September is still months away, but already Jam and I are fixated on our first 100. Every ride between now and then will be a shakedown cruise — testing and adjusting everything from nutrition to hoof boots to training to tack. Nagging physical and mental issues (horse or human) cannot be ignored. And, there is conditioning to do.
Covering 100 miles in 2 days struck me as the most logical stepping stone between single-day 50’s and a 100-miler. That’s exactly what I had in mind for last weekend’s Owyhee Fandango Pioneer.
Fandango is a popular ride in the Northwest Region, attracting riders from a number of western states and sometimes Canada as well. I was surprised, last Thursday afternoon, to pull into ridecamp around 4pm and find a lot of open space still available in the lower camp. Lucky me! I selected a level spot with an easy pull-out, knowing I’d be leaving Sunday morning while a lot of trailers remained for the final day. I set out some buckets to save a spot for Jodie and her mustang Sonny, who rode with us at Tough Sucker and planned to do the same on Fandango Day 1.
Camp setup, registration, vet in, cold beer, ride meeting…you know the drill. I left Jam booted but unblanketed and settled in for a desert night with lows around 50 degrees, and proceeded to sleep with frequent interruptions by the pawing of a neighboring horse. Come morning, Jodie and I saddled up and hung back from the start. She wanted to work on curbing Sonny’s raciness, and I certainly wasn’t eager for a repeat of the Tough Sucker bucking incident with Jam.
As it transpired, all the bending and quieting trail work I’d done with Jam between rides seemed to pay off. Both horses started pleasantly, walking and jogging to the first creek crossing and remaining calm even when the young mare ahead of us took on the water with a spectacularly hilarious, flying leap-and-bolt maneuver. A steep climb up to the ridge set us on our way.
Desert, desert, desert. We trotted as much as we could along the cow trails and 4×4 roads, grateful for our hoof boots but still keeping down the speed thanks to a generous scattering of loose rock. Many of the trails here used to feature pretty decent footing, but the last couple winters have choked up a lot of obstacles, making them tougher on hooves and demanding that we walk stretches we would otherwise have covered at a brisk clip.
Not that we were in a hurry. Our goal for the day was to spend at least 7.5 hours on the 50-mile trail, focusing on bringing the horses’ speed down toward an average speed of about 7mph. Good thing, since the route to the vet check took us through Sinker Canyon.
Sinker Canyon is a lovely little spot featuring repeated stream crossings, low-hanging branches, multiple gates, and a whole lot of rock. If you care about your horse, you’re pretty much destined to walk the entire five miles. It’s scenic down there, but I’ll be honest: Sinker Canyon isn’t my favorite. Too slow. Too slow for me, and definitely too slow for Jam. It can be hard to pass in the narrow places, and horses tend to get bunched up as they stop to drink or open gates. Jam’s fast walk complicates matters; he really doesn’t like being smashed up in a group, especially early in a ride for which he’s more than fit.
So, Sinker was a bit stressful to begin with. There was no need to throw in a rattlesnake.
Jodie and I rode around a corner about halfway through the canyon, feeling good about managing to stay in a small bubble between other riders, to find a crowd gathering on a narrow bit of trail leading down to yet another creek crossing. Word floated back from those at the front: Rattlesnake! Right there, trapped against the cliff and rattling away. He had nowhere to go, so urging him with long branches and tossed pebbles was useless. Passing on the trail was obviously unwise — and even if we did, how would we warn riders to come after? Hmm.
We were contemplating dropping off the trail’s edge and sloshing down a deep stretch of creek to bypass the snake when a rider in the back of the scrum dismounted and pushed his way forward. Before anyone knew what he was planning, he chucked a basketball-sized rock at the snake. Bam! Smash! Rattle rattle rattle. The snake was trapped beneath the rock, doomed but still rattling. Some cheered, others frowned. I just worked to manage my horse (who was doing well, but starting to lose it) in the increasingly restless crowd.
