By mid-September, it became clear to me that conditioning for a challenging 30-mile ride in the mountains was just not in the cards. But I still really wanted to go. And then I remembered running into a lady when I was out pretending to condition over the summer (it was hot and we went slow, but we rode!). When she found out that Nimo and I dabbled in limited distance rides, she mentioned that the Old Dominion Endurance Rides organization has a special group that handles drag riding for No Frills, the OD, and Fort Valley and she wondered if I would be interested. Apparently, there have been some issues in the past with people volunteering to drag ride using horses that really aren't fit enough to handle the more challenging terrain, so they are always on the lookout for riders with fit horses. At the time, I was convinced I would be competing Nimo, but by September, drag riding started sounding pretty appealing.
A friend of mine also mentioned it to me as an alternative, and she pointed out that if we volunteered to drag ride, we would have to go. Whereas if we signed up to ride, we could more easily back out if the weather didn't look good or we were just lazy and unmotivated. I thought that was a pretty good point, and I decided that drag riding was the way to go. It's been a while since I've volunteered at a ride, and this solution would allow me to still go to the ride, camp, ride one loop, and get to see familiar faces without the pressure of doing the whole 30 miles.
And in case you are wondering what drag riding is, it is a team of people riding (usually two) who follow reasonably closely behind the last competitor on the trail. The main purpose of the drag riders is to carry a radio to communicate with base camp in the event of an emergency out on trail where medical attention for the horse or rider is necessary. Drag riders can also help riders who are having trouble for whatever reason (horse misbehaving, equipment issues, need moral support, etc.) and pick up lost items on the trail. (I personally have benefited from drag riders on more than one occasion, so I was excited at the prospect of being able to return the favor.)
Very few rides in this area have drag riders. Usually the ride management uses spotters out on the trail to make sure competitors are moving along the trail, but because the OD-sponsored rides (No Frills, the OD, and Fort Valley) are so rugged, the ride managers use a combination of spotters, horse ambulances on the trail, and drag riders to help minimize the risk.
Anyway, a friend and I volunteered to be drag riders for the first loop (17 miles) of the Fort Valley 30-mile ride. I thought it was interesting that each loop for each distance has its own team of drag riders, even though there is quite a bit of overlap between the loops. So, a total of ten teams of drag riders are needed for Fort Valley because there are 30-mile and 50-mile rides over two days (the 50-mile ride has three loops and the 30-mile ride has two loops).
The biggest reason I picked that loop to volunteer for was temperature. October can still be warm and the last time I'd been at the Fort Valley ride, it got into the mid-70s,which is not so great for big, black, unclipped horses with winter coats growing in. I knew we would start our ride at around 8 or 8:30 and be done before noon, barring any emergency on the trail, which would mean I could probably get away with a trace clip for Nimo instead of a full body clip if the temperature was warm.
As the day of the ride approached, my strategy looked like it was going to pay off. The temperature was indeed likely to be in the mid-70s again, so I did a basic trace clip for Nimo to help keep him cool. To be honest, I figured he would be fine without the clip, given our ride would be done before noon, but to address the equine fitness of the drag riders' horses, the OD also insists that all drag horses vet in and vet out according to the same parameters as competitors' horses. So the last thing I wanted was a big horse that was slow to pulse down because I know from experience that it really concerns vets for these rides, and I wanted to make sure there was no risk that Nimo would take a lot of time to pulse down due to heat.
On the morning of October 20th, we headed out for ride camp, in much the same way as we would have done had we been competing.
My friend and I caravaned to the ride and true to form, I missed a turn in Front Royal and ended up causing a minor traffic jam while I figured out a way to turn around. (I consider it important to continue improving my skills for turning and backing up!) We made it the rest of the way to the ride camp without any issues, though, and we got set up pretty quickly. I'm still using cattle panels for Nimo's pen and still loving using the trailer as a camper, which is something new for this year for me.
|Fort Valley ride camp - we are in the row closest to the bottom of the photo in the middle (see the brown trailer with the blue tarp).|
|You can't imagine how hard it was for me not to turn this into my own variation of the Deathly Hallows symbol. I may have to drag ride again solely for that reason!|
Anyway, we did finally get a very short meeting with the drag rider coordinator, which briefly covered how the radios we would carry worked and approximately when we could expect to ride out in the morning, but I still felt a bit rudderless about exactly how things would work in the morning. When I'm doing something new, I definitely appreciate lots of details, but I know not everyone is that way, so I decided not to worry too much, and socialized a bit before tucking Nimo in and heading off to bed.
