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

Wednesday, April 20, 2016

Foxcatcher 2016: In Which the Islanders Attempt an LD in the Snow

On April 9th. Yes, snow. In Maryland. <- This right here is why I sincerely despise spring with all my heart and soul: because of the bipolar weather when you just want it to stay warm already. Sure it's pretty. But there are few things in life that I hate more than the weather combo of cold + wet and when I saw the forecast for Saturday April 9th change from a sunny 72 degrees to 34 degrees with a 65% chance of rain and snow and 30 mph wind gusts...well...I wasn't exactly thrilled.

I had already sent our entries though, so we were going one way or another. But I did invest in this baby when I confirmed that the forecast was absolutely not changing:

I was very excited when it arrived at our doorstep 2 days before we were scheduled to leave for the ride!
If you regularly camp in questionable weather with cold temps, I 100% recommend this heater! You'll see why soon enough. It was a life saver.

On Friday morning, I literally shoved every winter jacket and fleece we owned into one side of the truck's backseat, and on the other I shoved two comforters, two polar fleece blankets, and the same bedding as last time.

Think this will keep us warm enough? It was going to be 24 degrees that night with wind chills in the teens.
The girls loaded up uneventfully at the barn after eating their mashes. Lily cracked me up: the second I opened the trailer doors she started pacing, trying to get into the trailer STAT. I had to tie her shorter because she actually tried to step into the trailer through the side escape door!

If you had told me 5 years ago that this particular mare would love an adventure so much that she would WANT TO GET INTO THE TRAILER RIGHT NOW, I would have told you you needed a brain transplant.

The 1.5 hour drive north to Fair Hill International, where this ride is held in Elkton, MD, went smoothly. Except when I realized I had left our bag with our meds, toothbrushes and deodorant in our bathroom back in the apartment...when we were only 20 minutes from arriving in ride camp. My contacts were in that bag too, which is when I knew we would be doomed for a wet ride the next morning: I would have to wear my glasses in order to see, which are a nightmare when it's raining!

We had to stop at a pharmacy to at least get toothbrushes, toothpaste and deodorant (because otherwise EWWW...) and this involved a 40-minute detour into the boonies to find the nearest Walgreens because the lady at the cash register decided to take a 15-minute phone call right when Charles was ready to pay.

We FINALLY arrived in ride camp at around 2:15 pm, where Gail was waiting for us! She had chosen a spot under a large tree for us to camp under, so we'd have the option of using my high line. With the impending nasty weather and high winds, I decided to just hard tie to the trailer again like we did at Rabbit Run.

The three of us checked in, vetted the horses (on the way over we met up with Dom, who was camping within eyesight of us! She walked us down to the vet check, where the horses all passed with flying colors) and then returned to the trailers to put up tents and organize our stuff.

Camp halfway set up. The tree was off to the right of the EZ-Up.
Gracie eating and drinking. :) Lily was next to her on the other side of the trailer. We would move them to this side of the trailer once we were done setting up so we could see them from the tent overnight.
Charles helping Gail set up her truck bed tent!
Charles and I saddled up for a quick ride: the horses had basically not been ridden since Rabbit Run two weeks prior, thanks to uncooperative weather the previous weekend. I had snuck a 30-minute hack in the rain on Lily on Monday and Gracie had had two 15-minute lunge sessions during the week to make sure she moved out and stretched her legs, but that was it. I had been adamant about doing a pre-ride so the horses would be settled for the ride the next morning.

I remembered where this ride had started last year, with the pink trail, which was marked as such again this year, and took Charles out on this loop so he could see the beginning of the first loop. He was amazed: he said that to look at ride camp, you would never guess it was so beautiful out there.

Fair Hill is a gorgeous park and one of the selling points of our current barn is that it reminded me of a mini-version of Foxcatcher's course. Our barn's trails continue to be some of Charles's favorites and I had figured he would have a blast at this particular endurance ride because of the similar landscape.

I took him down to the creek where Lily and Nimo had blasted down the gravelly trail and caught up to the group led by the man we would dub The Pace Natzi. Both Lily and Gracie were barefoot and I noticed that here Lily was quite ouchy on the gravel with no real grassy verge for her to use to escape it. It had rained for most of the week leading up to this ride and I figured her feet were sensitive from being softer than usual. My hoof boots basically live in the trailer now so I decided to boot her fronts for the ride the next day.

We turned around a short ways up this path and let the horses trot out back to camp. It was a gorgeous late afternoon.

As we were riding back into camp, I received a text from Dom saying the ride meeting had just started. What? It was 5:45 pm! The Foxcatcher website had said it started at 6:00 pm!

Apparently there was a large yellow sign over by the check-in desk that indicated the time of the meeting and somehow Gail, Charles and I had all completely missed it!

We untacked and fed the horses and rushed down to the big tent for the meeting, arriving just in time to witness its ending. Dom told us we hadn't missed a great deal: yellow loop, then pink loop for the 25s; pulse parameter was 60. If you are paying attention, this means that the loops for the LD this year were reversed from last year: I had just taken Charles on the beginning of what would be our second loop this year. But that's okay.

We all got in line for dinner, which was amazing.

We ate until we were stuffed, staying at the table to continue talking and catching up long after we had finished our food. There were plates with peanuts on the tables and I teased Charles because he had already tried passing his extra desserts onto my plate when he was full, and here he was eating peanuts.

"I made the mistake of having one," he explained.

"That's the problem with those: once you have one, you just can't stop!" Gail said.

"Here, have some!" Charles offered.

"Nope, not having any," Gail said.

So Charles proceeded to try to make a basket by aiming peanuts at Gail's mouth while we were all talking. Hilarity ensued.

Charles finally quit and the conversation moved on to other topics. He asked Gail a particularly engaging question (I can't for the life of me remember what it was) and when Gail opened her mouth to answer...Charles threw a peanut at her and nearly nailed it.

None of us had been expecting that and we all roared with laughter, including Gail, who is amazingly tolerant of my husband's shenanigans. I did give her permission to beat him up if he ever takes it too far. :)

Life is most certainly never boring around him...
This photo is priceless :D
In which we all appear to be normal people. :)
Hint: we're not. We all rode the next day!
We all hung out at the tent a while longer, until Dom had to leave to go check on Mike and Skip. Gail, Charles and I moseyed over to our campsite. Gail and Charles took the horses for a walk around camp while I rasped Lily's fronts so they would fit in a pair of Easyboots (I did not boot her hinds), set up our saddle bags for the next day and finished tidying up our area. I wanted everything 100% ready for the next day so all we would have to do was wake up, get dressed, tack up and ride. The bad weather was scheduled to start at 11:00 pm.

Butt numbers!
Lily and Gracie chowing, reflective collars on for the night.
The temperature dropped a good 10 degrees as the sun set, but the wind finally died down as well.
Charles brought out our new heater and set it outside so we could all sit around it and stay warm while we talked. I finished setting out clothes for both him and myself for the next day (layers, layers, layers...) and left everything I would need within easy reach. The one thing that drives me bonkers about camping is when you set everything up, move one thing accidentally, and then can't find it in the dark even with a flashlight/headlamp because the inside of the tent is black and so are half of your clothes!

Headlamps are one of those pieces of gear that you think you can live without...until you finally purchase one and wonder how on earth did you survive overnight camping without one!
FINALLY I sat down with Charles and Gail by the fire propane heater with a beer and my BoT mini blanket over my knees. We stayed up talking until 10:00 pm, when we finally all went to bed.

Blurry photo of the heater at our feet. I might be totally in love with this thing.
The heater set on high warmed up the tent in less than 10 minutes, at which point Charles and I set it to low and proceeded to remove a few layers of bedding!

It was blissfully warm inside the tent all night. I woke up once, not because I was too cold, but because I was too hot. What a change from previous spring/fall camping!

