Tag Archives: distance riding

Friendship, sportsmanship, horsemanship and love…and the heart of a Thoroughbred

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.

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Lee and her stall display at Distance Days 2016

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?

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The Commemorative Belt Buckle, supported by Lee’s Perkion Award for best scoring Thoroughbred.

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?

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Flower, Quinn and Lee resting up for the start of the ride.

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.

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Team Peanut Butter and Jelly after finishing the June 25 mile CTR at GMHA.

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.

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The raw rub on Lee’s left armpit area.  It is crazy that this came from just one ride, at the walk.

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.

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This stuff was a game changer.  Just don’t read the ingredient list too closely….

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.

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On trail, day two.  Photo courtesy of Sue Achenbach.

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.

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Lee’s breeder, Suzy Wong, rode in the distance rides at GMHA in the past. Lee shows her usual enthusiasm for posing for photos after finishing on day 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.

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Suzy inspects as we prepare to head out from the hold on day two. Photo courtesy of Sue Achenbach.

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.

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Presenting to vet judge Dr. Nick Kohut, President of ECTRA, at the hold on day two. Photo courtesy of Sue Achenbach.

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.

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“The look of eagles”.  I took this while out on one of our post ride “walk abouts” during the 100 mile ride this year.

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.

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Lee coming out of the hold on day three, 90 miles into the ride.  This is, hands down, THE BEST photo I have ever seen of her.  Ever.  It says it all.  Photo courtesy of John Miller at Spectrum Photography.

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.

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The entry list for each year’s 100 mile ride stays up for one full season.  This is the 100 mile entry for 2016.

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.

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Lee at the awards ceremony. She looks pretty good for a horse that just went 100 miles, I think!

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.

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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.

 

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Five reasons why YOU should ride at the GMHA Distance Days

Spring has come early to these parts, and with it the itch to get out and about.  After a two month rest during the heart of winter, the Dark Mare is working on getting legged up for what will hopefully be a full season of competitive trail riding.  My big goal is to successfully complete the 80th anniversary three day 100 mile ride at the Green Mountain Horse Association (GMHA) in South Woodstock, VT, in September, the centerpiece of its Distance Days weekend.

Lee and I completed this ride in 2015, both of us rookies to the sport.  It was singularly one of the most amazing and rewarding experiences that I have ever had with one of my horses, and I have been able to meet so many enthusiastic, helpful and fun people as a result of the training and preparation that went into it.

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“Team Peanut Butter and Jelly”, GMHA Distance Days 2015– Kat Waters and High Brook Quintessential, me and Lee, Robin McGrath and Aikanes Sunflower.  We did the 100 miles together.

The 100 mile ride is the marquee event of the festival of trail riding that is Distance Days.  There is truly something for everyone; if you enjoy amazing scenery, challenging trails, the camaraderie of fellow trail riding enthusiasts and the opportunity to pursue personal goals, Distance Days is for you.

Here are five reasons why YOU should plan to ride at the GMHA Distance Days.

1) Become a part of history.

The GMHA 100 Mile ride is, as ride manager Chelle Grald describes it, “the granddaddy of them all”.  Begun by the fledgling GMHA organization in 1936, the ride initially was held in Rutland, VT, just over fifty miles away from its current home in South Woodstock.  It was the first ride of its kind, and it remains the oldest distance ride in the US, predating the famous Tevis Cup endurance ride by nineteen years. It has run every year without interruption, with the exception of 2011 (you may remember a little storm called “Irene”, which blew through just before the ride weekend, leaving a good chunk of Vermont underwater….).

GMHA was founded as an “altruistic organization” for the purpose of encouraging the breeding and use of horses in the state of Vermont, as well as to develop a system of bridle trails throughout the state.  In its early years, over one thousand miles of trails were marked, traversing from the Massachusetts state line in the south to the Canadian border. Dues in the early years were just $2.00, which included a subscription to their magazine.

The 100 mile ride quickly became the highlight of the organization’s annual calendar.  Part social event and part horsemanship demonstration, riders came from as far away as Indiana and Virginia in the early years; some riders actually RODE to the ride, covering over three hundred miles before the competition even had begun.  Riders ran the gamut—children as young as nine were known to complete the ride, and men and women alike delighted in the thrill and challenge.  Mrs. Fletcher Harper, a passionate foxhunter, won the 100 mile ride riding side saddle.

