Same old same old!

We’re less than one month out from 20 Mule Team.
Traditionally (based on my vast experience) this is the time of year when I feel like a) everything we did the previous year was a fluke and b) there’s just no way I can ever get Dixie legged back up and c) even if I do it’ll all go wrong and I’ll break her. This year, finally, I’m only worried about breaking my horse, and that’s a fear no horse owner ever manages to completely lose. You just have to accept that they’re equal parts tough as nails and fragile as glass and go on with things.
This time last year, I was legging back up for Rides of March, and I did that by riding a steep hill loop over and over again. (Last year it actually rained, and a lot of the trails were too slick for trotting, so I worked steep hills at a walk rather than risk a slip injury.) 
I went out for one of our little having-fun rides and ended up doing the loop I did so many times last spring. Last year, Dixie would ask to stop a couple times on the hill climb – fewer times as she got back in shape, but still, she’d usually take a breather at one spot. This year, she just marched right up that hill, hit the ridge, and started trotting and cantering for home. Project Keep The Horse Fit is a success!
~*~
One of the reasons I’ve been quiet is that I haven’t had any good story-rides. I’ve noticed, especially among aspiring endurance bloggers, that we usually start off blogging every damn ride, because it’s all very exciting and new and we’ve got all these fears and problems and worries. It’s exciting to have a place to talk, and it’s really nice to get comments from people who’ve already been through the process… but after a while, you start to feel like you’ve told this story before. Because you have. Many, many times. 
So at this point, I try to only tell stories about stuff that’s unusual, and of course, to only tell my story. A couple weeks back, I took a new friend to Briones, on her adorable green Arab. He rocked it, with only a little green-horse-brain — but that’s her story to tell or not tell. My only part was letting Dixie hang back, being calm, while Gino thought about a few scary things and decided he could get past them on his own. We played walk-trot leapfrog, but I think he’s going to be ready for more advanced “games” before we know it!
Isn’t he adorable? Gonna be a tiny dynamo.
~*~
Saturday Dixie and I headed over to Auburn to ride with Lucy and ~C. We went from the Overlook (the finish line for Tevis) up to the American River crossing and back. We’re not the kind of riders who ever manage to follow the advice of “train faster than you compete,” so it took about 4 hours (moving speed) to do 22 miles. There were a lot of other trail users below Lower Quarry, on the narrower trails, and everybody had some boot issues after the Black Hole.
The Black Hole is a creek crossing a couple miles from the finish. If you’re riding Tevis — even if you’re top-tenning, I think? — you go through it at night, and it’s very, very dark under those trees. Down a steep rocky bit of trail, through a rocky one-stride creek, then up an equally steep bit of trail. If your boots are at all iffy, you’re going to lose one there. 
I love No Hands. Tammy asked if this was the bridge that burned — that’s Swinging Bridge, and it’s about 50 miles up the trail. The area is still closed from the fire last summer. 
I have been running Dixie in the same pair of 0.5 Gloves for almost two years now. They’re stretched out, the gaiters are disintegrating, and the tread’s almost gone, but any time it’s not going to matter if I lose one, I pop them on her hinds. If I’m at a ride, I break out one of the slightly better pairs, but if I’m conditioning, I always end up grabbing the shittiest pair. Somehow these thousand-mile loose-ass half-destroyed boots survived the Black Hole. I did lose one a couple miles further along, when I led her down to the road crossing at the Quarry, but I popped it back on and it didn’t come off again. 
Once we made it past the quarry, the trail traffic cleared out a lot and we had some really nice trot/canter sets. None of our horses is really a born leader, but Lucy’s Roo seems to have decided that he wants Dixie behind him at all times, and if that means he has to lead the way, he’ll do it. When he’d get tired or his nerve would falter, I’d let Dixie march on past him and he’d make terrible faces and surge back in front. Brave, bold Roo!
She did not want to drink at the river. She did want to drink two miles later, out of a half-inch mud puddle that all the horses decided was the best water they’ve ever tasted. Whatever, she do what she want!
Dixie has been exceptionally moody for the last week or so. She was in extra-slutty heat on the 16th and she’s been pissy every since, but she felt really good under me. Still ragingly PMS-y, but forward, sound, and offering a canter on both leads. I can only hope her attitude improves, but I can’t complain. I’ll take “keeps boots on with a pissy attitude” over the alternatives.
Stole this one from Lucy!
On the way back, we ran into more endurance riders, with a horse Dixie knew from my barn in Oakland. Karl is a Rushcreek gelding who used to live at my barn, but he wasn’t a very good fit for that human so he ended up back with his former owner, and she’s getting him back out on the trails. They definitely remembered each other! They went nostril-to-nostril and “said hello,” no squealing or pawing. My grinchy little heart grew two sizes. 
I don’t really know why I took this one. I was probably wondering about the concrete block. But it’s a good illustration of just how dry it is. We’re going to have some terrible fires this year.

