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

Saturday, November 19, 2016

Fort Valley 50, 2016 Edition: My First Endurance Ride on Gracie!

Or that one time at ride camp where I had a close encounter with a projectile trailer door and a panicked horse that caused half the ride vets to come running to make sure I was still alive, instantly turning me into ride legend.

Or that one time at ride camp where Silent Hill-type sirens blared all through the night, and we thought maybe the apocalypse had started early. We stayed and rode anyway. If it was our last day on earth, why not spend it on horseback?

Or that one time at ride camp where I laughed so hard for so long, my abs hurt for three days afterwards.

All of those happened at this ride! Which makes me feel like my endurance ride stories just get better and better...but not always in the best ways possible?

You can skip to The Ride section of this post if you would like; I discuss Gracie's prep in detail below for my own future reference and also for anyone interested in competing a horse that does not really have all of the odds in their favor. Because with consideration for your partner and diligent conditioning and preparation, it can be done.

Gracie 17 miles into the Fort Valley 50, tail flagged and looking like she had just left camp!
Photo by Becky Pearman, used with purchase.

For the past three months I've been focusing on fine-tuning Gracie's conditioning because as of late I've been determined to prove she can do a 50. Because she can: despite the setbacks and heat and the fact that she was carrying 60 lbs more with Carlos, she finished the 30 miles at Ride Between the Rivers looking fantastic, and I knew then that she could do The Big Distance. She had not been ready at No Frills, but I felt she was ready now. The catch: I wanted to attempt it on her myself so she could tell me herself what she needs in terms of pace, resting, breaks, etc. It's one thing to observe what you think one horse needs from another horse's back; it's an entirely different ballgame to be riding said horse yourself and letting her tell you directly. (Durh)

I started out by re-refining Gracie's enormous assortment of gaits over the summer: she has a regular walk, a running walk, her singlefoot, a pace, a rack, and a speed rack, in addition to trot and canter. She had lost her "gears" as I call them with Carlos doing the brunt of the distance riding: he allows her to trot most of the time. Gracie has an enormous trot stride but she is very inefficient in the way she moves at the trot: she clomps heavily over terrain and has always felt unbalanced at this particular gait. She is more apt to trip as well. On trail, she is also a lot more likely to move on her forehand at the trot, which sets her up for another slew of issues, the main one revolving around the fact that she has high ringbone on her right front leg (<- newer readers might be interested in that post. It is crazy how far this mare has come since then in every aspect, and I've done the work myself!) and working on the forehand places additional stress on an already compromised leg. When Gracie gaits, however, she automatically lifts her withers and works off of her haunches...while this relieves her right front leg, it can place more stress on her hocks, where she also has arthritis.

So in September, I had G-Mare's hocks injected for the second time ever (they were first done in June of 2015, so it's been over a year), with the goal of assisting her in her gaiting efforts. To some people, injecting joints is controversial. To me, it is not. I've seen non-sporting dogs get their joints injected to keep them comfortable and mobile. I would be doing this for Gracie regardless of whether she was competing or not. Why let her live in pain? For me it's as simple as that. Her hocks will eventually fuse and won't need to be injected anymore, but her ringbone is a whole other ballgame. Because it is in a high-motion joint (her pastern), it could potentially be the thing that ends her riding career. Per my vet, the best way to keep Gracie ridable is to ride her as much as possible. Aiming her at the sport of endurance has been HUGELY successful for her, and my vet has been supportive of this decision: when I first had her pastern injected last year, I was told to expect to have to repeat injections every 6 to 8 months. It has been 14 months, and she is still comfortable on that pastern! I will have it injected over the winter when I give the girls a vacation (high-motion joints require several weeks of rest after injecting) but it will be for maintenance purposes, to keep her as comfortable as she has been so far. In the meantime, I am doing everything I can afford to keep her going for as long as possible. Fort Valley would be the end goal of my current experiment, to see if my theories about her working correctly and efficiently could get her over moderately challenging terrain at endurance distances.

The hock injections worked: she stopped offering to trot entirely. She turned into a gaiting machine, even producing a speed rack that I could invoke on command that covered so much ground, Lily had to canter to keep up! On trail at a slower pace, she alternated between her huge raking regular walk and her happy head-bobbing running walk. She had never before been able to sustain the running walk for long periods. She could now!

Fields of gold, as seen between gold-tufted ears.
Jess and Carlos both rode Lily during this time for the most part, always with me accompanying them on Gracie. I offered Lily to Jess to ride at Fort Valley because she is lighter in weight: while Lily does fabulously with Carlos, he weighs 60 lbs more and I thought that would be too much stress on her finer-boned legs on a mountain ride at the 50-mile distance.

Carlos and Lily during one of our rides.
Epic, epic photo of Gracie and me finishing one rep of hill sprints on one of the barn hay fields. Taken by Carlos, of course!
So why did I choose the 50-miler for Gracie at a ride that is still held over one of the rockiest parks of the East Coast? Because, of the three OD rides (No Frills, The Old Dominion and Fort Valley), Fort Valley is the easiest. I'd say about 65% of this ride is on gravel roads and winding single-track through the woods with very little rocks, where you can move out if you choose to. There are significantly long flat sections as well. The rocky portions are mostly up and downhill, sections that you would walk regardless of footing to save your horse, only a couple of miles in length, and nowhere near as steep as what you encounter at the Old Dominion 50 and 100. Or Ride Between the Rivers, for that matter. Ride Between the Rivers, even at the LD distance, is far tougher in terms of altitude gain and harsh footing than the Fort Valley 50!

