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Seventy-five Really Tough Miles

camp at NASTR

Second in the series of conditioning rides for Stella and Czoe, we did the NASTR 75 mile ride.  NASTR is a series of endurance rides organized by a very active club called the Nevada All State Trail Riders.  Great group of humans and they put on some terrific rides.

The NASTR 75 was tougher than Jenn and I thought it was going to be.  The terrain was gorgeous – everything from high desert to wooded creek washes.  It wasn’t so much the hills, although there certainly were some, it was the surprisingly technical nature of the trail that took a toll on all four of us.

stella moving out in the high desert

Much of the ground we covered was already covered in rocks of various sizes, so maneuvering the horses safely through that at speed took all of our concentration.  The second loop took us out into the desert along a winding single track that darted around desert shrubbery about three feet tall.  Czoe is really good at that stuff and was just whipping along.  Stella isn’t quite as nimble, so every once in a while she and I would just completely take out a bush.  But that was a lot of fun (see video here).

amazing rock formations

The hardest part was coming home through a series of creeks and washes that we’d traveled out in the morning.  At first light it was gorgeous and with fresh horses the sand was nothing to us.  Mid-afternoon with pooped ponies it was tedious and grinding.  Still pretty, but we were ready for it to be over.  Czoe finished first, her sister a nose behind and they were treated to lots of good grub and a thorough clean up.

horse care at a vet check

i'm happy here because we've seen the blue ribbon! (on the shrub)

Jenn and I did this ride ‘hobo’ style.  We just had the truck and trailer.  I cast a tent and Jenn slept in the tack room.  Plus we have this cool shower that Jenn’s engineer dad built – we hang it in the back of the trailer and it’s just awesome.

So it was easy peasy for us to get up, pack the last couple of things and head out early early on Monday (Memorial Day – we were keen to beat the traffic headed back down from the hill) morning.  As a treat, because we were the first ones to rouse and get moving, we got to see a little mustang stallion that had wandered in to check out the horses (okay, let’s just say the mares) in camp.  He was a beautiful little dun with a dorsal stripe and zebra markings on his legs.  He let Jenn get pretty close with her phone to take some shots of him, then he casually wandered a ways away.

mustang stallion checking out our horse camp

Great ride and the mares are really getting tuned up.  Just 10 weeks to Tevis!

Tosca Does 50

[Another sidebar from the Tevis pursuit, except that Tosca is our 'back up' horse this year.  If anything were to go wrong with one of Jenn's mares, Tosca would step into the gap.  Not as competitively, of course, but when you have the Tevis bug...well, there it is.]

So Tosca has done her first post-partum 50!  We did try another, and were unable to complete because she came fully into season at ride camp and spent the whole night flirting (=not eating or drinking).  This time was the charm.  I hauled her (all by myself!) in a borrowed rig (thank you Dr. Cory Soltau) to the Cache Creek endurance ride in Northern California.

Tosca (unfortunate angle) and me after the Cache Creek 50

She was awesome.  Great vet scores all day.  She never threw an Easyboot Glove – despite not-insignificant creek crossings  - the whole day long.  And at the end she brought me home at a fast canter across beautiful grassy meadows in style.  I definitely agree with my friend Jennifer Rader:  becoming a mom has made a better athlete out of little Tosca.  She’s always been willing, but now she thinks she’s competitive.  Well, perhaps she is – she did finish 15th out of 87 starters in the distance.  Not too shabby for a middle-aged (she’ll be 16 in July) dinky (sticks at 14.3 but rides like 14.1) show-bred (Bey Shah and Aladdin) Arabian mare.

Extra-special thanks to my excellent crew, Cris Jones.  Makes the ride twice as fun to have a friend rooting you on the whole way :) .

It was a blast and I’m very proud.

Now back to the ‘real’ horse.  Stella and I (along with our bosom buddies Czoe and Jenn) are headed to the NASTR 75 in Dayton, Nevada.  Wish us luck!

One 50 Down

We’ve successfully stepped up onto the first rung of our ladder to Tevis 2014.  We completed the American River 50 on Saturday, April 26th.

mid-race shot, but clearly we had a good time :)

American River is a point-to-point ride along Folsom Lake and (shockingly) the American River.  Slightly more complicated than most endurance rides because you have to get your rig moved to the end point, but really challenging terrain and very beautiful.

