Friday, September 7, 2012

The Trail, The Fall, and The Verdict

Zephyr and I did ~22 miles today, out-and-back on a trail that goes from our backyard to the General Store in the next town over.  The Exeter General Store is very very old... dates from back when there were only two places for anyone in Exeter/Corinth to shop. You could buy your groceries, fabric for clothes, and supplies to build a house all in one place. Note the tie rings and bucket ring along the rail at the bottom right corner. Still a favorite stop today for horseback riders!

We'd ridden the first half of the trail last week, and the second half yesterday.  Today we put the two halves together.

This photo makes the sky look a lot more dramatic than it was.  Today's weather was perfect for riding.  70s, and blue skies except for right between us and the sun.  Most of the time we were riding in cloud-shade.  Very very nice.

The best thing about this trail is that it only contains 1000' of paved road!  We leave from our backyard and ride a couple miles through the woods, first on our own private trails and then on the historic road that used to carry horses and wagons across town.  There's a nice stream crossing.

At the other end of the woods road we come to a paved road, which we follow for 300' before hitting an ATV trail network.  This trail consists of potato and corn fields connected by short lengths of woods trails.

There are a couple of bridges that aren't passable by horses, but there are easy go-rounds.  This one takes you right through a lovely little stream.

There's a second section of paved road, about 700' this time, but the shoulders are wide, sandy, and level, and the traffic isn't bad.

The trail beyond this blockage is another bridge go-round for horses.  This particular bridge is VERY scary looking and I was thrilled to find the alternate trail. 

The bridge... I told you it was scary!!!!!

 Awww.... how nice!

These potato fields are ready to harvest.  Nice view too!

There are a TON of corn fields along this trail, and if you pay attention the views are great!

This bridge is actually horse safe.  There are 3-4 supports underneath, and the center planks are plenty wide enough for a horse to walk on.

Then there's a section where you can either ride dirt road if you want to move out a little, or you can wind around the edge of the field next to it on the trail.  Don't know if you can see him but I snapped a picture of a fox as he crossed the road ahead of us.

We were riding through a potato field when we came to a corner where, yesterday, there had been a pile of logs and a pickup truck on the other side of the corner.  We were trotting along nicely when he started to slow to a walk because he remembered that yesterday there had been something scary around the corner.  I urged him back into a trot.

Unfortunately, when we came around the corner, there was a DIFFERENT something-scary.

He spooked sideways away from it, and VERY unfortunately the trail on that corner was worn down, leaving a rutted edge that caught his feet.  Over he went onto his left side, and off I came.  I rolled clear, and both of us got up right away.  Both of us were dirty but there were no obvious injuries to either of us.  I walked him on foot for quite a ways, then got on and walked a while longer.  Finally trotted ... he was fine.  If he hadn't been, I was prepared to walk him all the way home along pavement, as we were essentially right around the corner from home (and only 5mi by pavement).  It was 10 miles home by trail.  I had one other opportunity to decide to walk him home by pavement, at the 5mi mark... but he was still fine so we continued on trail.

About 3 miles from home, I just decided to let him walk unless he offered to do more.  He didn't offer.  I know I was getting stiff from the fall so maybe he was too.

After the Northeast Challenge 30, I had thought I might take Zephyr to the Maynesboro Stud 50 on next Saturday September 15.  But today I decided not to.  I could take him and he might be fine.  But he might not.  Even before we fell he wasn't acting like a horse who wanted to go run 50 miles in the mountains of New Hampshire.  The final decision came when I asked myself... if this wasn't a one-time-only ride, would I even consider taking him?

The answer is no, I don't feel in my heart that either of us is ready for a 50 right now.

Maybe next year, IF I'm able to start fitting him up in the early spring (or better yet, ride all winter to keep him fit).

Or, maybe not.  He's 16 this year and we've been out of distance riding for 3 years.  I'm at a time and place in my life when I want to be home more than I ever have before.  I honestly think that I could be OK with him never doing another 50- or 100-mile ride.  He's got nothing left to prove to me, or even to the world.  He's an amazing, once-in a lifetime horse, and his health is way more important than any event that I might ever take him to.  If we go to some distance rides now and then, great.  If not, we can keep doing mounted search and rescue, parades, pleasure rides, a show now and then, and maybe even try a little team penning just for fun.

We'll just have to wait and see.

Tuesday, August 21, 2012

2012 Northeast Challenge 30

A couple months ago I heard on Facebook that the Northeast Challenge endurance ride was being revived after a 6 year hiatus.  I looked on the map and found that it was only a couple hours away from my new home in Corinth, ME.  My life is much more settled now than it has been for the last few years, my horse has some good miles on him this year, and I have a freelance job that brings in a few extra bucks that I could siphon off to pay the ride fee... so I decided to enter.