I felt really good about this decision: I knew Gracie could do it fitness-wise. The question now was whether she could do it soundness-wise. And also if we would finally have a breakthrough in terms of how well she takes care of herself. At RBTR she started eating at the first vet check and drank on the second loop, finishing the ride looking fabulous. She looked better at the end than she had at the first vet check! I wanted her to take care of herself like that, but consistently, closer to the way Lily does on 50s. I also wanted a mare that remained sound throughout the ride. But most of all, I wanted a mare that had fun throughout the ride. Because if she wasn't having fun, there was no point in continuing to pursue this sport for her at any distance. I wanted to set her up to the challenge and let her tell me, directly, whether this was something she really wanted to do or not. I like my horses to enjoy their jobs. If they don't, I'm happy to try out anything and everything until I nail that which they want to do. If she had decided she wanted to just be a trail horse, and if that's all her body could take, that is absolutely fine too!

I was in for a surprise with both horses, but I'll get to that eventually. :)

There was one thing that had been bothering me for a while though, but I had been keeping it mostly quiet while I tried to rule out what the issue might be, and I want to type it out for myself for future reference. It might seem dumb, but I was concerned because Gracie was doing a LOT more tail swishing while under saddle than she ever had before. As most of you know, tail swishing is a sign of disagreement/unhappiness/defiance. She always swishes more in the arena because she sincerely hates arena work, but she was also doing it out on trail, which was unusual. She was being more opinionated in general as well and she was being difficult about being warmed up at a walk: you would get on and the second you picked up the reins, she wanted to go-go-go. Much fussiness would ensue over remaining at a walk. Some horses develop this as a behavior pattern but we have done nothing to cause the behavior pattern...the other cause can be pain: the horse wants to go-go-go to "escape" whatever hurts. Interestingly, Gracie wouldn't escalate with her fussing like she would have two years ago, but she was showing clear disagreement. This began around the time I started riding her, so initially I shrugged it off as her being rebellious over being asked to warm up properly for longer periods and use herself correctly. This, along with the cross-cantering I mentioned previously, is what led me to decide to repeat her hock injections.

The cross-cantering improved, but the tail swishing did not. Hmmmm...

Some dramatic tail swishing during one of my friend Shanna's lessons. Her form is perfect; it was not related to anything Shanna was doing, it was just this persistent tail swishing that was happening regardless of who was on G-Mare's back.
There was one particular week where she was being uber sassy and opinionated and I narrowed that particular week down to her being in raging heat. She normally doesn't...erm...show it, but this time she was! I gave her banamine before rides and her general attitude improved (I am VERY much of the opinion that most estrus-related negative behaviors in mares are a result of pain. I myself can only work out during that time of the month with a hefty dose of NSAIDs prior. I have confirmed my theory time and again with both of my girls.)

During a lovely bareback ride. Note how much this mare can compress herself: her left hind is almost even with my heel! Her back is actually longer than Lily's and she is built downhill. You can't tell when she is in motion though.
And before anyone says something about the open mouth: first, note that there is slack in my reins. I am achieving engagement with use of my seat, legs and abs alone. Gracie always plays with the bit in the arena, regardless of the type of bit in her mouth (and yes, her teeth are fine. They were checked in October; I have them looked at every 6 months because she develops ramps.)  This stops when she is out on trail. Even when ridden in her flower hack or her rope halter in an arena, she will still hypersalivate as if she had a bit in her mouth when doing more focused work (even with ground work!), no matter how relaxed she is. It's just her. We do arena work to go back to some basics and for short dressage-type sessions. It is a well-known fact that this mare does not like the arena, I think in large part because the sand footing is so much harder for her to work in. The (very reputable!) trainer that worked with her before me said it, and so did her previous owner. She complies when I ask it of her, which is why we keep sessions short, sweet and infrequent. 
The tail swishing continued, regardless of who was on her: myself, Shanna or even Carlos. I started worrying that this might be a hormonal issue, like an ovarian cyst, that might be causing her displeasure and made a note of it so I could discuss it with my vet next time she came for vaccines in early November.

She was also starting to get pushy on the ground. Not like she used to be when I first started working with her, but she was toeing the line. Remembering that this Mareface is better under saddle if she is responding happily on the ground, two weeks before Fort Valley I made the time to review some of the fun stuff I had been doing with G-Mare on the ground around this time last year.

She was rusty and barging through my requests initially, but I got her sorted out in a couple of minutes and listening attentively. I took advantage of the opportunity to practice trot-outs as well. Gracie has gotten dinged on trot-outs at endurance rides because she just doesn't see the point. (The trot-out is where the vet assesses the horse for lameness...and the horse's attitude and willingness to trot out are also taken into account because generally a tired horse isn't going to want to do the trot-out. Neither will a bored horse, for that matter...) We did them in the driveway immediately after untacking when she was tired, when I went in the evening to check on her, and in the arena. And I took advantage of the fact that this mare is so highly food-motivated: I bought her favorite peppermint treats and made sure she knew I had them in my hand. "Trot-trot!" I said to her as I took off at a run, and she came right with me. We would stop at an away point, I would give her a treat, and then we would trot back to our starting point. Another treat. I soon eliminated the halfway point treat and by only our second session, I had a mare that would have been happy to drag me through the trot-out in her enthusiasm. Good girl. A+ on attitude!

We had multiple trot-out sessions and two true groundwork sessions...and then Shanna came out to ride. And I had a completely different horse.

Relaxed mare, walking easily with slack in the reins, no tail swishing, listening to her rider. Who wasn't me: this was Shanna! (But Gracie remained the same even when it was me on her.)
Huh. Maybe she just needed a review on manners??? Or maybe she needed everything I did, and I had just hit the final nail on the head!

