Lessons Learned from the 80th Anniversary GMHA 100 Mile Ride
***Warning…this is a long post…but the 100 mile is a long ride…so I guess it all evens out!***
On September 2-4, 2016, Lee and I tackled the grueling GMHA three day 100 mile competitive trail ride (CTR) for the second year in a row. We came to the ride this year a bit more seasoned but also perhaps a bit more battered; last year, nerves were due to worry about the unknown, while this year, they were the result of knowing exactly what was to come. After finishing the ride as a complete and total rookie in 2015, I knew that both my horse and I had what it would take to do it again in terms of grit and stamina. But at seventeen years old and on her third career, Lee carries a lot of miles (literally and figuratively) on her frame, and I think the theme for our distance season this year was learning to ride the fine line between fitness and soundness.
The GMHA Distance Days weekend, now in its third year, has become a true festival of distance riding. Trail riders of many persuasions (short, middle or long distance, competitive and non) come together and enjoy the always breathtaking scenery of central Vermont in the late summer, along with the joy that comes with friendships based on shared passion. The South Woodstock area has been described so thoroughly and poetically by others that I won’t even try to match their words; suffice it to say that for me, visiting there has yet to lose its appeal.
Initially, doing the 100 mile ride again with Lee was not my intention. I was (and am) so proud of her for finishing the ride in 2015, especially wearing a saddle that I later realized totally and completely did not fit her now uber fit frame (more on the quest for the perfect distance saddle in a later blog). Last year, she suffered from welts and heat bumps, both under the saddle panels and in the girth area. I was determined to try to avoid such issues this season, even if that meant staying at shorter distances.
GMHA is known today for being an organization that supports multiple disciplines at its facility, but what many people may not know is that it was originally founded to promote trail riding in the state of Vermont. For its first ten years, members of the fledgling organization worked to create a network of bridle trails which spanned the state to all of its borders. In 1936, GMHA hosted its first long distance ride of 80 miles, to “stimulate greater interest in the breeding and use of good horses, possessed of stamina and hardiness, and qualified to make good mounts for trail use.” This ride grew to cover 100 miles, and for eighty years it has run continuously (save for 2011, when Hurricane Irene came through). This ride has a rich, historical legacy unmatched by any other ride of its kind in the country. Chelle Grald, trails coordinator at GMHA and the 2016 ride manager, calls it the “granddaddy of them all.” What serious distance rider within striking distance WOULDN’T want to be a part of the 80th anniversary ride?
Besides, if you entered, you got a commemorative belt buckle. I mean, you could buy the buckle on its own, but what was the fun in that?
This past year has been one of (mostly good) transition, and neither Lee nor I are at the same place we were a year ago, in all ways you could define it. While still on her recovery days from the 100 mile ride last year, I moved Lee to our new home at Cold Moon Farm. She spent the next nine months as its sole equine resident; we did some extensive exploration of the local trail network during the late fall, and then she enjoyed two months of total rest during the depths of winter. It was the most time off she has had since we met when she was six years old. During this break, I began researching distance saddles, and with the help of Nancy Okun at the Owl and the Rose Distance Tack, located a lightly used Lovatt and Ricketts Solstice, along with a new Skito pad. This lightweight saddle fit Lee’s topline much better than the old all purpose I had been riding in, and the Skito pad allowed her to have extra cushion.
I was pretty excited to get started with the distance season this spring, and I entered the Leveritt 25 mile CTR in April. Lee hadn’t seen another horse since September, and I wasn’t sure what her reaction was going to be. I was also worried that Lee wouldn’t be quite fit enough at that stage of the year to handle 25 miles, and I kept telling my friends that I wished it were only a 15 mile ride. As it turned out, I got my wish. The hold was about 15 miles in, and I had to pull there because Lee was a little bit off on her right front. She was sound once we got home, and some mild sensitivity to hoof testers at her next shoeing indicated that she had likely just hit a stone or something similar.
At Leveritt, I rode with my friend Robin on her lovely Morgan, Flower; we had made up two thirds of the now mildly well known “Team PB & J” on the 100 mile in 2015. Robin was super excited about working towards the 100 mile ride again, and I will admit that some of her enthusiasm began to rub off on me. At the same time, having to pull at the Leveritt ride put a little sliver of worry into my mind; namely, was Lee sound enough to keep working towards the maximum level that the sport of CTR offers?
