Wednesday, May 21, 2014

Grizzly Mountain Endurance Race – Part 2 – The Trail Ride.

 All you REAL endurance riders, feel free to laugh about my 10 mile "adventure ride." I have been wanting to do an endurance ride with this horse for five years, so I guess I was just pleased to actually get out and do something even if it's the very definition of greenbeany.

The trail ride at Grizzly Mountain is 10 miles and I was very confident the distance would not be an issue for Deli despite the fact that our regular rides at the time averaged around 5 miles at a stretch on less challenging terrain. Despite multiple injuries and bad luck, she is an athletic and capable mare who has a good judge of footing and does great with technical trails.

Friends leaving on their LD on Sunday, the day after our ride.
I opted to delay leaving in the morning so I could “ride my own ride” away from the other group of trail riders. This was both a good and a poor decision, depending on how you look at it. My husband wanted to hike with us the first mile or two, which I welcomed because the loop we were to ride had a couple gates that I was nervous about opening because they would require a dismount. I can’t mount Deli from the ground – not because she’s too tall, but because the saddle slips. She has low withers and a wide flat back, so this isn’t an unexpected problem. When riding in Western Oregon trails I almost always was able to find a log or rock to scramble up on, but I wasn’t so sure about my luck in the Eastern Oregon sage land. I did end up dismounting 4 times on the trail and the first three times I was able to find something to stand on, or have Deli stand in a deep rut in the trail while I swung up. The last time I was so close to ride camp that I just decided to jog back.

Deli was in good spirits as we set out. My PLAN was to walk the majority of the trail ride – enjoy the scenery, take pictures, and see how Deli would be in such a different environment. Almost immediately she turned on her speed walk, showing she was more energized than she usually is at home. My husband, Brian, is a very fast walker (around 3.5-4mph) and he has a hard time keeping up with her when she is grooving that walk. Ironically her slug walk is around 2mph and he normally leaves us in the dust on home trails unless we are trying to make time.

She felt curious and forward and happy. One horse passed us politely and she stayed 100% with me – she didn’t care. We crossed the highway and Brian opened the gate for me, and then he headed back to camp, leaving us on our own. Deli wasn’t the least fussed by being alone in the sage. She was definitely alert, but I was very happy to feel that her alertness was more from excitement and curiosity than anxiety (though there was a very small amount of that too, which was eased by moving FORWARD).

As we wound through some lovely juniper forest she suddenly spooked forward, and I heard someone call behind me. I rushed to get her off the trail (which was luckily wide enough in this spot). The front runners of the 50 mile race galloped past us with a wave, calling out “beautiful horse!” as they left us in their dust. Deli was NOT happy to be bum-rushed, and at this point I realized what others had been telling me: you can practice all you want, but nothing will give you the experience of actually BEING at a ride.

I let Deli trot, which seemed to ease her anxiety caused by strange horses galloping past us like a bear was on their tails. Our trail split off from the path the front runners were taking, but Deli wasn’t bothered that we weren’t following them: she just needed to MOVE and was not happy when I asked her to walk.

We got to the second gate and I dismounted, deciding to lead her in-hand across the next highway crossing and find a place to pee. I am very very prone to heat exhaustion and so of course I had drunk quite a bit of water before leaving camp. I had to GO and I figured it would give me some time to find a place to re-mount and let Deli grab some bites of grass.

After peeing I walked back to the road only to have more fifty-milers pass us. I used the rut in the road to mount Deli again as she trembled with excitement but stayed put for me to mount with a stern word.

At this point it became clear to me that we might not be walking quite as much as I had planned on this trail ride. Deli was very excited, and while I could rate her at the trot and FORCE her to walk by hanging on her mouth (I’m very glad she had a bit in her mouth, honestly, because her side pull would have hurt her), she was very dissatisfied by walking. And dissatisfied, I mean her brain stopped functioning when she wasn’t trotting. At one point, trying to hold her to a walk she started kicking out (her version of bucking in annoyance) and getting VERY wiggly. At this point we were around 1.5-2 miles into the 10 mile ride, and about to head into the hilly bit. In fact, from what I could see right after re-mounting, this is where the trail went UP and UP.