The only thing left to decide was the distance... 30 or 50?  I took him on a 20 mile "rail trail" ride as a test run to better judge his fitness.  It was very humid, he was alone, and the trail was incredibly boring... but he did well physically.  Mentally, I wasn't so sure about him.  And I wasn't positive that I could do more than 30 miles, myself.  So I entered the 30.

The ride was this past Sunday.  It's been 3 years since I did this, and I was having a hard time remembering what to pack, so I started making lists and packing on Tuesday.  John ("JP") and I left for the ride on Saturday morning.  (I love him for never questioning whether he would be going!)  The trailer "lives" at home but Zephyr is boarded a couple miles away, so we loaded the last of our gear at about 9:30 and headed to the barn... a full 30 minutes ahead of schedule.

When we got there, I immediately went to get Zephyr, since I figured he might see the trailer and hightail it for the hills.  He was halfway down the pasture and didn't see me at first.  I made the mistake of talking to him before I reached his side.  He looked at me, looked towards the barn and saw the trailer, and he was OUT of there!  Ran for the back of the field.  So off I went, walking after him.  As I got close I could tell he was going to run again so I swung the lead rope and drove him off before he could move.  I have never seen him run that fast in my life!  JP was standing near the top of the pasture, and when he saw the freight train coming he beat feet to the fence and climbed it to get out of the way.  The good news was, Zephyr looked awesome, I didn't have to trot him out to tell that he was perfectly sound and ready to go.

We left the barn a full 30 minutes behind schedule.  Oh well, I refused to get rattled.  Calm and collected, relaxed... chill.  I find the less I rush around, the better the whole experience is.

We made the usual unavoidable WalMart stop, and we were getting close to camp when I decided to stop and let everyone have a potty break, even Zephyr.  I was pretty sure after a 3 hour trip he was going to pee as soon as we stopped for a few minutes, so I pulled into the Buckfield Mall to unload him onto the grass and give him a chance to do it there instead of in the trailer when we pulled into camp.  We were greeted by a lovely sign!  When I unloaded Zephyr, some men were walking past and they asked if we were there for the trail race.  It seems that ride management did a really great job informing the community about what was going on, so kudos and thanks to them.

We arrived at ridecamp at around 1:30 pm, and found a beautiful old red farmhouse with this sign.  I don't think I've ever felt more welcomed!  ;-)

As we drove in there was a long field running slightly downhill, with the awards/dinner area at the top and the vet area at the bottom.   We got a great parking spot only 3 trailers away from the vet.  We took our time setting up camp, then checked in and headed to the vet.

Photo courtesy of Clowater Photography
Zephyr got all As except a B on skin tenting and another B that I can't remember what it was for.  JP paid close attention to everything and asked a few questions later.  On the way back to the trailer I gave him his first lesson in leading a horse... I'm starting him off slow.  ;-)

Since the hold would be at camp, we just chilled out for the rest of the afternoon, making sure everything we needed was set aside or brought to the crewing area near the vet. Meanwhile, Zephyr did what he did best... eat!  I was a little worried that he wasn't drinking, but not terribly so yet.  He is always VERY well hydrated at home, he loves the water at the barn.  But I was nervous because the barn well is in jeopardy and I'd had to fill my travel tank at home with the long black rubber hose that he doesn't seem to like the taste of.  I'd tried the 'peppermints in the water' trick but he still wasn't drinking.  I took him to the big camp tank and he still didn't want any.  I still wasn't too concerned, but was definitely paying attention!

Just before the riders' meeting and supper, I saddled up and took a brief ride down the first half-mile or so of trail.  Zephyr was happy and traveling well.  I was just nervous about a really steep hill in that first half-mile of woods; I was afraid he would be pulling so hard at the start that he'd be likely to trip going down the hill.  At the bottom of the hill, though, was a nice little stream, and Zephyr decided it was time to drink.  He sucked down quite a lot of water (26 gulps, I counted) and then we turned back to camp with me grinning and relaxing even more.  Things really would be OK!

Photo courtesy of Clowater Photography

We got back just in time for the riders' meeting, and JP and I headed up the hill with our chairs.  I guess I need more practice in taking notes during the meeting... more on that later... but I did take away the fact that the 30-milers would ride the orange loop (loop 1) and the pink loop (loop 3).  JP and I decided that he would skip the pit crew stop on loop 1, and would only go to the second pit crew stop on loop 3.  Then we headed back to the trailer to finish a few last-minute things.

That night when it got close to bedtime, JP joked that if Zephyr laid down again like he did last time I took him camping (a few weeks ago), I should go lay with him again and he'd make sure to get a picture.  Not long after, we heard a thump, and looked around the trailer to see Zephyr totally zonked out with his head balanced on his teeth.

So over I went to snuggle with him.  He never moved, even with the flash going off seven or eight times.

