If there is any silver lining to what has been a time of unprecedented uncertainly, fear and anxiety, it is this—
2020 will be the Year of the Trail.
COVID-19 has wreaked havoc on the equestrian competition season (First World Problem alert), cancelling everything from local schooling shows right on up to the 2020 Tokyo Olympics. This is a huge disappointment for riders that have been doing their homework all winter, especially those interscholastic and intercollegiate riders who saw their seasons abruptly end right when year end championships were scheduled to begin. Here in the northeast, our show season is pretty short anyway, so it won’t take much of a delay before it basically ends up not happening at all. And with more states enacting “stay at home” orders or lockdowns, those who board their animals are even being denied access to the companionship and comfort their horse provides.
On a more fundamental level, most equestrian organizations and facilities rely on monies garnered from their shows or clinics to help support operating costs; scores of trainers, grooms, braiders, exercise riders and more count on a busy summer season just to cover every day expenses. Losing horse shows may seem like only a superficial problem, but for a luxury industry like ours, the impacts are going to be even more wide reaching. Once this is over, horse and equine facility owners, particularly those who have faced a reduction in income, may have to make some hard choices.
Yet despite these uncertainties, I remain hopeful that positive change can and will come from these hard times. In particular, I believe that we will see more equestrians returning to their roots, focusing on simply enjoying their horses and hitting the trails rather than competing—and that puts those of us who have been advocating for stronger trail networks and a greater understanding of the positive economic, social and aesthetic benefits of maintaining healthy, multi-use trail systems in a unique position to recruit more support for our work.
In early February, over twenty New Hampshire area equestrian trails advocates gathered together for the first “Let’s Talk Trails” roundtable, organized by the New Hampshire Horse Council. We shared strengths and concerns and brainstormed solutions and ideas. Equestrian trail groups across the state are struggling with the same issues: declining membership, limited financial and human resources, increased encroachment on trails and loss of access. One theme became dominant through all the discussion—we need to do a better job networking not just with each other but with other trail users.
The work of protecting trails is not glamorous. It is joining local conservation commissions/trail committees and attending selectman’s meetings, keeping your ears open for opportunities to protect or grow equestrian use of public lands. It is joining land trusts, such as the Southeast Land Trust, the Monadnock Conservancy and the Society for the Protection of New Hampshire Forests, which are increasingly holding the easements on lands we once travelled. Land trusts and other conservation groups play an important role in protecting open space, but they often do not understand the needs or importance of allowing equestrian trail use, even on properties that have historically been used for this very purpose; as a member, we are poised to better advocate for equestrian access. It is taking the time, one on one, to speak with fellow equestrians about good trail etiquette, and also to reach out to our friends who bike, ride off road vehicles, hike or otherwise recreate on trails to educate them about safe interactions with our horses. It is talking to local landowners to hear out their concerns and ensure that equestrian use does not degrade the quality of their land. It is about looking at other trails groups as potential allies, not adversaries.
This past week I joined a webinar sponsored by American Trails, a thirty-two year old organization founded with the explicit purpose of “bridging the gap between different user types, across the whole spectrum”. American Trails is the group behind the formation of the Trails Move People Coalition (TMP), a consortium of ten different trail user groups ranging from the Back Country Horsemen of America to the National Off Highway Vehicle Conservation Council to the American Hiking Society, for the purpose of discussing and resolving those concerns affecting all groups using trails. Obviously, these diverse trail users will not agree on best practice for everything, but they are coming together with the hope of presenting a unified front for those topics where there is common ground. By becoming familiar with the needs of each type of trail user, the TMP is better able to advocate for a collective vision—one in which trail access is considered a critical part of the infrastructure of a community’s physical and economic health.
On the webinar, Mike Passo, Executive Director of American Trails, shared his thoughts on our unsettled times. “When coronavirus is all said and done, people are going to need to re-create themselves,” said Passo. “Taking away people’s ability to use their trails cuts at the core of a person.”
Through the Trails Move People project, Passo and other leaders hope to develop tools necessary to unify the greater trails community: gathering hard data on the value and impact of trail users, identifying funding and other resources that benefit the trails community as a group (especially to address the trails maintenance backlog) and advocating effectively for policy, legislation and funding decisions on behalf of the trails industry to Congress and other federal agencies.
Their goals are ambitious but essential. And even on this high level, the same theme came clear—there is a fundamental need for trail users to unite and to support each other in promoting our public and private trail networks as an essential bedrock to our local and regional communities.
The coronavirus/COVID-19 pandemic will change all of us in small and large ways. I fervently hope that for many Americans, this time of challenge will allow nearly everyone the opportunity to reset their compass and focus on those pieces of our lives that matter on a deep, fundamental level. I believe that most equestrians did not start riding to win ribbons; we started riding because we felt inexplicably drawn to these powerful and majestic animals. Those of us still lucky enough to have horses in our lives after the dust settles have a responsibility to remember that magic and to share it with others. It is the only way in which our industry will recover. Trail riding is equestrianism at the grassroots level.
It seems most likely that 2020 will not be the year of great competitive success. But it still can be a time in which we step towards other goals—goals which if they come to fruition will leave a long-lasting impact on our communities.
Are you willing to Hit the Trails with 2020 Vision?
If so, here are a few things you can do.
Join a trails group, and if you can afford it, join more than one. Advocacy starts at the grassroots, local level, so my personal opinion is that you start by supporting those groups that have the greatest impact on the trails/region where you ride the most. You can always expand from there.
Attend meetings or learn more about trails groups supporting different kinds of users. The more we as equestrians clearly understand what a snowmobiler, biker or ATV rider all need in their trail systems, the better poised we are to advocate for trail designs that can accommodate different users. Cooperation is a two-way street; equestrians are not the largest trail user group, and we are frequently misunderstood. It is up to us collectively to reach out and change that.
Introduce yourself to your town conservation commission. Find out what trail projects are already going on in the area, and start to look for ones that might be suitable for equestrian use.
VOLUNTEER! There will be plenty of grassroots work that needs to be done on trails networks across the county once we get the blessing to move freely again. Volunteering is free, gets you outside and is a wonderful way to meet other trail users.
GET OUT ON THE TRAILS. Take your horse somewhere you have never been. Explore a state park. Sign up for a hunter pace. Attend a meet up of a local riding club.
If living through the coronavirus/COVID-19 pandemic teaches us nothing else, hopefully it is a reminder that we are all deeply interconnected and must live and act in a way that considers the needs of both other people and the broader ecosystem to which we all belong. Working to preserve trails and protect equestrian access is important, and because most horse trails are shared trails, we will be serving to strengthen our ties to the local communities. And in a small way, we will be taking a step towards healing ourselves.
A few years ago, I founded an informal group called the Strafford County Equestrian Trail Riders. With just a small core group of volunteers, we have started chipping away at tasks including documenting and mapping existing trails/dirt roads in our country with the goal of creating a network, have helped to defeat a proposed “anti-manure” bill at the state level, and have represented equestrian interests to local land trusts and conservation commissions. Our total impact as of yet is not great but it is a start, a small step forward. And as everyone knows, a journey of a thousand miles starts with a single step.
Notes from a lecture presented by Dr. Susan Garlinghouse at the ECTRA Winter Getaway 2017
For horses covering long distances, the management of metabolic health is of the highest priority. For the competitive distance rider, attention paid to these specific parameters can spell the difference between a completion and a pull (or retirement, for riders used to other disciplines). Distance riding is a sport whose mantra is the phrase, “to finish is to win”. Most distance riders want to have a fun and successful weekend, which means that they are bringing home a healthy horse; to this end, they are always working to learn how to better care for their mounts.
Dr. Susan Garlinghouse presented “Beating the Metabolic Pull” at the Eastern Competitive Trail Ride Association (ECTRA) Winter Getaway in Boxborough, MA in early February, offering attendees instruction and strategies based on the most current of scientific evidence.
Dr. Garlinghouse is an endurance rider and has completed the grueling Tevis Cup no less than three times. She has ridden her Tennessee Walking Horse John Henry over 2,800 endurance miles. Garlinghouse referenced John Henry many times during her talks throughout the weekend, as her insights into metabolic management have been influenced by the additional challenge posed by preparing a horse with a dense build for strenuous competition. She is a well-known authority on many of the unique health and maintenance issues faced by the distance horse.
Garlinghouse emphasized that during a ride there are three primary factors which must be managed to ensure the horse’s wellbeing: hydration, gut motility and energy balance. They are listed here in their relative order of importance, and we will explore each one now in a little more detail.
Garlinghouse says that 90% of metabolic issues come from hydration loss. The line between “sufficient hydration” and a horse at risk is incredibly narrow. Horses sweat at the rate of 1.5-3.75 gallons per hour, and may produce over forty gallons of sweat during a 50 mile ride. During heavy exercise, horses may lose 5-6% of their body weight, with about 4-5 gallons of net fluid loss.
Dehydration during heavy work can affect equine athletes in all disciplines, and the effects come on quickly, beginning with 2-3% dehydration rates. Health concerns escalate rapidly from there. At 6% dehydration, capillary refill time and heart rate are elevated. At 8%, capillary refill time will be 2-3 seconds (normal is under 1), with dry mucous membranes, dry or mucous covered feces, and decreased urine output. At 10% dehydration, capillary refill time will be over three seconds, and the horse will have a high, hanging heart rate with weakness and cold extremities; this horse is in serious trouble. At 12%, the horse is close to death.
