"And, when you want something, the entire Universe conspires in helping you to achieve it." -The Alchemist, by Paulo Coehlo

Wednesday, May 28, 2014

Riding With the Endurance Vet's Wife

On Sunday, it was Lily's turn to trailer. Another great adventure under our belts! Read on and find out. ;)

I met Carol, our newest boarder, at the barn at 10:00 am. She is also a vet tech and is married to a research veterinarian who loves endurance and often volunteers as a ride vet. They are both a wealth of knowledge about the sport and I was really excited when I heard they were moving to the current barn. I know them from our previous barn. Carol's QH mare Katie was in the stall next to Lily's when they were both on stall rest, Lily from her ligament injury and Katie from a bum knee. Carol is a lovely, quiet rider and Katie is a solid all-arounder horse.

Lily rushed up to the fence when I walked into the field. "Me, me, me!" she said. I laughed at her and saw when her eye softened in relief when I put the rope halter on her. Such a huge change in the mare who used to turn away when she saw me with a look of, "Ugh, it's you again."

Gracie poked her head around the corner of the shed and came and stood next to us while I tied the knot in Lily's halter. G-mare got a neck scratch and a kiss. I was planning on doing an arena session with her when we returned from our adventure.

Lily had a beet pulp meal and a hay snack while grooming her and packing up the trailer. Both mares loaded uneventfully. Katie can be snarky with other horses next to her, but she was absolutely fine with Lily: they still remember and adore one another.

It was a short drive to the trail area: Annapolis Rock (not to be confused with Annapolis Rocks, which is part of the Appalachian Trail and is much farther north of us), which is part of the Patuxent State Park. Patuxent, aka Redneck Park, is one of my favorite places to ride basically because it is so wild: the park is ENORMOUS (6700 acres to be exact!) so trails get minimal maintenance, are not marked and have no names, and you will come across all sorts of obstacles without warning: deep bogs, mud, rock, fallen trees blocking the trail, river crossings of all kinds. Get lost in that vast enormousness and good luck explaining to someone where exactly you are. Thankfully though, all that acreage is surrounded by city so phones do have a signal in there. I get a secret thrill every time I ride into any part of the Patuxent. To me, it's like riding into a cross between the Thieves' Forest and the Fire Swamp in The Princess Bride: you never know what you're going to come across in your explorations. I honestly would not be surprised to find R.O.U.S. in there. Bonus points if you know what that is!

I was SO bummed when the backwoods were closed to us because it cut off the ride access to Patuxent from our barn.

Here was an opportunity for us to ride in there again!

Annapolis Rock has ample trailer parking for equestrians. There were at least 4 other trailers when we pulled up. Lily unloaded like a champ, looked around at the other trailers and horses, then got to work alternately eating her hay and attacking the grass. This is the same mare that would turn into a total spazz in any new environment she was trailered to.

I am a terrible blogger: this is the only photo I took of the whole adventure! I REALLY wanted to keep track of the mileage: Katie is conditioned for up to 6 miles and her knee can flare up sometimes. I did not want to overdo it. Since all apps including the GPS apps shut down every time I open the camera phone, I simply didn't take photos.
Carol and I tacked up and rode off onto the first trail that seemed inviting. She had ridden here once before and some of the trails were familiar while others weren't so much. She had me lead: she often rides alone and she liked being able to just follow for once. (Again I thought of Funder's sled dog reference! Riders need mental breaks too.) You could clearly tell what was Annapolis Rock and what wasn't: the AR trails are wide two track and are obviously meticulously maintained, taking you through gorgeous pine forest, around wooded areas, and finally a meadow. We walked and trotted to warm up.  I figured out that the meadow trail was a circle with paths cutting through the middle of it. We cantered around the meadow and then trotted around it. There were a couple of skinny trails leading away from the meadow into the unknown forest surrounding us. I recognized these trails for what they were: routes into the Patuxent itself. I saw a particularly steep and challenging one, and checked with Carol: she was game. We took the trail, winding down the side of the mountain with tree roots serving as ledges on the path. The mares sat on their haunches and negotiated it like no one's business.