I woke up before the alarm at 5:00 am to feed the horses, woke Charles up once the girls were eating, and we went down to the ride camp tent to check out breakfast. There was instant oatmeal and hot water and I found myself eating two packets of it. Again: completely relaxed about ride start. We snagged coffee for ourselves and for Gail and walked back down to our campsite. Gail was already walking over and I handed her her coffee. :)

We took our time tacking up and a light drizzle started basically just as we were about ready to get on. I threw sheets on the horses to keep them warm and dry for as long as possible. The three of us agreed to maybe wait 5 minutes after the trail opened instead of 15 like Gail and I did last year! The 30s and 50s were all starting at the same time, 7:00 am, but in opposite directions.

All three horses walked out with level heads. I think Gracie learned her lesson last time at Rabbit Run!

Photo by Mike Turner, who was at the start taking pics!
Dom was riding in the 50. :)

Also by Mike. G-Mare looks like a powerhouse!
She was gaiting veeeeery slowly...on a loose rein.
I might have repeatedly threatened Charles with murder to get him to keep his hands on the reins though...lol (If you read the Rabbit Run post, you know what I'm talking about!)
No fooling around at the Foxcatcher start! It's all across open fields.

Lily got a little prancy dancey as we rounded the first field. She wasn't naughty at all: she just wanted to start moving out at a trot. I laughed at her, let her dance sideways for a few strides, then requested a walk again and she obliged.

We were basically doing the loops backwards from the year before: first the yellow loop and then the pink loop. So the ride start I had taken Charles on for our pre-ride the previous day was wrong...but oh well. Not only that, we were also literally doing the loops themselves backwards: we were starting the yellow loop through the cross country course, which is where we ended that loop last year.

The horses kept their wits about them as we crossed a second field and we let them move out into a trot.

Between the cool weather and the misting drizzle, the horses were total powerhouses. They kept a steady big trot for mile after mile after mile. Unlike last year, we were actually catching up to people and passing them. All three horses took turns in the lead with Lily spending the most time at the front. I was super impressed with her. She was just flowing with this steady, strong energy that felt eternal in its fluidity. There was no faltering, no hesitation, no slowing down; she just went and went and went.

The infamous Foxcatcher tunnels were NBD for any of the horses. Gracie has never been to this ride before but I have ridden her through tunnels like this at other parks, so this was not a novelty for her.
The fields at this ride are gorgeous and absolutely tempting for galloping...which is what will wear out a horse a lot quicker than you'd expect! We did a lot of trotting on these hills, resisting the urge to let the horses fly.

We did a few short canters to switch up the muscles the horses used but trotted for the most part, stopping at streams to give them the opportunity to drink, but none of them wanted to stop, much less drink. So we continued.

My GPS finally called out mile 8, which we had completed in an hour. I decided to stop and give the horses a break: deep down inside, I was concerned about how this weather would affect thirst and hydration. I had no idea how to manage them when it was this cold and wet. Hot weather is a challenge but I know exactly what to do! More than 15 miles in cold weather? I am stumped. Electrolyte more to get them to drink? Electrolyte less because you know they're not going to drink? Don't electrolyte at all? Give the same elyte mixture or just sodium to trigger thirst? What about potassium with non-Arabs? You still have to give more of it... All of these questions swirled through my head and I shoved them aside. We were already riding: there was nothing we could change now.

We stopped in one of the lush fields and I told Charles and Gail to let the horses graze, as I was going to get off for a second: I wanted to swap Lily's bit out for her hackamore, which I had had the foresight to stick in my cantle bag. The second the bit was out, she dropped her head to eat the wet grass. I was upset that I had forgotten to do the same for Gracie, but was relieved to see her eating hungrily while I fiddled with Lily's tack. Nimo was also grazing happily.

We let the horses rest for an extra 5 minutes, then I remounted and we continued on our way.

"CARLOS STOP CANTERING," would soon become a common phrase during this loop. Gracie has 5 gaits and a million speeds within each one. I get a kick out of putting friends on her because she really is like driving a very fancy sports car: she is very rateable and adjustable. With her canter alone, you can slow it down to the same speed as Lily's slowest trot. While yes, it is easier to ride than a trot, it still uses a lot more muscles and energy than just trotting along. I understood why Charles would let Gracie switch but they both need to learn to use the gait that is tougher for the rider and easier on the horse. 

As a result, "Gracie needs a break," was another common phrase. Despite the bit, she was quite willing to eat grass when given the opportunity. So any time G-Mare looked even remotely fatigued to me, we would pause to let the horses grab a bite to eat. Even with the multiple stops, we were making great time so there was no need to push the horses too hard.

I worried about Gracie more than Lily on this loop, mostly because I had even less of an idea of how to manage her with this weather. Lily continued powering through, still leading for the most part. More often than not, I found myself slowing Lily down to allow Gail and Charles to catch up! Gracie looked a bit fatigued to me as time went on and finally I made us take a series of consecutive short walk breaks, including a walk downhill where I let Charles take the lead so I could watch G-Mare in front of me. She eventually picked up her gait on her own and I was relieved to finally see the bounce return to her step: her blonde tail bounces up and down with her movement when she's happy and going strong. She had finally recovered.

She remained recovered throughout the rest of this loop and Charles kept her at a trot, which I think also helped!

The horses still didn't drink however, and I wondered if eating the wet grass was killing their thirst reflex. This loop would end up being mentally exhausting for me as I second-guessed everything. We still let them eat though: I figured some moisture from the wet grass was better than none!

I love this bridge. The horses didn't care. :)
That's not fog; that's steam rising off of the horses!!
As the ride progressed, the rain got heavier. And heavier. Thankfully there was no wind, so the brim of my helmet was enough to keep the water off of my glasses.

About 11 miles in, one of Lily's front boots slipped off and we stopped in the field next to the trail so I could replace it. The second I was off, Lily postured and urinated! Nimo immediately followed suit and we laughed. Both horses' urine was light yellow: exactly the color you want to see it! All three horses grazed while I finished beating the boot back onto Lily's hoof (I can't put into words to you guys how very done I am with hoof boots), completely unfazed when two riders passed us.

These two riders were Chris and Larry, whom we had met the night before at dinner and who are also friends of Dom's. Larry had been joking that something always happens to him at Foxcatcher: he is always jinxed at this ride.

The couple paused to make sure we were okay (I just love this sport. Anytime we had stopped and were passed, the riders would check to make sure we were fine) and then continued on their way. As I remounted, however, I realized that they had not made it very far ahead of us: Larry's horse was trotting slowly across the field, riderless, and he was lying motionless on the ground.

I think all of our hearts stopped.

Chris was still on her horse and was trying to slowly approach Larry's gray, who had a leg stuck through the reins: it was what was keeping the horse from taking off full speed. It wasn't hard to figure out what had happened: there was a cyclist on the main path, standing next to his bike and wearing the brightest neon yellow shoes I have ever seen in my life. Either the bike or the shoes or both had spooked Larry's horse.

The three of us made our way slowly forward on our horses, who all remained calm, not sure what to do to help. Chris asked us to wait and we stopped. Larry was finally able to get up and he hobbled painfully over to his horse, caught him, and slowly led him back towards the road. "You just can't shake that curse!" I said. This lightened the mood: him and Chris laughed.  By this point we were all standing next to Chris on our horses. Larry's horse didn't want to hold still for him to get back on and Charles finally convinced him to let him hold the horse for him. I held Gracie's reins while Charles dismounted.

Larry used his injured foot (left) to get back on his horse. We had offered to call an ambulance for him but he insisted on riding on...despite describing his injury as a "snapped ankle". O_o I'm sorry, but when it comes to equestrian sports, I think endurance riders take the cake when it comes to both physical and mental toughness. That man went on to continue his ride as if nothing had happened!

Once it was clear that they were going to be okay, we picked up a trot and passed them as we headed on down the trail.

During all of this, the rain had switched to sleet and then to the most awful, heaviest wet snow you can imagine and I swear the temperature dropped another 5 degrees.

This is the part where we stopped having fun and just focused on getting back to ride camp already. We had all been quite comfortable up until then temperature-wise, but I was really starting to feel the edge of cold slipping in like a knife blade as we got wetter and wetter from the insane precipitation.