The difference between 4 to 8% hydration in a 1000 pound horse is only 4-5 gallons of water.
Some riders believe that the horse will naturally consume water sufficient to replace this lost fluid, but this is a myth. According to research done on fluid balance in endurance horses conducted at UC Davis, the horse will only replace about 2/3 of fluid loss through voluntary drinking. For example, if ten gallons of fluid have been lost, the horse will only voluntarily consume 6-7 gallons. Equally concerning is that this same research showed that over 60% of the horses starting at the 100 mile endurance rides where the studies were being conducted were already dehydrated to some extent, prior to starting the ride. Another 20% were at the high end of normal. Just 10% of the starters began the ride at optimal hydration.
Therefore, it becomes incumbent to create situations in which the horse will stay at a higher rate of hydration before and during the ride.
Garlinghouse offered several strategies to help with this. Even for the non-distance rider, some of these practices could help enhance their performance horse’s well-being, especially before intense work or competition. First, Garlinghouse recommends feeding lots and lots of hay—horses will drink 1.5-2 gallons of water for every five pounds of hay that they consume. She also reminded the audience that the rate of passage from the mouth to the hind gut is relatively slow. What you feed your horse on Thursday becomes their source of energy on Saturday.
Feeding soluble fibers, like beet pulp or soybean hulls, can also increase the fluid reservoir available to the horse during a ride. These feed stuffs help to retain fluid and electrolytes which the horse can pull from during exertion.
The manner in which we feed our horses is also important to consider. Garlinghouse explained that there are fluid shifts in the body associated with the consumption of large (over 4.5 pounds), episodic (fed more than 2-3 hours apart) meals. When we feed on this schedule, as much as 5-6 gallons of fluid shifts from the plasma and tissues and into the gastrointestinal tract, leading to a 15-24% reduction in plasma volume. The effect is transient, lasting two to three hours.
If your horse is at rest, this isn’t a big deal. But if your horse is teetering on the edge of being dehydrated, and then there is this huge fluid shift…well, that is not good.
To prevent this, riders must ensure that their horse has something going into their digestive system more frequently than every two hours. Garlinghouse emphasized that the quantity doesn’t have to be great—grazing, some carrots or apples, a baggie of soaked beet pulp—will all do just fine.
On a related note, Garlinghouse cautioned riders about the common practice of syringing large doses of electrolytes into the horse’s mouth, as this draws fluids from the plasma and into the digestive tract in a similar way to large servings of food. The effect can be minimized or eliminated by giving electrolytes in small but frequent doses, preferably after the horse has been drinking. So eight, 2 ounce doses is preferable to two, 8 ounce doses. Garlinghouse also recommends mixing electrolytes with a buffer like kaolin pectin to help reduce the risk of ulcers.
Another cause of excess dehydration is feeding high amounts of protein. Garlinghouse recommends feeding distance horses at a 10% protein rate. Protein fed at higher rates will be used for energy production, but processing protein in this manner results in waste heat, almost 3-6 times as much as what is produced through the processing of fats or carbohydrates.
Garlinghouse’s “Fast Facts” on Hydration:
Maximize your horse’s forage intake for 2-3 days before the big ride to increase their reservoir of fluids and electrolytes
Provide small, frequent meals throughout the ride rather than a few large ones
Minimize the amount of protein in the diet
While dehydration is responsible for 90% of metabolic problems, gut motility can be one of the first accurate indicators of stress. Gut motility slows down when blood supply is reduced, which can happen anytime the horse’s systems are under excessive demand somewhere else. This is because the gastrointestinal system is the last in line in terms of the “pecking order” amongst the horse’s body systems; vital organs like the brain, heart and lungs come first, followed by the muscles of locomotion, then skin surfaces for heat dissipation…and then the GI tract. This chain of command stems from the horse’s prey animal status; if you are about to be eaten, it is more important that you can effectively run away than that you can digest your breakfast.
For the well-being of the horse, it is important to actively monitor and stimulate GI activity during a ride. Garlinghouse recommends carrying a high quality stethoscope and have a vet teach the rider how to check all four quadrants. Improving motility can be as simple as keeping small amounts of feed in the stomach, which triggers a hormonal release thereby increasing motility. Another strategy is to occasionally slow down, which will reduce heat production and therefore the demand on the skin surfaces to release excess heat. The nature of distance riding can cause a horse’s body to think is constantly being chased. Slowing down will reverse this effect.
Garlinghouse cautions against feeding pellets or cubes at a ride, both of which require extra fluids to process. Instead, feed soaked products, including hay. The better the horse’s overall hydration, the more efficiently he will circulate his blood and therefore improve his gut motility.
A distant third to hydration and gut motility in terms of managing the horse’s metabolism during a ride is energy balance. There are many different strategies related to effectively managing a horse’s feed ration leading up to and during a ride. Garlinghouse helped to dispel some common misconceptions and offered some practical tips to help ensure adequate energy reserves for the endurance horse.
There are two primary sources of energy for exercise: fats and glucose (from carbohydrates). Fats are more energy dense, offering 2.25 times the energy of an equivalent amount of carbohydrate, and the body can store fats in much greater quantities. Glucose is generated from the breakdown of carbs; limited amounts are stored as glycogen in the muscle and liver, but glucose is the limiting substrate in fatigue. Therefore, the thoughtful rider should be trying to maintain glycogen stores by balancing the diet with fat.
Garlinghouse suggests a ration with 10-12% fat in a commercial grain is acceptable, so long as horses are given time to get used to it. Fats are calorically dense and help to maintain the horse’s body weight. They also have a glycogen sparing effect. Additionally, Garlinghouse recommends supplementing with a glucose source throughout the ride. Riders should not provide extra fats during a ride, as the horse cannot process fat that quickly. A horse in good body condition already has all the fat they need for the day’s energy requirements. Horses should not arrive at the ride so thin that ribs are visible, as they do not have an adequate fat reserve.
One of Garlinghouse’s most important messages related to energy balance was that horses should not receive a large grain meal within four hours of their ride. Feeding grain causes an increase in blood pressure, triggers insulin release and inhibits the utilization of fat. In the distance athlete, this is particularly troublesome because the horse will experience something similar to a ‘sugar high’; the transient effects of the grain meal will cause the horse to be hyper to start the ride but then they will experience a ‘crash’. Most grain digestion occurs in the small intestine, and the stresses of the ride will cause some of the grain to spill into the cecum undigested. The bacteria which live in the cecum are not able to process grain, and this can cause GI stress.
Garlinghouse again emphasized that horses should be fed a meal with a high glycogen index (like a sloppy beet pulp meal) not later than midnight before a ride. On the ride morning, horses should receive unlimited hay and then small, frequent meals throughout the ride day, which will minimize the insulin response while maintaining gut motility.
There is certainly always more to learn when it comes to managing a horse’s well being during a long distance ride. Garlinghouse gave attendees plenty to think about and apply to their own horse’s feeding and management strategies as we move into the 2017 season.
Spring has come early to these parts, and with it the itch to get out and about. After a two month rest during the heart of winter, the Dark Mare is working on getting legged up for what will hopefully be a full season of competitive trail riding. My big goal is to successfully complete the 80th anniversary three day 100 mile ride at the Green Mountain Horse Association (GMHA) in South Woodstock, VT, in September, the centerpiece of its Distance Days weekend.
Lee and I completed this ride in 2015, both of us rookies to the sport. It was singularly one of the most amazing and rewarding experiences that I have ever had with one of my horses, and I have been able to meet so many enthusiastic, helpful and fun people as a result of the training and preparation that went into it.
The 100 mile ride is the marquee event of the festival of trail riding that is Distance Days. There is truly something for everyone; if you enjoy amazing scenery, challenging trails, the camaraderie of fellow trail riding enthusiasts and the opportunity to pursue personal goals, Distance Days is for you.
Here are five reasons why YOU should plan to ride at the GMHA Distance Days.
1) Become a part of history.
The GMHA 100 Mile ride is, as ride manager Chelle Grald describes it, “the granddaddy of them all”. Begun by the fledgling GMHA organization in 1936, the ride initially was held in Rutland, VT, just over fifty miles away from its current home in South Woodstock. It was the first ride of its kind, and it remains the oldest distance ride in the US, predating the famous Tevis Cup endurance ride by nineteen years. It has run every year without interruption, with the exception of 2011 (you may remember a little storm called “Irene”, which blew through just before the ride weekend, leaving a good chunk of Vermont underwater….).
GMHA was founded as an “altruistic organization” for the purpose of encouraging the breeding and use of horses in the state of Vermont, as well as to develop a system of bridle trails throughout the state. In its early years, over one thousand miles of trails were marked, traversing from the Massachusetts state line in the south to the Canadian border. Dues in the early years were just $2.00, which included a subscription to their magazine.
The 100 mile ride quickly became the highlight of the organization’s annual calendar. Part social event and part horsemanship demonstration, riders came from as far away as Indiana and Virginia in the early years; some riders actually RODE to the ride, covering over three hundred miles before the competition even had begun. Riders ran the gamut—children as young as nine were known to complete the ride, and men and women alike delighted in the thrill and challenge. Mrs. Fletcher Harper, a passionate foxhunter, won the 100 mile ride riding side saddle.