I had to leave immediately — I didn’t even take the time to hose her down. A quick trip by Echo Valley to buy a few things (including the Woolback I’ve been meaning to buy since, oh, October?) and we headed home. I didn’t do anything special for her at all — no ice boots, no diabeetus socks — and the next day she looked great. Perky attitude, not sore, cold tight legs all around. It’s on:  we’re going to 20 Mule Team! 

AERC isn’t FEI

So y’all know that I’m from the south, and that Dixie was a former show horse. To be a padded show TWH in the South is to suffer, pretty much all the time until your career is over. Here’s a World Grand Champion at work:

I don’t know anything about this horse, he’s just the first result for “wgc twh” on youtube. I’m not saying he was sored. In fact, I’m assuming he’s totally clean and all that action is only from the shoes. Just watching him move gives me the heebie jeebies.

All that action comes from the enormous, heavy shoes on his feet. Padded horses can’t be turned out in anything bigger than a stall-sized paddock, and they can’t be ridden on trails that are the slightest bit muddy or trappy. They live in their stalls, only getting out to be ridden. It’s a tragic, shitty life and they break down fast. 

By the time I got Dixie, I knew without a doubt that I didn’t want to show. I’d done a few local shows, on my gelding Champ and on other people’s (plantation shod) horses, and while it was a fun way to spend an evening, it brought out the worst in people. The judging is political and it’s a clusterfuck of drama. So I started looking through all the things you could do to have fun with a TWH. 
Trails are fun, but they’re not really a goal. Dressage is inherently worthwhile, but you have to have a trainer, and showing dressage is just as political and bitchy (although arguably less cruel). Trail trials sounded cool, but there wasn’t a big base of support for it in Memphis. Jumping stuff was right out; you need a trainer and money to burn. Dixie’s not at all suited to compete in western games – she’s just not catty or fast.
But endurance – hmm. Ride the horse you’ve got? Ride all day on trails? Vet checks to make sure your horse was absolutely sound and metabolically stable? T-shirt prizes for everyone, “to finish is to win,” awards for Best Conditioned Horse? A bunch of really, really knowledgeable and fearless women? Sign me up!
That’s what caught my eye about endurance. Sound horses, going out to have fun all day. That’s what I wanted to do. It took me a couple years of wishing before I ever started conditioning (which might be why I’m so absurdly passionate about the sport – I dreamed about this for so long, yall.) 
But that’s AERC endurance. We’re just the bush league amateurs. There’s also FEI endurance, which is the international level of competition, and at this point FEI endurance doesn’t look much like AERC endurance. FEI endurance’s motto is more like “to win is to win and nobody likes a loser.” It’s flat-track 50-100 mile Arab racing. 
I’ve been hesitant to write this because I know — and like! — quite a few endurance racers. They’re good people. They train hard and race to win, but they put their horses first. 
But any time you get people competing for high stakes, bad things happen. Bad things have been happening particularly often in international FEI racing. (Link to Horse and Hound search results for “fei endurance”, which has pretty good coverage of the drugging and injuries occurring overseas right now.) 
If you read my blog because you think maybe one day you’d like to try endurance, just as soon as you get all the bits of your life in order, I want you to know that AERC is not FEI. I’ve seen a tiny handful of possibly-sketchy behaviors in ridecamps. I’ve seen a few people override their horses, and a lot of vets pulling those horses. Most of us have 1-3 horses that we’ve spent countless hours conditioning, and we don’t want to hurt them – we want to keep riding them more than we want that one win or top-ten. 
But I’m also writing this for my AERC readers. There’s a motion up for debate at the January BOD meeting. In December of last year, AERC sent a letter to FEI Endurance, outlining AERC’s proposed changes to FEI rules.  Now the BOD is voting on a motion to de-sanction FEI rides* if FEI doesn’t accept and work toward our rules.  
AERC wants, among other things, a change of leadership in FEI Endurance; disclosure of fatalities and injuries; increased penalties for individuals who break FEI rules; more drug testing; and more disciplinary activity during rides. If the motion passes, AERC will no longer co-sanction FEI rides until they make those changes. The full motion is currently located here (pdf link). 
I support this, and if you’re an AERC member, I think you should consider supporting it too. Email your BOD reps if you agree. I’m open to debate on this, but I really think distancing ourselves from the rampant corruption and abuse happening in international-level endurance rides is for the best.
This shit is putting us in a bad light, y’all. People who haven’t been to a ride (or even watched the videos of happy, healthy, full-of-piss-and-vinegar horses finishing AERC hundred-mile rides) already think asking a horse to travel that far is inhumane. Racing so fast and so hard that your horses kill themselves, doping your horses up to mask their pain – this is all bullshit, and everybody knows it. FEI’s corruption is making us all look bad, and distancing ourselves from them is a good thing. I’m sorry if this wrecks your plans to go international with the world’s best horse, but if it’ll help preserve our sport, I’m all for it.

