Without a doubt, 2020 has not turned out to be the year that anyone anticipated. Since March 11, when the World Health Organization declared the COVID-19 outbreak to be a worldwide pandemic, most of the structures, routines and patterns of our day to day lives came crashing to a halt. Seven months later, we are still riding the tide of changes effected as a result. Although change is inevitable, forced change, particularly when it occurs so swiftly, can be difficult to process.
Here in the U.S., the pandemic has only highlighted the gross inequities in our society, and the stress it has induced has brought many citizens to the breaking point. I am deeply grateful to have some sense of security in these challenging times, but I grow increasingly aware that my situation comes from a place of privilege, and that I work in an industry still uncomfortable with this subject. Recent dialogue on the questions of diversity, accessibility and disparity within both the equine industry and society as a whole is essential and ongoing.
When I read news stories about current events, I am gripped with a feeling of helplessness. If I think too deeply about the pandemic and its wide-reaching implications, about how it has exposed the inherent weaknesses in even supposedly “developed” societies, I feel a sense of panic about what is yet to come. Individually, we have so little control over what will happen next; collectively, we are on the same ride whether we like it or not.
What I can control, in uncertain times, is my own attitude and my own choices. Small acts of kindness, compassion and empathy do matter, and many small acts taken as a whole become something greater, a power that can overcome hatred, prejudice, self-centeredness and adversity.
With all that is going on in the world right now, it feels trite to discuss my personal goals in riding. But I also believe that despite everything, it is critical to keep moving forward when and where we can, and spending time with my horses is something that brings me a sense of fulfillment. I know this is a sentiment that many of my readers can identify with. Like many of you, I am a goal-oriented person; having something concrete that I am working toward helps to provide focus to my rides and a structure to my routine.
Early in the pandemic, I was scrolling through Facebook, where I saw that a friend had posted that she was participating in a 1,900 mile equestrian challenge along the Pony Express route. Intrigued, I clicked on the post (as one does) to learn more. This led me to the website of WARHORSE Endurance, the brainchild of Christina Hyke, an avid endurance rider, organizer and photographer based in Wisconsin. The mission of WARHORSE Endurance, according to its website, is “to provide riders, carriage drivers, runners, hikers, cyclists and walkers with a goal to aim for, an online community to cheer each other on and a completion award to commemorate their amazing journey.” Through this program, Hyke created a series of virtual challenges conceived to keep riders motivated and on track in their conditioning plans, despite the cancellation of most formal distance rides. But perhaps more importantly, she also established an international community that (via social media) could celebrate in our uniqueness while sharing in each other’s progress, offering support during setbacks and celebrating success.
To me, this sounded like just the tonic to neutralize the pandemic blues.
The WARHORSE Endurance “virtual ride” concept is rather simple. Mileage reporting is done on the honor system; entrants track the miles they spend leading, riding or driving their horse using their preferred app, then upload their progress to the website. There is also the option to include human “conditioning” miles spent hiking, running or bicycling to the mileage total. You can include miles logged all on one horse or on multiple horses. You can drive your horse. You can handwalk your rehabbing veteran, longline your green bean, or any and all combinations of the preceding options. Each challenge is what you make of it, so long as the miles are spent purposefully.
By the time I learned about WARHORSE, Hyke had already filled enrollment in two 100 mile virtual challenges and was working on filling a third. She donates a portion of each entry to charity, and when entrants reach the 100 mile threshold, they receive a medal, a patch, and/or a lapel pin, depending on the specific event.
The Pony Express 1,900 Mile Challenge that had caught my eye was Hyke’s newest venture. In what might be the longest virtual equestrian challenge in the world, entrants log their miles and track their progress along the approximate route of the Pony Express. The Pony Express ran for just eighteen months between April 1860 and October 1861, with riders starting in St. Joseph, Missouri (today commemorated by the National Pony Express Museum) and ending in Sacramento, California (now marked by the Pony Express Memorial). Back then, riders covered the route in only ten days. Virtual riders have seven years.
Time has eroded many of the specific locations of the route’s 100 +/- stops, and according to the National Park Service, “the trail’s actual route and exact length are matters of conjecture.” Therefore, the virtual route is approximated based on Hyke’s research, and an online map lets riders learn about known points of interest along the way.
Now, 100 miles is a long way to ride, run, hike or bike. 1,900 miles—from Missouri to California—is almost unfathomable. But with seven years to finish, that’s just 271 miles per year. Less than one mile a day. And if you are riding in some of Hyke’s 100 Mile Virtual Challenges, those miles can also count toward the Pony Express.
Broken down into smaller pieces, this is do-able.
In early June, I signed up for the Pony Express Virtual Challenge. Within about a week, I decided that the medal for the Valkyrie 100 Mile Challenge was pretty cool (a winged Pegasus), so I signed up for that too. Then I added the Ranger 100 Mile Challenge to my agenda when it opened in early July. And I am not ashamed to admit that on September 1, I signed up for the Journey 100 Mile Challenge too.