All manner of horses have successfully completed the GMHA 100 mile ride—Welsh ponies, mules, Thoroughbreds, Morgans, grade crosses, and of course, the now ubiquitous Arabians. Families would line the route to cheer on the riders; for many of these non-equestrians, it was THE social event of the summer. In its heyday, the ride had hundreds of entrants and a wait list.
Distance Days represents the opportunity to participate in a piece of living history, to add your name to an ever growing list of riders (and horses) who tackled the challenge of traversing the rugged and beautiful terrain of the Kedron Valley.
2) Short Rides, Medium Rides and Team Events
You are quite probably reading this right now and thinking, “well, that sounds pretty amazing, but 100 miles is a LOOONG way.” You are totally right. Maybe you aren’t up for that challenge quite yet….
And that is why Distance Days offers more than just the 100 mile ride. There will be five other ride lengths for competitive trail riders: 15, 25, 35, 40, and 60 miles. The 60 mile is a two day ride, but the other rides are all one day long. The entrants on these rides will be sharing the trail with the 100 milers, and so if you and your horse aren’t up to the rigors of the full 100 miles, you can still get a taste of the ride on these shorter routes.
The 100 mile ride covers the 40 mile WHITE trail on day one, the 35 mile RED trail on day two and the 25 mile BLUE trail on day three. These trails cover terrain in the towns of Woodstock, Reading, Hartland, West Windsor and Hartford, and visit such historic and classic Vermont landmarks as the Marsh Billings Rockefeller National Historic Park and the Taftsville Covered Bridge.
Another aspect of Distance Days that is super cool is that the ride management has come up with a unique idea for this 80th anniversary weekend: the 100 mile team relay. There are several options, but basically 2-3 riders can make up a team, and by completing the requisite combination of shorter rides, can collectively complete the 100 mile distance. Special awards will be given to the team with the best average score over all their rides. If one rider were very ambitious but didn’t have one horse that could do all 100 miles, they could do each chunk of the distance on a different horse, or do 2/3 on one and the rest on another.
See, you could be a 100 mile rider yet!
3) Non Competitive Fun
Competitive trail riding is sort of unique among horse sports, because you really and truly are competing against yourself; rather, you are trying to use all of your horsemanship expertise to bring home a horse that is no worse for the wear after covering your chosen distance. Horses all start with a perfect score, and at the end of the ride, they are compared to their starting condition. Points are deducted for negative changes.
But some people really just aren’t into competing, and that is totally ok—Distance Days has something for them, too! CTR requires travelling at a faster pace than what many recreational trail riders might choose, and this could be another good reason to go with the Pleasure Ride option held on Distance Days weekend instead.
Pleasure rides will be offered on Friday, Saturday and Sunday of Distance Days. You can do any and all combinations of day(s). On Friday and Saturday, riders can choose from short (6-8 miles), medium (12-15 miles) or long (20 miles) options. On Sunday, riders can pick from 6 or 10 mile options.
Horses and riders which finish the entire weekend’s worth of long options (so 50 miles total) will complete the 50 Mile Pleasure Horse Challenge, and will be recognized at the Sunday awards ceremony.
4) Stunning Scenery
Let’s be honest—there aren’t too many places which can beat Vermont in the late summer when it comes to stunning views, the hint of fall color and crisp, clear air.
The Kedron Valley is an especially picturesque region of the state, with many classic New England style farm houses and barns, stunning estates, covered bridges and burbling brooks. Trails in the area are a combination of the quintessential Vermont dirt road and wooded routes.
And of course, there are the hills. No one will deny that a horse and rider must have a certain degree of fitness to handle them. The route covered during the Distance Days weekend tackles several of the most rigorous in the area, including Cookie Hill and Heartbreak Hill, for a few. But the reward for the climb to the summit is often a panoramic, expansive view, hearkening back to a time when horses were the dominant mode of transportation and the ‘conveniences’ of the modern era were far in the future.
The popular equestrian travel website www.equitrekking.com featured the trails around GMHA in its “50 States Trail Project” as the ‘place to visit’ in Vermont. You can read more about it here.
5) Friendship, Sportsmanship, Horsemanship and Love
The themes of “friendship, sportsmanship, horsemanship and love” are the dominant motivations for most of those who choose to tackle a challenge such as the three day 100 mile ride. Grald has decided to highlight the significance of each of these important values in the commemorative Distance Days Program, which will be given to all entrants. Included in the program will be vignettes from riders past and present, photos and even the recipe for the tasty Cookie Hill chocolate chip cookies.
Distance Days will feature several opportunities to socialize as well as to honor the contributions of the volunteers and landowners, without whose generosity these sorts of experiences would not be possible. The 100 Mile Banquet will be a fancy affair, to be held at the Woodstock Country Club and chaired by longtime Woodstock resident Mrs. Nancy Lewis, who rode in the 1946 100 mile ride. A special presentation by historian and author Dale Johnson at the banquet will spotlight the role of the historic Woodstock Inn Stables in the early years of the ride. Riders have a chance to thank landowners for their support at the catered BBQ on Friday, allowing a fun and informal opportunity to share memories and fun. Between the finish and awards ceremony on Sunday, 100-mile alumni will gather for a Longtimer’s Reunion. Finally, Sunday’s awards ceremony will follow the traditional catered brunch.
This ride has given many future endurance riders their first taste of serious distance riding, and has taught them the fundamentals of good horsemanship that these sister sports require. Judges Dr. Nick Kohut (current president of the Eastern Competitive Trail Riding Association) and Linda Ferguson Glock will bring their extensive experience as riders, organizers and volunteers to the weekend. Dr. Joan Hiltz will work with riders on the 15 mile ride. Each step of the way, horses are closely monitored by their own riders but also by these experienced horsemen, to ensure that the animals’ care and well-being remain of the highest priority.
In spite of its legacy, rides like the GMHA 100 mile can only continue to flourish with the support of riders who are interested in participating in the shorter distance events which run concurrently with it. With continued loss of open space to train, amongst other issues, fewer and fewer riders have the time or inclination to commit themselves to preparing a horse for such a rigorous challenge as a 100 mile ride. Events like Distance Days are incredibly important, because they draw together all of the diverse types of rider who are ultimately united through their love of horses and “riding out”.
I got on the Dark Mare (better known as Lee) today for our first ride since late December. In the ten years we have been together, this is the first time I have ever let her “rough out” for the winter. With our recent move and lifestyle change, though, allowing her some time for R/R seemed not just prudent but inevitable—what little tolerance I used to have for riding outside in the snow in sub zero temperatures wore off many years ago.
But spring is just around the corner, and ride entries for CTR’s are starting to come available, so I decided the time had come to get Lee back under tack. All things considered, for a sensitive Thoroughbred mare who has had two months off…she was pretty well behaved. I had planned to just walk around our fields for about an hour or so, but at the forty-five minute mark, her entire demeanor changed. She became jiggy and more spooky, and I could tell that she was on the verge of one of her infamous meltdowns. Deciding that discretion was the better part of valor, we headed home.
I was surprised when I untacked to discover that even with just that short bit of walking around, Lee had gotten a little sweaty on her hamstrings and under the saddle area. I think her “unsettled” behavior was just her way of telling me that she was tired and it was time to stop for the day. Knowing this, I will now adjust the plan for our next few weeks, taking shorter walks, with the goal of gradually working back up to one hour.
This experience reminded me of a fellow blogger’s post that I read just the other day. Her theme was that in training animals, it is important to consider the day’s interaction from the animal’s perspective. Specifically, she discusses that if you achieve your intended outcome for the day, but neglect to consider the quality of the interaction with the animal, then overall, your training has failed. Animals which are forced to submit to training, or who are pushed beyond their capabilities or physical endurance, typically do not willingly seek out that interaction again in the future. When considering your day’s work with the animal, the author asks, “Have you left the animal better off than before you interacted with him?”
Lately, I have been reading through some long archived copies of Dressage Today, and in the January 2007 issue, a reader “asked the expert” how they could better deal with resistance from their mount. I thought to myself that I would have no idea how to answer that question without more information, but Becky Langwost-Barlow, a USDF certified trainer, did an admirable job of doing so. Langwost-Barlow provided many excellent general thoughts in regards to resistance, but there were two paragraphs which I thought were just exceptional in regards to how the rider should handle resistance in their horse:
“Every rider makes mistakes. Some are small; some are huge; some last for seconds; some can continue for years. Even misreading how the horse is feeling can be a huge mistake, taking the rider down the path of resistance….I also don’t go for a 150 percent every time I ride. I try to break up the work and look for any sign of discontent. If the horse is cranky in his stall and doesn’t want to come to me, I know he’s not happy, and I need to look for the soreness or back off in the training.”
Being a true horseman requires that you be in tune with your horse and how they are feeling on a given day. During the summer I spent with Denny Emerson, he always reminded us that a rider cannot get on with an agenda, or be too earnest, because to do so usually meant that they rode without sensitivity or compassion for the horse which they were sitting on in the moment. While we were working to re-establish Anna’s confidence over fences that summer, there were many days where I would warm up and literally jump ten fences, then go off for a hack. It is far better to do too little in a work session than too much. The horse must always finish feeling like they have been successful.
