Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Elbe Hills Challenge: The ride

Ten miles is not very far. In terms of endurance, 10 miles is barely a conditioning ride. Heather and I will do 10 miles of road riding on a Sunday morning and barely blink an eye.

But note to self: 10 miles of flat road is not like 10 miles of Elbe Hills.

I knew this on some level. I did the LD at Elbe last year, and it was a hair-raising, white-knuckle, all-out RACE over some very gnarly trails. And even at that speed Laura and I barely completed in time. That memory is what led me to recommend to Heather that we might not want to take our not-very-fit, new-to-endurance horses into Elbe with a competition mindset. Also, we might not want to do 25 yet.

Good thing! This was our approximate route for the 10-mile Elbe Hills Challenge trail ride:

This is the simplified version. Add in about a zillion more squiggles for a more realistic experience.
Another rider likened the course to slalom skiing on horseback, and I have to agree. I didn't bring a camera on the trail. I don't know why not. It would have been good to get some pictures of the terrifying single-track switchbacks up a sheer mountainside. The perfectly clear view of Mt. Rainier was pretty incredible, too.

We had very few horse incidents to speak of, in spite of the difficulty of the trails. Both horses found one particular log too suspicious to go by (even with aggressive persuasion), so I got down and walked Blue past it as Bunny worried along behind with Heather still aboard. Blue also had a few moments of wanting to turn tail for camp, but he was so disoriented that he kept getting himself pointed in the exactly wrong compass direction. Hopefully he will learn that, in endurance riding, the way back to camp is always FORWARD.

The only other little hiccup was a water crossing. Bunny is so sensible these days that it is easy to forget that her first week at Heather's she wasn't 100 percent sure that grass was a safe surface. Fraser Downs was her entire world before this, and I don't think there are a lot of rocky creek crossings on the track. Blue and I chugged across it, and Heather ended up leading Bunny across after all other ideas failed. Anyway, she made it. 

Once we were back down on level ground, Blue recognized the trail and picked up speed. Like, a lot of speed. We zoomed through the smooth dirt trails back toward camp, but pulled up short at an odd sight: Two saddle pads were laying beside the trail not far apart. One was a Skito, heavy with sweat, and the other was another expensive brand—a Gaston Mercier maybe? We debated picking them up, but in the end decided we didn't need the extra bulk on board, and anyway, someone may have left them there to switch out later. We didn't want anyone to think that we stole them.

The last quarter mile into camp, Blue was very upset by the sound of horses calling through the trees. He couldn't see them, but they sounded very close. He clearly didn't know what to make of it. Suddenly, the forest cleared, and there was Heather's mom with the camera—we survived the hardest 10 miles I've ever ridden!

Funny thing: When we got back to camp there was no vet there waiting for us. Nor an in-timer. Nor any "official" Elbe Hills volunteers. The staging area was completely deserted except for Dean Hoalst, who had taken a rider option early in the 50 and was waiting for someone to check his horse. We all got to wait a good long while...
[Stay tuned for our exciting conclusion...]

Elbe Hills Challenge: Saturday morning

That is the sound of the generators starting up. I don't know why I bother with an alarm clock, especially at forested rides where the roar echoes through the clearing like a herd of dinosaurs at 5 a.m.

Heather, Laurie and I were all on our feet and under way soon after. There were people and animals to feed, nerves to calm, stretches to be done. Laurie is already getting a reputation for being a late starter, so I should have been watching the clock for her. It was 5:35, and Otto still wasn't tacked. At 6, Laurie hoisted herself in the saddle, then jumped down to make a few last-minute tack adjustments, and then, with our urging, actually mounted up and headed down to the (by then deserted) starting line. After mild bucking and rearing shenanigans, Otto was persuaded to start the ride. They were about 10 minutes behind the last horse. We would not see them again for eight hours.

Back to the campsite to start our own days. For me, being up as early as I was meant that I could take a leisurely approach to wrapping Blue's bad foot and tacking up. Heather had a baby to feed, so her routine was somewhat more hurried, I suppose. Frankly at that stage I'm pretty well in the zone. You have to say my name a few times to get my attention.