What the hell, Weather Gods? What the hell??
Our original plan had been to walk the last mile in but I told Gail that I really didn't want to do that: I was afraid the horses would get chilled and cramp. Gail agreed. We decided to keep our eyes out for the marker that indicated there was one mile left to go to camp, and then walk the horses in for the last 1/2 to 1/4 mile.

Except there was no marker this year. Or it had blown away. Or something. Dom mentioned the terrible trail marking at this ride (especially noticeable after being at Rabbit Run two weeks prior!) and I have to agree. There were two instances where, if it had not been for Gail, we would have missed turns on trail due to lack of turn markers.

Gail thought she recognized the end of this trail from last year and I recognized it too, but I thought maybe there was a detour before arriving at camp? Except there wasn't. We basically ended up slowing the horses down to a walk with camp in sight!

Literally: ride camp was within sight!
The second we stopped trotting, misery set in. My hands became instantly icy in my soaked Thinsulate gloves.

As it would turn out, we were mid pack and had arrived at the same time as a large group of riders so we had to wait in line to give our numbers to the in-timer. We all chose to stay on the horses in an effort to keep our tack dry for as long as possible.

We waited.
And waited.
"Mom, it is SNOWING! Why are we standing around?" - Lily
Note the question mark ears!
And waited some more.
Lily gets major points for infinite patience. She just stood there looking around. Charles and Gracie were directly behind me. No photos of anything else because I was literally hunkered down in my coat!
We finally were able to give our numbers to the in-timer and walked our horses over to our hold area...and decided to not sponge and scrape because why? They were already wet and it was icy cold out. We threw coolers on all three horses and went to have their pulses taken. Lily was down but Gracie had to wait a little longer. Lily's pulse went up again while waiting for Gracie. Gracie finally came over. Lily settled. Then we went over to the vet. Gracie's pulse went up again and she had to go back to get her pulse taken by the pulse taker. Lily lost her mind, so we had to wait for Gracie to come back.

By some miracle of God, Lily's pulse came down to 60 when Gracie returned. Both horses passed the check with Bs on their hydration scores, which concerned me. Lily has never had B's at a first vet check and Gracie had had A+s on everything at Rabbit Run.

And then the scribe couldn't write on Charles's vet card because it was too wet. It was another 10 minutes before they could find a pencil so she could write.

By this point, Charles was downright shivering because he was wet to the bone. The snow was coming down heavier and starting to accumulate. I felt demoralized but at least I had my safety vest under my raincoat keeping my core warm. Both of our hands were painfully numb from the cold. We got our out times, which involved more waiting, and I think this is when we saw Dom. She was in game mode, very serious as she stood with Moniet, and I asked her how was it going. I had been concerned by her somber expression but she gave me a grin that lit up the entire day and a thumbs-up. I grinned back. YESSS!! She was having a good ride despite the weather! (If you follow Dom's blog, you will know about her recent curse. Go read her story about Foxcatcher here. It is AWESOME. At least look at the photos if you don't read; they are gorgeous and tell the story of what this ride was like with the insane weather!)

 Once we had our out-times (Charles was the later one, at 10:15, so we would go with his, obviously) we walked back to the trailer, where we tied the horses. Gracie drank. I told Charles to go into the tent to change and warm up. He refused; he said he would change in the trailer. I didn't understand this; he was going to have wind-up cold.

In veterinary medicine, there is what we call wind-up pain: if an animal becomes painful during surgery because you didn't preemptively give analgesics, by the time the animal wakes up it is going to be in such enormous levels of pain you're going to be chasing the pain with medication without ever quite being able to control it. Same thing happens with the cold. If you are cold and wet and remove the wet but don't warm up, you're still going to stay cold.

I tried explaining this to Charles but he wasn't listening. I gave up; I threw sheets on the horses over their coolers and fed them their mashes. Gracie dug in and I saw Lily put her head down to her mash just as I dove solo into the tent to turn on the heater and remove my dripping wet clothes.

Guys, that heater. I had it cranked on high and within minutes the entire tent was toasty warm with radiant dry heat. I let myself dry out before slipping into dry clothes, and then I kind of just sat there. I didn't want to eat or drink; I just wanted to stay dry until it came time to leave. I tried getting Charles to come into the tent too but he refused. He was not making any sense and I just didn't want to argue. I peeked out at Lily. This is what I saw.

My heart plummeted into my shoes.

I zipped up the tent again and forced myself to eat a Cliff bar. Around then was when I realized that the gorgeous beaded armband Karen made for me was MIA. I had been wearing it under my rain jacket during the ride and it had slipped down to my forearm during the last couple of miles of the first loop. I thought it had come off with my jacket when I removed it after the vet check but I couldn't find it ANYWHERE and I went into a sort of mindless panic. That armband has a purpose and without it I couldn't ride. I just couldn't.

10 minutes later, we only had 5 minutes left  before our out time, and I still hadn't found the armband. I was ready to cry.

I stepped out of the tent, deciding I would ride without the armband if I had to, but incredibly uncomfortable with the decision.

And then I saw Lily, who still looked like this:

She had absolutely not changed position nor expression. Whereas Gracie was happily picking at her wet hay in the background.
Lily had not touched her mash at all.
Gracie had eaten half of hers, but was really chowing on her hay.
(If you're my friend on FB, you may note that there is a slight difference to the story I posted there. This is the real story; you'll see in a minute.)

I wrestled with what to do. My gut was saying "PULL," but I also wondered if maybe I was magnifying what I was seeing because the weather was so goddamn AWFUL. However, I was comfortable and warm and ready to continue now...and my horse very clearly was done. I wondered if she would eat and drink on trail? If she would get better with movement? This made me uncomfortable though. She has never looked like this at a hold, not even when her potassium tanked at Fort Valley two years ago. And suddenly, I just couldn't see myself going back out. I couldn't envision the next loop, the best loop actually: we had had so much fun on it last year. But I couldn't see it happening. And I knew what I needed to do, but I hesitated.

I looked at Gracie, eating away. She was not done. I was looking for Charles to discuss options with him when Gail showed up with a fully tacked-up Nimo. She looked worried and I stopped.

"Are you continuing?" she asked.

"I don't know," I said. "I was going to..."

"I don't think I am," Gail said. "Nimo doesn't look right to me."

I then looked at him. I saw what Gail saw. I looked back at Lily. He looked just like she did: done. Miserable. Not necessarily tired, just DONE.

Gail debated continuing, but I stopped her.

"What does your gut tell you?" I asked her. Her and I were in exactly the same mental spot. In asking her, I was also asking myself.

She said with absolute certainty, "It's telling me to pull. Because he's not right."

"Then RO," I said. "I'm going to RO too." I think I just needed to know I wasn't imagining what I was seeing too. (For those readers that aren't familiar with endurance, RO = Rider Option, which is when the rider calls it quits, either because they don't like what they are seeing with their horse or because they can't continue themselves.)

The second I made the decision, all I felt was relief. An enormous wave of relief crashing over me. The feeling was that dramatic. I could just stop and focus on Lily and taking care of her so she could continue on another day.

All of a sudden Charles popped up out of nowhere.

"There you are! Where were you?" I asked him.

"In the trailer changing clothes," he said. He had changed to dry clothes from the waist up. He kept on his Prana pants + Smartwool liners because they were warmer and dried quicker than anything else he had (aka jeans...Someone else try to convince the man that he needs to try tights/breeches, yes? Please? lol)

"We are going to pull," I told him. I explained about Lily and Nimo not eating their food (read Gail's story here) "Gracie is eating, though. If you want to continue on your own, I'll crew for you at the end." I meant that wholeheartedly. The second loop of the Foxcatcher LD was going to be the best one and it was only 10 miles. Charles could walk the entire thing if he wanted to and still arrive on time.

Charles didn't answer. I looked at him closely and realized that he was paper-white and his eyes were glazed over.

"What's wrong????" I asked him.

No answer. He got whiter, if that was even possible. I grabbed his arm.

"Do I need to call an ambulance???"

"I can't breathe," he said. "My chest feels really tight."