This is not to say that you should ride without goals, or fail to address disobedience or other issues. However, such corrections must be done with mindfulness and compassion. In the November 2006 issue of Dressage Today, author John Winnett offered a historical overview in an article titled “The Foreign Influences on American Dressage”. This article discussed the role which many of the great cavalry officers played in shaping the development of riders in the US. I had never before heard of Jean Saint-Fort Paillard, a retired cavalry officer from Saumer (France) who later relocated to California after competing at the highest levels in show jumping and dressage. Paillard authored Understanding Equitation in 1974 and according to Winnett was known for his patient, humane approach to training. In Paillard’s words:
“Let us try to remember for a moment what the atmosphere in the riding hall or around the show ring would be if the horses yelped whenever they were hurt as dogs do. Wouldn’t certain jumping competitions be punctuated by howls of pain? And wouldn’t certain dressage classes be punctuated by plaintive whimpers? What a nightmare!”
I hope that this statement would give most thinking horsemen cause for pause; we certainly have all been witness to situations in which Paillard’s words might ring true. But in my opinion, a rider who overworks their horse, or who drills, or who doesn’t learn to feel enough to quit the day’s work before the horse is too tired or exhausted to argue, is just as guilty of being inhumane as the one who overuses whips, spurs, bits or various artificial contraptions.
We are only human, and the reality is that sometimes we are going to make mistakes, misread our horse or a situation, or react inappropriately. But the thinking horseman must recognize that they have erred and actively work to avoid doing so in the future.
In the memorable words sung by Kenny Rogers (and written by the much less well known Don Schlitz): “If you’re gonna play the game, boy, you gotta learn to play it right. You’ve got to know when to hold ‘em, know when to fold ‘em, know when to walk away, and know when to run.” In horse training, the thinking horsemen must learn when to push (know when to hold ‘em), when to quit for the day (know when to fold ‘em), when to end on a good note (know when to walk away) and when to abandon a training approach which isn’t working (know when to run).
Those who follow Denny Emerson’s Tamarack Hill Farm Facebook page may have caught his comments a few days back on the “innies” and “outies” of the horse world:
“In the great big world of riding, there are innies and outies, and this has nothing to do with belly buttons. Some riders love open spaces and no boundaries, while others find comfort and security within walls and arenas, with lots of technical requirements.
“And never the twain shall meet,” not quite literally, but how many times have you seen a dressage rider out fox hunting, or a trail rider showing a hunter?
Outie sports like fox hunting, where literally the riders have no idea, at any given moment, where the fox or coyote will lead them, or for how long, are far different from, say, show jumping, which has a specific track, and sequence of fences, and a specific start and finish, and a required time allowed.
It has been postulated that those who gravitate toward outie sports, like trail riding, fox hunting, point to point racing, and (sometimes) eventing have entirely different kinds of psychological profiles than those who prefer innie sports like dressage, show hunters and show jumping.
Outie sports tend to be less precise, exact and meticulous than innie sports. They are also often faster, perhaps more high risk, and less encumbered by rules and regulations.
Of these sports, eventing is perhaps the “swing’ sport, less outie than back in long format days, but still attracting both the innie and outie riders.
Which type of riding draws you in, the more precise, more specific innie sports, or the more “laissez faire” outie ones?”
I had to laugh a little after reading the post…because I seem to be living up to my Gemini nature and enjoy both worlds quite a bit. I have two horses right now—the distance horse that also does a bit of a dressage, and the “event horse who is becoming more of a dressage horse” who focuses much better on dressage days when we have the benefit of time spent outside of the ring in between.
I have successfully competed through 4th level in dressage, and even had the honor of owning a wonderful, big moving and super handsome Hanoverian gelding for five years who helped me finish my USDF Bronze Medal. But to just ride around and around the arena six days per week, even on a fancy mover who can execute flawless changes, smooth half passes and extravagant lengthenings, for me, starts to become a little repetitive. Worldly and I always hacked out a little bit—definitely with attention to the footing (wouldn’t want to lose an eggbar) and more frequent spooks at common objects, but I think the escape from the arena did a lot to keep his attention fresh and focus sharp when working on the precision, accuracy and submission that dressage requires. It also helped us when we showed at Saugerties (NY) and had to hack from the absolute opposite side of the show grounds, over a bridge, through the Marshall and Sterling League Finals, to the dressage arenas where the NEDA Championships were being held.
But on the flip side of the coin, I wouldn’t want to always ride out on the trail, either, for several reasons. It is one thing when a horse is totally retired, and they are basically being ridden to give them attention, companionship and light exercise. For most riders, though, riding only out of the ring makes it too easy to become sloppy and complacent with position, and to also become accepting of asymmetry in both horse and rider. Both partners will tend to favor their stronger side and do not have the same opportunity to address tightness, restriction and weakness on the less dominant side that those who work in the ring do. This kind of imbalance can, over time, contribute to uneven muscle development, saddle fit issues, pain and even lameness. I also genuinely enjoy the process of developing a horse for various arena disciplines; the steady progression of exercises and application of training pyramid concepts appeals to my methodical, organized, intellectual side.
As in most things, a balance seems to be required. Trail and distance horses, and their riders, certainly can benefit from the fundamentals of basic dressage to encourage suppleness, develop strength and improve the quality of communication. Work over basic cavaletti or even small fences can help improve footwork, coordination, strengthen hindquarters and can also prove helpful when crossing downed trees or other trail obstacles. Arena horses, like hunters and dressage horses, can also improve their level of fitness (both mental and physical) but by spending time OUTSIDE of the ring. The many balance checks required when going over uneven terrain on the trail can help to strengthen muscles and stabilize joints, hopefully helping to reduce the risk of injury from a misstep in the ring.
And just as one would not expect the trail horse to magically piaffe or clear a four foot spread in the ring, the arena horse would not be expected to handle the more significant terrain or speeds required of the competitive trail horse. Each has a specialty and is just ‘dabbling’ in the other area.
As an instructor and coach, I have been struck by how many students enter our college riding program, many from a hunt seat background, having never ridden out in the open. We are lucky to have an on campus cross country course, likely the only one of its kind in the country, where we run sanctioned events. Students riding in the more advanced levels of riding class have the opportunity to go school out on the course, under supervision. It is probably the most stressful week of riding instruction that I offer each semester, and a lot of what I have to do is manage the deep fear which many of these “arena riders” face in simply crossing the bridge to our course.
Many of these riders have never experienced even basic terrain, and have no knowledge of how to balance their horse going up or downhill, or how to hold their own bodies to stay centered when the ground is not level. They are not familiar with pulley reins, emergency dismounts or other techniques used to regain control of a fresh mount. I must constantly remind them that their arena jumping techniques should come with them onto the course, that all of the good practice and methods they have used to control pace, balance and form when jumping in the ring also apply to fences out in the open.
At the end of a school, the riders almost always fall into one of two groups—the ones which have experienced the first adrenalin rush of cross country, hooked, ready to go again, and the ones who (sometimes literally) wipe away their tears, happy to have survived the experience, hoping that they may never have to do it again. Denny was right—these are the outies and the innies. I guess we all do sort of have a tendency towards one or the other.
In the end, the question is whether you choose to accept your true nature, or whether you get brave, get disciplined, or some combination of the two, and step into the world which is less comfortable. My guess is that even if you don’t choose to stay there, you will be a better horseman for the experience.
I picked up Snyder-Smith’s book in preparation for my successful first time attempt at completing a three day 100 mile competitive trail ride. The author is an experienced horsewoman with a broad background and successful Tevis Cup completion on her resume; while the focus of the book was more on endurance riding than competitive trail, I found that more than anything, it was a book about good horsemanship, and there is something which riders of any discipline can take away from it.
In this book, Snyder-Smith takes a comprehensive look at the details of how to prepare a horse and rider team for success in the sport of endurance. Full chapters are dedicated to riding in balance, gymnastic development of the horse, conditioning and feeding the endurance horse and the merits of various types of equipment. The book concludes with a look at the requirements for crewing at an endurance ride and then the dynamics of a ride itself.
What struck me over and over in reading this book was how so much of what the author stated applied to not just endurance horses, but to all equine athletes. For example, she outlines the requirements for a successful endurance horse as follows: “good feet, a good respiratory system, a good mind, to be an efficient mover, the desire to do it” (Snyder-Smith, p. 8). However, these are ideal qualities for ANY performance horse, though perhaps certain other disciplines could be more forgiving to a horse which does not have the best attributes in some of these areas.
In her chapter on the importance of rider balance, Snyder-Smith goes into great detail on the importance of body awareness, symmetry and correct riding position and their collective effect on the horse for better or for worse. If a rider is expecting a horse to carry them over tens of miles of terrain, it is critical that the rider is doing their part to be efficient and to maintain their own balance and coordination. Horses can cope with rider asymmetry or weakness to a point, but adding in the cumulative stress of a long ride to the mix means that an inefficient rider can make the difference between a completion or a pull. Lest anyone think that trail riders need not be attentive to the performance of their mount, Snyder-Smith states that “Riding that is comfortable and productive for both horse and rider is based on the rider’s ability to feel the horse and what it is doing with its body” (Snyder-Smith, p 22). In other words, riding well, and riding correctly, matters!
In her chapter on preparing the endurance horse, Snyder-Smith addresses the difference between conditioning and training, and emphasizes that both are required for success in endurance. Snyder-Smith explains that endurance horses need to spend time in the arena in order to develop their flexibility, suppleness and strength. In fact, she proposes that basic dressage training is an excellent way to introduce a “systematic, gymnastic training program…to enable horses to perform to the limits of their athletic capabilities without injury,” (Snyder-Smith, p 63). Another especially important concept for successful conditioning is that “if you are not able or willing to listen to your horse and learn from him, your success as an endurance rider will be limited” (Snyder-Smith, p. 84). Again, the author is specifically referencing conditioning for the sport of endurance, but the reality is that this idea applies to all disciplines across the board. Another universally applicable statement is that “commonsense is the single ingredient that, when missing, causes the greatest damage to horses” (Snyder-Smith, p 87).