Laura stopped by with the awful news that Kcee had likely popped a splint in her front left and wouldn't be competing in the LD, or anything else for a while. Laura was of course devastated, especially given her amazing showing at another tough mountain ride: Renegade Rendezvous.

I took Blue down to watch the start of the LD. It was a bit of an anticlimax. There were fewer than 20 riders, and they came to the start in dribs and drabs. There was no cavalry charge, which was what I really wanted Blue to see.

Disappointed at the missed training opportunity, I mounted up, and Heather's mom took pictures. She got lots of us in camp and sort of milling around the start area. It was nice to be riding a horse who didn't consider the starting line his own private rodeo arena. We walked in sensible circles and kept it low-key.

They called the start. We left camp at an easy walk, with all but three other trail riders in front of us.

Monday, August 29, 2011

Elbe Hills Challenge: Friday

The first challenge of the Elbe Hills Challenge was getting there.

Laurie, Otto's new owner, had agreed to haul our horses (and my fat butt) the five-plus hours over White Pass. We got a very late start because of some drama she's having getting her new property fenced. Luckily, Heather, Heather's mom and the baby had hit the road a couple hours before, knowing that they'd make more stops because of the infant—and also because I had warned them about the limited number of campsites. 

Laurie and I got the ponies loaded up shortly after noon and burned rubber toward Yakima. We were still in the greater Prosser-Mabton-Sunnyside metroplex when we got a call from Heather: White Pass was under construction, with one-way traffic and up to two-hour delays. She and her mom had elected to take Chinook Pass instead  (though they were calling us from the base and hadn't actually gotten into the pass yet). Heather just wanted to give us a heads-up so we had time to make an informed decision.

Well, semi-informed anyway. The last time I went through Chinook was 1999 or something, and it was foggy both in reality and in my memory. I couldn't remember if it was trailer-friendly or not. Laurie didn't know either. But on our side is the fact that she has done some commercial hauling and believed that she could take a trailer anywhere she could take a car. We decided it would be better to take a chance on Chinook than to sit with the horses for hours in 100-degree heat at the base of White Pass.

Personally, I think the scenery was worth a few hairpin turns and some long stretches of steep up-and-down. (But then, I wasn't driving.) Also, when we reconnected with the White Pass road near Packwood, we saw a long line of cars backed up down the highway—Yay! We made the right choice!

During the course of this little adventure, I had been studying a state road map and found a seasonal road that went from Packwood to Ashford—a road that might cut 20 miles off our drive. A very nice man at a gas station in Packwood confirmed that the road was indeed paved and trailer-worthy. And we found as we drove it that the scenery was just a bonus. It was basically lined with camping areas the entire way. Gorgeous forest and mountain streams.

We rolled into camp in fading evening light to find the tents already set up at a primo spot right next to the registration table, across the road from the meeting shelter. I have to admit, this location made me a little giddy. Not only that, but our fellow Walla Wallite, Dean Hoalst, was coincidentally in the same area and had arrived not long before us. Team Walla all vetted in together as the last rays of daylight filtered through the trees.

I skipped most of the ride meeting in order to set up my camping accommodations, but I heard it was short and well-run. 

I more or less collapsed onto my air mattress and proceeded to my customary eight hours of tossing and turning prior to a ride. The facts—that we were going only a short distance, we weren't competing, and I didn't have to ride naughty Otto—didn't help my pre-ride nerves as much as you might expect.

Friday, August 19, 2011


Ok, not just "barn" sour. It would be more accurate to say "whatever we left" sour.

So maybe it isn't an ideal quality in an endurance prospect, but I will tell you this: When we were pointed back toward the trailer, he FLEW!

Thank you, Shana, for capturing this moment.

Wednesday, August 17, 2011


There is a very real difference between the horse who wants to go his own way, and the horse who WANTS TO GO HIS OWN WAY.

Otto is the uppercase version. He has his own ideas about where he wants to go and what he wants to do—and he doesn't care if you come along or not. In fact, I think if it were up to him, he'd rather go alone.