The trail took us through a boggy section with black mud and pools of stagnant water covered in arrow arum plants. Thankfully there was an alternate route around this section and we were able to avoid the worst of the mud entirely. I made sure to check Lily's feet afterwards to confirm that all 4 boots were still on. They were. The trail then abruptly started climbing, taking us up the side of another hill and away from the muddy valleys of these woods.

Arrow arum plants
The trees soared above us, thick brush lining the trails. It was a wild, green world in there with patches of light filtering through the forest canopy, dappling the trails and the greenery around us. At times it felt like we were riding in the middle of the jungle and I'd look up almost expecting to see Tarzan swinging through the trees. Again the Northeast in the summer reminds me of my island on any given day, except without the suffocating humidity. It truly is a temperate rainforest.

Not my photo, but this is exactly what the sections of the Patuxent that we traversed looked like. This type of forest is called Piedmont forest. Photo is from the blog Wild Maryland 101, from this post. (If you're from around this area, check out that blog. It has a ton of information!)
We followed the skinny trails, through more fetlock deep mud at times and around fallen logs that had been there long enough that riders and hikers had created alternate well-worn paths around them.

I was surprised to find I have a pretty good sense of direction even in the middle of nowhere, as long as there are hills! We rode deep into the forest for the first 3 miles. Every time we turned away, I kept in mind the direction we would have to go to return. It felt like I was leaving an invisible silver string behind us to take us back later.

At the 3 mile mark, I turned Lily at the first fork in the direction I felt we needed to go to return home. We soon found ourselves going downhill again and through a bog covered in arrow arum plants. I thought it was the same bog we had first encountered but it wasn't: the only option we had here was to go through a very large stagnant pool of water covering what turned out to be thick fetlock-deep mud. It was disgusting. 

We made it onto the other side and had walked 3 strides when I looked down at Lily's feet. I groaned: she had lost one of her hind boots. Goddamn it. Both Carol and I started laughing. Carol suggested us getting off and going wading in the mud on foot to try to scoop out the boot with our feet, like clamdiggers do. I looked down at my sneakered feet and half chaps. I did NOT want to dismount to go looking in that bog for the boot. I would have sunk to my calves in the muck. I HATE wet socks. I am willing to pay $80 for a new boot just to not have to ride for 3+ miles in sneakers full of mud! Carol was happy to get off and go look for it herself but I didn't want her to do that. It was my boot: I should be the one to get muddy.

I suggested we just ride back through the pool of water and see if we couldn't spot it. Carol was afraid the horses would squish the boot even deeper into the mud, but we tried anyway, turning around with Carol leading.

Of course, you couldn't see the bottom of the pool now as the horses had stirred it up when they went through the first time. I was thinking this was going to be a futile attempt when Carol suddenly stopped. "Found it!" she exclaimed triumphantly, pointing at a spot of orange in the water. I stared at it in amazement. I honestly did not think we would find the boot. And then right before our eyes, the orange blob completely disappeared under the surface.

Carol had been standing on a small island of dry clay right next to the specific spot where we had just seen the boot. She moved aside, turning around to head back out of the pool, giving me enough room to park Lily where Katie had been standing. It was solid ground: Lily's feet created shallow hoofprints but didn't sink. I slid off Lily in such a way that my feet were actually under her belly, on the drier ground. I unclipped one side of Lily's reins so I could step on it with one shoe in case she decided to walk off, freeing up both hands so I could reach into the pool of water for the boot.

My right arm was almost up to my elbow in the muck when it finally touched the boot. I steadied myself by holding onto Lily's left front leg (yes, I was crouched under her belly. This is how much our relationship has evolved) and pulled on the boot. And pulled. And pulled...

