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

Monday, October 27, 2014

Fort Valley 50 Mile Endurance Ride: Preparation

My mare is a BAMF guys.

Photo by Becky Pearman
Spoiler alert: we completed our second 50 mile endurance ride. And Lily was an absolute rock star. Though we did have a scare at the end.

I'm splitting this up into parts again just to keep it from being one very long post.


The Training Plan

We started training for this ride immediately after Lily's vacation post Old Dominion 50. I had not been happy with Lily's conditioning for the OD so I got very technical with our new conditioning plan. I am a conditioning nut when it comes to both my horses and myself and really enjoy putting a training plan together to strengthen the entire body.

  • Since we don't have actual mountains to train on in this part of Maryland and we don't own a trailer, we started out with speedwork. Just getting Lily to sustain a trot faster than 6 mph (her previous average trot speed) over as many miles as possible. We started out with 5 miles at a time where she was able to maintain a 10 mph trot (so we were working for 30 minutes) and slowly bumped it up to where she could maintain this speed for a full hour on the flat (using our previous barn's pastures as training ground.) My goal was to try to cover 10 miles in an hour. It was surprisingly easy for her. 
  • Once she was maintaining this speed for this length of time, I took her on longer rides at the park across the street (now the park behind Kathy's barn) where there are plenty of short hills and rocky trails. Here we worked on time: how many miles could we cover in 1.5 to 2 hours? We started out doing 10 miles in 1.5 hours with an average speed of 6.6 mph, and eventually were able to increase that speed to 7.5 mph in the park. 
  • Due to changing work schedules, Charles's knee, Gracie's issues, barn changes and later getting sick myself, I didn't really get to practice taking Lily to the park to work on covering more ground in less time. I was able to get an 18 mile ride in with Liz on Gracie at the end of August, and that was our last long training ride. The next longest ride after that was the 12 mile ride where I experimented with the Wintec. Lily moved out faster and easier than ever before with less weight to carry (the Wintec is at least 15 lbs lighter than the Alta Escuela) and I finally found my seat in this saddle over longer distances, which basically sealed the deal re: using this saddle for competition. 
  • Afterwards, we focused on interval training, which came about in a casual manner. Initially I set out to see if Lily could alternately trot a mile, canter a mile. She did so quite successfully (she can canter a mile in 5 minutes, so this is less cantering time than what many hunter/jumpers do in lessons). We started out with this kind of interval work for 30 minutes, then slowly bumped up the time while maintaining the intervals the same. However, when we bumped up the time, walk breaks were also incorporated when Lily told me she needed a break. She is not a lazy horse by any means, so I know if she asks to walk, it's because she needs it. It makes for a very honest relationship with her: she will also tell me when she is ready to continue by picking up the trot herself! This is how I continue to know that she really, really loves this job. 
  • We also did one dressage ride once a week or once every other week depending on how the schedule was going, both to maintain Lily's flexibility and back strength with lateral work and build up her hind end strength for powering up mountains. We did a LOT of transition work, especially canter-walk-canter and canter-halt-reinback-canter. Her dressage work improved by leaps and bounds. 
  • I had originally wanted to add in hill sets once a week but this did not work out as planned. It ended up being more like once a month. However, we were able to get in 8 miles of mountain work at Catoctin at the walk, where Lily finished as fresh as she started. Once we were at Kathy's, I ditched all of the longer, faster work as we tapered prior to the ride and instead put in several hill set workouts.
  • Even after deciding on the saddle switch, I continued training in the heavier Alta with full pommel bags. Why? Weight. If she could work well with the extra weight, she would work even better when the weight was removed during competition. 
  • I used the summer heat to our advantage: if I could get her recovery times down during the hot summer months, she would do fantastic at this fall ride with temps at least 20 degrees cooler. 
  • Lily continued to be ridden only 3 days a week, with 4 days off for resting. Work hard, rest hard.
  • Her grain meals (Triple Crown Senior, which is heavy on beet pulp) were slowly doubled and that's when her weight finally increased. She was literally receiving 12 lbs of grain a day, which seems like a lot, but her performance was incredible. She was also on 1/2 cup of ground flax (Triple Crown Omega Max) twice a day, one serving of UGard split into am and pm meals, SmartMare Harmony in the evening, Farrier's Formula Extra Strength in the morning, and 9,000 IU of vitamin E split into am and pm meals. She is on pasture 24/7, but it was not enough to maintain her weight previously. She is mostly Thoroughbred after all. We added in hay meals 3x a day the week before the ride and she was pre-loaded with 1 serving of Smartpak's SmartLytes pellets/day the week before the ride.
  • The blanket clip was in preparation for this ride. I wanted her to have every advantage possible for cooling down as quickly as possible.