Blue is the lowercase version, which I much prefer. If he has one behavioral fault, it is a tendency toward barn-sourness. He isn't particularly concerned about being away from the other horses, but he does want to turn toward home whenever there's an opportunity to do so.

Case in point, Heather and I went for a short ride on Monday night. Bunny again proved her worth by being fearless and unflappable. Blue, on the other hand, had a couple of fits about being taken away from The Pen. 

As we come out of the tree farm, we have the choice of turning right to cross the bridge and go up the hill to home or turning left to go up the hill past the firing range. I gave Blue every possible cue for left, which he interpreted as "speed up and make a sharp right." D'oh!

Bunny, ever the angel, headed left without him. He didn't care what she did. He was making a beeline for the bridge. I pulled him around in a variety of tight circles, backs and spins before I finally got him turned back toward Bunny and the firing range. He was huffy and mad, but I kept my hands light and spurs ready. He went forward begrudgingly at best. If he was a toddler he would have been stomping along with his arms crossed.

Unlike Otto, he never tried a buck or a rear. Yes, he was a butthead, but he was a manageable butthead. 

Later we were trotting downhill in the wheat stubble. I saw there was a deep cut at the bottom (basically an 8-inch-deep hole across our path, semi-obscured by loose straw). I tried to slow Blue down so he would see this hole. His opinion was that perhaps we should go faster. Yes, we got a lovely canter out of the experience, but I didn't care for the attitude, thank you very much.

On the way back, I kept making him turn and do circles away from home. Again, tons of resistance, but no dangerous behavior. Just stubborn and crotchety.

Bunny walked along quietly, basically ignoring his childish antics, as I forced him to turn and weave and pay attention. With Bunny headed toward home, I turned Blue back out in the opposite direction. After a long battle, I got him to take three steps in the "away from home" direction and then halt without spinning. I decided that was enough of a victory, and we again turned toward home and caught up to Little Miss Perfect, who was lolloping along as if none of this nonsense were taking place.

When we got back to the trailer, Heather tied Bunny up and started untacking her. I decided I wanted to make Blue walk away from the trailer before we quit. I needed to be sure that stopping for the night was my decision, not his.

I could almost hear him whine, but moommmmmmmmm, the other horse got to stop!

Another battle of tight turns and backing ensued. He was coming dangerously close to running into one of the cars or my truck, so I relented a tiny bit. I dismounted. I dismounted just long enough to jog him over to the arena. If he thought he was done with working for the night, I was going to prove him wrong, dagnabbit. We did hard arena work for 20 minutes before he decided I was in charge. Circles, serpentines, sliding stops, rollbacks, sidepass, walk, trot, canter, halt, faster, slower, spiral. Had enough yet, Mr. Blue? 

In the end, I WON. With Otto, it felt like I was never winning. With Blue, on Monday, I won.

I know I won on Monday because on Tuesday he was the softest and most responsive he's ever been. He had canter transitions to die for. He wasn't exactly happy to see me, but he was unusually respectful.

So the plan going forward is to work very hard at home until he begs to go somewhere else. It is so crazy, it just might work. We're doing things on my terms, buddy. I AM the boss mare.

PS: We'll be at Elbe. Laurie offered to haul the horses, so my cost is cut nearly in half. For that, it is worth the effort to introduce Blue to life in camp. Thank you, Laurie!

Sunday, August 14, 2011

Endurance Ladies

Even if this valley were going to be known as a hotbed of PNER endurance, and perhaps, per capita, it is, the more notable riders here have always been the men.

Ernie, Dean, Bob, and a rotating cast of occasional cowboy riders all hail from the valley and all ride like their shoes are on fire. I think this is a guy thing. I get competitive at rides, but there are limits. Farthest, fastest and best aren't really in my endurance vocabulary... yet.

So it is fun to be part of a slowly forming cadre of relatively low-key female endurance riders. And on Saturday, most of the group went for a nice, slow trail ride at Bennington lake.

Annie and Justin, Laurie and Otto, Heather and Bunny, me and Blue, and Sinwaan's ears. Photo by Shana.
The slowness was necessary for a couple of reasons. First and foremost, Blue's fitness level doesn't even register. He is breathless after only a few minutes of lunge work. Also, this was Bunny's first trip out into the wide world riding with a group.

Bunny was an absolute trouper the entire time. Hurray for Team Sensible! She put up with Otto's occasional bucking grumpiness and Justin's romantic attention with only the minimum of cranky mare ears. Mostly she was the lop-eared lady she always is at home. I'm really happy that Heather decided to get her!

We live in a beautiful place.

Aside from giving us a chance to chat as a group and get to know each other better, the walk also gave us time to talk about our riding plans for the rest of the year.

With Blue's rapid return to soundness, a trail ride at Elbe is again possible. Now the question comes down to money: Is it worth the fuel cost to give Blue the experience of camping and vet checks, or would this money be better spent erasing his medical costs from my credit card? Hmmmm...

I'll give it more thought while I'm riding tonight.

Friday, August 12, 2011

Back in the saddle

You want to know why I love this horse? Here's why: After more than a month of no riding—three weeks of which was 24-hour stall confinement—he wasn't a lunatic. This afternoon, I just got on and rode. No drama.

That's why.

Thursday, August 11, 2011

Dream job

Imagine, if you will, a job that allows you to spend all day petting horses. For each horse you pet, you receive a minimum of $75. You also get to travel around the country giving clinics… and you have a book deal.

Basically, you are living a life that I didn't know was possible.

If I had known this was a career option when I graduated from high school, things would be different. I would be Mike Watkins.

A couple years ago, Mike gave a presentation to the members of the Blue Mountain Riders, a local club for women of a certain age. I am not of that age, but I was a member of the club at the time. One of the ladies brought her horse for Mike to demonstrate on, and I watched withrapt attention as he took that old, sway-backed paint through a series of moves—applying and releasing pressure, bending and straightening, tensing and relaxing. What impressed me was the way the horse changed shape. By the end of the meeting, ol' paint's sway back was almost level, he was relaxed (in spite of 50-some women poking, prodding and asking questions), and he was a lot more willing to bend than he was at the beginning. I was impressed.

I took Mike's card and filed him away for future reference. Yes, I was impressed, but my horse wasn't showing any signs of pain or difficulty performing. And, let’s face it, I’m not made of money.

Fast forward to April 2010. Otto started the LD at MRRT dead last. The night before, he had seemed a little off. Not lame, but just out of sorts—not himself at all. I should have taken the hint and scratched, but I had my eye on an end-of-year award. So we started last and at a walk. Otto was still out of sorts, but I attributed that to me not letting him have his way and go tearing down the gravel road at a dead run. But then something happened that had never happened before. I asked for a trot and didn't get it. I got perhaps two or three strides, then he completely fell apart—hard pace, singlefoot, back to walk. We did this a couple times, and I though I'd see if he would canter. Again, a couple strides, then a stumble and a wobble. I dismounted and checked his feet. Clean and normal. I got back on and asked again—refusal. By now we were far, far behind the pack. And, since MRRT is an out-and-back ride, the leaders were beginning to pass us going the other way. I got down and walked him the remaining 4 miles into the checkpoint, where we caught a trailer ride back to camp.

The walk of shame. Photo by Matt Bobbitt.

Back home after a few days of rest, I free-lunged him in our round pen. Even at liberty he was struggling to maintain ANY gait consistently in either direction. I was simultaneously irritated and worried (my default feelings about a horse that can't perform).

So I dug out the business card and emailed Mike. He came out early on the following Sunday morning. It was clear and cold and very windy, but he worked away at Otto, bending, stretching and pulling. Hepointed out the sore spots to me, made a few suggestions about positioning the saddle and myself, showed me where to pay extra attention during grooming, and went on his way. Otto was a bit better, but not a new horse by any means. We spent several more weeks rehabbing and building him up with lateral work and riding the "bad" diagonal. Eventually, Otto got better. I couldn't say that Mike made THE difference, but I think he made at least SOME difference. I walked away from that whole experience more interested in equine body work. It got me interested in Linda Tellington and April Battles. It got me to pay more attention to warming up and stretching horse AND rider. It wasn't a complete waste of time. 

But I filed Mike away again. I am not made of money, after all.