Throughout the book, Snyder -Smith inserts tips and helpful hints from her own experience as a distance rider. For example, she suggests mixing electrolytes with baby food like strained carrots or applesauce to make them more palatable. She also discusses the experience of how having a vet make a comment about your horse’s soundness at a check can cause even an experienced rider to doubt the animal’s fitness to continue. Having personally had this experience at a few rides, I know how much it gets under your skin and infiltrates your consciousness, even when you are really fairly confident that the horse is okay and what the vet saw might be just fatigue or the result of a misstep.
Overall, I found Snyder-Smith’s writing easy to follow and the concepts clearly explained and well-articulated. This book was immensely helpful to me in my own preparation for the 100 mile ride, and to help me as a novice to become more familiar with the requirements of the sport. But more than anything, I found the author’s perspective on horsemanship refreshing. Simply put, if you take your time, do your homework and only ask of the horse that which you have properly prepared them for, you can expect their best effort. For this reason, I would recommend the book to riders of any discipline who are reaching out of their comfort zones for a larger goal.
“If your horse has it in him, you’ll be able to get it out of him if you don’t ask for too much too soon and use him up,” (Snyder-Smith, p 175).
“Until one is committed, there is hesitancy, the chance to draw back. Concerning all acts of initiative (and creation), there is one elementary truth, the ignorance of which kills countless ideas and splendid plans: that the moment one definitely commits oneself, then Providence moves too. All sorts of things occur to help one that would never otherwise have occurred. A whole stream of events issues from the decision, raising in one’s favor all manner of unforeseen incidents and meetings and material assistance, which no man could have dreamed would have come his way. Whatever you can do, or dream you can do, begin it. Boldness has genius, power, and magic in it. Begin it now.” W.H.Murray
Murray was a Scottish mountaineer and writer, who spent three years imprisoned during World War II in an enemy camp. While there, he wrote a draft for a book later called Mountaineering in Scotland on the only paper available to him—toilet paper. So he knows a thing or two about being resilient, I should think.
Denny Emerson recited this quote to me after the Dark Mare (Lee) and I completed the seemingly impossible— the rigorous three day long, one hundred mile ride at the Green Mountain Horse Association Distance Days, held annually in South Woodstock, Vermont each fall. What made the completion so sweet, and somewhat amazing, is that previous to that weekend, the longest ride that my horse and I had ever done was a two-day fifty mile route, just one month before. 2015 was only our second season riding in competitive trail, and in 2014 we had ended our first year by finishing the 25 mile ride at this same event, feeling pretty proud of that accomplishment. To say that we were rookies is an understatement of the term.
Denny had first planted the seed in my mind that aiming for the 100 mile ride was a possible goal when I spent the summer of 2014 up at his Tamarack Hill Farm. At that point, Lee and I had done exactly one 10 mile “intro” conditioning distance ride. While up in Vermont for the summer, we finished two fifteen and one twenty five mile CTR, and completed one additional twenty five mile ride after we returned home. Even while I was letting the seed incubate in my mind, there was a more dominant, rational part of my brain which was saying—trying for the 100 would be ridiculous! You have never done more than a 25 mile ride. There is no WAY you will be ready, and you have no idea what you are doing.
But still the idea ruminated….
Planning and Prep
Being fairly new to the sport meant that I had no idea how one would go about conditioning a horse to do a 100 mile ride, never mind whether or not it was a good idea to even try to do so. I gain confidence from feeling well informed and making plans, and so I figured that the New England winter presented a good opportunity to do a little research.
I started with a cover to cover read of several books, especially Hilary Clayton’s bible, Conditioning the Sport Horse, which gave me an outstanding overview of all aspects of conditioning, from physiological changes to the various forms of conditioning (interval, long slow distance, skill drills, etc) to proposed conditioning schedules for various activities. I also read several books more focused on endurance than competitive trail, but still helpful gave many helpful insights and ideas: Go the Distance by Loving, Endurance Riding by Wilde and The Complete Guide to Endurance Riding and Competition, by Snyder-Smith. Two of the major takeaways from my research were that 1) just like marathoners don’t go out and run 26.2 miles every day to get ready for their marathons, 100 mile horses don’t go out and ride tens of miles every day to get ready either and 2) a horse who has remained in consistent, steady, 60 minutes/day/6 days/week of work for many years, like Lee, likely has a fairly good base to start with. Maybe this wasn’t such a crazy idea after all.
Next, I ordered a heart rate monitor and a GPS watch which measured distance and time. It arrived shortly after one of several February blizzards, and it took me until June to be able to figure out how to use it properly (when all else fails, but only as a last resort, read ALL of the directions). The watch was immensely helpful in teaching me a sense of speed over miles—CTR is based on maintaining a fairly steady 6-7 minute mile, and developing an awareness of what this speed feels like over varied terrain is important to ensure that you finish within the allotted window.
Finally, I planned a schedule for the season. As in any discipline, you can’t push for peak performance year round. I needed to develop a program which would allow Lee to steadily build her endurance and strength over time, without pushing so hard that she became sore or sour. I decided up front that if at any point she indicated that she wasn’t feeling up to the task, I would pull back and regroup. I live in seacoast, NH, where the terrain is rather…coastal. In order to get ready for the hills and rocks of Vermont, I needed to carefully balance speed work to improve cardiovascular capacity with maintaining soundness in the musculoskeletal system.
Finally, I knew that the CTRs themselves would serve as an important component to her conditioning. I decided that we would do the 15 mile ride sponsored by VERDA in mid May, followed by a one day 30 mile ride on flatter terrain a few weeks later in Maine (Lee actually was the high point champion that day!). Based on how she felt after the 30 mile, next I aimed for the 25 mile ride at GMHA in June, and entered the “intro to endurance” 15 mile ride the next day, to have our first experience of a “back to back” weekend. Considering that she was running away with me at times on the 15 mile, I figured she was coping ok! Our final CTR before the 100 was the two day fifty at GMHA in early August.
Before I began our conditioning, I had our vet, Dr. Monika Calitri of Seacoast Equine, out in March. Lee is 16, and I wanted to make sure that there were no signs of any trouble brewing which would preclude the commencement of her conditioning plan. With Dr. Calitri’s blessing, we got the green light to move forward with our schedule, and made a plan to recheck her in mid-June, after the back to back 40 mile weekend, to see how she was doing at that point.
As we progressed through each event, Lee felt better and better. There were a few bumps in the road—she had some minor girth galls after the back to back 40 mile ride, prompting me to ask the trail community for advice (mohair/string girths), and we had some soundness concerns raised by the vet judge at the 50 mile ride, which really gave me pause, though I could personally feel and see nothing wrong. However, she came out of the recovery phase of her 50 mile feeling better than ever, and after consulting again with Dr. Calitri, we received the green light to enter the 100.
Yet in spite of the successful completion of my preparation, and the encouragement of several mentors in the trail community, I hesitated to enter the 100 mile ride. I worried that I wasn’t qualified, that I was in over my head, and maybe rerouting to the 60 mile ride, being held the same weekend, was a better plan.
But then I realized that the major reason that I was vacillating about entering the 100 mile ride was because I didn’t want to not finish it. And as it turns out, if you don’t try, you certainly will not finish. The only way to finish a 100 mile ride is to start one.
So on closing day, I dropped my entry in the mail. And so began one of the most exciting and emotional weekends I have ever experienced with my horse.
Team Peanut Butter and Jelly
I can still count on just a few fingers the total number of people I have ever completed rides with, and not one of them was entering the 100 mile. I knew that in order to be successful, I would need the guidance and companionship of someone who had done this before. Through a mutual friend, I was introduced to Kat Waters, who was entered to ride Lee Alexander’s palomino Morgan gelding, Quinn. Kat kindly agreed to let me join her and her friend, Robin McGrath, who was ironically also riding a palomino Morgan, Flower. While it was Quinn’s first 100 mile ride, all other participants were veterans from previous years. As a group, we looked like two pieces of bread and the “stuff” in the middle—Team Peanut Butter and Jelly.
I must pause here to pay respect to both Kat and Robin, without whom I am sure I would not have completed this ride. From start to finish, we all functioned as a team, and enjoyed every minute on trail and off. Kat became the team statistician, keeping track of our pace and the remaining time allowed. We jokingly referred to Quinn as the “overlord”, as he typically led the group, comprised of his own personal harem. Robin and Flower helped to set the pace, with their infectious energy and enthusiasm pushing us forward through fatigue and the seemingly never ending Vermont hills.
Our group rode the entire 100 miles from start to finish together, and I don’t think there was a happier or more excited group at any phase of the way.
Day 1—The White Loop (40 Miles)
The day prior to the ride, each competitor was required to ‘weigh in’ on the GMHA Member’s Room porch, carrying tack, helmet, boots and any other equipment they would be carrying with them. Riders were divided then into “lightweight”, “middleweight” or “heavyweight” divisions. We also had the standard “vet in”, where we presented our mounts to the judges, Dr. Ann Chaffee and Eva Norris. Lee decided that she needed to liven things up by bucking vigorously during most of her trot out. Clearly my strategy to “taper down” before the ride had left her with plenty of energy— but unfortunately, you want to try to match your trot out at the end of the ride with your initial presentation, which meant we had a lot to live up to!
