Friday, April 29, 2016

The Bull Run Occoquan Trail at Fountainhead Park or The Day I Fought a Tree (twice)

A few weeks ago, I wrote about how I tried to access the Bull Run Occoquan Trail (BROT) from the Bull Run Regional Park and had to turn around after a couple of miles because the trail became impassable for us at a river crossing.  At the time, I vaguely planned at some point in the future to head to the other end of the BROT at Fountainhead Regional Park to see if the access was better/worse and also to see if we could make it a little farther down the trail.  Plus, Fountainhead has its own horse trails, so I figured I could always do those if the BROT didn't work out.

Well, last Sunday, I decided the day had come.  I wanted a relatively easy 10-12 mile ride as a final conditioning ride before our next competitive effort and having once boarded Nimo in the same area as the park, I figured it would be a good place to go for lovely, scenic, gently rolling hills in the woods.

I have never been to Fountainhead Park before, but I have driven past the road that leads to its entrance many, many times over the years, so I knew generally how to get there.  I wasn't really looking forward to the drive, which would involve the narrow, winding, hilly roads of the Clifton and Fairfax Station area, but I figured I would have to bite the bullet and deal with it.

Sunday dawned sunny and warm, and I got to the park around 10:45.  I hadn't been sure what to expect for parking, but I knew at least one trail riding group organized rides at the park every year, so I figured it had to be decent enough to handle several horse trailers.  A map I had of the park indicated a designated trailer parking area, so I was surprised to find that there was just one big parking lot.  Like a normal, grocery store parking lot.  That was really full of every kind of vehicle but a horse trailer.  I think I drove around the parking lot about 5 times trying to decide what my best parking option was, and I even stopped and asked a hiker if she had any idea about how horse trailers typically park.  She said she'd seen them in the lot before, but only at one end and that end was currently full of cars.  So eventually, I just parked in an area that had two spaces front to back that were clear as well as a spot on one side that was empty.

I got A LOT of attention when I unloaded my horse and I even overheard someone say in a snarky sort of way, "Are horses even allowed here?"  Grrrrr.  YES, horses are allowed!  Please note the trail markers that clearly designate the trails for hiking and riding.  I really almost lost it at that point, but there was no one to lose it with.  The park is free (I''m sure tax dollars cover the usage fees, though, because the park is in a very wealthy and exclusive area) and there is no ranger or other staff on duty.  So I'm going to lose it here.  IF YOUR PARK ALLOWS HORSEBACK RIDING, IT NEEDS TO HAVE PARKING AVAILABLE FOR HORSE TRAILERS AND IT NEEDS TO BE MARKED WITH A SIGN!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!  Otherwise, I don't see the point in claiming that horses can use the trails.  I'm getting really tired of this sort of lip service to allowing horses on trails but then making the trails inaccessible to average horses or keeping it a secret where horse trailers can park or even just making horse trailers have to squeeze in random spots in a regular parking lot.  I was beginning to understand why I got so much attention - because my guess is that the vast majority of horse riders would feel unwelcome in such a place.  Certainly if any other horse trailer had pulled in, it would have been extremely challenging to find a place to park.

But, having traveled over an hour, negotiated the twisting roads, and finally found a parking spot, I was loathe to leave without trying the trails, no matter what kind of looks I got.  As it turned out, the people parked next to me were bikers (the biking trail is very separate from the hiking/riding trail) and they were actually really cool about my horse.  They asked to take pictures (thank you for asking!) and asked questions too, so I could tell their interest was genuine and they weren't acting like my horse was a zoo exhibit.

I got Nimo saddled up and then checked out the signs at the trail starting points for information.  I expected to have the same difficulty figuring out where the BROT trail started as I'd had at the Bull Run park, but the very first sign I looked at designated the starting point of the BROT trail.  Easy peasy!  I got on Nimo and we headed out.

It immediately became apparent that there was going to be a very heavy flow of foot traffic on the trail.  Every single hiker we encountered, though, was very respectful, and only a very few took pictures of us (and most of them asked first).  We really could only walk on the trail because of all the people, and I decided to take a detour on a side trail just to see if we could get miles in on a less-utilized trail.  That trail ended up dead-ending in a few minutes, though, but I was pretty impressed with Nimo's creek-crossing abilities.  He handled a 2-3 foot drop-off into a creek with no problem.

After we got back on the main trail, we quickly encountered a series of "steps" going up a very steep hill.  I hate these kinds of steps for horses.  In particular, this trail appeared to be so heavily used that there was beyond excessive wear and most of the wood used to support the trail was badly eroded and probably unstable under the pressure of a 1500 lb animal.  But I sent Nimo up the trail anyway and trusted him to be careful with his feet (because he's always careful with his feet and he's really concerned about only putting them on stable ground).

Note that these steps kept going well beyond the frame of the picture and the hill got quite a bit steeper too
We negotiated that first hill successfully, although I had some concerns about going down it on the way back. I figured we'd deal with it later, and I could always get off and lead Nimo down if I had to.

At the top of the hill, we hit a nice section that looked like this:

I figured our hard work was paying off and this would be the kind of trail we'd be on from that point forward.  Umm, not so much.  Instead, I soon ran into a tree.  It wasn't a big tree, but unlike the other trees we'd ridden through, the branches were not soft and easily moved out of our way.  This tree had incredibly stiff branches for its size and unbeknownst to Nimo, it had grabbed a hold of me as he was walking under/next to it and I ended up struggling quite a bit to get untangled as Nimo obliviously kept going.  I ended up losing my whip in the struggle and I decided I was lucky to escape and had no desire to go back for it.  I figured I could always snag a light branch on the trail if I really needed a whip and I planned to pick it up on my way back.

Our difficulties were not over at that point, though.  Within a minute, we got to a place in the trail where it looked like every tree in the vicinity had given up and either completely or partially fallen over.  The trail was absolutely impassable to a horse.  I tried to find a way around the mess, but because so many trees had fallen over, it wasn't possible.  But I wasn't ready to turn around.  (And despite all the people on this trail, not a single one went past us at this section.)  I got off Nimo and we just stood there for awhile, maybe 5 minutes or more while I thought and thought.  And then I realized that if I could get rid of one of the three trees that were all hung up on each other and blocking the trail, we should be able to squeeze through.  And it so happened that one of the trees did look its trunk was mostly broken.  It just needed a little help.  So I leaned on it and bounced up and down.  (I can't even imagine what Nimo was thinking at this point.)  And I bounced up and down some more until the trunk gave way.  Which was great until I realized that there was a whole upper section of tree hanging above us and that it might not be fun if it fell on us.  Luckily, it was tangled a bit with another tree, so I was able to work it loose gradually and get it down without injury.  (The tree was not a huge tree - the diameter of its trunk was probably 8".)  And we were set.  With one of the trees out of the way and the remaining trees appearing stable, I could just squeeze Nimo through.

I admit that at this point, I was seriously questioning my sanity.  I mean, who does this?  The road to the park sucked, the parking sucked, and at this point, the trail was pretty much sucking too.  There are lots and lots of other places to ride that have nice parking, that are closer, and that have well-maintained trails that are not hiked by what appeared to be hundreds of people every day.  I'm not sure I can explain it, but it bugs me when there are equestrian trails that aren't accessible or that don't get used by horses.  If we don't use them, we are going to lose them.  And while I certainly respect the rights of hikers and bikers and boaters to have recreation too, the equine industry in northern Virginia injects an incredible amount of tax dollars into the economy and we contribute quite a bit of open space in the form of farms and boarding facilities in an area that would otherwise be completely overrun by the plague that is humanity.  It seems reasonable that if a trail is approved for equestrian use, we should take advantage of it in a responsible way.  (I'm not sure if breaking through trees to clear a trail is responsible, but at that point, it would have taken an armed contingent of Navy Seals to get me to turn around.)

