2009 Manzanita Ride, 25 Mile Course: October 3 2009
By Sandee Andrews
I want to express just how proud I am of my horse and our team.
I have dreamed my entire life of owning a beautiful purebred Arabian that is of versatile mindset, that can and will do cross performances in sanctioned arena shows of halter/breeding in hand, arena performances, as well as off the farm on trail rides of various performance levels from calm, lazy afternoon trail rides to foxhunts. The challenges I put Tommy through are true tests of endurance, strength and love.
Yesterday was yet another measurement of these tests. The Manzanita Limited Distance 25 Mile Course is a ride that Tommy and I have been training 3 months for, and really tests skill, courage and relationships between horses and riders.
The Manzanita Race is held out in the desert, 60 miles east of San Diego along Highway 8, which lies parallel to the Mexican border. The weather elements are pretty harsh; it is hot in the day with zero humidity and some wind, and it is cold at night, and the wind blows fierce and harsh, with a cold front through all night long. The temperature difference is usually about 40 degrees (86 in the day, and 47 at night). I am used to the very steady Southern California warm weather; just the altitude and weather conditions were part of the challenge of our ride together.
Sunset the day of our arrival
Our training really started in July. After going out with the West Hills Hounds for a shorter distance training endurance ride on July 4th, I was hooked and had expressed some interest in doing some long distance training endurance rides. Cynthia Binder, DVM, Rebecca Florio, DVM, and Cindy Brevik had invited me out to ride with them (and they were persistent which made me feel good). They really took me under their wings to nurture us to be a good endurance horse team. Being on a stallion that was new to this type of riding, I'm quite sure training was just as challenging for them as it is for me.
There are many things we trained for leading up to this ride. The ladies I ride with and are excellent mentors have been doing these endurance rides for many years. They know what the proper protocol for these rides are, what human and equine manners are expected, and whether a horse and rider team really has what it takes as far as conditioning and handling to compete in a venue and taxing as this.
On training rides, while trotting nearly our entire rides, we practiced skills like riding single file, shoulder to shoulder, stallion to mare, mare to stallion, stallion to stallion, geldings, order of go where sometimes Tommy was in the front, sometimes he had to be in the middle of a head-to-tail single file line at a walk or a trot, and sometimes he had to be the last horse in a line. We practiced passing one another, when to expect more from your horse, and when to get off and walk to give his back a rest. We practiced consistently, and Tommy started to become a very pleasurable distance horse to ride alone, as well as with other horses. I've been able to ride him "on the buckle" for several training rides with my mentor team.
Taking an endurance horse to a sanctioned endurance ride tests more than the skill of a rider's ability to get a horse to traverse a set number of miles of terrain, especially when you have a stallion. For our experience, it also tests having to behave while in a simple 3 rail portable pipe corral in camps with over a hundred other horses and not lose your marbles. It tests being in these pipe corrals just one (or less) corral away from other stallions, mares (some in season), and geldings. Since these are just some of the challenges we would face before a race was ever even run, in September, we held a "horsey slumber party" at Bonn Fyre Ranch, where all of my friends horses are, and we put Tommy in a strange pipe corral, to spend the night outside in an unfamiliar setting, one pipe corral removed from Jimmy, Cynthia's stallion. This is how they would be corralled at Manzanita, so we wanted to rehearse the conditions. We would go out the next day on a 16 mile training ride at Happy Camp, to further prepare for the experience.
On that ride, and independently of another, Cynthia and Rebecca both said that he is ready for his 25 mile ride at Manzanita. I just had to keep him in shape until then.
We arrived to the horse camp at about 3:30 on Friday afternoon. It gave us plenty of time to put the horses away and set them up for the night, check in with the ride secretary, pick up our ride packets, get our camps set up, do a little shopping with the vendors, and attend the riders meeting by 6:30. It would be dark after the rider meeting, so much had to be done prior to that.
Here are some photos of our camp:
Rick getting Lee ready for the ride (who knew a man could braid?!)
Since we were out in the middle of the desert, the creature comforts of a hotel room were far away in another world. Some people stayed in tents. I stayed in my horse trailer on my new aerobed that inflated nicely with a little help from an electrical adapter that plugged into my cigarette lighter of my SUV. This set up actually made a nice bedroom!
Tommy was behaving relatively well for so much commotion going on around him. Once night fell, he settled down and was relaxed all during the night.
These are his new jammies!
Our group of six went out to dinner that night to "The Golden Acorn", an Indian casino about 5 miles up the road. They had steak and lobster for $14.99, and many of us indulged! After a great meal, we were ready for bed and the day that lay ahead.
Saturday morning: Race Day
There were several different rides held in conjunction with each other. This year was the Region I AHA Championship Ride. There was also a 15 mile fun ride, 25 and 50 mile endurance rides, and 25 and 50 mile "Ride and Tie" rides.