Now, the riders coming behind us would be safe, but our present group still had to get around the very angry rattler. We decided to risk the deep water rather than squeezing through the narrow spot where the snake — a good-sized one about 2 inches in diameter — still rattled away.
Jam hesitated at the edge of creek. Leaned over the dropoff. Lowered his head. Snorted. Plunged down. We sloshed into the belly-deep water and I felt him gather as if to run, or buck, or possibly tuck his hind feet beneath himself and roll. Oh no! None of that, Buddy Boy! I clapped him with my heels and we surged out the other side. Whew.
To my relief, we finally made it through the canyon and were able to trot some on the climb up to the vet check. Sonny took a few, extra minutes to come down to criteria. (Not being an Arab, this is typical for him.) Meanwhile, the vet took a look at Jam and asked “When are you going to start using him?” It’s nice to have a lily-fresh horse 25 miles along a hot, rocky trail.
Jam ate very well and Sonny moderately. Both drank a lot and looked great, so Jodie and I let them speed up a bit on the second loop, grateful for better footing. We were about 10 miles from camp when Sonny hopped sideways in surprise. The cable on one of his Renegades had snapped. Drat. Jodie pulled both boots off him (he was already bare in back), and thanks to lots of barefoot conditioning and those tough mustang tootsies, we made it back to camp just fine.
We cruised in at 7 hours on the nose — faster than we’d intended, but feeling as though we hadn’t rushed the horses or let them get away with pulling us down the trail unrated. It had been a comfortably (even easily) paced day, so we were quite surprised to find ourselves in the top 10. Sonny was a bit sore on his left hind and we knew the first place horse was well ahead of us (58 minutes, to be precise), so neither of us chose to show for BC. Instead, we headed back to our trailers to clean up the horses, slather their legs with poultice, and ply them with feed before indulging ourselves with shorts, camp chairs, and beer.
Dusk brought a windstorm that drove up dust and hurried us into our campers, leaving our horses covered with light sheets and well supplied with hay. Gusts swayed the camper all night, disrupting sleep, but morning dawned even warmer than the previous day. I stripped to a single layer before mounting up.
Jam and I fell in at the back of the pack, well behind the starting horses, alongside Lynn and her Arab-Appaloosa boy Roger, who was out for his first 50. We both wanted a slow ride — about 8 hours — and decided to see if our horses would fall in well together. As it turned out, they got along fine, but Roger wasn’t up to Jam’s fitness level and we were soon having to slow up and wait for them at frequent intervals. This was good training for Jam, who had some racy moments but overall rated quite well on the relatively-easy first loop, but I think he was glad to leave Roger behind at a water stop where Lynn decided to give her horse some extra time to rest and eat. (She suspected a mild tie-up, but he turned out to be fine.)
Jam and I made decent time on the first loop, knowing that the second would be slower due to terrain. Sure enough, Loop 2 featured some technical work including numerous crossings of steep-sided washes that involved easing down 8+ foot drops, then immediately lurching up the opposite sides. It pays to have a level-headed horse for that kind of work.
We’d passed 6 or 8 horses during the first loop, and the riders closest behind me must have been a bit late out of the hold, because I was delighted to find Jam and myself alone in a nice, big bubble. Once in a while, we spied other riders a mile or two ahead or behind, but for all intents and purposes, we had the trail to ourselves. I even pulled out my phone to play some music (out loud, not through earbuds, as I like to be aware of my environment and my horse’s footfalls).
Gradually, we caught and passed the closest pair of riders, leaving them behind as we reached Hart Creek and crossed it to get to a lollipop section of trail featuring an endless sand wash. I used the wash as an opportunity to drop my stirrups and stretch my legs. Trotting there is a bad idea; the sand is too deep and bowed tendons are a real possibility. So, we walked our way to firmer ground…which turned out to be not just firm, but rocky.