Anyway, I quickly found a fallen tree to use for a mounting block and Nimo and I continued on.  And what I discovered is that the BROT is a delightful series of moderate to steep short hills for miles and miles.  Many of the sections of the trail are rocky and the heavy foot traffic has eroded the trail in such a way that most of the trail is quite technical solely because of all the exposed tree roots.  All of which means it is actually a really great conditioning trail.  Basically, if you can survive the first mile and a half, the rest of the trail is awesome.  It wouldn't be something I would recommend for a beginner both because those hills would suck the life out of an unconditioned horse and the tree roots would be dicey to negotiate for a horse that lacked confidence, but for a more experienced horse and rider team, the BROT is a pretty nice ride.

We made it to mile marker 5 on the trail (this trail has mile markers every single mile, which is a fantastic perk), and then I decided we needed to head back.  We'd made pretty slow time for those 5 miles with all the hikers, the crazy hills and tree roots and steps, and the fallen tree incident, plus several creek crossings that gave Nimo pause (I give him credit for one time when he absolutely refused to cross a small stream - when I got off to lead him through, I promptly stepped into ankle-deep, boot-sucking mud and I could just feel him telling me, "I told you so.").  But, I had discovered that the trail was passable for at least 5 miles (and hopefully many, many more).  With that distance, plus the 6+ miles of equestrian trails that are separate in Fountainhead park, a person could really do some serious riding at this location, and that is exactly what I was hoping to find.

And you might think that all the hikers would be a bad thing, but because they were all so good about yielding the trail to us and because there are really no long sections of trail that are appropriate for trotting/cantering anyway, it became a matter of developing a bit of a rhythm on the trail.  I'm usually not a fan of the trot 50 feet, walk an obstacle, trot 100 feet, slow down for a bridge, trot 30 feet, walk up and down a hill, etc., but somehow it worked on this trail.  We made really good time on the way back to the trailer and we did 5 miles in an hour and 20 minutes.  I realize that isn't endurance ride pace, but given how technical the trail was, how much of it was too hilly to do much more than walk (at least on the downhill side), the number of hikers, and the fact that Nimo was barefoot so I didn't trot him over anything too rocky, that was actually kind of an impressive time that could definitely be improved over time if I put hoof boots on him and work on his conditioning up hills.

We did run into one situation that could have ended so badly that my brain just shuts down rather than imagine it.  There were two sets of hikers that were apparently walking their dogs without a leash.  In both cases, the hikers recalled their dogs and got them back on the leash when they saw us coming (seriously? not a good trail for that kind of behavior, but there's always somebody).  Anyway, apparently one couple took their dog back off the leash once we were out of sight.  Which is why as we were approaching the crazy steps that we'd gone up (see picture above) on the way out, Nimo all of a sudden reacted as if something of concern was approaching from behind.  Luckily, he did not spook when the pit bull came running down the trail behind him.  Instead he stopped.  Had he spooked forward and bolted, we would have had no choice but to careen down those steep steps and I can't even imagine what shape we would have been in at the bottom.  The dog was thankfully not growling or barking, but merely seemed curious.  So curious that after a minute or two, she approached Nimo to sniff one of his hind feet.  (Another situation that could have ended really badly...)  Nimo is familiar with dogs and generally likes them unless they are chasing him or leap out of bushes.  In this case, when the dog sniffed his foot, he absolutely cocked a hind leg and I knew another sniff would yield a kick.  The dog also immediately got the same message and instantly backed off to stand a few feet away and stare quizzically at us.  I debated about what to do because I figured if we started walking the dog would follow and I had no desire for a "buddy" on the way down that section of trail.  I also had some concern about reuniting the dog with its people.  Thankfully, after another minute of waiting, the dog acted like she heard something (probably her people calling her) and headed back the way she'd come from at a run.  Whew.  We then headed off to negotiate the steps and Nimo handled them really well.

I will give credit to the couple who owned the dog.  The woman came to find me when they got back to the parking lot to make sure that my horse and I were OK.  I could tell by the look on her face that she knew exactly what could have happened.  It wasn't the first time we'd been accosted by a loose dog and I'm sure it won't be the last, and because everything turned out OK, I was willing to let it go.  To be honest, though, I was surprised dogs off-leash would need to be a concern on this trail because it was so heavily used.  With so many other dogs and people (including lots of kids) and now apparently a random horse, the liability risk for your dog causing a problem would seem too great to me.  To each their own, I guess.

And if you're wondering if I stopped on the way back to pick up my whip, I didn't.  When we got to that same tree again, the damn thing attacked me again and snagged my helmet and it was not easy to get free.  I saw my whip lying on the ground as I once again struggled with that tree and I decided that it absolutely was not worth it to try to retrieve it.  Nimo had done fine without me needing to use a whip for the whole ride and I chalked it up to paying a toll to get past a tree that I suspect is a transplant from one of the forests in The Lord of the Rings.:)

Luckily, we survived in good form, and I am definitely adding this trail into my regular rotation of conditioning trails.  I don't know that I'll convince anyone to come with me, but despite the issues, this is really one great trail that deserves to be ridden.

Saturday, April 23, 2016

Foxcatcher 25 2016: What Worked and What Didn't

This will probably be the last time that I do a really thorough post-ride review, at least for this year.  Most of the things that I'm using are working now and have been for a few rides.  My plan is to update my Equipment page shortly with most of this information.  Then, I'll just write about something when it doesn't work or I make a change.

Going with a Friend

As I did on the Foxcatcher ride last year, I rode with a friend (two actually!).  Having fellow blogger, Saiph, and her husband, Charles, with us helped keep me calmer and Saiph's horse, Lily, was such a great leader.  I can tell Nimo is feeling a little more confident and he's doing better at not pulling for so long at the beginning of a ride, but having company is still better than not.  Plus, having someone to talk to and/or share the misery makes the miles go by fast.  The first loop was almost over before I knew it, and I credit that feeling to being able to ride with such fun and skilled riders:)


Just like last year, I was convinced that I hadn't done a good enough job conditioning Nimo for this ride.  In fact, I think somehow I might have done a worse job than I did last year.  I barely eeked out an average of 1-2 rides a week during January and February, although I did finally get myself together through most of March and started riding several times a week.  But I really needed more miles at a faster pace (in my internal analysis, anyway).  The one thing I was pretty consistent about was getting in one good conditioning ride of 10-ish miles almost every weekend, and I'm pretty sure that along with a commitment to dressage lessons every other weekend was what really helped.  Another thing we did was more mountain climbing than last year.  My actual goal was the OD's No Frills ride, so I added climbing miles to our conditioning work in preparation for that ride.  My intent was to ramp up our miles on sort of a linear schedule each weekend, so that Foxcatcher would become a stepping stone to No Frills.  As you know, that part of the plan ended up not working out, but it was a good plan, and I think it would have worked if we hadn't had the snow at Foxcatcher.  Nimo's time was great on the first loop of Foxcatcher (15 miles in 2 hours and 15 minutes) with a very nice recovery to 48 bpm at the vet check in less than 10 minutes, and I have confidence that he could have at least eeked out a 5 mph pace for the last 10 if we'd tried.

In terms of how we'll proceed going forward, I am currently sort of keeping it together for working with Nimo 5-6 times a week.  I know that amount of work is anathema to many endurance riders, who wouldn't dream of riding more than 2-3 times per week to allow for sufficient recovery between rides.  I am absolutely not dismissing that wisdom, but Nimo needs a little different schedule, partly because he still needs to improve his fitness and partly because he needs that kind of mental engagement.  I first wrote about my ideal conditioning program in this post.  If you haven't read it, or maybe you read it before all the comments popped up, it's worth checking out, because Hannah, Funder, and Liz all weighed in with great comments and we had a very thoughtful discussion.

