Monday, September 28, 2009

Ready, Partner?

Adventure is worthwhile.

~ Aristotle

Smart man, that Aristotle. And so, we're off, Ironman and Consolation and I! Off the grid, off our rockers, off to the Owyhee Canyonlands Pioneer. See you next week!

Photo by Michael Ensch

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Saturday, September 26, 2009

Doin' It Again

This morning, I am sipping coffee from my favorite mug -- the black and coral one that was my completion award for last year's finish on Aaruba at Owhyee Canyonlands. I didn't know it then, but that was to be Aaruba's last race.

This year, I'm feeling both reflective and excited as I prepare to do more miles at Canyonlands than I did last year, though in smaller increments. Consolation isn't quite ready for her first 50, but we're going to try for 3 LD's, with a day off between each. The first two days are 30's and the last is a 25, so with luck, we'll make it an 85 mile week.

I frequently hear from other riders with Barbs, Spanish Mustangs, and similar types that while their horses may not be the speediest in the bunch, they do tend to show the same kind of self-possession and persistence that Consolation demonstrated last month during her first LD at Old Selam. This, they say, makes for excellent multi-day and long-distance mounts. A theory worth testing, if ever I heard one.

So, I'll spend today packing camp chairs and clothing, breeches and blankets, tack and toiletries, bales and beet pulp. I have saddle pads to wash, tubs of water to freeze for the ice chest (it lasts longer than the compressed-chip ice blocks you can buy at the Stinker Station), meals to prepare, and whiskey to sample. (It's a rough job, but...)

I'll take a quick ride on Consolation, just to be sure she's strong and loose and set to go with her new Easyboot Gloves. I'll run through safety checks on trailer and tack. And come nightfall, I'll sail to sleep on a wave of anticipation.

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Saturday, September 19, 2009

Emotion in Motion: Turning Spooks into Speed

Consolation has felt different since completing her first Limited Distance race at Old Selam. I hope I'm not anthropomorphizing here, but she seems to have discovered her own athletic ability. ("What? You mean I can go that fast, that far? Cool!") Always one for conserving energy, resisting haste, and smelling roses, Consolation has recently exhibited an unprecedented level of enthusiasm during our conditioning rides.

Problem is, her newfound energy doesn't always translate into the much-desired increase in speed. As any rider knows, a horse's energy most often moves in one of two directions: forward or upward. So. If Consolation ain't goin' forward...

Yes, my little gray mare has decided that conditioning rides are exciting. So exciting that she ought to bounce along at a medium pace, head up and eyes bulging at such formerly uninteresting bits of landscape as rocks, ruts, and tangles of weed. When moving through a particularly nerve-wracking area, she shifts into "suck-back" mode. You know the feeling: it's visible in the photo below, in which I'm encouraging Consolation to investigate a water trough in ridecamp at Old Selam. The horse is moving forward but thinking backward, torn between curiosity (or duty) and apprehension.

"Sucking back" is all well and good during introductions to new sights. I can hardly expect my young horse, a prey animal through and through, to accept potential hazards without suspicion. However, sucking back while attempting to trot through familiar territory is not only frustrating, but immensely tiring for the rider, whose body must urge forward a horse that refuses to come up beneath it. If you haven't tried it, just believe me -- posting is only comfortable when the horse's energy fuels the motion.

I don't like to be uncomfortable. So, I decided to do something about it.

But what? Spooky and "looky" though she was, I had no interest in curbing Consolation's increased interest in her conditioning rides. My task, therefore, would be to preserve her energy while changing her behavior -- that is, to convert her spooks to speed.

Step one was to ensure that Consolation's "go" button remained firmly installed. Without a clear, mutually-understood set of signals by which to communicate, I had no hope of achieving my goal. Working first from the ground and then from the saddle, I reviewed the familiar progression: think, suggest, ask, tell, demand. (Physically, this translates to: look, lean, click/kiss, squeeze, kick.) After a brief tune-up, she responded well.

Time for step two. We headed out on a stretch of road we've covered scores of times during the summer's conditioning rides. As expected, Consolation's gait was elevated and her emotions jangling. Almost immediately, she spotted a potential hazard -- a fallen tree branch. The instant I felt Consolation begin to check -- a tension so subtle that it manifested only in a tiny shift of weight toward her hindquarters -- I urged her forward. Her suck-back escalated, and so did my "go" command. It took a moderate knock on the ribs to keep her trotting past the branch, but trot she did, and at a respectable speed.

