Tuesday, July 29, 2008

Turning Pink: 2008 Pink Flamingo Classic, Day One

I need another endurance horse!

No, not a different endurance horse -- another endurance horse. So I can ride more. Because I am obsessed.

I can safely say this following the 2008 Pink Flamingo Classic despite the fact that my performance at the Saturday LD was, shall we say, less than stellar. All afternoon on Sunday, people kept saying things like, "Looks like you had a better ride today!"

My reply was always the same: "I had a great ride yesterday! It just happened to be on the wrong trail."

But we'll get to that. Let's begin on Friday afternoon as Travis and I pulled off the highway onto a gravel road near Cascade, Idaho. Horse trailer in tow, we wound through a vast meadow surrounded by forested mountains, through two gates announcing that we were now in a house of horrors -- er, a cattle ranch -- and past a sign advising, "Prepare to Release Your Inner Flamingo."

As ride camp came into view, we braked to wait for a line of trailers to inch across a creek through the middle of ride camp. Apparently, someone at the front of the line doubted the wisdom of such a crossing. The wait allowed us ample opportunity to scan the expanse of trailers bedecked with pink boas and plastic flamingos, surrounded by portable corrals and high tie systems, dogs and horses, riders and crew.

This creek was to be a source of much amusement throughout the weekend. As the crossing lay between most of ride camp and the vetting area, riders were forever taking horses back and forth through the water. As endurance mounts, few horses objected to the creek itself -- some downright loved it -- but things got interesting as some horses attempted to follow their handlers across the narrow footbridge!

After driving across the creek, we backed into a nice spot next to a mother-daughter pair with the most astonishing array of wooden flamingos grazing in front of their truck. I took Aaruba for a walk while Travis set up Command Central. You may recall that at the Owyhee Fandango in May, Aaruba illustrated his displeasure at the idea of spending two days tied to the horse trailer. So, instead of ordering a Hi-Tie as I had planned, we carried four Powder River panels on the side of the trailer and set up a sturdy pen.

Good thing, too. Not an hour had passed before the resident herd of cattle lumbered past on their way to the creek. Aaruba's eyes bulged and he scampered around in his pen like a hunted rabbit. He spent the entire evening in such a state of anxiety that, after the ride meeting, I had to take him for a calming walk and allow his sweaty flanks to dry before putting his sheet on for the night.

Temperatures were in the low 40's when the horn blew at 5:00 a.m. on Saturday. Our alarm was set for 5:30, but there was no sleeping through the cacophony of a hundred-odd excitable horses being fed and tacked. Travis fired up the old Coleman to make coffee while I encouraged Aaruba to down a breakfast of beet pulp and hay. He doesn't get any grain or oil on ride mornings, as the former causes carbohydrate spikes and the latter is too satiating at a time when it's critically important that he consume as much forage as possible.

At 6:40, we strapped on Aaruba's Easyboots and tack, and at 7:30, we were off! Aaruba and I hung back from the front runners and took off at a brisk trot about two minutes after the trail opened. As this was only our second race, we had no ambitions of winning, and I'm all for avoiding a chaotic stampede of hoofed mammals whenever possible.

Trotting along at a furious pace, dodging other riders and keeping a tight rein on Aaruba's enthusiasm, I tried to scan the branches for the pink and purple ribbons that marked our first loop. While following ribbons is not exactly difficult, it is also not as easy as it sounds when you're on one of the main routes to and from ride camp and the trail is bedecked with ribbons of myriad colors, the morning sun is playing tricks on your eyes, adrenaline is running high, and you have many demands on your attention. And that's where things went wrong.

Have you ever done something that, in hindsight, makes no sense at all, even though it seemed perfectly logical at the time? Have you ever tried, and failed, to explain why you made the choices you made? That's what it's like trying to explain how I ended up riding the pink loop, but I'll give it a shot.

Zooming along the trail, I recalled the ride manager's warning that the pink and purple ribbons might look like pink and white, and sure enough, some did. In fact, many of them did! I hadn't gone far enough to wonder about this when I caught up with another rider on a gray foxtrotter called Bear. Darla had paused at a fork to determine the appropriate direction, and we agreed that the thing to do was veer right. I can't recall now what color the ribbons there were...probably pink and white. Really pink and white, not pink and purple-masquerading-as-white. I had no inkling that we had already missed our turn.