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Mrs. Fletcher Harper, who by all accounts was a fearless rider, jumping downed trees on trail while others searched for a route around.  Photo from GMHA archives.

All manner of horses have successfully completed the GMHA 100 mile ride—Welsh ponies, mules, Thoroughbreds, Morgans, grade crosses, and of course, the now ubiquitous Arabians.  Families would line the route to cheer on the riders; for many of these non-equestrians, it was THE social event of the summer. In its heyday, the ride had hundreds of entrants and a wait list.

Distance Days represents the opportunity to participate in a piece of living history, to add your name to an ever growing list of riders (and horses) who tackled the challenge of traversing the rugged and beautiful terrain of the Kedron Valley.

2) Short Rides, Medium Rides and Team Events

You are quite probably reading this right now and thinking, “well, that sounds pretty amazing, but 100 miles is a LOOONG way.”  You are totally right.  Maybe you aren’t up for that challenge quite yet….

And that is why  Distance Days offers more than just the 100 mile ride.  There will be five other ride lengths for competitive trail riders:  15, 25, 35, 40, and 60 miles.  The 60 mile is a two day ride, but the other rides are all one day long.  The entrants on these rides will be sharing the trail with the 100 milers, and so if you and your horse aren’t up to the rigors of the full 100 miles, you can still get a taste of the ride on these shorter routes.

The 100 mile ride covers the 40 mile WHITE trail on day one, the 35 mile RED trail on day two and the 25 mile BLUE trail on day three.  These trails cover terrain in the towns of Woodstock, Reading, Hartland, West Windsor and Hartford, and visit such historic and classic Vermont landmarks as the Marsh Billings Rockefeller National Historic Park and the Taftsville Covered Bridge.

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The historic Taftsville Covered Bridge has long been a highlight of the 100 mile ride.  The original bridge was destroyed by Hurricane Irene but was restored in 2014.  The bridge will be included on the 2016 route.  Photo courtesy GMHA.

Another aspect of Distance Days that is super cool is that the ride management has come up with a unique idea for this 80th anniversary weekend:  the 100 mile team relay.  There are several options, but basically 2-3 riders can make up a team, and by completing the requisite combination of shorter rides, can collectively complete the 100 mile distance.  Special awards will be given to the team with the best average score over all their rides.  If one rider were very ambitious but didn’t have one horse that could do all 100 miles, they could do each chunk of the distance on a different horse, or do 2/3 on one and the rest on another.
See, you could be a 100 mile rider yet!

 

3) Non Competitive Fun

Competitive trail riding is sort of unique among horse sports, because you really and truly are competing against yourself; rather, you are trying to use all of your horsemanship expertise to bring home a horse that is no worse for the wear after covering your chosen distance.  Horses all start with a perfect score, and at the end of the ride, they are compared to their starting condition.  Points are deducted for negative changes.

But some people really just aren’t into competing, and that is totally ok—Distance Days has something for them, too!  CTR requires travelling at a faster pace than what many recreational trail riders might choose, and this could be another good reason to go with the Pleasure Ride option held on Distance Days weekend instead.

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Lee completes her first two day 50 mile ride at GMHA in 2015, with her friends Roxie (middle, ridden by Denny Emerson) and Camille (ridden by Robin Malkasian).

Pleasure rides will be offered on Friday, Saturday and Sunday of Distance Days.  You can do any and all combinations of day(s).  On Friday and Saturday, riders can choose from short (6-8 miles), medium (12-15 miles) or long (20 miles) options.  On Sunday, riders can pick from 6 or 10 mile options.

Horses and riders which finish the entire weekend’s worth of long options (so 50 miles total) will complete the 50 Mile Pleasure Horse Challenge, and will be recognized at the Sunday awards ceremony.

4) Stunning Scenery

Let’s be honest—there aren’t too many places which can beat Vermont in the late summer when it comes to stunning views, the hint of fall color and crisp, clear air.

The Kedron Valley is an especially picturesque region of the state, with many classic New England style farm houses and barns, stunning estates, covered bridges and burbling brooks.  Trails in the area are a combination of the quintessential Vermont dirt road and wooded routes.

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Yet another stunning vista in Vermont, looking towards Tunbridge.

