Saturday, May 21, 2016

And now for something completely different...

After not completing two very soggy rides (Foxcatcher and the Cheshire CTR) in the last month, I was ready for something a bit, you know, not riding and not wet.  Also not stressful and not requiring lots of packing and hauling.  I gave Nimo (and me) the week off after the Cheshire ride.  Physically, I doubt Nimo needed it, but the rain just kept raining here and I was tired of riding in the rain.  Actually, I was just tired of riding.  We'd been training pretty hard for about 2 and a half months and I decided we needed a break.

A friend of mine had previously mentioned that she was doing a driving clinic on May 7, and I remember telling her at the time that it sounded like fun but I was committed to my endurance training.  About 4 days before the clinic, she posted a reminder on Facebook, and all of a sudden, I was pretty interested.  I've briefly entertained the notion of training Nimo to drive on more than one occasion (because maybe I should actually do the one thing that Friesians are bred for with him), but I've never pursued it beyond doing some basic ground work because I didn't know anyone who drove horses and the whole idea seemed overwhelming.  Over the past couple of years, though, I've enviously watched as both Mel and Liz worked with Farley and Griffin on driving and more recently another lady I know has taught one of her horses to drive.  So when I saw the reminder about the clinic, I decided I was in.  The clinic was at Temple Hall Farm near Leesburg, Virginia, which meant less than an hour's drive for me, and all I had to bring was myself.

And so it was that I found myself on Kentucky Derby Day at a lovely working farm that is also open to visitors (for free!) six days a week (it is closed on Mondays to allow staff to get caught up with maintenance).  The most impressive thing about the farm is that it is home to at least a dozen male peacocks.  There are a few females too, but the males are the dominant display and they made their presence known...repeatedly.  To the point where I have decided that owning a peacock is not in my future.  I will simply enjoy them at other people's farms:)

One of the many peacocks on the farm.  They are surprisingly agile and unexpectedly vocal!
The driving clinic started at 9 am and was expected to go until 4 pm.  There were six of us in the class and we had two instructors.  One was the farm manager and the other was from the Shenandoah Carriage Company, a company that provides carriage rides for weddings and other special occasions.  Our agenda for the day was to learn how to harness and unharness the farm's team of Percherons, then ground drive the Percherons, and finally drive a wagon hooked up to said Percherons.  If that sounds like a tall order to you, know that I was pretty skeptical that all of that could happen in one day.  But both instructors seemed like knowledgeable and humorous guys and the class participants were game.

After a few introductory remarks about safety and their experience, the instructors led us to the barn where the Percherons had been stalled overnight so as to prevent them from becoming muddy disasters just prior to us having to wrangle harnesses on them.  It quickly became apparent that these Percherons were pretty special horses.  Their job was both to interact with the public, including completely clueless parents and their small children who routinely ran right up to and even underneath said horses, as well as to work by pulling a wagon seating up to 30 people around the farm and even do regular farm work like mowing, raking hay, and dragging logs.  Their names were Kit and Kernel, and while the farm manager said his favorite was Kit because of his extra personality with people, it was Kernel who endeared himself to me from the start.  He was an older horse (my guess is late teens) and life before coming to the farm had obviously not been easy for him.  He bore a permanent and quite extensive scar on his neck from an ill-fitting collar and another permanent rub across his nose from wearing an ill-fitting halter.  But he still had some personality left in him and used his eyes to beg for some petting, which he absolutely got from me:)

Even though the horses had been in all night, aside from the occasional shifting of weight or movement of a foot, they were very quiet and well-behaved as they stood tied in the exterior aisleway of the barn.  I did think it was funny when the farm manager explained that these were big horses with big feet, so we should be careful around them even though they seemed gentle, because getting stepped on by such a large animal would be painful.  The reason I though it was funny was because these Percherons were several inches shorter than Nimo and they looked so manageable to me as compared to my horse.  But I can see that if your riding horse was of more average size, these Percherons could seem intimidating.

The first step was for the instructors to demonstrate harnessing the horses.  I did manage to snap a few pictures of the process.

Demonstrating how the straps should fit - note the angle of the strap going between the horse's legs.
The back part of the harness, called the breeching (or britchen, depending on where you are from)
The holdback straps and traces (not attached to anything yet) - note the slack under the horse, which is needed to allow the harness to give as the cart or wagon moves, particularly on hills
Once we watched the horses harnessed and unharnessed (it's important to unharness the horse in a certain way so as to avoid tangling the assorted straps as well as getting them hung up on yourself or the horse), it was our turn.  Each of us practiced putting the harness on and taking the harness off under the watchful eye of the instructors.  Then, we worked together to put the harnesses on one more time because we had passed the first part of the course and the instructors were ready to see how we did with ground driving.  At first, I found the harness pretty intimidating, but after putting it on a couple of times and learning the function of each strap, it made a lot more sense.  I will say that carrying a harness and hoisting it on top of a large animal is not for the feeble-limbed, and I now understand why a lot of people drive minis and ponies!

The instructors demonstrated a couple of tips for harnessing a team, including how to run the lines (aka reins).  When driving a pair of horses, the driver only has two reins in his hands.  The way that is accomplished is to use a couple of connector straps in such a way that the line you hold in your right hand connects to the right side of the bit for both horses and the line you hold in your left hand connects to the left side of the bit for both horses.  That means there is some crossing of connector straps between the horses and it is super important to get that right.  The instructors disagreed on whether a strap was needed to connect the horses together as they were ground driven to be hooked up to a wagon, but for exclusive ground driving, the strap became important later on.