It was a mud trap. You know quicksand? Yeah. The same thing, except mud. It was mud quicksand and the boot was sinking further as I was trying to pull it out. I cursed out loud, looking at Lily's 4 feet to make sure she really was safe on the island where we were standing. She was. And she must have known because she did not move a muscle. She didn't even try to eat. She just stood patiently, watching me.

Have I mentioned before how awesome she is? She is. Lily is pure awesomeness.

The mud did not want to let go. I was finally able to yank the boot out. I scrambled back onto Lily's back, who for once stood stock still for me to get on. I had the boot still in one hand, effectively covering Lily's mane, shoulders, and my saddle and saddle bags in the wet clay.

I swung her around and we got the heck out of there. Carol and I burst out laughing in relief.

We moved on up the trail to higher ground, where I dismounted again and put the boot back on Lily. You know Vipers, like your regular Renegades, have a pastern strap with Velcro, right? That Velcro is such high quality that even covered in mud it still stuck.

So you guys can see the Velcro of the Viper's pastern strap.
I'm still shaking my head in disbelief. See? What did I tell you about this being wild, untamed territory? The Patuxent forest is just like a cross between the Thieves' Forest and the Fire Swamp! Right around that moment, I would have expected to see a fire spout. Seriously.

You'll know what I'm talking about if you've seen this before. :)

I mean, dude...we survived quicksand!

After that we stayed away from the lowlands of the forest.

And after that, I let Lily choose the way. She was funny: she'd arrive at a fork in the trail and pause for a second, waiting for a cue from me. I dropped the reins on her neck each time and waited. When no cue came, she'd look at one fork and then the other, then make a decision. I was happy to see that she was choosing the routes I would have chosen. And then I started to wonder: we were close enough to home...what if Lily took us back to the barn instead of the trailer? I shared this question with Carol and she laughed. She wasn't worried. We could just get a ride back to the trailer if that ended up being the case, but at the same time, it was going to be a good 8+ miles in one direction to ride all the way back to the barn! We had been alternately doing walk/trot up until this point, but once this thought entered my head, we stayed at a walk for the next mile: I was worried if we overdid the mileage that Katie would be sore if we continued trotting.

Lily took us onto a path that bordered a huge wheat field and out to a clearing that was right next to the road. Here she stopped, pointing at the road and looking quite proud of herself.

Wheat fields just like this one.
Not my photo - it's from this blog.
Carol recognized it as the road that led to the trailer parking lot, and also as a route she had ridden last time she had come to this park. Lily was praised and patted. Since we still had 2 more miles we could traverse and there were no trails leading off of this clearing, we turned around and backtracked until we found a side trail.

Since now I knew for sure that Lily was taking us back to the trailer, we picked up a trot again. This would be my favorite section of the ground we covered: we were riding on ridgelines, cutting back and forth up and down them but never going back down into the valleys of the forest. Throughout all of this, we encountered many, many fallen trees and cut logs. Sometimes we'd jump them, sometimes we'd skirt around them. One particularly memorable obstacle involved 3 downed trees laying in a cluster across the trail, forming a 3' high "jump" that was also a good 4'-5' wide. I found a side trail going around it just as Carol called out behind me: "Look! I found a handsaw." Lily and I stopped. Carol and I looked at the hand saw hanging from a branch at shoulder height next to her and at the humongous pile of trees in front of us, and burst out laughing. "Yup, that someone got here with their hand saw, said 'F this shit' and turned around to go get their chainsaw!" I think they just never came back...that side trail was well-worn!

We crossed a street and took a trail that led us towards the river. The Patuxent River, for which this park is named. Carol ended up in front for this section and she found the path that led down into the water. Katie however did not want to go down into the river. The bank was steep and rocky but I could see two different routes down so I gave Lily her head and told her, "You got this." She pricked her ears and chose the first route, stepping down into the cool clear water of the river. I continue to be so ridiculously proud of her. She was sweaty but not overly so and I'd been monitoring her breathing throughout this adventure: she hadn't even breathed hard once despite the humidity. So I was pleasantly surprised and very happy when she dropped her head and took several good drinks of water. Normally she needs to go for 18 miles before she'll really start drinking.

