Sunday June 7 2009
IT'S ALL MENTAL
Endurance riding comes in all shapes and sizes: challenging terrain, challenging horses, fun rides, hard rides, long rides, all too-short rides. Day 2 of Fort Howes could have fit the Extreme Endurance category because of the weather and the footing.
"This was a mental ride," said Jan Worthington, who rode the hundred. (After winning the 75-miler yesterday).
Tom Gower, also on the hundred, echoed that: "It was mental from the minute I got up at 4 AM."
Extremely mental for the riders, very physical for the horses, for 8 to 20 hours: wet, cold, and muddy.
There were a dozen forms of precipitation that started at midnight and didn't stop till 4 PM, all of them involving some form of ice. By 8:30 it was sleeting; 9 AM it was sleet/snow; 10 AM it was snowing. One local said that for this time of year in Montana, this was "fluffy hail." An official, bundled up in many layers, said, "Excuse me, I'm from Florida, and this is SNOW!" Temperatures stayed in the low to mid-30's all day.
48 intrepid riders started in the murky weather (which was actually reasonable compared to what was to come), 22 on the 100 miler at 5:30 AM, and 26 on the 55 miler at 6:30 AM. Many were FEI riders, hoping to qualify their horses or get their COC's (Certificate of Completion), or gain ranking points, for the Kentucky World Endurance Championship in 2010 and the pre-ride in Kentucky this October. Only a few people 'wimped out' although I'd call it 'decided not to ride on a dismal day that would be a great challenge for both horses and riders, and besides, I'm here to have fun, so forget it!'
In short, it was muddy and slick everywhere, and it got worse as the day wore on. Car wheels spun on the 'roads' through basecamp, people slipped in the mud around the crewing areas and vet ring, horses slipped on the trails. Most riders stayed on their horses going down steep hills, because they were afraid to try to walk and lead their horses. Some horses slid on their hocks going down steep hills. Jan Worthington's comments, at various vet gates, were, "Oh boy." "It's treacherous out there!" "It's hard to smile for that camera!" Just to illustrate exactly how slick it was, another rider commented, "It's slicker'n whale's turds out there!"
Every step for the horse was a risk. "Mud is the hardest thing for horses," Jan said. It was either slippery, or it was heavy going. One rider observed, "All it takes is one slip, and you're done." She retired her horse after 60 miles.
And it was uncompromisingly cold all day. It was uncomfortable much of the time for the riders - those who had dry clothes changed clothes at every vet check, but eventually they ran out of dry clothes.
While the cold probably was better in general for the horses, it made for difficult crewing. The horses were laboring extra hard out there in the mud, and their pulses were higher than they would have been on a dry surface, coming in to the vet checks. They needed cooling down, but how do you cool down a hot horse on a frigid, wet day? You didn't want to pour water all over them because there was a fine line between cooling down and getting too wet - soon they'd be shivering, and they'd never dry off. And it just never stopped raining. There was no shelter from it - blankets got wet and stayed wet - unless you put up a crewing tent, which a half a dozen crews did.
However, despite all the challenges, the discomfort, the looooooong bleak day stretching out ahead of riders and crews, there were quite a few smiles (or maybe they were just gritting their teeth through the cold) - exhibiting that wry sense of humor that endurance riders and crews possess. It has been proven, after all, that endurance riders are a bit crazy.
One rider, Pamela Hendricksen from South Dakota, was doing her first-ever 50. Going out on her last loop, she said, "I'm a wimp and I'm surprised I'm still going!" She was tickled with how much mud was all over her stirrups and legs. She finished the ride. Think of how enjoyable and easy all the rest of her endurance rides will be when she has good weather and terrain!
Junior Coletan MacLeod was back on his same unruffled horse Zorro's SeaBiscuit for the 55-miler, wearing his same pleasant smile. "How's it going out there?" I asked. "Oh, fine. I just wish it wasn't so cold." (Not, "I'M FREEZING MY A** OFF!" like I might have said.) Zorro's SeaBiscuit and Coletan were the only pair to attempt both 50-mile days of Fort Howes.