Because the trail is not conducive to passing in the early going – it’s mostly single-track – we made a point of starting out farther to the front than we typically do.  We were caught up in the midst a fast-moving group of about eight horses – switching leads every once in a while – into the first vet check at about 17 miles.  Only one of those horses left the vet check in front of us and we caught him up fairly quickly.

He was riding a mustang, a really tough little sorrel gelding that Stella took an instant, violent dislike to.  No beating around the bush with that mare, if she doesn’t like a horse (okay, let’s just say “gelding”) everyone knows it.  When he was riding behind me she tried to slow down so she could kick him bettter.  When we stopped at a drinking trough, she’d spin and fire at him if I didn’t keep a sharp eye on her.  It was kind of funny but keeping horses from injuring each other is serious business in endurance racing.

Riding along side the lake, we had beautiful views as the sun came up and slowly mounted into the sky.  There was a substantial amount of dew on the trees and bushes, whoever rode in front took the brunt of it and ended up soaked.  And this time of year in Northern California is a poison oak party.  I had on a long-sleeve shirt, designed to protect from the sun, under a vest.  The upper portion of my left arm (the lake was on our right, so foliage was lower on that side) looks as if it was burned.  It basically came into direct contact with the oil of the plant by having so many branches whip me on the shoulder as I rode by.

It’s an Ariat shirt, so of course I complained to the people who came up with the idea.  They said “Well Jenni, it’s not a poison oak protection shirt.”  Whatever.

our lunch crew site - Janet in the chair, Robert taking the pic

The three of us came into lunch together and Stella and Zoe pulsed in two minutes ahead of the mustang.  The mares were spot on, moving great, eating, drinking, pooping, peeing.  Everything you want to see your horse doing.  After a short hour passed, we saddled up and headed back out for the afternoon loop to Cool.  The first portion of the loop was  Tevis trail  (the last four miles from No Hands Bridge to the Auburn Overlook) and then it took off into beautiful grassy meadows studded with huge valley oaks.  Seriously stunning.

The mustang caught and passed us early into the loop and we let him go.  Jenn’s objective is to maintain as constant of a pace as we can throughout a race and he was moving too quickly for our taste.  The mares just floated along, no worries.  We traded lead from time to time.  Stella is great in the lead these days, although she will start “conserving” energy when we hit the hills so typically we swap Czoe up front for that kind of terrain.

Here’s a great video of Stella, cantering along (look at her effortless lilting gait, and I love how the EasyBoots look like she’s wearing her dad’s shoes) in the beautiful terrain.

We had a lovely ride on the Olmstead Loop and finished  in under five hours riding time (that’s a pretty good clip for a ride like AR).  The mustang won, Czoe/Jenn were second, Stella/me were third.  It was a good fifteen minutes or better before any more horses showed up.

A special note here for our excellent crew – primarily Bob Sydnor.  Bob followed us through the ride, bringing us much-needed Starbucks at crucial junctures and setting us up efficiently with everything we needed to take care of the horses.  He moved our rig from the starting point to the finish and made the entire ride a seamless, worry-free experience.  There is nothing better than good crew.

When you complete a 50 mile race in endurance, typically you have a half hour to get your horse to meet criteria (in this case, a heart rate of 60 bpm).  Most riders will go ahead and vet through at the same time.  If you wait too long to complete the final vet check, your horse could start to stiffen up in cooler weather.

So we vetted through and got our completions fairly quickly after finishing.  Then we went back to our crew spot (we’d returned to the Overlook) and started cleaning up the mares for best condition judging.  We tried  not to bug them too much as they hoovered up whatever we put in front of them.

Best condition judging was our last task.  The top ten finishers are invited to show their horses for best condition.  The award is arguably more prestigious than winning because it says that your horse looked the best – taking into consideration the weight it carried and the time it finished in – than any of the other horses in the top ten.

To judge a horse “best conditioned”, the vet will check all vitals, do a CRI (cardiac recovery index – a test where the horse’s pulse is taken, then the horse is trotted a specified distance, a minute is allowed to pass and the pulse is taken once again), watch the horse trotted on a straight line and on a circle in both directions.  Then the vet score is factored together with the rider’s total weight (with tack, advantage to heavier riders) and finish time (minutes behind the winner).  The resulting scores deliver a BC award.

At an hour after our finish – the dictated time to show for best condition – we headed back over to the vet.  Melissa Ribley – a  well-respected and equally well-liked DVM in the endurance space – was doing the judging.   Now, Stella isn’t the showiest of horses.  She doesn’t do any of that fancy floating, tail-in-the-air business other Arabian horses (who shall remain unnamed) are wont to do.  She just trots up and down or around in a circle as asked, head level, ears at half mast.  Kind of a buzz-kill when you’re trying to get her to look amazing.  But she has kind of figured this drill out and she was a very good girl, even if she presented a less-than-stunning spectacle.

