On Saturday, I found out that she was right. Ish.
I've long wanted to "let Fergus out" - to have him move right along and see what he's capable of, instead of holding him back. My usual MO is to ride along, not making too much effort to produce any kind of speed, and eventually we get to the finish of the ride, usually somewhere close to the back of the pack. This works well when you're riding with your friends. It takes any pressure off, you can chat and generally have a good time. But right now I'm mostly riding on my own since Fergus doesn't pace well with other horses - he's usually in too big of a trot and if I slow him down it can beat both of us up - and riding on your own for hours and hours is lonely.
NV Derby was my first attempt to "let him out" and it was going quite well for the first 15 miles or so until the person I was riding with on the first loop got a rock in their horse's shoe that was hard to dislodge, so we lost a little bit of time there. Not much, but it put us behind the riders that I'd been trying so hard to pass and stay past. Then later I couldn't get out of vet checks on time because of juggling the needs of two horses and a girl. All stuff you have to avoid if you're trying to stay up in front. The end result was a creditable mid-pack finish - not bad given Fergus' disinterest in moving out on the first half of the second loop, and it showed me the basics of how riding closer to the front works.
Since I wasn't riding with anyone at NASTR 75, I decided to try again. The final outcome wasn't at all what I was aiming for, but I learned a ton in the process - most particularly about what Fergus can and can't tolerate. And I have to say, I was pretty impressed. It's not something I want to repeat again any time soon, but - wow.
Loop 1 - The Fun Canyons
Right from the get go, I failed. I fully-intended to start with the pack, just like real riders do, but of course didn't manage to get his pad on straight under the saddle, so had to make a return trip to the trailer to get it centered, and by the time I got back to the start, the pack was gone. No worries. I let Fergus go into his big walk and he passed about half the field making their way along the road. After a suitable warm-up period, I let him trot, and trot he did. He didn't really feel like he was pushing the effort-level, but we were passing riders with enthusiasm ...until suddenly there were no more riders left to pass - and we shot out into the lead. Oops. Not what I had in mind at all. Now I had to figure out a way to get out of this situation.
Thankfully, a water trough appeared almost immediately and Fergus decided that drinking would be nice (a mile into the ride? thank goodness for small mercies).
Of course, this distraction only lasted about 15 seconds, but was enough to get the four front-runners back past us again, so we could get back to normality.
Or so I thought.
What I hadn't reckoned on was Fergus deciding that these horses were all his new BFFs and that he needed to stay with them at all costs - and so I had a battle on my hands. He wanted to trot through the crappy rocky footing. Then he wanted to trot speedily down the hill - a double-track with a drop off on one side - quite interesting when I made him walk and he, in turn, began to thrash his head around and jump about threatening to buck. Words were had.
Down on the flatter part, we did our best to try and keep it together - him insisting that warp-speed trot was obviously the best gait to do, with me insisting that the use of brain might be advisable. I got cramp in my hands trying to keep it together. I'd hoped to sponge him in the multiple creeks (have NEVER seen so much water on that trail in the five times I've done this ride), but fat chance of that happening.
We managed to let the four front-runners get far enough ahead that he couldn't see them any more (although obviously from his demeanor, he knew they were there), and he was just starting to settle down when the next pack of three came past - the leader of this group I knew ... and also knew I didn't need to be going the speed that he usually goes.
Another couple passed us, causing yet more leaping about and head-thrashing and then around the next corner we caught the lady (never did get her name) who was trotting along at a nice sensible speed and I slotted Fergus behind her to try to regain brain-power.
I told Fergus that Karen Sullivan (she who was Fergus' initial trainer and insisted that this sort of behaviour was absolutely forbidden) would be ashamed of him and that I'd be in big trouble if she found out that he was doing this.
With our new-found external brain (aka, the back end of the bay mare), I was even able to chuck my sponge fleetingly at the creeks a couple of times, and didn't need to be holding on with both hands, both legs, and most of my torso to keep the speed to a dull roar.
We went through El Dorado Canyon, managed Illinois Canyon without doing anything stupid, and came up on the flats. By this time we'd been climbing gradually for about 12 miles and Fergus was beginning to puff slightly and I could feel him working to stay with the lady on the bay mare. The bay mare was trotting along without showing much sign of stress, while F was straining to stay with her. It was time to walk. Of course, that's easier said than done - if I made him walk, he'd then try twice as hard to catch her each time.
