Monday, November 17, 2014

Young horse + young rider = fantastic team!

At the Mustang Memorial 120km FEI ride in New Jersey on November 8, my little mare Siena earned her first Certificate of Capability (14 kilometer per hour minimum speed), with India Orino  keeping a perfect, steady pace, even on the last two loops that they rode alone.

This joyous outcome has its roots in my early   days of endurance, when I met Tom Hutchinson and Kathy Brunjes of Maine. In April 2000, Tom had made the trek south to compete at the No Frills Ride in Virginia. We were galloping on a downward sloping road beside the Shenandoah River when Tom's horse slipped as its hooves hit pavement, falling sideways and throwing Tom to the ground. Unhurt and undaunted, he sprang up, leapt back on the horse, finished the loop and won the ride with barely a pause for breath and no delay for the rest of us riders.

In 2001, I began competing in FEI-sanctioned endurance events with my first endurance horse, Count Shiloh. We made team that represented USA East at the Pan American Championship in Woodstock, Vermont but with newly formed "splints" on both front legs (from too many miles on a concussive surface), Shiloh was pulled for lameness at the 86 mile hold. Sharing the trailer ride back to the treatment barn with us were Kathy Brunjes and  Ali Darkness. When both horses were re-examined, I got to watch Kathy's horse trot perfectly sound for early lesson in the capricious nature of our sport.

Fast forward to 2012, after Kathy eventually got her "days in the sun," participating in several big FEI events and World Endurance Championships on her horse Theatric, with now-husband Tom as crew. Kathy had become a FEI endurance icon more ways than one, helping develop the Young Riders Championship to encourage more youth in our sport. She was teaching her granddaughters India and Calla Orino to ride with the same poise and discipline that made her so successful when she tragically succumbed to cancer. Kathy made an indelible impression on so many of us, with AERC naming its Young Rider Award ( in her honor.

Supported by Tom and their mother Wanda, India and her younger sister Calla continued endurance. At the January 2014 Broxton FEI ride, India earned her first Certificate of Capability on  Frontier Random, a bay gelding my friend Jenny Poling had sold the family the previous year. In May at the Biltmore FEI ride, I had a blast sponsoring Calla in her first 75-mile AERC ride (she was still too young to compete FEI). In early July, I finally had a chance to travel to Fryeburg, Maine for Tom's 5-Day Pine Tree Endurance Ride and got to spend time with the family again.

That fall, I decided to take Siena to one more FEI-sanctioned ride before year's end, the Northeast Region's only FEI ride, Mustang Memorial in the pine barrens of southern New Jersey. I originally offered use of her to other Young Rider hopefuls in the 50-mile distance. But the day before I headed up to Barb's for the trailer ride to NJ, Tom phone looking for a replacement horse for India in the 75-mile distance so she'd have the three FEI 120km events needed to qualify for 2015 Young Riders. (They'd decided Random needed more rest and time to recover from a tendon injury and Siena was  passported and qualified for that distance.)

With help from Holly Corcoran and Meg Sleeper, as well as ride manager Holly McDonald and Kristen Brett at USEF, we revised online FEI entries so that the NJ young rider who had planned to ride Siena in the AERC 50-mile ride switched to Meg's horse, while India switched to Siena.

At Barb's that Friday, we loaded her mare Welcome (now best buddies with Siena) and picked up Welcome's rider Heather Davis in Berryville. After a smooth trip up we unloaded the horses just as a wintry weather front blew through camp, dumping hail pellets on the horses as they nibbled grass at the edge of the big cornfield where we all parked our rigs. Fortunately the nasty weather was short-lived.

India and Tom found us and we registered and vetted in by 3:30 pm, then India took Siena for a test ride. With her long legs and elegant posture, she reminds me so much of Kathy! On the return, we agreed that my treeless Ansur saddle was a bit small for India and I agreed to use her use her own saddle, a junior Bob Marshall that was also treeless and only weighed a few pounds more.

With a glowing near-full moon and quiet peaceful night, Siena and Welcome ate and rested well. Ride day dawned clear and still, and Siena started calmly with 19 other horses in the 75, 11 of them FEI (but only one other junior, Solstice Pecile from Canada). Barb and I had a great spot for crewing our horses and the day passed quickly, with me running inside the clubhouse frequently to check the free mulled cider at the USA Northeast Endurance fundraiser table.