I have definitely struggled to get anywhere near my ideal conditioning schedule, and I'm not really in the ideal location to do the kind of work I'd like to do.  That said, I can get close, and here's what my current weekly schedule looks like (with the knowledge that sometimes I swap days to accommodate vaccinations or deworming or weather or footing or hair appointments):

  • Monday:  5-10 minutes in-hand work with the intent of increasing over time to about 30 minutes
  • Tuesday:  Dressage schooling (ride time 1:15, but that includes 10-15 minutes of warm-up and 10-15 minutes of cool-down, so only 45 minutes is really "work")
  • Wednesday:  Light hack of about 4 miles over flat terrain at a 4 mph pace (walk, trot, tiny bit of canter)
  • Thursday:  Dressage schooling (ride time 1:15)
  • Friday:  Off
  • Saturday:  10-15 mile conditioning ride over hills/mountains
  • Sunday:  Dressage lesson/schooling (ride time 1:15)
What this schedule is designed to do is to provide both a variety of work (in-hand, dressage, trails) as well as allow for active rest days between work days.  I consider dressage schooling and a long conditioning ride to be work days while the in-hand work and the light hack are really more like active rest that still give Nimo something to do besides stand around in his paddock in the same place for hours at a time eating out of a round bale.  If he was in a very large field (say 20 acres) with varying terrain and lots of grass to eat to keep him moving, I would probably drop one of the three dressage schooling sessions and replace it with an off day or a very light ride.

The miles accumulated with my schedule are not insignificant.  I typically count a dressage schooling session or lesson as 5 miles.  I did do a little work with my GPS to try to assess the mileage, but it was hard for it to track things like 10 meter circles, so I'm really guessing, and there is probably some variation depending on how much trot and canter work I do.  Assuming I stick to my schedule, Nimo is logging in about 30+ miles each week.  That feels right for now and if I'm able to stick to a heavier competition schedule this year, he will be getting longer rest periods after each completed ride and I'm sure he'll get lots of downtime over the winter, so I'm comfortable that I'm not asking too much at this point.  That said, if I see something that makes me think differently, I will absolutely change his work schedule.


Like last year, I had planned to body clip Nimo for the ride.  However, as ride day approached, I could see that snow and cold would mean a full body clip would not be the best choice.  I wrestled with the decision of exactly what to clip and what not to clip until the day before I left for the ride.  I finally opted to modify the trace clip that he already had into a blanket clip, with a little more taken off the haunches and on the inside of his thighs.  So basically, I was clipping all the areas that he tends to sweat on (neck, shoulders, lower haunches, inside upper hind legs) as well as the belly which has two main arteries (or veins, I forget which) that significantly aid cooling.  But I was leaving his back, ribs, upper haunches, legs, and head covered for some protection from the elements.  I used the medium blade for the Lister Star clippers, which is 2.5 mm.

The finished product!
I do think I made the right choice for the clip because having heavy hair wet from sweat and from rain and snow would not have been good.  Nimo did end up being miserable from the cold and the wet and just before I was getting ready to leave, Saiph pointed out that Nimo had started shivering.  Luckily, I brought plenty of sheets and coolers, so I was able to get him warm and dry quickly.  The flaw in my plan was not swapping out his wet blanket a little sooner, so I'm taking note of that in case we're ever at another ride like this one (please no!)


I didn't braid Nimo's mane for this ride.  I did fully wash it (the first time in 18 months!), condition it, braid it, unbraid it, and brush it before our initial vet check, though.  I had originally planned to ride with it braided, but with the weather taking a turn for the worse, I decided to leave it down to give Nimo some protection from the cold and wet.  I think that was the right choice, but I will be braiding it for future, warmer rides this year.


I still don't use a commercial electrolyte product for Nimo.  I do add more Daily Red (now called Redmond Rock Crushed Salt) to his feed, though.  For this ride, because of the cold weather, I didn't do anything too aggressive.  I added an extra tablespoon to Nimo's dinner the night before the ride, an extra tablespoon to his breakfast the day of the ride, an extra tablespoon to his mash during the hold, and an extra tablespoon to his dinner that night.  My rationale for this was that even on warmer rides, I haven't had trouble getting him to pulse down and he has done a pretty good job of drinking during the ride, at the hold, and after the ride.  With the cold and his clip job, I wasn't expecting him to generate a lot of sweat.  Even though he did not drink as I had hoped, I have no way of knowing whether electrolyting him more would have helped.  A lot of riders (who did electrolyte) still reported that their horses didn't drink much or at all during the ride, and as you know, continuing to electrolyte when the horse is not drinking is not a good idea.  I'm standing by the protocol I used because Nimo did get an A on hydration at the vet check at the hold and the only thing I'm going to experiment with is the possibility of having something like Gatorade or another beverage on hand to see if Nimo will drink that over water in the event that I feel like he needs to drink but isn't.  Although, I'm pretty sure this ride was a special case, and hydration on cold, wet rides is probably not my biggest priority for the rest of this ride season.

Camping for Nimo

Corral - I used six 10' long by 5' high Economy Corral Panels to make a small pen for Nimo next to the trailer.  I've used these panels for four rides now, and while they can be a bit heavy and cumbersome, they don't take long to set up and they provide a very secure place for Nimo to stay.  I may look into lighter weight panels at some point in the future as I get older and more feeble, but for now, these are doing the job well.

Picture from last year's OD ride because I spaced taking a picture at Foxcatcher
Water bucket - I upgraded Nimo's water bucket to something in the 8-10 gallon size (you can see it in the picture above) at the OD ride last fall.  That worked much better than the smaller 5 gallon buckets I'd been using.  I originally went with the smaller buckets so I could hang them off the trailer and Nimo couldn't step in them (something he is known to do), but I experimented with the larger bucket on the ground last year at a camping trip and Nimo proved himself worthy of the upgrade by not getting into the water bucket and using it as a toy.  So, from now on, he gets the big bucket:)

Camping for Me

Kodiak Canvas Short-Bed Full-Size Truck Tent - I've used this tent for three rides and a camping trip now, and it works well.  It is kind of annoying to set up, but if I had something fancier, that would probably be annoying to maintain, so I'd rather have a bit of set-up time at the ride and then be able to basically wad the tent up in a pile to pull out in weeks or months later with no harm done.  The tent provides enough space for a cot for me plus a cooler, heater, and still more space for bags, boots, and even a chair if I wanted one.  I also like that it gets me off the ground and I can set it up so that I can see Nimo out of one of the windows.  The one drawback is that after it is set up, it prevents me from taking my truck to do things like get water (important at Foxcatcher where there is only one water location and it is always far away from my camp site) or dropping off crewing supplies at an away hold (important at the OD where the hold is not in camp).  What I did at Foxcatcher was get the water before I set up the tent (bonus points to me for procrastinating about setting up the tent so long that I realized I needed to get water for Nimo and connected the dots on not setting up the tent until I'd used the truck).  At the OD, I think the ride management will take my crew bag to the away check for me, or I can probably beg a ride from a friend in return for brownies or something:)

Picture is from when I tested the tent at my house because once again I spaced taking a picture at Foxcatcher
Earth Products Jamboree Military Style Folding Cot - There are maybe three options for sleeping in a truck tent.  You can sleep on a cot, an inflatable mattress, or some kind of thick mat.  I decided to go with a cot because I'm never happy with inflatable mattresses (and they can conduct cold air), and I wanted to save space so a fold-up cot seemed like a better idea than a huge mat that I would need to wrestle with.  This one is easy to set up and easy to put away.  I've used it several times now, and while it isn't a mattress at a 5-star hotel, it is reasonably comfortable.  I am thinking about adding an additional layer of padding under me for sleeping, but other than that, it's a keeper.

My daughter testing out the cot
Teton Sports Celsius XXL Sleeping Bag - I've used this bag several times now and the only reason I keep using it is because I paid $80 for it and I want to get some use out of it.  It is not particularly warm and because it is nylon on the outside, it slips around like crazy.  I always bring a cotton comforter and fleece blanket too, and I suspect that I won't be using this bag too much longer before switching to something else.

Mr. Heater F232000 MH9BX Buddy 4,000-9,000 BTU Indoor-Safe Portable Radiant Heater - This heater is a life saver.  It heats up my tent within minutes even on the low setting, and I've yet to be anything other than too warm.  My only complaint is that the one-pound propane tanks will run out in 6 hours or less, which means getting up in the middle of the night to change the tank.  There is a way to adapt it to allow the use of a larger 20-pound tank, and I am thinking about looking into that option for my fall rides this year.  I probably won't need it until then, though.  The other things to be aware of if you use this type of heater are venting your tent just a little (I leave the bottom of the door unzipped a few inches and then upzip one of my windows a few inches too) and making sure nothing can get too close to the front of the heater, which is ridiculously hot because you know, it's basically on fire from the propane.  I generally place the heater in a corner of the bed of the truck and put my cooler on the other side to prevent blankets that might fall off or shift to the floor in the night from getting close to the heater.