My method of keeping things together for hard rides is to walk any hills and trot anything else. We came to a hill and she trotted cheerfully up it and I knew it was time to put my foot down. We walked the hill.
...and then we trotted at warp speed down the other side <grrr>, catching both the lady and the man (JP) just before the water trough. <sigh>.
F took a quick sip and then decided it was time to go. I insisted he stayed there and behaved himself. He insisted we leave. I insisted not. etc.
After the trough, the trail widened into a hard-packed road. Last year, pft and I amused ourselves on this stretch with me teaching pft how to cue for the canter. After which, Fergus decided that cantering everywhere would be a great game.
This time I asked him to trot and he cheerfully shot off down the road.
After a minute or so, JP asked if was OK if he cantered past, and so he disappeared ahead of us.
I'm guessing the Bay Mare Lady hopped off behind a bush, because she disappeared just after that, and when F realised she was missing he stopped dead and I had some difficulty persuading him to go on without his new BFF, the bay mare.
Luckily, he rethought the situation and concluded that the bay mare must, in fact, be ahead of us, so off we went again at not-quite-warp-speed trot. The closer he got to JP, the faster he went and the more I had to work to keep things together.
At this point on the trail, there's a little creek about 100 yds down a side-trail, so JP and I both detoured down there. It was a successful side trip for me, with my sponge on a string, while JP sadly told me he hadn't realised why a sponge on a string would be a good idea (and thinking now, I was too frazzled to offer him the use of my sponge <sigh>). Bay Mare Lady must have passed us while we were in the creek, so we were back to 9th/10th place.
On the lead up to the hill (the only hill to speak off on the whole ride), we were still trotting BIG and I remember thinking "wonder if they changed the trail some, I don't remember this part being this trottable?". Guess that's the difference when you're riding Mr Overachiever.
Half way up the hill, the left front glue-on flew off and thank goodness JP saw it as it flew and yelled to me.
(This was the boot that I'd predicted would come off, because I took too long smearing the glue in it on application, and by the time I got it on his foot, there was a big hard wodge in the front. It was the first boot we glued and I swore profusely at it).
Within 100 ft a massive mounting block-sized rock loomed by the side of the trail (wow - talk about serendipity), and so I hopped off and popped on a Glove. There were lovely tuffs of green grass right there. Fergus ignored them. Gotta go.
I also hopped off for the longish and horrendously rocky downhill and things began to feel normal - we were proceeding at our usual pace - trotting and walking where necessary. Until, of course, I got back on again and F set off at warp speed to catch JP who'd stayed mounted and was trotting on ahead.
But still, we got down on the road and again, things seemed quite sane. We walked into the vet check, I was shaking from exertion, while Fergus seemed quite relaxed and doing fine.
He pulsed down per normal after throwing some water on him and vetted through with just his standard quiet gut sounds (no surprises there, given his insistence that we 'got on with it and not waste time eating grass'). Cooling him off to get his PnR, I managed to put my sponge in a sponging bucket and then got distracted enough to leave it there - such that when I looked down as we started the next loop, I discovered it missing. <sad face>
For the hold, I mostly just watched Fergus. Ate a couple of things but was fried enough and warm enough that I wasn't too interested in food. I think I ate a boiled egg and possibly a string cheese and drank some water. Not good. I did have the presence of mind to pull out my neck sausage that I'd soaked for hours at home the previous day and then stuffed in a ziploc, but felt cool enough that I didn't think it was worth putting on the evaporative cooling vest that I'd also soaked. I was wrong.
Back in camp, I'd been parked next to Kelly Williams and her boyfriend who very kindly agreed to schlep my massive crew box up to the vet check. This was a godsend.
I *have* to find an alternative crew vessel - ideally one with wheels. I love my big box, but by the time I've loaded it up with spare boots; water bottles; enough food for a big horse to eat well on a 75 miler; my lunch and its two ice bottles; a bottle of pre-mixed elytes; my spare pad inserts; my baggie of "things I might need" (desitin, string, snaps, drugs, elytes, etc); a tarp; a brush; a cooler... I can't actually lift the stupid thing. I also had a chair strapped to the top and there's no way I could have gotten this thing across camp and into the crew-bag trailer, let alone have been able to deal with it at the vet check in my wobbly state.