India said she enjoying keeping pace with Wendy Benns of Canada for the first two loops but as Wendy's horse speeded up for some negative splits, India wisely decided to "ride her own ride" - after all, the little mare is only 6!

All my solo rides with Siena in September and October paid off, as they continued only fractionally slower for the last 30 miles of the ride. I was thrilled with how well India presented Siena for inspection and trot-outs by the vets, but India opted to have me do Siena's final completion trot out, since you only get once chance to present. Despite being chagrined for the bad luck of two good friends whose horses were pulled at the finish, what a great day for this young pair and a great experience to share with the Orino/Hutchinson family! I can only hope Kathy was somehow able to look down and be very, very proud...

Tuesday, November 4, 2014

Gryphon's 100-Mile Reprise

     After his candidly unexpected completion of the Tevis 100-mile ride, I was eager to reunite with my little rescue horse for another endurance adventure. Gryphon had been back from California for a week, grazing on the Crandell's front pasture, when I drove up to Star Tannery on Aug. 23 after competing Siena at the Iron Mountain Ride, where she'd finished 3rd and earned high vet score thanks to her lighting-fast recoveries.
     Unfortunately, that Saturday morning was a rainy mess even for die-hard riders. After spending a few minutes with Gryphon, who looked super-fit and proud of himself, I treated Lisa and John Crandell to lunch in Wardensville, where we agreed to buy John a plane ticket to France in time for the World Endurance Championships that week. Soggy terrain was also a major issue for that event - just 22% completed, with Jeremy Olson on my friend Amy Whelan's Wallace Hill Shade as the lone U.S finisher . Sigh.
    Shaking off disappointment about the U.S team and international level of our sport,  I began training Gryphon for the AERC National Championship (NC), which this year would be in Mount Pleasant, Texas on Oct. 30. Almost every weekend in September and early October, I drove 3 hours each way to meet Lisa and work our horses. Unlike the mountain training we did for Tevis, this time we took the horses to the State Arboretum at Blandy, or nearby training track, for fast, flat workouts.
   With Lisa's mare Amana dragging him along, Gryphon managed to gallop 10 straight laps on the 1/2 mile track (5 times each direction, 5 miles total) in just 21 minutes. But as the NC date approached, my plans shifted - I'd been willing to take a whole week off work and use my F-350 again to haul our horses to Texas, but then learned John Crandell and his friend Shannon were willing to haul Amana (who'd been bred by John's parents) using John's gas truck with Lisa's rig.  
    This meant I was off the hook. The first thoughts that jumped in my mind were that now I wouldn't need to miss two important work meetings early that week and could instead go to a Tennessee ride I'd been wanting to try for years, which was half as far as going to TX. This was going to be Lisa's last last big endurance competition with her mare and I knew they'd do well, but didn't have crew of my own and wasn't excited about taking unclipped Gryphon on a hot, flat trail - twisty trail is where he excels.   
   I sadly informed the NC ride manager (who was low on entries) of my change in plans and quickly mailed in registration for Ike Nelson's Skymont Ride in Altamont, TN on Oct. 31 and Nov. 1.   
   On Oct. 24, I hauled my other two horses to the Fort Valley Ride, where my friend Cat Carter from Md. and Lisa's youngest son Ridge borrowed Shiloh and Siena for the 30-miler. Lily Kuhn, my young neighbor who's been riding Shiloh for the past two months, helped me crew, then with my horses nicely tired out, took a short mid-afternoon ride before packing up, dropping off Siena at my friend Barb's and picking up Gryphon on the way home. (Barb had agreed to help Siena get farrier and chiropractic work before we hauled to the Mustang Ride in NJ in early Nov.)  
   The following Wednesday after work, I had just enough daylight to finish packing for several days of cold weather - the forecast called for temps to fall well below freezing all three nights I'd be in TN. After about 4 hours of sleep, I fed G a soggy beet pulp mash, then loaded up and headed out in the dark of night, hoping to arrive in the warmest part of the day to bathe Gryphon and give him some grazing time. But just 90 minutes later, on the west side of Charlottesville, all of us on westbound I-64 were held up for 2 and a half hours by a bad accident. Unable to completely remove the wreckage even in that timeframe, they finally used a police-only crossover to turn us back eastbound. Using GPS to figure out a hilly 25-mile detour, I was back on route by 4 am, reaching Altamont just after 1 pm with the Central Zone time difference.  
   With Ike's help I found a great parking spot next to Susan Kain and just in front of Angie McGhee and the Buttrams, less than 50 yards from the vetting area. Gryphon was nervous but got some grazing in on a nearby green field and quickly attached to his neighbor, Susan's big gelding.It had been more than 6 months since I'd had daily care of my little rescue horse, who'd had popped a hemorrhoid a year earlier. He hadn't had any issues with it earlier in the year while in California, but the durn thing decided to make a brief appearance just before the vet-in that Thursday. I disclosed and discussed my concern with head vet Otis Schmidt, then as darkness rapidly approached heated up some dinner in the Running Bear microwave (thanks Teddy!) before walking the half mile over the dam to the ride briefing, following glowsticks put up by Eric Reuter.  
    The Skymont ride is held on a 2,400 acre Boy Scout reservation perched on the Cumberland Plateau, with basecamp adjacent to a long-fingered lake. Ike's friend Wendy, who singlehandedly cleaned up  and marked the four loops of the trail, did a great job explaining the course for us first-timers. After barely any sleep the night before, I slept soundly and was in the saddle 20 minutes before the start of Friday's ride, with Gryphon both calm and eager. There were only about two dozen of us in the 50-mile ride and I ended up in the front third of the pack, behind a tall bay mare. Within the first 10 miles of riding together, the bay mare Jazz's owner Kathy Torgeson and I figured out that we'd BOTH just finished Tevis, on the same horses we were riding that day.   
   Despite Jazz being a full hand taller than Gryphon, he managed to keep up, cantering in some of the places to keep up with her long trot. The trail was a great mix of single-track trail and wide forest roads, with lots of creek crossings and some big hills along the gas lines. Sudi Leinhardt also rode with us all day, and with the two of them doing most of the leading, three loops flew by. Everyone got a kick out of how Gryphon seemed to want to drink at EVERY water opportunity - one of the greatest attributes for a multiday endurance horse.
   We were halfway through the final loop, having barely gotten rained on all day, when the sky grew ominously dark and the wind began to blow violently. We completed in 6th, 7th and 8th place around 3:30 pm, and I just had time to buckle Gryphon into a waterproof blanket before the truly nasty weather began. Luckily my trailer created a wind block from blasts coming off the lake, and I quickly set up and staked down a pop-up tent for Gryphon to stand under as icy sleet began to fall.