Several minutes of trotting and conversation later, we followed the ribbons off the wilderness road and up a steep, crude trail littered with fallen branches. The horses' hooves sank into powdery soil as we descended the other side, scrambling around decaying stumps on our way down to a logging road where a painted line blocked travel to the left. We turned right...and saw only orange ribbons. A quarter mile down the track, we still had only orange. My companion turned around to re-inspect the last turn while I rode ahead in search of pink and purple. I found none. We met back in the middle and my companion announced that we were going the right way according the marks on the ground. We carried on.

Ah, hindsight. Had I been riding alone, I would not have settled for orange ribbons in lieu of pink and purple. I would have gone back further, searched harder. I don't understand why we failed to do so, nor why we were relieved just minutes later to find pink ribbons leading us on. What did we think was so wonderful about pink, when there was no purple hanging with it?

A couple miles along, we came to a creek crossing. The horses didn't drink so we carried on, somehow believing we'd found our trail again. (See, I told you it wouldn't make sense, but I swear it seemed to at the time!) After a while, Aaruba and I moved out ahead of Darla and Bear. They'd been pleasurable company, but we were up for a faster pace than they had chosen.

The pink ribbons led me up a deserted logging road, higher and higher up the forested slope. We trotted for some time, then slowed so Aaruba could snatch mouthfuls of the tall grass growing along the trail. As we came around one curve, something large crashed up the hillside nearby. I studied the underbrush for a deer...and something growled. Time to trot again!

By now, I had grown quite uncertain about our choice of trails. There were no purple ribbons among the pink, no sign of manure or hoof prints though I knew we weren't leading the pack, no riders coming up from behind or flashing out of sight ahead. Darla and Bear must be well behind us by now; possibly they'd even turned around. No point waiting for them.

Finally, a grouping of three pink ribbons in a single bush signaled an upcoming turn. They led me to the left, off the logging road and straight down the mountain. I settled deep in the saddle and Aaruba sunk onto his haunches as we weaved among trees and through thickets, connecting the dots ribbon to ribbon with no trail in sight. Down, down, down we went, both focused completely on our treacherous route. I dismounted to lead him down the most vertical section of all, sidestepping along in an avalanche of pine needles and crumbling earth.

Glancing up, I saw a flash of white between the trees. A camp trailer. Ride camp? Thank heavens! We clambered down the rest of the hill and broke out onto a treeless creek bed. Water at last...but no ride camp. These were just campers out for a weekend of fishing an four-wheeling. Aaruba drank while I questioned the campers. No, they hadn't seen any riders come by. So that's what all the ribbons are for. What a pretty horse!

If I had any doubts left, they were vanquished by that brief conversation. No way were we on the right loop, and no way were we turning around now! We must have come eight miles or more, so going back to our intended loop would cost us sixteen miles on top of the original 30. I wasn't about to try that, especially since we intended to race again the next day.

So, off we went, up the other side of the valley, climbing a dirt track rutted by heavy rain. Up, up, up we went. Somewhere on that hill, I checked Aaruba's hooves and discovered he'd lost a hind Easyboot. I hated to leave the boot behind, but it could be anywhere and we had an unknown number of miles yet to travel. We'd been out for two hours; surely everyone else would be trickling into the vet hold. Travis would be waiting, wondering, worrying. The footing was good. We abandoned the boot.

That trail went on forever, up and up through the loveliest views of forest and the meadow valley below. I rode conservatively, knowing that if Aaruba encountered metabolic problems, I'd be hard pressed to get help on this lonely loop. The minutes ticked by. We walked the steepest sections and trotted the rest. I sang to Aaruba, told him stories. Occasionally, I got off to walk or to let Aaruba graze. The sun had grown hot and there was no water, so we settled for what moisture grass could provide. I tried sending Travis a mental telegraph: We're fine <stop> Off course <stop> Having fun anyway <stop>.

Alas, my telepathic abilities won't win me any prizes. When Aaruba and I finally found our way off the mountain and back to ride camp, grinning sheepishly and flashing a thumbs-up, Travis hurried from his anxious post to meet us at the water trough. I gave him a quick version of the tale, and bless him, he understood.

Aaruba pulsed down almost immediately and vetted through with all A's while someone tracked down the ride manager so I could discuss my options. Really, there weren't any. To earn a completion, she explained most kindly, we'd have to do the whole 17 mile pink-purple loop, plus the 12 mile loop. I thought how far we'd already gone in our 3 hours, 48 minutes on the trail, and knew it was no good. We pulled.

Back at the trailer, I cared for Aaruba and fought back disappointment. Of course I had wanted to complete. I hate to fail, I hate to screw up, I hate to do something stupid. Why in the name of Adam's left eyeball didn't I backtrack until I found pink and purple ribbons? How did it make sense to settle for pink instead?

Alas, it is impossible to make sense of something nonsensical. It's better to learn from it and go on. Besides, as Travis pointed out, I'd had a great ride. My young, inexperienced horse had done me proud on some very technical trail the likes of which he'd never seen before. He'd come through it healthy and strong. Really, compared to the rider who'd had to withdraw before the race even began because her horse colicked and was given banned substances during treatment, I had nothing to complain about.

Near as I can figure from looking at maps and talking with Darla (who had also elected to finish the pink loop, then pull), the ride manager, the vets, and others, Aaruba and I traveled between 20 and 25 miles on our own, private LD. I'm pretty sure it was at least 23 miles, which is the number I entered in Aaruba's conditioning log. During the award ceremony that evening, I didn't get a completion. However, I was delighted to receive the "Bad Day" award -- a set of magenta leg wraps that will look very manly indeed with Aaruba's gray and pink blanket.

So ended Day 1 of the Pink Flamingo Classic. You know Day 2 can only be better!

Related Posts
The Flamingo Approaches
Tickled Pink: 2008 Pink Flamingo Classic, Day Two

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Thursday, July 24, 2008

Upward In the Night

You would have bought it, too, that saddle in a stranger's garage the day before the sale was to open.

Never mind that you shouldn't have dropped the cash, that all five of your newly-acquired Barb horses were virtually wild. Never mind that you couldn't halter any of them, let alone test for saddle fit. Never mind that, for you, endurance racing was merely a pile of library books and a dream.

It was an endurance saddle, a Stonewall with centerfire rigging and fenders burnished by the rub of breeches over countless miles. It was a step -- one taken out of order, but a step nonetheless -- toward a cherished goal. The saddle was hope.

So I bought it. Six months later, I bought an Arabian horse called Aaruba. He cost little more than the saddle, as his breeder was eager to dispense with the energetic gelding who'd proved a poor example of the mellow temperment characteristic of his herd. Aaruba featured patchy groundwork, about 20 rides under a hasty trainer, and a reputation for bolting when mounted. But, after some initial adjustments, the Stonewall fit him as well as the sport for which he was chosen. After eighteen months of remedial training, I cinched up that comfortable, old saddle and started conditioning.

I never imagined that Stonewall Saddle Company would one day make the gracious offer of a sponsorship. And yet, as of yesterday morning, Aaruba and I have the honor of being sponsored by Stonewall -- and the special treat of a custom endurance saddle, complete with conformal foam over a tree specially made for Aaruba's back.

Jerry Stoner, the saddle's original designer, was both an endurance rider and a Space Program engineer. He knew that NASA had developed a material called conformal foam to line astronauts' seats, protecting them from from pressure points even through the high g-forces of takeoff. Seeing an opportunity to offer his horse additional comfort on long rides, he designed a saddle reminicient of the old McClellan (but much more comfortable for the rider!), with a layer of conformal foam between the saddle's bars and sheepskin lining. The result is a saddle that conforms to the horse's back, evenly distributing weight along the panels and allowing painless freedom of movement.