Regardless, Happy Gracie happened just in time, because the ride was the following week!

The Ride
The day we were leaving for Fort Valley, we pulled up at the barn, retrieved both horses from the field and fed them alfalfa at the hitching post while we loaded up our remaining odds and ends for the ride. (Carlos had taken care of loading the trailer with most of our tack the day before.)

When I untied Gracie to put her in the trailer, she literally dragged me to the trailer and leaped on. I was floored. She has NEVER done this before! I guess she enjoys our trailer excursions now!

The two-hour drive to Fort Valley was a non-event. Jess was supposed to meet us there at noon and Dan, our farrier, at 1:00 pm. Dan was coming to both shoe the horses and crew for us. He was originally going to ride but decided to scratch due to some truck trouble. The fact that he was coming out anyway just for us is what makes him so very, very awesome!

We arrived a little before noon with plenty of time to get settled: registration didn't start until 2:00 pm and the vet-in didn't start until 3:00 pm. I had told Dan and Jess to look for us close to the vet check, though I wasn't expecting to be able to park right next to it: Fort Valley holds rides both on Friday and Saturday, and we were arriving right in the middle of the Friday ride, so there would be rigs near the check already. We found a fantastic spot on the hill at the far side of the vet check, overlooking the entire check and most of ride camp.

Our view of the vet check...
We unloaded the horses and tied them long enough so that they could graze while we started unpacking the truck and trailer. I hadn't even taken their leg protection off yet. I was trying to see if I could get some form of phone signal so I could message Dan and Jess to tell them our exact location, when I noticed Lily had moved to the other side of the partially open trailer tack room door: her lead rope was right under the door, tied to the trailer on the opposite side of the door. I knew that was an accident waiting to happen, so I moved quietly to close the door so as to prevent the problem I had just foreseen.

Except my movement made Lily lift her head. And she realized her lead rope was stuck under the door. Instead of just stopping there, she jerked her head up higher, met more resistance and so she reared up and backwards.

Her motion caused the lead rope under the door to go taught like a sprung wire with such force, she literally shot the door straight up into the air in projectile form, like a rocket, clean off of its hinges. I had automatically reached for the rope to undo the quick-release knot on the trailer side of the door, but when Lily jerked back and reared, she successfully managed to trip me with the rope before I could undo it. I still have no idea how that happened; all I know is that I ended up on the floor, facing up, watching this steel metal trailer door spinning in the air while my mare's panicked hooves are flailing on the other side of me.

Like so. Illustration by moi, since people look at me quizzically when I try to explain how everything went down. That trailer door was launched into the air well beyond the height of the trailer roof! There is something to be said about the strength of yacht rope...
The door spun in the air while I was madly trying to scramble back to my feet so I could get out of the way of both horse and door...since said door was being pulled back to earth by gravity, right to the spot where I lay. The one thought at the front of my mind was how much that steel door was going to hurt if it landed on me.

Apparently I got myself right up against the wheel well of the trailer. The trailer door smashed down onto the wheel well on top of me, ricocheting off of the wheel well and onto the grass some 4' away from me.

I was finally able to leap to my feet, suddenly aware that my mouth was full of blood, running away from both horse and door, and came to a stop when I was even with the front of the truck!

Carlos had seen the entire thing and came running to check on me.

I immediately felt the huge gash on the inside of my mouth, which is where the blood was coming from. My lip hurt like crazy on the outside. I don't remember it happening, but apparently the clip of the door latch hit me in the mouth and I bit the inside of my lip in the process. Carlos saw that happen too. I was incredibly fortunate to have an intact jaw, let alone an intact face. I could have been killed.

Lily calmed down immediately now that the flying trailer door was "dead" on the ground. I was so glad she still had her leg protection on, because she was unscathed!

My lip, however, was another story. It was UGLY. One straight gash from the inside of my lip almost down to the gumline, and I had bitten it hard enough that I had almost broken all the way through to the outside of my lip. However, there was no skin flap, it was just a straight deep line. We rinsed my mouth out and Carlos inspected it (remember: he is an ER RN. He is used to this kind of stuff.) If it had been anywhere else on my body, stitches would have been mandatory. However, sutures inside the mouth are controversial for this type of wound. If there had been a flap, then yes. But this was a straight deep line and it would heal faster and with less interference without sutures (sutures could potentially have made it worse, since they would have gotten caught in my teeth constantly while eating.) I popped 800 mg of ibuprofen, started what would end up being a full course of antibiotics that I carry with me in my emergency kit just in case, and proceeded to suck on ice for the next 45 minutes.

The bruise on my fat lip and the bruise on my arm from where it got tangled in Lily's lead rope. Photo taken about 26 hours after the incident.
I had just taken the meds when Dr. Wolfe, one of the ride vets, and Dianne, one of the organizers, came running up the hill from the vet check to see if I was okay. Right: because remember our little campsite was within FULL VIEW OF THE VET CHECK. Dr. Wolfe helped us put the door back on its hinges (thankfully it really had been lifted clean off; no damage done!) After Diane and Dr. Wolfe were confident that I was going to live, Carlos was recruited to help with a rider that had fallen on trail and couldn't use her arm. Right after he left, none other than Pat Oliva herself, who was inducted into the American Endurance Riding Conference's Hall of Fame last year with over 40 years in the sport and 21,000 competition miles, hiked up the hill to see if I was okay. She is a nurse also. I have seen Pat at rides before but I had never personally met her up close. I had always wanted to meet her, though maybe under less embarrassing circumstances! She asked me about what had happened. I explained that I had not been trampled by my horse (it's what everyone had thought), the close encounter with the door, and that my husband is a nurse as well. She looked me over and also confirmed that I would live. I thanked her for coming all the way up to make sure I was okay. I was left beaming with fan girl love, my lip temporarily forgotten. Endurance people are the awesomestest! :D

Lily was standing quietly with slack in her lead rope but as far, far away from the trailer door as possible. I swapped her and Gracie's spots so Gracie was tied closest to the door and Lily farther away. The trailer door was swung open ALL the way and I fed the girls their elyte mashes after removing their leg protection. They dug into their food. I then proceeded to help Carlos set up camp. He had just returned from examining the fallen rider.