For me, each of these challenges is a unique opportunity and a motivation get out there with my horses, even if the world is feeling heavy. I am able to customize each Challenge, pushing me to spend more time on trail with all of my horses. It has provided a necessary and refreshing break to the routine of schooling in the arena. It has motivated me to visit new to me public trail networks. It has reminded me that while conventional competition can be fun, it has never been the end all be all for me when it comes to riding and horsemanship.
You might be thinking, I could never ride my horse 100 miles. That is so far! But yet….
Horses walk at about 3 miles per hour. Most of my rides have only been forty-five minutes to an hour, two or three miles in length. Since June, I have logged nearly 300 miles, mostly walking along the powerlines in my backyard. All of these small rides, over time, add up to something much larger.
And along the way, so many beautiful moments.
Such as– my retired distance mare Lee completing all 100 miles of the Valkyrie Challenge by late August, the final ride a 2+ mile hack squeezed in between thunderstorms on a Sunday evening that I probably would not have taken otherwise.
Or this–my Third Level dressage pony Anna completing 95 miles toward the Ranger 100 Mile Challenge. One evening, we were followed by a doe deer; on another, we came face to face with a surprised barred owl. Dividing our time between ringwork and trails, I hoped to complete the Challenge by the end of October. Weather willing, it looks like we are on track to do just that. Where our dressage training has felt less than stellar lately, here is a goal that we can attain.
With former lesson horse Marquesa, I have carved out a special route now dubbed the “Queso Loop” in her honor. Just over a mile and half in length, it is the perfect outing for a 24-year-old veteran mare when I am short on time. This past week, we found fresh moose tracks right near our farm.
And on the Pony Express route, their collective efforts have taken me out of Missouri, through Kansas and into Nebraska.
But for the Journey 100 Mile Challenge, I decided to do something a little different. The Journey Medal design incorporates the running Warhorse logo, the flying Valkyrie and the Pony Express rider into one piece of art, and the Challenge is dedicated to “enjoying the journey”. Instead of only using miles ridden on one specific horse, I decided that the only logical way to tackle this final 100 mile challenge of 2020 would be to divide the miles among each of my five mares, twenty miles each. It seemed such a beautiful symbol of the journey I have been on and continue to travel with each horse, as unique individuals.
As of October 15, I have 60.6 miles toward Journey’s completion. Lee handily finished her twenty mile contribution early on; Queso has posted just over thirteen miles and young Izzy, who is just learning how to go out on trail, has added 10.5. Once she has finished Ranger, Anna will start working on her twenty mile segment. And with three-year-old Nori, who is not yet backed, I have handwalked just over eighteen miles, often in the dark of a mid-autumn evening. I hope to complete each mare’s segment before autumn’s breeze turns to winter’s chill, but even if I don’t, every stride my horses take brings us one step closer to attaining the goal.
And in reality, this is how we collectively must get through these unstable times. The outcome is uncertain, the path twisting and forward progress at times practically impossible to measure. We must always remember that the bigger goal is achieved through smaller steps and day to day victories. But each time we make the choice to stay positive, to have faith that events will resolve, to believe that light will always prevail over darkness, we move one step closer to resolution.
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.
Lessons Learned from the 80th Anniversary GMHA 100 Mile Ride
***Warning…this is a long post…but the 100 mile is a long ride…so I guess it all evens out!***
On September 2-4, 2016, Lee and I tackled the grueling GMHA three day 100 mile competitive trail ride (CTR) for the second year in a row. We came to the ride this year a bit more seasoned but also perhaps a bit more battered; last year, nerves were due to worry about the unknown, while this year, they were the result of knowing exactly what was to come. After finishing the ride as a complete and total rookie in 2015, I knew that both my horse and I had what it would take to do it again in terms of grit and stamina. But at seventeen years old and on her third career, Lee carries a lot of miles (literally and figuratively) on her frame, and I think the theme for our distance season this year was learning to ride the fine line between fitness and soundness.
The GMHA Distance Days weekend, now in its third year, has become a true festival of distance riding. Trail riders of many persuasions (short, middle or long distance, competitive and non) come together and enjoy the always breathtaking scenery of central Vermont in the late summer, along with the joy that comes with friendships based on shared passion. The South Woodstock area has been described so thoroughly and poetically by others that I won’t even try to match their words; suffice it to say that for me, visiting there has yet to lose its appeal.
Initially, doing the 100 mile ride again with Lee was not my intention. I was (and am) so proud of her for finishing the ride in 2015, especially wearing a saddle that I later realized totally and completely did not fit her now uber fit frame (more on the quest for the perfect distance saddle in a later blog). Last year, she suffered from welts and heat bumps, both under the saddle panels and in the girth area. I was determined to try to avoid such issues this season, even if that meant staying at shorter distances.
GMHA is known today for being an organization that supports multiple disciplines at its facility, but what many people may not know is that it was originally founded to promote trail riding in the state of Vermont. For its first ten years, members of the fledgling organization worked to create a network of bridle trails which spanned the state to all of its borders. In 1936, GMHA hosted its first long distance ride of 80 miles, to “stimulate greater interest in the breeding and use of good horses, possessed of stamina and hardiness, and qualified to make good mounts for trail use.” This ride grew to cover 100 miles, and for eighty years it has run continuously (save for 2011, when Hurricane Irene came through). This ride has a rich, historical legacy unmatched by any other ride of its kind in the country. Chelle Grald, trails coordinator at GMHA and the 2016 ride manager, calls it the “granddaddy of them all.” What serious distance rider within striking distance WOULDN’T want to be a part of the 80th anniversary ride?