Good lord, was the rest of that loop rocky! We trotted where we could, but it was rough going. Hot. Steep. Windy. Rocky. Really hot. Really steep. Really windy. Really rocky. By the time we clambered up the knife ridge — one of my favorite parts of the Oreana rides, where the desert spills away on all sides, littered with boulders and sage, crinkled into an endless series of plateaus and ravines — even Jam was asking to stop. Rough going, indeed. I dismounted and walked beside him for a while. We reached the final water stop, where he drank while I sponged his forequarters and belly.
Refreshed, Jam bounced back to his usual self for the remaining miles. He trotted into camp with pricked ears, bright eyes, and plenty of compliments from the volunteers at the timing table. To my immense surprise, I learned we had top-tenned again! This time, the first-place horse had been slightly off (not enough for non-completion), so it was worth our trouble to stand for BC.
As it turned out, Jam was completely sound on his initial trot-out but displayed some shifting soreness (muscle stiffness, or, more likely, foot-weariness from all those rocks) during the BC exam, so that took BC off the table. I wasn’t fussed. Jam was happy, healthy, eating and drinking well, and seemed to have enjoyed his first multi-day ride. And despite our completion time of 7:56, we’d maintained his all-top-10 record.
Even better, we successfully knocked down a few hurdles on our road to 100:
- Jam ate his electrolytes in a mash of wheat bran and dry cob. No syringe dosing!
- I kept myself hydrated. The key was wearing a 40-oz Camelbak so it’s easy to take sips even with my hands are busy controlling an energetic horse.
- My legs remained almost pain-free, with compartment syndrome symptoms under control. Prescription orthotics, preemptive ultrasound, anti-inflammatories, calf stretching, and a slower pace all played a role here.
I have an eyeball on riding 2-3 days at Strawberry Fields Forever. It’s a 7+ hour haul down past Salt Lake, but the ride has an excellent reputation and the timing (mid-late June) is ideal. And, I’m told there aren’t many rocks.
Well, Jammer finished Tough Sucker II strong and sound. I finished. We had a fun ride — especially after hooking up with Jodie & Sonny and Chris & Anna around mile 12 — but it wasn’t my most painless ever.
At the start, Jam was impatient but cooperating. I held him in as we walked to the start, chatting with another rider…and then I flew through the air! No gathering. No ear shift. No warning at all. Just a big, huge, double-barrel kick-buck that sent me sailing right over his head without so much as touching the saddle or grabbing for mane.
I was up on my feet again almost as soon as I hit the ground. Where’s my horse? Is he ok? What the HELL just happened?
Jam had stayed put, looking surprised and alarmed (in retrospect, he could have had the grace to throw in some guilt), and seemed unharmed. Despite all the people around, nobody really seemed to have any ideas why he bucked. His tack looked fine. It hadn’t felt like a spook. I dunno. My best guess is that it was a combination of his interference boots (which do make him stompy until he calms down a bit; I probably shouldn’t have put them on until the second loop) and sheer exuberance.
Ahem. Inappropriately expressed exuberance.
Anyway, I mounted back up and started trotting while I assessed my injuries. I seemed to have landed on my back-left side. It gradually became apparent that my elbow and hand got the worst of it. Something was moving strangely in my middle knuckle, like a tendon snapping back and forth across the joint when I flexed my fingers. Fortunately, I was able to hold the reins without much trouble — and good thing, because Jam was full of vim and vigor.
I worked to control his pace for most of those windy, blustery 50 miles. We finished in 6:35 and pulsed right down, trotted out, and walked back to the trailer with all A’s.
Well, Jam walked. I limped.
It wasn’t just the fall. True, my hand and elbow still hurt (especially the hand, which refuses to do things like remove tupperware lids) but X-rays say nothing is broken. My bigger concern was the now-familiar ache in my shins.
For quite a few 50’s now, I’ve had trouble with shin pain. It occurs in both legs, though the left is always worse. By about 20 miles, they are swollen and sore along the outside of my shin bones, and after 50 miles, they look like someone beat them with a 2×4 — only there was no impact. All that swelling and bruising is from pressure and bleeding on the inside. It hurts like hell, and it takes a couple weeks to recede.