We were all prepped for the ride, and in bed, by 9pm.  I was sure I'd lay awake for hours but I fell asleep very quickly and slept soundly until about 4am... probably the best pre-ride sleep I've EVER gotten!  I guess the 3 year layoff was good for me!  JP said he didn't sleep quite as well but I'm not surprised, he isn't used to hearing 40+ horses munching hay, stomping, and farting all night long.

It got pretty cold overnight so at some point I got up and started my little Mr. Buddy propane heater.  We were up and at 'em by 5am for the 6:30am start.  Zephyr drank over half a bucket of water overnight, which was pretty good for him being away from home.  I was thrilled!  I did make note that the water he drank was the stuff from the camp trough, not from our house.  I don't know that I'll bother with peppermints in the water again, he adores mints but I guess not in his water.

I remembered enough of my usual pre-ride routine that I was able to stay calm and relaxed... feed horse, feed myself, dress myself, tack horse, put horse's Easyboot Gloves on, check in with timer, mount horse, warm up horse while eating a banana, realize I forgot the straps that hold down the bottoms of my boot-legged riding pants, call to JP and beg for them, finish banana, ride to the start, start the ride.

Zephyr and I left camp on Loop 1 (orange ribbons) with four horses/riders in front of us, and stayed there for most of the day.  We rode for a while with Sharon Akerstrom and her beautiful 17yo gelding Tonka (below), the mother-and-daughter team of Stephanie and Sarah (?) Buckley on their superstar ponies.  We couldn't have caught those ponies if we'd tried, they're amazing!  We also rode for a bit with Cricket, who I think was riding Empiric?

The trails on Loop 1 were STUNNING.  They included bushhogged grass trails, fields, dirt roads, and woods paths.  There were some short sections of pavement but I didn't mind them, Zephyr's Easyboot Gloves mean that it makes little difference to him whether we're on pavement or hard-packed dirt.  There were some noticeable hills but nothing like the mountains of Vermont or New Hampshire.

Trot with us, why don't you?  :-)

Photo courtesy of Clowater Photography
Photo courtesy of Clowater Photography

I didn't take any pictures of my favorite part of the whole ride. I was riding in the lead with Sharon A. and Cricket behind me.  We entered a large field where the mowed trail meandered around the edge in gentle S curves.  Zephyr shifted gears on his own and we I loped around the curves as one being, graceful and balanced, both of us grinning like fools.  As the trail veered to the right and continued straight across the field, I dropped my reins across the saddle's pommel and lifted my arms wide, straight out to the sides at shoulder height, hands spread as far as they would go, combing the wind with my fingers.  I tipped my head back to feel the sun, closed my eyes, and just WAS, with my horse, my partner, the winged half of myself.

It was the most joyful moment I have ever shared with Zephyr.

After 16 miles, we crossed the paved road that camp was on and trotted down the farm's dirt driveway.  We arrived back at the timer for our hold exactly 2 hours and 20 minutes after the start, which means an average of just under 7 mph.  I know because my wonderful crewman, JP, told me so.  :-)  He knew how many people were in front of me and how long the same loop had taken the 50-mile riders.  I hadn't asked him to track all that stuff but what can I say, he's a natural!

Zephyr's heart rate monitor belt was malfunctioning, and by the time I realized it, 12 minutes had passed and we were still sponging for all we were worth.  I checked his pulse under his jawbone with my fingers and realized he was probably sufficiently down.  We walked slowly over and called for a courtesy check.  He was down to 48... far below the required 64.  Awesome!  The vet check went great, all As this time.  The hold went fast, as holds tend to do, but Zephyr drank really well.  JP got Zephyr's food and water ready, held the lead rope while he ate, and even reapplied Desitin to his heels before I put his Gloves back on.  Soon I was back in the saddle and eagerly awaiting new trails.

We had to leave alone, out of camp uphill past our trailer, and Zephyr did fine until we got to the gate, at which point he spooked and wouldn't have anything to do with leaving.  I heard from some folks sitting with near the gate that every horse had spooked there.  So I stopped fighting him and simply turned him around and backed him for a while, then turned him back around just before the gate.  It worked and we were off.

The trail followed the farm's driveway to the main road, where the crossing guards seemed to think that I was supposed to turn right and follow the pavement, but I was positive that I was supposed to go back the way I had come in from the last loop, because as we had come in to camp I'd seen pink ribbons along with the orange (loop 1) and green (loop 2 - 50 milers only).

It didn't take me more than a mile before I started second guessing myself.  I pulled out the map and studied loop 1 (orange) and loop 3 (pink), comparing them.  I was still pretty sure I was going the right way, but there was a shadow of a doubt, which multiplied when I began encountering horses going the other way.  No horses going the same way as us.  But then suddenly I realized it... outbound ribbons on the right!  Double ribbons BEFORE turns!  I was definitely riding the pink loop in the correct direction.  DUH.  Such a stupid thing to forget, no matter how many years I'd been gone.