Besides, if you entered, you got a commemorative belt buckle. I mean, you could buy the buckle on its own, but what was the fun in that?
This past year has been one of (mostly good) transition, and neither Lee nor I are at the same place we were a year ago, in all ways you could define it. While still on her recovery days from the 100 mile ride last year, I moved Lee to our new home at Cold Moon Farm. She spent the next nine months as its sole equine resident; we did some extensive exploration of the local trail network during the late fall, and then she enjoyed two months of total rest during the depths of winter. It was the most time off she has had since we met when she was six years old. During this break, I began researching distance saddles, and with the help of Nancy Okun at the Owl and the Rose Distance Tack, located a lightly used Lovatt and Ricketts Solstice, along with a new Skito pad. This lightweight saddle fit Lee’s topline much better than the old all purpose I had been riding in, and the Skito pad allowed her to have extra cushion.
I was pretty excited to get started with the distance season this spring, and I entered the Leveritt 25 mile CTR in April. Lee hadn’t seen another horse since September, and I wasn’t sure what her reaction was going to be. I was also worried that Lee wouldn’t be quite fit enough at that stage of the year to handle 25 miles, and I kept telling my friends that I wished it were only a 15 mile ride. As it turned out, I got my wish. The hold was about 15 miles in, and I had to pull there because Lee was a little bit off on her right front. She was sound once we got home, and some mild sensitivity to hoof testers at her next shoeing indicated that she had likely just hit a stone or something similar.
At Leveritt, I rode with my friend Robin on her lovely Morgan, Flower; we had made up two thirds of the now mildly well known “Team PB & J” on the 100 mile in 2015. Robin was super excited about working towards the 100 mile ride again, and I will admit that some of her enthusiasm began to rub off on me. At the same time, having to pull at the Leveritt ride put a little sliver of worry into my mind; namely, was Lee sound enough to keep working towards the maximum level that the sport of CTR offers?
In 2015, I relied on some of the CTR’s themselves to incorporate additional distance and duration into Lee’s conditioning plan. I looked at the Leveritt ride as a fifteen mile conditioning distance; the miles might not “count” in terms of her lifetime total, but they did “count” in terms of increasing her overall fitness. I fleshed out a schedule of gradual loading and increasing distance that would include several spring rides, a break in mid summer, and then a ramp up to the 100.
But then I had a rider qualify for the IHSA National Championships, an outstanding honor, and travelling to Lexington, KY for the competition meant missing the next planned CTR. Then, the ride I had planned to enter at the end of May was cancelled. I even tried to get to a hunter pace with a friend, thinking that would give us at least thirteen miles of new trail; it was rained out. And suddenly I was scheduled to be back up at GMHA for what should have been a back to back 50 mile in June, having not completed ANY of the step up prep rides that I had anticipated.
Concerned now that she wouldn’t have the necessary fitness, I opted to do just one day of the June GMHA distance weekend, the 25 mile CTR. I still felt woefully unprepared and worried relentlessly about both her fitness and her soundness, despite positive feedback from my farrier and two vets. We reset her shoes and added a new, more cushioning style of packing under her pads. Reunited with Team Peanut Butter and Jelly for the first time since September, Lee really did do great. She felt strong and sound and came through the weekend with flying colors, scoring the best mark she would get all season.
After the ride in June, I felt more positive about our prospects for the 100. The judges had had utterly no concerns about Lee’s soundness or her back at the June ride, and she felt strong and forward. Thus encouraged, I decided to aim for the GMHA two day 50 mile CTR in early August; based on how that went, I would make my final decision on the 100.
During the gap between the June ride and the August 50 mile CTR, I had no plans to compete Lee, only condition. I made one trip up to Tamarack Hill Farm in Strafford, VT, to ride with my mentor, Denny Emerson; ironically, during the summer of the worst drought in years, the day we planned to meet saw pouring rain. We made it around anyway, dodging rain drops. At home, I continued to balance long, slow distance rides mostly at the walk with sets in the arena to maintain her cardiovascular fitness.
About three weeks before the August ride, I decided to try a new girth with Lee. It had been recommended by my saddle fitter, and the extremely contoured shape was one favored by riders whose horses have sensitive elbows or who are prone to girth galls. I had been using the girth on Anna with great success for months, and tried it on Lee for an easy one hour walk.
I was horrified at the end of the ride to find that the girth had caused the worst chafing that I have ever seen on Lee. Both armpits were rubbed raw, and the left side in particular was swollen and tender. I couldn’t believe it; there had been no indication that the girth was pinching or loose. Regardless, the damage was done, and I saw both our short and long term goals for the season sliding away.