Things were looking good for Coletan and his sponsor, Paschal Karl, until Paschal's horse was pulled at the 2nd vet check. Fortunately, Paschal's wife Debra was scheduled to go out on the last loop 45 minutes later, and she agreed to pick up Coletan. The two just waited patiently under blankets until it was time to go out again with their new sponsor.
One horse dumped his rider somewhere out on the trail and came running and sliding back into camp. Jan Stevens and I cornered and caught him, while Jan tried to figure out who was riding #149. It was Lynne Hartman, who eventually made it back to camp, and Rider Option pulled.
It was hard to distinguish between some riders, as they just had their eyes and noses and mouths sticking out of their tight rain hoods. You couldn't go by clothes because they changed them so often, and the horses were disguised in mud. When the rain or snow was beating down into their faces, the horses bowed their necks to avoid it.
Eryn Rapp was always near the front of the 55-mile ride, on Grannys Scarlet, along with the Stevens Young Riders, Heather and Jennifer. Julie Jackson-Biegert of Illinois and Nitro led the 100 all day.
Ed Kidd, riding his 14-year-old black horse Merlin, was next in the hundred, followed closely by Suzy Hayes on her beautiful golden gelding, Tezero's Gold, and Tom Gower on JG Saqr.
Loops 3 and 4 for the 100 (10 miles out, a trot-by the vets, and 15 miles back) led up out of the forest onto the flats, where vets Melissa Ribley and Jim Bryant watched the horses trot out. Ed Kidd was the first to arrive... and the first to get pulled out there. Merlin was off in front; Ed said he'd been going along great until just a mile from this check, Merlin had slid in the mud and hit a rock with his left front, knocking himself good. Ed maintained his sense of humor: "Somedays you're the windshield, some days you're the bug. Today? I was the bug!" He and Merlin waited out there for a trailer to slip n' slide its way up the red mud forest service road, and he said it was quite the slalom ride down back to camp.
That left Julie and Nitro in the lead, with Tom Gower and JG Saqr, Suzy Hayes and Tezero's Gold, and Sue Hedgecock and Steadys Temmpo not far behind. Suzy's horse was giving her grief - "He was a raving maniac on this loop - I had my hands double wrapped around his reins!" Nearing 2700 AERC miles, Tezero's Gold has completed 41 of 43 starts, and is a 4-time top 10 finisher in the Fort Howes 100. He was a beautiful golden sight flying through the green grass on a trail below the forest.
There was no hold at the trot-by, but the first few horses I saw stopped to have a drink and some brief snacks that crews had brought out. The rain had temporarily abated, but there was a swift chilly breeze that discouraged anybody from hanging out too long.
Next time I saw Sue Hedgecock, coming in off of Loop 5 into basecamp, at the end of 85 miles, her horse Temmpo was looking traumatized. "We were going along fine after the trot-by, when both of his front feet hit a bog. He launched me in the air and flipped over, and stayed down." (Jan Worthington said later, "Oh, yea, I know that bog. I knew it was there so I avoided it!") Temmpo was stunned; he wouldn't move. Sue was by herself - nobody else around - so she unsaddled him, gave him a boot in the butt, which sort of snapped him to, and he got up. He seemed to be fine, nothing broken, so she saddled him up again, walked him a while then got on him. He still seemed okay, so she continued on back to camp. He ended up getting pulled for metabolics. Too bad, after all that exertion, and with only 15 miles to go; but with 15 difficult miles anyway, you never really know what kind of internal damage a horse might have sustained from a fall... or when it might show up out on trail. (Back home in Utah a few days later, Temmpo was fine - it was the rider that was "sore, sore," from bruising her ribs from the fall.)