Once the horses were driven to a good place for us to start learning how to drive them, the instructors gave us some instructions on how to hold the lines and communicate with the horses.  And all six of us drove those horses without any trouble, because those horses are saints.  I can't imagine any skilled riding horse who would have so patiently tolerated six different idiots wandering around a field with them over the course of almost two hours.  We all had a little trouble getting the horses to walk off (drivers tend to use a lot of verbal commands and as riders, we were trying to do things like cluck, or shake the reins (it works in the movies!) instead of just authoritatively stating, "Walk On!"  I kept trying to walk up behind the horses to encourage them to move forward, which I only later realized was completely useless because the horses had blinders on and couldn't see me.  Although if they could have, I might have gotten kicked for my stupidity.  The farm manager also recommended pulling on one of the reins a bit to get the horses thinking about moving before giving the command to go forward (this idea would prove even more useful when the horses were hitched).

Holy crap, I'm ground driving a team of big horses!
I even got them to turn!
Turning the horses was not an exercise in subtlety, although I can see how it would become that way over time.  The way you turn a team to the right, for example, is to pull on the right line while simultaneously releasing with your left rein.  It doesn't sound hard, does it?  Ha, ha, ha...It turns out to be a little more difficult that you might think, especially if you want the horses to stay together and turn as one unit.  We mostly figured it out, though:)

Then, came the lesson on halt.  These horses pay no mind to any sort of namby, pamby, wishy, washy, feeble vocalizations to whoa.  A single commanding "Whoa!" is required while accompanied by a firm, but not harsh, pull on the lines.  I royally screwed up my first attempt as the horses happily wandered around, but after the first time, I got the hang of it and didn't have any problems after that (which is good, because halting is pretty much the most important thing that you ask the horses to do).

We finished our ground driving education with learning to back the horses.  Backing is necessary in limited cases (especially for a team which is hitched not by backing up to the wagon but by walking over the middle pole that connects the wagon to the horses), but it is still an important skill.  And it is hard on horses to back a lot too, which is why the continued patience of these horses was pretty amazing.  They backed many steps multiple times for all six of us.  And the connecting strap that held the two horses together near the back of the harness helped compensate for our not-yet-educated hands.

Apparently I wanted lots of space between me and the horses as they started backwards!
At this point, it was time for lunch, so we put the horses back in their stalls for some hay and water while we had barbecue from Red Hot and Blue.  We had a lot of fun chatting about our various experiences with horses and learning more about our instructors and the horses.  But soon it was time to head back out for the real fun - wagon driving!

We got the horses bridled again (they wore their harnesses during the break, which is something they are used to doing as part of their jobs) and then we learned about hitching horses to a wagon.  Basically there is what is called a team pole and a neck pole (I hope I'm getting the terminology right, here).  The team pole is  a wooden (or metal) pole that goes between the two horses and connects to the the hitch of the wagon (possibly called a doubletree, but don't quote me on that).  The team pole is attached to the middle of the neck pole at a right angle.  The neck pole connects to each horse's neck collar via a system of straps (sort of like a breast collar, but looser - remember the first picture with the instructor demonstrating the angle of the straps?).  Together these two poles, along with some leather straps called traces, sturdily connect the horses to the wagon.

Once the horses were hitched to the wagon, we all piled in and got more directions on how to drive a team of horses pulling a wagon full of people out in the wilderness.  Because there was no arena or even fencing to keep us on track.  We would be driving on the 6 mile trail that the farm manager made specifically to exercise the horses on days they were off or periods when they were not working to help keep them in shape.  (This trail is open to the public for riding and driving and even includes some logs for cross-country jumping...and creek crossings...)

I observed several people drive before I took the lines.  But nothing truly prepared me for the experience.  One of the instructors was sitting next to me to help in case of trouble, but it was pretty much on my mind that I was responsible for driving these horses and not having some kind of horrific accident with nine people in the wagon (six participants, two instructors, and one assistant).  Driving a wagon is much different than ground driving.  There was a power that came from those horses that is like nothing else I've ever felt.  They were beautifully behaved, but when they started forward, I almost came out of my seat because I wasn't prepared for the movement on the lines as the horses pulled the wagon.  It wasn't difficult to adjust to, though, and I got to do a creek crossing through water that was probably 12-15 inches deep (so cool!), and near the end, my instructor worked with me to fine-tune my steering skills, so I was able to run the wagon pretty close to trees without getting hung up and avoid some of the worst mud, so the horses wouldn't have to work so hard to pull.  And I was pretty much hooked on driving.  I seriously need a team of Percherons NOW!

Don't get me wrong, I love riding.  The connection is much different and much more intimate than with driving, but I can see how people become fans of driving.  There is something so amazing about being able to communicate with a horse in that way and driving through the countryside was so absolutely pleasant.  I can't describe it any better than that.  Plus, I felt a bit like someone from the 1800s when we went through uneven ground or hills - it was like living a piece of history.