Step three: repeat as many times as it takes. Obstacle by obstacle, mile after mile, we repeated the process. Hesitate, urge, suck-back, insist. I allowed her to swerve away from dubious objects, but she was not to slow her pace. Gradually, Consolation's suck-backs transformed into mere elevated trots, and their numbers decreased. Several rides later, she began to exhibit the behavior I wanted: increased speed in the face of increased apprehension.

Instead of stopping to stare, Consolation is learning to charge through or past her fears. In the early miles on a cool morning, when her energy levels and emotions soar, a quick think-suggest-ask progression from me irons her bouncy trot into smooth and speedy extension of the sort I've waited months for her to discover. We achieve faster times and better conditioning effect, and I'm looking forward to three LDs at Canyonlands like you wouldn't believe.

Let me tell you, my friends, it feels fantastic.

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Friday, September 11, 2009

High-Gloss Finish: Old Selam 2009

Sunday morning, September 6, 2009.

I stepped out of my tent in the pre-dawn, just as ridecamp began to stir. Occasional flashlights bobbed among the trailers, but most signs of life reached me as sounds instead of sights. Sleepy bumpings-about in trailers' living quarters. The stir of supplements into buckets of soaked beet pulp. Wickers of horses demanding hay.

I added my own, small sounds to the mix: crunching footfalls on the way to the outhouse, crinkle of a Larabar wrapper, soft words to Consolation as I tied on her halter. My significant other (who is not an endurance rider...yet...but can outrun, out-cycle, and out-swim me any day of the week, and shall henceforth be known as Ironman), applied himself to the noble mission of heating water for coffee while I secured a pair of Easyboot Bares on Consolation's forehooves. Her hind boots, stiff in the morning chill, would have none of it. I gave up on them in short order. Almost all Consolation's conditioning has been done barefoot on gravel, anyway, and the footing at Old Selam is generally good. We'd risk it.

Come 7:45, Consolation had finished her beet pulp and I my chilled Hay Day Hash. Her Stonewall rested comfortably on her back, water bottles full and ride card secured alongside riding gloves and a snack in crimson pommel bags. She stood calmly as I tightened the cinch.
The mild nervousness that had pricked my spine for days (How is she going to handle her first ride? Will my powerful, once-wild horse remember to follow my lead?) eased substantially. It faded further as we made for the starting line. Independent Consolation, whose lead-mare tendencies have so often conflicted with my own, carried me peaceably through the crowd as though she'd been racing for years.

No prance. No dance. No paw and snort. Excitable horses swirled around us, but Consolation only watched, in an attitude of polite curiosity, as the trail opened and the herd swarmed out of camp.

We gave the others a few minutes to get out of sight, then waved to Ironman and followed at a walk. Our goal was simply to finish, preferably without exceeding our daily adventure quota.
"You're going for Turtle, aren't you?" the ride manager called as we strolled by. I think Consolation may have been sleeping.

The moment we turned out of camp and up the forested trail, however, her blood pressure surged. Trees! Underbrush! And...omigod, what's THAT??? A slab of granite flung her around in a 180-degree spook-and-whirl, eyes bulging and haunches atremble.

Good grief. I righted myself in the saddle and turned Consolation back up the trail, easing past the equinivorous rock and attempting to maintain a trot (but achieving more of a lurching, trot-freeze-trot pattern) past a half-mile's worth of bugaboos before a small group of other riders came into view on the switchback ahead.
The other horses distracted Consolation sufficiently that she soon forgot she'd never been in a forest before. I guided her through a few, touchy miles as she dealt with another new concept -- travelling among other horses. We passed and were passed, dealt with a brief episode of restraint-induced pre-bucking head shakes (No, you may not race the other horses!), and finally settled into a comfortable pace with another first-time LD pair, Jackie and her chestnut Tennessee Walker, Nancy.

Despite being an experienced mountain horse, Nancy kept Jackie busy with a series of impatient behaviors involving a lot of sidepassing and a few crowhops. Consolation largely ignored these antics, and I was pleased by my relatively simple task of guiding her up the trail at her customary, slow -- if a bit elevated -- trot. We passed a few other horses on the long, uphill stretch, including an adorable Spanish Mustang mare and some gaited mounts.
I'd just settled in for what was shaping up to be an easy day when we arrived at the first water stop. Set to the side of the single-track at Mile 6, the troughs offered plenty of room for Consolation, Nancy, Jackie, and me to join the small cluster of competitors variously engaged in drinking and sponging. I dismounted and offered Consolation water, which she didn't drink, and from which she was soon distracted by Jackie's sharp cry. Her mare had managed to slip out of her headstall, step on it, and break one of the cheek pieces.

Oh, dear.

Jackie pondered the snapped leather while I carried on encouraging Consolation to drink. The riders ahead of us continued down the trail, setting Nancy to dancing while Consolation snoozed and another group joined us from behind. One of their riders leaned beside Jackie over the broken headstall...and Nancy made a break for it. In the midst of a scuffle and shout, the chestnut mare pulled free of Jackie's hold and galloped full-tilt up the trail and out of sight.

Consolation still hadn't drunk, but we'd waited ten minutes by now, the morning was cool, and I was ready to go. I rode ahead with a promise to tie Nancy along the trail if I had the good fortune to catch her. Alone now, Consolation took the trail with confidence, if not speed. We'd trotted less than a mile when Nancy came cantering and blowing back toward us. Consolation scarcely flicked an ear.
I hopped off and Nancy came right to me. I gave her a hasty pat, tied her to a nearby pine, mounted up on my own, stock-still horse, and was impressed when she again moved off without protest. So much for my worries that Consolation would focus on the other horses and become unmanageable!
Alone in the woods, I let my thoughts wander as Consolation thudded steadily up the hill. This, I marvelled, is the mare I sometimes feared might never trust me, never offer more than grudging respect. And yet, last night in camp, she whinned after me every time I left her alone at the trailer -- and here we are, together on the trail, trotting boldly into the great unknown.
We covered a few uphill miles alone before Jackie and Nancy caught up with us. Nancy, who doesn't believe in slow going, seemed to have worked off her behavioral issues and we carried on together in good form. We topped a hill to find Steve Bradley, ride photographer extraordinaire, waiting to snap our photos. Grinning, we called good mornings and trotted by him.

Several miles later, we trotted by him again.
...Wait a minute. Again?

Oh, crap.

Fortunately, we'd missed our turn less than a mile back, so it didn't take long for us to recover the appropriate trail and carry on with Consolation in the lead. She handled the trail with remarkable grace for a new, green mount. All I could have wished for was additional speed -- we were averaging a mere 5 miles per hour, including delays -- but I didn't wish too much even for that, considering that the trail involved a good deal more elevation gain than that to which Consolation is accustomed.

All the same, I was glad when ridecamp finally came into view, and even more glad when Consolation pulsed down almost immediately. We proceeded to the vet check and flew through with mostly A's. Our only B+ was on hydration -- a state of affairs that Consolation remedied with a long drink shortly before taking off for our second loop.
Jackie and Nancy, who had been outfitted with a fresh headstall, were leaving at the same time. We agreed that both horses could handle a faster pace, so we put Nancy in front to see if she would tow Consolation along. It worked. We zoomed through most of the second, 14-mile loop at a flying trot that gained us enough places to finish 17th and 18th out of 26 starts (minus 2 pulls).
At the finish, Consolation again pulsed down in plenty of time and vetted through with all A's, but for one B on gut sounds. That's what she gets for being a bit distractable during the hold, rather than settling into her hay! I'm not terribly worried about this being a problem in the future; as calmly as Consolation handled this initial ride, she's likely to be even more relaxed in the future.
Walking back to camp, where Ironman sat plucking away at his guitar and not expecting us for another forty minutes at least, I paused to rub Consolation's forehead. To finish is to win, they say, and I suppose that's true.

But it wasn't Consolation's first LD completion that left me brimming with deep and quiet satisfaction. Those 30 miles of unfamiliar trail, ridden together in an attitude of mutual trust, marked the end of a much longer journey -- a journey from untouchable horse and inexperienced trainer, through balk and bolt, over a mountain of conflicting wills, to the partnership I never quite stopped believing lay on the other side.

To finish is to win? Indeed -- and it is also to begin. We'll take our second loop faster.

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Sunday, September 6, 2009


Today's the day! 8:00 a.m. start for Consolation's first Limited Distance ride. Full story coming soon to a blog near you.


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And, for my fellow foodies, some thoughts on rider fuel from NightLife: Packing Primal

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Saturday, September 5, 2009


It's time.

Time to load the truck, hitch the trailer, and lead Consolation aboard. In just a few hours, we'll be off to Idaho City for Old Selam.

I seem to starting a tradition of "firsts" at Old Selam, which is Idaho's longest-running annual endurance ride. (The original race was held in 1976.) Last year, Aaruba and I completed our first 50 at Old Selam. This year, Consolation and I will attempt our first LD.

I'm a bit nervous.

I know, I know. It's only 30 miles. No biggie, right?

It's only that, due to the peculiar year I've been having, Consolation isn't as fit as I'd really like her to be. I'm sure she can cover the miles, but I'm going to have to take care that she doesn't do so too quickly. You'll recall that, on conditioning rides, she likes to take her time. I've only lately been able to start working with her on some real speed.