I strongly recommend this training plan if you have a non-Arab that you are planning to compete in the mountains. It served us well, and I'm writing it out here in detail for my own future reference. The diet requirements will be very different for each horse, but this is what worked for this TB cross.

For myself, the training plan wasn't quite as comprehensive, but I did a lot of running going into the fall which works the muscles across the front of the legs, especially the muscles around the shins, which is where I was THE most painful at the OD. I got up to where I could run 4 consecutive miles without walk breaks, and then I was just riding two horses for up to 35 miles total over 3 days and still feeling great. The saddle time between two horses that need to be ridden dramatically different ended up being a wonderful preparation for this endurance ride. I decided to participate in 2Pointober because two-point will strengthen the same muscles that were sore at the OD: front of shins, inner thighs, calves, abs. I wasn't getting in the long blocks of time that 2Pointober required but I was getting in multiple two-point sets over the course of a ride on Lily. I also cut back on carbs and focused more on higher protein and moderate fat. I used to do better on a diet high in complex carbs and low on fat when I was in my 20's. Now that I'm halfway into my 30's, I'm doing better with more protein and fat. I just feel better overall, and I decided to apply this knowledge to the endurance ride itself by bringing equal amounts of protein and carb sources for the holds.

How did we do? Read on to find out!


Pre-Ride Preparation

The Fort Valley endurance rides are held over 2 days the before-last weekend of October. There are both a 30 mile LD and a 50 mile endurance ride on Friday and Saturday. Liz and I decided we would ride on the Friday, figuring the trails would be in better condition and also we would get an extra day to rest: Sunday. I took a vacation day from work so we could drive down to Virginia on Thursday.

Kathy was originally going to trailer us down but since Charles and I had the tow hitch installed on The Beast, Kathy offered to just lend us the trailer. We accepted, and on Wednesday I was at the barn on a chilly, rainy morning to get the trailer loaded and packed. I decided to be less superstitious than last time and just be ready ahead of time. I also cooked a delicious pollo en escabeche (my favorite Puerto Rican chicken dish ever, recipe courtesy of my mom) to eat at the holds. I did a grocery store run myself instead of sending poor Charles and grabbed everything that seemed appealing: chocolate Power Bars, Power Bar Energy Blends, vanilla and chocolate milk, orange Gatorade, peach fruit cups, tuna and cracker snacks, turkey jerky, Fiber One streusel bars (these were amazing), and packed plenty of water. 

This time of year, temperatures during the day in this area can run from low 70's to low 50's, and nights can be anywhere from high 40's to low 30's. Last year's Fort Valley when we crewed for Liz was pretty epic because temps dropped into the teens! It was miserably cold for camping and Charles and I were not properly prepared for it. This time around we owned better winter clothes: we packed plenty of layering and riding clothes options (I wanted to be able to change into dry clothes at holds if necessary), our big snow jackets, snow boots (since they are warm and fully waterproof for cold ride meetings after dark and cold early morning awakenings with tons of dew on the ground), hiking boots, sneakers, gloves, wool caps, and hand warmers. We also packed plenty of extra bedding: comforters, polar fleece blankets, flannel sheets.

I would be taking 1 bale of 75% alfalfa and 1 bale of orchard grass hay, plus an entire bag of molassed beet pulp and an entire bag of Triple Crown Senior to mix for mashes.


Thursday: Arrival at Camp

We were at the barn by 10:00 am. Since I had mostly packed the trailer the day before, we just needed to get grain and hay in the truck and load up Lily. Lily wore all 4 boots, standing wraps on her fronts, SMB boots on her hinds, and a head bumper on her halter. This was the first time in a while that she was traveling alone in the trailer and I was afraid she would freak out. I gave her a dose of probiotics, a dose of Perfect Prep EQ Gold (it is a competition-legal calming supplement containing B vitamins and magnesium; I just wanted her calm for the trailer ride and the first afternoon at ride camp, since she has been PMS-stressy these past few weeks), and a mash prior to loading her in the trailer. She had a haynet with a mix of alfalfa and orchard grass to munch on in the trailer. She normally doesn't eat on trailer rides but I wanted to give her the option just in case. She did eat this time around.