He was having an asthma attack from the cold. He has never been exposed to quite this much cold and wet at once, and he had gotten monstrously chilled while waiting on the vet. He's always had allergy-induced asthma; it used to be REALLY bad when we lived in South FL and had improved noticeably when we moved to a place with seasons (because in MD we don't have pollen and mold year-round) and even more when he started working out consistently with me. It had been a long time since I'd seen him have an attack this bad.

He had his albuterol on him, had already taken a pump, but was still shivering from the cold despite the warm dry clothes. I told him never mind about the second loop, he wasn't riding back out even if he had wanted to. "Get in the truck, turn it on with the heat cranked, and warm up," I ordered him, guiding him over to the driver's seat, since he still refused to get into the tent. (He didn't want to get it wet. Despite the fact that we wouldn't be sleeping in it that night and it was already wet! Men...)

He looked a little better sitting down so after hovering for a bit I went back to the horses to untack them. Gail went ahead to RO with Nimo and I stayed behind to take care of the girls.

As if by magic, while tidying up, I found the lost armband! It had been hiding under my vest, right next to our tent.  I swear that both losing and later finding it was a sign that RO'ing was the right thing to do. It was such an enormous relief to find it!

About 30 minutes later, I went back to check on Charles. He had fallen asleep but looked SO much better.

The three of us (Gail, Charles and me) walked down to the vet check to have the horses looked at one last time so we could officially Rider Option. Gail was awesome and trotted Gracie out for Charles so he wouldn't have to run so soon after his asthma attack. Gracie, however, made sure poor Gail got a workout by refusing to trot behind her. -_- G-Mare was fine; she just didn't understand the point of trotting with someone she didn't know. Silly horse.

Lily had started eating grass while we waited and Gracie had started shivering. Back at the trailer, they received fresh mashes and I switched them into dry waterproof blankets. Gracie got a dry cooler under hers as well. Both horses dug into their food and G-Mare warmed up. *Relief*

Once the horses were set, I walked down to Dom and Mike's camp area by Skip's and left a chocolate milk on their car windshield. I had the fortune of spotting Mike, who was moving equipment from one spot to another in his job of Best One Man Crew Ever. I asked him how Dom was doing. "Good," he said. "They're turtling." "I don't blame them one bit!" I said, unable to imagine doing anything but turtling when the ground was so slick. I let him know about the chocolate milk for Dom. He gave me a huge grin: "I'll make sure Dom gets it," he said. Dom and Mike = <3.

There was a really wonderful feeling about knowing you could do one small thing for another rider to make them feel better on such an awful day.

We all got to work breaking down camp, which was a slow and miserable process with the ongoing horrible weather. The horses looked as miserable as we felt:

They would hang out like this when pausing from eating: Gracie would hide her head under Lily's, trying to take cover from the onslaught of rain and slush.

It seemed to take forever, but eventually we had everything loaded up, including the horses, and were on our way home. I had one more chocolate milk left and I dropped it off on Dom and Mike's car windshield again. I figured she would have had one at the last vet check and one at the end to celebrate.

Because I knew, I just knew, that she would be celebrating! Again, go read her post! :D

The girls were offered water and fed more mashes when we arrived back at the barn while we unloaded the trailer and truck. They ate well.

Lily even tried eating Gracie's food for her...

I was asleep in bed by 7:00 pm that night. I was exhausted to the bone.

The next day we went to check on the girls. Charles asked to hop on Gracie bareback, to my utter astonishment, and did a 10-minute ride around the barn with her.

You know he's hooked when he asks to do this of his own accord!

Other than that, the mares received a break on Sunday while we laid all of our camping gear out to dry, and on Monday we took them out on the barn trails for a spin.

The horses felt FABULOUS!!!! So fabulous, in fact, that they covered 11.5 miles in 1.5 hours...a new record!

Yup, totally worth pulling, in my opinion. Hence why the motto of this sport is, "To finish is to win." You can't win them all and that's okay! :)

Monday, April 4, 2016

Rabbit Run 2016: In Which Charles Competes!

This moment was a long time coming!! And I apologize for the long, long lag between blog posts! But I have a great story and I think it was worth waiting for. :)

This photo was taken at an endurance ride. Bear with me for a minute! :)
Photo by Mike Turner.
As you guys may or may not know, the reason for getting Gracie was to have her be the back-up endurance horse. I also entertained the idea of having her be Charles's endurance horse so he could compete with me, but those were all notions up in the air up until about a year after having G-Mare, when she finally realized that she belonged to us, that she was here to stay, and that she was expected to be two different horses with each of us (this is really hard and it is honestly not something that I expected her to get the hang of as well as she did): I lay down the law more with her and expect her to be a well-mannered adult horse, whereas she gets to have a little more fun with Charles while still being expected to take care of him. Some of the stuff that Charles lets her do for fun is stuff that I won't let her get away with...and I expected to constantly be having to undo what Charles does. I have never needed to: she knows. She also knows that when I need to get out of my head for whatever reason, I am going to choose her to ride and let her show me the light again. I think these are her favorite rides with me, the ones where I hop on and go, "Gracie, there is no plan today. Just take me somewhere. Take me away."

Her response is, always, "As you wish."
She has stepped up to the plate with absolute...joy. Joy is the best word to describe it with. Not only does she love her job, she loves both of us and clearly understands what is expected of her, which never ceases to amaze me. She has also changed my relationship with Charles by allowing him to come along with me on adventures that he could only imagine before. The world is a very different place when seen from a horse's back. And now I could share that world with him.

This was on one of his first rides on her. His face of absolute wonder is priceless.
It is still among my favorite photos of them.
Around the time that Gracie came to understand our expectations of her was the same time that Charles became totally snakebit about riding. He went from riding once every other weekend or so to riding with me every single day that he's off. To riding alone on the trails while I'm at the barn doing chores or doing non-riding stuff or arena work with Lily. To saying, "I miss riding!" if it had been a couple of weeks due to weather or work. To saying, "I miss Gracie!" when put on a different horse. (I still laugh about that one...)

Sitting on G-Mare like he was born on a horse, only a year after that first ride on her!
We finally got Gracie's arthritis issues sorted out last year and were ready to compete...and then Lily got injured twice and we weren't able to take G-Mare or Lily to any competitions at all. So we continued conditioning, going on periodic long rides when Lily's injuries allowed and building up G-Mare's baseline fitness. Gracie has gone from looking like this, when I first got her:

Unruly, obese monster
(April 2014)
To this:

Lovely, fit goddess of a mare.
(October 2015)
If that's not one hell of a transformation, I don't know what is! Both inside and out. She always had it in herself, because it is what I saw when I first said, "I HAVE to have this horse!" but I can't tell you guys how AWESOME it is to know that not only was I correct about the potential I saw, I was also able to bring that potential out to the surface.
After not competing pretty much all year last year, I was ITCHING to go back to endurance and while vaguely planning my ride season, I remembered Dom talking about Rabbit Run in NJ, which is held in March. I found the ride website and mapped out the directions, and it was only three hours away! Not only that, the trails are flat and sandy, which meant that no hoof protection was required. (A HUGE plus after all of my hoof boot drama the last two years.)

I put it on the list as the first ride, checked with Charles to make sure he was off of work...and he was off both days already, as it was supposed to be his weekend on at work: this ride takes place on a Friday, which was perfect! I requested the days off at my job and, as usual, sent in my entry on the last day before the early entry cut-off date. And then proceeded to tell NO ONE that we were going to this ride up until about 48 hours before it.

The girls got clipped the week of the ride:

Lily's. Piece of cake, as always. She doesn't give a hoot about clippers or standing still for them.
Gracie's involved a little more preparation as she does NOT like clippers and will strike out with her fronts at them. It is the ONLY time she will ever do this and it is not aimed at the person, it is aimed at the clippers: she thinks they are some sort of giant buzzing fly. Even when on the maximum dose of acepromazine. My vet was already going to be at the barn for spring shots so I went ahead and asked her for the Really Good Drugs (a butorphanol and Dormosedan cocktail, which I gave IV) so baby girl could be as drunk as possible for her haircut.