I had no idea what a "ride and tie" was before this race, but learned that it was a team of 2 people and 1 horse, and they 'leap-frogged' with the horse all the way to the finish line. One person would ride the horse for a while, get off, tie it to a shrub (there are no trees or anything super sturdy out there to tie a horse to, so the horse has to basically know to ground tie), while the 2nd person, runs to the horse, gets on the horse, and rides it up ahead to another location, ties it again, gets off and starts running, while the first person catches up to the tied horse to get on it and ride it again to another location. And this repeats for 25 or 50 miles.
Getting Tommy ready was a challenge in itself. He was pacing nervously in his corral, calling to the horses that were leaving and milling about. It was hard to catch him, saddle him, and very difficult to bridle him. I knew once I got on him, it would be easier to control him. At least I thought that anyway.
Cynthia wisely decided that we would not start with the rest of the group. There were 70 horses just in our 25 mile ride. Waiting until they started would make my horse a little less antsy, and we needed him to conserve his energy for the long distance.
At 8:00 AM, we got mounted and ready to go. This was about 10 minutes after the rest of the group had left, but there were still many people that waited to leave, and a steady stream of people going through the starting line at all times. Tommy was a handful, and I really had to fight to hold him back.
The first ¼ mile would be a walking warm up. It was for Jimmy, Cynthia's horse, and Orion, also Cynthia's horse that Lisa was riding. Tommy did an extreme collected canter most of the time, ripping the reins from my hands, fighting for his head and testing my strength- both physical and mental. I was on 1200 pounds of pure energy, and this made my ride quite different from many other rides experienced by others. Keep in mind that these are not smooth fancy fire road trails. These are single track motorcycle enduro style trails that tackle difficult terrain, up and down hills, "whoop-dees", crevices, rock climbing and hopping, and specific attention to where a horses' feet must land to get over a piece of ground successfully without stopping or walking through it. Close to the entire ride is to be done at a trot, with some controlled cantering put in to rest muscles.
Although Tommy was never completely out of control, his energy was extremely high, and he did have an effect on other horses that were both behind us, as well as ahead of us. There were several times while trotting by other horses that I overheard other riders mentioning that they didn't understand what had gotten into their horses, as they were acting on the energy that Tommy had exuded. Because he had the appearance of being under control, they did not knowingly realize that this was exactly what had gotten into their horses, and I wasn't going to say anything. I was there to ride my ride.
This is how Tommy was for the next hour. Watching horses pass us, and us passing horses excited Tommy even more. We had caught up to most of the original large group that had left before us, so Tommy saw about 25 horses in front of him that he wanted to check out. The demands put on my body holding him back were draining every ounce of energy I had by the second. I was running out of strength, and wasn't really sure what plan of action to take. At the Mile 6 marker, I was ready to give up. I was already totally spent and there was no way I could endure this for an additional 19 miles. I asked Cynthia to stop so I could do a tack check and tighten my saddle a bit, and take a rest.
I dismounted on the flat, checked his tack, and clipped another ring up on his German martingale. I figured if he wanted to pull, he could pull against himself. I usually keep the martingale on the loosest setting (1st ring), so it wasn't like I cranked his head back to totally bridle him up by only putting it on the 2nd ring. He had a nice kind bit on him, loaned to me by my good friend Jenny McCann, who has been a big cheerleader for our team since we met. I also took her advice and purchased a ThinLine saddle pad. I thanked her several times during the ride (she wasn't there, just thanked that she steered me in that direction). The ThinLine pad is a thin shock absorber designed to keep the shock off the horses' back while riding, but it also keeps the shock out of the rider's hips, knees and ankles. I was so grateful that I had this tack to work with.. It was remarkable how well it worked for such a thin pad. I was truly surprised.
When I remounted at this marker, it was almost like a light bulb in Tommy's head went on. This was "one of those" rides, where we remain at a steady pace and conserve our energy expenditures. I was finally able to ride him on a looser rein, and it came at exactly the right moment.
The only notable happening that occurred on this leg was about Mile 11, when the trail went up about a 60 degree incline. The proper way to get up the trail was to zag to the left and zig to the right, going around a large sandstone boulder that was in the middle of the trail. It was technically challenging, and as we approached the hill, I even said that aloud to Tommy... A quicker pace was required to get up this part of the trail, but Tommy must have felt that Jimmy and Orion just weren't getting up it fast enough, and he dove to the right, scrambling up the face of the sandstone rock. I knew that this move potentially could have taken our lives if our balance was off, if Tommy couldn't hook on, climb, and crest, and we would have fallen backwards down the hill. I was scared, and threw all of my weight forward over his neck and squeezed his sides tightly with my legs. He just HAD to get over this rock. There was not another option. I was happy that we had trained in the Chatsworth hills for climbing exercises so it wasn't totally foreign to him. It was the scariest thing I've ever done on a horse. But, we crested! We made it! My boy climbed that rock like a pro! Even writing it now makes my palms sweat as I reminisce about the entire situation.