I'm driving!!!
And so it looks like our journey will include a new and exciting activity - driving!  Now that I've had some legitimate instruction, I feel much better about undertaking teaching Nimo than I did before.  Of course, driving a single horse is different (and not necessarily any easier) than driving a team, so I'm thankful that the farm is planning to do another clinic with topics like driving a single horse, doing an obstacle course, and even dragging logs (OMG - I must do that before I die!).  In the meantime, though, I'm starting to educate myself a bit more by reading some books and watching DVDs.

I also resuscitated my ground driving sessions with Nimo.  While his temperament is not necessarily the same as the Percherons (who seemed pretty much unflappable and very good at their jobs as opposed to a horse who is still afraid of stumps in the woods), Nimo seems to be awesome at tolerating me attempting to hook multiple long lines to him and convincing him to wander around the arena.  Even at age two, when I first started lunging him (not for more than 5-10 minutes at time and only at the walk and trot), he was so tolerant of the process.  He will literally stand forever while I hook things up, realize they aren't right, fix them, still am not happy, and tweak them again.  Having long lines wrap around his body (using double lines to lunge, anyone?), even his hocks and lower hind legs is a non-event for him.  He is a little uncertain about moving forward with me behind him, but after only two sessions, that is improving, and he isn't bothered in the slightest by me moving in and out of his vision behind him.  (If you've never done it, ground driving requires standing just to the inside of the horse and then crossing behind him to the other side when you make a turn.)  Of course, hitching him to a cart may be another story, but now I have a plan and it honestly shouldn't take that long if I can stick with it.

So stay tuned, because my driving whip and neck-collar measuring device just arrived today and I've got driving lines on order!

Monday, May 9, 2016

Cheshire 26 CTR

After we didn't finish the Foxcatcher 25 ride, I decided to change my ride plan a little for this year.  I originally intended to go to the OD's No Frills 30 ride, but I just wasn't sure we were ready for it without the full 25 miles of the Foxcatcher ride to help us prepare.  So in a fit of inspiration, I joined the Eastern Competitive Trail Ride Association, and registered for a 26 mile ride on May 1 in Pennsylvania.  Given its location not too far from where Foxcatcher was held and the description of the ride as "hunt country," I anticipated that it would be a great way to reproduce the Foxcatcher ride.  And given its timing of three-weeks post-Foxcatcher, I expected there to be no snow:)

Because I am so much more on the ball this year than last year, I spent the week before the ride actually packing (well, more like unpacking from Foxcatcher and repacking, but still, I'm counting it) and getting Nimo ready.  I wanted to do a full body clip, but it there is seriously a lot of hair on that horse, so I did a little every day until the night before we left, when I finished clipping.  Then, I bathed him (with soap!) and washed his mane and tail and braided them too.

Possibly the cleanest my horse has been in at least 5 years!
The day before the ride, I pulled out out of the barn at 9 am (on time again!), and headed up to Pennsylvania via the Beltway and I-95.  Just like when I drove to Foxcatcher in Maryland, I had to battle nasty traffic on the Beltway, but the traffic on I-95 moved surprisingly quickly, so we made it to the ride area without incident in about 4 and a half hours.

The information I had said that registration opened at 3 p.m. and the vetting in process started at 4 p.m.  However, it was a little confusing because I also had information that said the vetting in would be the morning of the ride.  I did confirm that I would be able to vet Nimo in the day before the ride when I checked in, so that made me feel better.  I admit that the idea of having to go through the vet check before the ride was giving me some anxiety, so I was glad to be able to get it over with.  I also found out that we'd be going out in groups of five, which made me feel better.  I knew that my group wouldn't necessarily stay together for the whole ride, but given that Nimo can be pretty "up" at the start of the ride, I was glad to have some company to start with. 

While I waited for the vet to arrive, I set up camp.  I used my usual truck tent for me and cattle panels for Nimo.  I also had a small gas grill to make dinner with that I purchased just for the ride because dinner is not included with the ride entry.  But I was looking forward to testing it out and I had a seriously gourmet variety of soup to try out:)

Please note the "Sky of Doom" overhead...also my finger partially covering the lens
A little after 4 p.m., I wandered down to the area that I thought would be used for the vet area.  Nothing.  I checked in with a few people (everyone was very friendly) to see if they knew anything.  Nada.  So I just chilled.  I chatted with the other riders near me and hung out.  And then I started to get a bit anxious.  Because it was almost 5 p.m. and no vet.  I wanted to take Nimo on a walk around the camp area to keep him from getting so bored that he disassembled his pen, but I didn't really know what was going on and neither did anybody else.  There was a sort of lassez-faire attitude that was giving me heart palpitations.

I decided to take Nimo for a walk and just go up and down the road through camp so I could keep an eye on things.  Finally, at about 5:20, one of the volunteers told me that the vet had arrived.  I started to head over to vet in, but she told me that they would need at least 5 minutes to get set up.  Fair enough.  So I walked Nimo for about 10 more minutes just so I wasn't pestering somebody AGAIN (I may now be known as the most annoying person ever).

When I walked over to the vet area, there were six horses in front of us and it looked like the vet was just getting started.  No big deal, right?  Yeah, so the first thing I discovered about the differences between endurance rides and CTRs is that the vetting in process is a bit different.  And by different, I mean aggravating beyond all hell.