"Clippers...Whaaa? Hmmmm..." *snore*
"I luff my drugs." *snore*
"What happened?"
Finished. The most bizarre clip ever.
Of course the blades decided to try to die halfway through it so I was not able to take off as much hair from her hindquarters as I originally wanted or make it artsy fartsy, which would have been fun. I wanted to take it higher up the swirl on her flanks but the clippers didn't want to cut through the whorls near the point of her hips so I smoothed it out into this weird sausage shape. I didn't extend the front half of her clip past her elbows because she WILL gall from the girth with no hair beneath it. Hence the odd straight line from her withers. I just wanted her entire front end naked. I would be really happy I went to the trouble of doing this, and also wish I really had taken more hair off!

Both girls got worked the Monday before the ride, and I also put an additional ride on Lily the Tuesday prior: on Monday I was going to take her for a trail ride but she decided to be an absolute spaz and spook about nothing at all, which resulted in us working on transitions in the arena instead. On Tuesday I re-attempted the trail ride because I NEEDED to know Mareface could still go out by herself.

She stepped right up to the plate and gave me glorious ride.

It ended with a moonrise + sunset combo, something that I had not witnessed in a long time!
On Wednesday night I packed up the trailer as much as I could.

Trailers always look so tidy BEFORE an event...
And at home left everything ready to go for the next morning, including all of the food and snacks we would be taking. Charles was working Wednesday night until 3:00 am so on Thursday I was up at the crack of dawn to put all of our camping gear and bags into the truck. I woke Charles up at 9:00 am with a real breakfast and coffee already made for him: all he had to do was eat, get dressed and go.

The girls had electrolyte mashes at the trailer while we finished loading up their hay and grain.

60 lb bale of hay? No big.
Gear for two horses and two people.
The girls happily loaded up and we were off!
We left only 15 minutes behind schedule at 11:15 am but the 3 hour drive took closer to 4.5 thanks to some odd and unexplainable patches of traffic on the way to NJ.

The only other horse rig we saw during the entire drive.
The girls crossed the Delaware Memorial Bridge!!
The walls on this section of highway vividly reminded us of some of the Metro area Puerto Rico highways: they have very, very similar walls on both sides.
I swear that for the first two hours of our trip, the GPS continued to say that we still had 2.5 hours to go. It started driving me crazy after a while. Thankfully Charles had pulled out some of our old music CDs from when we first got together (OMG...it's going to be 12 years together this year!) and I became happily entertained playing DJ. (He was driving.)

It was a relief when we finally arrived in the pine barrens. At this point we stopped paying attention to the GPS and went off of ride management's directions, which were spot-on.

Pine barrens. It reminded me of SC!
Driving through the cranberry bogs.
Dirt road to ride camp. There were entire neighborhoods back here, to our surprise!

Once in camp, we parked in the small rig area (there was a separate area for the larger rigs), right next to a wooden gazebo. There was rain in the forecast for that night and the following morning and we figured it would be great to have the option of tacking up under the cover of the roof if necessary. We unloaded the horses, tied them to the trailer, and set them up with haynets before walking over to the BBB Hunt clubhouse to check in: we didn't unload anything else in case it turned out we needed to move the truck and trailer after all.

The clubhouse was AWESOME and probably the best-kept secret of this ride: it was HEATED, with a full-sized kitchen, a BATHROOM with running water (including HOT WATER) and a SHOWER. Ride management, crews and riders would all have access to these luxuries during the ride.

This was next to the kitchen.

We checked in uneventfully and cleared that it was okay to stay where we'd parked. The girls received mashes while we started unpacking, and then we went down to the vet check.

Someone walked by with clanging corral panels when it was Lily's turn. She was already excited and that frightened her nearly out of her skin. I could SEE her pulse racing right above her pecs! Dr. K was examining her and he chose to do Gracie first instead when he heard her bounding heart rate. Gracie acted like an old pro, passing with flying colors and a heart rate of 36! Lily looked good on all counts, except her heart rate was still a very nervous 76, which wasn't helped by the Arab that was being flown trotted around next to us as practice, who was as high as a kite and kept coming to a leaping sliding stop at the end of his trot-outs...

Dr. K passed her, making a note of "Excited" next to Lily's heart rate, and asked me if this was her first ride. I said no, it was her fourth, but it's been a year since her last ride. He was very surprised. I prayed she would be calmer the next day!

We tied the girls to the trailer again while we finished setting up camp. I also set up our crew area with a large bucket with water, sponges and sweat scrapers, since we would be doing our own crewing the next day.

Our setup. We did move the tent and canopy a little further away from the horses and the girls ended up with one muck bucket each of water.
The two horses next to us seemed familiar...two Arabs, a gray and a dark bay. They sure were wearing a lot of yellow. Their owner also seemed vaguely familiar. And then I heard her talking to her friend about Steel.

Steel!! The gray Arab that Dom rode last season! We were right next to Dodie Sable. Something I never would have known if it hadn't been for blogging.

I shook my head: the equine blog world is something else, I'm telling you.

After we were all set, I changed into fleece riding tights (I'd been in shorts up until now!) and we tacked up so we could go for a quick ride before dinner at 7:00 pm.

I was pointing out the area where I had set up our crewing stuff.
I didn't even bother with half chaps for this ride: we only had 45 minutes for exploring before we had to get back to camp for dinner and the ride meeting.
There were dirt bikes roaring in the general direction of the event's trails: ride management uses the dirt bikes for marking the trails. The horses had been fine with the noise but we decided to head in the opposite direction anyway.

As we're riding down a stretch of wide sandy trail, I see a couple in the distance with two large dogs: one white and one black.

I shortened my reins...and then realized that I actually knew the foursome coming down the trail.

"It's Dom and Mike!" I exclaimed to Charles at the same time as they recognized us and Dom waved!

We all slowly approached one another, us being careful with the dogs and Dom and Mike being careful with the horses. After realizing Herbie and Julio were just dogs, both Gracie and Lily relaxed  (they had been a little tense initially) and we were all briefly able to catch up. Dom handed the dogs to Mike so she could give me a hug! It was so good to see them!

We continued on down the trail, finding the powerlines where we would be starting the ride the following day, though we rode them in the opposite direction. The sand here was quite deep but I wasn't terribly concerned. I had heard through the grapevine that the drawback of this ride is the sand, but it was supposed to rain in the evening and early morning which would help pack it down somewhat. Also, as part of their cross training, both horses have been consistently worked in arenas with sand as deep (if not deeper) than what we were riding through on the powerlines. Lily, in fact, is a sand veteran: in South FL everything was sand. Her walkout attached to her stall had 6" deep sand, the arena we rode in was sand, the trails we conditioned on were sand. This was nothing to her.

The powerlines would end up having some of the deepest sand on our course the next day.
We discovered a trail with dirt bike moguls, rode down it at a walk then turned around and headed back towards camp. We let the horses trot on the way back over the moguls and Lily discovered that it was easier to just canter them. I was laughing my head off: it was literally one stride up, one stride down over the moguls. Gracie followed behind, attempting to canter but tripping at every third mogul. (Dom later said this was a typical gaited horse thing when negotiating moguls!) Then Lily gave a big spook at nothing and I laughed even harder. We were having a grand time.

We continued on down the powerlines past ride camp and took a right-hand turn at an arrow towards what would end up being one of our loops the next day. I was secretly relieved to see that it was all dirt road with a dusting of fine gravel. Not an issue at all for the horses. We let them move out at a big trot and canter, and both girls, who had been a little high-headed up until then, finally relaxed into their work.

Sand here was quite hard-packed. Hoof prints were more smudges than concavities in the ground.

I had been very pleased with them so far, but I was even more pleased now: Lily and Gracie still had their brains in place!

I snagged this one while trotting!
I pointed out the arrow to Charles: he had never been on trail at an endurance ride! I explained about markers being on the right-hand side of the trail, with either arrows, pie plates or double ribbons to indicate turns.

He totally had a perma-grin the entire time we were riding.
He's never competed on a horse at all before! So many firsts for him at this event!
We rode back into camp with about 15 minutes to spare before dinner started. Lily and Gracie were untacked and fed and we headed over to the hunt club for food.

