Back to the drawing board

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.

Distintegrating Woolback

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.

Dirty horse dry spot left Dirty horse dry spot right

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.

I think it’s a success

I set out to do a couple of fast hours today, but it ended up being two and a half hours of less mileage than I planned on.  Still, the main goal was to sit on Dixie in the new saddle for several hours and see how well we fared, so I’ll call it a success.

Today, everything was utterly terrifying.  I’d barely made it a mile from the barn when Dixie saw a jacket on a trail signpost (and heard the trail cleaning crew just out of sight around the corner) and went on high alert.  She backed up about twenty feet, snorting and trying to spin and run, and I was like, “Looks like I picked the wrong week to stop sniffing glue.”

So we worked on bravely walking past the other trail traffic.  And there was a lot of it – I must’ve seen thirty people.  Tons of dogs, a few bikers, one treacherous baby stroller.  When we got to the far side of the park, we finally found a few pockets of solitude and got a little trotting in, but mostly we walked.  Mostly straight ahead, but sometimes we walked sideways or backwards.  :rolleyes:

The saddle seems to suit her.  Dixie had nice even sweat marks and no tenderness, and she only thrashed her head around when we hit a section of trail with flies.  (She spent the whole 35 miles at ROM flinging her head, which was the big blinking CLUE sign for me that she really wasn’t happy.)

I think it suits me, too.  It’s a wider twist than I’m used to, but my ligaments will stretch out and get used to it – plus it’s good incentive to do yoga!  The seat is kind to my ladybits, but rubs my butt just a little – either I’ll get used to that or I’ll slather on the Butt Butt’r more regularly.  I can’t keep my feet in the right spot in the stirrups, so I’m going to order caged stirrups.  Partly it’s the twist making it hard for me to keep my heels down, but it’s also the floppy English leathers that let the stirrups bounce more than I’m used to.  I think I’ll buy some fleece and velcro and make covers for the leathers, too – if I like it, I’ll get sheepskin covers at some point, but DIY fake fleece will do for now.

***

I thought I’d give yall the history of the bucking too, while I’m posting.

The arena at this barn is kind of scary.  One long side has trees and a cliff that drops down to the road below, where cars and bikers whizz by.  The other long side has the cliff going up, and about 20′ above the arena is a small trail, where hikers sneak by on their way to whatever nefarious purposes hikers are up to.  A lot of the horses at the barn are reactive in the arena.  (In its favor, though, the footing is lovely sand, dragged every day by the amazing barn guys.)

Back in January and February, when it was raining all the time, I would ride once a week or so in the arena.  Dixie would spook every so often but she wasn’t terrible.  Sometimes she’d crow hop but I’d yell and yank her head around and she’d knock it off.

One day in early March, we went out to the arena.  There was a kid on a lesson horse with the instructor and we shared the arena very nicely.  Then this cowboy came out with his wild-ass palomino.  The horse was wound way too tight, and when he put his foot in the stirrup it went sideways across half the arena with him hopping alongside, as one does.  Dixie lost her mind at that and hopped a few times.  I got her to stand and jumped off.  I didn’t want to make the situation worse – that dude was not defusing things, and the poor kid was just trying to walk-trot, so we left.

Then yesterday I fiddled around with the saddle, rode her up and down the driveway hopping off and on and fussing with it, then went in the arena and she for-reals BUCKED.  I am a chicken, I admit, but I didn’t feel confident riding it out in a new saddle with floppy stirrups blah blah blah, so we left again.  I’m sure it just cemented this notion that if she bucks in the arena she doesn’t have to stay in the arena.  Sigh.

So my plan is to stay out of the arena for a while.  After I’m more comfortable in the saddle, and we do a longer ride, I’ll peek in the arena when we get back.  If it’s empty, I’ll go Confront the Problem.  But I’m not willing to set off a chain reaction of horses spooking at other horses spooking and bucking, and I’m certainly not ballsy enough to have that fight with a fresh, fit Dixie.  It’s always something…

***

And one last thing – this repost by ~C is well worth a read, especially for my maybe-durance friends! Endurance riding is not for all horses.  There’s no shame in giving up on endurance if your horse hates it or can’t do it.  All the unlikely success stories are just meant to inspire you to try it.  Give it 100% for a year or two, and if you can’t get your horse through a 50, no big deal.  Get a different horse or a different sport!