The first day of the ride was the longest on trail, and I was a little nervous knowing that it would be the longest distance I had ever ridden Lee in one go. To add to my nerves, the route was to take us over the trails in Reading, which are known for being exceptionally rocky and rugged, and therefore difficult to make time on.
Our day started early. There were just nine horses entered in the 100 mile ride, and so our group of three represented fully one third of the ride’s entry. We were certainly distinct—two Morgans of color and one decidedly Thoroughbred mare. No traditional Arabians here!
Once we got on trail, we quickly realized that our three mounts really were going to stick together just like peanut butter and jelly. The time passed quickly and Lee readily pulsed down at the half way hold. I was especially pleased because with such a long distance, the hold was at about mile 25—which meant that Lee had gone nearly as far as she had ever gone before without the benefit of a mid-point break. Other than being hungry, she seemed quite good to continue.
One of the funniest moments happened at a water stop. We had caught up with another small group of 100 mile riders, and so about five or six of us were standing in a running stream, allowing our horses to drink. Lee likes the moving water best, and had finally settled down to take a good drink in, when she decided that actually she was more concerned with scratching her face on her leg. Somehow, she slipped the crownpiece of her bridle right off over her ears! We were literally in midstream, and I was NOT interested in dismounting to fix the problem. I managed to keep enough pressure on the S curve hackamore noseband that I prevented the rest of the bridle from slipping off, and then somehow manipulated the rest of the pieces back into their rightful places, all with one hand.
Upon returning to GMHA grounds, Flower and Lee pulsed down quickly, but Quinn, who is a bit thicker in his muscling, struggled to recover in his pulse parameters, despite a reduced respiration rate. Kat needed to use every minute of extra time she was granted to continue to sponge and cool Quinn. Within the rules of CTR, the most we could do was hold him or refill her water buckets—no one but the rider is allowed to apply the water, except in an emergency. After an anxious wait on all our parts, Quinn was approved by the judges and Team Peanut Butter and Jelly remained intact.
We took the horses out for several walks and periods of hand grazing. Lee seemed pretty content, and I was incredibly pleased with her for handling the rocky, rugged terrain in the Reading area with such “fight”. I looked forward to the ride the next day.
The overnight temperature was expected to be in the low 40’s, but the early evening still felt fairly pleasant. It is not a temperature that I would normally choose to blanket at, so I was surprised to see many other riders bringing out coolers and sheets as the sun dipped down. Kat and Robin explained to me that after such a big exertion, the horse’s muscles need to be kept warmer than usual to prevent stiffness or cramping as they stood in the stalls overnight. Fortunately, I had a supply of appropriate horse clothing in the trailer, so I put a sheet on Lee too. This was just one of many tips this rookie picked up from the other riders.
Day 2—The Red Loop (35 miles)
Day two sent us on the thirty five mile red loop. Today, we were joined by a medium sized group of horses and riders who were entered in the two day sixty mile ride and a small group who were doing the thirty five exclusively. The 100 milers were sent out first, though, and it was as we were getting ready to leave that I began to realize what a celebrity status the 100 mile group had at the ride. People I don’t know, or have only met once, were there to see us off, and many of them knew who we were and who we were riding.
As we started out over some of the fields at GMHA, I could feel tightness in Lee’s back, and I had a moment of panic that she was not right after her long ride the day before. After a bit of warm up, though, I could feel her muscles begin to loosen, and her stride began to lengthen and swing as it usually does.
Day two was an exciting day on so many levels. First, the route took us on trails in the town of Brownsville which I had never seen before, including one road which allowed us a fairly stunning view of Mt. Ascutney. Second, once we passed through the safety check/hold at the half way point, each mile we covered was one mile further than Lee had ever gone before. I knew that even if we didn’t finish, at that point we still had accomplished a great deal.
I noticed at the halfway hold that some of the galling which I had experienced on the June ride was starting again, in spite of using the mohair girth. I ride Lee in an all purpose saddle that I fished out of a dumpster (I am not making this up), and I had it flocked with wool over the winter. Comparing where Lee’s girth sits in relation to her elbow to the same setting on the trail saddles my friends used, I could see that it really wouldn’t matter what style of girth I chose—the placement of the billets dictate that Lee’s sensitive skin behind the elbow is destined to become pinched over longer distances. Small issues with tack which are only minor irritations on a daily basis can become major issues or even deal breakers as the miles add up. I reset the saddle, stretched her legs, and hoped for the best.
When we got back to the GMHA grounds, it was clear that the galls had grown, even though Lee didn’t seem to compromise her movement because of them. However, her always-tending-towards-tight back was now incredibly sore, to the point where even a light brush of the fingers elicited a strong reaction, and she had two “hot spots” forming in the saddle area where she was exceptionally sensitive.
The judging team was not thrilled with these developments either, and they asked me to re-present Lee to them in the morning. The rules of CTR are quite clear that no lotions, salves, medications or other “product” can be used on the horses while the competition is underway; however, soaked towels, massage and hand walking are all completely legal. I spent hours over the afternoon and into the evening applying cool towels to Lee’s hot spots and galls, alternating with periods of hand walking and grazing or massaging the long muscles of her neck, topline and hindquarter.
Gradually, there was some reduction in the swelling, and Lee’s saddle area seemed to be less sensitive. Kat returned from afternoon chores on her own local farm with several different versions of saddle pad and girth to try for the third day, as it was clear that several of the galls correlated with the positions of the string on the mohair girth.
I spent an anxious night in my trailer, hoping that Lee’s sore spots would resolve enough overnight to allow us to start. We were so close to our goal, but I didn’t want to ride her if doing so was going to compromise her well-being.
Day 3—The Blue Loop (25 miles)
It was still night out when I arose to get ready for my AM pre-check on day three. Hoping that the coyote pack which seemed to visit the grounds each morning around 4 AM had finished its rounds, I headed to the barns. No one else seemed to be up and about yet, but the horses were alert to my activity. More horses had arrived the night before as riders settled in for the twenty five and fifteen mile rides happening on day three, and the barns were fairly full.
As Lee ate her AM feed, I cautiously checked the galls from the day before. Nearly all were flat or close to it, and her sensitivity level was much reduced. I spent a little more time massaging the big muscles of her topline, while trying to keep as much of her body covered with the blanket as possible. I had done nothing towards getting ready for the day—I hadn’t prepared my hold bucket or organized feed, I hadn’t tried on any of the borrowed pads or girths—as it felt too much like tempting fate to set up for something which I might not be permitted to do. Once Lee was done eating, I took her out for a graze and a long, loosening walk. I practiced a few trot ups to get her muscles supple and warm. She seemed willing to move and to trot, and maybe a little bit rolling her eyes at me as if to say, “Really? Again?”
At 5:45 AM, we presented to our judge team at the pavilion. They noted her improved topline and asked me to jog her. I am not sure I breathed the entire time we presented ourselves in hand, but I let out a long exhale when they gave me the thumbs up to start. Team Peanut Butter and Jelly was still holding together.
I had to hustle back in the stabling area to finish preparations for the day’s ride. I scooted right out of the pre-ride briefing in order to experiment with the tack options. I ended up using a quilted and padding enforced dressage pad I found in my trailer, with my usual half pad and Kat’s fuzzy double elastic girth. This combination seemed to provide good distribution of padding over the saddle area and also elicited only a minimal response from Lee as I tacked her up.
The last day of the ride was glorious. To be quite honest, after riding forty and thirty five miles, back to back, twenty five felt like an absolute piece of cake. We enjoyed gorgeous fall weather, stunning views, and the traditional chocolate chip cookies at the top of Cookie Hill. After we passed through the final half way hold of the ride, I realized I was smiling like a crazy person and getting a little giddy. We had less than thirteen miles to go. We just might finish this thing!
I am not sure I can fully put into words the feeling of returning to the White Ring for the third time, and hearing our names announced once more, this time proclaiming us one hundred mile finishers. People on the rail cheered. I just kept stroking Lee’s neck, silently thanking her for giving me her best over the entire process—not just these three days, but the weeks and months leading up to it. As we dismounted after crossing the finish line, I gave Lee a big hug around her neck. She sighed. She isn’t much for demonstration of affection but I think after 100 miles, she was willing to put up with me just a little longer.
Thanks and Gratitude
The entire experience of my first three day 100 mile ride was amazing and humbling. The people I have met in the competitive trail community have been truly helpful and have often gone out of their way to help my rookie self out—I am greatly indebted to the wisdom and guidance of them all, but especially Robin Malkasian and Kate Burr, Denny Emerson, Sarah MacDonald and of course Kat Waters and Robin McGrath.
These rides are a ton of work to put on, and I have found both the organizers and volunteers to be gracious and helpful, frequently answering my questions and giving me guidance. And of course, all riders must acknowledge the willingness of land owners to allow us access to their properties—such an amazing privilege.
To my friends at home who also have shown me so much support and love, helped train with me and take care of me and the critters—Dr. Amanda Rizner, Pam, Molly and Kaeli McPhee, Heidi Chase, Dr. Monika Calitri and our wonderful farrier, Nancy Slombo, who often will come on a day’s notice when I change my mind and decide that no, that shoe WON’T stay on through the weekend after all– my deepest gratitude and appreciation.