CRI (cardiac recovery index) check during best condition judging

trotting out stella - look at that panache!

Melissa is a good vet, she could see past the lack of showmanship.  She complimented me on how Stella looked and her vitals, told me that she wasn’t sure what advantage his weight and finishing time gave the first place rider, but that Stella looked great.  I was very happy with that and patted my pony as we led them back to the trailer.

For various reasons, both Jenn and I needed to get home that evening so we left as soon as we felt the horses were rested and ready to do the drive.  So unfortunately we were not there to hear Melissa tell the crowd of riders what an amazing specimen Stella is and award her the Best Condition award.  Yea!

This is the first time I, personally, have ridden a horse to a BC finish.  Even though it’s largely to do with the horse – her natural athletic ability compounded with Jenn’s excellent care and conditioning plan – I still felt very proud.  Stella is such a great partner – she’s definitely the most reliable and consistent horse I’ve ridden and I can always count on her to take care of herself.  Which is huge in the heat of the moment of an endurance race.  An excellent pony.

excellent stella getting a drink

good times

Imprinting Claudio

[Sidebar series on my own horses.  More Tevis blogging to come shortly.]

I should begin with a disclaimer – I don’t profess to present a compilation of the experiences and opinions of a group of learned individuals on the subject of imprinting.  As any blog admits, this simply shares my personal experiences – which have been largely positive.  And I hope it is marginally entertaining to read.

The Crazy Idea

(As some of you will remember…) In May of 2012, I purchase a purebred Arabian mare named Tosca BL.  Tosca was not unknown to me.  She was bred by Peter Rich of Bay Laurel Arabians and – as a steady rider of Peter’s horses for quite a few years – it fell to me to start Tosca when she turned four.  We went on to compete fairly successfully in competitive trail and endurance for about four years before I moved to riding other horses for other owners.  But I would always try to get to Bay Laurel to visit Tosca (and other friends) a couple of times a year.  She is the horse of my heart.

So when Peter let me know that he was looking to decrease his herd size, I immediately raised a hand to take my girl.  The complicating factor was that she had bred herself (she’s a tart) the preceding fall and was due to deliver in late July.  So I basically picked up a BOGO (marketing-ease for ‘buy one get one’) on horses.  What was I thinking?  And with zero understanding of what it meant to raise a foal.

Not long after, I went to Horse Expo in Sacramento with a couple of friends.  On the agenda was a talk by Robert Miller, DVM on the subject of imprinting horses.  I ended up reading his book cover to cover and lying awake nights thinking how I’d manage it, whether Tosca would let me do that to her baby, what it would be like, zzzzzzz.

How It Happened

My pretty little mare decided to buck the trends and deliver her first born (she was 13) smack in the middle of the day on a Saturday.  I got a text as I was dismounting from BA Bearcat – the horse I was to ride a week later at Tevis – which screamed “COME NOW!”.   I was in Napa.  Tosca was in Novato.  There was a race on at Infineon Raceway (mid-way in between).  You can guess the rest.

tosca and claudio

But the foal was at least still on the ground when I did finally get there, he hadn’t stood up yet.  A gorgeous, tiny, chestnut colt with four dark feet and a lovely blaze.  His little ears were so ridiculously sculpted that when a picture was posted to Ariat’s Facebook page people asked if he was a Marwari.

cris giving claudio a good hug

I carefully sat on the ground (still dressed in my breeches and half chaps) behind him and began to rub his head, those ears, his legs, all over his body.  Tosca stood by, curious but completely trusting.  Claudio (keeping up the Italian naming tradition) was amenable and took me in as if I was an expected part of his new world.  When he was ready to stand, my two amazing friends who had witnessed the birth – Cris Jones and Julie Buxton – and I helped him get the hang of it.  It took all of us and a decent amount of patience to get Tosca and Claudio clued in on the nursing thing – a comedy of errors on both human and equine sides.  The three of us spent the entire afternoon handling that tiny chestnut body and marveling at the miracle of life in the warm sun of a late July day.