And of course, there are the hills. No one will deny that a horse and rider must have a certain degree of fitness to handle them.  The route covered during the Distance Days weekend tackles several of the most rigorous in the area, including  Cookie Hill and Heartbreak Hill, for a few.  But the reward for the climb to the summit is often a panoramic, expansive view, hearkening back to a time when horses were the dominant mode of transportation and the ‘conveniences’ of the modern era were far in the future.

The popular equestrian travel website www.equitrekking.com featured the trails around GMHA in its “50 States Trail Project” as the ‘place to visit’ in Vermont. You can read more about it here.

5) Friendship, Sportsmanship, Horsemanship and Love

The themes of “friendship, sportsmanship, horsemanship and love” are the dominant motivations for most of those who choose to tackle a challenge such as the three day 100 mile ride.  Grald has decided to highlight the significance of each of these important values in the commemorative Distance Days Program, which will be given to all entrants.  Included in the program will be vignettes from riders past and present, photos and even the recipe for the tasty Cookie Hill chocolate chip cookies.

Distance Days will feature several opportunities to socialize as well as to honor the contributions of the volunteers and landowners, without whose generosity these sorts of experiences would not be possible. The 100 Mile Banquet will be a fancy affair, to be held at the Woodstock Country Club and chaired by longtime Woodstock resident Mrs. Nancy Lewis, who rode in the 1946 100 mile ride. A special presentation by historian and author Dale Johnson at the banquet will spotlight the role of the historic Woodstock Inn Stables in the early years of the ride. Riders have a chance to thank landowners for their support at the catered BBQ on Friday, allowing a fun and informal opportunity to share memories and fun. Between the finish and awards ceremony on Sunday, 100-mile alumni will gather for a Longtimer’s Reunion. Finally, Sunday’s awards ceremony will follow the traditional catered brunch.

This ride has given many future endurance riders their first taste of serious distance riding, and has taught them the fundamentals of good horsemanship that these sister sports require.  Judges Dr. Nick Kohut (current president of the Eastern Competitive Trail Riding Association) and Linda Ferguson Glock will bring their extensive experience as riders, organizers and volunteers to the weekend.  Dr. Joan Hiltz will work with riders on the 15 mile ride.  Each step of the way, horses are closely monitored by their own riders but also by these experienced horsemen, to ensure that the animals’ care and well-being remain of the highest priority.

DennyEmerson
Denny Emerson is just one of many horsemen who got their start in distance riding at GMHA.  Emerson has gone on to complete the Tevis Cup and 2300 endurance miles.  Photo courtesy GMHA.

In spite of its legacy, rides like the GMHA 100 mile can only continue to flourish with the support of riders who are interested in participating in the shorter distance events which run concurrently with it.  With continued loss of open space to train, amongst other issues, fewer and fewer riders have the time or inclination to commit themselves to preparing a horse for such a rigorous challenge as a 100 mile ride.  Events like Distance Days are incredibly important, because they draw together all of the diverse types of rider who are ultimately united through their love of horses and “riding out”.

If this blog has piqued your interest, you can learn more about Distance Days at its website, https://www.gmhainc.org/trails/, or follow on Facebook at https://www.facebook.com/GmhaDistanceDays/?fref=ts

 

 

 

 

 

Book Review:  Endurance Riding: From First Steps to 100 Miles

Endurance Riding: From First Steps to 100 Miles by Clare Wilde

c 1996 Kenilworth Press, Buckingham (Great Britain) 170 pages

ISBN 1-872082-83-1

This past winter, I dedicated my equine reading to a selection of titles related to endurance and distance riding.  I knew that for 2015, I wanted to try to bring my horse up to a level of condition which might make it possible for her to tackle a 50 or even 100 mile ride, but I really didn’t know how to go about doing that.  It was with this mindset that I picked up Wilde’s book.  Wilde is an experienced endurance competitor whose love for the sport, and for riding and horses in general, is apparent throughout the book.