Coleman Twin LED Lantern - I upgraded from a small LED lantern I'd been using in part because the thing sucks batteries like you wouldn't believe for the meager amount of light it gives off and also because my daughter appropriated it for her play house.  I ended up going with this lantern because it reminds me of the lantern we used when my family would go camping when I was growing up.  That lantern was gas-powered while this one needs a whopping 8 D batteries.  That makes it kind of heavy, but I do like the ambience:)  And it has a much brighter light.  So for now, it will stay as part of my gear unless or until I find something that I think will work better.

KMASHI 10000mAh MP816 Dual USB Portable External Extended Battery Pack Power Bank Backup Charger - This handy device provides multiple charges to my cell phone, which is great for rides like Foxcatcher where I actually have cell phone service.  It does take several hours to fully charge a phone, but it has worked well for me on a couple of rides now, and it gives me some piece of mind that I won't be out of contact with the real world because I drained my phone batteries.

Horse Gear

Saddle - I've been using a Specialized Eurolight for I think about 18-20 months now.  I loved it when I got it and I still love it.  It is comfortable for me, seems to be working for Nimo, is fantastically adjustable, and it provides incredible stability over rough terrain.

Saddle pad - Last year, I started using a Supracor saddle pad.  I originally hated it when I bought it and didn't bother using it for awhile because it seemed so stiff and unlike saddle pads that I was used to using.  Over time, though, I started to use it more and more because I wasn't happy with the basic fleece pad I'd been using and I wasn't ready to spend even more money on yet another saddle pad.  Eventually, the pad started to grow on me and now you would have to pry it out of my cold, dead hands to take it away from me.  I've realized two things:  first that the pad gets more flexible after it warms up with the horse's body heat and second that it really can alleviate pressure points because of the way the material is structured.  If you had a really small, sharp pressure point, I don't think it would help with that, but if you have a minor fit issue, I do think the pad would resolve it to some degree or at least prevent a pressure sore from developing.  The structure of the pad definitely took some getting used to, but now I wouldn't ride with anything else.

Saddle bags - I continue to use the Snug Pax Slimline English Pommel Pack that I starting using back when endurance riding was just a twinkle in my eye.  With two side pockets and one middle pocket, this pack holds two water bottles, several carrots for Nimo, a snack bar (or two), hoof pick, pliers, chapstick, Tyenol, phone, and a ride card, and still has room to spare.  I do have a bigger one that can hold 4 water bottles, but I like this one better because it is smaller and honestly, if I get to the point where I'm drinking 4 water bottles in 15 miles, I'm better off getting a Camelbak or something similar.

Bridle - I use a  Classic Jubilee Halter Bridle custom made for Nimo by Taylored Tack.  The color is royal blue beta (#522) and I had a couple of ear pieces made with the Fire Dance overlay to add some bling.  The reins have the same overlay plus the rubber grip material and all the hardware is stainless steel with the buckles being Horse Shoe brand with the black enamel (what can I say, I grew up showing western!).  I love the halter/bridle combination, although the fit with the halter noseband and the hackamore noseband can be a little tight.  It is wonderful to be able to unsnap the hackamore and still have the halter on - it makes bridling a horse who is a little excited about a ride so much easier!  I'm also thrilled that I don't have to care for this bridle like I would leather.  Hosing it off cleans it right up and I would never switch back to a leather bridle at this point.

Note that this picture was taken over a year ago and I have adjusted the halter portion of the headstall so that the noseband sits a little higher
Breastcollar - To quote what I said after my Fort Valley ride (in October 2014):  "I've had a Nunn Finer Hunting Breastplate for many years now.  It is brown with brass hardware and I have never really liked it, but it was all that was available in Nimo's size when I first went to the tack store.  It fits Nimo OK, but the straps that connect the neck strap to the saddle are a bit short and it is my plan to replace this piece of tack sooner rather than later.  That said, Nimo did not get any rubs or soreness from it and it definitely did what it was supposed to do."  Upgrading to a biothane breastcollar is STILL on my list of things to do.  Part of the issue is that I'll need to get a custom one made because Nimo's measurements don't match the standard.  It's not the size of his chest that is necessarily the issue, but the length of the straps that go between the neck of the breastcollar and attach to the saddle is much longer than normal, and I'm still undecided about exactly how I want to have them fit or whether I want to switch to a western-style collar that doesn't have the connecting strap over the withers area.  I'm concerned about pressure there, even though so far, it hasn't been an issue.

Girth - I'm still using the County Logic Dressage Girth that I got when Nimo was probably 4 years old.  It really needs to be replaced because the leather is really suffering.  I did try a mohair girth last fall, but it was a no go.  Because of where Nimo's girth line is in relation to the billet straps on the saddle, a straight girth just will not work.  I've been eyeballing the StretchTec Shoulder Relief Girth and the Mattes Athletico SlimLine Short Girth as possible replacements.  I finally decided to order the Mattes girth in spite of the jaw-dropping price because I like the idea of having something washable.  I suck at taking good care of severely abused leather tack and I think I'm more likely to throw something in the wash than scrub it clean.  Also, I got the Mattes girth from Dover Saddlery, which means if it doesn't work as advertised, I can return it.  (Dover does carry the regular Shoulder Relief Girth, but not the StretchTec version.)  I'm not sure if I'll have enough time to test the Mattes girth before our next ride, but I will try to let you know how it works out within a month or two.

You can see how the billets are much farther back than Nimo's girth line - the angle of the County Logic girth is a good match for that differential
Hoof Boots - None.  I ended up not using hoof boots at all for this ride (although I brought several of them just in case).  I didn't use hoof boots last year either, and although Nimo did slow down a bit on the gravel and paved sections of the ride last year (he rocketed through those same sections this year), I didn't think it was worth it to use them because I've been having issues with gators ripping on his front Easyboot Epics when he travels at a fast trot or canter or over really rocky terrain.  It's a situation that I have to figure out how to resolve and it definitely played a role in me opting out of the No Frills ride this year.  One possible solution is to try a different type of hoof boot on his front hooves.  The Epics have been working great on his hind feet, so I'm not crazy about trying something new there, but I'm also not crazy about having two different types of boots.  Here's what I decided to do - order a pair of Renegades.  I have been eyeballing them for awhile, but never tried them because Nimo's hooves are a little too long and until recently, a bit too wide for the largest size.  However, the width issue is now resolved with both fronts coming it at under 6".  As for the length, I realized that I was deliberately leaving the toe maybe a quarter inch longer than I wanted to ensure a better fit for the Epics (which are longer than they are wide).  If I take that quarter inch off, guess what?  I have a 6" length.  It will probably be tight, but the word from one of the Renegade representatives that I contacted is that a tight length is likely to cause less of a problem than a tight width.  So, I'm going to do some more testing to see if the Renegades will work.  However, I won't be able to test the boots before our next ride, so Nimo will either go barefoot or I'll suck it up and deal with the gator issue and hope there are lots of tree stumps:)

Rider Gear

Boots - I rode in my Dublin Pinnacle Boots.  I had recently gotten a new pair of Ariat MaxTrak UL Endurance Boots because my old Ariat Terrains were, well, old, and they have several holes in them now.  But, the MaxTraks are not well suited to riding in rain - I'll try to do a more thorough review later, but essentially the top of the boot over the toe area is mesh, so water literally goes through it like a sieve.  Whereas, my Dublins are heavy duty and waterproof.  Or they used to be.  I'm pretty sure the waterproofing needs a refresher, but they still were the best choice for the conditions.