And that is the story of how I became "that girl that almost got crushed by her horse and a flying trailer door at ride camp" at Fort Valley.

Jess and Dan still hadn't arrived by 2:00 pm and I was really getting restless about their absence. Carlos wasn't worried because both of them are notorious for being late, though Dan not quite as much as Jess! ;) My concern was that neither of them had ever been to this ride before and while the directions this year were better, some of the landmarks are unclear if you haven't been to the ride before...and I had no way of warning them because there was no phone signal.

"They'll get here," Carlos said. And then he turned to me and said quietly, "You do realize that everyone that is going to be here with you is because of you, right? That we're all going to be here for you?"

I stopped for a minute. I hadn't thought about it that way, but he was right. And it kind of blew my mind, because it is not the first time this year that I have brought people together, that my inviting someone out to do something with me has caused a positive change in that person that might have long-term ripple effects, simply because they chose to spend time with me. My friends have all become friends with one another, people whom they probably would have never met otherwise, because of me being the common denominator. I had never had this happen before, where I am the one bringing people together. Because of the horses, but even more so because of me.

I walked down to registration with Carlos to get that out of the way while waiting for our peeps to arrive, still mulling this over...and as we approached the ride management trailer, I looked up just in time to recognize Jess's car pulling into ride camp right then and there! And wouldn't you know...Dan's car was right behind hers! YESSS!! Jess stayed with me so we could take care of finalizing our registration, and Dan gave Carlos a ride back to our campsite so he could start working on shoeing the horses.

Jess got her tent set up with our help while Dan worked on the horses, giving us all the opportunity to catch up and talk about all of the goings-on in our lives as of late while Jess and I packed saddle bags for the next day.

Finley, Jess's Golden Retriever, has a little bit of ADD.
Carlos got his doggie fix though!
This was Finley's first time at an endurance ride! He was a model citizen.

He is a very talented dog...
We vetted the girls in at 4:00 pm, fully shod, and they both passed with flying colors. Gracie's heart rate was 36!! Jess and I then tacked up and went for a short pre-ride before the ride meeting started. I told the guys we would be back in 45 minutes or so, just enough time to get a quick ride in and untack back in camp before heading to the ride dinner. Dan's parting words were, "Have fun! We'll just be here in camp worrying about you two!" He sounded like a dad.

We mounted up. Both girls had an initial second where they both went, "WE'RE AT AN ENDURANCE RIDE!" and both Jess and I felt the energy course between them as they let us know they would rather move out immediately than wait for us to settle in their saddles. Jess and I quickly and calmly sorted them out, and we proceeded to walk out of camp with two high-headed mares observing everything around them...that were still walking on a loose rein without losing their minds. :)

I took Jess on the end of the last leg of the 50, since this is the most beautiful part of the ride and I knew how far to go in order to do a short 3-mile loop to let the girls stretch their legs.

Her grin! <3
We did a short hand-gallop partway around this field, then turned around to head back to camp before the sun disappeared entirely.
On our way back, it hit me: my endurance dream started back when I rode Paso Finos. The original dream involved riding a gaited horse in competition. I had never even considered the possibility of doing it on a trotting horse until Lily came into my life.

And here I was on my gaited mare, whom I would be riding on the competitive trail in 12 hours' time for my first time, 24 years after the initial birth of the dream.

I had goosebumps.

We walked back into camp, untacked and fed the horses, changed into warmer clothes since the temps were dropping fast with the receding light, and threw coolers and sheets on the girls before hiking down the hill for dinner and the ride meeting.

The ride meeting was long because it included awards for that day's rides. By the end of it, we were freezing in our seats, but wow had the food been amazing: lasagna, salad, lentil soup and chocolate cake. We stuffed ourselves.

Back at our campsite, I fed the mares, and that's when the sirens started. They sounded just like this:

And it made every hair on my body stand on end. If you watch the clip above, you will understand why I was so alarmed.

Jess and I looked at one another wide-eyed in alarm. Those were air raid sirens. Carlos and Dan laughed nervously. "We're in Silent Hill," Carlos said. We all looked up at the star-lit sky. There was no change. No change in the air nor in the environment in camp.

"Well, worse thing that could happen is that the apocalypse has started and we'll find out tomorrow who lived and who died," Dan said, as if this was a possibility that was discussed every day.

We stayed up talking for a bit, then hit the sack at around 10:00 pm. It was literally freezing cold and I was glad for our propane heater. The sirens continued on and off well into the wee hours of the morning, and I ultimately was able to tune them out with the help of my white noise machine. I had restless dreams.

I woke up in the middle of the night, however, because my left shoulder hurt and realized our air mattress had deflated! Neither Carlos nor I slept very well afterwards but this isn't really a new thing at endurance rides. I got up, tossed the girls more hay, and slept fitfully until 5:00 am, when I woke up again to feed Lily and Gracie their electrolyte mashes. I took my time getting ready and was joined by Jess at 5:30. Dan woke up shortly after, and him and Carlos went down to the ride management area to get us hot coffee while we started tacking up the mares. I caught Dan smudging the mares with sage after they were all tacked up, and then he came over and smudged both Jess and me.  #bestcrewever

Dawn over ride camp. <3
Lily and Gracie were calmer than the day before when we mounted up, and we calmly walked them down to the start line about 5 minutes before the trail was due to open, with Carlos and Dan following us.