Here’s a happier video. This is what it’s supposed to look like! (thanks for putting this together, LCT!)

*AERC sanctions rides. Currently, they also co-sanction some rides as AERC/FEI rides, allowing riders to pay the normal fees and ride for AERC points/miles, or pay the extra FEI fees and ride for both AERC points/miles and FEI placings. There are only a handful of co-sanctioned AERC/FEI rides, which makes our international riders Very Unhappy, but for better or worse they’re a minority. The proposed change will shut down the international riders’ options to qualify for FEI rides, but it won’t affect AERC-only rides. 

Thoughts on moving up

This one goes out to Andrea, who just did her first LD (on the first Selle Francais in the database, no less!)  I’m super happy for her! She hasn’t finished posting her ride story, so no spoilers, but let’s just say O kicked ass at the LD.

This is going to be an American-centric post.  Most of the rest of the world requires horses to move up through the levels in some sort of organized fashion, but not us!  As usual, we do what we want, so you can in fact start out with 50s (or even hundreds, other than Tevis.)

The first question I’d ask is Is that enough for you? Like it or not, LD is getting more popular and competitive on its own merits, so some horse and rider teams are going to be perfectly happy riding LD for their entire careers.  Endurance riders love to get online and argue about stuff just as much as any other subsection of the population, and there’s a hornet’s nest of debate about whether or not LDs are “real” endurance.  You’re welcome to have at it in the comments, but I’m not gonna get into the absolute merits of riding 25 miles competitively.  If the answer is no, I’d like to go further! then…

How’s your tack working out?  If your horse can eat and drink well enough with your choice of headgear, and you’re not seeing tack rubs, and you’re getting good back scores, awesome!  Keep going, you won’t know if it works at 50s until you try it at 50s.

How’s your comfort level?  Did you fall down when you got off your horse at the finish?  Can you trot her out for the vets, or do you need to beg a volunteer for help?  Do you have any “tack rubs or galls”? Is your saddle raping you?  Did you heatstroke out?  No? Awesome!  Did you drink a lot of water, and did you eat?  Yes? Yay!

Is the horse drinking well by the end of your ride? Dixie doesn’t usually drink until she’s been out for 12-18 miles.  I start worrying at 12 miles and I worry for an hour and a half until we hit the water stop somewhere in the 18 mile range.  But she always starts tanking up before 20 miles, and she always drinks well.  If she’s not, we pull (or we will be pulled!)  I don’t care how good your horse looks at the finish, if she’s still not drinking you’ve got a problem.

