Monday, March 28, 2016

How Shiloh Spent His 24th Birthday

Endurance riding can provide a number of goals to aim for. In 17 years of competition, I've met many, from seasonal points awards to longevity milestones. The Leatherwood Challenge this past Easter Weekend would test whether my old horse Shiloh could be un-retired yet again to make it through a tough 50 miles in the North Carolina mountains.

Shiloh & I started competing at AERC rides in 1999. He passed the 3,000-mile mark at the 2006 Biltmore, then needed annular ligament surgery just after reaching Decade Team status in 2010.

The Grumpy Old Man doing what he loves.
Post-surgery he initially wasn't sound for longer distances, so I thought his endurance career was over. But he made an amazing return during the summer of 2011, passing the 5,000-mile mark at Canter over the Mountain on Labor Day Weekend.

In March 2013, just after he turned 21, Shiloh was pulled of retirement to loan to Laura Horst of North Carolina for the Rabbit Run AERC ride in New Jersey. (She hoped to compete in as many Eastern states as possible before moving back to California.)

Shiloh went on to finish six more AERC rides that year, but it took him longer than usual to bounce back from JD's 50 at the end of the season, so I'd pretty much decided that would be his last AERC ride. He'd still get plenty of saddle time at relatively laid-back Southeast Virginia foxhunts, which have few jumps and are held during the cooler months of November-March.

In Sept. 2014, my husband and I moved to a great new home. North Carolina friends were caring for Shiloh and my other two horses stayed with a friend in Louisa County while we built fencing and horse shelters. By November, I was able to bring everyone home to ample pasture and the kind of TLC you can only give when your horses are just a few steps away in the front or back yard!

Watching the glow in Shiloh's eyes as we headed off to each weekend's hunt, I realized the "grumpy old man" (as he is affectionately known) still loved to get out and go places. Despite the occasional age-related stumble, he never took a lame step, and his strong topline belied that he was now in his early 20s.

Laura Horst expertly managed Shiloh's pace to ensure he completed.
At the 2016 AERC Convention, Laura Horst (who crewed for me at the 2014 Tevis) said she'd be visiting family in western NC over Easter and was looking for a horse to borrow for the Leatherwood Challenge.

"Shiloh's been having a great winter," I said, "I think I can get him fit enough in time!"

As foxhunting season wrapped up, I rode him several times a week on short local training rides, warming up slowly before adding speed work and as many "hills" as I could find around my flat section of Virginia. A friend and I were able to sneak away on a weekday in mid-March to squeeze in a proper mountain training ride at Graves Mountain, where Shiloh handled the Upper Dark Hollow climb with great recoveries. He completely knew what was up, and seemed calm but happy as we loaded him and Gryphon for the 6-hour haul to basecamp.

On Good Friday afternoon, Laura and I took Shiloh and Gryphon out for a test ride to check saddles (Laura opted to use the sturdy Boz I'd inherited from my friend Brenda). We agreed that I'd do all Shiloh's trot outs, and walk all the steep uphills. (Shiloh had a bad case of pharyngitis from being fed bad hay as a youngster, and I noticed he had a bit more labored breathing on long climbs than my other horses.)

Easter Saturday, which happened to be Shiloh's 24th birthday, dawned cloudy and fairly cool after several warm days. We patiently waited until most of the 50 or so 50-milers were out on trail ahead of us, and sedately plodded through the first loop, taking the better part of 3 hours to cover the 16 miles. I was thrilled when Shiloh pulsed quickly and earned all "As" on his vet card.

The second loop was 19 miles and took just over 3 hours, with some flatter sections near the end that helped us make up a bit of time. The sun came out briefly, and so did our sponges, but mild breezes and clouds returned in time for the second vet check, helping Shiloh pulse quickly. (I was on my 15-year old gelding Gryphon, who was pulsing in the 40s but needed to take it easy as I have several more rides planned for him this spring).

Shiloh's 24th birthday vet card - nearly all A's!
The last loop was just as tough as the first. Towards the end, as some friends we were riding with picked up a canter on a flat stretch, Laura spoke up to say that Shiloh wasn't picking up that gait as readily. All day long, we'd been letting him set the pace and listened to him this time as well. I've got a competitive streak, so it was tough for me to watch two friends we'd been riding with all day leave us behind, but Shiloh's eye looked less bright than before so we maintained a slow but steady trot.