So, as long as I was at the doc getting my hand X-rayed, I asked about the shins. They ruled out my #1 suspicion of shin splints because the injury was higher and more to the outside of each leg than you’d get with splints. No apparent stress fractures, either. I had to move on to a sports medicine doc (actually two, because I’m big on second opinions) to get a diagnosis:
Compartment syndrome. Specifically, chronic exertional compartment syndrome. Anterior and bilateral, in my case.
One of the sports med docs actually treats another endurance rider with the same issue, though it is much more commonly associated with runners. Basically, the muscles in the calf are bundled into four “compartments” bound by fascia. Fascia isn’t particularly flexible, and in certain people, the muscles can get too large for their fascia sheaths, which results in pain, bruising, and compromised circulation (from the swelling) when they participate in certain activities.
Great. Even better, this particular malady doesn’t come with a cure. There’s a surgery available in which they slit the fascia in order to relieve pressure on the muscle, but results are mixed and the condition can recur. Fortunately, neither doc thought I was a candidate for surgery just yet. They suggested a variety of more conservative approaches, the most important of which are calf stretching (so the muscles in the front of my shin have less tension against which to fight when I drop my heel to ride) and orthotics (because I overpronate, which puts extra strain on the affected muscles).
Management with ice and ultrasound are also on the table, though of course that’s impractical during a ride. I’m looking into compression sleeves (Doctor Google offers mixed opinions on compression sleeves for compartment syndrome) and foam rolling. I already eat an anti-inflammatory diet, but I’ve added some additional nutritional support — most notably, cod liver oil — to assist further.
I’ve found very little on the web regarding compression syndrome in endurance riders, or equestrians in general, though shin pain comes up a lot in forum discussions. I wonder if most people assume, as I did for way too long, that it’s “just” shin splints. (If this is you, it might be worth getting checked out, because the circulation issues associated with chronic compartment syndrome can eventually cause long term issues like foot/ankle weakness.)
Anyway, the orthotics and stretching seem to be doing a lot of good; I’ve put in long hours conditioning lately and haven’t had any trouble. The real test will come next weekend at Fandango, where Jam and I plan to attempt his first back-to-back 50’s.
Jam, by the way, looks fantastic. He positively inflated with muscle after Tough Sucker, and is raring to go. (Not not literally this time, I hope!) We’ve been focusing on polite pacing during our rides because as we increase distance, we’ll need to slooowwww dooowwwn. It might be a bit of a battle during the first loop on Day 1, but tough tarts. He’s gotta learn.
In all these years, I have never made it to a Tough Sucker ride.
Maybe I just don’t want to be a sucker. But more likely, circumstances have always pushed me out of the running for the first spring rides in my area — Tough Sucker I (early April) and Tough Sucker II (late April). Weather, tack issues, whatever. I’d have to go back and have a look to recall. Or maybe I don’t want to. The point is, I never had a horse ready.
This year, abdominal surgery (on me, not the horse) kept me out of TS I. Grrrr. The surgery (actually, the aftermath thereof) was more complicated that absolutely necessary, and I wasn’t able to ride for a couple weeks after mid-March. Once again, I was not quite tough enough. (Wow, look how dark Consolation’s coat was back then!)
But TS II is still ahead. Next weekend. And I think Jammer is ready. And so am I.
We spent today on a long ride in the hills, and I registered for the ride this evening. Could it be? Are we finally Tough Enough?
Successful 100’s don’t happen overnight.
I’ve been doing a lot of reading, a lot of thinking, a lot of looking at the AERC records of 100-mile horses. There are people to consult and plans to make, equipment to consider, training and experimenting and conditioning to do, and not a small amount of finger-crossing for luck.
First and most obvious, I needed the right horse. Said horse would come with the body, brains, and “bottom” on which to layer careful conditioning sandwiched between abundant recovery periods, proper hoof care, smart nutrition…not to mention the requisite finger-crossing.