But my biggest acknowledgement of all must go to the Dark Mare herself. Anyone who knows Lee and I also knows what a tremendously long road we have been on together, literally and figuratively. I am so appreciative for all that she has taught me and for finally finding a niche in which this wonderful athlete can truly excel.
Green Mountain Horse Association’s 79th Annual 100 Mile Ride
Christina Keim and Liatris: 1st place Middleweight Division, Champion Rookie Rider, Perkion Trophy for Best Scoring Thoroughbred
Whatever you can do or dream you can, begin it.– Goethe
We joke that the Dark Mare, Lee, is a survivor. She lives her life in a fairly constant state of alertness, and if there is a sign of trouble brewing, she is going to get out of dodge. In her younger years, she broke cross ties and halters with frequent regularity and closely monitored objects such as dumpsters, mounting blocks and piles of jumps for the presence of trolls, chipmunks and other instigators of mayhem. While she has mellowed somewhat, in general, if danger is afoot, Lee is leaving—with or without you.
When Lee gets upset about something, she can really revert to a primitive state of fight or flight. On the one hand, it is easy to understand that this reaction has kept horses as a species alive for eons, and the behavior is imprinted in her genetic code. But at the same time, it is frustrating because the reaction can be so out of proportion to the problem. And at some level, one would hope that her training and systematic exposure to all kinds of stimuli would result in at least one ounce of trust in her humans, but this has not always been the case.
As a result of dealing with this behavior for the better part of a decade, I realize that I have come to assume the worst of Lee in many circumstances, expecting her to have mini or major meltdowns over various situations. You might think that I am about to tell you how my preconceived ideas usually set up a self-fulfilling prophecy, and that Lee lives up to my (minimal) expectations when push comes to shove. However, increasingly, the opposite is the case, and perhaps it is I who has the trust issue, not Lee.
This March, tired of being in the indoor and looking for a change of pace, I was riding Lee in the dirt parking lot at the University of New Hampshire during its Spring Break week. The footing was actually quite good given the season and weather we had experienced this winter, but the lot was ringed with a decently sized plow bank creating a de facto fence line and leaving only one entrance/exit from the lot. I had planned to do a set distance, changing direction at regular intervals, working at the trot and canter. As I was getting close to the end of my set, I noticed a fairly dark and ominous looking cloud in the not so far distance, coming from the direction that ‘weather’ normally approaches us from. “I am almost done,” I thought. “Two more laps and I will head in. No problem.”
Almost before the thought was complete, the wind picked up like I have never experienced and began to howl. Debris that I hadn’t previously noticed was flying sideways and into us. Suddenly it began to precipitate—something. Hail? Snow balls? I couldn’t even tell you because the intensity of the icy precipitation combined with the incredible wind meant that I couldn’t even lift my head. Lee instinctively swung her hindquarters into the wind, but we were still being pummeled from all sides and were instantly soaked through. I had no idea what was going to come next—I wondered if a tornado were about to blow through, and had the thought, “so this is how it will end”.
We were not in a safe situation, and I knew we needed to get out of there, but due to the snow banks and our position in the lot, to do so required riding the length of the parking lot heading straight into the wind and snow/ice/rain to reach the exit. I truly couldn’t even raise my head to see ahead of us due to the intensity of the weather, so I dropped down onto her neck and yelled “go on!” to Lee over the wind. And sure enough, Lee actually went—straight into the wind, neck and head down, in spite of the power of the frenzied air. As soon as we rounded the corner, I urged her to the trot and we made a break for the barn, wind to our backs.
I was impressed with Lee that day. She would have been well within her rights to bolt or panic, to scoot or ignore me. But for whatever reason, she didn’t. I was (and still am) quite proud of her for all of it and for getting the both of us to safety.
This spring, I had to move both of my horses to new facilities. Anna had been in the same barn for five years, but Lee had been at UNH for over ten. I wasn’t too worried about Anna making the transition, but I honestly worried and worried about Lee. I can worry like it is my job. The barn she moved to is a low key private barn at my good friend’s home; it allowed Lee her own paddock with run in and access to dirt roads and trails. Perfect. Yet I worried. My friend has a mule—what if Lee is scared of her funny mule noises? The fencing is just electric wire. What if Lee doesn’t see it or respect it? What if I can’t ride Lee alone on the roads? What if…?
The night before the move, it poured, the first rain in almost a month. When I say it poured, I am talking about the soaking type of deluge that saturates you through to your core instantly, the kind that is like a hose from above. I don’t think I slept more than a few fits and starts as my anxiety and worry ate away at me. What if Lee won’t go into the shelter? What if she works herself up into a colic?
As I hitched up the trailer in the pouring rain, I not so silently cursed the Powers That Be for the weather on this most important of days. The schedule was to move Lee first, then go back and pick up Anna, since she was taking over Lee’s stall at UNH.
When we arrived at Namaste Farm, Lee fairly quietly unloaded, marched into her new abode, and took a tour around. She didn’t touch the wire fence. She didn’t respond when her new neighbors whinnied to her. While clearly not 100% settled, she was far, far less worried that I was. We did end up having to lock her into her run in that evening, as it continued to pour, because she wanted to stand outside near the other horses (who had sensibly gone into their own sheds) even once she was shivering under her rain sheet. Once she figured out that the shelter was dry though, she began using it on her own when the doors were re-opened the next day. We haven’t had to shut them since.
After a day or two to settle in, I took her for her first ride. I decided to start in the fields first. Lee’s new neighbors whinnied as we left, but she didn’t answer, and instead was all business. But when we got to the fields, she became quite unsettled and agitated, and was being overly spooky and difficult. “Here we go,” I thought to myself. “I knew this would happen. She is going to be unrideable here.” I ended up having to dismount for safety and led her in hand for a bit, full of negative thoughts and wondering what I had gotten myself into.
The fields were soaked after the heavy rain and I was worried about leaving hoof prints once she started to act up, so I decided that maybe I should try taking Lee down the dirt road instead. I had hesitated to start with this, because the traffic on the road can occasionally be unpredictable and since she can be too, I thought it might be a bad combination. However, I knew that on the road I could more confidently ask Lee to go forward and it seemed like maybe that was just what she needed.
So I gamely re-mounted and headed off down the road, away from the farm. Almost instantly, my reliable distance horse was back. She happily trotted off, one-two-one-two, going all the way to where the pavement starts near the town line, and then home. No issues. No spooking. No drama. She was in her Zen place.
And so it has gone with Lee at Namaste Farm. Since that first ride, she has gone all the way into Newmarket and into a little subdivision, she has ridden alone and in company to Adams Point and seen her first cormorants and sailboats, and she has even come to tolerate the fields (though the bugs which live on them, not so much). She has done nearly two hundred miles of trail since her arrival, and is just one of the herd.
I don’t think I will ever stop worrying about things which haven’t happened and might not ever happen. I can at least recognize that the worry and anxiety I feel is, for me, an inevitable part of change, but I also am trying to learn to be more accepting of the fact that some variables are just out of my control. I think worry starts with some kernel of truth, but then it can grow and mutate and take on a life of its own.
I need to start to give Lee more credit for the animal she has become. On August 1-2, she completed her first two day 50 mile competitive trail ride (CTR), and I never felt one ounce of quit in her the whole weekend. In a week, she has more than recovered and was joyfully jigging all over the place on our AM ride today. While I am sure there will be situations in the future where the “survivalist” Lee comes back, I also think that I know the horse well enough to start to trust that she will cope more often than she won’t.
As we all know, trust in any relationship is a two way street. Perhaps Lee and I are more alike than we are different in our tendency to worry. Sometimes I take care of her, and sometimes she takes care of me.
c 1991 Sport Horse Publications, Mason, MI, 256 pages
Still referred to by many as the “Bible” of equine conditioning principles, I picked up Clayton’s 1991 work, Conditioning Sport Horses, this past winter as I was beginning to think seriously about the demands of conditioning for long distance riding. I was worried at first that the book might be a bit dry or too technical for me, a non-scientist, to understand. However, Clayton is skilled at breaking down complex concepts into manageable pieces and I found it a fairly pleasurable read.
Conditioning Sport Horses is divided into three chunks. Part One looks at the major systems involved in the process of preparing a horse for athletic work and devotes full chapters to the cardiovascular and respiratory systems, energy production, muscles, thermoregulation and fluid and electrolyte balance. Part Two delves into the “practical aspects of conditioning” and covers concepts such as general conditioning principles, cardiovascular conditioning, strength training, increasing suppleness, and managing these elements in a horse’s overall training program (including using a heart rate monitor and providing adequate nutrition). Finally, Part Three shows how to use these concepts to prepare a horse for the specific demands of various disciplines; Clayton addresses the traditional sport horse disciplines but also several western sports as well as polo, endurance and chuck wagon racing (!).
I read this book much like I would a text book, underlining key concepts and passages and pasting sticky notes on others. Doing so really helped me to dig into the material. While I have studied conditioning concepts in the past, I have never done so with the intensity or scrutiny that I have brought to my work this season, and Clayton’s writing included many important concepts and principles that I am not sure I have truly ever heard before, as well as reminded me of old favorites.
For example, we have all been told that we shouldn’t feed our horses immediately following a hard work because the blood supply has been shifted away from the digestive organs. Clayton includes a graph which shows that during exercise, just over 75% of the cardiac output and distribution of blood flow is shifted to the horse’s muscles, and less than one quarter is dedicated to all of the other organs in the body. A horse at rest is nearly opposite of these values. Seeing the ratio so clearly visually depicted really drove the point home (see Clayton, 1991, page 14).