I reached out to my distance friends and learned about an old timey product called Bickmore Gall Salve. You can pick it up at some of the chain feed stores or in my case, the local one. I religiously treated the rubs up to four times per day for the three weeks up until the fifty, and I was really impressed by how quickly the product got them to dry and heal. Even though the label claims you can “work the horse”, I didn’t think that putting a girth on was the best plan. So for three weeks, Lee longed. I worked her up to fifty minutes, moving the longe circle all over our arena and changing directions every five minutes. The longeing didn’t increase her fitness, but it kept her legged up and allowed me to watch her move. And that was how I decided that she seemed—ever so slightly— funny on the left front when she warmed up. It always went away after a few laps at the trot. But I was sure there was something there.
Between the girth rubs and the “slightly funny left front”, I was feeling like maybe it just wasn’t in the cards for us to contest the fifty mile ride this year. Then, the day before we were scheduled to leave, my truck began making a funny whining noise. I tried to convince myself that I was being paranoid, but the noise just seemed too odd to ignore, and a quick trip to the mechanic revealed that the power steering pump was caput. Now I really began to wonder if this was a sign.
Yet I am stubborn.
I have one friend with a truck that I feel comfortable asking for a loan; one phone call later and we had wheels. So thanks to the generosity of a good friend, we headed up to GMHA, with me feeling a little bit fatalistic about things. “Whatever will be, will be,” I told myself.
I longed Lee lightly when we arrived at GMHA to loosen up, and I wasn’t sure how she would look on the uneven footing of the pavilion where we were to vet in. However, we were accepted at the initial presentation, and I decided to start to ride and see how she felt. When I got on board Lee the next morning, it was the first time that I had sat on her in nearly three weeks. I kept a close eye on the girth area and carefully sponged it at most opportunities. There was a nearly record entry for the weekend, and it was clear that excitement about Distance Days was building. For many entries, the two day 50 was the last big test before beginning the final weeks of prep for the 100 mile ride.
Overall, I thought Lee handled the ride well. I was certainly in a hyper-critical state, and analyzed every step she took. On day two, I felt that she wasn’t her best, and I seriously considered pulling up, but the more she moved the better she felt. While we made it through the ride and received our completion, I knew that she wasn’t yet ready for the 100 mile ride. Something was bothering her and I needed to resolve that.
I scheduled a visit with Dr. Monika Calitri of Seacoast Equine to check over Lee. She felt that her back had become super tight (a lifelong problem for her) and saw mild positivity to hock flexions. We opted to inject her hocks, and I contacted my saddle fitter for an adjustment on the Solstice and Skito pad prior to Distance Days. Overall, Dr. Calitri thought that Lee looked sound and fit, and remarked that the tightness in her topline was the most significant finding in her inspection.
My entry for the 100 mile sat on my kitchen table, with both the 100 and 60 mile options highlighted. After Dr. Calitri’s visit, I circled the 100 mile distance, wrote the check and threw it in the mail just a day or so before closing. I figured I could always drop back to the 60 mile ride, even right up until the last minute, but since the 100 is what we had been aiming for, we might as well give it a go.
The Heart of the Thoroughbred
The 80th Anniversary 100 mile ride was scheduled to cover the traditional white (40 mile), red (35 mile) and blue (25 mile) routes. While the white and blue routes would mirror closely the trails we had covered the previous year, the red route would be a totally new one for me; it took us across the Ottauquechee River, through the Marsh Billings-Rockefeller National Park, along the banks of the beautiful Pogue, and across the Taftsville Covered Bridge.
Day one, at forty miles, is quite a day. Horses must traverse the rocky terrain of Reading, notorious for its difficulty in allowing riders to make time. Lee felt great, totally 100%, but at the half way hold (25+ miles in), the vet judge commented that he thought there was a slight head bob at times, not significant enough to spin her, but enough to quell any feelings I had of security in Lee’s soundness. At the end of day safety check, the judging team worried that Lee’s back was too sensitive, contributing to her occasional uneven step. I was required to present again in the AM before starting on day two.
I worked with Lee in the afternoon of day one, hand walking, massaging and stretching. By morning, her topline sensitivity was much reduced and we were cleared to start day two.
In celebration of the ride’s 80th anniversary, dozens of past riders were in attendance for special events at the Woodstock Inn Country Club, the Landowner’s BBQ and the Longtimer’s Brunch Reunion. Unbeknownst to me, Lee’s breeder (and only other owner), Suzie Wong, was in attendance, along with her sister Sarah and their mother. Suzie joked that for years, her family had tried to breed a distance horse, but they always turned out to be better hunters, jumpers and eventers. In Lee, they had tried to breed a high quality hunter….and ended up with their distance horse! Suzie hadn’t seen Lee in years, and their family and friends quickly became our cheerleaders, appearing at most of the major viewing areas and both holds at days two and three.
On the red day, I was pretty excited to tackle some amazing and new to me trail. The much discussed crossing of the Ottauquechee River was pretty easy, given the drought. The route through the Marsh Billings Rockefeller National Park was well groomed and fun to canter along, and the steam from early morning still rose off the Pogue as we rode past. I found it hard to completely enjoy the scenery, though, as I began to worry more and more about my horse. She felt powerful, forward and willing…but not the same between right and left. Not lame, just….different. Once the seed has been planted in your head that your horse is moving ‘funny’, it can be hard to remain confident that your horse is truly ok.