The girls were absolutely calm walking down. The trail hadn't been opened yet when we arrived, so we let our horses walk around while I called out our numbers to the person at the ride start. Lots of hot-headed Arabs milling about, waiting anxiously to start. My two picked up on the energy but kept their cool when asked to stay level-headed. 

The mares even let us pose for photos!

You would never imagine that we were surrounded by anxious, nervous horses to see this photo and the one below!
I think Gracie is currently in the best shape of her life.
The trail was opened and I let the group of people in the start area leave first. Then, with good-byes to Carlos and Dan, we allowed Lily and Gracie to proceed at a sedate walk on loose reins out of ride camp.

I was very, very pleased with Gracie. She can get a little "up" at the beginning of a ride, but that part of herself was nowhere to be seen on this day!

One of the unique things of Fort Valley is that the owners of the property where ride camp is set have a whole slew of hunting hounds near the entrance/exit to their land. The dogs bay at specific times, and some of them were "singing" while we made our exit towards the trail.

Lily completely ignored the hounds. Gracie was trying to look over at them so I started singing at the top of my lungs, "You ain't nothin but a hound dog" and that got G-Mare's attention: she flicked her ears back at me and relaxed, and that's how we rode out of camp to the tune of an Elvis Presley song!
We had the girls alternately walk and trot up the long gravel road that would eventually take us onto the trail, picking up a consistent trot once we were on more level ground.

Typical George Washington Memorial Forest footing...but only about 1/3 of what you'll find at the No Frills ride! We walked these sections.
And we got to watch the sun rise over the mountains. It was truly spectacular.

We walked all of the tough, rocky parts, moving out into a trot (Lily)/gait (Gracie) when the trail levelled and/or smoothed out. 

And we enjoyed the views. There is a reason why Fort Valley is my favorite of this region's rides. 

Here is when I realized that the mileage on my health app was completely off...so I decided to try Endomondo on airplane mode to see if it would work for once on my updated iPhone.
Lo and behold: it did!!! For the first time ever, I could track my mileage on my phone on a fitness app on airplane mode!
About halfway through the first loop, I realized I had completely forgotten the cantle bags on both horses...where I had all of their electrolytes, which I had been hoping to dose in the middle of this loop. I had a moment of panic but couldn't do anything else about it and the girls looked fantastic so we continued on.

It wasn't long before we were climbing up the mountain again back towards ride camp. Jess and I chose to dismount to give the girls a break from carrying us. I led Gracie for a bit and then remembered that a long time ago, I taught this mare to tail!

So I unclipped her reins and clipped one end to the halter ring of her halter bridle and, holding the other end of her reins, I wrapped her tail hair around my other hand and told Gracie, "Go on. Tail."

Gracie looked at me for a second in confusion, and then I saw the light bulb go on in her head. "OH! You want me to lead you up the mountain! YEAH! I got this!"

Practicing tailing with Gracie earlier this summer.
It's one of the first things I taught her when I first bought her!
She turned her head and put her neck down like a draft horse leaning into her harness and, with ears pricked, happily proceeded to pick her own way over the uber rocky footing of the trail.

I watched from behind her as she carefully and deliberately made progress over the rocks, only pausing when I asked her to wait for me as I scrambled up rocks behind her or to wait for Jess and Lily to catch up (Lily wouldn't tail Jess, though I've also trained her to tail.)

Lily tailing me up a particularly technical section of Gambrill State Park's trails.
We got back on when we reached the end of the rocky section, and rode the rest of the way into camp.

Dan and Carlos were waiting for us right before the bridge; it took us a minute to recognize them because we had not been expecting them there!

The moment when Jess and I recognized Dan and Carlos!
Gracie honestly didn't want to stop...after 17 miles! Carlos had to hold her for me so I could dismount, which was a surprise.
Hand walking the girls to the in-timer.
Getting our in-times.
Carlos and Dan had set up a crew spot near the check where we untacked while letting the girls drink from the sponge water bucket. Carlos fetched me my saddle bags with the electrolytes and I dosed both horses. The mares were already cool and down pulse-wise, so we took them straight to the vets. I walked up to Dr. J with a huge grin. "Love that smile!" he said. 

Gracie's pulse was 52 before the trot-out. There are no pics of the trot-out itself because for once Carlos was too floored by what he was seeing to even think of taking a photo!

"How did she do that?!" he blurted as I sprinted around the far cone with a Grace-Mare doing a trot so big, she was springing into the air with all four feet off the ground. She stayed right next to me with pricked ears, tail up, eyes bright, arched neck and flying mane. She looked like we were presenting at a breed show! I was grinning like a goon.

Gracie looked like this!!!
Photo from rainhillwelshcobs.com
"What? What happened? Did I miss something?" the vet asked.

"No, never mind." Carlos said, shaking his head, as I came to a stop with Gracie in front of the vet.

Pulse after trot-out: 52! As all across the board on all of her other scores as well.

Post trot-out. :D
Lily had a B on gait for a mild intermittent offness the vet was seeing, but not enough to hold Jess's ride card. I wasn't too concerned at the time because Jess trotted Lily at a much slower pace than I normally do, which made her look somewhat sluggish.

We grabbed our tack and walked the girls back to the trailer to let them eat. Gracie dug into her food but Lily didn't want to touch anything. She had not had anything to drink on trail and I was concerned that she did not want to drink now that she was back in camp either. She didn't want to eat either.