Once upon a time, I hoped Consolation would be that horse. She had the mind and conformation, but lacked motivation and eventually retired from endurance due to a mysterious veterinary issue. Giving her up just as she reached the point of being a successful multi-day horse was tough. I spent a few months deciding what to do, and ultimately went shopping.
Late in 2012, I brought home my choice from the kind folks at Belesemo Arabians: HHR Jammazon. Jammer is a big, strong boy with Crabbet/CMK blood. I don’t claim any expansive knowledge of Arabian bloodlines (my strengths in that department remains with the Barbs), but it’s clear that this is no halter horse. Everything from his profile to his croup is less delicate and more practical. His gray hide and black gaze bear the marks of a ranch-raised horse: tough, tested, thoughtful, and bold.
Of course, physique isn’t everything. You need attitude as well. Jammer’s first year on the trail revealed an enthusiastic partner, always ready to motor down the trail — often faster than I’d let him — and maintain a pleasant, businesslike demeanor all day. He’s mannerly around other horses, a good traveler, and reasonably relaxed in camp (a bit talkative at times, but at least he eats, drinks, and stands still). At vet checks, he typically drinks well and settles into his meal instead of gawking at all the activity.
But no horse is perfect. The Jam does have a chink in his 100-mile armor: Like many ranch-raised horses I have known, he isn’t particularly keen on feed concentrates. He’ll eat grain, Strategy, bran, beet pulp, and the like when he’s in the mood, but overall, he prefers hay. This makes it difficult to get Show & Go, magnesium, and other supplements into him.
At rides, he’s even less interested in concentrates. He eats just fine, but he chooses hay or grass instead of anything into which I can mix electrolytes. That means dosing him with a syringe, and even when I mix his ‘lytes with apple- or banana-flavored baby food, he HATES it. Electrolytes notwithstanding, it surely would be nice if he’d consume some kind of concentrated energy source.
I guess that means it’s time to experiment. Is there some kind of concentrate out there that he’ll really love? Maybe a different bran of electrolyte would go down the hatch with less fuss. Perhaps he’d prefer papaya juice to banana mush. Hopefully, it won’t cost me too much to find out!
On the bright side, none of my experiments will go to waste. Majesty eats anything. 🙂
Nearly seven years have passed, but I remember my first LD like it was just last May. I had so much to say afterwards that I needed two, lengthy posts to tell the tale. Later that summer, my good friend, a photographer, drove a couple hours on a frigid morning to document my first 50. That story also took a long post, plus some related posts, to tell.
Since 2008, I have completed 30 endurance rides, plus a few LDs before I gave those up altogether in 2009. My record is hardly notable — riding with friends like Karen Bumgarner has a way of keeping a person humble — but still, 30 rides will get you a long way down the road. 1515 AERC miles, to be exact.
That’s enough miles to make your average 50 nothing to write home about. Oh, it’s still one of my favorite ways to spend a day. It’s still fun and beautiful and painful and sweaty and all the rest. It still gets my attention and makes me look for ever-better ways to prepare and care for my horse.
But it just isn’t the big deal that once it was. It isn’t a major challenge. It isn’t sufficiently HARD.
(Did you notice that, last year, I wrote up only one of Jammer’s six endurance rides? Yeah. Partly that was because I was busy playing with whitewater and backpacks and motorcycles, but it was also because there just wasn’t much to say beyond: “We had a great ride!” Yep. Sure did. Next?)
I’ll tell you what’s next. It’s what I’ve wanted from the day I first learned that endurance riding exists as an organized sport. It’s the thing that still lures me, still scares the crap out of me, the thing I must do.
Friday morning, May 10. I’ve taken the day off work. Ride camp is only a hour’s drive away, but I’m ready for a little vacation and don’t want any pressure getting settled in for Jammer’s first endurance ride. I reckon we’ll pull in early, set up camp, and spend the day basking in the sunshine while the rest of the trailers roll in.