In 2015, I relied on some of the CTR’s themselves to incorporate additional distance and duration into Lee’s conditioning plan. I looked at the Leveritt ride as a fifteen mile conditioning distance; the miles might not “count” in terms of her lifetime total, but they did “count” in terms of increasing her overall fitness. I fleshed out a schedule of gradual loading and increasing distance that would include several spring rides, a break in mid summer, and then a ramp up to the 100.
But then I had a rider qualify for the IHSA National Championships, an outstanding honor, and travelling to Lexington, KY for the competition meant missing the next planned CTR. Then, the ride I had planned to enter at the end of May was cancelled. I even tried to get to a hunter pace with a friend, thinking that would give us at least thirteen miles of new trail; it was rained out. And suddenly I was scheduled to be back up at GMHA for what should have been a back to back 50 mile in June, having not completed ANY of the step up prep rides that I had anticipated.
Concerned now that she wouldn’t have the necessary fitness, I opted to do just one day of the June GMHA distance weekend, the 25 mile CTR. I still felt woefully unprepared and worried relentlessly about both her fitness and her soundness, despite positive feedback from my farrier and two vets. We reset her shoes and added a new, more cushioning style of packing under her pads. Reunited with Team Peanut Butter and Jelly for the first time since September, Lee really did do great. She felt strong and sound and came through the weekend with flying colors, scoring the best mark she would get all season.
After the ride in June, I felt more positive about our prospects for the 100. The judges had had utterly no concerns about Lee’s soundness or her back at the June ride, and she felt strong and forward. Thus encouraged, I decided to aim for the GMHA two day 50 mile CTR in early August; based on how that went, I would make my final decision on the 100.
During the gap between the June ride and the August 50 mile CTR, I had no plans to compete Lee, only condition. I made one trip up to Tamarack Hill Farm in Strafford, VT, to ride with my mentor, Denny Emerson; ironically, during the summer of the worst drought in years, the day we planned to meet saw pouring rain. We made it around anyway, dodging rain drops. At home, I continued to balance long, slow distance rides mostly at the walk with sets in the arena to maintain her cardiovascular fitness.
About three weeks before the August ride, I decided to try a new girth with Lee. It had been recommended by my saddle fitter, and the extremely contoured shape was one favored by riders whose horses have sensitive elbows or who are prone to girth galls. I had been using the girth on Anna with great success for months, and tried it on Lee for an easy one hour walk.
I was horrified at the end of the ride to find that the girth had caused the worst chafing that I have ever seen on Lee. Both armpits were rubbed raw, and the left side in particular was swollen and tender. I couldn’t believe it; there had been no indication that the girth was pinching or loose. Regardless, the damage was done, and I saw both our short and long term goals for the season sliding away.
I reached out to my distance friends and learned about an old timey product called Bickmore Gall Salve. You can pick it up at some of the chain feed stores or in my case, the local one. I religiously treated the rubs up to four times per day for the three weeks up until the fifty, and I was really impressed by how quickly the product got them to dry and heal. Even though the label claims you can “work the horse”, I didn’t think that putting a girth on was the best plan. So for three weeks, Lee longed. I worked her up to fifty minutes, moving the longe circle all over our arena and changing directions every five minutes. The longeing didn’t increase her fitness, but it kept her legged up and allowed me to watch her move. And that was how I decided that she seemed—ever so slightly— funny on the left front when she warmed up. It always went away after a few laps at the trot. But I was sure there was something there.
Between the girth rubs and the “slightly funny left front”, I was feeling like maybe it just wasn’t in the cards for us to contest the fifty mile ride this year. Then, the day before we were scheduled to leave, my truck began making a funny whining noise. I tried to convince myself that I was being paranoid, but the noise just seemed too odd to ignore, and a quick trip to the mechanic revealed that the power steering pump was caput. Now I really began to wonder if this was a sign.
Yet I am stubborn.
I have one friend with a truck that I feel comfortable asking for a loan; one phone call later and we had wheels. So thanks to the generosity of a good friend, we headed up to GMHA, with me feeling a little bit fatalistic about things. “Whatever will be, will be,” I told myself.
I longed Lee lightly when we arrived at GMHA to loosen up, and I wasn’t sure how she would look on the uneven footing of the pavilion where we were to vet in. However, we were accepted at the initial presentation, and I decided to start to ride and see how she felt. When I got on board Lee the next morning, it was the first time that I had sat on her in nearly three weeks. I kept a close eye on the girth area and carefully sponged it at most opportunities. There was a nearly record entry for the weekend, and it was clear that excitement about Distance Days was building. For many entries, the two day 50 was the last big test before beginning the final weeks of prep for the 100 mile ride.
Overall, I thought Lee handled the ride well. I was certainly in a hyper-critical state, and analyzed every step she took. On day two, I felt that she wasn’t her best, and I seriously considered pulling up, but the more she moved the better she felt. While we made it through the ride and received our completion, I knew that she wasn’t yet ready for the 100 mile ride. Something was bothering her and I needed to resolve that.
I scheduled a visit with Dr. Monika Calitri of Seacoast Equine to check over Lee. She felt that her back had become super tight (a lifelong problem for her) and saw mild positivity to hock flexions. We opted to inject her hocks, and I contacted my saddle fitter for an adjustment on the Solstice and Skito pad prior to Distance Days. Overall, Dr. Calitri thought that Lee looked sound and fit, and remarked that the tightness in her topline was the most significant finding in her inspection.
My entry for the 100 mile sat on my kitchen table, with both the 100 and 60 mile options highlighted. After Dr. Calitri’s visit, I circled the 100 mile distance, wrote the check and threw it in the mail just a day or so before closing. I figured I could always drop back to the 60 mile ride, even right up until the last minute, but since the 100 is what we had been aiming for, we might as well give it a go.
The Heart of the Thoroughbred
The 80th Anniversary 100 mile ride was scheduled to cover the traditional white (40 mile), red (35 mile) and blue (25 mile) routes. While the white and blue routes would mirror closely the trails we had covered the previous year, the red route would be a totally new one for me; it took us across the Ottauquechee River, through the Marsh Billings-Rockefeller National Park, along the banks of the beautiful Pogue, and across the Taftsville Covered Bridge.
Day one, at forty miles, is quite a day. Horses must traverse the rocky terrain of Reading, notorious for its difficulty in allowing riders to make time. Lee felt great, totally 100%, but at the half way hold (25+ miles in), the vet judge commented that he thought there was a slight head bob at times, not significant enough to spin her, but enough to quell any feelings I had of security in Lee’s soundness. At the end of day safety check, the judging team worried that Lee’s back was too sensitive, contributing to her occasional uneven step. I was required to present again in the AM before starting on day two.
I worked with Lee in the afternoon of day one, hand walking, massaging and stretching. By morning, her topline sensitivity was much reduced and we were cleared to start day two.
In celebration of the ride’s 80th anniversary, dozens of past riders were in attendance for special events at the Woodstock Inn Country Club, the Landowner’s BBQ and the Longtimer’s Brunch Reunion. Unbeknownst to me, Lee’s breeder (and only other owner), Suzie Wong, was in attendance, along with her sister Sarah and their mother. Suzie joked that for years, her family had tried to breed a distance horse, but they always turned out to be better hunters, jumpers and eventers. In Lee, they had tried to breed a high quality hunter….and ended up with their distance horse! Suzie hadn’t seen Lee in years, and their family and friends quickly became our cheerleaders, appearing at most of the major viewing areas and both holds at days two and three.
On the red day, I was pretty excited to tackle some amazing and new to me trail. The much discussed crossing of the Ottauquechee River was pretty easy, given the drought. The route through the Marsh Billings Rockefeller National Park was well groomed and fun to canter along, and the steam from early morning still rose off the Pogue as we rode past. I found it hard to completely enjoy the scenery, though, as I began to worry more and more about my horse. She felt powerful, forward and willing…but not the same between right and left. Not lame, just….different. Once the seed has been planted in your head that your horse is moving ‘funny’, it can be hard to remain confident that your horse is truly ok.
Once we exited the park, we had to tackle several miles of hard top road. First, there were cows to spook at near the park headquarters. Then, there were bikers, joggers, pedestrians, and cars galore. I was left thinking that despite the historical tradition of using this route, perhaps its time had passed, due to the hazards of the modern era. Riders are left with no option but to trot along the hard top while being fairly regaled with hazards from all directions. We had to push forward into the hold, where Suzy and her friends waited for us.
The hold on red day was stressful. Lee pulsed right down, but the vet judge was not happy with how she was moving in the jog. Again, not lame, but not completely even. They asked me how she felt, and I replied that she felt strong and I was being hyper aware of any sign of lameness. They had me jog back and forth two or three times, before suggesting that I pull her saddle and jog again. When I did so, they were much more satisfied, and told me that they suspected that it was her back which was bothering her again. They cleared me to continue and I promised to closely monitor her progress.
