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!