Step one in the creation of Aaruba's new saddle is for me to measure his back in two different ways. First, I'll make line tracings of his back as instructed by the Stonewall Saddle Company website. (Keep an eye on that website -- the company is under new ownership, and the website is slated for extensive remodeling.) Next, I'll use the Dennis Lane Equine Back Profiling System to give the saddle makers a 3-D model of Aaruba's back. This information will be used for macrofitting, that is, making the custom tree. Conformal foam will take care of the all-important microfitting that is impossible to achieve through tree design alone.

I can hardly wait to try out my new Stonewall endurance saddle. In the meantime, though, I'll continue to enjoy the used one I fell in love with amid the garage sale clutter. Every time I ride, it reminds me of the time, not so long ago, when I bought a saddle to ride a dream.

It was in those days that I borrowed the name for In the Night Farm from Longfellow's pen:

The heights by great men reached and kept
Were not attained by sudden flight,
But they, while their companions slept,
Were toiling upward in the night.

I'm still at the trailhead of this exhilirating journey, poised now on the brink of my second LD. Many miles -- joyous miles, painful miles -- lie between here and my lofty goals. But every day I take another step, and another, and another...toiling upward in the night.

Wednesday, July 23, 2008

Rain and Remodel

Steely clouds hung over the valley, stark against the emerald curve of our sunlit hill, as I turned into the driveway of In the Night Farm yesterday afternoon. I hurried to change into riding tights and boots, but by the time I had my Stonewall saddle in one hand and my helmet in the other, the grasses outside were whipping in heavy wind. The horses whirled and bucked in their pens as the sunlight faded. The first raindrops turned quickly to hail, spattering their rumps and pinning their ears against lowered heads.

I, too, felt a prickle of irritation. Though comfortable and dry indoors, I hadn't ridden in 10 days and was eager to put in 11 or 12 miles to leg Aaruba back up for this weekend's LD races at the Pink Flamingo Classic. I considered going anyway, but stepping aboard a young, fit, fresh horse in the middle of a thunderstorm seemed like a good way to break at least one important body part. Better not to risk it.

Instead, I slid my saddle back onto its rack and printed a copy of my endurance ride packing checklist. Between checks to see whether the storm had passed, I measured beet pulp, Senior feed, oats, and salt. I gathered electrolytes, vet kit, and extra Easyboots. (Incidentally, one of my new Bares arrived in a very attractive, silver tin not unlike the ones that usually contain Christmas cookies. I wonder if this is Easycare's new, standard packaging. I hope so!) I packed Wyrsa's dog food and miscellaneous supplies and was about to head for the kitchen to brew a batch of marinara to take along when the sun reappeared and the wind let up.

7:00 arrived cool and breezy, but sunny. I retrieved my saddle and headed out to catch Aaruba. Soggy and bedraggled, he was expecting dinner and made his displeasure known when I bridled him instead of serving up his usual bucket of beet pulp and oats. However, a few laps around the round corral warmed and cheered him. I grabbed a hoof pick and Easyboot...only to discover this apparently overgrown hoof!

That hoof was trimmed and mustang rolled just 11 days ago. Travis and I noted at the time that Aaruba's soles looked just about ready to slough away. This is part of the natural remodeling process that takes place as a barefoot horse adapts. Aaruba's hoof walls have been a bit too long and somewhat flared for months now, but we couldn't trim them back as much as we wanted to until his sole receded. Paring away the sole with a hoof knife is a bad idea, as it is a weight bearing structure and is necessary to protect the delicate, inner structures of the hoof until they adjust to extended barefoot work.

With the flexible protection of his Easyboots to prevent overwearing of his hoof walls during many miles of conditioning on hard and rocky surfaces, Aaruba's coffin bone has drawn up and his live sole remodeled at last. The old sole, no longer needed, fell away while we were away on vacation, so now the wall can now be trimmed back to its appropriate length, thereby eliminating the flare. Here is the same hoof, post-trim.

The hoof wall is still too long, some flare remains, and the balance isn't perfect yet. We're waiting now for the sensitive laminae, or "quick" to recede so the wall can be further shortened. This transition phase isn't ideal for the weekend's races, but the trimming process (mostly rasping, actually) isn't painful and this ride features excellent footing. At this point, I anticipate riding with Easyboots in front and bare hooves behind, and we shouldn't have any trouble.

