Friday, December 27, 2013

What I will remember about the 2013 North American Endurance Team Challenge

On December 8-9, Virginia experienced our first icestorm of the season and subsequent power outages, mainly in the mountains and Northern Virginia. My job involves compiling statewide outage totals from 13 member electric cooperatives, so Monday was a LOONG day at the office with our regulatory agency requesting an initial report by 6 a.m. Luckily, I'm an early riser and chipper in the morning, a useful trait for endurance riders as well!

Two mornings later, with most folks' lights back on, my husband dropped me off for a 6:30 a.m. flight to volunteer as a timer's helper at the North American Endurance Team Challenge.

This biannual event helps develop our nation's horses, riders and crews who compete at the FEI (Federation Equestrian International) level and was being hosted by Helen Koehler and the folks at Goethe State Forest south of Gainesville. Helen built the opening ceremony theme around 2013 as the 500th anniversary of the discovery of Florida by Desoto, with descendants of Spanish Barbs and Pasos becoming the native "Cracker" horse.

I looked forward to seeing many friends from AERC's Southeast, Northeast, Mountain and Central regions as well as from across the north and south borders: Megan Savory Davis helped loan horses to form Team Mexico and several dozen Canadians made the trek from the Frozen White North. Among the 15 Canadian riders were Kim Woolley and Ziggy, Nancy Zukewich and Luba and Dessia Miller with her stallion Farley and Farley's half sister Kiera (same mare I rode in Canada on Labor Day weekend, now piloted by 17-year old Stephanie McLeod) who all overnighted at my place just before bad weather hit on their long drive down.

Arriving in sunny Florida, I had a chance to talk with past AERC President Connie Caudill over lunch while we waited for Texas vets Carter Hounsel and Dennis Seymore to arrive. (Their flight was about an hour later than mine.) Connie shared highlights of the AERC board's response to proposed changes to FEI rules, with which I heartily agreed.

For those unfamiliar with how international endurance competitions have evolved in recent years, the fast flat courses of major overseas events (along with supremely focused training and maybe some beta-blockers that don't easily test) have sliced by hours the winning time for 160km events so that they are now regularly below 8 hours and usually won by a rider from the Mideast (or possibly France, Spain or Italy who each have well developed national endurance programs).

In 2011, the speed requirement to obtain a Certificate of Capability (required to compete at the international level) was increased to 14 kilometers per hour: 8 hours, 35 minutes for a 120km/75-mile ride and 11:25 for a 160km/100-mile ride. Many NAETC riders hoped to complete in time to earn a "COC" for their horse.

Putting those speeds in perspective, my "once in a lifetime" horse Shiloh completed just one 100 in his 5,000+ mile career that included almost 20 19 100 milers at this speed (10 hours at JDs). Little Gryphon's first 100, as fast as his small frame could handle and on a flat trail with optimum weather, took 12:44.

Nonetheless, the U.S. founded the sport of endurance and many of us remain hopeful that our nation will one day again earn a team medal if not an individual medal at an upcoming World Endurance Championship (2014's being set for a fairly technical course in Tarbes France). Valerie Kanavy was the last U.S. rider to win gold at WEC in 1996, although Meg Sleeper finished the 2012 WEC in 11th place on Syrocco Cadence with an impressive ride time of 7:49.

Personally, I'm impressed with how many nations - even unlikely ones such as Japan and Costa Rica - have successfully embraced our sport. As with the Olympics, big international events still allow the meeting of new friends and mixing of cultures and love of the horse in a way that promotes peace, understanding and acceptance. But there's no avoiding the concern that the international playing field is now inherently unfair, with sponsorships and subsidies from the Middle East leading veterinarians and officials looking the other way on rules, especially regarding horse welfare. Humane issues must be our top priority in a sport where the horse portion of the team has no voice other than the concern of its rider and crew.

On Friday, Dec. 13, the 2013 NAETC dawned crisp, breezy and post-card perfect, with very few pulls until late in the day, virtually no metabolic pulls and a substantial percentage (40 of 68) horses completing. But in years to come, what will also be remembered about this event is the untimely passing of Braveheart, the 13 hand rescue horse turned FEI champ who'd suffered some form of major episode in the final miles of the ride (possibly neurological and/or metabolic difficulties) and never regained full consciousness after being sedated for the trailer ride to receive medical help.

As a ride volunteer, I had access to visual and anecdotal information that help me sympathize with the horse's owner and rider while at the same time being haunted by what I might have done had I been in their place. During awards, DVM Dwight Hooten assured all present that a full necropsy and analysis would be done on Braveheart to better understand what exactly happened and if it might have been prevented through better management and veterinary controls. I'd heard earlier in the week that the low potassium levels were showing up on voluntary bloodwork done on many horses who traveled cross-country to attend, and many crews remarked how much electrolytes they used on their horses during ride day, despite the cool temperatures.

With the first horses finishing the NAETC course before 8pm, I was thrilled to see what speed and consistency U.S. horses and riders are capable of,  starting with Jeremy Reynolds who reportedly was running beside his horse running for part of the day and set blistering pace of 1 hour 5 minutes on the final 14.8 mile loop. He finished first just ahead of Nicki Meuten and her amazing mare Not Tonight (Nellie). This was Nellie's 10th straight 100 mile completion, an amazing accomplishment, and Nicki told me that their partnership had developed to the point that she let Nellie set the pace, knowing how just how fast she could safely go. Were it not for a lack of a headlamp to make up for missing glow sticks on the last loop, Nicky and Nellie might have kept their lead, but they were philosophical.

Third and fourth were Kelsey Russell and Valerie Kanavy on Gold Medal farm horses. Kelsey and Irish earned best condition the next morning, and at age 67 Valerie is still a force to be reckoned with! Also in Top Ten were Kyle Gibbon and Steve Rojek, the consummate endurance professionals and gentlemen, along with my pal Natalie Muzzio from Virginia. While the Southeast earned Team Gold, Northeast earned both Silver and Bronze team medals.