Socks - I don't think I've ever commented about my socks before.  I have viewed socks as simply socks.  I have disdained all forms of non-cotton, inexpensive socks for my whole life.  Why on earth would I spend more than $5 for multiple pairs of socks?  As it happened, I was at Dover Saddlery a couple of weeks before the ride, picking up some last minute supplies.  I was with my daughter, which is a huge mistake.  It's hard enough for me to get out of the tack store with just the things I went there to get, and when I go with her, there is all the kid stuff that looks so cute...Anyway, she was desperate for a pair of horse socks (purple to be exact) and while we were looking at them, it occurred to me that I maybe should reconsider my previous position on socks.  There are a lot of Smartwool socks at Dover and they look fantastic, but my skin is not particularly found of wool and they all felt just a bit scratchy to me.  I did manage to find these Goodhew Jasmin socks that only had 30% wool and they didn't feel scratchy when I touched them.  So I bit the bullet and paid $17 for a single pair of socks (highway robbery!).  I figured they would not work out, but I rode in them a few times anyway, and they actually seemed OK.  Not too thin, not too thick.  A shorter length because I don't need a sock that goes over by whole lower leg and adds bulk.  A fun pattern.  And a foot-saver at the ride.  Because apparently wool doesn't feel cold even when it gets wet.  And wet my socks did get.  But my feet never got cold.  Hallelujah!  I am now completely committed to these socks, at least for cold/wet weather riding.

Breeches - I ended up riding in my Irideon Polartec Power Stretch Knee-Patch Breeches.  I normally would have ridden in my lighter weight tights, but with the cold, I opted for something heavier.  I was concerned about chafing inside my knee, which is a problem I've had with more than one pair of breeches/tights over the years and I'd never tested my winter breeches on longer, faster rides.  But they were warm, so I decided to risk it.  And I was very glad I did.  They probably were a little too much for the first part of the first loop.  But as temperatures dropped, I'm really glad I had them.  They didn't rub and they kept my legs warm even when they got damp (probably from me sweating during the first few miles).

Raincoat - I definitely got some funny looks from people in my Muddy Creek Long Raincoat.  I bought it after a particularly unpleasant conditioning ride in rain, sleet, and snow, and I'm so glad I did.  I admit that the fit on the coat is a bit strange.  I ordered the small size, and it was still big enough for me to fit a second person in the coat with me.  Yet, the sleeves were just barely long enough.  But, it stayed put when I rode and covered my whole saddle, which meant my seat was dry.  It even covered a little bit of Nimo's back/hindquarters behind the saddle, which was also a plus.  And, the hood is big enough that it will fit over a helmet.  I ended up not doing that because I just like my head to be really mobile, but in a real downpour, having that hood would be awesome.  Getting on Nimo in a long coat is kind of a challenge, because I had to try to keep all that fabric from getting in the way, but it was doable and worth it to be dry.  Also, there was some leaking at the neckline and the ends of the sleeves where my shirt peeked out.  I think both problems could be resolved with some tweaking, but even having the protection that I did have was huge.  I will never be without that coat again!

It may look like a tent, but it works!
Helmet - I used the very common Tipperary Sportage helmet, which I've had for less than a year.  I don't think it is the ideal shape for my head, and I kind of think that the lady who fitted it for me didn't understand that I don't want the helmet to actually fuse with my head during the ride.  She insisted that the foam would shrink a bit over time, and I think maybe it has, but not enough to make me happy.  I actually bought a One-K Defender Helmet to replace my old Charles Owen dressage helmet which was just old and needed to be replaced, and I love that helmet.  I've been meaning to do a full review for you, and hopefully I still will, because I never want to wear another helmet.  Anyway, I'd love to have a One-K for my trail/endurance rides too (I keep one helmet at the barn and another in my trailer so I never am without a helmet), but they are too pricey for me to justify buying another one right now, so I'm dealing with the Tipperary.  It doesn't hurt my head and usually after 15 minutes or so of riding, I forget about the fit issue and it doesn't bother me.  However, when it comes time to replace it, I will definitely be getting a One-K Defender:)

Gloves - I've been riding in the Roeckl Chester Gloves for at least a year, maybe more.  They are synthetic and I'm not super happy with the way the palms have worn (the fabric has cracked, although it still maintains its structure) because it doesn't look very good.  However, they cost a lot for gloves, so I'll use them until they get holes:)  I will say that despite getting completely soaked very quickly, my hands never felt cold as long as I was riding or at least moving.  Once I stopped to sit down, I felt the cold quickly, but overall, I think they performed about as well as could be expected for thin performance gloves.  I'm not sure there is a better solution for that particular situation aside from having spare dry gloves, which I did have, but never felt compelled to use.

Crew Area

Foxcatcher's hold is at base camp, so last year, I really didn't do a lot of preparation at the crewing area, thinking that I could just vet Nimo through and let him hang out at the trailer.  I did have a bucket of water for him, but that was about it.  This year, thinking I would be going to No Frills next, which has an away vet check and no access for riders to bring their stuff to the crewing area (the ride management brings everyone's stuff and provides horse water, hay, grain, sandwiches, and people water), I wanted to try out a crew set up that could work for No Frills.

The first thing I did was buy the EasyCare Stowaway Deluxe Hay and Crew Gear BagSnug Pax also has a couple of gear bags to choose from, but I opted to go with a less expensive option that could be shipped for $5 in two days:)  However, at rides where the mid-ride vet check is not in camp, it could definitely be useful to have one bag at the hold and another at the crewing area in camp, so it's possible I'll try a different bag for that and compare the models.  I had the bag monogrammed with a "G" and added a name tag to help keep it identifiable as mine.  Then I filled it with a sweat scraper, small feed pan, collapsible water bucket (in case I wanted to sponge, hahaha!), two quart-sized plastic bags full of feed (one for the hold and one for after the ride), a bottle of blackstrap molasses (has potassium for a safer way to dose a horse with a hanging heart rate), a cooler, and a flake of hay.  There was still plenty of room to add another flake of hay (especially useful if the hold area will be used more than once), a couple of hoof boots, and a few other small miscellaneous things like extra beverages and snacks for the rider.  I like that that the bag has two big compartments (one for hay and one for cooler/blanket and feed), one long, thin compartment (for things like sweat scrapers and tools), plus three small compartments for smaller items that need to be kept separate.  Because of the rain, I put the gear bag inside a large garbage bag to keep everything dry.

In terms of water, I upgraded from a small 5 gallon bucket to a larger-sized 10-ish gallon bucket.  I also kept a five gallon bucket full of water that if emptied could be used to run water from the main tank back to the crew area.

If the day had been hot, I think I would have had the perfect set-up.  As it was, Nimo didn't want to drink (and neither did Lily or Gracie), so that was a lot of extra hauling of water for nothing.  But, the crew bag items worked well.  I was able to get a cooler over Nimo quickly after getting in to the hold and I was able to dump his feed into a small container to hold for him while we walked back to the vetting area.  He continued to eat that feed up until the moment we got to the vet, which was perfect.  I can see that having a small bucket with a handle would be more convenient than a feed pan for carrying, but the feed pan fits better in the bag.  So I'll probably keep using the feed pan and maybe see about figuring out how to put a handle on it.  My only issue was that I didn't think about how I would keep using the cooler to walk Nimo back to the trailer, so I had to run a new, dry cooler back to the crew bag (which then of course I didn't use because I didn't go back out which meant carrying the whole thing back).  Next time, I will put two coolers in the bag, and then I think we'll be in good shape!

Food and Drinks for Me

I packed a huge assortment of food and beverages:  bananas, apples, oranges, yogurt, hummus and pita chips, Utz Salt & Vinegar chips, hard-boiled eggs, sandwich meat, cheese slices, crackers, snack bars, chocolate, soda, milk, Gatorade, plain water, and wine.  While I didn't eat or drink even a quarter of the stuff I packed, I had lots of good choices.  I did eat yogurt for breakfast before the ride and I had a snack bar at the hold.  But honestly, I didn't feel much like eating or drinking, probably because of the cold and wet.  However, I felt surprisingly good.  Part of that had to do with not getting overheated and the other part was probably that aside from some pulling for the first few miles, Nimo was a remarkably easy ride.  I spent a lot of time in half-seat at the trot, which is really not that much work.  (My calves paid the price the next day, but any pain that is delayed until after the ride is over doesn't count.)  I should have had a little more to drink during the ride, but that's going to be a common theme for me, I think.

