Monday, July 4, 2016

Catching Up...

It's been awhile since I posted, not because I have nothing to say, but more because I had so much to do that I lacked the time/motivation to post.  Life got a bit crazy starting in mid-May and I've been struggling just to remember what day it is since then.  Many of the things that have happened have been house-related, so I'll spare you the tedious details except to say that we now have a new kitchen faucet, a new dishwasher, a repaired roof beam, a repaired porch ceiling, a repaired roof leak, patched dry wall around the front door, patched dry wall in our downstairs hallway, an almost completed renovated guest bathroom, a new garage door opener, a new kitchen ceiling light, some new paint and baseboards in our family room, lots of new bookshelves and other storage capability to keep toddler toys off the floor (ha, ha, ha, but we tried!) and to get some of the stuff that belongs to my husband and I out of storage and available for use, a new dresser for our daughter's room, and some assorted decorations that have started to make the house feel a bit more like home.  My parents also came to visit for a week and then my in-laws came to visit for several days just 3 weeks later.  All of the home improvement plus home organization plus home decorating plus guests plus crazy work stuff plus all the regular things I try to do like cooking and cleaning and laundry and scrapbooking took their toll a few days ago, and I am currently on what I think might be the recuperating side of a nasty cold that resulted in conversations like this one:

My husband to my prone-hasn't-moved-in-several-hours body:  Do you want something to eat or is death so close that food would be wasted?

Me, trying to remember how to use words:  No food...wait...watermelon.  (I was pretty sure I was on death's door, and the idea of watermelon being my last meal seemed like A Good Thing.  I instantly regretted my choice, though, because it meant I had to turn over to eat it and then my daughter stole most of it anyway - apparently there is no moral code when your mother is dying...)

Thankfully, I think I'm going to live, so I wanted to get caught up on some of the horse-related happenings.

The Devil's Backbone
The weather took an unpleasant turn in mid-May and went from the misery of London (cold, rainy, dreary) to the misery of the tropics (hot, sunny, humid) practically overnight, leaving us without any sort of transition.  It was definitely a shock to my system and I suspect, to Nimo's.  That didn't stop us from heading down to Graves Mountain to tackle The Devil's Backbone trail again on the first 90+ degree weekend day we had.  And it was brutal.

You may remember that Nimo and I attempted that trail earlier in the spring but had to turn back because of the trail conditions.  So when I had the opportunity for a guide to take us on the trail again, I couldn't pass it up.  But the new heat and humidity combined with the steepest trail we've ever done made for a Nimo who was the sweatiest I've ever seen.  When I pressed my legs against his sides, I could feel the coating of sweat just pouring off of him.

We took it slow, though, and stopped several times to let the horses take short rests.  But there was no getting around what I estimate to be almost 2 miles of the steepest trail we've been on.  There were no switchbacks, although there were occasional changes in grade that offered brief periods of relief from the climb.  My understanding from local endurance riders is that horses that can handle The Devil's Backbone as well as other trails at Graves Mountain have no trouble with OD endurance rides.  And I now suspect that is likely true, although the Graves Mountain trails are not typically as rocky as the OD trails and The Devil's Backbone may actually have been easier if it had some rocks on it.

I didn't take any pictures of the trail itself because honestly, it doesn't look like much.  It's just a slightly overgrown wide path through the woods that in a picture probably wouldn't look that intimidating or impressive.  I did, however, snap a picture of the view when we were probably 2/3 of the way up the trail:

You can probably get an idea of the steepness by looking at how the height of the trees rapidly changes
I also got a picture when we made it to the top of the mountain:

Yes, there is a picnic table at the top - no one knows how it got there though!
After we got to the top and rested in the shade for a few minutes, we mounted back up and had to turn around to head back the way we'd come.  Normally, The Devil's Backbone is on both sides of the mountain, but recent logging activity and wet weather had made one side of the mountain impassable.  At this point, I can say that going up the trail is actually easier in some ways than going down.  And the descent is what separates this trail from the mountain climb of the OD's 25-mile ride.  At the OD, there is a fair amount of climbing, although only parts of it are as steep as what we did at Graves Mountain.  Once you get to the top at the OD ride, though, there is a flat ridge and then several miles of logging roads to get down.  While those roads are steep for trotting work, they are wide and easily negotiated.  On the Devil's Backbone trail, there is no relief for the horse in terms of being incredibly careful about where he puts his feet.  Nimo, being a downhill horse, seemed to be happier going down, but I felt like I was in a pretty precarious situation the whole way down the mountain because there was no horse in front of me.  The steep trail and challenge in the footing (the ground was wet in some places with slippery Virginia clay and there were sections of the trail that were almost washed out, so there were deep grooves to struggle through) meant Nimo's whole front end was significantly lower than the rest of him and he often had his head down as well.

