Winters in Canada are unforgiving. We get temperatures down to -25°C (-13°F), several feet of snow, and arctic winds that feel like your skin is being stripped away. Periodically we also get beautiful warm sunny days, which seem like a brief respite but actually melt and re-freeze the good footing into sheets of sheer ice. So what do we do all winter (other than curl up by the wood stove and drink homemade cider)?
We ride! Wildfire Arabians was founded bordering the Larose Forest, which boasts many user groups including ATVs and snowmobiles. This means beautifully-groomed packed-snow trails throughout the forest. We share with the motorized vehicles - Wildfire horses aren't keen on a group of forty stinky, roaring machines sliding by, but will tolerate it - and can go for hours all through the forest. We're pretty spoiled!
What do we work on? In general, we don't. We don't worry about keeping the horses conditioned, or pushing for our goals. The days are short and even our groomed trails are sometimes unrideable. We take this time to enjoy the winter sun and the fuzzy ponies without thinking about the upcoming competition season (in theory!). It's a great time to bring the kids out or take a hubby out for a ride!
This year we're also using the winter to plan our very first Spring ride, set for the end of May (https://www.facebook.com/events/701561253346041/). Wildfire family members are involved in everything from Ride and Trail Management to food preparation and manure pickup. Armed with spreadsheets, rule books, and wine, the Spring Fling ride should be a fantastic start-of-season ride for Eastern Ontario (and Quebec!) riders.
So, we are keeping ourselves busy, and it's startling to think that the first OCTRA-sanctioned rides start in only two months! (Although the first Eastern Ontario ride is a training clinic in three months, followed by our Spring Fling ride). The horses maintain (or improve) their condition with rides through snow, while antsy riders think way too far in the future about strategies for upcoming rides and excitedly plan for the Spring Fling. My next post will likely be about the joys and challenges of being a Ride Manager, for those of you who want to charge down that road!
This past weekend was Lopin' Larose, the Competitive Trail Ride (and now Endurance!) ride that Wildfire Arabians members help host in the Larose Forest. Like last year I was Trail Master this year (along with Laura and Madison), but unlike last year I also rode in the 50 mile Endurance competition with Fancie Footwork (Vienna), while L and M were Base Camp Trail Masters, and darn good at it! Sarah completed her very first 50 mile ride on Summer Wildfire (Sasha), after Sasha's lessor Alex hurt her leg at rugby and Starlet (originally slated to be Sarah's mount) sustained a very nasty kick injury two weeks ago and was unable to compete. Last minute shuffling... as well as a week full of crazy last-minute re-routing of 80% of the trails diligently mapped and carefully measured (stay tuned for a future post about that!). Added to the fact that Sarah hasn't ridden since she went back to university at the beginning of September... a lot of factors to build into our ride!
The ride went well, with a lot of positives and a few very good lessons learned. I don't know how we placed (out of a group of 22, I believe!), but we were definitely slower than the majority of horses for a variety of reasons. Things we learned this time around:
- It was cool and humid with periodic rain showers, so as we did at Tay Valley we electrolyted the horses at each water stop. We also let the horses have a few bites of grass at each water stop. It wastes time, but it also perks them up for the next stretch. We also fed even more grain (mainly beet pulp, lots of water, lots of electrolytes) at each hold. The horses had perfect hydration parameters and low heart rates all day, as well as not having an energy crash at mile 45, so this strategy seemed to work!
- Vanessa, Charlene, and Katie were fantastic at keeping riders fed and watered. Neither Sarah nor I had an energy slump from lack of hydration or nutrition, so I'm glad we've hit upon this strategy, too! (For those interested: pickle and mayonnaise sandwiches, granola bars, Oreos, and G2 Gatorade).
- Having Madison and Laura as Trail Masters for the day of the ride was a new thing for me, and I've never felt as confident in anyone as I have in those two ladies. I made a few calls from the trail about pie plates that had fallen off (I blame hungry moose) or other minor oddities, but even without me those two ladies would have had everything firmly under control! Much respect.
- Vienna was very very slightly sensitive on one side of her back during the second hold. Same as Merrickville! Both times I suspect the temper tantrums and tenseness didn't help, but Dr. King also pointed out that there was clearly more weight on one side of the saddle than the other. I have a tight/tweaked right hip (thanks to Sasha for a nice spill several years ago) and as a result I tend to put extra weight on that side. I modified my riding for the last loop and Madison gave a few light massage strokes on her lower back and there was no sensitivity whatsoever at the end of the ride. Back to more stringent and consistent foam rolling on my hip...