So there you have it.  Pretty much everything is working now except starting the second damn loop:)  There are still some improvements to be made, but I'm getting pretty comfortable with how things are working, which means I'm not quite so stressed before the ride and it also means that I can focus more on taking care of Nimo and me because I know I have what we need.  Here's to hoping that we'll be able to put all the good things to good use during our next ride and get a completion!

Friday, April 15, 2016

Foxcatcher 25 2016 or That Time I Rode in a Tent

My tent was toasty warm when I got up, which made changing into my riding clothes not too bad.  I could hear Nimo impatiently waiting for his breakfast and I'm pretty sure the strength of his, "You must feed me now," eyes was penetrating the tent.  So I gave him his morning mash and then worked on taking care of last minute ride preparation, like adding snacks and beverages to my saddle bags, topping off the water bucket at the crewing area (I'd only filled it half full because it was supposed to freeze overnight, but I wanted some water in it to keep it from blowing away if it was windy), dragging the rest of my crew bag out to the crewing area, eating some breakfast, etc.  But I didn't have to get myself coffee, because Saiph, bless her heart, remembered how I liked my coffee from the previous year and was already bringing it to me.  (I think that woman has a gift when it comes to remembering people's favorite beverages!)

The start time of the ride was a bright and early 7 am, so I wanted to start saddling by 6:15.  Before that, though, I wanted to take Nimo on a short walk and let him eat some grass, so by 6 I had him out and about.  Once I started tacking up, I debated about whether to wear a raincoat and how many layers I should have on.  I was in a giant winter parka, but I knew that would be too warm for riding.  I'd brought enough clothes to make just about anything work, but I really needed to know the status of the rain/snow for the day.  As it turned out, I didn't need my weather app to figure that out.  Light sprinkles started falling around 6:30, and so I decided to go with a couple of light layers topped by a lined raincoat.  I hadn't had much of a chance to ride in the raincoat, but I figured if I got it wrong, I'd be able to change after the first 15 miles anyway.

By 6:45, I was on Nimo to keep him from losing it.  He definitely knew he wasn't at any old training ride and I could feel him getting excited.  It turns out that mounting in a long rain coat using the wheel well of your trailer isn't that easy, so I got a hand from Charles.  It was at this point that some not so subtle mocking of my giant raincoat began.  I admit that it is not among the top 10 most flattering things in my wardrobe, but I had every expectation that it was going to perform the all-important function of keeping me dry, so I took Charles' ribbing in good humor and hinted that he might have to eat his words by the end of the ride:)

I walked Nimo around camp for a few minutes while Saiph and Charles finished getting ready.  We planned to ride together for at least the first loop and then play it by ear for the second loop.  Because they had already completed a ride a few weeks before, I felt like their horses were in better shape than Nimo and that I might want to slow our pace down a little for the second loop.  On the other hand, I knew Nimo was in better shape than the year before, so I decided I would let him dictate the pace unless I felt there was a safety issue.  So far, he has never lied to me on a ride about feeling tired, so I was sure I could trust him not to overdo it.

As 7 am approached, all three of us began walking the horses toward the start line.  We intended to start about 5 minutes late to let any anxious front-runners get underway without getting in their way, but we also wanted to do better than our 20 minute late start last year (we had been worried about the horses freaking out because of all the horror stories we had heard and we had no intention of having crazed, bucking horses running all over).  The horses were definitely alert, but not out of control as we made our way to the start line, which was located across a road and in the middle of a big, open field (hence the concern about amped up horses).  There were a fair number of starters all heading out at once, but except for a group of three ladies who trotted through, everyone was calmly walking their horses.  Nimo was awesome.  He walked with motivation and I could tell he was ready to trot at a nano-second's notice, but he kept it together.

Crossing the road to get to the start line (photo by Dom's Mike)
Once we'd walked for maybe a half mile, we started trotting the horses.  Nimo was a little frustrated and pulled a bit to go faster for awhile, but it was still better than our first ride at Fort Valley.  I wasn't scared about it, and just focused on keeping him together while we started eating up the miles.  Because that is what we did.  For miles, we trotted pretty much everything.  The horses took a few miles to settle, but once they did, our group seemed to work really well.  Lily and Gracie did most of the leading, although Nimo would jump ahead sometimes if he was really motivated to pass someone or in the super-trot zone.

Image by Hoof Prints Photography
And we passed a lot of people.  Which was kind of cool.  Normally, we are a bit slower in pace, so we're the ones being passed, but all three horses seemed to be content to trot their way over the trails, so for probably the first hour (about 8 miles), we only walked/stopped if the trail necessitated it or someone needed to make a tack adjustment.

There are several tunnels on the trail that go under roads.  Last year they seemed pretty intimidating, but they were no big deal this year!  Photo by Charles

There are also these exciting bridges which go over highways.  Note that the guard fence is basically see-through, which means I keep my eyes straight ahead!  Photo by Charles

Charles has a gift of being able to take pictures while riding, and I'm pretty sure he took this one as Gracie was cantering by
This is easily my favorite picture from the ride.  I didn't even know Charles took it, but I love how it shows Nimo's balance (we are trotting down a slight grade here) and how you can see that he actually has some muscle tone in his shoulder and hindquarters!
The rain that had started just before the ride stayed light for the hour, and I wasn't even sure my giant tent-like raincoat had been truly necessary.  But after the first hour, the rain did start to get intermittently heavier, and I was thankful to have it.

Maybe 4-ish miles from the end of the first loop, we stopped briefly for Saiph to swap a hoof boot that had come loose.  It turned out to be a multi-purpose stop because both Lily and Nimo needed to pee (yay, good horses!) and as we started walking forward, we realized that there was a horse without a rider loose in the field.  And then my heart sank and I felt sick to my stomach because I saw his rider on the ground not moving.  There was a bicyclist stopped on the side of the road, and it wasn't hard to put together what must have happened.  There was a lady on horseback trying to catch the loose horse, but he kept moving away from her.  We proceeded slowly forward, not sure what we could do to help.  She asked us to stop, so we did.  It was at that point, that the rider started moving and trying to get up, which he was able to do.  It was clear something was really wrong with one of his legs/feet because he could hardly walk.  Nonetheless, he hobbled over to his horse and caught him.  Then he brought the horse over to the road, so he could use the ditch to get back on.  He tried to say he didn't need any help, but eventually he was convinced to let Charles hold his horse so he could put what he thought was his foot connected to a Broken Ankle in the stirrup and get back on.  I have got to give this man credit for sheer pain tolerance because he kept on riding (even though it probably would have been possible to get an ambulance there because of the road).

After waiting for a few minutes to make sure that it would be OK to leave the man and his riding partner, we moved off trotting again.  While we had been stopped, the rain had turned into sleet and then heavy, wet snow and the temperature had dropped as well.  For a couple of  miles, it wasn't too bad, but I have to admit that by the time we had about 2 miles to go, I asked Saiph for a mileage update.  I had opted not to ride with my GPS or my phone for the first loop because I knew we'd have no trouble making time, and then I figured I would use them for the second loop where I was more likely to need to monitor our pace.  (I've been trying to practice estimating time and pace using just a watch, so that if I forget my GPS or it doesn't work, I still have some idea of our status on the ride.  Mostly I'm able to get within a mile of what our actual mileage is.) 

We continued on through the snow as it started accumulating into a slushy mess on the ground and I have to admit that the fun factor started to go way down.  Even with my raincoat, my gloves were soggy and I was pretty sure the water-proofing on my boots was failing.  Plus, the light layers that had been perfect earlier in the ride were now not quite enough, so even though I was mostly dry, I was getting a little chilled.  So it was with great relief when we got to what I was sure was about a half mile from the vet check (which was held at base camp).  I recognized the trail from the year before.  However, there was supposed to be a marker indicating one mile to go and we hadn't seen one.  Saiph speculated that maybe the trail would wind around a little more before taking us in to base camp, but we must have just missed the sign, because it became clear within a couple of minutes that we were indeed finishing the first loop.  We walked the horses in for the last quarter mile or so and I mentally prepared for what I would need to do with Nimo to get him ready to be vetted.

