Wednesday, March 16, 2016

Conditioning at Thompson WMA

I first rode at Thompson Wildlife Management Area about four months ago (has it really been that long?!).  While the trail we did was fairly short (only 6 miles), it really packed a punch because it was 3 miles of climbing followed by 3 miles of descending.  The trail was in great shape, there were only a few hikers, Nimo seemed to like the trail, and my conclusion was that it would make a great place to go for repeated conditioning workouts.  In my head I made plans to get there at least once a month to gradually increase our speed and also to explore the side trails a bit more.

Unfortunately, despite two previous plans to get there, life intervened (or possibly I just didn't have great motivation because both of those weekends ended up having kind of crappy weather), and I haven't been back until this past Sunday.  I went by myself on purpose, even though I knew at least 3 people that I could have asked to meet me there.  It wasn't so much that I didn't want to ride with those three people, it was more that I really needed a ride by myself.  I mostly ride with other people now, which is great.  I enjoy the company and I also like knowing that if something bad happens, there will be someone else there who can help or at least call 911.  But, the weather was going to be crappy (again) and I was having one of those periods of time when between constant near-panic at work and all the talking that my daughter is doing now, I just kind of wanted to not have to talk or think about human interaction for several hours.  And with the gray, dreary weather, it was a kind of day meant for solitude, if that makes sense.

I wanted to get to the park early because there isn't that much parking for horse trailers, and I just assumed all other endurance riders in the area would want to be getting their climbing workouts in.  The time change threw a bit of a wrinkle in my plans, and I ended up getting on the road about 45 minutes later than planned.  As it turned out, though, I was the only horseback rider at the park (apparently other people have better things to do on drizzly days?), so parking was no big deal.  But the last three miles of the drive to the park reminded me about why I maybe lost some motivation to ride at the park earlier.  The road has a lot of twists and turns plus steep up and downs (including one climb that apparently offends my transmission) and there are SO MANY POTHOLES.  OMG, the potholes.  It was a nightmare to drive on them.  And the entrance to the park is unmarked in the middle of a steep descent, with a sharp, steep turn.  Awesome.  It's almost like the State of Virginia doesn't actually want people to ride there...

Anyway, we made it safe and sound and despite a light rain starting to fall by the time I unloaded Nimo, I was committed to a lovely ride.  I got Nimo saddled and we headed up the mountain.  Our first challenge was to get past the lake that was being used by quite a few fisherman.  The trail threads between the steep side of the mountain and the steep drop-off into the lake, so Nimo envisions death and destruction everywhere.  He did make it through without me having to get off and lead him, although there was a lot of snorting and huffing to indicate his feelings about his lack of safety.

Once the lake was behind us, we started climbing and climbing.  And I kind of reconsidered my plan to basically go up the mountain, come down the mountain, and then turn around and repeat.  I knew we'd hit a side trail at some point on the way up the mountain and I found myself wondering where it went.  The lady I rode with the first time had pointed it out, but said she'd never had the guts to go on the trail so she didn't know where it went or how long it was.  (I'm sure you can see where this is going...)  I have to admit the idea of repeating the climb that seemed so logical before was becoming less appealing.  Plus, Nimo was acting like he was on death's door and I started to worry that his fitness level was not where I thought it was.

I think he probably just needed some time to recalibrate to riding on his own as well as doing some of the steeper climbing and maybe even just warm up.  After about 2 miles, he started to walk out better and seemed to be enjoying the climb.  We just walked it because of the drizzle making the trail seem a bit slick to me.  Nimo had front hoof boots on, which seem to be so useless on any kind of slick surface, so I didn't want to risk a fall.

Once we got to the top of the mountain, we turned around and I debated the wisdom of doing some trotting on the way down.  One reason I love this trail is because it offers a chance to practice trotting the same steep downhill descent of the first loop on the OD ride and I would be sad to not get a chance to practice.  But see above concern about rain, slick trail, and hoof boots.  As it turned out, Nimo made the decision for me.  After about 200 feet, he just picked up the trot and kept going.  He seemed to be well-balanced and stable, so I let him go.  We slowed down for a couple of hikers and a couple of short, rocky sections, but otherwise, Nimo trotted pretty steadily for the first mile down the mountain.  Cool.

