I didn’t have horses when I was young (except for a brief foray into pony ownership when I was very small, like 5 or 6.) Instead, I alternated between running around in the woods like a wild tomboy and exploring the brand-new world of personal computers. I was a redneck nerd, long before nerds were remotely cool.
All those hours staring at 16 color VGA graphics (Ultima and Space Quest, represent!) gave me a gamer’s outlook on life. It’s an interesting framework to use to talk about endurance.
Anybody who’s played a long RPG all the way through knows that games are divided into different stages. Usually, in the early game you’re focused on trying to stay alive, and in the mid-game you’re assembling and tweaking your gear, and in the late game you defeat impossible odds and either win or just run around the game world, basically invincible, until you’re bored.
Obviously, this analogy doesn’t translate perfectly to anything in real life. (Mainly because there’s no save points in real life so we can’t go back and try the exact same boss fight again. Real life has a lot in common with Nethack, actually. Ugh, bad egg.) But it’s the framework that I keep coming back to.
My first couple of years in endurance are kind of a blur (and if I hadn’t blogged them, I’d have forgotten a lot of what we went through!) We skated through a lot of rides by the skin of our teeth. But gradually we both learned to take better care of ourselves, and 2012 was definitely the high point of my “early game” endurance career. We finished every ride we entered, looking pretty good each time, even the quite hard Tahoe Rim Ride at the end of the season. But things were slowly tipping out of equilibrium, and even then I knew it.
Dixie finished out the 2012 ride season a couple hundred pounds lighter than she’d started. Partially, that’s because she was kind of fat at the beginning of the year, but she was way too lean at the end. The barn near Stanford wasn’t feeding her enough, and what’s worse, when they noticed I was giving her extra hay and grain, they just cut what they were feeding even further. I still don’t know if they were incompetent, malicious, or trying to keep her looking “endurance lean,” and I guess it doesn’t really matter. It wasn’t working for Dixie.
So away we went to my current barn in Oakland, and I changed my focus. I’d started 2012 thinking that her one 50 in 2011 was a fluke; I finished it knowing that she was a solid 50 miler horse. By no longer worrying about her basic ability to do the job, I freed up space in my brain to start worrying about all the little components that make up long-term success.
Dixie got a couple months of good food and active rest, and then we started building back up for 2013. In early March, I decided that I wanted to try a multiday and try a hundred. After doing both days at Washoe in May, I confirmed to myself that I’m not that keen on riding multidays and that I probably had enough horse to do a hundred. And you know the rest of the story from there: I plunged into a seemingly endless cycle of tweaking gear and getting bodywork done on both of us and trying to generally get my shit together for a whole new level of riding.
Finally, after quite a lot of perseverance, the stars came right and we finished Twenty Mule Team last month. We both basked in our achievement for several weeks, but I’m well aware that I’ve just entered the mid-game.
Something you’ll notice over time in real life, and especially if you look through the ride records, is horses that do a couple of years of endurance, then disappear. Sometimes it’s the owner’s life changing, or the horse just never settled in mentally, but sometimes it’s just all the little things catching up to the horse. It’s a little sore from the saddle and maybe has some ulcers and it’s a little footsore, and the end result can be that the rider can’t get that horse through a 50 any more, so the rider switches mounts. I’m sure this happens in all the disciplines — it’s not unique to endurance by any means!
But one of the things that attracted me to the sport was the emphasis on longevity. If you get it all right and you’ve got a little luck, you can keep a horse doing 50s for ten years or more. Twenty year old endurance horses aren’t as sprightly as seven year olds, but they’re out there, loving their jobs. I’ve always wanted Decade Team, even before it was an official AERC award! (It started out a section on Karen Chaton’s website, where she’d interview Decade Team riders; now it’s a “real award” recognized by AERC.)
So Dixie and I are in the mid-game now. We’ve “stayed alive” through the early challenges, and now we just need to get everything tweaked into absolute perfection. Depending on your horse’s tolerance for discomfort/pain, you can do many, many miles with bad shoeing or a saddle that doesn’t quite fit, but it seems like that stuff eventually catches up. My goal this year is to finish the Triple Crown, but to make that happen, I have to address all the little stuff. It’s all adding up, and if I don’t fix this stuff, it’s going to tip from “nagging thing” to “serious injury.”
Last week I got Dixie’s teeth done. She’s had a couple of basic floats by vets, but hasn’t really had a dental specialist work on her teeth… ever. (Some vets are also dentists, just like some vets are also chiropractors. They’re not mutually exclusive, and I’m not knocking vets who also do dental work!) Anyway, the ladies at the barn booked a dentist for a two day clinic out here, and I signed Dixie up.
Her teeth weren’t a wreck, but they weren’t aligned right. He took off a few hooks, fixed the angles of her molars, and did quite a bit of work on her front teeth. The fronts were a little too long and she wasn’t able to grind properly.