Lily trotted up to the trailer and hopped on, surprising me as always every time she does this. I debated leaving the partition open so she would have more room, but she would not be able to brace her butt against the trailer door in this manner to balance (I've ridden inside trailers with horses. They do brace against those butt bars) so I did close the partition so she would have more surfaces to use for balance. 

We were on the road by 11:30 am with a full tank of gas. We took I-66 to go down to VA since this is a more direct route for us. We could have taken I-81 but it is a truck driving route, is longer, and involves going up a mountain. I-66 can have random traffic jams but it was a much shorter route. We did hit a patch of traffic due to lane closures that delayed us by an additional half an hour, but it wasn't awful. 

The mountains were in peak fall colors. Photos, even after editing, don't even begin to do the colors justice!
Love those flaming reds!
It was pretty last year, but the colors were so much more brilliant this year. It was just a lovely drive.
This was The Beast's first time towing anything and she had no issue pulling the weight of the truck and trailer. We had adjusted the brake controller prior to towing Lily; it needed some minor adjustments once she was in it but it was not a big deal. 

Lily asks, "Are we there yet?" (Haynet was on the other side of her, attached to the emergency door;  trailer tie clip is attached to her breakaway halter, not the rope halter underneath). We stopped at a gas station to take turns using the restrooms and Lily nickered at each of us when we got out of the trailer. :)
The directions for getting to ride camp were weird...thankfully Charles and I had driven this exact same route last year and remembered most of it, so we were able to go off of what we remembered: the actual driving directions from I-66 were backwards! We still got lost once and it got a little hairy there for a second because we weren't sure if we would be able to turn around. We were able to make it into the Fort Valley ride camp a little after 2:00 pm. It was a 100 mile drive and we still had about 2/3 of a gas tank left upon arrival. Truly awesome driving for this truck (it's a 2006 V8 4WD dual cabin Chevy Silverado. The biggest car either of us has ever owned). We were very impressed and very pleased. We love our Beast!

Liz had wanted us to find a spot close to the vet check but it was pretty packed in that direction and we weren't sure we would be able to turn around if needed, so we parked in an area where we found plenty of room...which was literally on the opposite side of camp from the vet check, and quite far from the nearest porta potty. Camp was surprisingly full for a Thursday, and I was surprised by how few porta potties they seemed to have available for the number of people camping. I didn't remember it being like that last year. However, we were directly across from one of the water troughs and that was perfect. 

I tied Lily to the trailer with a haynet so she could relax while we started getting things set up. Liz arrived about 15 minutes after we did. We got the electric corral set up and put the mares in it with hay and water. Lily immediately tried to go over to love on Q (Lily is such a sweet mare), and Q pinned her ears and told her to back off. Lol This is standard procedure for them. Lily went over to the opposite corner of the corral to eat in resignation. Lily always wins Q over after about half a day together. ;)  Q doesn't like to immediately let on how much she really likes Lily. 

Q says, "I love nobody!" Lily says, "Whatever. You know you adore me."
We chuckled over the mares then walked over to registration. They were figuring out a new computer system so despite the line being pretty short, it took an hour before they got to us. Thankfully since both Liz and I had pre-registered it took them less than 5 minutes to give us our ride cards and paperwork. 

Ride camp
We vetted in uneventfully, then tacked up for a short ride. I'd been pretty nervous up to this moment given Lily's mental state on the ground the past few weeks, even though she had been perfect under saddle. The second my butt hit the saddle, Lily had an impressive fit of backing up + head-up bucking fit. She refused to go forward: only backwards and sideways and nearly took down 2 electric fences before I was able to get her under control. I have no idea why she did this. Fit mare + cooler weather + exciting surroundings? Nothing was different about her tack other than a change in the halter-bridle's chinstrap which made it more snug but I could still slip a finger between her jaw and the strap. It didn't affect the position of the bit in her mouth. 

She was fine once she was moving forward and did great on the 3 mile ride we did. We rode backwards from what would be the 50's third loop, warming up at the walk then trotting and cantering through the woods and around fields, Lily and I leading most of the way. The mountains as seen from the fields were breathtakingly spectacular, aflame in reds and oranges by the light of the setting sun. Lily moved out strongly and effortlessly, happy and listening to my requests. This is when I became truly excited about the next day. 