   Joni Buttram and I kept the McGhee's fire bowl going strong despite the precipitation, then helped Angie untack and bundle up her horse when she came in off her final loop. The nasty weather took a break during the dinner and awards, but snow began falling around midnight, along with more winds, which both continued until almost dawn.
   Nine of us die-hards started the 50 on Saturday, all wearing multiple layers (for me, this meant rain pants over my breeches, duck boots with two layers of socks instead of sneakers and rump rugs on our horses.) To my pleasant surprise the trails were less slippery and soggy than I thought they'd be. Here's some video from Josie McGhee, Angie's daughter:
   Kathy and I again rode together, with her mare setting a steady pace that was just a bit slower than the day before. The sun never came out, but the snow quickly melted and the wind subsided by noon.  We finished at 3:39 pm and I offered to present Kathy's horse for best condition, since she'd hurt her hip when her horse slipped and fell on the Granite Chief section of Tevis (G had also slipped and fell on that part, but I'd been luckier not to get injured.)

With my little horse resting and surrounded by several food options, I was getting ready for the long walk to the dining hall and showers when Ike kindly lent me his mule (gator) to drive instead. The hot shower felt wonderful, and I enjoyed hanging out with the four radio guys while waiting for dinner, who until then had only known me by my ride number, 316, which I'd called out at every checkpoint over the past two days. The significance of my number - the wonderful Bible verse 3:16 from the Gospel of John, finally dawned on me. I reflected how fortunate I was to have an eager horse like Gryphon and was deeply grateful that his hemorrhoid, despite making a few more appearances, didn't keep him from completing. And Kathy's mare Jazz did earn both high vet score and best condition!!! 
   After one more night tucked under the comforters in my comfy trailer bed, I began final packup around 5:30 am on Sunday. Ike happened to be out and about trying to find his little old dog, who hadn't returned when let out to pee a few minutes earlier, so helped me load my metal fence panels.
   I enjoyed watching the sun slowly rise as I headed east along 80 miles of back roads before hitting the interstate. What wonderful memories me and Gryphon made that weekend! And how good it felt to make it safely home just before dark. Endurance helps you discover the rewards of perseverance, while elevating the simplest comforts of food, warmth and companionship to become like finding lost treasure.