I decided that at this point letting her trot was the safer compromise, and that if she felt off or lame at all I would be getting off her and hand-walking the rest of the ride – remember I was worried about her soundness since we hadn’t done anything like this since her last collection of injuries. In fact, if I hadn’t been worried about HER, I probably would have been much happier to trot because my saddle was hurting me at this point and trotting is by far more comfortable.

So we trotted. And Deli felt great. I kept us at a fairly conservative pace, asking her to collect up when the footing was iffy, and letting her go a bit when the footing smoothed out. There were three main groups of fifty-mile riders that we kept leap-frogging with as their trail met with and split away from ours. Seeing other horses on the move ramped up Deli’s excitement level by several degrees every time, but I was still able to steer and tested to make sure I had an emergency halt twice.

At the first water trough we discovered that a gang of cows had taken up camp and they were not giving up their spots to my chickenshit mare (she has lived with cows before, but I think the mommas with their babies were being threatening enough that Deli didn’t want to test the waters). In the end we left that water tank without Deli drinking. She wouldn’t get close to it, with all my coaxing. She didn’t seem at all dehydrated at this point, though it was definitely warming up. She was VERY aware of where the trail continued and wanted to GOGOGO.

Before the "race" started when we were still in the flat lands.
 So we went.

While less than pleased that I couldn’t get her to walk calmly on a loose rein and forget all the excitement, I was happy that she didn’t seem to get herd bound. Just excited. And the only cure for that excitement was FORWARD. Forward always cures her anxiety, too, and looking back I have encouraged that (when she is spooky or anxious I always push her forward and it helps her brain come back to me).

At any rate, we pretty much trotted the remained of the ride, slowing for steeper downhill and technical bits. She did great on the technical bits, including one spot where the soil was loose and somewhat rocky – she just tucked her bum at my request and power forward. Literally chomping at the bit the whole way.

One of the most thrilling moments as a long straight wide stretch where I let her open up her trot and also asked for some dressage “lift” in the back. She dropped down into the contact, lifted her back while I did my hover-half seat-posting and power trotted the whole stretch. At this point I had turned on my GPS on my phone since I had good reception (without dropping it, amazingly – the simple work I’ve been doing to teach her to neck rein is helpful) and that trot clocked in at 13mph! The canter I asked her for a bit later was only 10mph.

She was still feeling good ¾ of the way through the ride, but I was starting to regret not sticking around at that first water trough to sponge her. She was very sweaty, and with most of her winter coat still present, very hot to the touch. I tipped her nose regularly so I could make sure she wasn’t breathing too hard (she did start breathing in time with her steps, which was kind of cool), and she wasn’t in distress in any way as far as her respiration was concerned. She also didn’t seem dehydrated based on the pinch test on her shoulder. At this point I decided to dump the remaining water from my water bottles on her shoulders, and spread it around on her flanks with the sponge I borrowed from Melinda after drinking half of the bottle myself. All at the trot!

(I undid her noseband so she could graze more easily in this shot)
We came into camp, finally, with Deli still raring to go. We pulsed in immediately just to see where she was at – and she was down despite being totally amped still. I then took her back to our camp to untack her and remove her Easyboots and DUMP water on her while she drank, and grabbed mouthfuls of grass and hay. Then, after my husband forced me to drink (I was definitely more dehydrated than my horse) I ran her over to the vet check. She got all As and superb gut sounds except for attitude (B) because she was an absolute BITCH for the capillary refill and decided flailing around was a good way to make friends. No, pony, it really isn’t. It’s something we really need to work on, still, because she’d gotten fine with it at home for me. Clearly I need to have more strangers poking her mouth on a regular basis. Her trot-outs are stellar, and other than having a hard-to-find heartbeat she is good for everything else to do with the vetting in.