The faster-paced ride relaxed Lily and she was her normal self riding back into camp.
Photo by Becky Pearman.
Taken as we were riding back into camp from our short Thursday ride.
My mare looks especially beautiful here.
Liz took Q aside to untack. I dismounted from Lily, walked back to the mounting block and got back on to re-set my own brain. She was fine for this and was fine walking around camp by herself. Good: my mare was back. Lily and Q got mashes at the trailers and were then put away with more hay in their corral while wearing their coolers. Temperatures were starting to drop. We put on extra layers, grabbed headlamps and flashlights, and walked down to the ride meeting and potluck. Charles and I had brought pumpkin pie with whipped cream and it was a big hit. Ride management provided a choice of 2 awesome hot soups: lentil and pork, or vegetarian leek and potato. Liz and I had leek and potato, Charles had lentil and pork. You could get as many refills of soup as you wanted. The potluck aspect was dessert and sides. Liz and I piled on an assortment of pasta salads and quinoa. There was tons of food that was brought out in two separate rounds. Ride meeting was pretty straightforward, but my one big concern was the description of the start: it is a controlled start because you are riding over pavement that can be quite slippery in the wee morning hours. The horses must walk for everyone's safety, so riders follow a volunteer's truck up the road to make sure no one rushes. I would lose sleep that night over this, anticipating a huge fight with an impatient race-brained Lily...we've only done one of these things and while she wasn't bad at the OD start, she was good because she was allowed to trot out. 

We walked back to our area to set up saddle bags and clothes for the next morning, and to get our boot situation sorted out. I traded a boot cable for a cable adjustment from Liz on one of my Vipers (I hate doing those adjustments as I never seem to get the screws tight enough; Liz doesn't stress out about them). Q's cooler got switched for her blanket and I threw Lily's lined sheet on over her cooler. Lily had one more mash and a dose of electrolytes after everything was set. We went to bed around 10:00 pm.  




    Love the workout details at the beginning of this!!

    You've done an outstanding job with her. Truly truly! Q and I definitely wouldn't have made it through the ride without you and her. Beasts. Totally and completely. =)

  2. Sounds like a great check in and arrival. Can't wait to read the rest. All the pictures floating on FB from this ride are breath taking. It may land on my bucket list for the future. I'm not used to controlled starts either and it really has caused a lot of anxiety for Gem.

    1. At least you would know that the food at these rides was good before you got there. And the potluck sounds good as well.

    2. Yes, Sara, at the Old Dominion rides you certainly won't have to worry about food! :) The controlled start was new for this year, I believe, as they had done some modifications to the trails. It was such a beautiful ride. I'm still happy that we did it.

  3. Mares seem to be hardwired to keep us on our toes...even the good ones. I'm glad she mentally came back to you - can't wait to read the rest!

    1. I know right? But the heart of a mare is unlike no other. I don't know if I could go back to geldings now!

  4. Your workout regime for Lily is awesome. I have such a hard time getting our speed faster, just because of the trails we have available. Trotting at 10 miles an hour down the singletrack trail hanging over a 200 ft drop off is not going to happen.

    I'm hoping the East-West Regional trail works better for that. It's going to be really hard over the winter, unless our weather stays doable.

    So proud of you!!! Trailering out in a new truck for the first time is awesome! You all are Beasts!!

    1. Oh you can totally get speed by doing what I did backwards: do hill sets on those mountains. It will build up Ashke's butt in such a way that he'll move like he has turbines. ;)

      And thank you! I'm laughing about all of us being Beasts! Charles did a really wonderful job driving the rig. I was very impressed.

  5. Love the conditioning and feeding details! And the pictures! I got a little worried when I found out about the controlled start too - I had been counting on being able to warm Nimo up pre-ride so I could start trotting right away to keep on track for time. I'm curious to find out what your ride's controlled start turned out to be as compared to mine:)

    1. I *think* it was the same as yours, though we left at the very back of the pack, so by the time we were riding up that paved hill, the truck that the riders were supposed to follow was long gone. Really looking forward to reading about yours! :D

  6. I love the conditioning details. We'll definitely be applying some of that and probably asking you a few more questions in the next few months.

    Looking forwards to the rest of it!

    1. I hope it helps you and Fetti! I'm happy to answer questions any time! :)

  7. Woohoo!!! Excited to hear more!!!

    1. It's up. :) The ending sounds awful but everything turned out absolutely fine in the end, and I learned something really important that I'm not sure I would have found out otherwise. Which sucks. But all is well that ends well.