When I think back on NAETC in years to come, I will hope that Braveheart's passing marked the start of a new era in use of our collective experience and technology to PROTECT horses. I'll also recall how fantastic some horses looked the "morning after" this ultimate test of a horse and rider's fitness: here's Kyle Gibbon presenting for Best Condition: Would you have guessed that less than 12 hours earlier, they'd finished a deep-sand 100?? Horse doesn't look a bit tucked up although the rider has a bit of "bed head" ;0

Tuesday, December 3, 2013

Gryphon Soars at his first 100 Miler!

For many East Coast endurance riders, Thanksgiving weekend means a trip to J.D.'s Ride in South Carolina. Ride manager J.D. Fountain learned about endurance more than 30 years ago, and soon after began hosting AERC-sanctioned rides, first out of his own backyard and then from Whitehaven Arabian Plantation, where I first began attending this ride back in 2000. Haven't missed it since because I am most definitely NOT a Black Friday shopper!

For the past several years, J.D.'s basecamp has been on his several acres of raw land along Hartsville-Ruby Road, near Sand Hills State Forest Trails and just across from "The Winery" (a long-since-closed maker of such fine vintages as Wild Irish Rose and Boone's Farm).

I packed early for this ride because I'd be spending Thanksgiving Day with the in-laws, which involved a 7- hour round trip but was well worth the drive. We brought a full bushel of oysters from Virginia's record harvest and every one was devoured.

Early on Friday morning, my friend Jaber Al-Marri from Qatar, an Economics major at American University, drove down from D.C. to meet me. We were on the road by 6 a.m. with Gryphon and Shiloh in tow.

Arriving at basecamp before noon, we parked beside my friend Lisa Green's rig and right next to the crewing area. Jaber and I went for a 3-mile warm up ride, with calm and steady Shiloh leading Gryphon past some scary large mules who were pastured nearby. After test riding my saddles, Jaber decided to use the treeless Ansur for Shiloh.

Shiloh vetted in at a heart rate of 32 and Gryphon at 36. The forecast was perfect and there ended up being 15 of us entered in the 100 miler. As nightfall set in and temperatures began to drop, we blanketed the horses and headed over to BBQ dinner around a bonfire. I passed around a tin of homemade Christmas cookies for dessert, and J.D. gave us his usual disjointed but entertaining ride briefing.

Lisa's 14-year-old son Ridge, Jaber and I were snuggled under the covers before 8 pm and we all slept soundly as temps dropped to the mid-20s. I woke at 5 am to feed and brew a cup of decent coffee using a drop cord and my coffee pot brought from home, going back inside my trailer frequently during the tacking up process to warm my hands and feet in front my Mr Buddy propane heater.  The cold weather meant using a rump rug and Gryphon ended up not needing a single drop of water for cooling all day - a first for me after years of crewing big Shiloh!

J.D.'s 100 has 3 loops that are each repeated twice, with the first 88 or so miles in the state forest. I followed my old friend Debbie McClary and her horse Traveler on the first 25-mile white loop, which is followed by a 13.7 green that uses much of the same trail as white. Gryphon finished these in good time (nearly 10 mph pace) and we headed out on the 3rd loop (repeat of white 25 miles) before 1 pm. Debbie was going faster than me at this point so I ended up riding that loop with aother old friend, Amy Whelan who was helping her 12-year-old daughter Annie tackle her first 100. We made great time, including several stops for the horses to eat hay J.D. had left along the trail.

After Amy's horse got pulled at the 3rd hold, Nicky Meuten and Annie's older sister Josie waited a few minutes to take over as Annie's sponsors. This meant four of us headed out on the green 4th loop just after 5 pm. As darkness fell, we caught up to Claire Godwin whose horse Reveille was very competitive. As a result, we ended up moving out a bit faster than my comfort level - little Gryphon was practically galloping to keep up with the bigger horses, some of whom were still trotting.

Our faster pace caught us up to Debbie McClary just as we reached Nicky's crew who were carrying food and water for the horses in their truck. Neither of us had much "brakes" on our horses (I had switched to a hackamore to make it easier for G to eat and drink on trail and she just had reins clipped to her halter), so we agreed to hold back from the other riders, using our horses as company for each other.

All day long, heat vet Amy Spies was generous with her praise for Gryphon, who had mostly A's and CRIs of 52/52 or 56/56, with lots of impulsion at every trot out. He kept eating, drinking and relaxing well at each hold and my using BCAA's mixed with honey in addition to his regular electrolytes seemed to be helping his energy levels. During the 5th loop, which was just 11 miles, Debbie and I ended up passing Nicky and the Whelan girls when they stopped on trail for their crew (Claire's horse had been pulled). I'm especially grateful to my friends Jennifer Smith and Kelly Lane, who set up shop in a church parking lot halfway through the 5th/6th loops and dispensed hot food and cheer to all us 100-milers who were showing signs of DIMR ("Distance Induced Mental Retardation"). Like many riders who get a touch of motion sickness when using headlamps to ride after dark, I was feeling a bit queasy each time I saw them but gulping some salty chicken soup fixed me right up.

By 9:30 pm we were headed out on our last loop, finishing just after 11:15 pm in 4th and 5th place (Traveler had set the pace and led most of the day so I didn't think it fair to tie). As we neared the finish line, I felt tears forming at the corners of my eyes, so proud was I of the little rescue horse who had come so far since his first LD ride just a year ago. At the completion exam he trotted out almost as fresh as at the vet in. My friend Jenny Poling, who along with Jaber helped crew for me all evening, said "I think you've found your 100 miler!" We blanketed Gryphon well and I was snuggled under the covers before midnight.

The next morning, much to my amazement I wasn't at all stiff or sore. Gryphon is a truly comfortable horse to ride and looked happy and chipper as well. After so many years of trying to find a horse who could take Shiloh's place and do 100s with ease, my dream had come true.

For 2014 I'm planning at least two 100s for my G-unit, keeping in mind that while he'll never be able to cover ground as fast as those FEI horses, he'll do every mile with a smile!

Friday, November 15, 2013

My Three Horses at Fort Valley

October 26, 2013 was a special day among my hundreds of endurance memories. All three of my chestnut horses finished the scenic but tough Fort Valley ride! Hunter Green rode Siena beautifully, taking the place of his brother Forest, who wanted to go bow hunting instead and eventually did shoot a great big buck.