Jess and I ate and soon the 45-minute hold was nearing its end and we were tacking the horses back up to return to the trail. Lily still would not eat. No carrots, treats, nothing. I ended up dosing her again with electrolytes in the hopes that she would eat and drink later on trail but I was concerned that we were seriously behind the ball game now with her elytes. I told Jess if she continued to not eat nor drink on trail, we were pulling at the next vet check.

This time I remembered our cantle bags.

Dan smudged all four of us and we mounted back up.

The second loop was supposed to be 18 miles per the ride meetings. I told the guys I was estimating three hours on trail. I remembered a pretty steep climb on this second loop and so we moved out in the beginning so that we would have time to slow down as much as we wanted later.

Gracie felt amazing throughout. She asked to trot some of the uphills (I allowed it so she could use different muscles), but stuck to her gait without prompting from me whenever we were working faster than a walk.

I was having SO much fun with her!

Lily finally started drinking on this loop. At the first small creek crossing, Gracie put her head down without drinking and waited for Lily to come near. Gracie lifted her head when Lily put hers down to drink and moved away like, "There Lily. I showed you the water!" Jess and I laughed. It has always been the other way around with those two! Gracie continued to impress me by chugging water at every single water crossing...and mud puddles! Miss Evian drank at MUD PUDDLES! Lily not so much: she was limiting her drinking to sips and only from flowing water.

There is a large river that runs parallel to one section of this trail. Everyone was stopping here to sponge their horses and let them drink, so we took the mares into the water.

This was the first time all day that Lily truly drank.
Gracie chilling in the river.

The mares were elyted after this, and we continued on.

Before we knew it, we were back on the same rocky section of trail that we had done on the first loop that would take us back into ride camp. I was extremely confused. Based on what I was seeing, we only had three more miles to go to get back into camp, but we had only completed 10 miles so far. This was supposed to be an 18-mile loop, and I remembered this climb being completely different from the first loop the first time I did this ride with Liz two years ago...but it was also my first time at Fort Valley, so maybe I was just remembering wrong?

I was stressing because the guys weren't going to be expecting us back in camp quite this soon, and we hadn't had a chance to slow down for a prolonged period like I had originally wanted and expected to. We basically walked those last three miles into camp and arrived to our check area to discover almost-empty sponge water buckets because the guys didn't know we'd be coming in so soon! We untacked the girls and I stayed with the horses while Jess ran up to the trailer to fetch Carlos and Dan. They jumped to their feet when they saw her materialize next to them and came running. Water buckets were filled and the mares sponged and scraped between the four of us. Despite all the walking, they both had hanging pulses, Gracie more so than Lily, which was surprising given how well Gracie had taken care of herself. It was HOT though: close to 80 degrees by then, and all of us had already acclimated to cooler weather.

It took a good 15 minutes to get them down to pulse parameter (64 bpm) and we then walked them over to the vets. Gracie's pulse spiked just walking to the vets so we had to wait a couple more minutes for her to reach parameter. Her heart rate finally dropped to 52...but it spiked up to 72 after the trot-out. Not a good sign. My card was held and Dr. J, the same vet I had gotten for the first check, told me to come back about 10 minutes before my out-time so he could take another look at Gracie.

I honestly had complete faith Gracie would be fine. I was surprised though, to hear that Lily had gotten a C on gait this time around for a more pronounced lameness on her right hind and Jess's ride card was also held. I thought that was odd. I hadn't noticed anything off on trail; I had been more worried about Lily's metabolics. She had decreased gut sounds but she was finally trying to eat everything in sight so we weren't quite as worried as before.

Jess and I walked back to the trailer with Dan and Carlos, and made sure the horses stuffed their faces and drank during our 45-minute hold. Lily was back to her normal 50-miler self: ravenous and thirsty. But I didn't want her to continue when her soundness was questionable and I told Jess as much, though I encouraged her to go back to the vet as directed for the re-evaluation to make sure she was improving metabolically. Gracie seemed to have recovered fabulously and her heart rate was eating was 48 (as checked with a stethoscope), so I tacked her up and we all walked back down to the vets together.

I was alarmed when I realized that Gracie's respiratory rate spiked just walking down the hill to the vet. When Dr. J ausculted her, her heart rate had gone back up to 68. I was ready to pull right then because there was, indeed, a metabolic issue going on. Gracie had As on everything else; she just had this hanging pulse and increased gut sounds (hypermotility): he could hear the water sloshing around in her gut. When Dr. J mentioned the gut sounds, I knew exactly what was going on: Gracie needed more potassium in order to drive that water to the rest of her body. Lily did exactly the same thing two years ago when her and I completed Fort Valley. We agreed that pulling was the best thing in this case. Jess had come to terms with the decision with Lily as well: her lameness had improved somewhat but not significantly, though her gut sounds were thankfully normal now.

I shouted over at Jess, "Let's go drink!"

Jess took it pretty hard, thinking she had somehow done something to cause Lily's lameness, until I inspected Lily's legs and discovered a tiny abscess on one of the heels of her right hind that was just about ready to pop. She flinched hard when I touched it. Source of lameness: discovered.

Gracie was given two doses of Nu-Salt followed by a dose of Perform n' Win, and we hand-grazed the mares for a couple of hours as the sun made its way down to the horizon. Dr. J came up the hill eventually to check on them of his own accord, which was so very sweet of him, but he said it was an easy way for him to stay entertained since the vet check was empty at the time. :) He said Gracie's gut sounds were much more normal now. Her heart rate had gone back down into the 40s.