Once we exited the park, we had to tackle several miles of hard top road. First, there were cows to spook at near the park headquarters. Then, there were bikers, joggers, pedestrians, and cars galore. I was left thinking that despite the historical tradition of using this route, perhaps its time had passed, due to the hazards of the modern era. Riders are left with no option but to trot along the hard top while being fairly regaled with hazards from all directions. We had to push forward into the hold, where Suzy and her friends waited for us.
The hold on red day was stressful. Lee pulsed right down, but the vet judge was not happy with how she was moving in the jog. Again, not lame, but not completely even. They asked me how she felt, and I replied that she felt strong and I was being hyper aware of any sign of lameness. They had me jog back and forth two or three times, before suggesting that I pull her saddle and jog again. When I did so, they were much more satisfied, and told me that they suspected that it was her back which was bothering her again. They cleared me to continue and I promised to closely monitor her progress.
It was just about one mile after the hold that our trio crossed the historic Taftsville Covered Bridge. The original was swept away during the aftermath of Hurricane Irene, but the new one was built to be a close replica. A “fun fact” that I learned about covered bridges is that they were originally built so as to look like a barn, horses being more willing enter a barn than to cross a scary open bridge over rapidly moving water. I am not sure how thrilled Lee would have been to make a solo crossing, but with her friends Quinn and Flower around her, she was a willing follower. In some of the photos of us, the past meets present, as a car is sitting at the mouth of the bridge waiting to cross after us.
After finishing the thirty five mile long red trail, it came as little surprise to me that the judges yet again held Lee. By now, we were all paying close attention to her back sensitivity. One of the good things about CTR is that the judges and the riders work together as a team to monitor the horses’ condition. While we all would like to finish our rides, none of us wishes to do so at the expense of our horse’s well-being. Even though Lee felt mostly ok under saddle, it was clear that she was starting to push through some discomfort. After seventy five miles, even the most fit of animals is likely to be feeling some effects of the experience; the question becomes whether they are crossing over the line and their overall well-being is at risk.
I woke quite early on day three; the stars were still out in full force as I dressed in my trailer and made my way to the barns. While Lee ate her morning grain, I gently, and then more firmly, massaged the muscles over her back and encouraged her to stretch. I then took her for a nearly forty five minute walk. At that time of the day, the air is clear and the sky brilliant. Once your eyes adjust, it is amazing how much you can still see; at the same time, your sense of hearing heightens. The faintest whisper of dawn was just visible in the sky as it came close to time to present to the judges. I did several in hand transitions, and when I could barely stop Lee I knew that she was ready.
Once again, Lee trotted off brilliantly for the judges under the lights of the pavilion. It seemed clear that whatever was bothering her that weekend wasn’t a true lameness, but instead something which improved significantly with an overnight’s rest. We were cleared to continue.
Day three, the blue trail, is a twenty five mile route, and I was reminded again of just how much shorter that feels after tackling forty and thirty five mile distances on the preceding days. Despite this, twenty five miles is still plenty of trail, and anything can happen. As we rode into the final half way hold of the weekend, our “trail boss”, Quinn, lost a shoe. While the farrier and his rider, Kat, worked to address that situation, I prepared to present to the judges. I proactively pulled Lee’s saddle and jogged her in hand without it, and much to my surprise, they were happy and let us go without a second look. At the end of our twenty minute window, Flower and Robin and Lee and I were forced to leave Quinn and Kat behind, as the shoe was still being replaced.
Neither Flower nor Lee is a huge fan of being the leader, and after nearly ninety miles, no one’s sense of humor is at its best. Without Quinn, we struggled to gain momentum. But then the most amazing thing happened. It was as though Lee switched her gears, dug in, and then she suddenly powered forward and LED, for several miles, without me bidding her to. It was as though she said, “I’ve got this, and we are going to get it done”.
It was without a doubt the “heart of a Thoroughbred” in action.
We eventually caught up to a few other riders, and our mares were willing to fall into step with them as the miles continued to tick down. Much to our surprise, Quinn and Kat were able to catch up to us just a few miles from the GMHA grounds, and it was again with a feeling of extreme pride that we returned to the announcement of our names as we entered the White Ring as a team of three.
We had done it. Again.
Lee lost a number of points from her score for the sensitivity in her topline at the final presentation, as well as a few points for “lameness consistent under some conditions”, but she had earned a second completion in as many 100 mile rides. Thirty horses had started, and just over half completed. Of those to finish, Lee was the second oldest.
As we stood at the awards ceremony, surrounded by horses and humans who I have come to admire and respect, I knew that my horse had earned her place among those in the ring. She was awarded the Perkion Award for the second year in a row, given to the best scoring Thoroughbred or Thoroughbred type, and she was also awarded the Spinner Award for the best non-registered trail horse. We finished sixth in the middleweight division, the only group of riders which saw all entrants complete the ride.