I really liked the dentist. He was just as passionate about teeth as I am about hooves. He gave the horses lots of breaks, popping the speculum out and letting them drop their heads to rest. He uses power tools and hand tools, depending on which one works better for each situation. He went at Dixie’s molars with hand floats and switched to the giant dremel thing for her incisors, and he gave me good, comprehensive after-care instructions.
Her TMJ seems to be a lot less sore. I didn’t even realize it was sore (and yes, I feel like an asshole for not knowing) but it’s much better now. After Dixie’s dental, Rebecca did some of that horribly wonderful trigger point work on her TMJ. Once Dixie realized, “hey, that feels kinda good,” she dropped her head and relaxed and yawned bigger than I’ve ever seen her yawn. And she’s chewing food completely differently now, with a much smoother side-to-side slide. Yay, happy pony!
And now we’ve moved on to tweaking the saddle again.
Back in January, I finally remembered to stop at Echo Valley Ranch in Auburn and buy a Woolback. I did a couple test rides in it, then took it to Twenty Mule Team. Well under 150 miles total. When I got home, I ran the pad through the washer and was dismayed to find that the damn thing was completely disintegrating.
Current-generation Woolbacks are wool fleece woven into a synthetic backing fabric. I don’t know if older Woolbacks were actual sheepskins, with the leather still attached to the wool, or if they just used a sturdier backing fabric, but this shit is worthless. The backing fabric is falling apart — not even coming apart at the seams, just crumbling away along the spine near the seams. I’m wicked pissed; I paid like a dollar a mile to ride on that thing. Toklat hasn’t answered my email and I haven’t gotten around to calling to yell at them yet, but I will say that I’m underwhelmed by their customer service so far.
So I’m on the hunt again. I got a Supracor pad on trial from a friend, and yesterday I took it out for a brisk ten mile jaunt.
Side note: It was definitely one of those Perfect Rides. You know, the reason you got into riding: that fantasy of cantering along on a happy, obedient pony on a spring day? But most of the time, you get a sullen horse, or a runaway horse, or the weather’s shit, or the boots keep coming off, or all of the above… Well, yesterday was perfect. Dixie asked to gallop up every hill, and I let her gallop up every hill that didn’t have a blind curve at the top. She stopped for all the dog walkers. She spooked in place, quite charmingly, at the ninja deer. When I got off and ran, she ran shoulder-by-shoulder with me. Just perfect.
And when we got back to the barn and I pulled tack, I found two palm-sized dry patches on her back. Damn it.
I want to blame the pad. To hell with you, Supracor, I really liked you until you did my horse wrong. But a couple of high-mileage riders — the people who’ve “beaten the game” and gotten multiple horses through long careers — keep telling me that the Supracor is just showing something that the Woolback was hiding. Double damn.
I don’t think there’s anything fundamentally wrong with the saddle. I think I can make it work with some tweaking. If I could call a saddle fitter, I would, but I heard a not-very-glowing review of the one Specialized fitter I know of in the area.
Today I got out to the barn and took a good look-and-feel of the problem areas. Like my friends thought, they’re right under where the stirrup leathers wrap around the saddle tree. It was very hard to see anything, but when I closed my eyes and ran my fingers down the padding, I could feel a little bulge on both sides. So I spent about 20 minutes rasping the bulge, feeling the area, rasping a bit more, etc.
I don’t know if this tip will help anybody else, but I might as well explain it. I had a white paint marker, and I marked each bulge with the paint pen — just drew an oval and zigzagged some line in the problem area. That gave me some boundaries for the rasp work. I rasped all the white away, brushed off the loose foam, and carefully felt the whole pad again. Then I’d mark some more lumps with the paint pen and rasp them away. It’s a trick I learned from my days as a woodworker: sometimes it helps to mark high spots with a pencil before you start sanding the wood.
Tomorrow I’ll get back out for another test ride in the Supracor and see if I’ve managed to fix the problem. I think I’ll keep working with it until Derby. If I think I’ve got it fixed, I’ll ride the 50 in the Supracor, but if not I can borrow another Woolback.
This isn’t an entertaining ride story. And it’s not even a good gear post; I don’t know if you’ll learn anything specific from it. But I think the general idea is worth sharing. Endurance is fundamentally really easy (you just get on a horse and trot down the trail), but at the same time it’s quite hard (see: this entire post). You can definitely learn what you need to learn as you go, but you can’t stop thinking and analyzing.
Just don’t forget to bask in your accomplishments as you achieve them. For two whole weeks, I was on top of the world. All my gear worked and my horse felt great and we’d finished our first hundred!
I knew it wouldn’t last. I knew I’d be back in the “I have no idea what I’m doing” doldrums before too long. But by god I really, really enjoyed that little honeymoon period.