Curtis not only dragged my box up there, he set up my chair and grabbed some hay and carrots for the horses. And laughably - after having told him the previous night that the usual way of things was that Kelly ran around 5th from the front, while I was invariably 5th from last - this day, I actually came in ahead of her.
Thanks again to Curtis for all his help.
Loop 2 - The Kalahari Desert
For once, in my new "make an effort" persona, I was ready to go on time. JP and I left and walked calmly for the first half mile or so, giving the pones a chance to digest the food they'd munched during the 40 minute hold.
It was starting to warm up, and when we got to the first trough, maybe a mile out, I knew I was going to be in trouble with my drinking water supply - I sucked down half a bottle right then. Uh oh. I only had two 24 oz bottles with me.
We hopped off and walked down the big long deep sand wash, making good time while at the same time, I was yanking up huge handfuls of grass and feeding them to Fergus as we walked. He was grabbing them also and I think it did him good and kept him in a good place, metabolically, for this next 25 mile loop.
Half way down the wash, two riders passed us. Time to get back to reality and ride a sensible ride - so I wasn't at all concerned, but I think it stung JP.
At the bottom, we hopped back on, and walked the deeper sand parts. This section of trail on the hillside, winding its way through the sagebrush is a lot of fun, but I always worry about how deep that sand is. Shortly thereafter, Haily Daeumler passed us. Fergus thought he ought to stay with her, but I didn't think trotting uphill in deep sand was really his forte, and after a brief attempt, he agreed with me.
We watched ahead as she hooked up with the other two riders and they speeded off down the trail. Last year, I was riding Roo on this trail and not actually able to keep up with Fergus on the twists - which amazed me, since he's not exactly the most supple of horses on such a tight trail. So I really enjoyed him this year, letting him get on with it and doing my best to stay with him as he twisted around the clumps of sagebrush. JP wasn't so lucky and his horse decided to tuck his head and stumble along and I could hear him yelling behind me.
|My favorite view on the whole trail... and the only photo I actually took on the trail this year.|
More endless trotting on good-to-hard footing sand/dirt roads and I was beginning to heat up more and more. I constantly rotated my neck sausage on my neck to the cool side. Fergus trotted along - he was hot too, I could feel, and was starting to wilt slightly. And we gradually spiralled into how this loop goes - trot as much as you can, but your heart isn't in it as it's SO hot and the roads seem to get progressively harder packed. At the next trough, JP kindly got off and scooped some water for us - I poured one over my head and immediately (although short-lived) felt a little better, and scooped the other one carefully onto Fergus to try and cool him. JP even sampled the warm beer and pronounced it gross. I began to get classic heat-related symptoms - stomach cramps. Great.
Up a hill, more hard-pack, another trough, another scoop (thank goodness for JP and his scoop), through a wash - walking in the deep sand, more hard-pack, more heat, more trotting - very lethargic. JP made use of a bush while F and I continued slowly ahead - except F didn't want to leave his latest BFF, so we had a discussion about what was appropriate forward motion - walking down the trail in a straight line with impulsion, or weaving drunkenly and stopping and turning around at regular intervals? Fergus loves having a buddy around.
We were trudging up the last deep sand wash when we heard two riders come up behind us. I knew these two and knew that they were very, very good at pacing and that we were going to have to work if we wanted to stay ahead of us. They passed us almost immediately (remember the deep sand in the wash?).
But hah - almost immediately we were done with the wash and out onto more solid footing. A turn was nearly missed and we managed to slip past them again.
Right as we got to the vet check, we caught up with Haily who was off and walking and we later discovered she'd walked the entire length of that road. She was very hot.
And as we got to the in-timer, I heard him say to her "You're the 9th rider in from this loop".
The only thing I can think - going back over it now - was that the two riders in the second group from the front had decided to slow way down and we'd passed them in the first vet check because they'd stayed longer?
Once again, Fergus pulsed down reasonably, and I found my blue sponge - right where I'd left it in the sponging bucket 25 miles and 3.5 hours (!) earlier. Took him back over to our crewing area and dumped his tack under the tree in the shade and let him eat for ten minutes or so before going back to vet. This seemed to pay off, as, although his gut sounds weren't quite "up" yet, they were improving and his hydration and other parameters were good. His CRI was 56.