We surely do get that sunshine! It’s unseasonably warm for this area — close on 90 degrees, and expected to be just as hot for Saturday’s ride. And I’ve ridden Eagle Extreme before. It’s deceptively difficult. Close to home, just in the foothills overlooking Boise, on the trails where many local riders condition their horses. But close and familiar don’t mean easy. There are some long climbs ahead. And as I say, it’s hot.
On the bright side, Jammer is a gem in camp. He takes in the sights calmly, eats and drinks, hollers some but doesn’t fuss. When Karen Bumgarner arrives with her horse Blue, we set the boys up next to each other, and Jam’s world is complete. He and Blue have only met once, but Blue and Karen are our babysitters for Jam’s first ride. The pair of them appear to get along swimmingly.
It’s good to see old friends at the ride meeting. I’ve been away from my sport too long! Management backs the start time up from 7am to 6:00, out of respect for the heat. That’s welcome news. I’m all for saddling up by lantern light and trotting past the vet at daybreak.
Come morning, Blue is a bit doggy right out of the gate — he’s used to starting at a walk, but this vet requests a trot — but Jam is feeling frisky. He prances along with his nostrils full, but his manners are intact and I’m not working overly hard to hold him in. We see horses ahead on the trail, but he doesn’t rush. Before long, a few late-starters pass us and he isn’t fazed. Oh yeah. I’m really starting to like this horse.
The sun climbs. The horses climb. We ride up and around the cliff known for the woman who died when her husband pushed her over the edge. Her friends put a white cross at the top, years ago. It’s still there. We pass it twice on the lollipop trail — the first lollipop of the day — and trot merrily back to the vet check where both horses earn all A’s.
Eat, drink, you know the drill. Jam hasn’t done this before, but you wouldn’t know that by looking. He’s already drinking at every opportunity, using his head, focusing on his food instead of the usual ridecamp bustle. Yep, really starting to like this horse.
The second of the two loops features the real climb. Up and up and up and up and up! We trot much of it but walk some as we follow a creek bed, then a gulch, up from the sage desert to where the lupines grow. Near the top, we take a short detour to visit a water tank that fills from a slow spring; Karen knows it from prior years, so our horses get an extra drink without having to add more than a few extra steps to the ride. Lucky horses. It’s really hot now. Sunscreen stings my eyes.
Finally, we reach the top. We’d be thrilled, except that we know what’s coming. The long lollipop. And I do mean long. Lots of rolling hills of the variety that tend to slow you down unless you want to beat up your horse’s legs. Looooooooong lollipop. Lots and lots of rolling hills. We ride all the way out to the Emmett highway before circling back, then have to go past the quickest route toward camp and come down the long way to add even more miles.
It’s somewhere in that last stretch that Karen exclaims, “This ain’t no lollipop — it’s an all day sucker!”
She’s right. Boy, are we glad when we finally drop into the valley and hit the homestretch! Jammer knows where we are and trots in strong, all day sucker notwithstanding. Good horse.
The timers cheer us in and congratulate us on our turtle placement. “Ummmm….” Uh-oh. We can’t have turtled. We know for certain (thanks to lollipop trails) that there were riders behind us when we came into the hold. Nobody passed us on the second loop. Something has gone wrong.
We pull out our maps, discuss the issue with management, and figure out a likely scenario. It appears that the three riders behind us missed a turn on the second loop, which brought them into camp too early, without having covered all the miles. Drat. The ride manager heads over to their trailers, where they are already unsaddled and changed into shorts, to discuss their options.
Meanwhile, Jam vets through with top marks. His pulse is low and he looks fantastic. The vet suggests we try for BC, but Jam’s trot-outs aren’t spectacular (training oversight, totally my fault!) so we decline. In hindsight, maybe we shouldn’t have. Ah, well. Maybe next time.
Management re-appears to let us know that the mistaken riders have decided to head out again and finish the miles. They’ll trailer out part way to save time, ride the missed section, and earn completion only. That puts me and Karen in 8th and 9th place, with a ride time of 8:38. It’s dang hot and I feel badly for those poor teams that have to go back out, but I’m impressed that they’ve decided to do it. Real endurance riders do what it takes instead of throwing in the towel.