- It was very gratifying to ride all our marked loops as a whole. I was constantly pleased at how clearly Laura and Madison and I had marked the trails, minus a few minor improvements (my fault) that were promptly handled by L and M. We worked so hard, and it was really nice to feel proud of the quality of our work!
Things to Improve
Vienna: Vienna is really a special horse in all senses of the word. That little mare has the biggest heart - she desperately wants to please her rider - but she also struggles with her emotions. We call her a Dragon Princess Pony, and that pretty much sums her up: She thinks she should be #1 (leading a trail ride, getting her feed first, etc.), and can get extremely and easily upset when this isn't the case. We didn't start with the front runners for Lopin' Larose for a couple of reasons:
1. This was Vienna's second 50 mile ride (first since September 2015) and Sarah's first 50 mile ride, so we wanted to take it slower than the more seasoned horses.
2. Vienna picks up very, very easily on the emotions of the horses around her and all the adrenaline and excitement, coupled with a rider refusing to allow a flat-out gallop to the front (along with some nasty kicks for those trying to thwart her) would have resulted in some very interesting pony temper tantrums, and a broken neck is not on my agenda.
The first eight miles of Lopin' Larose was a schooling session: if you pull or buck, you get to walk until you calm down. Then we can try trotting again. If it starts to get uncontrolled, you get to walk until you calm down. Lather, rinse, repeat. When we headed onto the equestrian trail away from home around mile 8 or so, a switch went off in Vienna's brain and she was a perfect angel for the remaining 42 miles (unbeknownst at the time, however, the damage had already been done: my former rotator cuff injury had been re-triggered, and we ended the ride with all As and plusses on the pony side, and a completely useless right arm on the human side).
Sasha: Like Starlet, Sasha has come into her own as a lovely "Steady Eddy" Endurance horse. She ticks along like a metronome, drinks when she's thirsty, puts up with electrolyte syringes (she dislikes her facial space being invaded, so this is probably as good as we'll get), stands dead still while being cooled, and conducts herself perfectly at the vet checks. She particularly eats up roadwork and gravel straightaways because she can turn her brain off and get deep into her groove and just churn through the miles (she doesn't always pay enough attention to her feet and can get trippy occasionally on the trail; a trait she's always had). Being thicker-muscled and thicker-haired than the other mares, she historically has more difficulty cooling down, but our management measures seem to work for her so there's nothing I'd really change for next time.
Longer loops are not my personal forté. Between work in the city, house chores, a husband, and other various responsibilities (collectively known as "life"), I often find myself strapped for time and therefore opt for shorter (6-10 mile) rides at higher speeds to make up for lack of longer distance at lower speeds. This works against us for longer loops (Lopin' Larose had two loops of 19 miles followed by a 12.5 mile ride); as a result, both horses and riders became less than thrilled with so many consecutive hours in the saddle. This was compounded by the fact that due to the reasons above we didn't stay up with other horses, and therefore lacked the advantage of the horses' competitive natures propelling them into greater speed to keep up/catch up with the faster horses.
As a result, I will be hosting a series of three 20 mile Poker Runs for the Wildfire Arabians family over the winter, with a percentage of the points allocated for the poker hand accumulated (luck) and a percentage of the points allocated for heart rate at the end. Maybe work in speed somewhere in there? Possibly for just the last one? We shall see. But that will give horses and riders more practice at longer distances without stopping. The horses are physically capable of being mid-pack or slightly better, and I'd like to start preparing us mentally for a more competitive season next year.
Vienna will also get additional "remedial classes" regarding placement in the pack. I will solicit horses and riders to start before us and practice calmly letting them "get away," as well as practice catching up to them in a controlled fashion. Again, a lot of lather, rinse, repeat. It's amazing how far she's come since I first got her - she used to lunge and strike at any other horse she thought was trying to catch up to her, she couldn't walk on the trail with other horses (only prance), etc. - but now that she has a very solid trail base we can start really solidifying her emotional well-being during a ride and get her experience up to Sasha and Starlet's levels.