The temps were in the 80s. We haven't ridden in over mid-70s all year.
As it turned out, I spotted one of the front-runner riders having his horse attended to by the vet - too much speed in the heat, possibly. But it meant that he was out, automatically bumping us up a placing.
Back to the crew area and I just sat and felt like crap. Fergus was scarfing down his pan of mash and a flake of grass hay and I looked at my baggies of food and couldn't face any of them. A visit to the bathroom helped a little (at least reducing the stomach cramps), and I group-txted my virtual crew in various parts of CA and AZ.
"Feel like crap and am shaking"
"When did you last elyte yourself?"
I pulled out my elyte tabs from the saddle and looked at them dubiously. There were five of them and none looked terribly sanitary. I swallowed one and drank some Snapple.
Virtual crew informed me I was to eat one elyte tab an hour for the next four hours - by which time it should have cooled off.
Forced down some meat slices, a couple of string cheeses, three goldfish crackers, and a cheese slice. Not great, but better than nothing.
I put on my evaporative vest and just sat and watched Fergus eat. Such a good boy.
Loop 3 - The Grassy Loop
(well, usually it's the grassy loop - you go out, you let the horse munch on all the greenery available, and you treat this loop as an interlude. Only not this time...)
I'm proud of myself, I really am. I got F's tack back on in record time (with the pad on crooked as it turned out - <grrr> - no way to tell until you're on the horse)(and then had to ride squiff for the next hour) and arrived at the out-timer only a minute late.
JP showed up and by the time he was on his horse, the two riders behind us were also leaving. They went out just ahead of us...
... and then stopped to adjust something, so we passed them again...
The other two riders passed us again.
And then Carolyn and her riding partner on the 50 were there and Fergus picked up a second wind. Apparently he recognised C's horse, Scoop, and cheered up and went into his "wheee" big trot and flew to the front of the group.
And then Carolyn pulled off on the "going back to camp" trail while we carried on straight. Fergus tried to stop dead. I peddled. And off we went again.
JP missed the turning onto the yellow loop, but I got us on the right trail and we trotted up the hill, until F came to his senses and dropped to a walk. JP passed us, saying he didn't want to get passed again. <sigh>.
And this is where I made my mistake. It's SO easy to look back and say "if only I'd done..." But THIS is when I should have thrown in the towel and said "WTH are you thinking??", but instead, I let F chase JP's horse up the hill in the hot, hot sun.
Looking back, of course, knowing what I know now I would have ridden differently. But at the time - given the information I had at my disposal - I'm not sure I would have changed much - except for looking after myself better.
Soon enough, we again came across a walking-Haily - I'm thinking her mare was looking for a buddy, as she perked up as soon as we showed up. And we proceeded along this next loop much faster than I would have ridden had I been on my own. In my defense, F actually cheerily led a good portion of it, so it's not like he was doing a dying swan impersonation, but all the same, I could feel that he was just being pulled/pushed along by the other horses and didn't need to be doing this.
At about mile 7-8 of this 10 mile loop, there's a very long uphill and after F dropped a couple of times to walk, then broke into a slightly antsy trot to catch up, then wanted to walk again, but each time went back to the ansty trot lured by his buddies, I once again put my foot down and told him "we're done, you're walking" and told the other two to go ahead.
F was *pissed*. He bellowed and proceeded to do his best TWH flat-walk up that hill. I'm not sure how restful it was, or how productive making him not-trot was, as he didn't exactly hang around, but at least we weren't in "must keep up" trot. At the top of the hill I let him trot again and he was going along happily - a bit too fast, but not ungodly, and he caught a back foot in the soft footing and tripped. This trip sent all his weight to his front end, and he promptly tripped on his front end as well, and I thought "we're going down!". As it was, he scrambled and was able to keep us upright, but I made him walk for a while and then tried all the harder to slow him down. To no avail. We caught back up with the buddies ahead just before the water trough - and then he once again pushed himself to the front and wanted to fly down the trail. During that section, he did a couple more minor trips, and several times I felt like he took some funky steps - but had him walk for a short while, and then he seemed fine again.