Carol convinced Katie to follow us in and practiced dunking her sponge-on-a-leash into the water and squeezing it over Katie. Katie was not thrilled about this, and Carol pointed out that Katie hates the water. Hates it. The bay QH mare turned around in the river and got out as soon as she was given the opportunity. Lily lingered for a bit, drinking and looking around at the river surroundings, then followed Katie out of the water.

We rode past two girls and their pitbull (on a leash!) who were enjoying swimming in one of the pools of the river, and through a patch of sticky mud.

I looked down after the mud and Lily had lost her other hind boot. Carol dismounted before I could and got if for me. I swung off and strapped it back onto the hoof while again Lily waited patiently.

We started climbing, climbing, climbing, up and up through the forest. All the trails went upwards. And then the forest thinned and up ahead I could see where the trail widened, taking us through a clearing that I recognized as part of Annapolis Rock!

We had covered exactly 6 miles by this time and Katie was still going strong. Carol wanted to ride longer and I had no problem with that. We walked, trotted and cantered around the beautiful double track Annapolis Rock trails, going around the meadow and through the gorgeous, thick pine forest. The trees were so dense at their tops in this section that the trail underneath them was completely overshadowed, covered in dry pine needles. So, so beautiful. We added another mile and a half to our total for the day.

Back at the trailer, we untacked and packed up. A large group of riders (maybe 5 or 6 of them?) emerged from the woods as we were finishing up, all of them riding mules! They owned the trailer parked next to us.

Katie and Lily loaded up without issue and we headed back to the barn.

Later on the way home, we would indeed drive past the roadside clearing Lily had taken us to. It was just 1/4 of a mile from the trailer parking lot!

After helping Carol unload and unpack the trailer back at the barn, Lily received a bath and I put her in an empty stall to enjoy the breeze of a fan while she finished her beet pulp dinner and a couple of flakes of hay.

I fetched Gracie from the field. I had originally decided to do an arena ride with her on this day so we could work on suppling exercises, but the horses had been brought in for the evening so we went into one of the larger paddocks instead.

Gracie was on fire the second I was up.  She is getting more and more fit: the walk ride the day before at Little Bennett really had done its job as a day of active rest. One thing I've learned from exercising myself is that if you're sore, the best thing you can do the next day is move, not sit around. Active rest done right makes your blood pump through your body, flushing out all of that lactic acid and loosening tight muscles.

My horses only get ridden 3 to 4 days a week (which is far less than most hunter/jumper and dressage riders ride. Not that that is a bad thing, it's just different: we're doing longer workouts over less days, so more rest is required for this particular sport) and active rest is incorporated in there. I don't expect my horses to do anything that I can't do myself in my own rider fitness. As most of my readers know, I am hyper vigilant of any changes in my horses' disposition, quality of movement, work ethic and even their attitudes towards me, as a way of monitoring their reactions and happiness with the work they are placed in. It's why there are so many ears photos on here, and why I write so much detail about things that seem trivial, like their behavior towards me in the field. It's a way of keeping track of all of these things.

These ears belong to two mares that are quite happy with their jobs and work load:

In the paddock, Gracie wanted to gait forever. So we worked on gaiting, especially gait-halt-gait transitions, shoulder-in on a circle, and serpentines. She doesn't have the best steering yet - she is very good at turning her head in the direction you want her to go and then continuing to move in the direction she wants to go! So we worked on correcting that tendency. The short loop serpentines we did at the end of the paddock turned out to be an excellent way of getting her mind on bending and turning. She was the most "up" she has ever been while riding, but not in a nervous way at all - she just wanted to move! Just another testament to her increasing fitness. I offered walk breaks but she just wanted to go. However, she nailed those halts: "Whoa" and she'd stop from my seat. I'd drop the reins on her neck and pat her, and she would stand as long as I wanted her to, until I picked up the reins again and asked her to continue.