It was just about one mile after the hold that our trio crossed the historic Taftsville Covered Bridge. The original was swept away during the aftermath of Hurricane Irene, but the new one was built to be a close replica. A “fun fact” that I learned about covered bridges is that they were originally built so as to look like a barn, horses being more willing enter a barn than to cross a scary open bridge over rapidly moving water. I am not sure how thrilled Lee would have been to make a solo crossing, but with her friends Quinn and Flower around her, she was a willing follower. In some of the photos of us, the past meets present, as a car is sitting at the mouth of the bridge waiting to cross after us.
After finishing the thirty five mile long red trail, it came as little surprise to me that the judges yet again held Lee. By now, we were all paying close attention to her back sensitivity. One of the good things about CTR is that the judges and the riders work together as a team to monitor the horses’ condition. While we all would like to finish our rides, none of us wishes to do so at the expense of our horse’s well-being. Even though Lee felt mostly ok under saddle, it was clear that she was starting to push through some discomfort. After seventy five miles, even the most fit of animals is likely to be feeling some effects of the experience; the question becomes whether they are crossing over the line and their overall well-being is at risk.
I woke quite early on day three; the stars were still out in full force as I dressed in my trailer and made my way to the barns. While Lee ate her morning grain, I gently, and then more firmly, massaged the muscles over her back and encouraged her to stretch. I then took her for a nearly forty five minute walk. At that time of the day, the air is clear and the sky brilliant. Once your eyes adjust, it is amazing how much you can still see; at the same time, your sense of hearing heightens. The faintest whisper of dawn was just visible in the sky as it came close to time to present to the judges. I did several in hand transitions, and when I could barely stop Lee I knew that she was ready.
Once again, Lee trotted off brilliantly for the judges under the lights of the pavilion. It seemed clear that whatever was bothering her that weekend wasn’t a true lameness, but instead something which improved significantly with an overnight’s rest. We were cleared to continue.
Day three, the blue trail, is a twenty five mile route, and I was reminded again of just how much shorter that feels after tackling forty and thirty five mile distances on the preceding days. Despite this, twenty five miles is still plenty of trail, and anything can happen. As we rode into the final half way hold of the weekend, our “trail boss”, Quinn, lost a shoe. While the farrier and his rider, Kat, worked to address that situation, I prepared to present to the judges. I proactively pulled Lee’s saddle and jogged her in hand without it, and much to my surprise, they were happy and let us go without a second look. At the end of our twenty minute window, Flower and Robin and Lee and I were forced to leave Quinn and Kat behind, as the shoe was still being replaced.
Neither Flower nor Lee is a huge fan of being the leader, and after nearly ninety miles, no one’s sense of humor is at its best. Without Quinn, we struggled to gain momentum. But then the most amazing thing happened. It was as though Lee switched her gears, dug in, and then she suddenly powered forward and LED, for several miles, without me bidding her to. It was as though she said, “I’ve got this, and we are going to get it done”.
It was without a doubt the “heart of a Thoroughbred” in action.
We eventually caught up to a few other riders, and our mares were willing to fall into step with them as the miles continued to tick down. Much to our surprise, Quinn and Kat were able to catch up to us just a few miles from the GMHA grounds, and it was again with a feeling of extreme pride that we returned to the announcement of our names as we entered the White Ring as a team of three.
We had done it. Again.
Lee lost a number of points from her score for the sensitivity in her topline at the final presentation, as well as a few points for “lameness consistent under some conditions”, but she had earned a second completion in as many 100 mile rides. Thirty horses had started, and just over half completed. Of those to finish, Lee was the second oldest.
As we stood at the awards ceremony, surrounded by horses and humans who I have come to admire and respect, I knew that my horse had earned her place among those in the ring. She was awarded the Perkion Award for the second year in a row, given to the best scoring Thoroughbred or Thoroughbred type, and she was also awarded the Spinner Award for the best non-registered trail horse. We finished sixth in the middleweight division, the only group of riders which saw all entrants complete the ride.
Far from being defeated, Lee remained alert and engaged after the ride. Overall, she weathered the experience well. But I knew that my horse had had to dig in to get the job done, and that she had finished the ride largely due to her Thoroughbred heart. What an amazing experience to know what it is like for your horse to bring you home on their own drive and grit.
Lee is now officially retired from the 100 mile distance. It wouldn’t be fair to ask this of her again. I still plan to compete her in distance rides, so long as she tells me that is okay, but we will stick to the “shorter” mileages. As Denny said of her in 2014, “that is one tough horse”.
She has more than proven him right.