Far from being defeated, Lee remained alert and engaged after the ride. Overall, she weathered the experience well. But I knew that my horse had had to dig in to get the job done, and that she had finished the ride largely due to her Thoroughbred heart. What an amazing experience to know what it is like for your horse to bring you home on their own drive and grit.
Lee is now officially retired from the 100 mile distance. It wouldn’t be fair to ask this of her again. I still plan to compete her in distance rides, so long as she tells me that is okay, but we will stick to the “shorter” mileages. As Denny said of her in 2014, “that is one tough horse”.
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
Endurance Riding: From First Steps to 100 Miles by Clare Wilde
c 1996 Kenilworth Press, Buckingham (Great Britain) 170 pages
This past winter, I dedicated my equine reading to a selection of titles related to endurance and distance riding. I knew that for 2015, I wanted to try to bring my horse up to a level of condition which might make it possible for her to tackle a 50 or even 100 mile ride, but I really didn’t know how to go about doing that. It was with this mindset that I picked up Wilde’s book. Wilde is an experienced endurance competitor whose love for the sport, and for riding and horses in general, is apparent throughout the book.
This book covers many aspects of the sport of endurance for the novice, tackling everything from horse selection to tack to schooling to what it takes to crew at a ride. One of the sections that I enjoyed the most was called “Basic Schooling and Education,” and I liked it because it reviewed critical basics of training for any horse. For example, Wilde discusses the fact that in order for a horse to stay sound and sane over a long distance ride, they must move in an “economical, balanced yet dynamic motion” (Wilde, 1996, p. 45). To achieve this, the rider must be conscientious in both their own posture and position and also work to develop suppleness and strength in the horse. Horses must be encouraged to work correctly from back to front so that on the trail they can be supple and balanced. In endurance riding, where competitive riders move at fast speeds much of the time, this preparation is essential. “The versatile, supple horse will be able to move away from your leg to enable you to open gates quickly, avoid hazards and move off rough ground. He will also be able to corner efficiently, particularly at speed” (Wilde, 1996, p. 46). This information is so critical; a successful distance horse must be a true athlete, which requires paying attention to all forms of physical conditioning.
Wilde also points out that the endurance horse is the marathoner of the horse world, and the end goal of conditioning should be “to produce a supremely fit, laid-back equine athlete in the peak of physical condition” (Wilde, 1996, p. 49). To do this requires not just attention to their workload, but also their overall stable management. There is a big difference between the casual trail/pleasure horse that goes for a leisurely walk every now and then and a horse that is in preparation for a serious distance undertaking. The horse’s stable management therefore must be of a higher standard than for a horse not in such intense training. This is an important area of consideration which is sometimes overlooked.
Just like in other equine sports, Wilde reminds distance riders that the horse needs a warm up and cool down phase in each work set. It is important to actively walk a horse for at least ten minutes before asking for faster gaits, and then to ease into the trot and canter. Riders who are looking to start their race time at speed must budget in this warm up prior to the start.
The section titled “Conditioning for Competition” was especially enlightening. Wilde says that once her horse has been built up to a base level of fitness which allows for easy completion and recovery from 20 mile rides, she rarely rides more than 15 miles in training. One of the big challenges in distance riding is doing enough work to bring the horse to a fit level of condition but not doing so much that they become sore or unsound, or that their attitude becomes unwilling. Learning how to “peak” your equine athlete at just the right time is both an art and a science, and certainly the ability to do this well separates the best from the also ran’s in any horse sport, not just endurance. Wilde offers several sample conditioning and training schedules which can work to help horses develop for various distance rides, but also cautions readers to remember that each horse is an individual.
The final chapter which I thought was particularly well done was titled “Personal Preparation”. Here, Wilde discusses the care and feeding of the rider as an athlete, as well addresses the critical importance of rider fitness. “In the most basic terms, your horse will find himself unable to perform, no matter how well he is prepared, if you are a hindrance to him rather than an asset” (Wilde, 1996, p. 95). This last statement would seem to be true regardless of your chosen discipline, and is a concept which more riders need to take to heart if they truly want to progress in their riding.
Overall, Wilde’s book is an easy read with relevance to riders who want to improve their level of awareness on the subject of conditioning across the board. While the author is certainly focusing on conditioning for the discipline of endurance, so very much of what she says relates to any equine endeavor that I would recommend it for anyone who wants to do a better job of preparing their equine athlete for their goals. In this book, Wilde is essentially preaching practical, good horsemanship. My only criticism is that at this point, the book is nearly twenty years in print, and photographs and certain references could use an update if there were to be a newer edition released.
Blogger’s Note: The featured image is from the first Tevis Cup ride. Started in 1955 by Wendell Robie in California, the Tevis Cup 100 mile ride is regarded as one of the hardest in the world. Wilde credits Robie with being one of the inspirations for the spread of endurance riders world wide, and especially within the United States.
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.
Just prior to my departure from Tamarack Hill, Denny asked me what the most compelling lessons of the summer had been. I found myself a little tongue tied, as it was nearly impossible to briefly summarize all of the concepts, large and small, that I will bring forward to my training, teaching and personal philosophies. My time at Tamarack has been hugely influential; how to encapsulate it in just a few words?