To be clear, I knew that the vet check was more detailed than at an endurance ride.  I'd even made the effort to skim the rules a couple of times before going to the ride.  And I admit my eyes kind of glazed over.  I really didn't care about all the points (or lack thereof) and placings and awards.  All I wanted to do was finish the ride with both me and my horse alive and well.  I also knew that some people consider the vetting process to be a bit nit-picky and I totally mentally prepared myself for that.  I made my peace with it and was determined to be respectful because honestly, I was just really excited to have the opportunity to go to more rides in my area.  And if that meant following a different process, that was fine.  I could come in last place every time and be perfectly happy.

But as I waited and waited and waited and waited and waited, I started to feel more than a twinge of annoyance.  It took over 50 minutes before Nimo and I saw the vet.  That means it took 50 minutes to examine 6 horses.  While this was a small ride (only 38 people had pre-registered), that kind of time to get through the horses seemed like a lot.

For those of you who have not been to a CTR before, I'll describe the way the process worked at this ride.  There were two "judges" (and I think both were also vets, but don't quote me on that).  One judge examined some of the criteria and the other judge did the rest of it.  For us, our first judge checked Nimo's body for blemishes.  At first I worried that Nimo would be antsy because the process was taking so long, but he actually thought he was getting a full body massage, so he was very, very good.  The first judge put her hands all over Nimo's body above his legs.  And this is where the demoralization process starts.  In keeping with the advice I'd received, I dutifully reported the large bug bite on Nimo's side that the judge somehow missed.  I was under the impression that the point of the initial vet check is to establish a base line for the horse that he will be judged against at the end of the ride.  However, apparently, if you allow your horse to be bitten by a bug, that is a half point deduction.  Also, if your horse has bulgy shoulders, that might cause a problem and require a lot of discussion and thought (I have no idea if any points were deducted for that, but it seemed to be a cause for concern even though the judge eventually decided that maybe it was OK because it appeared to be exactly the same on both sides, possibly meaning that it wasn't an injury or major defect, but just an idiosyncrasy of the individual horse).  Oh, and Nimo is apparently "a bit ticklish" on his girth line.  Seriously?  I watched Nimo really closely the first time after the judge said it because I was unaware of his ticklishness.  I couldn't see anything.  Maybe the judge was feeling a flinch under her hand?  And I don't know if we lost any points for it.  It could just have been a comment for later so that if a different judge felt a flinch, he/she would know it was likely normal and not the result of the girth causing a problem.  But it was weird.

And then we waited.  The other judge was examining another horse and I guess his part of the examination took longer than the first judge's exam.  Finally, he got to us and took a look (and feel) of Nimo's legs and gums and hydration status (skin pinch).  He also took a heart rate and listened to gut sounds.  Once again I dutifully reported an old callous caused by hoof boot interference a couple of years ago and got a half point deduction for that.  We also lost half a point on the skin pinch.  And that was when I started to internally lose it.  I had seen Nimo pee twice since we got to camp - both times had a large volume and were very light and clear in color.  I have no idea how he could have been better hydrated.  Plus he was eating the tallest grass ever that was soaking with water.  And I had seen the skin pinch.  I'm not sure how the skin could have retracted faster.  I do get that the judge probably has done this a million times and is much more capable of setting a standard than I am, but again, I really thought that the point was to compare the beginning of the ride to the end of the ride for the horse not against a general standard (note to self, maybe read the rules more carefully next time...).

After the examination, the next step was to do the trot out.  I'd already noticed that the pattern was a little different than for endurance rides.  I checked with the judge to make sure I understood what it was - trot out to the cone, do a circle at the trot to the left, reverse, and do a circle at the trot to the right, and then trot back.  Whew!  Lots of trotting (and running!) compared to the endurance trot to the cone, walk around the cone, and trot back.  I wasn't sure how Nimo would handle it, but I figured we'd give it a try.  Everything went fine until we started on our trot circle to the right.  I was still leading him from his left and when I went to turn him right, he thought he was going straight and we tripped over each other's feet.  We were both fine and I chalked it up to a miscommunication.  Nimo was a little reluctant to go back to trotting, but he did and we finished the circle and trotted back.  At this point, NO ONE said anything to me about the right circle.  And maybe they couldn't.  But I had been really clear that I was new to CTRs and I had seen several different people do the trot pattern, each a bit differently, so I was unaware of any particular standard.

Later, another rider who had watched my trot-out told me that my horse's movement was really lovely, but that I "needed to learn to lead" my horse from his right to do the right circle.  She was very nice about the comment and I just thanked her for her help, but I am going to ask, "How was I supposed to know that?"  I double-checked the rules and there isn't anything in there about using a clicker to cue the circles (some people did that) or using a lunge line to do the circles (others did that) or just switching the side the horse is led from (still others did that).  It was at that point that I realized the vetting process is not about assessing the horse's physical state for going out on the trail.  It is about showmanship.  I hate showmanship.  I have competed in showmanship at halter many times and I hated it then.  It turns out I still hate it.  But I get it.  CTRs are about something different than endurance.  So I continued with my attempt to accept the differences between CTRs and endurance and be thankful for the opportunity to compete.

Anyway, finally, Nimo was done with being vetted.  At this point, aside from some comments specifically stating points were being deducted, I had no idea what our point total was or how we were doing, relatively speaking.  I don't even know what Nimo's heart rate was because the judge didn't tell me.  But, I let that go in the spirit of going with the flow of things, and got Nimo his dinner and hoped to start on mine soon.

