, but for whom jumping is completely optional. I didn't think we were ready for the Hunter Optimum division which is for teams who plan to jump most of the jumps and move out at something close to a hunt pace. The terrain in Staunton is essentially mountainous, which means that I like to go at a slightly slower pace than say crazy hunt people on supremely fit horses.
After checking in, we got our horses ready and headed out to the start line. To mix things up, the course would be run backwards from what I was used to, so that added some interest. We walked the horses for the first 10 minutes to help warm them up, but then Nimo caught sight of a large group of horses, and he clicked into endurance ride mode. I hadn't been expecting that because, in the past, we rarely have seen other horses on the trail, and it is usually just an occasional passing of a team or being passed. Somehow, though, quite a few teams got jammed up.
Over the next mile, we all worked on sorting ourselves out and adding some space between us. We did end up leap-frogging with two other teams for pretty much the whole ride, but that was OK, because I'm pretty sure hunt riders are about the same as endurance riders in terms of friendliness. One thing I was worried about was Nimo's ability to let the horses in front of us trot off into the distance and out of sight while not acting like a complete idiot. He is normally pretty good on trails when we're on our own or with small groups, but race brain sets in when he thinks we are at an endurance ride and he can feel quite strong and difficult to hold back.
And, he did fuss a little when we slowed down to let the group in front of us go, but I turned him in a circle and made sure he knew he still had a buddy, and he actually settled pretty quickly. Yay! My friend was not used to doing a lot of conditioning work in the mountains, so she requested that we keep the pace to a dull roar and do a fair amount of walking, which we did. But we also got in some good trotting and even several strong canters up hills. Nimo did a simply beautiful job of moving out up hill and still remaining very controllable. We also did do a few of the shorter jumps. There are always plenty of logs that Nimo feels comfortable at least stepping over and he even trotted a couple of them in addition to leading almost the whole course. There is one coop that I didn't feel comfortable attempting at this ride, but I think we'll be ready for it next year!
|Nimo was so alert because two teams were passing us. He desperately wanted to follow, but tried hard to be good!|
Ahem. So, as it turns out, we didn't place in our division, but we may very well have placed if we'd entered the faster Hunter Optimum division that I didn't think we would be a good fit for. The optimum time for the Hilltopper division ended up being an hour, 59 minutes, and 42 seconds while the optimum time for the Hunter Optimum division was an hour, 29 minutes, and 42 seconds. I think it is possible that I now have a different sense of what slow is:) And that might explain why my partner asked us to slow down more than once,even though her horse is pretty fit for a non-endurance horse...And it's possible that my horse may now be much fitter than he was last year. But here's the thing - I thought we took it easy on the course. We definitely could have gone much faster, which is kind of cool.
I found the course a bit intimidating the first time we did it and even last year, I thought it was still fairly challenging. This year, it was literally no big deal (including the 10 foot drop-off that normally Nimo would have balked at, but that he didn't even blink at this year). Yes, there are several pretty steep climbs that Nimo typically walks, but other than that, the course is well-suited to trotting and cantering. And Nimo had so much energy left at the end. The only time he didn't lead was the last half mile or so to the finish line because I could tell he still wanted to go, so I put him behind our partner, whose horse was tired, and let him set our pace.
While I love our accomplishments out on the endurance trails, I think I love our progress in other areas even more. After each endurance ride that we do, I notice an increased confidence in Nimo (and me too!). I know that many riders prefer to settle on one discipline and focus on improving in that area, but I have to be honest when I say that level of focus isn't for me. I grew up riding a horse who could literally do anything (except stand still), so I learned how to do halter classes, western pleasure, western riding, reining, barrel racing, pole bending, jumping, and trail riding to the extreme. Except for a multi-year commitment to dressage that ended up hindering us more than helping us, I've always wanted to do lots of different things with my horse, even if that means we never excel at any one thing. There was definitely a period of time when I thought I'd be stuck in a dressage arena forever and the idea made me very unhappy. So I'm beyond thrilled whenever I can do something different with Nimo - especially if it is totally breed inappropriate (team penning is now on my bucket list if I can only get Nimo over his absolute terror of being near cows).
When I first started on our endurance journey, I thought that we were doing what we were doing out on the trails so we could participate in endurance rides. But it turns out that what we were doing was getting more confidence so that we can do both endurance rides AND other stuff!