It’s something I’ve been thinking about a lot lately.  I want to move up with Dixie: not ride faster, but ride multidays or longer distances.  One day I want to do The Big July/August California Mountain Ride, and I don’t know if she’s the horse that’ll take me to Auburn.  If Dixie says no to 100s, I’ll be disappointed, sure.  But I won’t know until we try to go further!

New saddle!

So one of the problems at Rides of March (aside from my malaise) was that Dixie’s saddle wasn’t fitting her quite right anymore. All the hill work we did at the beginning of the year really filled her back out and she got too wide for the saddle. I was pretty sure I needed a new saddle, but I didn’t want to buy one right before (trying) a 50. After 35 miles at ROM, her back was tender, so after I got home and recovered I got a Specialized.

It (finally) came yesterday evening, so today I dragged it out to the barn and tried it on. I think it’ll work just fine. Mine’s used, and it came with 1/2″ pads, the thinnest they sell. I ordered the standard 3/4″ pads and they’ll (finally!) show up tomorrow, so I’ll probably swap them out.

Right side:

Left side:

Left side fits pretty good at the shoulder.

Here’s her back, it looks like the right side is less developed, and that’s the side that gapped the most.  If I was a better photographer/blogger I’d have pulled her mane out of the way, but alas, I am what I am.

Right side.  Did you know it’s hard to take pictures of the shadow cast by a black saddle on a white horse?  It’s true!  It’s really hard!  Trust me, there’s a big hole there where I could easily stick a couple fingers.  I shimmed it and moved on.

Had to go buy a pad and girth, and then jury-rig a loop to hook the breastcollar on to the stupid English girth.  (Who doesn’t ride with a breastcollar?  What is wrong with you, girth manufacturers?)

Dirt marks in lieu of sweat marks.

So I got on and off about five times, fiddling with stuff.  I thought very hard about which way the stirrups face and carefully installed them.  Then I led her to the mounting block and realized they were backwards.  I fixed that, then the leathers were too long, then I took the crupper apart to get a loop of biothane to make a breastcollar loop for the girth, then, finally, eventually, I went for a short test ride.

It wants me to sit up straight!  It’s very much an English saddle stripped down for endurance.  My old saddle was a western saddle stripped down for endurance, so it’s different.  But not, I think, bad.  We went in the arena and Dixie saw a monster (a person walking her dog) on the trail above the arena and bucked.  All four feet off the ground at once, a real buck.  I felt pretty secure and didn’t move in the saddle, and I just yanked her head around and yelled.  (Somehow I managed to not scream obscenities at her.  Yall, it’s really hard being around civilized people all the time.)

Anyway that was no fun, and I didn’t feel up to riding it out on a fresh horse in a new saddle, so we went up on the short trail loop.  She felt really good.  She did most of the loop at a running walk, but we picked up a canter for one short bit.  She was moving really nicely under me, with a super sproingy collected canter.

Tomorrow I’ll go do the long 15 mile loop, maybe with an extra hill climb or two, and see how I feel about the saddle and how she feels after some real work.  Maybe that’ll take the edge off her and I’ll take her in the damn arena and see if I can get ten minutes with no bucking.  This bucking bullshit has to stop.

New saddle!

So one of the problems at Rides of March (aside from my malaise) was that Dixie’s saddle wasn’t fitting her quite right anymore. All the hill work we did at the beginning of the year really filled her back out and she got too wide for the saddle. I was pretty sure I needed a new saddle, but I didn’t want to buy one right before (trying) a 50. After 35 miles at ROM, her back was tender, so after I got home and recovered I got a Specialized.

It (finally) came yesterday evening, so today I dragged it out to the barn and tried it on. I think it’ll work just fine. Mine’s used, and it came with 1/2″ pads, the thinnest they sell. I ordered the standard 3/4″ pads and they’ll (finally!) show up tomorrow, so I’ll probably swap them out.

Right side:

Left side:

Left side fits pretty good at the shoulder.

Here’s her back, it looks like the right side is less developed, and that’s the side that gapped the most.  If I was a better photographer/blogger I’d have pulled her mane out of the way, but alas, I am what I am.