So that was our ride. I opted not to take her out again because I didn’t want to push our luck – I was immensely satisfied with the fact she was able to trot a good 7+ miles without any negative consequences other than me being a worry-wart. As for my health only my arms were slightly sore the next day, which is to be expected as I don’t think I’ve ever had to hold her back so much in the history of our relationship.

So do I think this horse could do 25 milers? Yes. Given a healthy body and some needed tack and booting tweaking, I think she would have no issues eating up those miles.

I actually think energy-wise she had another 15 miles in her that day. But I am conservative. I am cautious. And I’m working with a horse with lots of ongoing and/or potential soundness and health issues. Her welfare comes first and it always will.

And of course the day after we got home from Grizzly Mountain her girth-skin issues flared up again BAD and I haven’t ridden her since. It’s healing, but I’m not sure what my next step is as I don’t know how I am going to afford more expensive treatments that (according to my vet) are unlikely to make a difference. It’s possible the Grizzly trail ride irritated her skin just enough, but I don’t think the irritation alone was the cause of the flare up (hint: I was riding her regularly when it was dry and warmer in late winter/early spring without issues). This is the frustrating tug-of-war my horse life plays with me – hope and excitement and planning quickly replaced by disappointment and limbo.

C'est la vie?

Monday, May 19, 2014

Grizzly Mountain Endurance Race – Part 1 – Ride Camp

Otherwise titled: the Red Mare’s first camping and endurance ride experience! OR: Finally put down in writing, nearly a month later. And yes, since I am verbose I am splitting this post.

We decided to try a couple new things at once! And it actually went really well, for a change. I’m not going to say perfect, because perfection is just too high of a bar for the perpetually-broken pair Deli and I make.

Our plan was always just to do the 10 mile “trail ride” on Saturday (otherwise titled the “welcome to endurance, PUNY NEWBS” ride) given Deli’s unfitness and the fact that she is still coming back from an injury of fairly epic proportions. Also: first time! I really wanted the ride itself to not be the most stressful part for her, and I am very interested in the “dipping toes” approach to trying a new sport. I have been waiting FIVE YEARS to do try sport with Deli. I am both hurried and unhurried.

Fresh off the trailer on Friday.
I had my vet out a week before the ride to do a general check by a professional who judges several endurance races a year, and try some acupuncture on the sensitive lady for the first time. The resulting advice: she looks good, go out, don’t push her, have fun.

Okay, we can do that, right? Turns out we absolutely can.

I bought a stack full of anti-anxiety meds for Deli (which was probably more for me than her, especially evidenced by the fact I didn't use them at all except for trailering) and organized everything I could so that I wouldn’t be hectic on Friday morning, when an experienced endurance rider I have met and become friends with was due to pick us up with her rig and two horses. Melinda was a great travel companion and it was wonderful to have someone experienced and knowledgeable with the sport and horse camping in charge of hauling and just knowing the ins and outs of ride-day planning.

I’d say the trailer ride there and back was easily the most stressful part of the long weekend trip for Deli – but she got right both directions in despite having anxious brain fits. Unfortunately not having my own trailer means her hauling experience is limited mostly to when I move her to a new barn.

We arrived at Grizzly Mountain, which is in central Oregon – the DRY side of the state, for those curious. After setting up camp, I installed Deli in her little corral living quarters (thanks to Melinda, for lending us the use of some of her corral panels) and started the process of feeding her to death. One of my goals for the weekend was for Deli NOT to lose weight, when this horse drops weight very easily when stressed. She was certainly stressed by the trailer ride, but happily I think I was able to meet this goal for the weekend by stuffing her face at every opportunity. She is a very food motivated horse, so I was also hoping that she would associate camping, at least in part, with being fed very well. Food = positive experience!