Sasha and Starlet, at least, will start with the front runners. They may not keep up with them - there are some exceptional riders in Ontario! - but they will be allowed to use other horses for competition, now that they have their slower 50s as bases. Strategy will be modified based on performance, of course, but I am interested to see the improvement in both their times and their attitude if we allow them to stay up where they want to be (they perk up quite a bit when allowed to use more speed to stay with other horses).
Vienna... it will depend a lot on how the winter goes. Vienna's lessor Madison and I will be working consistently and constantly on managing Dragon Princess tendencies with both firmness and positive reward, a combination that works very well and quickly to bring emotions to manageable levels (at least until the next angry moment!). I don't know if she will start with the front runners next year, but she can easily physically be mid-pack also, so I'd like to get her brain happier with a competition setting. Both Sasha's and Starlet's first couple of rides they were also somewhat anxious, and both have developed into very dependable competitors, so I have no doubt that Vienna will get there in her own time (Lopin' Larose was only her third competition ever; her second one ever was last month). She is a phenomenal mare with a lot to give, and I can't wait to see where she goes next year!
Stay tuned for a writeup about Tay Valley (which happened over a month ago; amazing how little time you have when Trail Master for the following ride!), as well as future musings about what being on an Organizing Committee can teach you, and teach you good!
Once all photos are in, a full photo album of our adventures can be viewed on our Facebook page at https://www.facebook.com/WildfireArabians/.
The 34 mile Open Competitive Trail Ride (CTR) in Merrickville was the first ride this year, other than our three 25 mile Test Events (May, June, and July)... and boy, did it start out challenging!
Saturday afternoon/evening/night was full of thunderstorms and pelting rain. Difficult conditions in which to vet in, which was manifested in a slightly sensitive back on Sasha and a very minor lameness/stiffness issue with Vienna. Not an auspicious start to a competition weekend! Setting up camp with sodden clothes and boots filled with rain was no fun, and instead of our usual walkabout in camp with wine glasses, socializing with everyone, we retired early to the tent to snuggle up (dry!) and play cards by the romantic light of a cell phone. At least we stayed dry overnight, although it continued to rain.... the loud outdoor party going on across the street didn't help sound sleep, though, let me tell you!
The day dawned cloudy and muggy. Because of how many horses presented the day before with sore backs/muscle stiffness from the weather, everyone needed a re-check. Vienna trotted out with an almost imperceptible irregular gait, but was cleared to start, with the hopes that it was muscle stiffness she could work out of. Sasha's back showed no signs of sensitivity and she often is sensitive at home when she's wet, so she was also cleared.
We had only heard a couple of kerfuffles during the night when a pony accidentally touched the electric line, and the horses were perky and excited for breakfast. I was running around making sure the crew knew what to bring to the crew area, so Katie tacked up Vienna for me. DISASTER... somehow we only had two girths for three saddles! Luckily veteran rider Donna had an extra girth in her trailer which fit the saddle. Unfortunately it ended up giving poor Vienna girth galls by the end of the ride, but at the time it was a godsend!
All three Wildfire teams went out together, with Vienna in the lead (where she's most comfortable!). From the get-go Vienna was not herself. She was spooking at absolutely mundane things - something she never does at home - and was very choppy. I became frustrated quickly, so I put Vienna behind Star and Sasha. Trotting was okay, but cantering was a nightmare, with Vienna bucking constantly, and not her little usual bunnyhops but big rodeo bucks. I sent Sarah and Alex ahead without me to do the first loop while I headed back to camp, thinking that Vienna was lame after all...
However, after a minute I turned around and continued down the trail alone at a walk. A minute later I asked for a trot, and what a beautiful, soft trot it was! Two minutes later I asked for a canter, and Vienna picked up her smooth rocking-horse canter, perfectly content. Lightbulb moment: this was Vienna's second ride ever and the first in approximately a year. She wasn't lame, she was overwhelmed! Because Vienna does the same mileage and speed as Sasha and Star at home, I hadn't accounted for her greenness at rides and her heightened emotions as a result. Together we rode a beautiful first loop, mostly alone, and came in to camp happy!
Sasha and Star had reduced gut sounds at the vet check. They weren't drinking as much on the trail as usual, due to the humidity. We had electrolyted them the night before and in the morning, as well as at the vet check, but we packed syringes for the second loop to encourage more drinking at the stops on trail. Sasha and Vienna happily slurped up their grain and stuffed hay and grass in their faces, while supermodel Starlet browsed delicately through the grass. She got more electrolyte syringes than the other two to account for missing the electrolytes in her grain (Vienna happily ate leftovers!)