Unfortunately, we arrived at the vet check with quite a few other riders, so we had to wait a few minutes to get our in-time.  Normally, I would have gotten off, but with the snow coming down, I knew my saddle would be soaked and the thought of adding a cold, wet saddle to the next 10 miles was not appealing, so I asked Nimo to tough it out.

Waiting in the snow for an in-time.  Photo by Saiph
After getting our in-time, I headed to the crew area to offer Nimo water and food and throw a cooler over him to keep him warm.  He didn't want any water, but he climbed over two water buckets to get to the food I had for him.  I put it in a small feed pan and held it for him while we walked to the P&R area.  I was sure he was pulsed down and I didn't want to waste any time before getting him vetted and back to the trailer for some rest.  He pulsed in at 56 (the threshold was 64, so he was in good shape), and by the time we got to the vet, he was at 48.  His CRI was 48/52 and he got all A's and A-'s except for a B+ on jugular refill.  That kind of concerned me (because Nimo always gets A's and A-'s at the first vet check) and I asked the vet if there was something I should be doing better and she looked surprised and said no, he was doing great, and just to make sure he ate, drank, and was covered to stay warm.  I guess there is probably some subjectivity between an A- and B+, but I fretted about it anyway.

Saiph and Charles were still vetting in, but it looked like everything was OK, so I headed back to the trailer to get Nimo set up with food and water.  I was starting to get concerned because he didn't drink out on the trail and he didn't drink at the crew area.  Normally he would have.  Obviously, the cold and wet was a factor, but I have literally spent 99.37% of my time worrying about ways to keep my horse cool and hydrated, so being in a situation where it was cold and wet was kind of a new thing.  I had "electrolyted" the way I always do, which is basically just to give Nimo an extra tablespoon of salt in his dinner the night before the ride, an extra tablespoon of salt in his breakfast mash the morning of the ride, and a tablespoon of salt in his mash at the hold.  I haven't needed a more stringent electrolyte protocol, so I'm holding off on developing one until it seems like what I'm doing isn't working.  But no drinking.  He was alternating between picking at his mash, eating a few bites of hay and resting, which is quite normal for him during the hold, so I wasn't worried about that.  And all his food was wet because of the rain/snow coming down, so he was getting some moisture.  I decided to take care of a few things and see how he did.  We'd made good time on our first loop, completing it in about 2 hours, 15 minutes, so we had a ton of time left to do the last 10 miles, and there was no need to rush.

I took a fresh, dry cooler to the crew area and put it in my garbage bag enclosed crew bag to keep it dry and then I got our out time of 10:09, which left almost 3 hours to get through 10 miles.  Then I ate and drank and changed my shirt.  Unfortunately, the neckline and sleeves of my raincoat had leaked, so my shirt had gotten a little wet.  No big deal, though.  I put on a dry long-sleeve shirt and sweatshirt, put my raincoat back on, put my super soggy wet gloves back on, and headed back out to prepare Nimo for the next 10 miles.

At this point, though, he still had not drunk anything and he looked miserable.  He was hunkered under a leaf-less tree in an attempt to endure the snow and I got this overwhelming feeling that he did not want to go back out.  The thing is, I felt the best I've ever felt after a first loop.  I was not tired, I was not hungry, I was not headachy, I was not sore, and with my clothing change, I was reasonably warm and dry.  I was a bit thirsty, but that was easily remedied.  Nimo did great on the first loop.  I had no reason to think that he wouldn't be able to do another 10 miles...except, I was worried.  I couldn't really identify a reason except for possible dehydration, but I doubted he would have gone from fine at the vet check to dehydrated a half hour later. I am having a tough time explaining how I was feeling, but it was like my body was trying to move through water and it had nothing to do with my own sense of well-being.  It was just an oppressive feeling that we shouldn't go back out on the trail.  I could tell Nimo was not excited about going back out (although I don't think he ever has been - it always takes a couple of miles to convince him that it's really fine to do some more miles), but aside from the lack of drinking (and I knew there would be opportunities on the trail), it was more a feeling than some tangible reason.

Still I had Nimo ready to go and was literally in the process of finding a good mounting block, when I finally said the words to Saiph.  "I'm concerned about dehydration.  I don't know if we should go back out."  She looked concerned too, and it wasn't long before I realized she had similar worries.  I'll let her tell her own story at this point, but I decided to Rider Option.

I took Nimo back to his pen and pulled his tack, and about 30 seconds later, he was happily eating hay.  I could feel the sense of relief from him and I knew I made the right decision.  Because while there are always stories of riders/horses who get through incredible odds and do things like get back on and ride even with a broken ankle, this was not one of those kinds of days for us.  It was cold, it was wet, and another 10 miles had little chance of being remotely fun.  It would have been a hard slog with a horse who really wasn't up for it.  And I would rather have pulled him when I didn't need to than to have continued on when I shouldn't have.

After giving Nimo a little more time to eat, I took him over to the vetting area to turn in my rider card and check in with the vet.  For some reason, she decided not to do a second check (which I think is typical), but I wasn't that concerned about Nimo's health at that point, and I knew I could come back anytime if things changed.

Nimo did eventually drink about 2 hours after we came in from the first loop and that made me feel better, so I started packing up to go home.  I had initially thought about staying Saturday night, but the weather changed my mind, and getting on the road seemed better than staying in what was increasingly becoming a muddy mess.

By about 1:30 pm, I was packed up and Nimo seemed to be in good shape, so I decided to head out.  Luckily, the snow/rain stopped within about an hour, and the sun even came out a little as I headed south.  Plus, the traffic was much improved over our trip the day before, and I pulled into the barn at around 5 pm.  I got Nimo settled, watched him pee and drink - hurray! - and headed home to get a shower and food.

I did come back out to the barn at about 9 that night and at about noon the next day just to double check that Nimo was still OK, and he was.  In hindsight, it kind of seems like I might have overreacted to his lack of drinking because I heard from quite a few other riders that their horses weren't drinking either and they still went on to finish.  But, I remember that really bad feeling I had, and I still feel like I did the right thing.

Here is the rub.  I had originally planned to ride at the OD No Frills 30 ride in a couple of weeks.  But going to that ride was contingent on us successfully completing Foxcatcher.  I never had any doubt that we would (I didn't even think about the possible impact of snow), and now that we haven't, I don't think No Frills is a good idea.  It is a 30 mile ride through mountains and if it is anything like the other two OD-sponsored rides that we've done, it will require a combination of good preparation and luck just to survive the first loop.  And honestly, that isn't where I'm at right now.  I feel unfulfilled about our missed completion at Foxcatcher and I was really relying on that ride to give Nimo a good conditioning preparation for No Frills.  Without it, I don't think we're ready.

So here's what I've decided to do.  I joined ECTRA (a competitive trail riding organization) and I'm going to try a couple of 25-30 mile CTRs in May.  I initially didn't look into CTRs much because the set pace for those rides is in the 6+ mph range and that felt like too much for us when we started.  Now, I'm pretty sure we can handle it, so I think adding CTRs to our ride schedule this year will be a good thing.  It gives us almost double the number of rides to choose from in the 2-5 hour hauling range, plus CTRs offer options that endurance rides don't, like 2-day 50s and 3-day 100s, which could really be helpful when we're looking to move up a distance.

I'm bummed about missing No Frills, which will literally be attended by every endurance friend I have in the area, but I have to make the ride choices that work best for Nimo, and I think a lovely 26 miles in hunt country (Cheshire CTR in PA) will be just the thing:)  I admit to being a little apprehensive about joining a new organization and learning new rules and meeting new people and developing new strategies, but in the long-run, I think it will be very beneficial to working toward increasing our distance and being able to do more rides.