My old friend Dawn Engle Hilliard borrowed 21-year-old Shiloh so she could accompany her husband Dean as he and his horse did a slow and easy limited distance ride to earn their Triple Crown. Shiloh looks gorgeous in this photo! And now he's fit enough to come back to Virginia for a season of foxhunting.
And my little rescue horse Gryphon proudly led Siena and my friend Liz' mare Q all day long on the 50 mile trail, with Janet French on her Paso accompanying us up until the last loop when she slowed up a bit. I truly savored every mile!

FEI Ride Management for Dummies

While I've competed at "Federation Equestrien Internationale" sanctioned events for more than a decade, and managed several AERC sanctioned rides, the Sand Hills Stampede CEI events on October 19 marked my first foray into FEI ride management. I don't recommend it for the faint of heart, but knowing I helped a total of 38 senior and young riders try to qualify themselves and their horses for future FEI events provided ample satisfaction.

It all began a year ago, shortly after the AERC National Championships at the Biltmore Estate in Asheville, NC. AERC-International Zone Rep Lynn Kenelly and I were discussing the new FEI speed requirement to obtain a "Certificate of Capability," a 14 kilometer per hour average. We agreed this would be difficult, if not dangerous for horses to earn on the twists and turns of the Biltmore course in Asheville, NC, one of the few FEI rides in the Southeast, and agreed that the trails at Sand Hills State Forest near Cheraw, SC could provide a safer option.

With help from Vonita Bowers at USEF, I paid a $600 filing fee and they generously covered the late fee, for not filing a full year before the event date. Over the winter I began developing entry forms and drafting the definite schedule, which lists all the required FEI ride staff, as well as details such as loop length and inspection schedule. Again, Vonita was a big help and the definite schedule was approved by May. In July, just after posting entry forms as a link on the AERC ride calendar page, I learned that endurance was the next sport to convert to online registration using Because Sand Hills was the very first U.S. FEI ride to be held after the October 1, 2013 effective date, USEF allowed me to have riders submit paper entries as usual, which I then submitted to USEF via Excel spreadsheet. Most riders were great about submitting entries by the Oct. 5 deadline, but I ended up being grateful even for the late entries since they helped me come somewhat close to breaking event. Although much of the up-front fees were covered by a $1,000 grant from AERC-International (which I've joined/supported since 2000), after event fees are @ $70 per horse, nearly $3,000 for the 38 entries we ended up receiving in the 4 events (senior and young rider 88km and 120 km divisions). I'm very grateful to my FEI veterinarians - Duane Barnett, Ken Marcella, Art King, Heather Caplan and Liv Rudolphi, as well as my FEI officials who basically worked for free except for a little to cover travel: Jack Weber, John Proudman, Susan Kasemeyer and Adri McCaskill. I'm most grateful to my old pal Patsy Gowen, the AERC ride manager who helped establish this venue more than a decade ago - she and her local friends handled all the trail markings, meals, and other logistics.

Ride day started with a steady rain that followed the 55 and 75-mile riders out of camp. It soon ended, and full sun never broke out, so temperatures stayed decently cool. By the second hold we could tell that the completion rate was going to be really high! Only one of the 20 in the CEI** and three of the 10 in the CEIJY** did not complete, and all of these were for minor lameness - no metabolic pulls!  We did have a couple freak accidents in which two riders - one of them Hunter Green's girlfriend Emilynn DeBassie at right - were hurt enough to need to be rushed to the hospital. I spoke with both ladies Sunday and they'll be back in the saddle again soon.

One surprise was that only about 5 horses in the 75 completed early enough to earn a COC - I thought the trail would be faster, but many must have chose to take it easy and build in breaks during the long 26-mile second loop. Afterwards, Patsy, Duane and I agreed to work on rerouting future FEI events so that no loop is longer than 21-22 miles.

I'd really enjoyed working with Patsy when we co-managed the 2010 AERC National Championships at this same basecamp, with generous vendors and sponsors providing lots of creativity for awards. Trying to keep costs down, I only offered one special award other than Best Condition blankets, a chestnut horse ornament in honor of Kathy Brunjes, who represented the U.S. in many FEI events and actively contributed to our sport in so many ways before her untimely passing just a year ago due to cancer. Barbara Hershberger, who also received BC in the CEI**, received my Brunjes award for having the first chestnut to finish in that distance.

For me, the scariest part of managing an FEI event was the results reporting. Results must be provided to USEF within 10 days or ride management faces a big fine. I had a busy week ahead at work and a full day of driving my friend's rig back to Virginia as a favor to her, and needed to get this task taken care of BEFORE leaving South Carolina. Stubborn as I am, I broke down crying late Saturday night while trying to enter number after number, into the results spreadsheet, which is supposed to show the amount of time each rider took to do each loop, as well as their average speed in kilometers for each loop. The finish times have to be to the second and all the speeds reported to 2 decimal places. I've always had tons of respect for timers like Laurie Underwood, who stay calm, cool and collected keeping track of riders' in-times and out-times coming in fast succession. Patsy, seeing how stressed I was, ran to find Laurie, who was still awake. She patiently read me numbers (so much easier that having to keep switching one's focus from computer screen to handwritten paper notes) and by 1:30 am we had the essential information on my computer, ready for me to polish when I got back to the office.



Wednesday, October 23, 2013

Mary's Little Mountain Goat at the Finger Lakes

The Northeast Region hosted a new ride this year, the Hector Half Hundred, located on one of the Finger Lakes near Watkins Glen, New York. I couldn't resist going; I've loved this area ever since I was accepted to Cornell University nearly 30 years ago (my dad sensibly insisting on in-state tuition rates at U.Va.)

To break up the long trek north, I loaded up my mare Siena on Thursday after work, reaching the Engle's home in Fairfield, PA just before dark. There I enjoyed Susan's delicious potato soup while my semi-retired horse Shiloh and Siena had a joyful reunion. I decided to take Shiloh along as a buddy horse, with hopes of squeezing in a short conditioning ride once I'd set up camp. Fall color abounded the further north we got. Basecamp was a grassy field overlooking Lake Seneca, with dozens of wineries all around us.

