Sunday, May 11, 2008

Eagle Extreme - Enough to Make a Grown Man Cry

Saturday May 10 2008

What is it about endurance riding that can bring a man to tears?

Well, I know I about cried for joy when John said he wouldn't be here for the Eagle Extreme (no offense : ), which meant I would get to ride my favorite (among many equal favorites) horse José Viola.

On Friday Steph and I packed up the trailer - I took enough things for a week-long ride, since you never know what you might want or need to wear, and you never know how long you'll really be gone, right? - and we loaded up Rhett and Jose, heading off to north of Eagle, Idaho, for the Eagle Extreme Endurance Ride. It goes without saying, the Raven came along too. The Eagle Extreme used to be the Purple Passion ride; now it's been taken over by hard working ride managers Carrie Johnson and Trish Frahm.

We really did see a golden eagle on our way there - which could only be a great omen, right?

We had gotten a late start from Oreana, and we arrived just in time to park the rig in ridecamp, nestled in a little green valley framed by the snow-covered Idaho mountains, unload the horses, vet them in, and tie them to the trailer and run back for the ride meeting. It was quite blustery and cool, and everybody had a few extra layers on, and were hoping for a bit less of a breeze tomorrow. Nobody is completely convinced spring is really here, or that winter is gone.

Steph woke up thinking she might take it a little easy on Rhett today, but Jose and I planned to do our own ride and let her go on. Well, I planned that; Jose would have rather stayed with Rhett. He didn't object TOO vociferously as, at the start, I kept him with Karen Steenhof and Gil, and Pat Murray and Bailey, horses he knew from training rides, while the frontrunners left at 6:30 AM. He's pretty easy-going, that Jose; he gets along with everybody. We three let the faster horses go on in the cool wind-less sunrise, and we tucked in a gap after them. And boy, did we have 3 amped up horses at the beginning! I was surprised at Jose, always-mellow Jose, tossing his head in disdain at my preferred speed and pulling on the reins, with his legs spinning like a cyclone, wanting to move on out much faster, to catch up with Rhett, whom he had seen leave ahead of him.

The trails took us on four different loops out of camp (15, 10, 15, and 10 miles), covering washes and creeks and ridges and everything in between. And talk about some hills that got us onto the ridges! This wasn't an easy ride. In addition to the 50 mile ride there was a 25 mile Limited Distance ride and a 10-mile trail ride. One thing I like about endurance rides is the choreographed ballet: everybody is doing their own thing - going different speeds, different distances, so there are horses always coming and going on and off the trails and in and out of camp. On this ride, all day, we saw horses on different trails in all different directions, down below us on a trail, or across on a far ridge, or coming towards us or crossing our trail in front of us.

The great footing consisted of soft dirt roads and single tracks with only about 12 yards of rocks over the 50 miles. However, we were warned about the "gopher holes" that pockmarked most of the terrain, sometimes inches off the trails. Now if you're not familiar with Idaho gophers, you might think, "Dang, they breed their gophers big in southern Idaho!" We did see a couple of gophers, but these horse-swallowing holes were really badger holes, and they could have been quite dangerous if you had a terrible silly urge to pass someone off trail, or if you had a horse that was clumsy or idiotic. Carrie and Trish tried to mark them with paint around the holes... but in places there were just too many. If you haven't seen a badger hole, it's as big around as a basketball and, well, it's a horse leg-breaker. It's best to not worry about them and just trust your horse to put his feet right. And, of the 60 plus horses at the Eagle Extreme, they all did.

The trails were marked well, but no daydreaming on this ride or you could lose the trail or miss a turn, like some people did, including the winner! Ribbons or (harmless) spray paint on lupines ("ooh look! orange lupines!") or arrows on the grass directed you where to go. Even where some of the ribbons were pulled by some sabotage culprits on one of the trails the day before, the arrows obviously showed the way. Sometimes you had to keep a sharp eye ahead for the next blob of paint or ribbon. You couldn't rely on your horse, because they usually knew the shortest way back to camp, which was not necessarily the direction the trail took!

The scenery in the foothills of the Boise mountains was lovely - rolling (or steep) green hills, some of them solid yellow from the bright balsam root flowers, sometimes with a view down into the Boise valley miles away.

I was just amazed at Jose; all day he was so tough and competitive. Not in a stupid way, but a serious endurance horse kind of way. On the second loop he went out on a loose rein, and I figured, "Oh, good, he's finally settling down now, like the Jose I know." Well - that lasted about 10 minutes, then it was back to strong, tough, and very forward - all day! Even when he was getting tired on the last loop much later in the day, I had one constant handful of horse.