I also really wanted to know about the ride meeting.  At endurance rides, the ride meetings are the night before the ride.  At CTRs, it's anyone's guess, apparently.  No one I asked had any idea.  Finally, someone suggested that it might be in the morning before the ride.  What?!  So I asked what time.  No idea.  I started twitching a bit at this point.  I have been really trying and mostly succeeding at a going-with-the-flow lifestyle.  I try not to set too many appointments because it can be challenging to get to them on time and it stresses me out to try.  (It's amazing how quickly a toddler can end up naked or not know what happened to her red shoes and refuse to wear any other shoes when you have to leave the house in 5 minutes.)  But even with training and endurance rides, I feel like I have the general idea and I don't sweat the details whenever possible.  At this point, though, I was really feeling stressed.  Not having the information from the ride meeting really upset me.  I didn't know how the trail would be marked.  I didn't know how the two loops would work (assuming there were two loops and not one big loop).  I didn't know where the P&R area would be or where I could leave my crew bag so I could have food for Nimo during the hold.  No one else knew these things either.  Unlike me, though, it didn't seem to bother them a bit.

As luck would have it, the ladies camping next to me invited me to their dinner, which was really delicious.  We chatted for maybe a couple of hours (and I grilled them with questions, many of which they did not know the answers to...), but after the sun went down, the temperature got quite cold and we all headed to our warmer trailers and tents with heaters.  I hung out in my tent for awhile reading (and checking the rules again) and getting warmed up with my heater.  A little after 10, I checked on Nimo.  Then I read some more while I waited for the propane tank on my heater to run out because I was planning on going through the night without it.  The temperature was cool - maybe mid-40s, but I just didn't think I was going to need the heater to be comfortable for sleeping, so I just wanted to run the tank down, which it did around 11.

By then, a light rain was falling.  I knew from the forecast that it would continue all night and all of the next day, but having just done a ride in the rain, that was one thing I wasn't too concerned about.  Somehow, I managed to fall asleep and spend a blissful 3 hours in a row sleeping.  I woke up around 2 and checked on Nimo.  The rain had stopped for awhile and the temperature didn't feel too bad.  I dozed on and off, being perfectly warm without my heater, got up at 4:30, snuggled in bed a bit longer, and finally got up a little after 6.  The ride didn't start until 9, and I knew horses were going to be vetted in that morning.  Apparently, some people just come the morning of the ride (these are certifiably crazy people!).

After feeding Nimo his breakfast and checking to make sure he was dry under his sheet, I headed over to the registration area to get coffee.  There was no coffee yet.  At 6:30 a.m.  I reminded myself one more time that I was in a different environment and to get over it.  I took Nimo for a half hour walk to stretch and graze.  By 7-ish, there was coffee.  But no word yet on the ride meeting.  I was informed it would be at some point before the ride after everyone finished vetting in.  That point in time was as yet unknown.

I headed back to my tent and changed into my riding clothes and got last minute things ready.  I added a couple of things to my crew bag and saddle bags.  I put the trail map in a ziploc bag and I donned my super raincoat.  I had worn a lesser raincoat for morning chores because the tall grass and rain was impossible to escape.  I figured I would put my riding stuff on just before getting Nimo ready so I could start the ride as dry as possible.

At about 8:15, I wandered down to the registration area one more time to check on a ride meeting.  If there wasn't one yet, I needed to get Nimo ready.  While I was there, finally, someone said the ride meeting would be starting in 5 minutes.

And so, at about 8:30 am, the ride meeting finally started.  The ride manager explained how the trail was marked and that we would do the same 13-mile loop twice from the same direction.  I guess normally the loop was done in one direction the first time and in reverse the second time. That sounded like a disaster waiting to happen in terms of trail markings, so I was glad to be doing it the same direction.  Then there was a heated discussion about how much time we had to complete the trail.  And how much time the hold would be.  In the end, it was decided that the hold would only be 20 minutes because it wasn't hot outside.  And to be honest, I never did understand what the optimal time was.  It was either 4 hours and 10 minutes to 4 hours and 40 minutes or 4 hours and 20 minutes to 4 hours and 50 minutes.  I gave up and decided it didn't matter to me anyway.  Then, I found out that the start order that I'd been given in writing the afternoon before was out-of-date and I would be starting with a different group at an unknown time.  That's right, people.  I wasn't given a start time.  (FYI to non-CTR folks, there is a different starting process for CTRs.  Instead of starting all at once - or just at some point within 10-15 minutes of the official start time, each rider has a different start time or starts in small groups.  At this ride, I originally thought I was going out in the second group of 5 and found out I'd be going out in the third group of 4.)  And there was no discussion of where the P&R area was or where I could put my crew bag.

At 8:45, the meeting was over and I was in a state of panic.  I thought that the delay in the ride meeting would delay the start of the ride, and it didn't.  The ride started in 15 minutes and my horse wasn't ready.  No one else was saddled either, but I guess they must work faster than I do.

I moved as fast as I could back to the trailer, but it was hard going in the mud.  I grabbed Nimo and started throwing on tack as fast as I could while hyperventilating.  I tried to keep the sheet over him and the saddle so things wouldn't get wet and I added a rump rug because he was clipped and it was still cool outside.  Somehow, I got Nimo ready and got mounted.  The time was 9:08.