I admit to being glad that we'd done the trail and equally glad when we made it to the bottom.  We rested the horses in a small stream in the shade for a few minutes and then rode the several miles back to the trailers on what was basically rolling hills or even level terrain.  There was one section of trail that was above a road and it really was a narrow trail with the potential for a horse to slip off the trail and fall down the mountain onto the road, but I didn't even notice how precarious our position was until one of the other riders I was with pointed it out and we had a discussion about it.  I'm not sure if that is a sign of our experience riding in the mountains or just the fatigue of the climb taking its toll on my feeble brain.

There were three of us riding that day and we (and our horses) all made it back to the trailers in good shape after having done about 11 miles.  It was a really good conditioning ride and I admit that I had pushed Nimo a bit to ride in the heat and humidity without much time to get acclimated as part of my decision-making process for whether we would go to the OD 25-mile ride in June.  He did well and I was pleased with how he seemed to recover, but I knew I needed a different kind of test for the following weekend.

Conditioning at Sky Meadows
After checking Nimo's climbing skills in the heat, I wanted to check out his ability to handle climbing and trotting in the heat.  So the weekend after riding at Graves Mountain, I met two other riders at Sky Meadows State Park.  Sky Meadows also has a mountain to climb, but it is not nearly as difficult as anything at Graves Mountain.  It is a shorter climb and it has more variation in the grade, so there are opportunities for the horse to recover a bit rather than have to slog for miles straight up.  I'd ridden with these riders before and I knew they liked to go a bit faster than Nimo and I normally would go, but that was a good thing in this case.

The temperature was not as warm as it had been (I think low- to mid-80s), but the humidity was high.  We ended up doing about 11 miles again at a significantly faster pace up the mountain than we would normally do.  And we did the climb twice.  And Nimo was game and mostly kept up with the other two horses, but I could tell that his recovery at the end of the ride was not good enough.  His heart rate did come down, although a little slower than usual, but what did not come down was his respiration.  He maintained a breaths per minute rate of about 120 for at least 15 minutes and the rate was slow to decrease despite me continually sponging and scraping.  I don't know for sure, but I think that kind of inverted respiration to heart rate would have gotten us a metabolic pull at an endurance ride.  I will say that I was never concerned about him in any way.  Panting is a normal response for him to heat and humidity and heavy work and he was eating his post-ride mash and not displaying any other signs that there was a problem.  He continued to recover in the trailer and seemed completely normal by the time I got him back to the barn.  I did not notice anything post-ride that would lead to believe that I'd pushed him harder than I should have or that he was sore or having any difficulty at all.  Still...

Decision Time - The OD 25
We were now a week out from the OD ride, and I started monitoring the forecast like a crazy, obsessed person.  My mood was completely contingent on the expected high temperature for the ride and the forecast fluctuated from 79 to over 90 during that week.  Finally, two days before the ride, I had to make the call.  The expected high was now 91 degrees and high humidity was also expected.

I knew Nimo could do the trail, but what I didn't know was how he would handle the heat and humidity in terms of pulsing down.  We'd only had about 2 and a half weeks of hot, humid weather at that point and I was concerned that wasn't enough time to acclimate him to it.  When we'd done the first loop of the OD 25 trail the previous fall, it was actually quite humid despite cooler temps in the low-70s, so I figured there was at least a possibility he would be OK, particularly because we'd be able to get through the most challenging part of the trail earlier in the morning.  And I knew that he would not push himself beyond his limits, but as I mentioned above, I thought if he was panting too heavily coming into the vet check, it would automatically trigger a metabolic pull, and I just couldn't handle going through that.  I've written about some struggles I've had with even just overtime and rider option rides in terms of the way vets see Nimo, and I am really uncomfortable with the way that the vets have handled what they perceived as problems that weren't.  I understand that their job is very important and I also understand an overreaction is better than an underreaction, but I knew I would not be up to dealing with a vet insisting on treatment just because Nimo was breathing hard.  Of course, it is entirely possible that I've blown this whole issue out of proportion in my head and I am concerned for nothing.