The rain continued in basecamp as the leaders of the 55 approached the finish line. Eryn Rapp and Rita Swift made a race of it the last 50 yards; Rita's helmet flew off in the heated sprint, and Eryn's Grannys Scarlet outlasted Rita's WP Front and Sinter, in just over 5 hours and 40 minutes. The Stevens girls trotted in together, less than 7 minutes behind them. Jennifer's horse Phil ended up getting Best Condition. Phil and Jennifer, and Heather and RSA Count LaQuen finished 3rd and 4th in last year's North American Young Riders FEI 75-miler.
The officials and volunteers in camp were huddled whenever possible in a 3-walled canvas tent by the vet ring, while the vets braved the sogginess to examine the horses. Halfway through the day, veterinarian Ray Randall finally put on a rain hat over his baseball cap. Natually, he is from Montana, so he tended not to notice the 'fluffy hail.' Ann Pfeiffer kept the hot coffee and cocoa coming for everybody, as well as other hot treats of spaghetti and soup.
The rain finally eased late in the afternoon, though the clouds still hung heavy above, and the cold wind kept up. Someone lit a nice bonfire in a barrel by the vet tent that warmed you up if you stood close enough to singe the fine fibers of your fleece.
First out at a canter on the last loop of the hundred was Julie Jackson-Biegert, Nitro looking amazingly fresh for his final 15 miles; and under two hours later, it was Julie and Nitro cantering across the finish line 18 minutes in the lead, with Nitro looking great at his final trot-out. Their finish time was 11:40. Julie got 14-year-old Nitro 8 years ago in Indiana when he was headed to the killers. He was unbroke at the time, and, she said, "He almost killed me." She didn't elaborate other than, "It took me 4 months before I could get on him. He's come a long way." With nearly 3400 miles, Nitro has completed 11 of 11 hundred milers, and he and Julie just finished 15th in the Biltmore 100 in May.
The next 3 finishers of the 100 arrived together at the finish line: Tom Gower and JG Saqr, Jan Worthington and Serloki, and Suzy Hayes and Tezero's Gold. They were going to finish in time to get their COC, so there was no need to come in fast, and there was no need to risk any injuries by racing each other in. They decided to draw straws for the finish, and that's the order they drew... but it all changed when Tom's horse vetted out lame at the finish.
"I HATE pulling a horse at the finish," Ray Randall said. "And what a bitter pill after all that effort, especially today." Tom took it graciously, but what a blow. Tezero's Gold ended up getting Best Condition - "Not bad for a Quarter Horse Palomino!" Suzy said.
Finishing an hour and a half later in 6th place was Canadian Tara MacLeod. It was her mare Cairos Summer Romance's first 100. "I almost cried when I saddled her up in the morning, because I knew how hard this would be for her. Many times I questioned myself: 'Why am I doing this?' I got so cold out there. Several times I almost....." but she didn't say "quit"... because she didn't. "I'm so proud of her!"
Bill Stevens and others went out on ATVs to put out glowsticks on the final 15 mile loop for the final 2 riders still going in the dark: Carol Wadey and her daughter Robyn. They drove 1000 miles, from Alberta, Canada, to get here. Around 2:30 AM they were the final finishers of the 11 that completed the hundred.
"A bit of a low percentage," said Jan Stevens at the awards the next morning, "but most 100's don't occur during snowstorms. In June." The Stevens were still smiling in the morning. Maybe because they'd gotten through the ride, or because it was, ironically, now that all the riding was over, a brilliant sunny day.
The 2009 edition of Fort Howes Endurance was one of those rides that everybody would definitely remember. But despite the weather, I didn't hear one person say they didn't like this ride. One rider thanked the Stevens: "Thanks for your hospitality, it's just like being with family" - and it is. Many people said that the trails were excellently marked, and it was beautiful here, and they would come back.
And they do keep coming back to Fort Howes. It's one of those rides that really gets under your skin (or, maybe the weather gets on your skin...). Suzy Hayes, when Jan Stevens announced Tezero's Gold as Best Condition winner in the 100, said, "I hope the award isn't another free entry to Fort Howes!" But she was kiddding. She keeps coming back.
And those who do keep coming back know that you just come prepared for anything, so there's nothing to be had but a great experience and a great time.