Wilde Cover

This book covers many aspects of the sport of endurance for the novice, tackling everything from horse selection to tack to schooling to what it takes to crew at a ride.  One of the sections that I enjoyed the most was called “Basic Schooling and Education,” and I liked it because it reviewed critical basics of training for any horse.  For example,  Wilde discusses the fact that in order for a horse to stay sound and sane over a long distance ride, they must move in an “economical, balanced yet dynamic motion” (Wilde, 1996, p. 45).  To achieve this, the rider must be conscientious in both their own posture and position and also work to develop suppleness and strength in the horse.  Horses must be encouraged to work correctly from back to front so that on the trail they can be supple and balanced.  In endurance riding, where competitive riders move at fast speeds much of the time, this preparation is essential.  “The versatile, supple horse will be able to move away from your leg to enable you to open gates quickly, avoid hazards and move off rough ground.  He will also be able to corner efficiently, particularly at speed” (Wilde, 1996, p. 46).   This information is so critical; a successful distance horse must be a true athlete, which requires paying attention to all forms of physical conditioning.

Wilde also points out that the endurance horse is the marathoner of the horse world, and the end goal of conditioning should be “to produce a supremely fit, laid-back equine athlete in the peak of physical condition” (Wilde, 1996, p. 49).  To do this requires not just attention to their workload, but also their overall stable management.  There is a big difference between the casual trail/pleasure horse that goes for a leisurely walk every now and then and a horse that is in preparation for a serious distance undertaking.  The horse’s stable management therefore must be of a higher standard than for a horse not in such intense training.  This is an important area of consideration which is sometimes overlooked.

Endurance and competitive trail riding can be enjoyed by riders of all ages and with all breeds of horse, with the proper conditioning.
Endurance and competitive trail riding can be enjoyed by riders of all ages and with all breeds of horse, with the proper conditioning.

Just like in other equine sports, Wilde reminds distance riders that the horse needs a warm up and cool down phase in each work set.  It is important to actively walk a horse for at least ten minutes before asking for faster gaits, and then to ease into the trot and canter.  Riders who are looking to start their race time at speed must budget in this warm up prior to the start.

The section titled “Conditioning for Competition” was especially enlightening.  Wilde says that once her horse has been built up to a base level of fitness which allows for easy completion and recovery from 20 mile rides, she rarely rides more than 15 miles in training.  One of the big challenges in distance riding is doing enough work to bring the horse to a fit level of condition but not doing so much that they become sore or unsound, or that their attitude becomes unwilling.  Learning how to “peak” your equine athlete at just the right time is both an art and a science, and certainly the ability to do this well separates the best from the also ran’s in any horse sport, not just endurance.  Wilde offers several sample conditioning and training schedules which can work to help horses develop for various distance rides, but also cautions readers to remember that each horse is an individual.

“Endurance riding Uzes 2005 front”. Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons – https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Endurance_riding_Uzes_2005_front.jpg#/media/File:Endurance_riding_Uzes_2005_front.jpg

The final chapter which I thought was particularly well done was titled “Personal Preparation”.  Here, Wilde discusses the care and feeding of the rider as an athlete, as well addresses the critical importance of rider fitness.  “In the most basic terms, your horse will find himself unable to perform, no matter how well he is prepared, if you are a hindrance to him rather than an asset” (Wilde, 1996, p. 95).  This last statement would seem to be true regardless of your chosen discipline, and is a concept which more riders need to take to heart if they truly want to progress in their riding.

Overall, Wilde’s book is an easy read with relevance to riders who want to improve their level of awareness on the subject of conditioning across the board.  While the author is certainly focusing on conditioning for the discipline of endurance, so very much of what she says relates to any equine endeavor that I would recommend it for anyone who wants to do a better job of preparing their equine athlete for their goals.  In this book, Wilde is essentially preaching practical, good horsemanship.  My only criticism is that at this point, the book is nearly twenty years in print, and photographs and certain references could use an update if there were to be a newer edition released.

4/5 stars

Blogger’s Note:  The featured image is from the first Tevis Cup ride.   Started in 1955 by Wendell Robie in California, the Tevis Cup 100 mile ride is regarded as one of the hardest in the world.  Wilde credits Robie with being one of the inspirations for the spread of endurance riders world wide, and especially within the United States. 

Trusting the Unstrustful Horse

We joke that the Dark Mare, Lee, is a survivor. She lives her life in a fairly constant state of alertness, and if there is a sign of trouble brewing, she is going to get out of dodge.  In her younger years, she broke cross ties and halters with frequent regularity and closely monitored objects such as dumpsters, mounting blocks and piles of jumps for the presence of trolls, chipmunks and other instigators of mayhem.   While she has mellowed somewhat, in general, if danger is afoot, Lee is leaving—with or without you.

