Monday, September 19, 2016

A Tale of Two Chestnuts

Colleen Greene hit it out of the park in managing her very first AERC ride, at Powerline Park in Southeastern Ohio on Sept. 17. I was looking forward to seeing some new trails, and along with a few other endurance friends from Virginia made the trek over the mountains to reach basecamp by noon that Friday.

Located a few miles north of I-70 on a hilltop overlooking the Ohio Valley, this 1,000+ acre private property had hosted some extreme ATV competitions, with the beer cans and two grave-type memorials as sober evidence.

Lily and her good old Shiloh after their drag ride
But that afternoon the sun was shining, the breezes were blowing and it was wonderful to be alive and surrounded by some of my favorite endurance friends, including Dale Weaver and Peggy Thompson who parked right beside us.

I'd brought good old Shiloh to keep Gryphon company and for my friend Lily Kuhn to enjoy. She volunteered all weekend and got to ride the last loop, managing to keep Shiloh from doing his infamous drop & roll going through the pond crossing!

The weather forecast called for a spot of rain early Saturday, which happened to coincide with the start of the 50-mile ride. As we "endured" a thorough soaking, I followed behind Dale on his 18-year old mare Luminaria, watching her slip and slide through the first few steep ATV paths off the hilltop to the lower trails.  The rain soon let up and the trails quickly dried, but a few riders decided discretion was in order and optioned to not continue.

Dale and I were delighted to find that the trails, while technical and steep in places, were very doable and lots of fun. Never have I ridden such a well-marked trail, with spotters at several different points to keep us all honest. Pulsing ahead of Dale at the first hold, Gryphon had a 64/56 CRI and I decided to pick up the pace a bit, riding long enough with Skip Kemerer to have a good chat about AERC ride sanctioning (hopefully he'll bring back Michaux!), and had fun encouraging new rider, Sam Hammond from western NY state, who completed her first 50 that day.

G-unit proved that little can be POWERFUL!
By the 2nd vet check it was clear that 15-year old Gryphon was having a VERY good day. I caught up to frontrunner Laura Bramel on the 3rd loop and we left out together on the 4th loop, taking our time to let the horses eat and drink along the way before letting Laura take the win (my goal that day was best condition).

I almost didn't want this ride to end! Gryphon looked amazing at his best condition trot out, and I basked in the many compliments my plucky little rescue received before grabbing a brief nap.

All the riders and volunteers gathered for a yummy potluck dinner as the sun began to set. Realizing I couldn't wait for awards - I had nearly 8 hours of driving ahead - Dale agreed to pick up my loot and we hit the road with 2 glowsticks duct taped to the upper back corners of my rig since the running lights were on the blitz (don't worry! brakes and turn signals still operational!)

Lily snoozed and I played old CSNY cassette tapes: "Tin soldiers and Nixon coming ... four dead in Ok- Hi -Oh," pondering the weekend's events and what had transpired halfway around the world that same day, at the World Endurance Championships in Slovakia.

While my friends Meg and Tom didn't complete (Meg's Anglo Arab Rim was pulled at the last hold and Tom's Reinman, a second cousin to my Siena, at the exit exam before the 4th loop), three other U.S. horses - Greyson bred by the Crandells, Meg's mare Rabia and Valerie's Colin for Gold - all finished to make their riders from England, Guatemala and Japan and associated crews super happy and proud.

But what many will remember about this year's WEC is that a 15-year old chestnut mare from the United Arab Emirates, allowed to go out on the 4th loop despite fatigue and possibly some pain blockers, took such a bad stumble on course that she broke her right front leg and had to be put down right then and there. I heard that Tom's wife Gina witnessed the tragedy and know this has reopened the gaping wound of what's wrong with the international level of our sport, which uses fast flat courses that push even the best endurance athletes in the world to the breaking point.

I cried for that mare - I still do when I think of her helplessness to have her rider listen to her fatigue and the price she paid for human ego - and vow to do what I could as the owner of an FEI passported mare with much potential, as an apprentice FEI official and as a member of the AERC International Committee and board of directors to take a stand. Tom Hagis spoke for us all in his desire to see the  UAE riders banned for the next decade. As Neil Young sang so long ago,

Gotta get down to it, soldiers are cutting us down
Should have been done long ago.
What if you knew her, and found her dead on the ground
How can you run when you know?