Fast-forward again. Blue just spent three weeks basically immobile and with one leg a good two inches longer than the others. Before that he had world-class dental problems that put a lot of stress on his TMJ, which put a lot of stress on the cervical vertebrae, which… well, you know, it's all connected. 

So if ever there were a situation that called for horse massage, this weekend was it. Again, I emailed Mike. And again he was happy to come out and see my sorry excuse for an endurance partner.

Actually, he said only nice things about mustangs in general and Blue in particular. And what did he find? Atlas/axis was a mess. He asked Blue for a stretch upwards and got a lot of tail wringing. Down the neck, nothing major. Surprisingly flexible, even. Withers, perfectly balanced. Perfect. No soreness in the hollows behind them (I credit the Supracor for our MUCH-improved saddle fit). Mid-back, all normal reactions. No rib soreness. 

But then came the low-back. EXTREME reaction. As soon as Mike applied pressure above and slightly behind the loin, Blue's front foot on the opposite side shot forward as if to paw the air, his head jerked up and he audibly gasped. Have you ever heard a horse gasp?! 

Blue was very bony when I got him, but three weeks of nothing but eating and standing has pretty well filled him in—except for this one spot at the top of his croup. In theory, this point is behind the S-I joint (fused at his age), above maybe the second or third sacral vertebra. Too far back to be a hunter bump, I think. If you want to get crazy technical, this would probably be the point where the gluteal fascia overlap the superficial gluteals. And it is a point in the literal sense—a very obvious high spot along an otherwise smooth expanse of croup.

Mike had noted it when he first arrived, but reserved judgement until he got there in his treatment. This is where things got weird. So there is pain in the muscles in front of the bump. The bump itself is nonreactive. Lateral movement of the hindquarters was the next manipulation. Basically, Mike just gently shoved Blue's hindquarters over. Not enough to make him step, but enough to rock him. Lo and behold, a pop. Both directions, a soft little pop. Repeated movements didn't make the sound stop. And the sound seemed deeper inside him than the vertebrae. 

Which makes no sense because the only other bone in that area is the pelvis… and the pelvis is not made up of moving pieces. 

So now we have a mystery on our hands. Mike says that structurally he can't think of a reason that you would get that sound in that place repeatedly. He says I should bring it up with the vet next time I'm in. 

In the meantime he worked and worked on Blue's hindquarters and showed me a little routine to add to my grooming to continue to work the sore points.

By the time the session was over, Blue was a much rounder horse than we started with. No more slouch—his whole topline was extended, yet he looked relaxed and happy. The tilt of his pelvis changed. The tension in the throatlatch was gone. I'm totally amazed what a difference an hour of bodywork made. 

Plus, Mike is coming back in a week to do a quick follow up and check the hindquarters again. In the meantime, I'm supposed to observe the beast closely, looking for unusual behavior. Will he roll more or less? Is his movement different? 

The only thing I noticed last night is that he put his entire muzzle into his evening slop. He had senior feed particles literally up to his eyeballs. I will make a note of it. :)

Today the farrier came. I unwrapped the dressing from Blue's foot... and a miracle had occurred. The wound is closed. Not just more closed, but actually completely closed. It is a smooth expanse of thick, pink skin. No proud flesh at all. The tiniest of scabs on one side.

The farrier says, "If he was mine, I'd be riding him."

So that's the plan. Tomorrow after work, we'll try some low-key walk-trot time in the arena. If all is well, we will ramp things up this weekend.

I'm just sitting here grinning like a fool.

Saturday, August 6, 2011


When the cast was put on, way back in early July, I was told that everything would be "back to normal" when it came off.

This turns out to be something of an overstatement. Yes, the cast came off today, with much sawing and prying and elbow grease and... oh, there's still a big wound there.

The vet says it looks very nice. The edges are clean and it is closing. She is pleased. I should be pleased. BUT (she then says, dashing all my hopes), he will need at least two more weeks of vetwrap bandaging and NO RIDING. Boo. That pretty much puts Elbe Hills out of the question.