Dinner was amazing.

Salad, spaghetti with marinara sauce, and a delicious chicken and potato stew. And cake and brownies for dessert!!
The ride briefing afterwards was very straightforward. Dom had already informed us that New Jersey rides have the best-marked trails, and we had already seen it for ourselves during our short ride! The 30s started at 8:30 am and had two 15-mile loops with a 45 minute hold in-between and 30 minutes at the end to pulse down and pass the final vet check. Total ride time was 7.25 hours.

We hung out with Dom and Mike after dinner catching up. Temps were continuing to drop though and the girls were hard tied to the trailer so they couldn't really move around to stay warm: they each got a cooler and a sheet to keep them comfortable and dry overnight. Dom and Mike headed back to Skip's trailer to meet Angela and we stayed behind to finish packing up saddle bags and laying our stuff out for the next day.

There was a 65% chance of rain in the forecast from 2:00 am to noon on Friday. I had only continued looking at Accuweather because it had the lowest rain % forecast of them all, and that's the one I wanted to believe! The hourly forecast wasn't awful but it did have the worst of the rain falling between 8:00 and 9:00 am, when we would be starting on trail. I was not looking forward to spending the entire first loop sopping wet but I was thrilled that I now have contact lenses again: my biggest reason for hating riding in the rain was the fact that with glasses I couldn't see! So at least there was that?

Karen wrote a wonderful blog post last year about cold weather camping and I had taken ALL of her advice to heart:

  • Egg-crate foam-type mattress cover over our air mattress
  • Two reflective blankets, one over the mattress with reflective side facing down (to reflect chill back into the mattress) and one on top of that with reflective side up (to reflect our warmth back at us). We bought the exact same one she mentions in her post.
  • Back on Track back pad and mini blanket: the back pad is larger and went at our feet to keep them warm, and the mini blanket went over my head. I tend to sleep like an ostrich with my head buried under pillows and blankets: I am a very light sleeper and any changes in light or sound will wake me up. The BoT both kept my head warm and provided darkness. Charles wore a fleece cap.
  • Regular sheets, flannel sheets, a fleece blanket, polar fleece blanket, and two real comforters. I had brought enough bedding so that we could sleep separately if we needed to (in the past I've usually ended up sleeping in the truck because I'm so sensitive to movement and noise), so ALL OF IT got spread neatly on top of us. We wrapped the edges of all of the bedding around us. I ended up removing one comforter and the fleece blanket, since temps actually crept up towards morning.
  • We slept in wool and fleece clothing: Charles in fleece pants and a microfiber-type long sleeve top (not cotton) and me in my fleece tights with a Smartwool top. We both wore heavy wool socks. Clothing-wise this was not new to us (it's what we have worn camping since moving to this region), but dialing in what to put over the air mattress to retain warmth made all the difference!

It was the best rest we have gotten overnight while camping in this region. Thank you again, Karen!

I fell asleep to the sound of the girls munching on their haynets (I had re-filled them before we hit the sack) but was woken up when the wind started blowing and I heard a loud snort from Lily, who was spooking at the canopy being shaken by the wind. Charles went out to check on them and they were fine (not trying to break free from the trailer in terror!) but later throughout the night I would be startled awake every time the wind shook the canopy. I couldn't hear the horses munching and I finally got out of the tent myself to check on them.

They were calm and relaxed despite the wind, eating quietly. They had also been drinking water. There was a full moon and it was shining so brilliantly I didn't need my headlamp to see. Relieved, I crawled back into the tent and fell asleep. I didn't wake up again until 5:00 am, when a horse trailer rattled into the campgrounds hauling a horse that seemed bent on kicking its way out of the trailer. I poked my head out of the tent again to check on our two, but they were completely unperturbed by the racket. I checked the forecast for the day: I had left Accuweather up on my phone (it was so so so SO awesome to have phone signal at this ride!!!) and the hourly forecast said 0% chance of rain all day. I shook my head and put my glasses on. What????! I reloaded the page. Still 0% chance of rain. I looked at the date. It was for Saturday. I started laughing. That made more sense: Saturday had been declared gorgeous from the get-go. I checked Friday. It looked better. Considering that according to the forecast it was supposed to be raining right at that moment and it in fact was not, I took that as a good omen and stayed awake after that.

I went down to the clubhouse to change into my riding clothes for the day, put in my contacts (thank you running water and real soap!) and scope out breakfast, which had already been laid out for the riders. We always bring our own breakfast items but I always end up eating whatever ride management offers. When I saw the whole wheat bagels, I knew this time around would be no different! ;)

Back at the trailer, the girls nickered at me as I prepared their electrolyte mashes. Dawn was coming and I was relieved to still be able to see patches of clear sky above us. Once Lily and Gracie were squared away eating, I woke up Charles and we went down to the clubhouse to eat.

They had hot coffee, hot water for tea, and hot chocolate; orange juice; cinnamon rolls; bagels and a toaster to toast them in; cream cheese and jam for the bagels. You always feel loved at these rides.

Full view of the seating area of the clubhouse.
I stuffed myself. Usually I can barely eat before the start of an endurance ride. I want to note that for the first time since starting this sport, I was not nervous at all. In fact, the whole reason why I had slept well, in addition to being comfortable, was because I was not nervous. I was not worried about Gracie nor Charles: I felt that they were more than prepared for this and knew one another well enough to be able to handle the ride start excitement, I was very relaxed about Lily after letting her settle down the day before, and seeing the two horses eating and drinking so well left me with no concerns about their abilities to recover during the ride. I was happily excited about hitting the trail, and the calm environment around ride camp (this is probably one of the quietest ride camps we have been at so far: relaxed horses and happy riders) only helped with my general feeling of absolute ease.

We went to check on Dom, who would be starting the 50 miler at 7:30 am, wish her luck, and snag some photos of her and Moniet.

Charles took this one of the two of us!

She looked as relaxed and happy as I felt. :) Moniet is a very experienced endurance horse and she was already in love with him. You can read about how her ride went here.

We walked back to our trailer to tack up.

Our neighbors walking back towards their campsite through a very quiet ride camp, despite the 50s being only 30 minutes from starting when this photo was taken.
Note the sky: it was just starting to get cloudy.

We tacked up and each horse had an additional dose of electrolytes via syringe followed by a dose of Pro CMC. I then made a point of giving them both cookies to get the flavor of the products out of their mouths so that they would still eat and drink on trail. Lily is especially bad about this: if you syringe her something she doesn't like, it will take her a while to get around to eating something else because everything will taste like what you syringed her.

They remained relaxed.

Old pro, this one.
Gracie's annoyed look of  "When are we leaving already?" belies the cocked hind leg...lol
At 8:25 am, we got on and walked towards the start line. We walked the same trail from the day before (going away from the start) to warm up. There were some amped horses around here and Gracie fed off of their energy but Charles handled her beautifully, keeping her out of everyone's way. Lily was a little tense but very obedient to my requests. So obedient, in fact, that I ultimately had no concerns about dismounting to put on my rain jacket (it was starting to mist rain and the sky was looking more and more ominous). She let me get off and back on without issue.

We walked the girls back to the ride start, with G-Mare making a monumental effort at obeying Charles's requests to control her desire to take off so they could stay next to Lily and me. Lily looked at Gracie like, "Dude. You should calm down. You have no idea what you're in for!"

Since there was a pocket between groups of riders, we decided to start. I knew we were either right behind the front runners or right with mid-pack and was fine with this.

Lily doing her daintiest twinkle toes trot as we headed for the start.
Gracie was sort of a barely contained hurricane. Note the swirling mane!
Gracie had to be spun around twice as we headed down the power lines: her and Charles were in front and the instructions had been that they were to stay with us. I knew the one thing that could upset Lily at the start was being left behind by her buddy. Once we were past the start and could move out, we would all be fine but this was G-Mare's first ride and I wanted to keep things safe and calm to begin with. I will note that throughout all of this, Charles remained cool and in control, completely unperturbed by the fire-breathing dragon underneath him. I can't say I would have been as relaxed as he was in Gracie's saddle at that moment!