Then, we hit the turn to go on the side trail.  My internal debate settled on taking it.  The worst that could happen was that it went nowhere and we had to return to my plan to climb the mountain twice.  I convinced Nimo to deviate from his ambitious trot down the mountain.  He tried to tell me that he was in the zone, but I explained it was either this or go back up the mountain, and he decided to try this new trail out.  It quickly became clear that this side trail was not used or maintained as much as the main one.  The short, brushy trees had overgrown the trail in many sections.  Surprisingly, this did not appear to bother Nimo, and it wasn't long before he picked up a trot again.  On his own.  On a new trail.  By himself.  I'm not sure if I can convey the significance of that.  Nimo does not trot on trails he has never been on unless I insist (or we are at an endurance ride when he becomes a dragon).  Nimo does not like to trot on heavily wooded trails, period.  So for him to volunteer to trot in that situation was huge for him and shows a real leap in his confidence.

After awhile, though, we were just hitting too many obstacles to do much trotting.  I kind of wondered if we hadn't accidentally stumbled on an Extreme Trail course.  There were several partially fallen trees blocking the trail, with not a lot of room to go under and a lot of dense brush to try to get through if we went around.  Nimo is luckily quite happy to dive into the brush and basically force his way through (which is not something I would probably want to do with a different type of horse, but Nimo has really dense, long hair on his legs, which offers quite a bit of protection), so we made it for quite a ways before we hit a real challenge.

A partially fallen tree was too low for us to get under it with me riding, except for a tricky little section just on the outside of the trail.  I decided that since Nimo had been doing so well, we'd give it a try, and I sent up a silent prayer for the survival of the skin on my back.  However, as we were negotiating the section off the trail, Nimo got really tangled in some vines.  Instead of panicking, though, he just stopped.  And he waited while I assessed the situation and realized I needed to get off to help untangle him.  So I hopped off into said tangle of vines, which awesomely included the lovely sticker vines that WILL NOT LET GO of your clothing once they have made the tiniest bit of contact.  Once I got myself untangled and off to the side, I figured out how to get Nimo out and he thankfully responded very well to my cues to move sideways and backwards until he was free of the vines and out from under the tree.

Because no good stump was immediately in sight, we set off walking down the trail in search of a good mounting block.  Nature was happy to provide one in a short distance but we had to walk through a really rocky creek bed to get to it.  But why would you do that, you ask?  Ahhh...because the rocky creek bed WAS the trail and there was no getting around it.  Nimo had some concerns, but he decided he'd stuck with me so far, he might as well keep going.  When we got to a fallen log (aka mounting block), Nimo patiently balanced on big, pointy rocks while I climbed back on and we set off in search of more adventure.

View of the creek bed/trail - for some reason, it doesn't look nearly as challenging as it did when we first saw it.
The trail got a little better after that, and I definitely spotted some hoof prints and a manure pile, so I knew we weren't the first crazy idiots in recent memory to go through this trail (although I speculated that the other horse was much smaller...)

My fear that the trail would end quickly became unfounded.  I had hoped to ride out on this side trail for an hour before turning around (1 hour at 3 mph going and coming would give me a full 6 miles, so no doubling back up the mountain would be necessary).  After 45 minutes, it looked like we still had room to go.  Plus, we came across a couple who obviously hiked out to have lunch, so I figured they probably walked at least 15 minutes before settling on a place to eat.

We did get to a new side trail, but I decided to let that go this time, fearing my poor sense of direction would get us lost.  Then, we crossed the Appalachian Trail again (so, so bitter that horses aren't allowed...), and finally we got to the end of the trail at almost exactly an hour out.  It ended at a parking lot, so it was clear we could go no further.  I gave Nimo some carrots and we turned around.

A tree that obviously fell a long time ago.  I was concerned about getting over it, because it was quite large, but we did find a trail around it that had only a minor chance of impaling me or snagging my stirrup.
Nimo wanted to do some more trotting, so we did.  By this time, there was definitely a light rain.  It had been sort of on and off during the ride, but I sensed a new commitment in the sound and I expected that we might get really wet.  Luckily, I had packed a lightweight poncho for just that reason, but I thought I'd give Nimo a chance to move out down the trail  to see if we could beat the rain.

And move out he did.  This horse became a machine.  He trotted through overgrown sections of trail like they weren't even there.  Meanwhile, I was riding as defensively as I ever have on this horse.  Because the trees were overgrown, I was constantly weaving and bobbing and dodging potential decapitation, strangulation, and impalement as well as trying to keep my stirrups from catching on branches.  At one point, I just tucked my head into my chest and used my helmet to bust through the branches while Nimo happily trotted on.