I paid special attention to what I was doing with my cues in the saddle because I wanted to be able to relay all of this information to Charles later, since he was having trouble getting Gracie to maintain her gait. Riding gaited horses is so very instinctive to me that it is often very hard for me to explain exactly what I'm doing to someone who wants to learn. The techniques you use for getting the best gait are subtle and will vary from one horse to another, involving little details like minuscule tweaks of leg and seat position, core engagement, and adjustments of upper body posture. Gracie's best gait is achieved by sitting up straight and proud in the saddle with shoulders back, engaging your core and placing your weight in the stirrups. Seated in this manner, she goes into self-carriage where it is easier for her to maintain her gait, and it also allows you to stop, speed up, slow down and turn her with the tiniest of touches on the reins or her sides.

Not Gracie. :) I haven't shared this guy's story with y'all. This is Ricky Bobby. He was a Paso Fino from the horse rescue I volunteered at as a horse trainer back in Florida. He was somewhere in his late 20's; he'd been found starved and abandoned by the side of a road in Davie, FL. He was a grumpy opinionated old man with a horse-sized head on a small cob-sized body, and awful ground manners: he'd plow right through you to get to any yummy patch of grass within sight. He also required advanced stunt skills to get in the saddle: the second you put your left foot in the stirrup, he TOOK OFF. There was no curbing the behavior: someone had ingrained it in him for years and years and years. So I learned to hop on with a running start! It was totally worth it: once you were in the saddle, he was an absolute dream to ride. He was completely and 100% bombproof, spirited yet completely manageable, had no trot, could gait for days, and had the smoothest canter...he could do flying lead changes without any kind of cue from the rider. He was best ridden with your weight towards the back of your seat and abs engaged hard, very much like the way show Pasos are ridden in the arena. Ridden in this manner, he could turn on a dime at any gait from your seat alone. I felt that he must have been a show horse previously.
We rode for 40 minutes. Gracie finally let me cool her out at a walk on a loose-ish rein. She too received a bath and then I led both her and Lily down to their field. They cracked me up because Gracie was pulling me and I was pulling a reluctant Lily: Lilybird wanted to stay with her new buddies in the dry lot. I laughed at her and she gave up and trotted to catch up.

I removed their halters in the field and both of them lingered, saying good-bye. They both got thanked for great rides, but especially Lily: she had taken care of all of us during one of our best adventures to date!


  1. Mmmm bog mud/silt. Always a fun time. Slurping sucking clothing removing stuff!! Many a boot has been taken from a wetland biologist due to that stuff. Lucky you got the boot back!

    1. If we'd waited one more second, we never would have found it. Carol is going to be great at finding riders' lost boots while drag riding!

  2. Another grand adventure in the bag - always enjoy your trail tales...
    [rodents of unusual size ;D]

    1. Ding ding ding! Bonus points for Calm, Forward, Straight! ;) Glad you enjoy my trail tales!

  3. LOL, good job saving those boots, you two! But if you hadn't, I guess that place would've become known for its Boots Of Unusual Color?

    1. Funder, I read your comment while at work and burst out laughing...Yes indeed: it would have been re-named The B.O.U.C. Bog! Lmao! Extra bonus points for ya! ;D

  4. I'm so glad you brought up the concept of active rest. One of my favorite authors, Jec Ballou, talks about how important active rest is for horses and she recommends things like lungeing, handwalking, and hacks for a horse's off days, along with one day a week of being completely off. My take on active rest is that it's extremely important for horses simply because of their physiology. They have evolved to do 25+ miles of mostly walking every day and unless you can provide a pasture with that much room, you have to help the horse get that much movement. It sounds like you are trying to do the very best for Lily!:)