I lost no time in saddling up Shiloh for a short ride to check out the trails, which were spectacular, reluctantly turning back at the 3 mile mark when a heavy rainstorm struck.

Changing into dry clothes, I took a short nap then went to the vet in where I saw that Pam Karner, the head vet and ride manager, was taking temperatures as an extra step (thermometer goes in horse's anus.)  Having never been "temped," Siena was quite squirrelly until I ran back to fetch good ole Shiloh, the perfect buddy horse.

At the ride briefing, Pam explained that she'd received word the previous evening that because of the federal government shutdown, they'd lost use of 30 miles of trail in the Finger Lakes National Forest. The re-routed trail was mostly road, with a fair amount of out-and-back that repeated, but we all enjoyed it immensely. I rode the first two loops with Libby Llop and her young mare May Fly before they were pulled, then continued on the last loop with Sallie Sullivan and Ivan, ending up somewhere around 7th place. It was Sallie who dubbed 800 pound Siena my little mountain goat. It was the first competition I've had a chance to do with her this year, and delighted with her vet scores, I waited to present for Best Condition before leaving. She was slightly girthy on her left side and I was far enough behind the front runners that I didn't have much chance of receiving this award, but was very happy that she received 9 out of 10 on soundness and impulsion.

On the return trip, I reached the Engels by 10 p.m. and got a good night's rest. After helping Dennis fetch 25 bales of hay, I left Siena at the Engels and logged the last 200 miles home with Shiloh on board - arriving in time for a lovely afternoon boating with my husband Shan and our dog Ginger.

I sure hope I'll be able to return to this ride NEXT year and see those 30 miles of trail we didn't have a chance to enjoy this time...

Friday, September 27, 2013

Third Time's the Charm

At the finish of both AERC and FEI endurance riding competitions, each horse must be examined and found "fit to continue" by the ride veterinarians, both in soundness and metabolics, before being awarded a completion. While I've escaped being pulled at the end of a ride since 1999, this past month I got to complete three weekends in a row only to get pulled at the finish of the first two endurance rides and barely squeak by at the third! Fortunately these pulls were for minor lameness issues that were quickly resolved, rather than a serious metabolic problem, and helped add to my cache of endurance wisdom.

Virginia Highlands 55-mile ride - I arrived midway through the first day of this rugged two-day ride near Ivanhoe, Virginia and helped with those finishing the 25 mile distance while waiting for my riding companion Liz Stout to arrive. She brought along her Siberian Husky Kenai, who was recovering from surgery on both his back legs and spent much of the weekend resting in his big crate.

We used Liz's SUV to set up our crewing area at the away hold (ride managers Don and Nicky Meuten's mountaintop retreat, a little slice of heaven!) After grabbing a late lunch, we took the horses out on a "tack check"test ride during which I realized I needed to purchase a second running martingale to control eager little Gryphon, who was super-fit after finishing eight endurance competitions already this year.

Ride morning went smoothly, with Gryphon and Siena traveling happily together down the trail. We took our time on the first loop because portions of trails were quite muddy from afternoon rain showers the day before. I really enjoyed the 24-mile second loop, which had one long hard climb but lots of places to canter along on good footing. Ride management provided horse and people refreshments at the 15 minute hold halfway through this loop, where we learned that six of the front runners had missed a key turn, putting us mid-pack riders in Top 10 position.

At the second hold, I retrotted Siena for Liz when her vet thought he saw a slight hitch in her right hind, then massaged her butt muscles and inner thighs while she ate, just to be on the safe side. Coating back to basecamp on the final loop, we had less than 8 miles left to go when Gryphon started trotting with a noticeable hitch as we made our way up another long climb. Hopping off, I repeated the massage process I'd done on Siena, telling Liz we'd walk the uphills in hopes the cramp would work out. Gryphon was eager to go and would trot smoothly for several hundred yards, then cramp would return. As a glumly headed down a final hill to the finish line. I explained my plan to Liz: get Siena her completion right away (which was 6th place) and use the whole 60 minutes you have to present for completion at an AERC ride to work on Gryphon's cramp.

With help from old friend Mary Farris, we did more massage and stretching exercises plus gave Gryphon her special electrolyte mix in case the cramp stemmed from a body chemistry imbalance. All to no avail! Gryphon has a big heart but a scrawny hind end for scaling all the climbs on a mountain ride like this. The vets complemented his overall metabolics and muscle tone, telling me to administer paste banamine and that he should clear up quickly (which he did - completely sound when I checked on them around midnight). I also presented Siena for Best Condition just for practice, and she looked great!

My friend Dee Dee in Roanoke kept both of my horses for the next 10 days, since I was going to be out of town much of the time and it would save them much of the haul out to the Big South Fork two weeks after Highlands. I returned home to a new retraining project, a 12-year old mare called Serenata who hadn't been ridden much in some years. Her owner had asked for my help in getting her back under saddle and finding her a good home, and I made excellent progress in just 4 days.

Serenata got the weekend off as I traveled to Ottawa, Canada for the two day Stormont FEI ride hosted by Dessia Miller, whom I'd met at the Broxton Ride in February. Dessia is a trainer who also  breeds Arabians on her farm, and I really enjoyed getting to see what life is like in Ontario province. While the food was wonderful and the terrain not much different than, everything cost a lot more. Two 3 lb. bags of ice, a little bottle of soda and small bag of chips was $12!

Dessia's place was just 2 miles from basecamp, so on Friday afternoon she rode her stallion and I rode his half-sister Amber Kiera over for the vet in. I was worried about being able to steer Keiera and make her go smoothly down trail, as she acted quite green, but Dessia's friend Kim Wooley on her mare Ziggy agreed to lead me around the 75-mile course. After heavy rain that evening, we had warm dry weather for ride great day, pacing well with the horses receiving excellent vet scores at each check.

At the very last check, around 7 p.m., vet Art King noted some interference marks on Kiera's inside back fetlocks and suggested I add boots. Not realizing she'd never had any on before, I accepted a brand new pair still with the tag on from Dessia and was unprepared when Kiera reacted strongly, kicking out as if the boots were stinging bees and pulling the sweaty reins through my hands to run through camp. Although she was quickly caught and we finished tacking, I could feel a slight lameness as we headed out into the growing dust for the last 12 mile loop. I switched diagonals and rode as carefully as a I could, but was far from surprised when the vet committee let me know we wouldn't get a completion. All the ride staff were very sympathetic, while I was philosophical, noting that my main reason for attending this event was to gain insights for managing the Sand Hills CEI event the following month.