Another relevant question was answered in the chapter on thermoregulation. Here in New Hampshire, winters can get downright frigid, and the question “when is it too cold to ride” is often raised, in particular in reference to whether or not conditions are safe for the horse. Clayton settles the point clearly: “Compared with horses exercising at normal temperatures, horses undergoing strenuous exercise at -25* C(-13* F) have no significant changes in heart rate, lactate production, blood gas tensions, gait or lung tissue morphology” (Clayton, 1991, p 70). So next winter when I choose to not ride when the temps are in the single digits, I will know that it is for me that I am staying in the warmth, not for my horse!
Perhaps one of the most interesting segments of Conditioning the Sport Horse is the section on general conditioning principles. When most riders think of conditioning, it seems that their minds immediately go to the concept of “sets”; going out and riding at a certain speed or pace for a specific period of time, then allowing the horse to partially recover before completing another round. I am not sure that riders in non-aerobic disciplines (dressage comes to mind) often think hard about their horse’s “conditioning plan”. Clayton explains in great detail that the term conditioning encompasses far more than just improving the horse’s cardiovascular capacity; in fact, this system is the fastest one to improve with exercise, while other equally critical systems (such as the musculoskeletal system) lag behind. If a rider fails to address each of the critical areas of conditioning, their equine athlete’s performance will be compromised (at best) or they will risk injury or breakdown (at worst).
There are three components to the volume of exercise which a horse is in: intensity, duration and frequency. Smart riders are able to gradually increase the horse’s capacity in each of these areas, though not in all three at once (Clayton, 1991, 80-81). Strategically incorporating the various forms of conditioning with these principles will allow for the most consistent and safe increase in athletic capacity.
This book is full of practical and useful tips, everything from how to make your own electrolytes (3 parts sodium chloride to one part potassium chloride—see page 72) to how to introduce fitness concepts to a green horse in any discipline to feeding strategies for animals in endurance sports which will maximize performance. In the chapters on specific disciplines, Clayton provides clear and do-able formats for conditioning in each sport, attending to each of the major categories of conditioning. I learned a lot from reading each chapter, even for those disciplines which are not my specialty.
If you are going to consider yourself a serious student of the correct and conscientious development of the equine athlete, you simply MUST have this book on your shelves. Read it, underline it, dog ear it, and refer to it regularly as you create a conditioning plan for your athlete— and whether they are a dressage specialist, a reiner, a show jumper, or something else, your horse will thank you.
When we were kids in school, most of us were told to keep our eyes on our own papers. Ostensibly, this was a punitive measure for not studying, designed to prevent us from getting a leg up from the students around us who we perceived to be smarter than ourselves or more likely to have the correct answer. However, it is quite often the case that we in fact do know the right answer, and keeping our eyes on our own papers is a means to demonstrate our own skills, knowledge and strengths.
I have long struggled with feeling insecure about my riding, probably because it is the one thing above almost anything else which is tied to my self-identity. Riding is a humbling sport, in so many ways. How many times have we equestrians said that horses are our best teachers? Every single day, we can learn new things about ourselves, our own horses, and about horses in general, if only we are willing and able to listen. But sometimes our eyes stray, and we take in the movement of another horse, the skills of another rider, the amenities of a different facility, and we begin to doubt the value of what we have in front of us.
This happens to me all the time. But I am slowly learning the value and technique of riding your own ride.
This spring has been a time of real growth for the dark mare, Lee. As we progress towards our season’s goal of completing the three day 100 mile ride at GMHA in early September, I have been gradually stepping up her competitive distances. This May, we rode our first one day thirty mile ride. It was full of new adventures—we had to camp the night before, with Lee spending the night in a three sided cow stall at a fairground in rural Maine, while I slept in my horse trailer (the part the horse rides in, not a tack room or LQ). We didn’t know anyone there, but the other riders and organizer went out of their way to be helpful and friendly to the rookie rider and horse. The morning of the ride was cold, in the thirties, and as I hand grazed Lee before the ride started she was leaping about at the end of the line. I am sure that some who witnessed her behavior wondered how the rookies were going to fare that day.
We rode out with another rider, a gentleman on a lovely Dutch Harness Horse who was doing day one of the three day eighty mile ride. Lee has overall gotten much better about going out on her own, but has a hard time leaving other horses if they are around. So for the first several miles, we stuck with the gray gelding and his veteran rider.
As both horses began to loosen up and get moving forward, they seemed to be staying at a steady pace consistent with the training rides I had been doing with Lee. The terrain on this ride was mostly flat, which meant that it was easy to sort of just motor along. This rider told me that he had more recently been doing endurance competitions (which is essentially a race) and so was needing to readjust his sense of pace to suit competitive trail, which requires riders to finish within a set window, neither too slow or too fast. He used a combination of trot and canter, and for a while I kept pace with him.
But then I looked at my watch, and I realized we were averaging five minute miles. I knew that this was not a pace that Lee could sustain, nor was it necessary to do so to finish the ride on time. So I gradually held Lee back, allowing the gray horse to push further and further ahead, eventually leaving our field of vision altogether. For the first time in her competitive trail career, Lee and I were riding alone.
Without a friend to lead her, Lee was a little less confident, spooking or shying more than usual, but she gradually settled into her own rhythm and continued steadily forward. We continued like this for nearly ten miles, and as we traveled along, I reflected on the truth of needing to do what is right for your own horse. In endurance riding, the tag line is, “to finish is to win”, and experienced riders talk about the importance of building a horse up for years before they get to the level of strength and experience that they can actually race and attempt to win at rides. Competitive trail is assessed by more subjective criteria than endurance, but the overarching theme is that your horse must be well taken care of before, during and after the ride if you are going to achieve a good result. That means that you, the rider, must make good choices for your horse in terms of when and how hard you push them onwards, which requires that you have an excellent awareness of both their fitness level and condition as well as how they are handling the ride that day.
Lee and I caught up to other riders at the half way hold, including our friend on the gray. She quickly pulsed down to recovery criteria and continued on in good form. But I don’t think this would have been the case if I had tried to keep up with the other horse. It wasn’t a question of his horse being ‘better’ than mine, or he being a savvier rider. She simply wasn’t as fit as he was, because the two horses are currently on different training paths. The gray horse’s pace was inappropriate for Lee. It was important for me to stick to what I knew was right for my own horse, and to ride my own ride.
This June, I had the amazing opportunity to officiate in the Connemara division at the Upperville Colt and Pony Show, held in the heart of Virginia horse country. This year was the 162nd anniversary of the show, and my first time officiating as a licensed USEF judge. No big deal—just one of the most prestigious “AA” shows in the country, and the largest sanctioned Connemara division. I admit I was nervous to be a part of such a cultured history in horse showing.
The show grounds are incredible, and overall the quality of the horses there matches the atmosphere. One doesn’t bring the average workaday hunter to compete at Upperville. This is a land of quality breeding, high end care and all the accoutrements that go along with it. There are classes running on both sides of the street, countless vendors, spectators everywhere and golf carts galore. The evenings each feature some sort of marquee class, one night a grand prix, the next a $25,000 Hunter Derby. Ringside parties are attended by richly dressed members of the social elite; the old money just oozes off of them, in the most non ostentatious way possible. I am confident that the amount that most competitors spent on their week of showing would send a family of four on a decent vacation.
It would be so easy to become jealous of the riders there, to long for a pair of their custom field boots (made by someone whose name I can’t pronounce), to covet their high end tack, their amazing, highly trained jumper (the one who TOTALLY ignored their cues to leave a stride out at the combination and who instead smartly touched their feet down just so and carried that rider straight into the jump off).
But instead, I am learning to ride my own ride.
Instead of getting overwhelmed by the sheer affluence of the horse show, I found myself able to look at it with new perspective. We can spend our time bemoaning the “things” or the assets which we haven’t got, or we can spend that same life energy focused on using our resources to their best advantage. My pocket book may not be anywhere near as deep as that of the average Upperville competitor, but that doesn’t mean that I am not making steady progress towards my own goals. Being a successful rider means different things to different people, and for me, my own success is not dictated by the caliber of the competition which I am able to afford to attend. We each have to set those goals which make the most sense given our unique set of variables. We need to know which goals are most important to us, and by identifying the destinations which matter the most, we can better prioritize whatever resources we have at our disposal towards reaching that goal.
Finally, I have a sneaking feeling that there are people who I know, who I am friends with on Facebook, who I see out and about, who are looking at me and saying, “gee, I wish I had what Chris has…she is really living the dream”. I have two horses, a truck and trailer, a great job which allows me the freedom to pursue some of my own equestrian goals as well as the opportunity to be doing “horse things” for my paid work. I appreciate how truly fortunate I have been to get to where I have gotten to, with the support of so many friends and family members that I couldn’t even begin to name names. Sometimes I wasn’t as grateful to them as I should have been, for which I am sorry but I am trying to be better. And I am trying to be better about keeping in perspective the fact that there are aspiring riders who would love to be standing in my shoes.
So the next time you find yourself saying, “if only…” stop and ask yourself instead why you think that what the other person has or is doing is better than you. Consider if the answers you have put down on your own paper are, in fact, valid and correct for you.
Ride your own ride.
Celebrating the incurable addiction which is being an equestrian