Down on the road going back to camp, he was Mr Pushy again - wanted to be in front, wanted to trot BIG, but he felt fine (and sound) - or at least pretty damn good for 60 miles...
Walked him into the vet check, he pulsed down the same as he had been all day - hovering right at 60. This was just a 20 minute hold and I'd already made up my mind that we were going to let everyone go ahead of us and stay for much longer than that - for my sake and his. I envisioned a really nice, perky-but-relaxed ride back to camp on my favorite part of the whole trail - going a sensible pace, not being lured along by other horses ahead of us.
And then the vet saw something on the LF at the trot.
His CRI was up at 64, and she opted to hang on to our card to recheck him at the end of the hold and I was pretty much sure we were done. I took him back to the crew area where he wasn't very interested in food. Curtis kindly hand-fed him grass hay, which he picked at, but wasn't exactly eating in the way I'd expect him to after 60 tough miles. I ate nothing, predictably, except for gulping down an Ensure and yet another bottle of water (at this point I'd reached the "can't get enough water in to keep up with the desperately thirsty feeling" stage, so knew I was badly dehydrated). After 45 minutes, F took a nap, peed (good colour), and started to look like his normal self again. I took him back to the vet.
And he was way worse - I could see it when I was trotting him. So that was that. The vet asked if I'd like them to trot him so I could see it, but I said, no, it was super-obvious, thank you.
|On the upswing - starting to gobble down food|
It was almost half-relief - that I could stop now and recover, but at the same time I was bummed that we weren't going to get our nice relaxed final 15 miles in on that favorite trail - best part of the whole ride. You try so hard all day, and even though you're exhausted at the end, you get to come in on an amazing horse and get that "high" at completing - which cancels out any exhaustion. But we weren't going to get that.
It took over three hours for the rescue trailer to come and pick us up from the vet check - it's a two-hour round trip for them and I was the last horse to be pulled off the mountain. Very kindly, the vet, Marcia Smith stayed with me until the trailer arrived, lest anything bad happen to Fergus or he take a turn for the worse, and I greatly appreciated her thoughtfulness. We have some of the best vets in this sport.
I watched Fergus like a hawk, but he was already recovering nicely - and munched his way through a big pile of mash and a flake of hay. And by the time we were picked up, he'd visited almost every single left-over pile of mash from the other riders and whiffled those up too. He definitely wasn't suffering metabolically. I'm guessing the 64 CRI was pain related from the lameness mostly.
And while I sat there watching Fergus for three hours, I got to think about how this day had turned out.
I pondered the correlation that they'd seen "something" at 20 Mule Team 100 back in February when I let him go fast on the first loop. And I thought about how they'd seen "something" at the end of NV Derby last month. Nothing super-obvious, just a subtle "something". And now that "something" was a real lameness. Had I broken him, long-term, or...?
And I was bummed that we'd messed up our Triple Crown.
But I'm a big girl, and I know I tried something different and it didn't pan out. Life's like that - you reap what you sow. It sucks, but if you don't try, you never learn and go forwards. If you don't try, you learn very little. And I learned a ton this day.
Lots and lots of new information to think about and mull over.
- What worked (he felt amazing nearly all day);
- What didn't work (as my friend said, you get to the position you want to be in, and you stay there... I got the concept, but need to put it into play a little better. Being at the front of the pack was definitely not where I wanted to be and I paid for it in spades, fighting with him at the start);
- How much speed can he tolerate (more than I thought, given how perky he was coming in off that last loop - ten miles in just over an hour. But equally I need to get much, much better at pacing him. He's a good boy - and I was too lax in letting him push to the front and speed along when I know better. I need to step up and lay down the rules more emphatically with him. And equally learn how to manage this big horse. His needs are very different from the usual endurance arabs, and I need to pay attention to that and make sure I give him what he needs);
- How to balance enjoying the company of a buddy with having that same buddy speed you along unnecessarily? (probably the answer is to ride with other riders who are smart and know how to get a horse through rides for mile after mile);
- And how crap was I at looking after myself? (I don't care how hot it is, it's my job to manage my intake, and I failed miserably there. Metabolically, for me, this was one of my least good rides. I knew I was going to be in trouble when I read the forecast was going to be 90*, but still).
Next installment - what the vet said and what I think is going on...