Monday, May 5, 2014

A different sort of Biltmore

Gryphon sticking out his tongue while passing a field of canola 
Now in its 25th year, the Biltmore Challenge in Asheville, NC is one of the nation's largest endurance rides and a major ride on the FEI calendar as well. Even endurance rigs enter the thousand-acre estate through a magnificent gatehouse and the 3-mile drive to the Biltmore Equestrian Center winds along landscaped woods, pastures of livestock and fields of canola. Several trails provide stunning views of the Vanderbilt mansion. The overall terrain is hilly and technical, which has made earning a "Certificate of Capability" (COC) under the current 14 kilometer per hour overall speed requirement very difficult to obtain.

The week before the ride, with forecasters predicting heavy rain and potential flooding of the French Broad River that runs besides basecamp, ride management made the difficult decision only host the longer distances (75 and 100 on Saturday and 55 and 75 on Sunday), with no limited distance rides to reduce the number of rigs). I'd entered Gryphon in the Saturday AERC 75 and 21-year-old Jessica diCamillo from New Mexico would be riding Siena in the Saturday 120 km CEI** (same distance).

The area ended up with much less rain than expected, with two full days to dry out before rigs began arriving late Thursday. I drove to Star Tannery after work that night and enjoyed a cookout hosted by Lisa Green before catching a few hours of sleep. John Crandell had agreed to do most of the driving in exchange for a free ride down, and he took the wheel @ 2am, getting us safely there before 10am. Hunter Green, who was going to cheer on his girlfriend Emilynn, spent the trip down sleeping in the gooseneck. We three quickly set up camp before and fetched water before my two traveling companions went on their merry ways.

Siena led the way much of the afternoon
After Dr. Ann Stuart did chiro work on Siena, I sat in on the officials meeting (am hoping to take the FEI judges class as part of my trip to Ontario in late June and wanted insight in what was discussed). I finished setting up my crewing area and enjoyed a much-needed shower courtesy of Holly Corcoran, who was riding Cheryl Van Deusen's Pinot Noir in the CEI*** and offered use of her nearby hotel room. One of my oldest endurance friends, To
m Hutchinson from Maine, was parked just across from me and asked if I'd sponsor his daughter Calla in what would be the first 75 for both she and her horse Sam. I readily agreed, since Jessica's goal and mine were just to complete, not to try for a COC.

Dinner catered by the estate's Deerpark Restaurant was as delicious as always, but the diCamillos hadn't arrived by 7 pm and I was getting worried when they called for help finding their way into the estate. Ride Manager Cheryl Newman talked them through all the way to basecamp, and they quickly set about weighing in (an FEI requirement - rider plus saddle must be at least 165lb for senior division and also young riders wanting to be on the ranking list) and shimming Jessica's saddle to fit Siena's little back. I slept soundly, getting up @ 3am to let the horses graze for about 30 minutes and giving them breakfast before heading back to bed for another hour of rest.

Little Gryphon is such a joy to ride
Gryphon and Siena were their usual steady selves during warmup and we got off to a smooth start, trotting smoothly for several miles before adding in some cantering here and there. Coming into the first hold, Calla's big horse Sam took about 5 minutes longer to pulse than my little guys so they had a few more minutes to eat before we left out on what I like to call the "Sound of Music" loop, which was 20 miles and featured a long, gradual climb that Gryphon eagerly led. We returned to camp about 11:15 am and again had excellent vet scores. The third loop also went great, with the horses getting in to camp @ 2pm. We'd been told the 4th loop would be the hardest even though just over 12 miles, and we took our time, dismounting to lead our horses down the frequent steep downhills and letting them walk up most of the climbs. The weather couldn't have been nicer - it never got really hot. At the final hold, Dr. Ken Marcella held Gryphon's card - said he saw something in the hind end. I brought him back at the end of the hold time and while he moved the same or better as at the beginning of the hold, the three-vet panel voted to pull us. I was glad Jessica could legally take over as Calla's sponsor, and was moving the pen for Gryphon to have access to fresh grass when they trotted by around 5:15 pm at the start of the last 14.9 mile loop. Jessica's mom Karen and I then packed up some horse blankets and supplies to take to the finish, where we waited for the next two hours. Jessica texted her mom that the horses stopped wanting to move out about halfway through the loop and were slowly walking and grazing their way in. We agreed they were doing the right thing, and about 30 minutes after nightfall were relieved to see them come trotting up to the finish line. It was a long mile walk back from the finish line to basecamp and the arena where the completion trot outs were being held, and Jessica did a beautiful job presenting Siena, who looked fresh as a daisy in receiving her first CEI** completion. So proud of Siena and grateful to the diCamillos!
Jessica & Siena at the finish - not a fast ride but they completed
Lots of other enjoyable moments in the weekend: sharing copies the Cooperative Living cover story about Natalie Muzzio with friends and ride officials, seeing other young riders complete well and getting to hang out with old friends. After awards, John, Hunter and I started home around 12 noon and stopped to refuel near Wytheville, Va. around 3 p.m. Watching my shiny, happy, healthy horses much green grass alongside a local man mowing the same area while the boys got fuel for themselves and the truck, all while surrounded by blue mountains with strong spring breezes blowing will stand out in my memories of this weekend.