Dessia later told me she that Kiera had developed a minor case of scratches (irritated skin on the back side of the pastern) that she thought may have also been a factor in our lameness pull. On Sunday, since my flight didn't leave until late afternoon, I enjoyed helping crew for Dessia on her stallion in the 75-mile ride and several others - so many of us Americans were there, including Mary Farris, Lynn Kennelly and Cheryl Van Deusen from the Southeast region that I felt right at home. I especially enjoyed getting to talk with Dave Augustine and Meg Sleeper during one of her holds in the 100-mile event, which she and her amazing little mare Syrocco Cadence won by a large margin.

Back in the U.S., I spend several days at a regional work conference in Norfolk, catching up with some friends who live in that area, before setting off on the 600 mile trek to Oneida, Tennessee for Eric Reuter's Big South Fork ride. I only had a chance to do this trail twice before, in 2002 and 2007, and was really looking forward to seeing those spectacular trails again.

Arriving at Dee Dee's farm around 3pm Friday, I found Gryphon and Siena looking well rested and happy to load for another adventure. We didn't arrive at basecamp 10 pm, but Eric was waiting for me with my registration packet. With help from Mary Farris' boyfriend Ranger, I quickly set up my horse pen and managed a good night's sleep before rising early to vet in and start the 50-mile ride on Gryphon.

He felt sound and forward on the first loop, which featured was even more beautiful than I remembered, especially the 100-yard wise crossing of the Big South Fork River. I vetted through with longtime friends Bonnie from NC and Claire from SC, but decided to slow down and walk any  hills, concerned that Gryphon's muscle cramp might resurface if I pushed too hard. Despite this caution, I felt him start hitching with his hind as we neared the end of the second loop. I hopped off and massaged it, resigned in case our day ended early. But he felt sound the last 1/4 mile into camp, so I went ahead and electrolyted before vetting in hopes that would help. Vet Otis Schmitt noted a minor intermittent issue on the right hind, but thought Gryphon was sound enough to continue. Phew! I gave more electrolytes before heading out, this time with Tamra Schoech and Sudi Leinhart who setting a slower pace in the 100. Mike Everett suggested using BCAAs and I vowed to buy some once I was back in camp.

Gryphon had shared a feed tub with Tamra's Rushcreek gelding at the first hold, and as each of our three horses took turns leading I was thrilled that he stayed sound as the loop progressed. Ken Marcella pronounced him sound at the finish and I shared my concern about his right hind. Since we were 6th (even though I'd taken my time most of the day!), Ken urged me take advantage of the Best Condition exam at the end of that hour. After 40 minutes of eating and resting, Gryphon moved out energetically and looked completely sound. Phew! But I'm going to start using BCAAs and see if that solves the muscle issue. Now Gryphon will get 7 weeks off (just light riding) and I'm looking forward to taking Siena to our first endurance ride together this year.

Wednesday, August 7, 2013

Ride Between the Rivers...or David keeps up with Goliath

Early on a Friday morning in early August, I loaded Gryphon in my rig and headed west on I-64, then south on I-81 to rendezvous with my longtime pal Jonie Brucker in Natural Bridge. Jonie had her 8-year old gelding Ghost, whom she bred and raised on her North Carolina farm along with Ghost's full sister, my 5-year old mare Siena. It was as if Gryphon knew Ghost was his pasturemate's big brother! They got along great despite the size disparity - Ghost being 5 inches taller and 350 lbs. heavier than Gryphon. 

This was Jonie's first time tackling Ride Between the Rivers in Randolph County (also known as "the Moonshine Ride"), and we agreed to use her larger rig and F-450 to travel the rest of the way, with my job being to help navigate all the twists and turns. It took three hours to travel just 165 miles, but we were rewarded with gorgeous views. Afternoon was spent setting up camp - we'd be able to crew from our trailer! - and visiting with friends and tack vendor Teddy Lancaster. We also went on a short ride and practiced crossing the Tygart River, during which time ride photographer Becky Pearman did me the favor of shooting some video for use in a work project about what co-op staff do in their free time.

Ride morning dawned cool and foggy. After Ghost saw several front runners gallop out of camp, it took about 5 miles for him to settle into a medium trot. Gryphon did his best to keep up, cantering whenever he started to fall behind. We missed a turn about halfway through and did a few extra miles, but both horses got excellent scores at the first vet check and at well in their adjacent paddocks. One of the front-runners, Laura from Ohio, was camped next to us and we shared some suggestions with her husband Chuck when we learned she'd had difficulty getting her horse to eat when it was in the first hold (she had already left on the second loop by the time we arrived).

Becky Pearman was creative in taking photos of everyone just as we started a long uphill climb; I call this one "practicing for Cougar Rock" (after the 100-mile Tevis Ride in California).

A enthusiastic young man in the 30-mile limited distance event, Roger from Northern Virginia, was going our pace on the tough second loop. We enjoyed talking with him and kept a lookout for large gravel chunks getting lodged in our horse's shoes during a long downhill grade. A few times one of us had to dismount and pry a stubborn piece out.

Back in the hold, the ride vets again gave our horses good scores and just before 2 p.m. we headed out on the final loop, a repeat of the first. About a half-mile out, was passed front runners Theresa Carroll and Laura, who had agreed to tie and not risk getting pulled at the finish. Austin Shafer, now old enough to ride unsponsored,  was about 10 minutes behind them.

I totally enjoyed the final loop, even with the threat of rain materializing into a steady drizzle. Ghost did most of the leading but by this point Gryphon kept up without too much difficulty. In the last 3 miles, we passed several riders who had slowed for various reasons, and finished just after 3:30 p.m. in 19th and 20th position.  The horses had a few hours to graze and rest while we packed up, with the goal of reaching main roads in Virginia before full darkness. This didn't quite happen! Jonie was a good sport about me routing her down a winding 8-mile "shortcut" south of Millboro that took 40 minutes to negotiate, but we got to my rig around 10 p.m. and I was home in my own bed by 1:30 a.m. Next stop: Virginia Highlands!