Back at our trailer, Jam drinks more water and dives into a pile of hay while we riders find a scrap of shade and some beer. First 50 done! It was a tough one, but Jam made it feel easy. Yep. Sure do like this horse!
Jammer was the last, trained gelding to sell last year from Belesemo Arabians. He wasn’t bred on their farm, which is only 10 miles from mine, but on an Idaho ranch where he spent his youth tearing about the hills with his herd of equine hellions. He was handled for deworming and hoof care, but not doted upon. This, and his reserved personality, made him amenable to handling but hardly the pocket pony that is more typical of Belesemo’s stock.
He didn’t snuggle, so he didn’t sell. Until I got a look at him. I found him not stand-offish, but a perfect gentleman. Big, honest, and willing. He had the “kind eye” we all read about from Black Beauty on up. A big, smooth stride built on old-style conformation made to win races, not halter classes. Solid training. Desert smarts. The mind and physique I was looking for. I took him home.
Fully mature and under saddle, he was ready to jump into conditioning right away, though it was too late in the year to register for any rides. We focused on getting to know each other, laying baseline fitness that would pay off come spring. He swallowed his workouts whol, and enthusiastically, demonstrating increased fitness every time we hit the trail. Our longest ride last fall was around 25 miles in hills, and he came through fresh as a spring daisy.
But it wasn’t spring. It was winter, and winter fell deep and cold. There were days in December when the weather would have let me ride, but my heart did not. That was a time to focus on other things, to rage and process and accept. And so I did, and February came, and Jammer was still there in his thick, silver coat and black eyes to match his mane. His personality warmed with the weather. He’ll never be a “velcro horse” like Majesty or Ripple, but that wild-horse caution slowly vanished from his face.
We returned to the trail and stacked on miles. We started with about 20 miles per week, split among two or three rides. I moved him along faster than I would have done with a younger horse. He was coming 8 years old, ranch raised, under saddle with regular riding for over a year. I kept an eye on his appetite, tendons, and aspect. Consistently 100%. Excellent. Over about two months, we worked up to a brisk 30-miler in the hills.
And then it was time. We registered for a ride.
All this time I was getting to know Jammer, I was also getting to know Tyson. We met on an unseasonably warm, February day. It was one of those meetings we all have now and again — the kind in which you connect with someone on an uncommon level and sense potential beyond the average sweetheart, co-worker, friend. It happens in all kinds of relationships, not just romantic ones, but it doesn’t happen often. And when it does — especially when you’re both single and share all the right interests and worldviews — you pay attention.
So we’ve been busy. Skiing. Hiking. Dual-sport motorcycling. Travelling. Hanging out on the farm. Exploring music and food. And taking Jammer to endurance rides.
Yes, rides. Plural. He’s already up to 110 AERC miles (oops — spoiler!) and I owe y’all some stories. Stay tuned.
This has been a hard winter. Snow fell just after Christmas and has lain on the ground since. At the new year, temperatures dropped into the single digits and only visited the teens on the occasional afternoon. Mornings dawned in negative numbers. Frost-free spigots froze. Black horses shimmered silver with daylong frost.
Before and after work, I hauled buckets of hot water from the house, up the icy path and down again, to supplement the efforts of tank heaters and a t-post dedicated to smashing rims of ice. On weekends, I managed to finish the new pasture fence — bundled in wool socks and ski pants and fleece and gloves that I changed periodically as they soaked through — so the horses could get out to play. I stacked a load of hay on a day so cold the snow wouldn’t stick to the bales. The physical effort was sufficient to keep me warm for reasonable periods. But riding? That wasn’t going to happen.
This has been a hard winter. I’m running this farm on my own again. What happened was a deep shock, like an earthquake that comes without warning and leaves devastation in its wake. Everything is stark. Bleak. The trees are stripped bare. Freezing fog muffles the view. Color vanishes beneath the bleaching, blinding snow.
