Fireworks Endurance Ride

This weekend was a mixed bag of good and bad. We attempted to do a 25 mile endurance ride and did not finish. The ride was out of the Santa Cruz Horsemen's Association's Graham Hill Showgrounds. This facility was great: tons of easy parking, real bathrooms, and *gasp* real showers. It's also only about an hour from our barn - less if you're in a car, but the mountain road is intense and requires very slow trailering.

I took the ponies over the mountain around noon and got there slightly after 1:00. Even though the campground officially opened at noon, there were already a ton of people there when I arrived. There was an option to pay extra to camp the night before and clearly a lot of people had done so. They all got the primo parking spots and the first-come-first-serve corrals. Maybe next year I'll go a day early to get a corral. Nonetheless, parking was abundant and I got a good spot alongside an arena so that there wouldn't be anyone on that side of us.

hanging out with the puppy waiting for the husband

My husband had to work so he didn't get there until closer to 5:00. We went over to vet the ponies and thus started a weekend of "omg, your mule is adorable." And she is, but she's also an obnoxious cow who took offense to Shasta moving away from her to do her trot out and tried to drag me off. The vet was having trouble getting her heart rate and gut sounds with her fidgeting so I had to have my husband come back and stand near us after. This overly herd-bound behavior was going to play a key part in our not finishing the next day. We got all As and went off to tie them up and get dinner.

Dinner was followed by the ride meeting and then a mandatory new rider meeting. The ride meeting focused mostly on going over the map. One section of the ride was through Wilder Ranch State Park and no trail markings were allowed. So there was a lot of emphasis on reading the map and where to make turns. I paid attention and made notes. I actually have an innate sense of direction and did orienteering for many years. I can read a map, use a compass, use a gps, do whatever.

I'm new to this whole endurance thing, but one concern for Saturday was that the ride had a 1 hour vet hold about 2/3 of the way through. The Run for the Gold ride we attended only had a 30 minute hold for the 25 milers. I don't know which is the normal, but the 30 minutes hold would have been much better. With a one hour hold, we had only 5 hours of moving time to cover the 25 miles. The new rider meeting covered some people's additional questions.

Then we went off to feed the ponies their night hay, walk our dogs, and regrets the ponies' numbers as the original grease applied during the vet check wasn't visible. We were also supposed to have an N after our # to show that we were a "new rider." Finally we climbed into bed to try to sleep.

We woke up at 6am for an 8am start. Fed the dogs, fed the ponies, fed ourselves some breakfast, moved the truck into the shade for the dogs and then began tacking up and attaching boots. This ride required hoof protection on all 4 hooves. I had boots for Nilla's fronts and had ordered boots for her backs. I had to guess at what size she would need since she got trimmed on Thursday before the ride and I had to order the boots before then. Unfortunately I guessed wrong for one hoof and had to run around on Thursday searching for an extra boot. So I ended up with 3 different types of boots on 4 hooves. It took us forever to get tacked up with all the boot attachment nonsense and we ended up walking up just as the ride started.

There was a controlled start which meant everyone had to follow a leader at the walk for the first mile. We went to the back and were fine, but a lot of the early horses were freaking out, jumping out of their skins wanted to go faster. I was happy to be in the back. And then we lost the first boot within about 10 minutes. I scrambled off, got it, tied it to my saddle and rode off. Luckily we were in the back or this would have pissed off a whole line of horses. We then trotted to catch up to the pack and reached them right at the end of the controlled section.

At this point, my husband needed to get off to fix his saddle and stirrups, which took forever. Seriously, it took about 10 minutes, which is a long time in an endurance ride. We rode out from there at a fast pace and actually caught up to some of the tail end riders. Nilla also lost the other hind boot somewhere in there and I tied it to the saddle because I just did not care.

We went down to the creek and got to experience one of the coolest parts of the ride, a deep creek crossing. There were controllers at each side with radios letting one person across at a time. At this point we had already passed 3 people and the crossing caught us up to about 3 more. Shasta was having none of it with the river crossing. It took my husband urging her on and me smacking her with the crop from behind to get her into the water. Once she was in, she went right across. And Nilla nearly lost it because she was being abandoned by Shasta. It was a struggle to keep her still until the controller let us go so we had zero problems getting into the water.

This crossing is usually a lot deeper (thanks CA epic drought) and people often fall off and go swimming. This year apparently only one person fell off. However, we learned at the end of the day that another horse coming back walked in, stopped, and just stood there refusing to move for a good 45 minutes. I don't know how they finally got the horse out. I didn't get the whole story, but what I did hear was that he was not stuck, just didn't want to move again.

After the creek crossing, we went up, up, up for a ways and caught up to a few more riders. Then we stopped and I put Nilla's stupid boots back on since there was a trot-by vet check coming up and I didn't want to get yelled at or disqualified for not having them on. In hindsight, no one would have noticed and we could have not wasted all that time. We got to the vet check and stopped to get water and sponge off.

From the ride meeting, we knew that the vet check was about 7.5 miles from the start. In order to finish by 2:00pm - cut-off time for official finish - you were supposed to hit this vet check before 9:30, go out around the next loop for about 10 miles and return to the vet check by 11:30. That way, you'd leave the vet check after the one hour hold at 12:30 and have the same 90 minutes to get back by 2:00pm.

We got to the vet check around 9:45, which wasn't bad given all of our saddle and boot delays. We left before a bunch of the other 25 milers and eventually met up with a nice woman riding a TWH who ended up riding with us for a bit. We still had a good chance of making up time and finishing the ride at this point. This section after the vet check was in Wilder with no trail signs allowed so there were volunteers at the trail heads pointing which way to go. This was nice, but honestly, they were standing at giant trail signs and we all had maps saying which trails to run onto. We didn't need these spotters.

Where we did need a spotter - and there was none - was at the turn off onto private property. Because it was a turn onto private property, there were no trail signs. It also wasn't a well-used trail so the turn-off was really hidden. I actually spotted it as we were going along and said, "do you think we're supposed to turn here?" But my husband said no and - I have no idea why I listened to him - we kept going.

So we rode about 1 mile up a 500 foot elevation gain to get to an intersection that I knew was wrong. So I argued with him and said we needed to go back. We started going back and another 25 miler came up the trail. She told us we were definitely not supposed to turn back, so we turned around again and started going down the wrong trail. Then we got caught up by yet another couple of 25 milers who had also gone the wrong way. At this point I was pretty much ready to quit and just ride back the way we had come to the vet check and be done with it. There was just no real chance of making up enough time to get to the vet check by 11:30. We turned back down the canyon. As we went, we met up with about 5 more 25 milers who we told to turn around. Apparently NO ONE made the correct turn.

We finally found the turn off and headed onto the private property section. This section was really well marked and really pretty. There was also a small section of really steep climb that we had been warned of. It's the sort of thing you want to lean forward and grab mane on. But Nilla has no mane, so I was trying to hold onto her hair stubs. We pushed the horses pretty hard through here trying to make up time, but with the sinking feeling that we could not make it. I lost a boot again through here and the woman riding with us said she had just noticed it missing so it probably wasn't far back. I said I didn't care and wasn't going back for it. Those boots can rot in hell for all I care.

One of the private property owners was out with water, gatorade, and brownies for the riders and a water trough and hose for the horses. It was amazing and awesome and so nice of them. We asked how far it was to the vet check and the owner didn't know but guessed 3-4 miles. It was already 11:45.

After we left the private property, we were on a nice, graded, wide fire road and we started to trot out to discover that Shasta was lame. Had Shasta not been lame, we could have cantered most of it, trotted and walked a little bit and made it in before 12:15. But Shasta was off, so we walked those 3 miles in. Now, at this point in time, I figured I was screwed for time anyway, so I walked in with my husband. It took us 45+ minutes to walk those 3 miles, and we rode in to the vet 1 hour later than we needed to.

We both walked in and said we were rider option pulling. The ride manager tried to talk me into finishing on my own, but I really didn't want to ride by myself because I figured Nilla would lose her mind. She couldn't even handle Shasta trotting away from her, she was not going to tolerate Shasta abandoning her in the park and leaving her to be eaten by lions - or whatever the hell it is she imagines will happen if Shasta's not there. Since I had walked in with Shasta, I was now a good 15-20 minutes behind all of the other riders so it's not like I could have even tagged along with anyone else. We would have been alone out there.

We did our vet check just to make sure nothing else was wrong. Shasta was confirmed lame and would have been pulled if my husband hadn't elected to rider option. Nilla was given all As and would have been fine to finish. I told the vet I think Nilla is part camel. She hadn't drunk all morning, but was fully hydrated. She was stuffing her face with food and walked into the vet check at 48 bmp. She's meant for this sport.

We got a trailer ride back to the camp and settled the horses in with hay and wrapped Shasta's leg. Then we ate chips and dip and lunch and drank a million bottles of water, gatorade, soda, whatever. The weather was lovely, with sea breezes, and redwood shade, but we were still dehydrated. The ponies also ate and drank a ton. They were recovering really well.

At some point, we went up to the clubhouse and were talking to some other riders and discovered that the 25 mile ride had been reclassified as a 30 mile ride. Apparently, it was actually longer than 25 miles and only 5 25-mile riders (out of 40+) had made it into the vet check before the 11:30 ideal time. So the cut-off time had been moved up to 3:00pm. And at this point I was pretty mad. Because I could have finished. If I'd known I had enough time, I could have left my husband to walk Shasta in alone and rode those last three miles with some of the other 25 milers who passed us (including the lady who wouldn't believe me about turning around and had apparently gone 3 miles out of her way).

With some other horses to ride with, Nilla could have easily finished the ride. And with the extra hour, we would have finished before the cut-off time. All of this was a sort of delayed bitterness.

I was already annoyed at not finishing. The boots being POS and sucking up some time was annoying and the saddle fixing was something that should have been fixed before we started the ride, but that time loss was recoverable. Getting lost and spending not only the time and energy getting lost, but also the time spent debating amongst ourselves and the other rides which way was correct was what doomed us. And I knew we weren't going the right way and I didn't push hard enough about fixing it. I hadn't seen the turn - at the ride meeting we learned that pretty much everyone missed that damned turn - but I knew as soon as we started climbing that we were going the wrong way and I should have been more vocal about it.

So I was annoyed, but had kind of gotten over it. It was a really nice ride no matter what. But then to find out that I could have actually finished had I known that I had an extra hour was bitter.

This ride required a 2 hour re-check at the vet, so we went back up. They just check gut sounds, heart rate and a quick trot out to see if they're still sound. Nilla was fine all around. Shasta was still lame, but fine for gut and heart rate. Apparently this second check helps them catch crashing horses and they saved 2 horses last year. I liked having the extra check.

Dinner was a huge BBQ and was followed by the awards ceremony. One of the cool things this ride does is give awards for a lot of things instead of just the usual top 10 and Best Condition. I forget what they called it, but they also had an award for best condition horse over any completion time (Best Condition is top 10). There was a prize for combined age of horse + rider being 70. They was a prize for most loyal rider (I think one couple had done the ride for 15 years). They also had a prize for Appaloosas and one for Mules. I'm pretty sure they just made up the mule thing that day because pretty much everyone loved Nilla. Since everyone loved her ear bonnet, we won a evaporative cooling bonnet that attaches to the bridle. Both my husband and I got a new rider prize bag filled with wine and Equifuse shampoo and other prizes. It's also a really cool tote bag.

Even with not finishing, it was a really great ride. The ride managers and vets and volunteers were all great. The other riders were all very nice. Some 50s passed us at a few points and they all slowed down, called out and were really polite. When we were in Wilder, the 50s were going opposite direction of us and pretty much every one commented on Nilla being such a cute mule. The views - many of the ocean - were amazing and many of the trails wound through the redwoods. Would it have been much, much better had that one turn been marked? Yes. Would it have been better if I'd known I had another hour and actually finished? Yes. But, it was still a great ride and I definitely want to go back next year.

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