The key to success at tomorrow's race, therefore, will be for me to prevent her from getting caught up in the herd mentality at the start. If she does, she's likely to burn herself out on the first loop by trotting much faster than her accustomed pace.

Will Consolation prove susceptible to "race brain?" Oh, probably. She's a horse, after all, and an inexperienced one at that. What I can't predict is exactly how, and to what extent, she'll be affected by the ride atmosphere.

On the one hand, Consolation is much more level-headed and less emotional than Aaruba. I don't anticipate pen-pacing problems in ridecamp, thank goodness. On the other hand, she's a lot more independent and willful than Aaruba. I may be in for a serious workout in the form of a battle of wills.

Ah, well. That's what Limited Distance is for: training. My top priority is to help Consolation learn about this sport. If we finish on time, fantastic. Maybe we'll even win the Turtle Award for coming in last!

Cross your fingers for us. :)

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Friday, September 4, 2009

On Endurance

Last November, I wrote a post outlining my goals for the 2009 ride season. They were ambitious but reasonable, focused on building my horses' athletic foundations on plenty of moderately-paced miles. I remember sensing, as I gave the post a title perilously close to the famous words of Robert Burns, that my hopes for the year might be too high. I called it The Best Laid Plans.

Indeed, 2009 has proven a year of schemes gang aft agley.

One evening in March, mere hours after an exhilarating conditioning ride that left my nerves singing, I found Aaruba colicking in his paddock. Thus began a week-long ordeal that culminated in the wrenching decision to retire my young, talented partner -- the horse with whom I'd bonded deeply over years of training -- from the sport we both love.

I turned my attention to Consolation, believing that I could at least have her trained and fit for several races throughout the season. But it was slow going. Our relationship, never smooth, was further challenged by my grief over Aaruba. Switching from faithful Aaruba to willful, balky Consolation felt much like adopting a puppy too soon after Ol' Jake dies in your arms. I struggled to remain patient, consistent, and hopeful for my new endurance prospect.

And then, just as it looked like Consolation and I would be ready for her first race in May, I tore my right hamstring in a bad fall. Ten weeks, said my physical therapist. Then maybe you can ride again. And so, hours in the saddle were replaced by hours of icing and stretching, coaxing my damaged muscles back to health. Finally, at the beginning of July, I was ready to mount up. The ride season was half over and Consolation remained green and unconditioned -- but have you noticed that there's never anywhere to start but here? We began again.

Meanwhile, however, other plates were shifting in my personal life, setting off earthquakes to distract me from my goals. Most of you have either been the one, or been close to someone, to walk into the courthouse and sign the papers that say we made a mistake or I'm not who you thought I was, or even I love you enough to let you go. You know that even when the attitude is amicable, it's never easy.

No, never easy -- but sometimes, it's for the best.

One of my favorite things about endurance conditioning is that it gives a person plenty of time to think. Rhythmic hoofbeats, steady physical effort, open space and air. Endless trail spins spins out before us, mile on mile, freeing our minds to connect the dots in our lives, linking high points of pleasure and pain to form a picture worth posting on the walls of memory.

Life, after all, is not so different from endurance riding, at least for those willing to approach it with energy and enthusiasm. Most of the time, it's full of fun and companionship, brilliant with adventure, a ceaseless exploration of what it means to be alive.

But there are hard times, too. Stone bruises. Tumbles. Training problems. Mistakes. Times when, despite our best efforts, the trail just seems too long. Sometimes, the last twelve miles are almost more than we can bear. And yet, we keep going because we know the loop will end and when we finish, friends will be waiting to clap and cheer and throw their arms over our shoulders, press energy bars into our hands, to ask us how it went and what we learned.

And because the race was hard, we will have something to tell them.

Endurance is about pressing on when it would be easier to quit, when there's nothing to make you finish but sheer commitment and the knowledge that you will only be satisfied with yourself when you've done your best, and a little more, and even more than that -- whatever it takes to do what you promised. It's about remembering, when the trail seems endless and your knees ache and you swear you'll never do this again, that most of the ride is about speed and breath and bonding, spectacular vistas, thrill and timing, glistening sweat and pain that serve to sweeten the evening's rest.

Ultimately, who wants to get to the end of the trail without a story to tell? If it wasn't a challenge, it wouldn't be endurance. It wouldn't be life. I, for one, am determined to embrace the hard times. Without them, I wouldn't know what triumph really is.

Photo by East End Portrait Photography
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