With all of the training that went into this ride, there is one part that you cannot train for, and have to do it as it occurs. This is the vet checks that occur in the middle of these rides.
We reached the vet check at 9:55 AM. This was the 14.5 mile mark.
At the vet check, there is a small concentrated area that has horses coming and going, eating and drinking, riders up and down, and a lot of commotion.
You are to grab your "arrival card", which notes the time you have arrived into the vet check station. Bringing a stallion into the midst of this hullaballoo is yet another test of manners and control. Most people are not paying attention to you. They want their "TPR" (Temperature, Pulse, Respiration) checked regularly so their "official hold time" starts. On this ride, the official hold time was 30 minutes, but that 30 minutes doesn't start until your horse's pulse came down to 60 BPM. If your horse takes longer than 30 minutes to achieve the 56 BPM, he is disqualified and trailered back to camp. Cynthia's horses always come into the vet check with pulses lower than 56 BPM, so she can just clock in, spend her 30 minutes, and leave, but Tommy took 14 minutes to come down to 56 BPM. He was down, and then jumped up, and then down and up. Another side effect of having a stallion in the melee.
It is the responsibility of a stallion handler to watch out for other people and horses that are next to you, in front of you, behind you, and with 6-8 horses drinking out of a water tub at a time, quickly getting in and out as opportunity presents itself to water your horse with as little other horses at the trough as possible, you seize the moment. Tommy of course still wanted to spend the time trying to "visit" the other horses by sniffing across the troughs, but I was most proud of him for not "dropping" in this crowd and exclaiming his "mojo". We have worked together a long time to learn when this behavior is appropriate, and when it most certainly is unacceptable. This was one of those unacceptable moments, and he made me proud!
We did our vet check and were released to leave at 10:40 AM. Cynthia most kindly and graciously waited for us to leave, so that we could continue our journey together. I really appreciated that.
Just after the vet check are some more motorcycle type enduro trails ahead that go around corners with high berms. In the middle of the trail immediately coming out of one of the berms was a crack that ran up the entire trail. You could take the high side, or the low side, but if you were in the middle, you would not go far. I decided to take the high side, but Tommy decided to take the low side. He received my "right turn" signal about a second too late, end ended up inside the crack. He tripped and fell, and off to the right I went. His massive body slammed against my right leg inside the crevice, as my right hip smashed against the ground. He scrambled up and started trotting ahead. I quickly got up and chased after him, grabbing his tail and catching up to his head to catch him before he ran off into the desert. From that point on, he was very careful to pay closer attention to my leg aids and the rest of the ride went without incident.
The professional photographer got some great shots of us at about Mile 18:
Carrizo Overlook is at about Mile 21. After we scaled this great climb to the top, Cynthia and Lisa took their cameras out and got some beautiful shots of us with the grand view of what we had just done in the background. Unfortunately, my fingers were too sore from holding him back on the first six miles to even think about ever taking my camera out, and I did not get any photos of the ride. To grasp the tiny zipper on my cantle bag, hold the camera in one hand with my reins in the other and still be able to maintain control just seemed to much an ordeal on this day.
Here are photos from Cynthia's camera:
Lisa on Orion, and Cynthia on Jimmy
At the backside of this overlook, there were 5 water tubs, and I didn't think Tommy would get enough water. He drank and drank and drank. We walked out of it to warm the water in his gut, and then cantered most of the way down the large fire road to Mile 23.
At Mile 23 was the "cookie stop", where volunteers were handing out Gatorade and chocolate chip cookies, some of which my mom made! I did not get to have any of hers on the cookie stop, but enjoyed another person's homemade cookie. At this same stop was another set of water tubs that Tommy drank heartily out of. I could see base camp in the distance and was so happy that we finally made it here.
At mile 24, we dismounted and walked into base camp. I loosened my girth, and poured water all over Tommy's neck on both sides to cool him. This will achieve a faster time to get down to the required pulse (60 BPM), so that we could go untack, hose off and eat a little before the final vet check.
We checked into Mile 25 at 12:10 PM. This means we ran the entire 25 miles in 3 hours and 15 minutes, for a total of 4 hours out on the trail (we had a 45 minute hold at the first vet check). We were so weary, dusty, dry, thirsty, and overwhelmed with joy that we had endured this huge test of skill and might. Tommy proved to have courage and heart, and he needed those qualities to get through our ride.
Again, I want to thank Cynthia Binder for getting me through this experience. It is not as easy as it may sound, and thus the reason for the 25 Mile Blog. There are many other short stories that I could add to this, but for now, this is our ride experience, and I am happy to share it with you. Thanks for reading!
Sandee Andrews & Reflection SA