Saturday, July 13, 2013

Further West to Wyoming..or "In Which I Survive My First 3-Day"

A few months back, I made plans to squeeze some endurance adventures onto a July trip to Vail, Colorado for a Touchstone Energy conference. I'd heard that the Shamrock ride in Wyoming was beautiful and arrived in Denver on July 4, the day before this three-day event started. Leslie Anderson from Longmont (who I'd met several years earlier through Brenda Baird Palermo, one of my oldest endurance pals), said she'd get me there and provide a horse for the first day, and the AERC Mountain Region folks put me in touch with another horse provider, Jack Evers.
Leslie's advice and gear were the key to my success. She had me start drinking water as soon as I reached her farm to adjust to the altitude and aridity. I downed 64 ounces while helping pack up, buying last-minute food and keeping her company on the three-hour drive north to Wheatland.

Held on the gigantic Dilts family ranch, this 21-year old ride is named for the nearby Shamrock saloon. Getting there requires 50 minutes of careful driving along primitive roads through two other ranches, so you end up more than 20 miles from any paved highway. The Dilts family is as likely to fly their plane to Laramie or Cheyenne for supplies as they are to drive! I heard Teddy with Running Bear Tack broke and axle the last time she negotiated this route.

Basecamp was in the front yard of the family's original homestead and featured plenty of green grass, although edible vegetation was almost nonexistent on the surrounding hills. Arriving at 7 p.m., we quickly built pens for Leslie's three Rushcreek horses (Ridge, Thunder and Quilt), registered for Friday's 55-mile ride and set up a pup tent so I'd have a place to sleep. I was up by 5 a.m. the next morning to help get ready for the 6:30 a.m. start.

Leslie warned that while Thunder had three years of endurance experience, he was still quite green, which I found out firsthand when I came around the corner of the trailer. He kicked without warning, striking the front of my upper left leg. I knew that   keeping my sore muscles moving would help more than anything so I finished tacking and we set out 15 minutes behind the others at a slow trot. Less than 5 minutes into the ride, Thunder was spooked by a rustle from one of my water bottles and took off running and bucking into the cactus and rocks. I lost my stirrups but never let go of the reins and with some calming words, he finally came to a stop about 50 yards east of the trail.

The rest of that 22-mile loop went smoothly, and my pitiful limp during the trot out was mitigated by both horses having great vet scores and CRIs. About 5 miles into the 19-mile second loop, we came across several riderless horses being held by one rider, with another rider sitting in the scant shade of a small pine tree. Turns out the wounded rider under the tree was my friend Claire Godwin from Maryland, who had been charged by a 2,000 lb Angus bull after trying unsuccessfully to shoo him off the trail. Bummed for Claire, who had planned to tackle the Big Horn 100 the following weekend on her other horse Rev, who'd just won the Old Dominion 100, we continued on. The first half of the loop featured a series of small canyons that required both hand on mane for a scramble to the top, followed by dismounting to lead one's horse on a careful descent on loose lava-rock type pebbles.

Later in the loop, Leslie and I took over as sponsors for Claire's junior of the same name, a tall 15-year old everyone hilariously referred to as "Little Claire." She had been riding with a local rider who started suffering the effects of the 90+ degree heat and stayed back to rest while the three of us set up on the windy "high plains" second half of that loop. At the second vet check, Little Claire's horse Salut was acting up without his buddy (Claire's horse Amos), so I explained the situation to the vet and helped Little Claire handle the restless and unruly gelding, distracting him with a big wad of hay.

Several other riders, including Libby Llop from New York State, accompanied us on the last loop, which was only 12 miles long and featured many crossings of the same little stream. As we passed through a small box canyon, the Wyoming weather, always unpredictable, turned violent and windy. We trotted the last two miles in a steady rain that had ended by the time we vetted through for our completions. Leslie was so pleased with the vet scores for both her geldings that she agreed to let me ride Ridge the following day, while she took out her mare Quilt.

Snuggled in my pup tent around 12:45 am Saturday morning, I was awakened by whinnying horses and flashes of lightning, followed by rumbles of thunder. Abandoning the sagging tent, I grabbed my sleeping bag and spent the "wee hours" in the cab of Leslie's truck as more rain poured down.

Saturday's ride went smoothly - Ridge was a calm, steady mount and I had time to enjoy the scenery and even snap a few photos with my I-phone. Whenever we came across Angus cattle on trail, we gave them a wide berth - despite the risk of encountering rattlesnakes in the scrub and rocks beside the established trail.

I had a good base tan and was using 50 SPF sunscreen, but at 8,000 feet elevation discovered that even these were no protection against sun poisoning. During the first hold, I saw the red bumps of sun poisoning on my left arm and quickly donned one of Leslie's extra long-sleeved fisherman's shirts and a set of gloves, then added a towel under my helmet to block the sun on my ears and already-red neck.  Also, if you don't re-apply lip balm every hour or so your lips might crack, blow up like balloons or both!

With my body better protected, the rest of the ride went smoothly. We again finished around 6 p.m., then enjoyed the Shamrock ride's legendary mix of fresh-cooked pork, beef and chicken BBQ for Saturday dinner. There was no sign of Jack Evers, so I started worrying about whether I'd have a mount for the third day or not. He showed up just before dark, along with two young college students Jesse and Joe who helped set up his corrals.

I immediately liked Whynot, Jack's big Appy broodmare who reminded me of Shiloh. Jack is AERC number 208, which means he's been doing this sport for nearly 40 years! A rider from the "old school," he uses English saddles, plus had very little extra gear, so I borrowed a breast collar, running martingale and saddle bags from Leslie and tacked Whynot up to adjust everything before hitting the sack.