The second time Charles spun Gracie around, she stopped entirely, facing Lily and me as we trotted quietly to catch up. Gracie blasted a huge snort and whirled around again at Charles's request when we caught up. She settled into a lovely gait next to us, arching her neck, her eye softening, as we moved out the power lines side-by-side.

This was when we saw Mike over by the treeline to our left, taking photos of the ride start! There was no ride photographer at Rabbit Run, which had had me quite bummed, since this was Charles's first ride and our first ride together, so here was our chance for me to get the much-coveted photo of us competing together!

Mike outdid himself...as did Charles.

We looked so purty! Happy riders on happy horses!
And then, without warning, Charles did this...
Because the start of an endurance ride is the perfect moment to decide to impersonate Alec and The Black...
Note Lily's and my matching expressions of, "WHAT THE HELL ARE YOU GUYS DOING???!!!"
Gracie went, "OH HELL YEAH I GET TO GALLOP!!!!"
And bolted.
Charles quickly put his hands back on the reins.
Here Gracie goes, "But...but...I thought we were charging down the power lines!"
Charles's face! Note that Gracie came right back down to him.
Note also the correct technique for shortening the reins. I did not teach him that: he figured that out on his own.
The most badass photo of them together ever. They basically have matching grins.
Someone else would probably have been pissed off. I was laughing and laughing and laughing. I laughed all the way down the power lines after that.

Those two. Seriously. <3

I was using my Garmin to track the miles initially but about 2 miles in, I realized that it wasn't working. I wasn't going to trouble shoot while flying down the trail at Lily's biggest trot to date so I decided to switch to Endomondo on my phone.

We stopped at a huge lake where riders were pausing to give their horses a chance to drink. I was burning up: it was getting quite hot and Dom had been 100% correct about the pines retaining heat. I decided at this point I preferred to get wet if it rained again (the mist had stopped right before we hit the trail) to overheating in the combo of safety vest + rain jacket.

Getting ready to dismount. You can see the lake in the background.
We stopped so I could dismount, remove the jacket and put it away in one of the saddle bags. Lily had no issue with this, even when horses rode by at a trot as they continued on their way down the trail.

The trail took us right through the middle of the lake. It was gorgeous!

Nothing like those views to put a grin on my face!

We were only 20 minutes into the ride when I had guesstimated us to be about 2 miles in and turned on the phone app. My guesstimation would end up being spot-on. The girls flew over the sandy trails effortlessly: all of the arena work paid off (this is why I'm so big on cross training!) and the hill work made this flat ride a breeze for them. We maintained a big trot throughout with occasional short canters thrown in to mix it up. We made sure to alternate leads on the horses as well when cantering. There were maybe one or two patches in this loop with truly deep sand (comparable to the power lines) that we walked.

I will point out that we did this entire ride barefoot. Both horses without hoof protection. They did not need it.

A stretch of deeper sand that we walked. The riders up ahead were also walking. We would end up leap frogging with them throughout this loop.
Same section, with Gracie looking annoyed at being made to walk. Lol
Loved this section. I could see how people would consider the pine barrens creepy but we never got the creeped-out vibe from our surroundings. We loved the setting of this ride.

As you can see, the mares took turns leading without issue. Sometimes one or the other would ask to lead, sometimes it would be at our request.

Can't. stop. grinning!!!
I kept trying to snag a photo of these two...Gracie was having the time of her life flying down trail (look at her ears!!) and Charles still had a perma-grin. They looked like they had been doing this their entire lives.
I loved the food and water stations on this ride: ride management had set up bins with water and the nicest, greenest grass hay for the horses to munch on. The girls didn't eat or drink as well as I would have expected, but it was still fairly cool and both horses are notorious for not drinking until over 10 ridden miles.

Rest stop. :)
The horses spooked at the bins the first time but soon realized these were simply containers with water. 
It seemed like in no time we were back at the first rest stop, which was less than 3 miles from ride camp. We were making really good time so at this point I dismounted and removed Lily's bit to see if she would eat and/or drink. The second the bit came out, she slurped at the water and dug into the hay in front of her. Gracie was reluctant to eat or drink on her own, but happily took wet hay from my hand every time I offered. We hung out for a good 10 minutes here, Lily munching away while I handed Gracie gobs of wet hay (I was dunking it in the water before offering.) The two ladies with whom we'd been leap frogging on this loop also hung out here for a while.

I put Lily's bit back in her mouth and mounted back up.

We stopped at the lake on the way back to see if the girls would drink better here. They did! Lily also splashed a lot in the water. -_-

In no time we found ourselves on the power lines to return to camp. We dismounted right after the finish line, removed bits and loosened girths, and hand-walked the girls the last trek. Lily peed right after I dismounted. Good girl! We finished that first loop in about 2 hours and 10 minutes, to my utter surprise.

Screen capture of the first loop summary. Remember the first two miles are missing.

We cooled the girls off at our crew station. Both horses pulsed down surprisingly quickly. We took them in to be vetted. Lily's CRI was 60/54 (she got a little excited while waiting) and Gracie's was an astounding 48/48. They both passed with A's across the board.

We then went to get our out time to leave the hold. Except we never got our in-time: we were supposed to have stopped by the pulse takers to get our in-time (the time at which the horses' heart rates dropped below 64, which was the pulse parameter for this hold). This was very confusing: I thought the in-time was determined by the vet check; I hadn't realized it was an additional stop. I feel like it is different at the OD rides but I could totally be remembering wrong...it's been a year after all!

We ultimately lost a good 20-30 minutes from going to the vets early and then running around trying to get our in-time. Once we had that, we got our out-time and THEN our 45 minute hold started! So yeah: we were now a good 30 minutes behind our original time and I might have panicked a little because I'm really done with turtling at rides. There's nothing wrong with turtling but by this point I personally hate that feeling of being last of the pack and having to race against the clock! Especially when the horses were doing so well pace-wise.

Charles relaxed a little too much: I had to force him to eat because he wanted to continue packing up while I tried to eat myself, refilled our saddle bags with snacks and water, and took care of the horses. (Yes, this hold was ultimately quite stressful for me.)

We were back in the saddle and out on trail for our second loop almost a full 10 minutes late because Charles decided at the last minute that he needed to go to the restroom while I tried to tack up two horses at once. He was not getting my sense of urgency at all.

I removed bits on both bridles and brought out the hackamores: Lily's English hack and Gracie's flower hack.

Lily's hackamore is like this one, except with a padded noseband and curb chain in biothane.
She loves it. Some of her best dressage work has been in this hackamore.
Flower hackamore. Zilco makes it; I snagged it used at half price on Facebook's English Tack Trader.
I played around with an S-hack on both horses last year and it did NOT work for either of their faces. It would climb up, slide around and be completely ineffective no matter how high or low or snugly I adjusted it on either mare.
Note: I had only used the flower hack once before on Gracie!

All of my hold stress was forgotten once we were back on the power lines. The girls moved out and while Gracie was enthused to be back on trail, Lily was having a mild case of the afternoon doldrums so we stayed at an easy trot to let her get back into the groove with occasional walk breaks. Temps were continuing to rise fast. I had changed into a tank top with a short sleeve shirt on over it and less than a mile into the second loop I had to dismount to remove my safety vest and the short sleeve shirt. The safety vest did go back on, but I was wishing I had left it at the hold as I was very, very hot in it with the humidity. Removing the short sleeve shirt helped.

The second loop soon became our favorite of the two loops by far, as we spent a lot of time riding around and through the cranberry bogs. The landscape was unlike anything we had seen before. It looks creepy in photos but it was GORGEOUS in person!

He was opening a Fuel For Fire pouch. Mid trot...

This was around the time that Lily finally woke up. Her trot became big and effortless.
This was my favorite section of trail. The footing was actually quite firm: not muddy.
Gracie pouting because she was following.
See the bottom of the channels on each side of the trail? The water was crystal-clear and pastern-deep.