Finally, when we got back to the creek bed, I insisted that Nimo walk, even though he tried to tell me it was fine for him to trot.  (soft tissue injury, anyone?)  After that, we mostly walked the rest of the way back to the main trail because we had to renegotiate all those fallen trees.  But this time Nimo was completely prepared.  He never even slowed down for a single one of them.  He even ducked under the ones we'd gone around before (luckily coming from the downhill side has more room or I would still be dangling off of one of them).  Even the tricky tree that had all the vines didn't slow him down.  He remembered exactly how to get under it and did it without snagging a single vine.

Which is why I thought it would be totally fine to stop and take a picture of the old metal house that marks the spot where the side trail separates from the main trail.  Nimo does not like this house, but I figured he would stand for 2 seconds while I took a picture.  That would have been wrong.  Because despite being rock solid out on that crazy trail, he was convinced the house was haunted (maybe it is, for all I know), and the second I took the picture, he spooked from behind like a bear reached out and touched his hind end.  But did I fall off?  No, I did not.  I kept both feet in the stirrups, managed to hold onto my whip and both reins in one hand, and clutched my iPhone with my other hand, all while somehow managing to get my nutcase of a horse slowed down in less than 2 seconds.  Whew...

Picture of the "haunted house" out on the trail
And then we were back into "civilization" on the main trail.

Nimo still felt very fresh, but we still had some steep descents to do and I wanted to make sure he had time to cool down during the last 2 miles, so we walked all the way back to the parking lot.  As a last hurrah, there were some fishermen who decided the absolute best place from which to fish was ON THE TRAIL next to the lake.  It was too much for poor Nimo to figure out how to avoid falling in the lake and walk by the fishermen in their brightly colored jackets, with their long poles and strings and chairs.  So I got off, chatted with the fishermen for a minute (they were very nice - I think they just didn't understand how scary the set up could be for a horse) and walked the last quarter mile to the trailer.

The rain was still light, but becoming a bit heavier, so I quickly got Nimo's tack off, fed him his mash, and hosed him off (more about my fantastic little device in a future post) to get any sweat off.  The temperature was in the mid-50s, so plenty warm for Nimo to be wet because he still has his full winter coat.  I did put a lightweight cooler on for the drive home to help dry him out.  Which turned out to be a wise choice because while it did rain heavily on the way back to the barn, it stopped by the time we got there, and Nimo was mostly dry.

The exit from the parking lot was my final obstacle of the day because I realized that there was very little gravel on it, and it was slick from the rain.  So, I got the truck going as fast as possible (I only had a short distance to get going), scared the living daylights out of the driver of the car coming down the mountain on the opposite side of the road (I swear I stayed in my lane, but I was moving a little fast), and managed to get out of the parking lot without sliding back in.  Then it was three fun-filled miles of up and down and twist and turn and OMG, the potholes! and then we were on the interstate for an easy drive the rest of the way back.

I think that this ride was a pretty big milestone for both of us.  Nimo's willingness to trot was really nice to see and it gives me some confidence that maybe he is actually enjoying our time out of the trail.  And I think this might be the first ride that we have done on our own that I truly enjoyed and had real fun on.  Our other solo conditioning rides have been done for the purpose of conditioning.  I do the ride and I logically think through what worked and what didn't and plan for the next time.  And while some rides have been better than others (I still remember one miserable ride in a hot, humid August being chased by horse flies and smacked by branches and how I just wanted to quit and never ever get back on a horse), I always spend a lot of time looking at my watch or my GPS and thinking about how my butt is sore or my ankles hurt or how I wish I didn't have to do so many miles.  This time there was none of that.  I did check my watch a couple of times because I didn't bring a GPS and time was the only way I could assess mileage, but it was very occasional.  I never once wished the ride could be over sooner and I just had the most fun.  I loved riding a new trail, experiencing the challenges out on the trail and having to figure out how to get around them, and most of all, I loved working with a willing horse.  This ride was worth every single miserable minute I have endured to get to this point.  I know that there will be other rides in my future that may not be fun because of weather or footing or equipment issues, but I think we may have turned a corner and I hope to never look back.


  1. Yay for Nimo's confidence and those trots on the trail! And I totally get the need to ride as a means to not talk nor interact with anyone. Horse time is me time!

  2. The photo captioned "civilization" cracks me up because of said caption. And I'm so happy to hear that you had fun and enjoyed your time. That's the most important thing. I wish you many more rides just like that.