Sunday was the most fun of all, listening to Jack's many tales, but also was a true test of my horsemanship. On the first loop, Whynot needed quite a bit of "rating" to keep from going faster than her limited conditioning made sensible, so that running martingale helped me keep control. Two-thirds of the way through that long loop, we were talking about Jack's career as a part-time farrier (he's also a consultant and college teacher for oil drilling), when Whynot's right front shoe came loose. I dismounted and twisted it off so the loose nails wouldn't pierce her sole, stowing the shoe in my saddlebag since there were no spare horseshoes back in camp. Neither of us had an Easyboot on board, so I hand walked her a long 7 miles into camp, sending Jack on ahead to scout up some tools since he had left his tools at home and there was no ride farrier. By the grace of God, a young cowboy doing his first endurance ride happened to be in basecamp and loaned Jack his farrier tools so he could nail on that shoe while I fed both horses.

Whynot was sound with all "A"s on her vet card, but had an elevated CRI so I borrowed some of Leslie's electrolytes to help make sure she drank enough on the second loop. She seemed to appreciate my careful riding - I was careful to change diagonals regularly and also dismounted frequently to lead her down hills and open each of the Western gates for Jack (who is in his mid-70s), hand feeding both horses some grass whenever I found any. We carefully sponged and cooled both horses before the vet second check, but Whynot's second CRI was still high. The vets didn't seem too concerned since she had all A's otherwise. Rubbing Desitin and baby powder on galls that had started along her girth line, I borrowed one of Leslie's fleece-lined girths and fed my hard working mare all of our remaining carrots. saying "Just 12 more miles old girl!"

I dragged my heels on the last loop, I just didn't want those amazing trails to end. Whynot vetted through just fine (except for her CRI, of course) and I earned 165 more AERC miles under my belt. After helping Jack and Leslie pack up (both left that night), I crashed on a bed in Claire's trailer that she graciously offered since I staying one more night and was driving Libby's son's rental car back to Denver the following morning. Shamrock was my first experience with endurance riding out west, but it won't be my last. My body held up much better than I expected and I learned volumes about what to pack and how to prepare. Can't wait for next summer when I hope to return!

Friday, June 28, 2013

West to Ohio!

I'd wanted to return to the scenic Scioto trails in southern Ohio ever since I'd first ridden them back in 2005 on a borrowed horse. Under the auspices of OATTS, the Ohio Arabian & All-Breed Trail Riding Society, Mollie Krumlaw and her local friends put on two AERC competitions each year, one in June and one in September.

The week leading up to the June ride, I'd been in D.C. taking photos during the Electric Co-op Youth Tour (1,600 high school seniors from 43 states!), which wrapped up Thursday afternoon. The day before, I'd learned Lisa Green & her mare wouldn't be able to go with me and started calling other endurance friends, hoping I wouldn't have to take Gryphon by himself on such a long trip.

Jenny Poling, an old friend from West Virginia, came through for me - she said Liz Stout's mare was recovering from an injury, she didn't have any plans until Sunday and was game for riding my little mare Siena despite the short notice. Liz would travel with Jenny and her daughter Kelsie and we'd have time Friday afternoon for Liz to do a test ride on Siena.

The trip there went smoothly - I finished packing before dark, got 6 hours of sleep, and left home before 3 a.m. The miles flew by, aided by a book on CD. With brief stops for diesel and letting the horses graze near West Virginia's New River Gorge (the halfway point), I rolled into the sunny basecamp field before 11 a.m. Parking as close as possible to the crewing area, a set up my corral popup tent to keep the horses cool, then provided them big tubs of soaked beet pulp. I was even able to catch a quick nap before Jenny, Liz and Kelsie arrived at 1 p.m. Our test ride later that afternoon gave Liz a chance to see how my treeless saddle felt, and we moved the pop up tent to the crewing area, knowing it would help the horses cool and pulse down more quickly when they came off trail.

With a 6 a.m. start for the 50 milers and 6:30 for the 25s, everyone hoped to get most of their miles done before the temperatures became too toasty. But by the five mile mark, zigging up and down short but steep changes in elevation, I could tell this was going to be a long day, with only occasional breezes to break the humidity. During the first hold, we made some tack-related changes, borrowing a breast collar for Gryphon (since one of mine had been left behind at Lisa's) and adding rear interference boots on both horses (the technical footing plus a several-week old shoeing job were causing them to knock their inside fetlocks more than usual). Gryphon has come a long way in just nine months, evolving from a worried, difficult-to-handle rescue horse to a bright-eyed, confident endurance horse, but it was still helpful to have his buddy Siena for company. I dosed them every two hours with electrolytes and buffer and they drank - and ate - well all day despite temperatures reaching over 90 degrees.

The second loop included three miles of gravel road, which we rode with Emily Richardson, who is a foxhunter and endurance rider in her late 70s showing no signs of stopping her horse pursuits! During the vetting at the halfway point hold, one of the vets thought Siena took some bad steps on her left front foot. Wishing she had a more recent shoeing job - there were more rocks on trail than I'd remembered - we soaked that leg in ice water and re-trotted her ourselves before heading back out. She seemed fine, but we decided to go slower and hand walk down all the longer hills.

All was well at the final hold, but we stayed in camp a few more minutes to let our horses rest. I also dosed them with honey for energy and massage both horses' haunches and inner thighs, which were starting to get stiff from all the climbs. Jenny and Kelsie successfully completed their 25 mile ride (they had six hours to complete but Jenny's horse pulsed down with just a minute to spare, after a hair-raising adventure on the first loop when her young horse Vinney got loose, making that loop take longer than expected!)

Liz was able to borrow Kelsie's saddle at this point - her legs weren't having an easy time adjusting to the Wintec stirrup leathers on my saddle. The last loop was a repeat of the first loop from earlier that day, but seemed like a brand new trail, given our slow pace that gave me time to savor the scenery. Liz, a biologist with the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service in Elkins, WV, was able to listen to a bird call and tell right away what species it was. She also knew most every type of tree and plant we encountered, including an invasive Chinese grass, which was everywhere. On a common section of trail used for both the 3rd and 4th loops, we passed Ranger and Michael, who were carefully leading their horses. I shared some of my extra Gatorade and cautioned that they'd need to get back to camp by 4 p.m. or might not make the 6 p.m. cutoff time for the 50-mile ride. We also caught up to two ladies from Louisville, KY and finished just ahead of them around 3:30 p.m.