Lily and Gracie were tied back up to the trailer once the shadows had lengthened enough so that they weren't in direct sunlight while tied. I served mashes and fresh hay, and they continued eating while we all sat down next to them to chat and pass around the bottles of wine.

Finley shakes hands!
I don't remember what story Dan was telling...but I was laughing HARD at whatever it was!

We were starving by dinner time when we went down ride management's awards meeting. Afterwards we stayed up way, way into the night, talking and laughing. No air raid sirens this time, thankfully. I have not laughed so hard for so long in a very long time, and my abs really did hurt for three days afterwards just from the amount of laughter.

I don't remember when we went to bed.

Finley conked out long before we did.
Our sleep wasn't much more than the previous night's in terms of quantity but it was so much better in terms of quality: Carlos had gone to a nearby Walmart with Dan while Jess and I were riding and bought a new air mattress!

I woke up in the wee hours when I heard Dan packing. He drove off before I could make it out of the tent to say thank you and good-bye, but I messaged him afterwards: he had to get back to WV because he had a full day of work ahead of him. We had had such a great time with him and he had made such a difference by just being there.

Carlos, Jess and I packed all of our belongings, loaded up the horses and headed on our separate ways back home. Gracie looked like a million bucks back at the barn and so did Lily. Both of them received additional electroytes and UlcerGard for the first three days after returning home. Lily's lameness completely resolved two days later when her abscess popped during a light "active rest" ride.

Spot of blood on her heel = draining abscess
My lip healed uneventfully thanks to the antibiotics, Canker Covers to protect the gash  at night so I wouldn't accidentally bite it and re-open it in my sleep, ibuprofen, and arnica placed on the outside of my lip. By Monday when I returned it was barely noticeable and by Wednesday all outward signs of bruising and swelling were gone. The gash had completely closed within exactly 8 days of the original incident. The decision to not suture was a solid one!

Regardless of the pull, I am thrilled with this ride and the preparation leading up to it, because all of it involved a very close conversation with my horse. "What do you need? How can I make this better/easier?" was my constant query. And Gracie told me, while also giving me her best in turn. I had an absolute blast riding her! I just cannot get behind the 8-ball with neither horse when it comes to electrolyting.

I was originally going to go over competition plans for the future but I have no idea what is going to happen next year with anything, which means I am currently goal-less. Competition goals just don't seem very important right now, though I hope this feeling will change.

I just feel like this.



    Horses, man. You think you've got it all figured out and the the door goes flying.

    Is there a chunk of post missing between the water pics and the conclusion?

    1. "You think you've got it all figured out and then the door goes flying." <- This. LMAO! Amen.

  2. - 3 days of ab soreness! Does that mean you're using your abs properly during laughing or they wouldn't be hurting? lololol

    - Love the drawing! ...but you forgot to put your kickass arm muscles in it. ;-)

    - Dan. Not known so much for being late? You must know a version of Dan that very few of us do! Dave and I got a good guffaw out of that. He's allllways late. And difficult to get up with. I drove hither and thither around the valley trying to track him down yesterday lol!

    - I'm so disappointed I couldn't make it! My tire was in a bad place though and despite trying to find some places to fix it I kept striking out. As my "short" drive doubled in length, I threw in the towel. I'm really glad you had a great ride though - despite the pull! You're a troubleshooting pro with these things now it seems, which is so neat. I totally understand your happiness despite the pull.

    1. - I honestly think a big component of the ab soreness was from riding Gracie: I had never ridden a gaited horse of any kind for more than 20 miles. I ride gaited creatures mostly off of my abs, and I guess this was proof of exactly how much work is involved! Lol And then people think you "just sit there" on gaited horses. Haha... But so much laughter definitely contributed to extra soreness! ;)

      - Drawing: I did forget! lol

      - I think you're right: he's more punctual when it comes to business! Though the first thing he said to Carlos when he arrived was, "How badly is Nicole freaking out?" We laughed because yes: I had been very much freaking out over the possibility of the horses not getting shod and having to deal with boots or having the ride farrier do their feet at the last minute... (For readers unfamiliar with the sport: this is not embarrassing at all *sarcasm* when you're supposed to shoe your endurance horses 2 weeks before a ride, not the day before the ride...the only reason why I let Dan do this is because I trust his shoeing that much!)

      - We missed you big time! But I completely understand. Dealing with a bad tire on a drive that was long to begin with after a week away from home is something no one wants to deal with. I would have done the same as you. No worries at all. ;)

  3. Disappointing about the pull it honestly it sounds like a fantastic time was had by all!!!

    1. This why I still think endurance rocks! ;)

  4. Did you ever find out what the sirens were? We have something similar here and I found out it's a call to the volunteer firefighters in the area to respond.

    When you said, "I tied the horses long enough so they could graze" I thought, "LILY?!" Oh no!

    1. We never did find out what the sirens were about. When Dan and Carlos drove into town to go to Walmart, they saw no signs of a major disturbance. We figured maybe it was some sort of drill.

      Re: tying them long enough to graze: we've been doing that since we bought the trailer almost two years ago every time we take them out. I feed hay and mashes on the ground at rides too. They get tied just long enough to be able to put their noses down without slack in the rope just like you would with a hi-tie. What happened here is that the quick release knot loosened just enough to give Lily the right amount of length to get on the other side of the door. What I should have done was undo the rope from the get-go and re-tie her, instead of trying to close the door. Though the same thing could have happened in either scenario, I guess.

      But yeah: this is why I don't think we'll ever own a hi-tie, why I've stopped high lining her, and also why the electric corral has seemed like a dubious investment. She respects electric fence but she is so gifted at getting herself into trouble that for now, she just gets hard tied to the trailer!