The next morning dawned crisp, although I knew it would warm up quickly. I wandered around in search of horse water and while I was doing that, the loudspeaker crackled and requested that all drag riders report to the start line. I wasn't sure why because we still had about half an hour before we were supposed to be ready to leave. The plan was that we would start a few minutes after the last 30-mile competitor, but before the ride & tie competitors, so probably around 8:15, given that the start time for the 30-mile ride was 8:00 and the start time for the ride & tie was 8:20. It was at that moment that I realized the start line wasn't where I thought it was. Thankfully, I saw some familiar faces and asked the stupid question, so that I could discover it was literally 100 feet behind me...(Look, I hadn't had any coffee, OK?)
I reported as requested and it turned out that the call was really for the 50-mile drag riders who had not shown up yet. I grumbled a bit in my head about the need for more specificity and headed back to the trailer to get Nimo ready.
At 8:10-ish, we reported to the start line and got our radio, and then we headed down the trail at 8:15-ish. Nimo and I have ridden this loop twice before - once as part of an Intro ride and once as part of the full 30-mile ride. But it wasn't until I got on the trail and we headed up the mountain that I realized I had been squishing down some fairly heavy anxiety about this ride. If you've been a reader for a long time, you might remember that the Fort Valley 30-mile ride was our first limited distance ride. And it did not go particularly well for the first 9 miles. In fact, it was brutal and it easily ranks among the top five most miserable experiences of my life. After the first nine miles, Nimo settled because we got a partner to ride with and the rest of the ride was fairly uneventful, albeit exhausting.
But those nine miles...the memories from them have stuck with me and they all started coming to the surface. The biggest issue had been that Nimo unexpectedly turned into a fire-breathing dragon, most likely because we got separated from the lady we were supposed to ride with in the crazed start, and Nimo ended up without a buddy. He was hysterical about being "alone" and we got passed so much. And each time, he got more and more frantic. Holding him back took every ounce of strength that I had, and I even got off at one point because I thought he was behaving dangerously next to a drop-off on a very steep section of trail. Luckily, we ended up being able to ride with another lady starting at about mile 9 and that solved the behavior issue, but I was so dehydrated and exhausted by that point that 21 more miles really sucked the life out of me (and Nimo, who was pretty tired at the end of the ride, when we came in 7 minutes overtime).
Anyway, I did the best I could to continue squashing the memories. I knew Nimo was a different horse and I was a more experienced rider and we had a buddy, so there really wasn't any reason for this particular anxiety.
|Photo by Becky Pearman. We have just come up the mountain for the first time and turned onto a flat ridge.|
My memories of Fort Valley were that there were some really rocky bits, but that overwhelmingly the trail was not that bad. But I hadn't remembered all the rocks at the OD either, so I was definitely questioning my memory.
The worst section of trail was the one on the backside of the mountain we climbed at the start of the ride. Both previous boot issues had occurred on that section, so I was anxious for two reasons as we descended - one was the hoof boots coming off and the other was remembering how crazy Nimo had been.
Normally Nimo tends to go downhill at a pretty good clip, even at the walk, but with all the big rocks, he was picking his way through carefully (which I fully support, by the way). Unfortunately, my friend's horse is gaited and moved a bit faster through that section, so Nimo started to jig a bit to keep up instead of just walking faster. My heart rate was going up and I could not snap myself out of the anxiety. Finally I realized all I had to do was to ask my friend to slow her horse a bit through that section. So I did, and then we all slowed down a little and it was fine.
We made it down the mountain without incident. Near the bottom, we came upon three ride & tie horses that were standing riderless and tied to trees next to the trail. While we had been specifically told that we were not to stay behind the ride & tiers (I'm not sure why), I couldn't shake the feeling that we should wait for them, if for no other reason than to stay out of their way because they were trying to compete. As luck would have it, all three riders were coming up behind us, so we pulled off the trail to wait for them to mount and head out.
The plan was to let the horses get a couple minutes ahead of us to avoid leapfrogging too much. (I felt guilty if we impeded anyone's progress down the trail.) So the three horses headed out down the trail while my friend and I asked our horses to wait. My friend's horse was not super happy about this decision and he fussed a bit. Nimo, on the other hand, stood still as a rock on a loose rein. I mean, it was almost epic the way he never moved while he watched those horses leave him behind. And I realized how very, very critical it is for him to have a buddy on the trail. He is absolutely a different horse. Even though his buddy was not acting the best, the security of knowing that horse was with him allowed him to focus on me and remain calm in away that was the polar opposite of the last time we'd been on this trail.
