Thursday, April 24, 2008

Glory in Motion: Riding at the Speed of Delight

As I drove home from the office yesterday, steely rainclouds pelted my windshield with more water than the wipers could keep at bay. I toyed absentmindedly with the heater and radio knobs, debating whether to ride Aaruba, or just do a bit of liberty work with him, when I got home.

As I dashed from car to house, the idea of half an hour in the round corral seemed much more appealing than that of ninety minutes of trekking along the roadside, drenched with rain and tire spray. On the other hand, our forecast suggested that today might not be any better. So, I whipped up a quick snack, shimmied into my Patagonia's, and grabbed my Wintec Aussie saddle instead of the usual Stonewall.

Light rain dotted the saddle as I tacked up, but by the time I swung astride, the band of clouds had blown eastward. Aaruba and I set off after them...and darn near caught them, too.

Aaruba was brimming with energy after two days spent resting and chowing down on a diet calculated to pack more pounds on his frame. Last fall, a serious impaction colic put him in the hospital for almost a week. He lost 250 pounds and gained a name for himself as one of the most unlikely survivors his team of vets had ever seen. Confined all winter by atrocious weather and worse footing, he regained a respectable amount of weight, but I couldn't put as much food energy into him as I'd have liked to because everything I tried turned him into a frustrated, head-tossing, paddock-pacing beast.

Now that he's on a conditioning program, however, it's time to pad him out a bit more. Unlike human athletes, who perform best with as little body fat as possible, horses rely on stored fat to provide energy during prolonged exercise. Free choice oat hay, supplemental alfalfa, and several pounds of oats dressed with corn oil are doing the trick...but the first ride after a good rest period can be an adventure.

Sure enough, after a mile's warm-up at a walk and jog, Aaruba turned on the turbo. Neck curved in that glorious Arabian arch, he charged along the gravel shoulder, shying at mailboxes and songbirds for the sheer amusement of it. Half laughing, half cursing, I jostled for balance in the unfamiliar saddle with its relatively forward seat, narrow leathers, and standard English irons. (Perhaps next time I want to test a new saddle, I'll do it when the horse is a touch less fresh.)

Three miles down the road, we were still cruising along, all speed and suspension, far exceeding our prescribed 6 mph pace. A familiar mantra played in my mind: Ride the horse and not the plan. Usually, this admonition reminds me to slow down, give the horse time, scrap the plan if the horse isn't ready to follow it. This, however, seemed a rare opportunity to exceed the constraints of my Training Tracker.

"Okay, fella," I told Aaruba. "Let 'er rip."

Though Aaruba would gladly have offered a hand gallop, such an effort would be foolhardy at this stage of conditioning. We agreed instead upon a surging trot. Normally, we jog for miles on a slack rein, but today the lines between us sang with tension.

May I go faster? he said.

If you can do it at a trot, I said.

I can, he said, and pulled his hindquarters deep.

His shoulders pulsed beneath me and the road spun out behind. Heat rose from his skin, engulfing my hands and warming my calves. Having reached a truce with the new saddle, I posted low and steady, my grip firm on the reins, a conduit transmitting energy from haunch to head and back again.

You know the feeling: It's acing the interview for your dream job, kissing someone you hardly know, traversing a high ropes course, rafting the Colorado. It's being a child on the beach, ankle deep in riptide, wondering if it's just you or the whole earth that moves.

It's seeing thousands of training hours turn to gold.

Our sixth and seventh miles took us up a gradual incline. Slowly, Aaruba's neck relaxed out of its arch. He even consented to walk the eighth and final mile, reducing our average speed to 7 mph. Back on the farm, I released him in a grassy pen. He rolled, took a few bites of grass, then leaped and spun on a gust of wind -- clearly, as they say in the endurance world, "fit to continue."


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LJB said...

I'm grateful to have some insight into conditioning a horse via your blog. I used to think I would like to ride distance, however I have not proved myself capable of the planning and discipline to get a horse ready. I have not thrown out the idea, but my equine strengths may be elsewhere. *g*

I like what you quoted about ride your horse instead of your plan...

Tamara of In the Night Farm said...

I'm glad it's been helpful to you! During my research on the subject of endurance riding, I often wished someone would post sample conditioning logs in addition to general guidelines, which is why I've included Aaruba's log in this blog. Consolation's log will appear in a month or so! :-)