  5. I was eagerly awaiting this entry and was not disappointed. I am so so sad I didn't get to go and see you, but thrilled you got to ride your gaited girl on the endurance trail at last. I have no doubt you will complete a 50 with her one day! The trailer door incident is terrifying and I am so glad neither of you were killed. So so scary. I got what you were describing without the illustration, but I LOVE the art. It could be a teenage horse girl book cover. Wow! Re: Hi Tie: I feel like the High Ti specifically presents this kind of thing (and is the only way Ozzy would be reliably contained). Because of the velcro combined with the elastic nature of the tie itself, they're unlikely to get stuck, and if they DO get stuck enough for there to be a problem, the velcro will give before a more solid object (horse's neck, trailer door, halter). I am sorry to hear about both pulls, but they were examples of "shit happens", which it always does. If you want to bounce around e-lyte ideas, feel free to PM me. I have lots of experience with non-Arabs in endurance. It sounds like you already had a good idea on how to handle her issues, though. It also sounds like you got Jess hooked already :) I hope to see BOTH of you out there next year, as I imagine this was your last ride for the season (I refuse to entertain the idea of you not doing this any more. You are one of my favorite faces and my goal is to ride 50 miles together soon.)

    1. I did want to explain this for the benefit of readers in general: I had honestly looked into the Hi-Tie tie tethers for attaching the horses to the trailer because I like the combo of bungee + Velcro, and have had them in my Riding Warehouse shopping cart multiple times...but then changed my mind each time. The only time my two are truly hard-tied anywhere is at endurance rides and when we haul out: back home, they are attached to hay string loops that I placed on the hitching posts. In the trailer, they wear breakaway halters over their rope halters, with Velcro trailer ties attached to the breakaway halters.

      My thing is, I made the mistake of keeping Lily in breakaway halters for the first three years of owning her (because the general notion is that this is the "right" way of doing it), and thus she learned that she could sit back and get away from just about anything. By the time I thought, "I really should switch her to rope halters..." the damage was done. I used to, and still do, always keep a couple of extra breakaway crowns on hand because she would go through them that quickly. So I unwittingly taught this mare that she can always run away if she pulls back hard enough and in the process created a pretty dangerous problem: her default reaction to frightening stimuli is to pull back first and then run away. It is a reaction that is 10x worse when she is in heat, too. The epitome of that bad habit occurred last year, when she pulled back hard enough to take with her the top bar of the (weak, at the time) hitching post they get tied to at the barn (before I implemented the hay string loop system)...and ran away. Away away, off the barn property, and then put herself in the hospital for a week.

      The possibility of her doing that at an endurance ride where we often don't have phone signal (she is ID'd to the nines at rides but if I can't be reached, it's kind of pointless :/) and she can truly gallop for miles and miles is one that I hope to never have to confront...so she gets hard tied to the trailer. It's a habit that I might never fully undo, but I was honestly thrilled with her reaction this time: she flailed while the door was airborne, but immediately stopped and stood still afterwards, with slack in her rope. This was HUGE! At another point in time, she would have continued fighting until something gave. (This is all in such stark contrast to Gracie, who, even when frightened, will never take the slack out of her rope.) This probably makes me a horrible person in the eyes of other readers, but Lily is just not wired like "normal" horses: I can't tie her somewhere and sack her out or do any type of real desensitizing work with her because that direct focus type of work just does not work with her: it just makes her more reactive and less likely to trust me. The only thing that seems to work with her in situations where she is reactive is simple exposure (not creating situations, but taking her places and allowing her to realize that the world isn't going to kill her) and letting her figure it out on her own.

      Seriously, anyone else would have sold this horse a long time ago. When I start talking about her issues, I start wondering why I keep her around. I'm not even going to go into the subject that she currently has a gash on a front leg and another deep scrape on her butt that I have no idea how she caused. This happened while in a field that has no objects for a horse to hurt herself on. I cannot.


    2. I would love to invest in the full Hi-Tie system one day if we become true regulars in the sport to warrant the investment, but otherwise this has kept her safe so far. At the moment, I don't know if we will get to compete next year given how the world is trending. I just can't wrap my head around anything competitive at the moment. Trailer modifications and planning long trips to compete at the rides I would truly like to go to seem ludicrous right now. *sigh* :'( I know you understand what I'm talking about. <3

      Thank you for all the info you gave me on elytes yesterday!! <3 And yes: Jess is pretty hooked! Hahaha But so is Carlos. The one reason why he was okay with crewing this time was because Dan was going to keep him company!

    3. This is exactly the problem with Jupiter. He learned really early that backing up til something breaks is the thing to do when he doesn't like something. I addressed it with a rope halter and hard tying, and it helped a lot. He is STILL not a candidate for a breakaway halter, though. I hear you completely on your logic regarding the Hi Tie. I agree that the idea of a horse getting loose in camp (or on trail!!) is terrifying. I stopped keeping Ozzy in temp pens after he disappeared up the mountain in NY. He gets hard tied to the trailer unless we are over nighting somewhere.

  6. Wow! What a ride.

    Glad you did not brain yourself with Lily's door releasing action. That sort of freak accident is all too likely with horses, eh?

    Why did I not know about canker covers?

    1. I honestly feel like wearing full body armor would still not be enough around them.

      Canker covers are da bomb!

  7. Sorry about the pull, but it looks like you had fun anyway. The pictures look really pretty. I saw from some of your comments that you're considering the Hi-Tie system and I'll say that I really like ours. Nilla loves to pull back (mule) and I never use breakaway things with her. I've found that the elastic works really well because she can't get that same hard pull back sensation as with being hard-tied, she just stretches further and further and hen gives up.