When Lee gets upset about something, she can really revert to a primitive state of fight or flight.  On the one hand, it is easy to understand that this reaction has kept horses as a species alive for eons, and the behavior is imprinted in her genetic code.  But at the same time, it is frustrating because the reaction can be so out of proportion to the problem. And at some level, one would hope that her training and systematic exposure to all kinds of stimuli would result in at least one ounce of trust in her humans, but this has not always been the case.

Lee enjoyed the cow-free cow barn in Maine at the 30 mile CTR.  I was also impressed by her overall "coping" here, including the wind blowing hard all night, which rattled the metal roof panels to no end.
Lee enjoyed the cow-free cow barn in Maine at the 30 mile CTR. I was also impressed by her overall “coping” here, including the wind blowing hard all night, which rattled the metal roof panels to no end.

As a result of dealing with this behavior for the better part of a decade, I realize that I have come to assume the worst of Lee in many circumstances, expecting her to have mini or major meltdowns over various situations.  You might think that I am about to tell you how my preconceived ideas usually set up a self-fulfilling prophecy, and that Lee lives up to my (minimal) expectations when push comes to shove.  However, increasingly, the opposite is the case, and perhaps it is I who has the trust issue, not Lee.

This March, tired of being in the indoor and looking for a change of pace, I was riding Lee in the dirt parking lot at the University of New Hampshire during its Spring Break week.  The footing was actually quite good given the season and weather we had experienced this winter, but the lot was ringed with a decently sized plow bank creating a de facto fence line and leaving only one entrance/exit from the lot.  I had planned to do a set distance, changing direction at regular intervals, working at the trot and canter.  As I was getting close to the end of my set, I noticed a fairly dark and ominous looking cloud in the not so far distance, coming from the direction that ‘weather’ normally approaches us from.  “I am almost done,” I thought. “Two more laps and I will head in. No problem.”

Lee and I took our first selfie ever at the Rockingham Rail Trail after a solo 14 mile conditioning ride this July.
Lee and I took our first selfie ever at the Rockingham Rail Trail after a solo 14 mile conditioning ride this July.

Almost before the thought was complete, the wind picked up like I have never experienced and began to howl. Debris that I hadn’t previously noticed was flying sideways and into us.  Suddenly it began to precipitate—something.  Hail? Snow balls?  I couldn’t even tell you because the intensity of the icy precipitation combined with the incredible wind meant that I couldn’t even lift my head.  Lee instinctively swung her hindquarters into the wind, but we were still being pummeled from all sides and were instantly soaked through.  I had no idea what was going to come next—I wondered if a tornado were about to blow through, and had the thought, “so this is how it will end”.

We were not in a safe situation, and I knew we needed to get out of there, but due to the snow banks and our position in the lot, to do so required riding the length of the parking lot heading straight into the wind and snow/ice/rain to reach the exit.  I truly couldn’t even raise my head to see ahead of us due to the intensity of the weather, so I dropped down onto her neck and yelled “go on!” to Lee over the wind.  And sure enough, Lee actually went—straight into the wind, neck and head down, in spite of the power of the frenzied air.  As soon as we rounded the corner, I urged her to the trot and we made a break for the barn, wind to our backs.

Denny Emerson and High Brook Rockstar and Lee and I about to start the Hartland 15 Mile CDR in July of 2014.
Denny Emerson and High Brook Rockstar and Lee and I about to start the Hartland 15 Mile CDR in July of 2014.

I was impressed with Lee that day.  She would have been well within her rights to bolt or panic, to scoot or ignore me.  But for whatever reason, she didn’t.  I was (and still am) quite proud of her for all of it and for getting the both of us to safety.

This spring, I had to move both of my horses to new facilities.  Anna had been in the same barn for five years, but Lee had been at UNH for over ten.  I wasn’t too worried about Anna making the transition, but I honestly worried and worried about Lee.  I can worry like it is my job.  The barn she moved to is a low key private barn at my good friend’s home; it allowed Lee her own paddock with run in and access to dirt roads and trails.  Perfect.  Yet I worried.  My friend has a mule—what if Lee is scared of her funny mule noises?  The fencing is just electric wire.  What if Lee doesn’t see it or respect it? What if I can’t ride Lee alone on the roads? What if…?