Having spent our riding time on hoof work, Aaruba and I celebrated his remodel with half an hour of dancing in the round corral. His endurance and balance at the canter have improved dramatically in the past six weeks, as we've introduced faster under-saddle work and a few, extended canters on the lunge.

When we finished, I paused to admire the network of blood vessels standing out on his sweaty shoulder. This is one way in which the equine body adapts to increased exercise and the resultant need to eliminate heat from the body's interior. It should come in handy this weekend, though temperatures for Cascade, Idaho, where the PFC is held, are forecasted at a relatively balmy 85 degrees.

Monday, July 21, 2008

Riding the Wave

After a week of riding waves instead of horses, I'm back at In the Night Farm and ready to get serious about preparations for the Pink Flamingo Classic. Here's a photo of me rowing through Wild Sheep Rapid on Day 2 of our 7-day trip down the Snake River through Hell's Canyon.

A whitewater rafting vacation takes almost as much planning, packing, and ongoing effort as camping with equines, so it would be easy to crash into a lazy week of gradual unpacking and extended cocktail hours. Instead, Travis and I will hustle to empty the truck of dry bags, raft, oars, frame, firepans, and other heavy items, then reload it with saddle pads, hoof boots, tack, and feed.

Come Friday, we'll head for Cascade with Aaruba in tow. Hopefully, the Pink Flamingo will go as smoothly as did Hell's Canyon...or better yet, more smoothly, since the raft that came through Wild Sheep behind me flipped!

Wednesday, July 16, 2008

Hay Baby

The rest of our year's hay has arrived -- 12.66 tons of alfalfa from my favorite vendor, who tells me that he's actually having trouble selling all his (very lovely) first cutting bales. Apparently, people are waiting for prices to drop. His advice? Buy now!

Here's stack #3 being delivered. Note that stack #2, behind it, collapsed.

Travis moved some of the scattered bales into the storage trailer. Others remained to keep the next stack from imitating the fallen one.

Merlin helped.

Saturday, July 12, 2008

The Flamingo Approaches

Last Sunday, Aaruba and I put in our last long ride before the Pink Flamingo Classic endurance ride, where we hope to complete the 30-mile LD on Day 1 and the 25-miler on Day 2. We started around 9:00 a.m., decked out with four Easyboots and his new set of interference boots to boot (sorry, couldn't resist).

We started out with 16 hilly miles through Idaho's farmland, enjoying 85 degree weather and a nice breeze. Aaruba was a bit reluctant to take on the same old slopes again -- we've used the beginning of this route a bit too often lately for our hill workouts -- but perked up when he discovered that we were going on into more interesting territory. He worked up a good sweat and was ready to swig four gallons of water by the time we returned to In the Night Farm. I left him with a loosened girth and a flake of hay while I ran inside to grab a snack of my own.

45 minutes later, we hit the road again. Both the weather and Aaruba got hotter (though in rather different senses), and we finished the ride with some strong canters and a brisk trot to the finish line, where Aaruba pulsed down to 60 in exactly 5 minutes. A quick CRI confirmed what his general attitude indicated: he still had plenty of gas in the tank.

Nevertheless, 26.5 miles was enough. I hosed Aaruba down, then released him in his paddock with his buddy CJ, who supervised his rapid transition from gray to buckskin.

The Pink Flamingo is set for July 26-27. Unfortunately, this isn't the best timing, as I'll be on vacation and unable to ride all next week. Aaruba and the rest of our menagerie will be in good hands while I'm gone, and I'm confident that he'll be fit for the challenge despite the long break.

We'll get in a few workouts to loosen him up and burn off some steam between my return and the race, but I'll bet he's a firecracker on that first morning! I'll have to work hard at pacing him so he doesn't blow his energy too soon.


Related Posts
Turning Pink: 2008 Pink Flamingo Classic, Day One
Tickled Pink: 2008 Pink Flamingo Classic, Day Two

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Thursday, July 10, 2008

New Duds: Interference Boots for a Barefoot Endurance Horse

It started with the hind legs during Aaruba's second ride in four Easyboot Bares. An interference wound in the shape of a shallow slash along the bottom of his fetlock toward the rear.

