Our local trail system was built and designed with events in mind. Loops out of a single camp, that come back to the same location. Besides endurance and competitive trail rides, each year they have a "run", with up to 500 runners out on the trails, with distances of 13, 26 and 50 miles. Some years ago, I started volunteering as a "sweep" rider, where we follow the last runners on the loop, to make sure all get in to camp OK, and to let the aid stations along the way know that they can close up. This year it ended up that I was the only rider there to help out, mostly due to our WEATHER! Who would have guessed that for the first day of Spring, we had a huge thunderstorm the night before, dumping about an inch of rain on the area, and then cold, blowing wind, with sleet off and on all day, and then some snow. I stayed in camp most of the day, until the last runner headed out on the last loop of the 50 mile run. They had around 60 start the 50 mile run, but only SIX finished. The muddy cold conditions had the others drop out before the day was done. While those of us who do distance riding with our horses, know what it is to be pushed to our limits at time, I am always amazed at how some of the runners will challenge themselves. Those who started the races knew the conditions were horrible. But they are only making the choice for themselves. When we choose to challenge ourselves with a ride, we also must consider our horse, and his health, and safety. Because the loop I was riding was just under 10 miles, I figured we would be going pretty slow, walking much of it, and only out there 2 to 3 hours. I put on warm, waterproof clothes, had a rump rug to cover up Hanks hind end to keep it warm and dry if the weather turned really bad, and headed out through the slop.
I have been slowly conditioning in some mud, as I fear when we will be at an event, and the trails will get muddy. By doing some conditioning in the conditions, I feel I can prepare him both mentally, and physically for dealing with the mud. As I was saddling him, it started to snow. This is the first day of spring, and the day before it was almost 70 degrees, and now it was snowing and blowing! I guess I am really not surprised, as it seems just about the time the pear trees get their white blooms, we will get one more freeze, and then Spring will really arrive. Last week we saw the pear trees all bloom.
As I tagged along behind this lone runner, I watched him negotiate the trail, and how he was showing signs of being tired, and mentally spent.
I also noticed things that made me consider our distance riding. He had a water bottle in his right hand. I noticed that he was not moving as square and balanced due to one hand having the weight of the water bottle, and the other did not. He never changed hands. He dropped the shoulder to the side with the bottle, and moved a bit uneven. If we ride unbalanced, or have things on our saddle that are uneven and balanced, just what are we doing to our horses? How often might a lameness be caused from something we, the rider could do different? When you trot and post, do you remember to change diagonals to help balance the stress we put on the horse? Are our saddle packs even? A mile from the end, he actually asked if I minded carrying his water bottle. I gladly took it from him, and then watched as both arms started to swing even, and his stride balanced some as he jogged.
I could see the mental issues as he got tired by how he picked the routes to try to stay out of the worse sections of mud. Often I'd see him pause, and contemplate his route, and go off to the side out of the deepest mud, and other times, he'd just plow right through the yuck, even though there was a better path. I'm guessing he was having some periods of clear thinking, and others of just wanting to be done. As we get tired on a ride, do we continue to make the best choices for our horses? Keeping physically fit for the ride, also means most of us stay mentally fit. But when conditions are really bad, and we have had to think about the details more than normal, we can get mentally worn out, even though physically we are strong.
When people ask me about Tevis, I tell them it is a very mental ride. You have to think about so much, from footing, to timing, to concentrating on how well the horse is doing, that often riders start to mentally shut down. When that happens, they do not take care of themselves physically, and can start making mistakes with their horses. Keeping a clear head, and sharp thinking will help you tremendously. To stay focused for 24 hours of riding is difficult. Hopefully if we end up on the Tevis trail this year, I can still do that.