Right side.  Did you know it’s hard to take pictures of the shadow cast by a black saddle on a white horse?  It’s true!  It’s really hard!  Trust me, there’s a big hole there where I could easily stick a couple fingers.  I shimmed it and moved on.

Had to go buy a pad and girth, and then jury-rig a loop to hook the breastcollar on to the stupid English girth.  (Who doesn’t ride with a breastcollar?  What is wrong with you, girth manufacturers?)

Dirt marks in lieu of sweat marks.

So I got on and off about five times, fiddling with stuff.  I thought very hard about which way the stirrups face and carefully installed them.  Then I led her to the mounting block and realized they were backwards.  I fixed that, then the leathers were too long, then I took the crupper apart to get a loop of biothane to make a breastcollar loop for the girth, then, finally, eventually, I went for a short test ride.

It wants me to sit up straight!  It’s very much an English saddle stripped down for endurance.  My old saddle was a western saddle stripped down for endurance, so it’s different.  But not, I think, bad.  We went in the arena and Dixie saw a monster (a person walking her dog) on the trail above the arena and bucked.  All four feet off the ground at once, a real buck.  I felt pretty secure and didn’t move in the saddle, and I just yanked her head around and yelled.  (Somehow I managed to not scream obscenities at her.  Yall, it’s really hard being around civilized people all the time.)

Anyway that was no fun, and I didn’t feel up to riding it out on a fresh horse in a new saddle, so we went up on the short trail loop.  She felt really good.  She did most of the loop at a running walk, but we picked up a canter for one short bit.  She was moving really nicely under me, with a super sproingy collected canter.

Tomorrow I’ll go do the long 15 mile loop, maybe with an extra hill climb or two, and see how I feel about the saddle and how she feels after some real work.  Maybe that’ll take the edge off her and I’ll take her in the damn arena and see if I can get ten minutes with no bucking.  This bucking bullshit has to stop.

My new year starts in March

Hey, yall. I feel like I haven’t had anything to say, so I haven’t said anything lately. But the long dreary winter of my discontent is finally fading away and life’s about to be fun again.

Dixie and I have been climbing hills. (My new iPhone is awesome at most things but dear god it really sucks at taking motion shots.)
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We go up a hill, then I hop off and we run down together, then I clamber back on and ride back up. Repeat, over and over again. Doing all those hills – combined with the awesome barn guys actually feeding my horse – has improved her conditioning somewhat.

October of last year:
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Early February – filling out, but still very fuzzy:
Feb 8 '13

Early March:
March 1 '13
March 1 '13

With endurance, as with all things horse, it’s just one damn thing after another. Dixie and I have worked hard to do all those hills, and it’s obviously paid off – except that now her saddle doesn’t fit so great anymore. She’s filled out a lot and it’s not quite wide/flared enough in the shoulders anymore. Our first ride is in less than two weeks, so there’s no changing saddles now, even if finances allowed.

The AERC convention is next weekend, so I’ll be doing a lot of window shopping there. I am leaning toward a Specialized, just so I can shim it to fit her properly – I just need to figure out what size/type *I* like. They’re not terribly hard to find used, and they hold value well enough that I wouldn’t really mind buying one new if I had to.

In other shameful news, I finally picked up a rasp. I hadn’t trimmed Dixie since last year. Awful, I know, but she wasn’t growing a ton of wall and we were doing all our miles barefoot. But I finally decided to cram her feet in her boots, and I had to whack off some toe and heel to make it happen. The boots still fit! I think I will order a Fit Kit before I buy new boots, just to test out 0’s and 1’s too, but I think she’s still a 0.5 all around.

One more conditioning ride tomorrow and I’m done. I don’t know if Dixie’s ready for a 50, but I’m out of time so it’ll have to do. There’s rain coming in on Tuesday, then I leave for Reno on Thursday. We’ll just do some light work next week, then I’ll pack the trailer and haul back for Rides of March on the 16th!

Hoof pics, if you care to see them. Reminder: her heels are always contracted, no matter what, from the shoes and stacks when she was a yearling. When I say her frogs and heels look good for Dixie, I know they look awful in comparison to normal horses, but it is what it is with her. :)
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No, I didn’t take any after I trimmed. I just took her heels down level with her frogs and knocked her toes way back to the white line and called it good enough for now.