I have been home from Vermont for less than a week, and slowly I am letting the dust settle from three months away. Now that I have had some time for reflection, I think I am finally able to begin to tackle the answer to Denny’s question. So here we go….
What DID you Do on your Summer Vacation?
Denny and May were generous enough to allow me to bring both of my horses to Tamarack this summer; as discussed in The Tamarack Chronicles: Volume I, had quite different goals with each of them. I can confidently say that both horses met and exceeded my expectations of progress during the course of this summer. The growth was slow and steady; while I was aware that both horses were improving, it is really now that I am able to step back and take a look at the overall development that I can acknowledge just how far they both came.
Lee has evolved into a true competitive trail horse. Her current level of fitness exceeds anything that I have previously brought her to. During our time in Vermont, she successfully completed 15 mile rides at GMHA and Hartland Riding Club and her first 25 mile ride at GMHA. On my last day at Tamarack, Denny and I did our own personal 16 mile ride with Lee and Cordie, so though that ride didn’t include the vetting procedures it certainly counts towards her increased fitness level. If everything stays on track, she will compete at the 25 mile ride at the GMHA Distance Days in late August.
Beyond the physical changes, Lee has grown tremendously in confidence. While she still does not want to be the lead horse on a trail if someone else is available to do the job, she strides out with power and ease. I have been riding her in an “S” curve hackamore, a style which Denny uses on Roxie and Cordie when hacking out, and feel completely in control. Not only that, I think she is happier to move forward in the hackamore than in a bit. She is less spooky both in the barn and out. I think that she has finally found her niche.
Anna has returned to her more confident self over fences, and the opportunity to jump “little and often” has helped to make jumping less of an anxiety filled experience for me. I competed in both of the Tamarack Jumper shows, getting back up to the 2’9” level in the second show, and competed at the Huntington Schooling Trials. With a re-emphasis on correct basics, I think I will be able to maintain this level of confidence as we move forward. I have entered her at two USEA events, King Oak and Stoneleigh Burnham, this fall.
In school, teachers are trained in pedagogical theories, based on current educational research. For example, elementary school teachers who help youngsters learn to read will use a combination of pedagogical approaches: phonics, whole language, etc. Some approaches work better for one student than another, while some students will learn no matter which approach is used. Therefore, teachers must rely on a tool box of different techniques and exercises, all while keeping a consistent philosophy in mind regarding their overall objective.
In my opinion, the best horse trainers and coaches are the ones who have a “training philosophy”, or pedagogy, which is the result of their own equestrian education and experience. The best philosophies are grounded in classical theory, a calm and patient approach, and compassion. The best trainers know that while it is important to keep an open mind and to learn about new techniques, they are also not inclined to go for the latest fad or shortcut. They know that their system will work for their horses and riders.
It is clear in working with Denny that his sixty odd years of riding experience have given him a personal pedagogy for riding education. He admits freely that he has made mistakes (and has learned from them) and that he tends to jump in feet first to new endeavors, which honestly is part of why he has been so widely successful. He regularly references the great riders and coaches of past eras (LeGoff, Steinkraus, Chapot, Jenkins, Davidson, and others) as well as the current era (Balkenhol, Davidson Jr, Dujardin, etc). In other words, he honors the legacy left by those who have come before but also continues to learn from those who are currently coaching and competing.
One of the more compelling comments which Denny made this summer was regarding the young up and coming professionals in equestrian sport. He said that in his opinion, there are two phases to a rider’s career—first, one must learn the craft, and second, one shoots for the top. Denny’s observation is that many young riders are hungry for phase two to begin, and so they sort of “gloss over” phase one. It is easy to understand why that is. Phase two is where the glory, prestige and fame occur. Phase one requires patience, hard work, diligence, persistence, and comes with little glory, prestige or fame. But without taking the time to develop your Personal Pedagogy as a trainer, based on the classical work that has come before you, it is much less likely that phase two is even going to happen. Sure, some people can buy fancy well trained horses or talk their way into getting others to buy them these horses, but for the most part, the holes will start to come through.
Denny told me this summer that when he was still actively doing clinics across the country, he was often introduced as a gold medalist, from his team’s win at the 1974 World Championships. While this fact was true, he said that it was AFTER that point that he really learned how to ride, and developed his understanding of the importance of keeping the lower leg under the rider and not jumping ahead with the upper body. His point is that in spite of the fact that he had won a gold medal, he was really still in Phase One of his career—learning his craft.
So in being exposed to Denny’s teaching this summer, it is clear to me that his Personal Pedagogy is one which emphasizes correct basics, slow, steady and methodical training, and striving to ensure that horses are left happy and content (as opposed to mentally fried and physically exhausted) at the end of a work set. Perhaps this is the most compelling lesson of the summer—it is far, far better to stop too soon in your training than to push too far or too long. As is true in so many aspects of horses, in the long run it is faster to go slow.