My anxiety definitely started to ebb at that point, but it surprised me that even though it had been three years since we'd been on that trail, I remembered it like it was yesterday. Every turn, every straight section, the creek. Every section of trail was imbued with the emotion I'd felt during our last ride. I remembered where one of Nimo's hoof boots came loose. I remembered where he tried to gallop to keep up with riders who passed us. I remembered where we kept pace with a lady and her daughter for awhile but lost them when they speeded up in the woods. I remembered where I'd gotten off because Nimo was losing his mind. I remembered where I tried to get back on but couldn't because Nimo was losing his mind. I remembered where the ride & tier came up behind me and asked if I needed help (yes!) and I remembered where the last competitor on the trail came up to us and we agreed to ride together.
And then finally, the intense memories were over after the first nine miles and I was able to start enjoying the ride. Nimo was steady, as was my friend's horse, and we covered the trail at a trot for the most part, although we did some walking too just so we didn't go too fast and so we could look around for things like lost hoof boots and whips and cell phones. (My goal was to try to stick to a 5 mph pace, so we would stay behind the competitors without catching up, so we didn't seem like we were pushing anyone.)
It seemed like such a short time and we were back at the base of the mountain, ready to climb it and then descend it back into camp. We did end up holding for a bit at the base of the mountain because a group of Intro riders was coming down and a motorcycle/dirt bike was waiting to go up. (The ride uses motorcyclists to place and pull trail markings.) It was kind of funny because the motorcyclist asked if our horses would be OK when he started his bike and rode up the mountain. There really wasn't a way to get much distance from him, so I told him that we'd find out:) But both horses barely flinched when the motorcycle started and moved past them up the mountain. We waited about 5 seconds and then headed up after him.
The climb was as difficult as I remember it being, but the horses did it pretty steadily. We did stop in the middle for just a couple of minutes because my friend's horse looked like he needed a break.
|It was hard to capture the view as we climbed because there was still foliage on the trees, but it was lovely in person.|
While I replaced the boot, I can't count how many people passed us in both directions. It was like Grand Central Station as the 50-milers started their second loop and a few ride & tiers finished their first. Nimo stood so still through the whole thing. And I was able to use either a rock or a stump to get back on (I honestly can't remember, but there was almost like a mini-camp site there with stuff that was perfect for impromptu mounting blocks).
Then we followed the trail along the ridge and headed down the mountain. Nimo was so ready to trot all the way down, just as he had during our last ride, but my friend thought that was nuts, so we walked quite a bit of it. (The trail is a gravel road, so I think it is pretty inviting for trotting, but the grade is quite steep in a few places, which definitely intimidated me the first time I rode it.)
And by 11:30, we were done. Nobody had lost anything of significance on the trail (that we saw anyway), no one had needed any medical help (thank goodness!), and all the riders that started made it back. It took us 3 hours and 15 minutes to do 17 miles, which was pretty much the 5 mph pace I'd hoped for, although a little slower than we would have needed to do if we'd been competing. We definitely putzed around in a few places, though, so it wouldn't have been hard to shave at least 15 minutes off.
We got our in times and then headed back to the trailer to untack and wait for a bit before vetting in. A group of riders was at the vetting area when we arrived, and I didn't want to interfere with them. So we fed the horses and made sure they had water and then did the same for ourselves before heading over to vet in.
Nimo was looking good and recovering well, so I didn't expect any problems during the vetting process. I was pretty surprised, though, when the vet said, "He doesn't look like he worked very hard." At first, I thought maybe he was kidding, and then I realized he was serious. I am kicking myself for not requesting my rider card back, so I don't know what his CRI was, but it was low enough that along with all the A's he got on the other criteria (including good gut sounds in all 4 quadrants - yay!) the vet told me that he didn't think Nimo would have any trouble with the second loop of the ride. Which was probably the best thing I could have heard. I actually would not have attempted it because I don't think Nimo's conditioning was good enough to do the second loop in that temperature (if it had been 20 degrees cooler, though...), but it was still awesome to hear.
And so ended my experience drag riding for the Fort Valley 30-mile ride, and I am so glad that I did it. If I had tried to do the ride itself, I would likely have scratched because of the temperature or lack of conditioning, and that horrible last experience I had would still be hanging over my head for another year. Now I can see that as long as Nimo has a buddy, we are good (just the same as any other ride, really). And I'm hoping that the next time (yes, there will be a next time!) we go to Fort Valley, we will be able to get a completion:)