Yesterday, it rained. Temperatures soared to mid-thirties. Earth appeared in a few places, like finger holes in a vast duvet. The blood of four lambs, slaughered last week, glistened in crimson pools that refused to sink. Then, overnight, it froze. Grief is like that. Anger, too. Today’s forecast is warm again. Drizzly. The kind of day that stirs together drift and berm and turns it all to frigid mud.
But warmer is warmer. Time takes winter with her, in the end. I want to ride again.
I haven’t said too much about Jammer yet, but we’ve been busy. (Well, as busy as we can be in the context of my full-time job, long commute, autumn weather, and early darkness!) This horse is really something. Here he is after last Saturday’s speedy, 16-mile ride in the hills.
He’s wearing a borrowed Big Horn because neither of my Stonewall saddles fits him — he’s a lot bigger and wider than any of the Barbs. Jackie at Stonewall has shipped up her own Stonewall Sport, which has the necessary wide tree, for us to use while she builds him his own saddle. I’m excited to try the Sport, in which I’ve never ridden, with its lower pommel for negotiating rough terrain. It weighs a few pounds more than the Classic, but is still extremely managable at just 16 pounds.
Anyway, I’m at the dawn of a 3-day weekend and have an eyeball on Jammer for some serious trail time. It’s cold out — just 25 degrees at the moment — but the harvested fields below the farm are glowing bonze in early sun. Frost shimmers on the fenceposts. My insulated breeches are washed and ready.
Let’s add some miles to that Conditioning Log!
The bit I used on Jammer over the weekend was a shade to narrow. I bought him a new one — a sweet iron and copper egg-butt snaffle broken with a chain in the middle where the third link might be. It was a gentle bit, designed to free the tongue from pressure while maintaining communication with the bars.
Jammer hated it.
He mouthed it when first bitted — exploring, I thought. Experimenting. — then carried it quietly as we set off down the road. We hadn’t gone a quarter mile before he began to ask the standard horse question: Could we go home instead? Seat, legs, rein. No, no, and no.
It took all of two minutes for us both to get the point. To me, the bit felt like a gummy worm, squiggly and inconsistent.
To him, it felt insecure. Unclear. Where was he supposed to go, again? Hello? Leader? He expressed his agitation in a raised back, tossed head, and attempts to pivot toward home.
Hmm…not the reaction I’d come to expect from him. But should I head for home, thereby rewarding his behavior but enabling me to switch bits, or persevere at peril of an unpleasant or possibly dangerous ride?
I decided to head home. I lunged him for a few minutes so arriving home wouldn’t be all fun and games, then switched over to a basic, full-cheek snaffle that I had lying around. Time for another decision: arena work or hit the trail? There’s only so much time in a day and I really wanted those miles…
I mounted up in the round corral. Collected a little. Did some lateral work. Practiced single-rein stops.
Then we headed back out. He felt steadier, more confident, in the stronger bit. Unlike with the gummy worm, I scarcely had to touch his mouth. We passed the “trouble spot” with hardly a batted eyelash, and proceeded to have a fabulous conditioning ride. (Really, it was super fun.)
But you know, I’d have given up that ride for just the arena work. In this particular instance, I think equipment rather than training was to blame, but the point stands: It doesn’t matter how fit your horse is if you can’t control him.
On the trail. Headed home. At the start of a race. When he spooks.
Schooling will pay off.
We endurance riders are infamous for our dislike of the ring. I’m no exception. But I’m coming around. It surely is nice to know, in a dicey situation on the trail, that I have a tool bag full of hindquarters and necks and ribs that respond, without thinking, to well-practiced cues.
In the spirit of this post, I followed Jammer’s ride with 30 minutes in the round corral on Maji. We explored headset, a new concept for her, and carried on with softening, softening, bending, bending, giving up her signature head-toss in favor of responding to direction.
Practice, practice, practice.
You never know when you’ll need it.
Go ahead: Teach to the test.