Is the horse eating?  If your horse is too amped up to eat, or too tired to eat, you’ve got a problem brewing.  A lot of experienced horses seem to like a power nap during their holds, so it’s ok if your horse isn’t eating literally nonstop, but she should have a generally good appetite most of the day.

How’s the horse feel?  That’s something I couldn’t answer before I started conditioning Dixie, and honestly, I wasn’t entirely sure about until we’d finished a 50.  If I’d volunteered at more rides, and watched more horses finish, I might have had a better idea about it.  If your horse is very tired after 25-30 miles, you should consider doing more LDs (or more conditioning, but actual rides are very different from training.)  If she’s more perky than tired, but not maniacally obsessed with the other horses leaving camp, you’re probably ok to keep going.

But it’s twice as far!  No!  It’s not!  Stop thinking like that or you’ll scare yourself silly.  It’s one more vet check.  It’s two or three more hours in the saddle.  (Or thereabouts.  Look, it’s ok to lie to yourself sometimes.  Two more hours, you can do it.)

Why shouldn’t I take it slow, so to speak, and keep doing LDs til we’re top-tenning them?  I want to build a good base, right?  Yeah, you want a good base, but there’s a drawback to doing LD after LD.  Horses aren’t dumb – wait, they kinda are.  Let’s try this:  horses are extremely good at recognizing patterns and performing to meet those patterns.  Your horse will figure out this new game!  And if she thinks the game is “eat a lot, trot for 10 miles, do that stupid vet thing for that stupid human, trot for 15 more, do the stupid vet thing again, done,” the horse is gonna be unhappy when you ask her to go back out.  She’s done her job!

A lot of experienced riders who’ve been in the sport decades longer than me don’t start new horses in LD; they just go straight to 50s.  The thing is, they’ve got the experience to know when a horse is ready. Me, I’ll probably do a few LDs on my next horse, but not nearly as many as I did with Dixie.

Bottom line:  use your LD miles to get your tack right, your rider care and nutrition sorted, and to teach your horse that endurance is fun even if she can’t pass everybody on the trail.  But when the horse looks good and you feel good, move on up!

"But how often/far do you ride?" – December 2013

One of the things I was really obsessed about as an aspiring endurance rider, and as a total newbie, was “but how far should I be riding?”  I asked everybody I knew, and I got answers all over the board – from set-in-stone monthly mileage plans to “I don’t know, on the weekends when I’m not at rides I’ll get the horse out sometimes?”  The answer, like the answer to all endurance questions, is an infinitely frustrating “it varies.”

I’ve got pretty meticulous records of my 2010-2012 ride statistics – in 2010 and 2011, I GPS’d 95% of my saddle time.  (I’m truly, deeply impressed by the Distance Derby year-end totals!)  But then I kinda quit caring enough to take the Garmin every ride, and the Garmin (a truly ancient 205) started to lose battery life, and I just quit tracking miles.  I haven’t even brought the Garmin to my last couple of endurance rides!

This year I got a big desk calendar and hung it in the bedroom.  (There wasn’t anything else on that particular wall, and I like to wake up, sit up, see the calendar, and have a panic attack about my next ride in X weeks.)  I marked off all the rides I might do, and when I committed to one I’d do a weekly countdown (the better to have early-morning hysterics – my husband is not the world’s biggest fan of the Bedroom Calendar idea).  And since it was there, I started writing down rides again.

This month, I remembered to snap a picture.  Here’s all the work I did with Dixie in December.  You should be able to click to embiggen it.

The times/distances are approximate – I use the park’s trail maps to add up my mileage, and if I thought to look at my watch at the start and finish I added the time.

As always:  I’m not a very experienced rider, on an off-breed mare, bringing up the rear of the pack.  I’m not saying this kind of conditioning schedule will work for you – lots of people ride more miles than I do, some people ride fewer.  But here’s what I rode in December (we did a lot of jogging together, but I didn’t mark much of it down.)