I tried to move Nimo forward to rush to the start line and he froze.  He wouldn't move at all.  Finally, I got a step or two, but his back felt like a block of wood.  After a couple of minutes of him not wanting to move and me frantically trying to remember if I'd done something stupid like forget to put the saddle pad on, I decided that maybe he was reacting to the rump rug.  I've ridden him in quarter sheets before, but not for a long time, so I thought maybe it was bothering him.  Luckily, I'd tied it on using quick release knots, so I had off of him in seconds.  But that wasn't it.

I tried to breathe and calm down and relax because I thought maybe my panic was feeding in to him.  Finally, I got him moving and after a few strides, he seemed to settle and his back started to feel better.  We made it to the start line at 9:12.  That's when I was informed that my start time was 9:07.  Great.  Good to know.  Thanks.

I had missed my group and we were starting alone.  I didn't know what that meant for Nimo's behavior.  As it turned out, that horse was a blessed saint.  He walked the first 10 minutes out of the start.  Normally, I wouldn't have walked him so long, but because we'd had zero chance to warm up, I felt like I had to in order to allow him to warm up properly, especially because of what I'd felt in his back when I first got on.  Even though he could see horses in front of us (the start was along a field) and one of those horses was a complete basketcase (whose rider had gotten off and eventually decided to lead him back to camp), he walked.  And I finally calmed down and got myself together.

And then I asked him to trot and he switched gears, but not in a bad way.  He was pretty forward, but not out-of-control, and in no time, we caught up to a pair of riders and soon passed them.  We played leap-frog a bit with those riders as well as another group (I think the group that started after us) for a few miles, but eventually, we settled into a pace with a group of 5 other riders.  They were going pretty much exactly the pace that I wanted to go and I didn't think we could maintain enough speed to pass for good, so we rode with them for the majority of the loop.

The loop was mostly hills over grass, with a couple of sections through woods and on roads.  The wooded sections were the worst because the slick mud made them almost impossible to trot.  In fact, I thought Nimo pulled a tendon/ligament on one section because he felt almost 3-legged lame to me.  I was trying to figure out what to do because we were on a very steep hill with very bad footing.  Nimo seemed really willing to move forward, so I decided to wait until we got to the top.  Once we did and the footing got better, Nimo was fine, so I think it was just so slick that he couldn't keep traction.  At that point, we were on our own, so I don't know if anyone else had that much trouble with it, but I was glad to see that section of trail go.

Probably about 8 miles into the loop, the group I was riding with thought we might not be on the trail, so we had a consultation.  My opinion was that we were good because I remembered from the ride meeting that there was a 2-3 mile section of trail in some kind of park/preserve area where the only trail markings would be those of the park, not the ride.  We were supposed to follow the red arrows.  Which we were.  A couple of other riders caught up to us while we were milling around and discussing and assured us that we were correct - they knew the trails and the ride.  Reassured, we moved out.

It was at this point that Nimo had enough with the stopping and milling and slow trotting.  He really wanted to trot on.  The ladies who had caught up to us were in the front of our group now, and I moved Nimo over to pass them on the right.  I was a couple of horse lengths behind them and I literally had my mouth open to say that I would be passing, and one of the horses in front of us started acting up and moving sideways.  I leg-yielded Nimo over as well to try to stay out of the way, but I didn't think I could stop because there were several people trotting at a pretty good speed behind us.  The horse in front kept crow-hopping and moving over, so I kept moving Nimo too.  I wasn't sure what was going on.  We were fairly close, but not close enough to be rude, so I wasn't sure if the horse was reacting to Nimo or just reacting.  I'd seen at least two horses completely lose it so far, so it wouldn't have been unexpected for another one to freak out.  Finally, the rider said the horse didn't like to be passed.  Her partner said what I was thinking, which is maybe that you shouldn't ride at the front of a group and that they either had to go faster or move behind the group.  I guess they decided to slow down, which was a wise choice given the footing.

Nimo did not make the same choice.  Once I gave him the OK to move out, he took off at his fastest trot.  There was one horse in front of us and we passed him.  Then the two horses played leap-frog with each other for the next several miles.  Nimo had a really bad slip coming around a turn that pretty much stopped my heart and after that he agreed to back off a bit, but both horses ended up being well-matched in pace.  A third horse from the group I'd been riding with eventually joined us and the three of us rode loosely together for the rest of the loop, leaving the rest of group behind.

We trotted as much of the trail as we could, only slowing down for the section in the woods a couple of miles out from the finish line.  It was the same section we'd done at the beginning of the ride that made me think Nimo was lame, and it was not more fun going down than up.  Nimo ended up trotting with his front legs and sliding on his hind legs to get down.  It was actually a very balanced movement that was easy to ride, but the theory behind had my brain screaming a bit.

It was shortly after that point that the three of us realized we were probably not on the right trail.  On CTRs, the trail includes count-down mile markers for the last 5 miles.  The last one we'd seen was for 3 miles to go and we knew we should have seen the 2 mile marker by that time.  I knew from the map that there was a short section of trail that was the same on the way out and the way back, but it seemed like we'd been on the same trail for longer than a short section.  But here was the kicker.  The trail was marked correctly for the direction we were going in.  The trail was mostly marked with ribbons, but for most of the turns, there were separate signs, marked with blue rectangles to indicate the direction of the turn and then that you were going straight after the turn.  And we had those markers facing us.  And we could see that there were other markers facing the other way.  So we couldn't figure out what was going on.  We were convinced we weren't on the right trail, but the trail markers said we were.