Then, it progressed to the front legs. More shallow dings and minor skin tears where the Easyboots bumped him mid-fetlock.

Finally, it happened during a completely barefoot ride in the packed farm roads in the valley below In the Night Farm. Another wound inside his off front fetlock. This has to stop!

In the three years I've owned him, I've never known Aaruba to have interference problems. At first, I thought the problem was the extra width of the Easyboots...but when it happened on a barefoot ride, I realized that one other factor has changed: we've sped up. I still think the Easyboots are a factor, as he interferes much more often when wearing them, but it seems that his "James Brown" trot, canter, and/or hand gallop are likewise culpable.

So, I logged on to Running Bear, my new favorite endurance tack store, to receive both excellent customer service and some new duds for Aaruba.

In front, Aaruba now sports these heavy duty ankle protection boots. He's not hitting himself as hard as the blows these boots are designed to absorb, but I chose them because I think the tough material will hold up well against the scraping of screws near the coronet band on Aaruba's Easyboot Bares. You can see that, during their first 40 miles of use, the boots have already taken the brunt of several bumps. They stayed in place well, though one of them did spin around to the outside of his leg during one of several hand gallops, and caused no rubs. The bump higher up his cannon is unrelated to the interference issue; that's an old, cold splint he gave himself while fence pacing long ago.

Here are his hind boots. Tolkat offers these "more protection" ankle interference boots, which I selected despite their significantly higher pricetag because the suede wraps around the backs of Aaruba's fetlocks, which is exactly where he's been catching himself with the Easyboots. These, too, stayed in place and didn't rub on either of two long, sweaty rides that included uphills, downhills, uneven terrian, and all gaits.

All in all, I'm hopeful that this latest problem is overcome.

Friday, July 4, 2008

Shall We Dance?

I've said before that extensive liberty work is one of my favorite ways to bond with my horses. When sculptor Lynn Fraley visited In the Night Farm to measure the Barbs and watch them move, she took these photos of me dancing with Consolation. I love this mare.

Shot in the Dark: Liberty

Crackerjack, 2-year-old Barb colt. Photo by Lynn Fraley.

Never could an increase of comfort or security be a sufficient good
to be bought at the price of liberty.

~ Hilaire Belloc

Tuesday, July 1, 2008

A Model Artist: Sculptor Lynn Fraley Visits In the Night Farm

I can't believe it. My camera was hanging on the round corral the whole time, and I failed to take a single photo!

You'll just have to take my word for it that sculptor Lynn Fraley of Laf'n Bear LLC spent Saturday morning at In the Night Farm, observing and measuring several of our Barb horses.

A couple Fridays ago, Lynn graciously gave me a tour of her Boise studio where she creates the most amazing equine sculptures in both ceramic and resin. Scattered around the studio are model equines in various stages of development, from wire frame to kiln to freshly casted.

Limited edition models line high shelves. Glistening ceramics rest on racks, partway through the time-consuming process of being painted dapple gray. A charmingly doleful, clay draft horse stands in the refrigerator next to a pitcher of iced tea. Each model, including my favorite Campaneo de Acadie, an Iberian stallion who reminds me irresistibly of our own Insider, features intricate detail from facial veins to wrinkled eyelids to tiny frogs in every hoof.

I was struck by Lynn's focus on anatomical accuracy. Unlike most sculptors, she builds her models from the inside out, marking joints and molding muscle groups beneath the surface for extremely realistic results. In addition to her meticulous application of architectural concepts, she has an artist's eye for the subtleties of facial expression -- and the courage to stand up for the welfare of real horses. (You won't find a big lick model in her studio, despite the fact that it would probably sell.)

Like me, Lynn has an insatiable thirst for information on everything from breed/type history to color genetics to anatomy. First in her studio, then in my round corral, we talked of hoof care and growth rates, of training philosophy and conformation, of bones and backs and brains. These were conversations of my favorite kind: the sort from which I learn a lot -- most particularly, how much I have yet to learn.

I can hardly wait for more.