Ride camp in the evening after it had filled up. See that mountain in the background? We went up that sucker.
Overall I was VERY happy with Deli’s camping attitude, especially considering her “anxious” personality. At her worst (when all the horses around her had left on their rides on Sunday) she screamed and did some pacing in between taking mouthfuls of hay. During that time I choose to ignore her completely and wandered off to help pulse and vet-in (leaving my husband in camp doing chainmail, so there was still someone with an eye on her). I could see her from the vet-in area and I can recognize her voice, and I know she calmed down at some point. In fact, she ended up napping (she didn’t lie down, but there was lip-droop) in the sun while camp was quiet.

In fact, her appetite was superb all weekend. I had brought her normal diet less-rich orchard hay, a compacted bale of “candy” orchard hay (which she loves more than any other forage besides fresh grass), and some alfalfa which I planned to feed before exercise or trailering and in handfuls throughout the weekend to help buffer her stressed stomach against ulcers. Other than the hay, I brought a substantial bucket of both haystack special blend and equine senior to make into delicious mashes for her. 

Yeah, it was a lot of food. Deli went through what I calculated to be around 90-100lbs of hay products that weekend (this is counting the Haystack, which is a high-fat forage feed). I pretty much kept hay in front of her any time she was in her corral and she made good use of it. Good pony!

She drank very well all weekend too (though less well on the actual ride – more on that later), and I think her propensity to play in water when it’s warm or she’s bored, which was a given in the small corral, helped her keep drinking. She would splash a bit, take a sip, put some hay in her water and eat it, and repeat. All good things – so I’m told – for an endurance horse. I really like the soft-sided buckets for horse camping as they seemed much safer in the confined space for Deli and the smaller ones made carrying water much more comfortable. I plan to get a full set before our next trip.

Strange YET delicious, according to Deli's discerning palate.

We spent a good amount of time hand-walking her over the weekend. She was in LOVE with the eastern Oregon clump grass and was always happy to get out away from ride camp to graze in-hand. Once, out with just the two of us I saw three different horny toads! We also walked around camp and she was very polite and curious about all the activity and strange horses. There were a couple stallions in camp but we stayed away and she didn’t seem like she could be bothered. It was another story with her camp and trailer-ride buddy, Melinda's gelding Pepper. She really formed a fast friendship with him over the weekend, and was always sad to see him go!

Melinda's horses, Dazzle on the left and Pepper on the right.
The weather was highly variable and not very enjoyable for me. I am definitely a “wet-sider” when it comes to the kind of weather patterns I enjoy – give me rain over blistering heat and scouring wind ANY day! It was very hot at some points, but the weather in the Oregon arid lands changes quickly. Enough to make old scars ache something fierce, that’s for sure. It was very cold in the evenings and even froze one night. In fact, that first night I was miserable and unable to get warm in my tent. I got little to no sleep and just spent the night shivering and occasionally poking my head out of the tent to check on Deli and the other horses in our camp. All this made me very glad I brought Deli’s medium weight blanket; she was very happy to have it on once the temperature started dropping.

I also brought several different weight coolers, so I was able to put a thick wool one on her after our ride – when she was soaking wet with sweat and water from me sponging her off – just as the terrible Eastern Oregon wind picked up on Saturday. It was miserable for all involved, I think, though luckily Deli’s Corral was set up where trailers blocked a good bit of the wind on three sides. I felt fine energy-wise after our ride on Saturday (other than being a little dehydrated), but the wind on both Saturday and Sunday sucked everything out of me and scoured a layer off my skin. That is something nobody enjoys.
My husband keeping us company!

Despite the weather woes, the whole Grizzly Mountain area was stunningly beautiful with dramatic skies, interesting rock formations, sage land, and juniper forests. I wish I got more photos on the ride itself – particularly of the aforementioned rocky outcroppings (which included some caves) and meadows full of wildflowers. However, after a certain point on the trail ride, photos were NOT possible. Or at the very least they were not something on my mind. I had my hands full dealing with a VERY EXCITED Deli.  But more on that later!