So enough about that.  My next post will go into our gear and what worked and what didn't because while we might not have completed the ride, a lot of other things worked really well and I want to write up those successes so I remember for next time:)

Thursday, April 14, 2016

Foxcatcher 25 2016 T-1

I had planned for the Foxcatcher 25 to be our first ride of the year.  Nimo did so well at it last year, and I really had a fun time riding with Saiph, so I was excited for a repeat of that experience.  Plus, I really felt like I was starting to get the hang of pre-ride preparation.  I was totally on it this year.  I had Nimo mostly on schedule with respect to the dressage and conditioning work I wanted to do, I washed his tail, I washed his mane (for the first time in 18 months, which is a serious violation of the Friesian Code, btw), I trace clipped him, then I modified the trace clip further just before ride day, I bought all the new stuff I would need at least 2 weeks before the ride, I was prepared for just about anything, and I had all my crap packed by the night before with a minimal amount of stress and sleep deprivation.

The morning before the ride dawned windy and a bit chilly.  I knew from the weather reports that I had previously been glued to that ride day was not expected to be one of those fine spring days that we often have in this area.  In fact, before I cut myself off from obsessing over the weather, I distinctly remember seeing a snow icon on the weather app on my phone.  Because there wasn't much I could do about it, I decided to go into a dissociative state and pretend that everything was going to be fine.  That plan was put to the test with a text from Saiph that included the words "icy hell" but I managed to keep it together and get out the door.

I had hoped to get to ride camp between 1 and 2, so I wanted to leave the barn by 9 am.  And that is exactly what I did because I am actually starting to get the hang of this whole process.  My GPS happily informed me that it would take 2 hours and 53 minutes to get to my destination.  I tried arguing with it because the preferred route would involve Washington, D.C.'s Beltway and then lots of time on I-95, but it refused to offer me any route that didn't involve heavy traffic areas, so I bit the bullet and put on some good music.  (And yes, if you are wondering, the first planning I did for my route was literally when I got into my truck after loading Nimo.  I already knew the route, though.  I had just been hoping for a surprise from the GPS.  I suspect that plan was part of the dissociative state I mentioned above.)

As expected, I hit more than a little parking lot-esque traffic.  My husband (who spends a lot more time driving in the DC area than I do now) assured me that Friday morning traffic is really "not that bad" and with the addition of the 8 million new toll lanes, I should just sail through.

Does this look like sailing through to you?
Yeah, right.  I basically crept and crawled through DC and north into Maryland.  Even once I was on I-95, traffic would sort of magically slow to a crawl and then speed up again with no explanation.  (I later heard from others traveling the same route earlier that there were a lot of accidents, so the back-ups were probably residue from those.)  Plus, the wind was strong and blowing the truck and trailer all over the place, which made things especially exciting when I was being passed on both sides by semi-trucks.  And I somehow managed to travel the route that took me under Baltimore's harbor.  That means I went through the Harbor Tunnel in my horse trailer.  (I also paid a whopping $12 for that privilege!)  I admit that it was not the kind of excitement I was looking for, but we survived and we probably only irritated about 100 drivers because I refused to drive more than 50 mph.  Anyway, after about 3 hours of wind, crazy traffic, tolls, tunnels, and bridges, I needed a break, so even though I didn't need gas, I pulled off to get some, grab a snack, and try to pry my fingers off the steering wheel.  I also checked on Nimo who ate most of the mash I prepared for him even though his eyes were the size of saucers with all the activity at the gas station.  Luckily, the rest of the trip was less stressful and we made it to ride camp a little after 1 pm.

I started shopping for a parking spot where Saiph and her husband could park next to me because I knew Saiph likes to use a high line to tie her horses.  I figured she could run a line between our trailers if there wasn't a good tree.  As luck would have it, I found a spot for two trailers with a couple of decent trees, so I called it good, parked, and saved a spot.

I got Nimo's pen set up, and even groomed him (including brushing his mane and tail!) to get him looking presentable for the vetting in process.  I had originally braided his mane, but I decided to pull the braids out due to the impending unmentionable weather.

Once Saiph and her husband arrived, all three of us checked in and got our horses vetted.  Nimo got all A's which made me happy because I'm sure that 4 hours on the trailer was not a picnic for him, so I was glad that he was doing well.

Then I unhooked the truck and Saiph and I headed over to the water station to fill every bucket we had.  The water station is a bit of a hike, so having a truck to do the heavy lifting is much appreciated.  Then, I hooked the truck back up (which was pretty impressive because I had to back quite a ways through a field and come in to the trailer at an angle.  I normally suck at that kind of hook up, but I managed it perfectly on the second try).

Next it was time to get my home away from home set up.  Charles, Saiph's husband, helped me out a bit with my truck tent.  I'm finally getting a system in place for setting it up.  Mostly my system involves remembering to put the shortest pole in the correct pocket to begin with instead of putting it in the wrong pocket and then struggling with trying to put the longer pole in the shorter pocket and wondering why I can't get it to fit.

Photo by Saiph
My new system was successful and I got all the poles in the right places on the first try and only experienced a little bit of mocking from Charles and another friend who stopped by during the phase of the tent set-up that I lovingly refer to as a "beaver trapped under the tent."  This phase involves me being under the tent trying to get the interior arch poles in place and there is typically a lot of swearing and banging around because I can't see anything and the tent is unstable.  From the outside, I imagine that it looks like a wild animal is trapped under the tent and fighting for survival.  The process also does wonders for the volume and style of my hair, which tends to look like a runway model gone horribly wrong by the end.

By that time, it was approaching 5 pm.  Saiph wanted to get a short ride in before the ride meeting at 6, and I originally thought I would go with her, but changed my mind.  I had already ridden Nimo twice during the week and I also wanted to get more of my gear set up.  So I spent the time before the ride meeting getting stuff organized for the night and the next day.

What we didn't know was that the ride meeting was moved from 6 pm (listed on the schedule) to 5:30 pm.  Apparently, there was a giant yellow sign with that information at the check-in area, but we completely missed it.  So we showed up just in time to have missed the whole ride meeting.  Luckily, Dom, a fellow blogger whom I finally got to meet, was on the ball, and filled us in on the salient details right before dinner.

Basically, we needed to take the yellow loop and then the pink loop.  The pulse criteria was 64 at the hold and 60 at the finish, and probably some other relevant stuff that I forgot as soon as she told me.  (I'm exploring just going with the flow of life these days, so I needn't concern myself with a lot of technical details.  This approach is useful because I apparently don't have as much brain capacity as when I was younger and didn't have a child.)

We had a great time at dinner and there was what will probably always be referred to as The Peanut Incident.  Saiph's husband, Charles, can be a bit goofy and likes to not take life too seriously.  We were chatting about all the peanuts on the table and how once you start eating them you can't stop.  That's when I said, "Yeah, that's why I'm trying hard not to start."  Charles took my statement has a challenge and kept trying to toss a peanut in my mouth every time I tried to talk.  That resulted in me covering my whole face to avoid the peanut onslaught and then Dom trying to assist Charles in his endeavor by pulling my hands away.  I get that it probably seems like 3rd grade behavior, but we all found the situation vastly amusing.  (Maybe the cold was already having an effect?)  And while Charles was not successful, I did eventually eat one peanut:).

Photo by Saiph
Photo by Saiph
Photo by Saiph
This is what crazy people look like
After dinner, Charles and I took the horses for a walk and then after we got the horses tucked in for the night and did a very basic crew area set-up, Saiph, Charles, and I crowded around a portable heater and chatted until about 10 pm.  At which point I was so cold, I didn't think I'd ever get warm and that was despite the winter parka, hat, fleece blanket, and heater.

But I had faith in my portable heater getting my tent warm.  I did have a bit of a scare when it was slow to light, but once I got it going, it did not disappoint, and I was toasty warm all night.  Regrettably, I was also in that pre-ride state of Can't Turn Off Brain, so I didn't get a lot of sleep.  I'm hoping eventually I'll work through it, but for now it seems to be a part of the process.  And then, before I knew it, 5:15 am arrived and it was time to get ready for the ride.