Being at Tamarack gave me the opportunity to step away from my “real life” and be around people who are truly driven to ride and excel. Everyone at Tamarack works hard, every day, and as summer goes along, the days get busy. The horses are happy and content, the barn is CLEAN and riders routinely ship in for training. I had my own two to ride daily, and often also was given the opportunity to hack out with Denny on Cordie, Roxie or Atti, or with fellow working student Katie on the babies, Derwin and Q. I wish I knew how many miles we logged over the course of the summer on the plentiful trails around Tamarack—a few hundred, I would guess!
It became clear to me over the course of the summer that I had been stuck in a rut with my own horses’ training programs. There is an expression, “if you keep doing what you’ve always done you’ll get what you’ve always got” or something to that effect. Being at Tamarack allowed me to reassess my basics and especially hone in on DETAILS that allowed my horses to make big strides forward. As a trainer, I will endeavor to keep my focus on these details as I return to working independently at home.
Additionally, Denny’s emphasis on correct basics has only served to reaffirm for me as a coach and instructor that work in this area is time well spent. As someone who primarily coaches college students coming from a wide range of equestrian backgrounds, I am frequently faced with “hungry” riders who are ready for phase two of their riding career to begin. Unfortunately, many of them are still lacking a solid foundation of basic skills and understanding of training theory. I know I won’t be able to reach all of them, but if I can strive to maintain this focus on correct basics and classical theory in my instruction, I think it will only serve to benefit my students more in the long run than the alternative.
During my last week at Tamarack, Denny posed a question to me that was even more difficult than “what did you learn this summer.” What he asked me was if I knew what kind of a rider I wanted to be. This is a question that I have struggled to answer for years, so I didn’t have any better of a response for him than I usually have for myself. His query was not meant to give me an answer specifically, but rather to open my eyes to possibilities and to how my own choices will affect the outcome.
It is clear (and has always been clear) that my path is not going to lead to the upper levels of eventing or show jumping. I enjoy jumping, usually, but it does make me a little nervous and so I am best suited for low level sport. That is fine. What I have recognized this summer is that in spite of this, I actually have a fairly good eye on the ground. At times I have felt insecure in the fact that I do an extensive amount of coaching over fences in spite of no longer being as comfortable as I used to be when it comes to jumping larger obstacles. Denny reminded me that you can be a gifted instructor even if you no longer ride or even if you have never ridden at all, given a proper education. After all, Sally Swift revolutionized the equine industry with her Centered Riding concept, and she never rode at all.
I enjoy dressage, and I probably have more innate skill in that sport than in work over fences. I do want to compete at the FEI levels. But again, to make a serious bid for fame and glory in this sport would take more financial backing and all-consuming dedication than I have interest in pursuing. When I compete at the FEI levels, it will be for me, to fulfill my own goals, not to make any kind of a charge to “make a team” or be a true contender. And none of the horses in my current string are likely to be my FEI dressage mount.
So where does that leave me?
During one of our hacks, the day that he posed the question of “what kind of a rider do you want to be?”, Denny started listing the qualities of an elite endurance rider. He said that those who are successful in endurance are steady, methodical and don’t have great mood swings regarding their riding. They are motivated by the success that is completing a ride with a sound horse that is fit to continue. They have a horse who is suited for the job—usually an Arabian or perhaps an Anglo-Arabian. They come into their own at a slightly older age— where eventing is a sport largely for the young and fearless, endurance seems to appeal more to those who are able to take the time to properly condition a horse to handle the demands of long distance riding. It takes at least three years to make a 100 mile horse, which means that you need to have a long term focus in sight beyond that day or week or month.
Denny’s point is that for the most part, these are all qualities that I have, and further, that if I wanted to shoot for the elite levels in endurance, that this could in reality be a goal that can be actualized. I still have a lot to learn—you know, having completed a lifetime total of 65 competitive trail miles—but as Denny said, that is 55 more miles than I had at the beginning of the summer. I am intrigued by the sport, I have enjoyed meeting the people involved with it and appreciate the values that the sport teaches.
I have never seriously considered trying to do a ride on the level of a one day hundred, never mind something as prestigious as the Tevis Cup or Old Dominion. But Denny counseled that these rides are attainable, and do-able by someone like me, if I have the right horse. During the summer, I met a Pan Am Games medalist in endurance, Connie Walker, and a recent first time Tevis finisher (11th place!) in Gene Limlaw. Meeting these people made me realize that completing rides at this level is possible and do-able.
The idea excited me more than I would have thought it would. I am by nature a bit more cautious when it comes to taking chances, so unlike how Denny would do it, I won’t be rushing out to purchase an experienced Arabian endurance horse or moving immediately to the endurance capital of the US (I am not sure even where that is, but surprisingly, I have heard there is a large endurance community in Florida). But I am willing to consider the possibility and explore the options, large and small.
Overall, I am extremely grateful for having the opportunity to take these past three months at Tamarack and to clarify further the most important tenets of my own Personal Pedagogy. I am pleased and proud of the progress which my horses have made. I am delighted to have made new friends in Vermont and am so, so glad that I took the step out of my comfort zone to take this time to further my own riding and education.
Celebrating the incurable addiction which is being an equestrian