It took us 3 hours to cover the first loop, and we were moving right along, only walking on the downhills or steeper climbs or pastures with questionable footing. I was hoping Jose wouldn't see Rhett in camp at the vet check, so I took him to Karen's and Pat's trailers with their horses. We'd timed it just right - just as we were coming in, Steph and Rhett were going out on the second loop, exactly 30 minutes ahead of us. Jose still looked for his trailer - which he couldn't see from where he was tied - and he kept looking at every horse that passed by, just in case it was Rhett. He never lifted his head out of his feed, though, which is something you really like to see at a ride. He did get a little worried when I left him to go fetch his food - he tried to follow me, and he nickered at me when I returned. : )

We covered the 10 miles of loop 2 in 2 1/2 hours. We met riders coming in off their first loop of the LD - Tom Noll gave us all High 5's when he passed... it was odd seeing Tom riding his older endurance horse Max, and not Frank! He is saving Frank for the 3-day ride in Oreana over Labor Day.

Loop 3 was supposed to be the toughest one, with "lots of hills," though all the loops had plenty of those! Our horses were all still strong, (they took turns being full of beans), and we slowed them down to walk up some of the steep climbs. We got off and led our horses for all the longer and steeper downhills - me using the excuse it was better for Jose. Actually it was better for my knees to get off and walk now and then, but that has nothing to do with getting older. The cool wind was pretty strong up on the ridges, but it felt refreshing; down in the washes it was warm, but not too oppressive until the last airless wash on the last loop - a pretty darn good weather day overall.

As we waited out our 3rd vet check, the winner arrived in camp: Steph and Rhett! And that was after losing about 8 minutes missing a turn on the one of the loops. "Since I was out front, there were no horse tracks to follow!" You don't realize it, but when you're not in front, you are always instinctively noticing horse tracks going your way. Even if you don't consciously perceive them, something feels out of whack when you don't have any underfoot. And that's the first thing you automatically look for when you aren't sure if you are on the trail.

Jose didn't see Rhett in camp, so going out on Loop 4, he was just as tough as he'd been at the beginning of the ride, eager and strong and still looking for Rhett ahead of him. The highlights of loop 4 included two coyotes, a ferruginous hawk, and bees! We rode right by a collection of beehives just 20 yards off the trail, with bees in the air everywhere - I kept my mouth closed - and on a water trough that had been put out for the horses. Jose was thirsty, but we didn't stop at that one! I was holding my breath, too, hoping an errant bee wouldn't sting me or Jose as we trotted swiftly by.

We finished just before 5 PM... a long ride, a real 50 miles, and we hadn't dallied at all. The horses all looked great at their final trot outs, and they were all diving into the hay laid out at the vet check.

I had promised Jose all day that he would get to see Rhett again at the end of the ride, and finally, I took Jose back to his trailer. "Look who's here waiting for you!" Both horses gave happy reunion nickers... then Rhett gave Jose a good nip on the butt. Not too sentimental, that Rhett.

And all I have to say to sum up the day is, wow, what a great ride! It was really all close to perfect: Jose was awesome, the weather was great, the trails were great, the group of riders was your always-fun Northwest endurance riders. Moreover, this was Jose and Rhett's first rides since their dreadful episode with strangles incident in January-February, and they performed terrifically. There were a number of happy people today, one of whom was Karen Bumgardner. She rode Thunder on their first 50-mile ride together since he dumped her in November and broke her ribs, then went missing for a worrisome 6 days.

Everybody gathered for a delicious pot luck dinner, and the finishers were announced. Head vet Robert Washington praised the riders: of the 33 starters on the 50-miler, there were only 3 pulls, and all three were rider options. Of the 26 starters on the 25-mile ride, there was only 1 pull, and no horses had to be treated. "You guys did a great job taking care of your horses!" We all gave Carrie and Trish a big hand for putting on this ride, and doing it so well, but they insisted on thanking everybody for coming, or else the ride wouldn't happen.

Steph won the ride on Rhett, followed by Lee Pearce, and his wife Naomi Preston. Best condition for the 50-mile ride... Lee Pearce! He was sitting beside us, and when he came back to sit down, Steph told him congratulations...

And the man had tears in his eyes, and something took his voice away so he could barely squeak out a thank you. That's what about endurance riding makes a grown man - and maybe a few other people - cry, - a good horse that willingly carries you 50 tough miles on a beautiful day... whether or not they got the Best Condition award.

Aren't they amazing creatures, to take us on these rides?

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