Eventually, we gave up trying to figure out what happened, because we had no way of knowing when we'd gone of the trail.  And there was no way I wanted to put Nimo through going up that steep, muddy hill in the woods again just for the possibility that we might discover where we went off trail.  And with CTRs, the time is so tight to complete the trail (only a half hour leeway) and we were really pushing the bounds of what was theoretically possible, so all three of us decided to just finish the ride by following the trail back to camp.

It was a sort of anti-climactic ride from that point on.  I knew for the last 2-3 miles that we wouldn't be getting a completion for the ride, but Nimo still was happy to keep going and had no idea that his rider had screwed up.  We finished the loop (with at least an extra mile according to my GPS) two and a half hours after we should have started (remember that we started 5 minutes late).

The volunteer near the start line tried to explain to us where we went wrong on the trail (how he could possibly know, I'm not sure, but maybe we weren't the first ones to go off the trail) and assured us we could ride back out to the place we'd left the right trail and still complete the loop, but that would have meant riding out for as much as 3 miles, thereby adding up to 6 miles to our first loop and making it impossible to finish on time (there is a half hour "grace period" before and after the optimal time that just means you accumulate points for coming in over time, but I didn't think we could even make that if we hadn't messed up the loop).  Had we not gone off trail, I would have tried to complete the second loop, but given our time, it is unlikely we would have been able to get a completion anyway.  With a 20 minute hold, we would have been at 2 hours and 50 minutes in going out for the second loop.  That would mean doing the 13 mile loop in 2 hours or less to finish within the optimal time.  And even if Nimo could have done exactly what he did the first time, we would still be cutting it crazy close to the cut off for the grace period.

But I want to say something about our time here, because I know that doing 13 (or 14 if we're going to be exact) miles in 2 and a half hours doesn't seem that impressive.  However, as we were coming in, a lady was going out.  I overheard the volunteers say she was the first person back out on the trail (there were maybe 5 or 6 riders in the P&R and vetting area at that point).  Assuming she had only been there for 20 minutes for the hold (for CTRs, your hold time starts the minute you come in to camp, not after you pulse-down as it does for endurance rides), that means we were only 20 minutes behind the first rider, who had absolutely left before we did (as much as 12 minutes before we did), because no one passed us on the trail except for the 2 people I finished with.  So in my mind, that means that Nimo did exactly what he was supposed to do and went as fast as he could based on the trail conditions, and when I realized that, I was pretty proud of him.

So now let's talk for just a minute about the hold process.  Unlike endurance rides that have crewing areas near the P&R and vet areas, so riders can give their horses food and water, this ride did not have anything like that.  The P&R area was literally some tall grass.  No water for the horses, no place for rider supplies.  And given how long it takes to vet through (I waited more than 10 minutes for 2 horses in front of me to be examined despite the shorter process used for the mid-ride holds that is similar to endurance rides, and I didn't even have to go through P&R because I was essentially disqualified for going off trail), I can't imagine how a person could even get through the hold in 20 minutes.  I think if you came in with a small group or a number of people came in close together, you could need as much as 30-40 minutes just because of how long it takes to get vetted and that doesn't include any time to take care of your horse (or yourself).  I think it is possible that the expectation is that you will feed and water your horse and yourself on the trail, so the hold is literally just to make sure your horse is pulsed down and fit to continue.  But I really wasn't mentally prepared for that and Nimo went as fast as he could for the trail conditions (he even did a couple of short canters!), so there was no time for him to eat and drink on the trail.  Part of the issue was the footing.  It was just too muddy in certain places to trot, but normally we would have been able to.  Also, given our late start and the need to walk Nimo a bit more at the beginning because of now warm-up time, we started the loop in the hole.  And the extra mile or so we did because we went off trail certainly didn't help our time.

Anyway, I probably got a huge point deduction just for Nimo's bad behavior at the vetting (Horse Turns into Crazy Lunatic: -107 points).  As luck would have it, while we were waiting, three of the group members that we had ridden with for the majority of the loop went back out right next to us.  And Nimo lost his shit.  He was hysterical that he couldn't go with them, nevermind that he wasn't even wearing a saddle or bridle at that point.  So he would not stand still for the vet to get his heart rate or listen to his gut sounds.  Eventually, the vet might have either given up (although he told me he got what he needed) or saw the look on my face, which by that time was possibly approaching something significantly worse than Resting Bitch Face, and decided discretion was the better part of valor.  I actually had to beat Nimo to get him to go back to the trailer because he was so determined to go back out on the trail, with or without me (Rider Beats Horse: -243 points).

So there you have it.  Our completely failed attempt at doing a CTR.  I know that I have readers who are successful at CTRs (and who presumably enjoy it).  You have my utmost admiration.  I could not do what you do.  In fact, if I never ever end up within 100 miles of a CTR again, it will be too soon.  Ever.  Seriously EVER.