Regardless, I decided to e-mail the ride secretary and pull Nimo from the ride.  It was one of the hardest things I've done.  I felt that aside from the heat, we were so ready for the ride.  And I knew that there was at least a possibility that we could get a completion.  But I reminded myself that my goal of doing the OD 100 is mine, not Nimo's.  He has been working his butt off for me this year in completely miserable weather, from the rain/sleet/snow at Foxcatcher to the rain and mud at Cheshire to the extreme climb at Graves in the heat and the extreme (for him anyway) speed at Sky Meadows in the humidity.  Also, I really don't handle heat that well anymore.  For both our sakes, I decided to skip the ride and let it be a mystery as to what would have happened if we'd gone.  I was pretty bummed about it because I had friends riding and I wanted to see them do well plus it felt like we'd done all this preparation for nothing.  But as I've posted before, even if we never do another endurance ride, the journey so far has been worth it in terms of all the positive changes we've made in our partnership together as well as Nimo's confidence.

What's Next?
Missing the OD means that our next endurance ride on the schedule will likely be Fort Valley in October.  There is a tiny possibility of doing Ride Between The Rivers in August (it's in WV and often a bit cooler there, making it more doable), but it is a tough time of year for me to get off of work, so I'll have to play it by ear.

Harness Work
In the meantime, I have been getting at least the occasional ground driving session in, and I'm hopeful that I'll have a harness that fits Nimo by the fall.  I ordered the reins in May and they arrived in early June, so I've been excited to try them out several times.  My next steps will be to order things like a neck collar, saddle (name given to what the riders among us might call the surcingle part of the harness), headstall, and then the rest of the harness parts.  I'm ordering things piecemeal in part to spread the cost out and also because I just want to take it slow and make sure each component fits really well as opposed to trying to fit a whole harness at once.

Nimo graduated from the arena to the parking lot in front of the barn
Solving Crime
We are also doing fun stuff like the Glenmore Hunt Murder Mystery ride last weekend.  I rode with a couple of friends as a team.  The way it worked was much like the board game Clue, if you've ever played that (I hadn't).  There were quite a few teams (maybe 20-30) of between 2-10 riders each and we rode around to different "fixtures" on a farm.  At each fixture, we could ask the volunteer a question that identified a potential murderer, weapon, and location.  The volunteer had three cards that listed who was not the murderer, what was not the weapon, and where the murder did not take place.  If our question identified any of the things on the volunteer's cards, he/she could tell us, and we could cross that item off of our list.  We couldn't stay at any one fixture and keep asking questions.  Instead, we had to go to at least one other fixture before coming back.  There were seven fixtures located at the potential murder locations around the farm and the trail that included all the fixtures was probably a couple of miles or so.  We had two hours to figure out who the murderer was, as well as guess the correct weapon and location.

The three of us gamely wandered from fixture to fixture with our team captain formulating our strategy for our guesses because the other two of us were "clueless" (pun absolutely intended).  As our time wound down, the pacing part of my brain kicked in, and my sole contribution to the effort was to make sure we got the maximum number of fixtures in while still making it back to the finish on time. I think I did pretty good.  We made it back at 3:27 when the cut-off was 3:30 and I think we stopped at three fixtures in the last 12 minutes, all while keeping mostly to a walk, with just a short trot to energize everyone:)

Our team did correctly guess the murderer, but we were wrong on the weapon and location.  Still it was kind of a unique way to get 7-8 miles of riding in on a Saturday afternoon, and it was a nice way to break up our conditioning rides.

Nimo thinks he has spotted a clue!  Photo by Glenmore Hunt.

Nimo is tired of standing around waiting for clues and would like to get to the end of the trail!  Photo by Glenmore Hunt.
Nimo's Future Home
And last, but not least, a tiny amount of work has taken place on our much-in-the-future horse farm.  My dad helped us use what is often called a brush hog (e.g. giant lawn mower that can take down shrubs and small trees) to mow the front acre of our property.  It was quite overgrown and I was anxious to uncover what was underneath as well as to start more actively formulating a pasture-development strategy.  We have been hampered by a very wet spring and things finally dried out enough during my parents' visit so that we could get the truck in without danger of getting it stuck.

The Billy Goat, as rented from Home Depot - it has lots of work to do!

My dad showing us how it's done!

We got almost everything mowed, but a sudden storm meant having to leave a little for the next time.
Our next task at the property is to get a shed built.  Back in February when we ordered it, it seemed that June would be a perfectly reasonable time to build it, but time moved more quickly than we expected.  So the shed kit was delivered about 10 days ago and is now in a pile at our house while we figure out where we are going to put it and what we are going to put it on (poured concrete foundation, wood foundation, concrete blocks, concrete footers, bare ground, gravel...the choices are endless!)  I've got ideas of course, so it is merely the "small" matter of implementation.  Hopefully, one way or the other, the thing is built by the end of August, though, because we have a whole bunch of crap to put in it!

So that's it.  The last six weeks have flown by, and I'm hoping things will settle down a bit, so I can start posting regularly again:)