The night before the move, it poured, the first rain in almost a month.  When I say it poured, I am talking about the soaking type of deluge that saturates you through to your core instantly, the kind that is like a hose from above.  I don’t think I slept more than a few fits and starts as my anxiety and worry ate away at me.  What if Lee won’t go into the shelter?  What if she works herself up into a colic?

As I hitched up the trailer in the pouring rain, I not so silently cursed the Powers That Be for the weather on this most important of days.  The schedule was to move Lee first, then go back and pick up Anna, since she was taking over Lee’s stall at UNH.

When we arrived at Namaste Farm, Lee fairly quietly unloaded, marched into her new abode, and took a tour around.  She didn’t touch the wire fence.  She didn’t respond when her new neighbors whinnied to her.  While clearly not 100% settled, she was far, far less worried that I was.  We did end up having to lock her into her run in that evening, as it continued to pour, because she wanted to stand outside near the other horses (who had sensibly gone into their own sheds) even once she was shivering under her rain sheet.  Once she figured out that the shelter was dry though, she began using it on her own when the doors were re-opened the next day.  We haven’t had to shut them since.

PinelandKurLeeNewCar 100
Lee’s new friends, Taydee the Connemara and Marybeth Applebottom, the chestnut appaloosa mule.

After a day or two to settle in, I took her for her first ride.  I decided to start in the fields first.  Lee’s new neighbors whinnied as we left, but she didn’t answer, and instead was all business.  But when we got to the fields, she became quite unsettled and agitated, and was being overly spooky and difficult.  “Here we go,” I thought to myself.  “I knew this would happen.  She is going to be unrideable here.”  I ended up having to dismount for safety and led her in hand for a bit, full of negative thoughts and wondering what I had gotten myself into.

The fields were soaked after the heavy rain and I was worried about leaving hoof prints once she started to act up, so I decided that maybe I should try taking Lee down the dirt road instead.  I had hesitated to start with this, because the traffic on the road can occasionally be unpredictable and since she can be too, I thought it might be a bad combination.   However, I knew that on the road I could more confidently ask Lee to go forward and it seemed like maybe that was just what she needed.

Lee having breakfast shortly after arriving at her new home.
Lee having breakfast shortly after arriving at her new home.

So I gamely re-mounted and headed off down the road, away from the farm.  Almost instantly, my reliable distance horse was back.  She happily trotted off, one-two-one-two,  going all the way to where the pavement starts near the town line, and then home.  No issues.  No spooking.  No drama.  She was in her Zen place.

And so it has gone with Lee at Namaste Farm. Since that first ride, she has gone all the way into Newmarket and into a little subdivision, she has ridden alone and in company to Adams Point and seen her first cormorants and sailboats, and she has even come to tolerate the fields (though the bugs which live on them, not so much).  She has done nearly two hundred miles of trail since her arrival, and is just one of the herd.

I don’t think I will ever stop worrying about things which haven’t happened and might not ever happen.  I can at least recognize that the worry and anxiety I feel is, for me, an inevitable part of change, but I also am trying to learn to be more accepting of the fact that some variables are just out of my control.  I think worry starts with some kernel of truth, but then it can grow and mutate and take on a life of its own.

Lee completes her first two day 50 mile ride at GMHA, with her friends Roxie (middle, ridden by Denny Emerson) and Camille (ridden by Robin Malkasian).
Lee completes her first two day 50 mile ride at GMHA, with her friends Roxie (middle, ridden by Denny Emerson) and Camille (ridden by Robin Malkasian).

I need to start to give Lee more credit for the animal she has become.  On August 1-2, she completed her first two day 50 mile competitive trail ride (CTR), and I never felt one ounce of quit in her the whole weekend.  In a week, she has more than recovered and was joyfully jigging all over the place on our AM ride today.  While I am sure there will be situations in the future where the “survivalist” Lee comes back, I also think that I know the horse well enough to start to trust that she will cope more often than she won’t.

As we all know, trust in any relationship is a two way street.  Perhaps Lee and I are more alike than we are different in our tendency to worry.  Sometimes I take care of her, and sometimes she takes care of me.

Early AM grazing in Vermont, August 2015.
Early AM grazing in Vermont, August 2015.