Wednesday, June 21, 2017
Hillbille Willie: Standardbred Conquers Endurance!
June 21 2017
A few things come to mind, when you first see Willie the Standardbred. You will likely think, "Oh, my." A giraffe might come to mind, when you note that he's toweringly tall, with long legs, flat back, and down-sloping butt. How is a saddle going to stay on him, you might wonder.
The name Hillbillie Willie just came about because, well, he just looks like a Hillbilly. Curious, kinda dorky (he likes to climb in water troughs, and Jose gets him to test electric fences), upper lip poking out in a goofy way, curly hair on his fetlocks. He even has his own cartoon underway, The Grand Adventures of Hillbillie Willie.
After wondering about it for a while, since she'd had several successful Orlov Trotters, two winters ago Steph decided yes, she wanted a Standardbred, and within a month, she had one. Her friend Heidi Siegel, from Nevada, chose one from a track stable in California. Heidi picked him up and hauled him to her ranch in Nevada, and we first saw the bay horse in one of her dark stalls late at night when we arrived at her place on the way home to Idaho from Arizona. We saw more of the 4-year-old gelding in the morning light when we loaded him up with Steph's two endurance horses to drive home. "Hmm," we all said, not sure, besides the height (he's 16.3, maybe 17 hands) and long legs and plain bay, what we were seeing.
Willie was the luck of the draw, a former pacer with an unknown race record and a well-healed hind suspensory. He had been due to go back into race training after a year off to heal, we heard, though apparently he hadn't been all that terribly interested in racing. He seemed kind and quite sensible, which always puts you a step ahead of the endurance game.
Willie went to trainer Ted's the next spring to be broke to saddle; we trail rode him in the summer and fed his skinny-frame with lots of calories, and then turned him out for the fall/winter. He was sent back to the trainer for a tune-up this spring, and Steph proposed him as my summer project. I've been riding him consistently since April, aiming to get him fit for a 50-mile endurance ride.
The April 1st April Fools/Tough Sucker ride was too soon, and the April Eagle Canyon ride was too hard - too many hills for a flat-lander ex-racehorse. Sure, Willie has speed to burn on the flats, but I think most Standardbreds probably don't come with hill muscles built into their engines, certainly not one with a giraffe butt.
I rode him 3 to 4 days a week on training rides, on average from 4 to 10 miles, over the months, on sand and hills and on the flat, with a goal of a 50-mile ride at City of Rocks the first week in June. Longest ride we did was 17ish miles. I sometimes rode with a heart monitor, because I didn't have a feel for him like I did with Arabians; and the first time I used one, it showed that hills really shot his heart rate up into the stratosphere. With a racehorse who actually raced, though, you're starting out with a solid foundation of fitness and bone and muscle and ligament and tendon-building. If that foundation got him through racing, it should serve well for endurance riding.
"I know you can go FAST, Willie, but I want you to learn to go SLOW," I told him. I worked (still work) diligently on trying to slow him down to a reasonable endurance horse pace. Sure, if you let him go as fast as he wants he'll hold a nice steady pace, but his natural 'slow' pace is probably around 15-20 mph. He could win a 50-mile ride in 2 1/2 hours at that pace… but of course he'd crash way before he got through the first loop. One day, I want to ride him as fast as he wants to go at the trot or the pace, but not yet!
Slow and steady is the key, with emphasis on the steady, if you’re looking for longevity in an endurance horse - like many of us do. If you start them off early teaching a slow steady pace, it can become the one all-day trot they default to. It can take months, or years to ingrain this, maybe longer with a standardbred racehorse, whose pacing workouts would have been at a much faster pace, even at a 'morning jog,' than what an endurance horse does going down the trail all day.
I fed (still feed) him up after rides, some grain, lots of beet pulp, and lots of fat. Over the months, he'd put on fitness and some muscle and weight, looking almost like a racing-fit horse, instead of a giraffe crossed with a milk cow.
And this horse really enjoys being out on the trail. If you think about it, what horse wouldn't like going down a trail in the great outdoors as opposed to going around and around in a circle on a track? (Just ask Stormy, my former Thoroughbred racehorse.)
And Hillbillie Willie the Standardbred was born to be in the West, in cowboy country. He's sensible, not scared of cows or antelope or bunnies. So far he's only been scared of things that don't belong in the sagebrush desert, like big blue cow water tanks that weren't there before, or No Trespassing signs that weren't there before but which I assured him say "No Trespassing Except For Willie And Friends."
Hillbillie Willie made his endurance debut as planned, on the 50-miler on Day 1 at City of Rocks Pioneer Endurance ride in southern Idaho on June 8. Willie would have some long flat roads to coast along, but with basecamp at 5500 feet, and a climb twice to 7000 feet, and a possibly warm day, he'd have his work cut out for him. Could he do a 50? No pressure on Willie. I’d ride him on the first 25-mile loop, and if he was okay and was enjoying himself, I’d ride him on the second 25-mile loop.
The start was nice laid back, with companions Carol and August and Steph and Smokey. The Equestrian Trail started out in the juniper forest, winding among the trees, with my helmet whacking some of the branches that probably every other rider missed, since on Willie, my head reaches up into the clouds.
Willie loved leading on the winding trails, and he was at his best gliding downhill on the log-step Box Top trail with his long legs. On the road to Castle Rocks State Park, some local kids sold Lemonaide at a roadside stand. We stopped for lemonade, which I tried sharing with Willie, but he was not impressed.
The first loop up and around Castle Rocks brought us to a long open beautiful rocky and boggy downhill meadow, and the very first step into the meadow, he took a bad step and boom - dead lame! Dang! I hopped right off, and I don't know if he clipped his heel, whacked his ankle or what, but he was holding his left foot up. Instant disappointment, because he'd done so well so far!
I picked up his foot, saw nothing in the hoof, saw no blood anywhere, so I rubbed and rubbed the leg. He put it back down, and, since we'd have to walk out of there one way or another, and I'd be off walking down the meadow anyway, I led him on, and boom - dead sound! He never took another bad step all day.
Arriving in the vet check miles later, I got off to lead him in, and after taking a drink, and standing around a few minutes, Dr Jim took his pulse - 46. 46! I was riding a pretty fit horse. Who was having a bit of fun in his first endurance ride in the Wild West.
The best part was next: lunch (I am sure Dudley schooled him on this part). He ate, relaxed, drank at the water troughs, and then we moved on to loop 2 - a repeat of loop 1 in reverse.
Loop 2 was just as good, with Willie even opening some of the gates, since he has been studying up on how cowgirls and cow horses open gates from horseback. Except there was that one gate where Willie positioned himself just right… and he was so tall I couldn't reach the latch!
His pulse went above 160 just twice, and only once I felt him get tired, with the long uphill trot on the park road. For about 30 yards, he switched from a trot to a pace, giving his muscles a break, before switching back to a trot. Fortunately we had a cloud cover for that stretch, so his pulse didn't climb too high. We had one more long climb, into City of Rocks National Reserve and back up the long Box Top trail, and then it was all downhill from there, back to camp.
Willie was already pulsed down by the time we walked in to the finish, in a very respectable 7:48 and I had a sound and fit-to-continue horse at the end of his first 50-mile ride. Hillbillie Willie is now an endurance horse! (More cartoons to come.) I was more worn out than he was, working hard all day on slowing him down with legs and seat instead of reins.
I daresay Willie was a happy horse at the finish (particularly eating his bucket o’ mash with The Raven). I'm sure Jose taught Willie to appreciate the scenery, and as I said before, what ex-racehorse wouldn't like being a real wild west horse on a scenic and historic endurance ride!
More stories and photos from the ride at: