[Photos by Dawn Hilliard. Thanks, girl! For everything … ]
Iggy has been my test pony for all sorts of theories I’ve accumulated over the years we’ve competed and the horses we’ve brought along.
How it is easier to start a horse who is mature and has all of his connective tissues and bone fully ‘cooked.’ How it is not distance that ruins horses getting fit or competing; it is speed. How horses retain their fitness better than humans. How critical the brain is in an endurance prospect. How training is a more important focus than conditioning.
We’ve had Iggy since late March, and we’ve been making steady progress using all of the above philosophies.
Since he appeared pretty unfit when he came home with us, we just did baby rides around the trails here at home. Hills are always a part of our workout since we live at the top of a big one, but it was all about learning to use himself, getting persuaded that yes, he really did have to work for a living, and no, the dogs who accompanied us were not an excuse for hijinks. He got stronger, fitter, and honestly, all of that went seamlessly — no filled legs, no sore backs, no attitude issues (other than the dubious work ethic — which I empathized with — I’m not sure I’d want to start working after a three year vacation either), and a generally increasing capacity and enthusiasm for the work.
Iggy attended his first competition in Ontario, Canada, at Coates Creek, a 30 mile “set speed” ride, sort of OCTRA’s hybrid version of a LD ride crossed with a CTR. AERC vetting but an ‘optimum’ time window like CTR. I had little concern for the competition or rules; I wanted to see how Iggy would perform in a competitive setting — hauling, camping, vetting, starting, recovering.
My friend Rachel rode our guy Sarge purely as chaperone.
I repeated frequently and with glee, “this weekend is all about me, beyatch.” (I’d crewed for Rachel at Old Dominion 100, so I was hamming it up.)
This is probably as close as I’ll come to a diva, but Sarge was there to get us around. Rachel was there to do whatever was needed if things went pear-shaped. Luckily for us, it was all pretty uneventful in the most stellar way.
Iggy ate, drank, vetted, traveled along, passed, got passed, walked, trotted and cantered his way around the course.
Our biggest hiccup was related to motivation. On Loop 2, which to be fair to Iggy was his first real opportunity to be tacked up AGAIN and taken out after completing a first loop, he was unsure I’d packed enough quarters for the slot.
My strategy at that time when he balked was to sit and wait. It was something new I’d tried based on some wise old-school advice.
I daresay I sat and waited a dozen or more times in the first five miles of that second loop as Iggy simply stopped. Sent Rachel on ahead with Sarge, and eventually Iggy would pick up and trot along, practically groaning with the indignity of being part of the working class. To be clear, there was nothing physically wrong with him. Not sore, not exhausted, not scared, not overfaced. Just contemplating whether or not this was really something he was signing up for.
I am not proud to tell you that as we hit the baker’s dozen of dead stop balks with no outside stimulus, I did what any reputable horse trainer would tell you was technically known as “losing my shit.”
Rather than sitting patiently, when Iggy sucked back and thought about stopping I put my hands straight toward his ears (no ma’am, I would NOT be giving a go and a stop command at the same time) and whomped him, both legs, enthusiastically.
I looked like a fat, middle-aged woman on a distinctly long-legged and overly pretty Thelwell Pony.
He was not happy, I was not happy, for about four or five miles. But he was moving along. And then something magical happened.
Like most good horses, Iggy has an incredible odometer. Horses seem to know exactly when they’ve hit the halfway point of a loop and are heading back to camp. And from that moment on, there was no thumping or cursing or pushing along. He went along just fine. I kept my legs and hands quiet, told him he was wonderful, and just made it seem as though such happy-to-go-along behavior was the best idea in the world.
All As at the finish, a CRI (48/44) that made it pretty clear he had not been overtaxed. He ate, drank, peed, pooped and had zero soreness. Not so much as a windpuff.
So despite the balkiness, I signed him up the 50 mile ride at Moonlight in Vermont two weeks after Canada. Physically, he was ready.
And then I called my horse training friend, Gene, and lamented my sticky horse situation.
He asked if I had a crop with a big popper. I did.
He told me to give Iggy a subtle forward aid the next time he hesitated, a cluck, just the subtlest urge with my seat, an imperceptible closing of my legs — if I didn’t get an enthusiastic response, POP, POP, POP! on the shoulder. And be prepared to ride whatever response I got.
So after a few days of post-competition vacation, I tacke up and set out, crop in hand.
Iggy thought he’d give me an opportunity to use it right outside the barn. And I did. POP POP POP. He scooted forward, all yes ma’am, and off we went. When we hit our creek crossing, he opted to stop again. A little urge, and this time I got some head flings and backing up. Hands forward, POP POP POP!
He jumped around a bit and tried a 180 back the way he came, which I quickly discouraged, and then … Simply … went … forward.
So this has been our story since. I carry the crop. I rarely use it, but I don’t hesitate to make clear that forward is not an option. I keep the rest of my aids quiet, and I praise him for every happy and compliant request to move along.
Off we went to Vermont. Rich rode the 100 on Sarge and since he had crew in the form of our dear friend, Lani Newcomb, who was also crewing for Rich’s riding partner, Kathy Broaddus, I was on my own.
Through the serendipity of changed plans, my buddy Dawn was able to come and crew. I knew I was in excellent hands.
And I was. All day and all night.
The Moonlight ride has staggered starts, with the 100s starting at 5am, the 75s at 9am and the 50s starting at 2pm. This way everyone gets to ride at night unless they are going exceptionally fast. My plan was to turtle, or come darn close to it. I wanted Iggy to see that sometimes the fun went on and on and on … For us, this was a training ride.
My plan was to have a safe start, since Iggy can be a little humped-up at the start of a ride. And I did due to the joy of riding with my chum, Gene, who had brought a client horse up north to ride in Vermont. (Yes, Gene of the popper crop advice … )
Richard and Kathy had made plans to get photographed on trail holding hands, so Gene and I did our best to do the same on the first loop, but neither of our boys was willing to get that close to the other. It was not for lack of trying. Here we are laughing, which we spent a good portion of the first 12 mile loop doing …
At the 12 mile stop-and-go back at camp Dawn — bless her — went and ran for my sponge, which despite having an entire day to set up tack and pack crew stuff, I’d entirely forgotten to attach to my saddle.
(Dawn runs far faster than she realizes.) Note sponge on saddle as we head out for second loop in the photo at the top. (Thanks, Dawn!)
On the next loop, I opted to let Gene go. He said he was willing to wait for me, but as much as I love time with Gene, I knew his horse was going to finish faster than Iggy. And sure enough, they top-tenned. It was a good move to make at the time we made it, although it made me sad.
Dawn spoiled us. I’m accustomed to no crew on 50s, but Vermont is unique in that all of the holds are away and so having a crew take your stuff and also meet you out on trail is a fabulous boost to what can be a long day and night.
This is why there are photos of me eating at a hold. I mean, what chunky rider doesn’t want a photo of her sitting and eating or drinking?
Dawn even recruited new crew. Thanks, Erin! (Yes, I think that’s me eating from this angle too. And there’s Dean, who helped at this hold as he waited for his 100 mile rider — like Dawn, he came up just to crew. They had a very long night, helping friends, just like I’ve come to expect from my tribe.)
I kept waiting to need my popper crop. And I didn’t.
We joined the runners after the hold at roughly 20 miles. At that point, we’d caught up to the section of trail where we joined the 100s, 75s and the runners. And here Iggy thought socializing beat moving briskly down the trail.
You need to realize how magical this trail is, shared with 100 mile runners, through beautiful countryside. We all try to encourage the runners when we come up alongside them, usually passing them on the uphills, often being passed on the downhills.
So we dropped to a walk along a wide road beside a pair of runners, now at Mile 70 in their 100 mile quest, chatting, sharing pleasantries, until it seemed time to move along ahead of them. Cluck, seat nudge, closed leg. Nothing. No response. The crop, hanging from my saddle, unused, beckoned to me.
Oh lordy be, now I am going to POP POP POP this horse in front of these runners, leaving them with the impression that I’m beating the horse around the entire course?
I was as subtle as I could be, using the crop on Iggy’s shoulder away from the runners. I wondered to myself if a loud cough cough cough could cover the sound. Or should I just ride the entire rest of the ride alongside these fine people?
I ended up simply explaining. “Oh dear, I think he’d rather visit with you than go along, but I’m just going to let him know that we need to keep on moving.”
And I did and we went along, and that was that, and to my knowledge there were no formal complaints filed.
Remarkably, that was it. All night long, even though we were at the back of the pack and I knew we were going to be finishing near max time, Iggy’s eyes got brighter, his walk got more marching and I rarely had to urge him along.
The best part? I felt safe. So safe.
We’d never ridden at night time before. What could possibly go wrong? I snapped the glowsticks by reaching forward in the saddle and Iggy moseyed along as though it were perfectly normal to have the trail in front of him suddenly illuminated by glowsticks.
I got to ride much of the last miles with a couple of local riders who I’d mentored a bit over the years, Sarah and Stacey. It was rather nice to have them help me along rather than the other way around. Full circle, so to speak.
We finished twenty minutes or so from maximum time.
All As, and able to wait at the finish line for Richard and Sarge and Kathy and Cowbboy, who finished the 100 about 15 minutes after us.
So roughly four months from purchase to SLOW first 50.
What I would recommend to everyone? Probably not. But Iggy took to the conditioning and training so physically well that the question did not seem to be out of bounds. And we got a good answer.
In the last miles I knew he was tired (of course). And he favored one diagonal over the other in the last loop, so I just rode that out with a mental note to address it.
And after some time off (my fault mostly, work and life) that’s just what we’ll do.
Next ride is a LD at Hector, a fairly local ride, only 3+ hours down the road. Why the LD?
Well, I need to go back, do a little work on symmetry, evening up the balance of left and right hind strength, focusing on my own strength, and since I didn’t do that homework at home, we’ll support the ride and do it at Hector, enjoying the company of friends and the smell of grapes ripening on Finger Lakes’ grapevines.
I’ll let you know how it goes!