I didn't take any pictures during our second loop, partially because I was focused on trail markings and partially because the trails were much more challenging.  The footing was what they call 'technical' ... which means the horse has to pay close attention to where he puts his feet. The ride photographer was out on this loop too, though...

Photo courtesy of Clowater Photography
Photo courtesy of Clowater Photography
I had trouble with the trail one more time on this loop.  There were two double pink ribbons, then a water trough with a left-turn arrow behind it that was pointing left up a hilly field with a trail bushhogged through it.  The corner of the trail had a solid pink ribbon and a red/white striped ribbon.  The striped ribbons weren't mentioned at the ride meeting but they'd been relatively consistent at turns along with solid ribbons.  What threw me was that there were a LOT of hoof prints continuing up the dirt road ahead of me, but no trail ribbons that I could see... and that when we went up the field trail, there were ONLY orange ribbons, no pink.  When I turned around and looked at the view from the hill, there were wind turbines that I didn't remember seeing before.  I was so confused!  I rode back to the dirt road and turned left, looking at footprints and looking for ribbons.  Nothing.  I asked some people at a house what road I was on, and checked the map.  That road was nowhere on the map.

I probably lost at least 5 minutes wondering what to do, and finally decided to take the uphill field trail.  Eventually I did see pink ribbons on my right and felt like an idiot for not just continuing on faith... but I've been on way too many rides where I've gotten lost and put extra miles on my horse!  I wasn't doing that!!

In the end, we were still able to make great time, despite being alone (ie, less motivated!), despite getting confused about the trail, and despite the more challenging footing.  We completed the 14 miles in exactly the same length of time we'd used for the 16 mile first loop... 2 hours and 20 minutes, for an average of 6 mph.  I believe they said there were 16 entrants, and that Zephyr and I finished 5th.

When we came back into camp, we had to go past the trailer, so I dismounted and loosened the girth at the top of the field and then dumped all my tack at the truck before walking with JP down to the crew area to sponge and finish pulsing down.  I hadn't bothered to put his heart rate monitor back on because it was malfunctioning, so this time I went with the jaw pulse right from the start.  As soon as we'd dumped some water on him, I checked, and he seemed down.  Indeed he was, his pulse was down to 60 in 4 minutes this time, and he got all As at the exit vet check.

We spent our afternoon packing and periodically walking Zephyr, either around camp or to graze in the next field over.  We got a super cool little mini bucket for an award (yellow of course) and were ready to pull out of camp as soon as supper was over... 530 I think?

I got about halfway back home before I decided I absolutely couldn't drive anymore, and handed over my keys to JP.  I usually don't let anyone else drive my truck/trailer when Zephyr is on board, but in this case, it wasn't safe for me to continue.  I don't know if it was lack of sleep or the ride, but two days later I still don't feel rested.  I guess 30 miles was the right choice for ME, too!  Three years off is a long time!

The really good news is, my EZ-Fit Treeless Saddle continues to do the trick for Zephyr and me.  It's quick to tack and untack from, he moves great in it, it didn't move overly much even on all those hills, and it's very comfortable for me.  We did change him to a dry Thinline Wool Felt saddlepad at the hold, just for comfort's sake.  I do think I need to go back to tights instead of boot cut pants because I was getting some chafing on my calves right at the end.

I've been working non-stop since we dropped Zephyr at the barn on Sunday night, but my barnlord tells me that he's doing great.  She's wondering how long it will take before the giant yellow number wears off, though.  I think she thinks it looks weird.................................................. I didn't have the heart to tell her that if I have my way, as soon as it wears off another one will get put on! Maynesboro Stud 50, anyone?

Monday, August 20, 2012

Quick Update!

Hi there my Wanderful friends, it's been quite a while!!  If you're wondering where I've been, a lot has happened since my last post!  Divorce, three moves, and now two years later I've finally found a forever home for Zephyr and myself.  We're still in rural Central Maine but we're in a different part now, maybe even a better area for trail riding.  Zephyr loves his new daddy as much as I do, especially after he got the star treatment from him last weekend at the ride.  John must love him back, he's even still talking to me after his first experience as my crew!!

Our 2011 Christmas Card Photo
So anyway, Zephyr and I did a 30-mile Limited Distance Endurance ride yesterday, our first competitive ride in 3 years.  It was our first-ever LD, and a great one to stage our comeback at!  Stay tuned for the story.

Meanwhile, consider this.  Is there ONE moment in your horseback-riding experience that you felt the most PURE JOY that you have ever felt?  I have a new one, and I'll tell you all about it soon.

Zephyr's Mom