He was taking a picture...
...of me getting his picture. :)
Lily was all, "Can you guys just stop with the photos already so we can get going???"
She got her wish.
When we hit this section, I looked down at Endomondo to see what pace we were keeping...and almost fell off when I saw that Lily was clocking an 11 mph trot. 11 mph!!!! Her average trot used to be 6 mph! Not only has her speed nearly doubled, it felt effortless.

Back through the pines we went.
Remember those two riders we leap-frogged with on the first loop?
We caught up to them. Despite our additional 30 minute delay at our hold.
It was completely unintentional: we were letting the horses move out at whatever pace they felt most comfortable trot-wise. They still weren't asking for breaks on their own: we had to tell them when to walk and I was going off of Gracie's expressions more than anything because she was pretending to be the Energizer Bunny and Lily was feeling the best she has ever felt at a competition...
Walk break. Charles got hot here too.
Looking like pros. He has an incredible talent for making faces or putting his hand on his face when I'm trying to get spontaneous photos of him. Here he was pushing up his glasses. But whatever. I still love this pic!
I had commented that his stirrups were too long and he did complain about it at the end. Only takes 30 miles of being bull-headed to realize maybe you should listen to the more experienced rider. ;) Lol

A different part of the bogs, also beautiful.

My assumption about the hackamores allowing the horses to eat and drink better ended up being 100% spot-on. We will be doing this swap a LOT more often!

Drinking at a rest stop.
Gracie tried blowing past this rest stop to head back towards the trail but Charles stopped her, made her back up, and once she realized what was going on, she dug into both the hay and water!
Drinking from a puddle!
Drinking at another rest stop.

The rain had truly held off until this time but I started noticing the dark ominous clouds gathering even through the treetops. I was so hot by then that I didn't care if it rained and per Endomondo, we only had about 3 miles to go. A breeze picked up and it wasn't long before it started to rain, just slightly stronger than a drizzle.

It was a godsend. The water was blissfully cold on my hot skin. The horses had been going great up until then but I did notice both of them get an additional pep in their step as they also welcomed the cool rain.

My one concern during this loop cropped up during the last 4 miles: Gracie. She was moving out with huge strides but whether put in front or behind, I was noticing that she looked a bit tired. Charles couldn't tell because he was on her but I could see it in her eyes and the posture of her ears. If you didn't know her like I do, you wouldn't have noticed. She was eating and drinking well but not quite the way I would have expected from her. Lily was flying down the trail and every so often Charles would let Gracie break into a canter, since G-Mare can do an easy canter at the speed of Lily's fastest trot. I told him to stop that: cantering uses a lot more muscles than trotting and will wear even a fit horse out a lot more than just trotting. I explained I didn't want her more tired. He said it was her asking to canter. I told him that Gracie is the kind of horse that loves to work so much, she will run herself into the ground if you let her.

For the last 3 miles, he kept her at a trot and I added longer walk breaks the closer we got to the finish line. It also helped that the two other ladies we were riding with again were also taking long walk breaks. We simply kept up with them, not passing.

The Fuck Sluts Meow bridge.
I have no idea.

Long break at the last rest stop. Both horses ate and drank. The rain had stopped here and steam was rising from both the horses and the ground.

Finish line!
We broke to a walk right after and dismounted further up ahead on the power lines.
We walked back into camp, having completed the second loop in two hours and ten minutes.

I was really proud of both horses.

We had 30 minutes to pulse down before the final vet check. We untacked and started sponging and scraping. Lily came down astoundingly fast, but Gracie was taking longer. Lily got passed right at 60 bpm (parameter for the finish) within 5 minutes of arriving in the hold. It took Gracie a full 25 minutes to come down. The problem we were having was that she would come down to the upper 50s while we were sponging and scraping and the moment we took her over to the pulse taker, her heart rate would go up again.

I knew what the issue was: electrolytes. Since she normally takes really good care of herself, even more so than Lily, I had not been quite as aggressive with hers as with Lily's for this ride. During the ride she had had two doses less than Lily. Otherwise, everything else had been exactly the same for both horses.

Time was running out. Again I got Gracie's heart rate at the crewing area and I got 54. Her respiratory rate was normal and her chest was finally cool. We walked over to the pulse taker for the THIRD TIME...and I asked Charles to switch horses with me. I took G-Mare's lead and he took Lily's (she was brought over each time as well so she could keep Gracie company.)

Gracie was at 64. Just above what she needed to be able to pass. The pulse taker said she would give us one more minute.

I rubbed Gracie's forehead and asked her to lower her neck with gentle pressure on the lead rope, leaning in close to her face and giving her kisses on her nose. "I love you, baby girl," I thought at her. "You're such a good girl," I whispered to her. She closed her eyes and her ears flopped sideways as she lowered her head to meet mine. Because that's what this mare does in response to love.

Taken on a different day. But you get the idea.
"She's at 60!" the vet declared. "And dropping."

It is amazing what this sport does for your relationship with your horse(s).

Breathing a sigh of relief at having our in-time, we walked over to the vet check. Lily went first, nickering the entire way during her trot-out at Gracie, and even doing a Dixie (airs above ground!) on our way back to the vet! Of course she got A's across the board! Hahaha...Her CRI 52/56.

Lily's ride card, with pre-ride stats on the left (note the "76-excited" note!) and post-ride stats on the left.
Gracie wasn't thrilled about having to trot out and required some encouragement. She passed with an A- and a CRI of 60/56. The vet told Charles that she had a fairly consistent but very mild arrhythmia: she needed more electrolytes. My guess had been correct about needing to be more aggressive with Gracie's elytes: she has never had arrhythmias before during this ride and as noted previously, my vet had listened to both of them at home prior to Rabbit Run.

Gracie's ride card.
I dosed her a syringe of Perform n' Win at the trailer and set her up with a buffet: electrolyte mash, alfalfa, hay, and fresh water. She picked at each of those things and I ultimately gave her a soupy mash without elytes in it: I just wanted her to EAT. Lily happily finished Gracie's elyte mash and proceeded to basically eat everything in sight. I was thrilled with her. Gracie slowly finished her plain mash. It got her started though: it took her about 30 minutes to finish that mash but afterwards she really started eating and drinking normally, enough so that I felt comfortable moving away to get our tack and buckets from the crewing area. After slathering G-Mare's legs from fetlocks to knees and hocks with Ice Tight poultice. Remember: she has arthritis.

Two mares being good endurance ponehs.
Packing up was a blur and was expedited thanks to Charles having taken the time that morning and during the mid-ride hold to get started. At 4:00 pm we swung by the clubhouse to get our ride cards and placements...Lily finished 15th and Gracie had finished 18th out of 35ish horses in the LD. I was very, very pleased...it wouldn't be until we were halfway home that it hit me that if it hadn't been for our in-time snafu at the hold, we might have even top-tenned! Without even trying!! OMG...

Oh well. Maybe some day. :)

Gracie took some convincing to load up, which wasn't surprising: after long rides she is achey and it is harder for her to jump up on the trailer. Lily self-loaded as always and they both dug into their hay.

The drive home was blissfully uneventful and much shorter than our drive to Rabbit Run, despite making the return drive during rush hour.

View over the Delaware Memorial Bridge.
Sunset as we arrived back in Maryland.
Once at the barn, we unloaded the girls and took them immediately to one of the field waterers. They drank and drank, which is what I had expected them to do. We then tied them up with more mashes while we unpacked the truck and trailer at the barn.

Both horses looked like nothing had happened the next day. Neither lost any weight during this ride, which was awesome to see. My calves were sore from not elyting myself enough (story of my life) but Charles was exhausted: he really hadn't had enough water to drink during the ride, something which I had nagged him about during the event. I have some ideas for getting him to drink more...nothing like managing two horses and two people at once. ;) It was so awesome to get to share this with him, though. It was one hell of a wild dream that I had never expected to come true...and it did. Despite being tired afterwards, he talked about the ride and Gracie for days afterwards! :D

Each day after our return home, the girls came up to me in the field with expectant looks of, "What are we doing today???" You know you're doing something right when after spending hours and hours in the saddle, your horses still want to hang out with you. <3

Love this face.

And this one.
Because she is the one that has made all of this possible.