Three more friends from Maryland passed us near the finish, which we reached about 10 hours after we'd started that morning. At his completion trot out, Shiloh took a few bad steps and received a B on gait, the only non-A score on his vet card all day. Boy was I grateful to Laura for having the wisdom to slow up or Shiloh just might not have been sound enough to earn that completion!

When he was younger, Shiloh wanted nothing more than to be left alone after finishing a tough ride, and especially disliked being poulticed. But back at home, I saw that Shiloh's legs had stocked up a good bit overnight. After church on rainy Easter Sunday, he stood quietly munching his breakfast as I applied a thick layer, then wrapped each sturdy leg and scratched the extra white hairs away from his broad white blaze.

I'm humbled to be the owner of this one-in-a-million horse, who has touched so many lives in our sport.

Thursday, March 10, 2016

Answered Prayers (or, "any ride can have a silver lining!")


Anyone remember the line from a Garth Brooks song, "some of God's greatest gifts are unanswered prayers?

At the Jan. 30 Broxton FEI Endurance Ride in South Carolina, I had a chance to ponder the lyrics of this song. Young rider Hanna Weightman had come all the way from New Jersey to try to qualify for the North American Junior and Young Riders Championship on my mare Siena. Despite the beautiful job Hanna did riding her, Siena was pulled at the 30 mile mark for a minor lameness.

 As my gelding Gryphon and I headed out by ourselves on the first of three 15-mile repeat loops, I tried not to think how hard it would be to trot past Siena’s pen at both the beginning and end of each loop, six times total. Instead, I reflected on the unspoken prayer I’d sent heavenward just before heading down I-95, that whatever God’s will, somehow this weekend I’d make a difference for others.


That black & white loop took us through my favorite section of Broxton trail, along a palmetto-frond decorated swamp, where I’d once crossed paths with an armadillo. The weather was perfect and by the end of the loop, I felt a bit better.


After vetting through without issue, I listened to Hanna’s report from the treatment vet – Siena had no serious  issue and should be sound soon. I wished she and her parents a warm farewell, promising to use my I-phone voice record the young riders meeting later that night so they could start their long drive home.


Heading out on the second of the repeat loops, I found myself riding beside my friend Amy’s husband Ricky, who was tackling his first 50 and was on the last loop of that three-loop ride. He had hurt his back pain a few days earlier while moving hay, then crewed for his wife in the 100 the day before, but said he was feeling fine. But he was worried about his mare Ziggy, who hadn’t had good gut sounds at the last hold.


I noticed her eye looked a bit dull, and told Ricky I’d stay with him. We stopped at each water tanks with hay scattered around. His mare refused to drink, bur watched Gryphon drink and eat, then grabbed a mouthful of hay each time. We also stopped to let our horses graze briefly on green grass by the trailside, with Gryphon’s appetite seeming to influence Ricky’s mare. At the final water tank, the mare finally took a long drink and I had the joy of telling Ricky, “her eyes are bright and shiny now, you got this!” They ended up in 10th place.

I was a mile out of camp on my last loop when I came across a young rider and her mount standing in a patch of grass beside the trail. The rider, Kimmie, was trying to get the mare to eat but she seemed listless and uncaring. Another challenge! I explained that my young rider had been pulled and that I’d be happy help her get through the loop. She said this was the first 75 for both her and the mare, and that she was also trying to qualify for the North American Junior and Young Riders Championship that was to be held later that summer.


“No worries I said, we’ve got plenty of time and just need to keep a steady speed,” I reassured her. Four riders doing “negative splits” passed us, but we kept a slow, steady trot, stopping at each water tank. Gryphon again showed his companion by example that it was OK to eat. When Kimmie mentioned not having any Chapstick, I loaned her mine and also tried to cheer her up with my “glass half full” perspective.


“We’re in the single digits now!” I proclaimed as we neared the loop’s midpoint, with less than 10 miles to go. “We probably won’t even need our headlamps!” I enthused as we passed the last water stop just after 6 p.m.


We crossed the finish line just after dark, cheered on by the horse’s owner and crew members.


Receiving a completion, then getting a hot shower and real meal, were not the only things that made my day complete. Witnessing Ricky and Kimmie’s pride and joy at their accomplishments was a wonderful answer to my prayer, as was the heartfelt thank you from Adri Dinkleman, whose horse Kimmie had ridden.


Even when an endurance ride doesn’t turn out quite as you’d hoped, stay open to the unexpected answersed prayers that may arise!