Sasha and Star had come in only five minutes ahead of Vienna, so all three Wildfire teams went out together for the second loop. It was hotter and more humid, but the horses drank better on trail and we electrolyted several times throughout. We met up with riders, passed riders, and had riders pass us, so it was ever-changing - part of the fun! Vienna easily picks up on other horses' emotions, however, so there was ongoing management to keep her happy (more bucks in behind Sasha, but she'll canter slightly less grumpily behind Star. All to do with the pecking order). Sarah was in charge of time management, and did a fantastic job. We all came in off the second loop together at the exact right time (6.25 hours).
At the vet check Sasha had slight back sensitivity and a tiny girth gall. Her girth is some top-of-the-line girth that was mistakenly sent to me; the other girls ride in "cheap" neoprene girths which have never caused a problem. Sasha will be getting a new girth! Vienna had a slightly sore lower back and girth galls from the borrowed girth. It was suggested that the back soreness could be from saddle fit (more on that later). Both Sasha and Vienna were lazy and reluctant during the trot-out; Sasha probably due to obstinacy (more practice needed!) and Vienna likely because she wasn't feeling physically perfect. To be fair, both had lovely straight-line trot-outs (which is the only thing we practice at home), but CTR also requires circles both ways and that's where we embarrassed ourselves... ! Starlet was a superstar, finishing with no issues and performing perfectly at the trot-out. Show off!
Katie and Colin were waiting with snacks and drinks for the riders and more delicious food for the ponies, who hoovered everything down. Hydration parameters were all perfect and all had good gut sounds as well as heart rate below parameter, so we were all very happy and proud! First ride of the season... always nerve-wracking, always a huge learning experience, and always so much fun!
Things to Improve
Vienna: Sassy little princess has strong emotions, and it's easy to throw too much at her, forgetting that she has significantly less experience than the other girls. She needs a slightly calmer start, probably alone, to settle in with her rider. This is a challenge for me, as I'm very focused on everyone else and making sure everything is good all around; however, Sarah and Alex are extremely competent horsewomen and even this year I was surprised and pleased at how little management they required. Therefore, next ride I will try to focus more on Vienna and give her more time to settle.
Note: after much discussion and evaluation we determined that Vienna's lower back (slight) soreness was likely due to her bucking antics, combined with a trailer ride, rainy night, and tenseness at the start of the ride. She will do a 50 mile ride in the same set up (plus her actual girth) and we will re-evaluate after that.
Sasha: Sasha's main issue is focus on her human. She tends to get far too distracted by horses around her and elevates everyone's stress levels by being a complete ding-dong at the vet checks. Under saddle she's perfect, not caring a whit about where horses are or what they're doing... but on the ground is another story. Alex and I will have to work with her to practice getting her to focus and keep her heart rate down (it can spike when she's an idiot).
Note: Sasha's (slight) sore back was likely caused by a ride in Alex's western saddle the week before (she was ridden in her dressage saddle at the ride). She has been ridden in it twice and both times was sore afterwards. No more western saddle for her! She will do a 50 mile ride in her dressage saddle and a new girth (same as the other girls', which she's also used before with no issues).
Starlet: ... our "neurotic" mare has turned into a competition machine! We have worked extensively with her, especially on the ground, to keep her focus and trust, and it's paid off in spades (here's looking at you, Sasha! You're next!). I'll check with Sarah, but I don't think we identified anything we should modify for her next ride, except that it will be my first time riding her in competition so I have to ensure that I channel some of Sarah's calmness and help Star out at the vet checks by keeping my own cool!
We're looking forward to our next adventure with the mares - as of now, I will be riding Starlet in a 50 mile ride in September along with Alex on Sasha, as those two mares pace best together and it's Alex's first Endurance ride... !
A full photo album of our adventures can be viewed on our Facebook page at https://www.facebook.com/WildfireArabians/.
This blog is about close-knit friends learning and succeeding together as we achieve personal distance riding goals. It will generally focus on milestone events and lessons learned, and will serve as a diary of our journey through the world of Endurance
Kelsa Staffa, Owner and Trainer at Wildfire Arabians