I cannot handle the uncertainty of when the vetting starts.  I cannot handle the length of time it takes to go through the vetting process.  I find the idea of deducting points for real or perceived deficiencies in my horse before I even saddle him to be psychologically demoralizing (unlike endurance events where your horse will typically get all A's for a similar process, which creates a very different psychological effect).  I cannot handle having the ride meeting start and end just before I'm supposed to be out on the trail.  Yes, in the future, I could saddle my horse before the ride meeting (assuming I knew when it would start), but then I leave him for 20-30 minutes in a state of not knowing what's going on, so I'm just passing the issue from me to him.  I cannot handle the idea that the duration of the hold and the optimal time of the ride may not be determined until after a 5-10 minute discussion at the ride meeting.  I cannot handle a 20 minute hold whose sole purpose is to somehow get my horse to be vetted.  I cannot handle the "optimal" pace requirement.  In an endurance ride, a quicker pace during the first loop nets either finishing the ride a little early or being able to slow down during the second loop or even taking a bit more time during the hold if needed.  And I don't know how the end of ride vet check works, but I'm going to assume it would annoy me at least as much as the first one, so I'm going to go out on a limb and say that I can't handle that either.  Plus, the lunch that is included with the ride entry isn't available until after 3 pm.  By then, I have already starved to death because of all the energy I previously expended on being stressed.

But lest you feel sorry for me because I am easily stressed and annoyed or because you think I may have wasted my time on this ride, let me assure you that is not the case.  Despite how miserable the weather was, how crappy the footing was, how uncertain some processes were, and how long other processes took, I am very glad that I did this ride.

For one thing, I no longer have to wonder if I choose the wrong type of distance riding to start with.  I admit to a little part of me wondering if I really belonged in the endurance world with my horse who only does 25-30 mile rides and with my goal to merely finish a ride, rather than race my horse, especially after I read John Crandell's article.  I can now say with certainty that if a CTR had been my first ride, I would never have done a second one.  My goal is not to accrue points or be placed or win an award.  I don't care if I look like an idiot when I trot out my horse (Rider Can't Run in a Straight Line: -16 points; Also, Rider Can't Run in a Circle: -19 points).  It doesn't matter to me if we finish last (Rider Apathy: -7 points).  I left the world of showing long ago, and while I have dabbled a couple of times with dressage schooling shows in recent memory, I am pretty sure that I won't dabble any more unless I do something like show up with my horse in a bitless bridle, riding in a treeless non-dressage saddle, my horse barefoot and unbraided, and in an outfit that doesn't match.  I don't like unnecessary rules and procedures.  I don't want to be rushed when I'm trying to do something I love.  I do want to go out and ride the trail to the best of my horse's and my ability on that day, but I don't need a clock or a scoresheet hanging over my head while I do it.  Please understand that I'm not saying CTRs are a bad thing; I'm just saying they aren't for me.  Ever.  Seriously EVER.

And, after all the stress and rushing at the Cheshire ride, our upcoming endurance ride (the OD 25 in June) seems literally like a luxury ride when it used to send me into spasms of terror.  I mean all I have to do is ride 25 miles, which includes a bit of climbing and a bunch of trotting downhill and going over a few rocks.  There's no training my horse to do perfect circles with a clicker command.  There's no trying to convince my horse to get himself even more hydrated for a skin pinch test.  There's no working with him so he isn't ticklish at his girth area.  We just have to ride.  Which is what I want to do, and based on Nimo's reaction at not being able to go back out on the trail, what he wants to do too.

Finally, I learned that I really can drive my truck and trailer through mud.  Leaving camp after the continuous rain that the area has been having for weeks and most especially the day of the ride meant that there was a new challenge.  I thankfully put my truck in 4-wheel drive to pull out of the wet grass we were parked in, thinking that would be the worst of my problems.  I realized my mistake when I pulled out on to the "road" leading the the exit.  A lady had actually exploded past me as I was just starting to pull forward (it wasn't her fault - she had parked down the hill and really needed a lot of momentum, so she couldn't slow down or she risked getting stuck and she likely started her ascent well before I started mine), so I ended up following her down the hill.  Which was less than optimal.

The road had quickly turned into a quagmire and as I watched, the trailer in front of me began to slide at the bottom of the hill.  Somehow the driver was able to keep going, but I wasn't sure for how much longer.  Just after I passed the vetting area and volunteer tent, my trailer slid left and kept sliding.  My truck started fishtailing and my dashboard started flashing, telling me that I didn't have good traction for either of my axles (thank you, oh Nissan, God of the Obvious).  But I knew if I stopped, we'd be stuck, and I'll be honest, I really didn't want to spend any more time at that particular location.  So I kept my foot on the accelerator and watched as giant globs of mud started flying more than 10 feet in the air as my tires spun and struggled to find purchase in the ever-deeper mud.  (I sincerely apologize to those volunteers whose cars are now coated in mud.  Hopefully, the rain washed it off over time.)  Somehow, despite the fact that I don't think I had much control over either the truck or trailer, the whole rig proceeded forward.  In fact, we were proceeding forward slightly more quickly than the truck and trailer in front of me.  Which gave me something new to worry about.  If the lady in front of me got stuck, I might hit her.  I started willing both her truck and mine to keep going and because we both must be awesome drivers (or plain stupid, I'm not sure which), we both made it out.  Whether anyone made it out behind us is anyone's guess, though.

I breathed a sigh of relief when I got to pavement (Nimo probably did too!), and we made it all the way back to the barn in 4 hours without any more issues.  And therein ends my brief foray into the competitive trail ride world.  May those of you who continue to do it be blessed with healthy horses, beautiful presentation skills, endless patience, and nerves of steel:)