It also means the plan that Heather and I had for riding tomorrow afternoon is up in the air. Quincy has been on a regimen of anti-inflammatories almost as long as Blue has been in the cast, but he remains lame most days to varying degrees. The vet suspects arthritic changes, though they came on so fast there's no way to know for sure what going on.

All in all, it's been a disappointing day on the horse front. I will count my blessings though: Blue is officially out of The Pen, so no more stall cleaning for me!

Wednesday, August 3, 2011

50 gallons

Yesterday, Blue destroyed a hay bag in one feeding.

Today, when I arrived at The Pen, I found he had dumped his 50-gallon galvanized water trough, creating an ankle-deep puddle in the lowest part of the pen.

Heather took one look and said: "That's a horse with too much time on his hands."

I agree wholeheartedly. Less than two full days until the cast comes off—then he'll have plenty to do.

Tuesday, August 2, 2011

Suspicions confirmed

When I set out to sell Otto, I wrote a fairly long, detailed ad. If you're on the PNER yahoo list, you probably saw it. Contrary to old-time horse trading practice, I tried to be honest about him: He has great ground manners, but he can be unsure of himself under saddle. He is nimble as a mountain goat but bullheaded as a… bull. He is 7 years old physically but immature mentally. And, oh yeah, he was born to do endurance.

Funny to me that his buyer had never done an endurance ride. He is not the kind of horse I would recommend learning on. But there you have it. Laurie had liked the looks of him from the first time she saw him. The fact that the first time she saw him was about a week after I bought him is just icing on the cake.

Brian and I took lessons from Laurie for a while before life (and Brian's seemingly random work schedule) got in the way. We've kept in touch on and off (life remains crazy), and she was interested in buying the beast.

[There is something that I should acknowledge before we go any further: I realize that most of what is "wrong" with Otto is a direct reflection of shortcomings in my riding. Some was nature and a lot was nurture. On the nature side is his hot, high-spirited breeding, his intelligence, his quirk bump (if you subscribe to TTEAM horse phrenology) and his tenacity when it comes to testing behavior. On the nurture side was my over-reliance on my hands. Bad hands make bad horses, folks.]

Laurie took him on a trial, and loved him. She would leave me messages or send emails about his hair-raising behavior: tantrums both going in and coming out of the arena, choosing his own trail with no regards for her hands or seat (this is a horse who is happy to run headlong even when his nose is touching your knee), calling to every horse he saw, hollowing out, snatching the bit, kicking, bucking, rearing and flat out refusing to do circles and figure-eights… seriously. But at the end of the message she'd always tell me that she loved him.

Between her, Ernie, Annie, and Heather's sister, Hope, I've come to accept that some people just like difficult, high-energy horses. They find exhilaration in what I find exhausting.

So back to my suspicions. Last week I got an email from Laurie that proved to me that Otto really was the endurance wunderkind I'd suspected. She told me:

• She took him to the Oregon Outback ride to do a 50 (which I've never done with him or any other horse).

• Because of a serious tantrum they started 30 minutes after anyone else.

• They still came in 6th.

Now, I already knew that Otto came with a "search and destroy" feature. He hand-galloped 20 of the 25 miles of Mt. Adams last year for that very reason… and also because I couldn't stop him. (See above, haha.) What I did not know, but suspected, was that the longer distance would give him more opportunity to catch up. The problem with a 25-mile ride is that (duh) you only have 25 miles to work with. A winning ride time at a PNER LD in the mountains is usually just under three hours. If you're 30 minutes behind the last rider, there just isn't time to do anything about it.

At 50 miles, a slightly above-average pace means something. :)

So anyway, I'm proud of Otto for finishing a 50 and proud of Laurie for surviving at any distance, especially a 50. I'm a little sad that I didn't get to be the one to bring out Otto's full suspected potential. On the other hand, part of me is relieved that I am not the one riding him through the tantrums anymore.

Laurie took Otto to the beach after the ride. I think 50 miles, followed by deep sand, finally tuckered him out. (Photo by Laurie.)


In other news, I got my 250-mile badge in the mail today. Yay me!

Here's to another 250 on a horse I really like. Fingers crossed—the cast comes off on Friday afternoon.