On his second day of life, Claudio was descended upon by pretty much every friend I have within driving distance.  And their kids.  It was a circus.  The vet came to check on him and suggested “you might not want to have all these people around him”.  She was probably right, but Tosca – my primary gauge – was fine with it.  Most of them brought carrots or apples, mistakenly thinking Claudio came with teeth, so that mare made out like a bandit.  And everyone was so wonder-struck by the chance to see and touch an infant horse that I couldn’t turn them away.

a lazy baby horse (sun bathing in his favorite ditch) surrounded by adoring humans

His first few months of life continued in that pattern.  If I wasn’t messing with him, Julie’s husband Joe was scratching any body part Claudio presented.  Or little kids – back for a second or third visit – were petting him and running and yelling right by him.

the infant claudio

He had a tiny little halter on his head in the first couple of weeks.  This was not as easy as it sounds because even the smallest web halter they make for ‘baby’ horses was huge on his little Arabian noggin.  I had to get an eensy-bineensty rope halter custom made for him off of eBay.  It was in the size range usually for miniature horses, kind of embarrassing.

A nice fat, soft rope lead that came as a gift was run all over him and under him and between his legs and through his ears.

We had leading down by a month and, although he wouldn’t go too far from mom I could get him to stop and back up from both sides.  He learned to tie gradually using elastic objects (bungee cords and the like) until it became no big deal to tie him anywhere.

He and his mom hopped into and out of Julie’s trailer over and over with Cris’ help – no problem!

cris giving claudio the idea of trailer entry

I started ponying him bareback off Tosca in their paddock and by the time he was three months old we saddled up and were going down a moderately busy road, into a small open space park for short rides.

out for a ride in the park

The Results

I know there are opponents of imprinting who maintain that it makes the horse too familiar, removing the respect they need to have for us much-smaller and more-delicate humans.

I can acknowledge that might be an issue, but as with all things in life the variables of the individuals must be factored in.

Claudio gets that I’m the boss of him.  But, not unlike his mother, he’s willing to try those boundaries to see what he can get away with.  I like that in a horse, an independent mind (play along, that’s how I see it…).  If I speak to him sharply it’s enough for him to learn the behavior isn’t allowed.  That doesn’t mean that he won’t try again, but he does so with a look on his face that tells me that he knows he’s going to get in trouble.

At 20 months old, he is still interested in putting parts of me in his mouth if he can, but he has never actually bitten me (I’m almost afraid to type that…).  If I spend too much time cleaning his stall, he’ll decide maybe I’m there for play.  But a poop fork is pretty dissuading.  Those are the worst things he does.

On the flip side, he has the ground manners of a grown horse.  He backs, he moves over and he walks at my shoulder from both sides.   Until he sees something alarming (okay, still a 20-month-old Arabian here), but even then he is totally responsive to the halter and doesn’t pull or drag me and he’s only run into me a handful of times.  I can pick and file his feet (he’s been handled by two farriers with no trouble), groom him with all types of tools and hose off his legs (patience, we’re working up to a full bath).  I can even, wait for it, spray him with fly spray!

I put a bareback pad on him and a bit in his mouth.  He lunges (we don’t do much, but he knows the principles and responds to voice commands) and I continue to pony him with his mother.  It is definitely more exciting now that he’s nearing her in height, but the neighbors are entertained at least.

When he was six months old I had him out with Tosca in the park and we were approached by a group of adults with disabilities, out for a walk.  Their escort asked if they could pet the baby horse.  I looked down a little dubiously at his little red head and said “sure, just come up slowly”.  Each of them – maybe eight in all – took a turn approaching him and quietly petting him all over his head and neck with evident wonder.  He stood like a rock, as did his wonderful dam, and let each one have a turn.  I was never so proud of my ponies.

Another important benefit.  This is a young, male horse.  As such, you won’t be surprised to find out that he has managed to injure himself pretty good a couple of times and was the host of a horrific bought of pigeon fever last fall.  Doctoring his injuries (he split his pole open when he was about eight weeks old and he just recently opened up an eight inch gash down his right hind leg) is infinitely easier than it would be on an untouched horse of his age.  It’s going to happen; young horses get hurt.  Seems to me being able to tie and handle them in those inevitable moments would be worth the imprinting work alone.

Claudio and Tosca now live on an Arabian breeding facility in Pleasanton (so he could grow up with other young horses).  Every baby that hits the ground there makes my hands itch to get in the stall and rub on them.

To be honest, even if at some future point I discover a significant drawback to having made my now-grey gelding too familiar, I would still balance it out positive for the wonderful experience of having spent all this time touching and interacting with him.  But I’m confident that I have a really nice horse on my hands that might, just might, turn out to be an excellent endurance mount.