With the sun beating down mercilessly, we untacked and cooled the horses as best we could (no ice left!), then headed to the vets for the completion exam. Worried about Siena, I trotted her out for Liz and the vet shook his head. "She's off both coming and going on that right front," (which meant a consistent grade 3 lameness and no completion), plus he noticed that she had a flutter in her flank area called "thumps" that results from an electrolyte imbalance.

When bringing two horses instead of one, I'd forgotten to pack extra Enduramax, developed by Jeannie Waldron, DVM for East Coast heat and humidity. Even though both horses had been frequently electrolyted all day, the mix was mostly Perform'n'Win and just didn't have enough oomph in the mineral department. Gryphon completed just fine - his 7th 50 this year - and we headed over to the shade to give Siena some calcium gluconate, which quickly cleared up her thumps, and continue cooling both horses while letting them graze.

Emily Richardson had left 45 minutes earlier than us on the last loop, but we never passed her on trail and she was not in camp when we completed, so I alerted her crew and ride management, who took a four-wheeler out looking. It was past 5 p.m. and ride management was getting ready to send out hired and alert the local EMS/Fire Dept. when happily Emily and Comet showed up unharmed. Emily was tired but in good spirits and as best we can figure, they somehow did much of that last loop twice.

With Emily was safely back in camp, we finished packing up and I also poultice both horses with a heavy dash of "Sore No More" squooshed into the paste. Both rigs headed out to the highway as cooler evening temperatures creeped in, Jenny turning left on Rt 35 and me turning right. By midnight, I'd reached my friend Lynne's place off I-81 in Virginia, where she'd generously offered use of her guest paddock. The horses looked wonderful when I woke up Sunday morning to load them up for the last three hours to get home, and they both trotted out joyfully (and soundly) when I let them loose in their home pasture.

Wednesday, June 26, 2013

Fast Forward

Having my own place meant I could keep more than one horse! For several years, between 2003 and 2012, Shiloh rested after each competition while I switched my attention to training other horses. Several were "off the track" Arabians that I got used to trail situations and then resold, providing a much-appreciated supplement to my income. 
In 2007, I was given a young Saddlebred Arabian cross bred by Dana Reeder and named for Frank Farmer, a well-known Virginia foxhunter and endurance rider who'd been part-owner of Frank's sire Brown R Sashaa.
"Brown R Frank" was wonderful to ride - the above photo shows us at the Broxton, SC ride on Easter Saturday 2010. However, Frank started having issues with his hocks and by 2011, the year 19-year-old Shiloh passed the 5,000 AERC mile mark, I regretfully accepted that he just wasn't cut out for one-day rides of 50 miles or more. I sadly returned Frank to Dana and he's now happily resettled in a non-endurance home.

In July 2012, with Shiloh deserving a full retirement and Siena, the 3-year old mare I'd purchased from another friend, not yet old enough to compete, my friend Barb Horstmeier convinced me to adopt a scrappy little mystery horse from a Pennsylvania rescue. We were given no information about this horse, not even a name, so I came up with "Gryphon," the mythological cross between an eagle and a lion. How prophetic this choice proved to be!

The January 2013 issue of AERC Extra leads with my article about how I rehabbed Gryphon, who became quite a challenge to work with as he gained weight & strength. He clearly had been abused and was very nervous and mistrustful in certain situations, but my experience working with different horses - plus ability to stay on board no matter what - paid off. In April, Barb found out Gryphon was part Saddlebred like Frank - his neck and back are longer than a pure Arab and he has a super comfortable stride, so I wasn't that surprised. As a strong bond of friendship grew between us, I recognized a puppy-dog personality like Frank's lay beneath the "gangsta" behavior. Adding magnesium pellets to his diet as a calming agent helped too! By June 2013, after eight 50 mile rides in nine months, I could finally post to Facebook that my scary, defiant little rescue horse had morphed into a confident, happy endurance horse.

Tuesday, June 18, 2013

In 2002, I realized a lifelong dream in purchasing my own 6-acre place just 23 miles northeast of Richmond, VA. I'd no longer need to board and Shiloh could come home! My dad designed a supercool house with a view from my bedroom windowseat of the front pasture and we moved in just before Hurricane Isabel struck in September 2003. I was shell-shocked by the destruction, but my now-husband Shan fetched a chainsaw and generator from his North Carolina relatives and we leapt into the never-ending cycle of grass cutting and tending our "farm"

Friday, June 14, 2013

The Grumpy Old Man

There's a 1970 photo of me as a three-year old, petting a chestnut horse with a white blaze in Colonial Williamsburg soon after my parents moved back to the U.S. from London, where my dad had earned his doctorate degree.

After many years of my begging for a horse, the year I turned 13 our family's eccentric but kind friend Lila Young offered me a gangly, slightly lame old chestnut Thoroughbred with a white blaze.  I dug post holes and strung electric wire in the field behind our house while my dad converted an old smokehouse to store hay and provide shelter. No trailer was available, so I rode "Wether" the seven miles from Lila's to our house. In the years that followed, we covered miles and miles together in all weather -- especially on evenings before a big test, which I found helped me study better. When I left for college, Wether was retired to Mr. Huber's farm near Smithfield.

For most of the next decade, horseback riding was an elusive pursuit. I took a semester of jumping in college and borrowed some Indian ponies to a ride around the mesas of Northern Arizona the year I lived in the Southwest, but otherwise focused on finishing graduate school and being able to provide for myself.

By age 27, I accomplished two major life goals: landing a "real" job with benefits and purchasing my first home in Richmond, Virginia. I turned my focus to a lifelong dream of purchasing my own horse. This was in the days before the internet, so I bought a February 1995 issue of the 79 cent "Trading Post" and my eye immediately fell on a brief ad for a flashy chestnut half Arab, "e/on trails."

My first glimpse of Shiloh was love at first sight. I didn't bother looking at any other horses before buying him for $1,100 and getting Trish (his breeder) to haul him to my first boarding barn, near New Kent Courthouse. Shiloh was barely three and only green broke, his wise, kind disposition was already in evidence and we went on to survive many adventures over the next two decades. This blog is dedicated to my "Grumpy Old Man," the horse who helped me discover how wonderful the sport of endurance riding can be.