Thursday, September 20, 2018

The Horse You Bought

Thanks, Cathryn, for this blog hop.

As I've only purchased one of my three horses, I'll take this time and focus on Q! Which is great, actually, because it's been ages since I dove back into the archives of my brain and this blog to remember what Q was like 6+ years ago.

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Gorgeous in her fresh summer coat

Beyond her coloring and the added bonus of so much chrome (I love a blaze face and stockings together!), Q was NOT what I was looking for in my next horse! The things I was looking for were: bay/brown Arabian gelding, aged 6-10, already started under saddle, 15+hh. This horse would be my Future Super Star for endurance.

So, of course, what did I end up with?

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She looks so funny in a western headstall

A 14.1½hh, bay/brown, Arabian cross mare. And yes, mare is italicized because of all the things on my list for my next horse, a gelding was the one thing I was most adamant about. I'd ridden some incredible mares in my life to that point, but ugh, I just didn't want to own one! Of course, the Universe got the last laugh on that!

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In her new home with me

I rode Q three or four times over the course of a long weekend clinic with my riding club. She was currently living with the cowboy clinician; he and his daughters referred to her as the "crazy" or "psycho" horse. They really didn't like any horse that was hot, forward thinking, and not a quarter horse. I loved her though - and blew them out of the water a bit when I was riding her around bareback later that evening and the following day.

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Clearly a crazy psycho horse. My complete relaxation speaks volumes.

Qualities that I noted in my first blog post about Q that I really liked:
  • Happy leading, following, or being in the middle of a group of horses and is just as happy leaving the group of horses to ride solo
  • She was forward and alert on trail (HAHAHA)
  • She navigated up and down steep hills with ease, didn't hesitate at water crossings, stepped over trail obstactles
  • She collected herself beautifully over a jump (I still remember how lovely this felt for the first time)
  • Her canter was absolutely dreamy
  • She not once offered a buck or a rear (And still hasn't to this day!)
  • And while she was in heat, she didn't act like a witch and showed zero interest toward either of the studs we were trail riding with despite their throaty nickers suggesting otherwise 
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Studmuffin

Not a bad list by any means! But still, I hemmed and hawed over the commitment to get her. She had really amazing qualities I was seeking in a horse, I could probably let the whole mare thing slide, but the financial side was really scary for someone who, at that time, was in a little bit of an insecure place financially.

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Jumping demo for elementary schoolers on the playground where I grew up fantasizing about riding and jumping horses

Finally, more than a few friends pointed out that she'd be an easy resell to someone in the endurance community after a summer of miles with me. So, even if she wasn't the horse for me, I wouldn't be stuck with her forever! My anxiety-ridden brain agreed with this logic at last, and I brought her home the next weekend.

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Parade pony

After bringing her home, I introduced her to the blog world and got to know her a bit more. Things that contributed to my decision to buy her as noted in her introductory post (thank goodness for blogging!):
  • she's very forward on the trail - eager to move up a hill and not a wuss about getting down one either
  • she collects over jump obstacles in the woods in a way that few horses I've ever ridden have done
  • she's very, very alert and notices everything (even little butterflies) but doesn't spook like a complete maniac, she notes her surroundings and moves on
  • she's a quick learner - figured out within only a few tries what she had to do (give me two eyes) to get to stop moving her feet in the round pen
  • she's a lover
  • she's responsive - side pass you ask?  No problem.
  • she backs up under saddle like a reining/working cow horse
  • her floaty trot is a joy to ride
  • her canter is ground-eating
  • she's in heat and isn't a complete and total witch!  When introduced to her new herd she only threw one warning kick (when a horse charged her) and then she was aloof the rest of the time. She'll arch her neck and pin her ears, but isn't all snarly.
  • stop means stop 
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Right after completing our first LD

That's a pretty great list for a brand-new-to-me horse. But of course, I also had a short list of things we needed to improve upon:
  • ground manners
  • standing while mounting
  • snorting and prancing after being haltered
  • wariness and spookiness around people on the ground
  • screaming and pawing/digging when left tied alone without a human or horse in sight
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She loves a good mash

It's interesting for me to read back on these lists now. I wrote them for a reason back then - to know what our starting blocks were. I knew we backslid with lateral movements, but had forgotten how truly alert yet calm she used to be under saddle. I know her spooking habits were exacerbated extremely by my own poor behavior. It's really nice to read back and know that she didn't always teleport when things caused her alarm. Knowing this was the biggest help as I worked slowly to build her confidence over the past year. I knew what I wanted from her was absolutely within her realm; I knew I could have the riding partner I wanted because I'd had that from her before.

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Dolly Sods vistas of Canaan Valley

The things we "lost" that were a part of the original foundation are small potatoes in the grand scheme of my 6+ years with this little mare though! The shortlist of things I knew I wanted to improve with her back then are all complete non-issues now! Paramount of these, she has impeccable ground manners, doesn't scream or paw, trusts most every human (though is still wary of certain types of men), and is very respecting of a human's space. 

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Showing Austen what the world of endurance is like

Things Q has done in her time with me include, but are certainly not limited to:
  • parades: during the day, at night, with firetrucks/sirens/horns
  • backcountry trail riding and overnight camping
  • countless conditioning rides for thousands of miles
  • jumping
  • fun shows
  • lessons for beginners
  • LDs, 50s, and one 100 for a total of 3 out of 4 completions for LDs (85 completed miles) and 7 out of 8 completions for endurance (410 completed miles) 
  • traveled and ridden in 4 states
  • losing and re-building her confidence under saddle
  • overcoming her raw, instinctual fear of having her hind feet shod  

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Teaching our tiniest student that trotting is fun

I hope to continue adding to this list in coming years with many more endurance miles and hopefully some dressage competitions one day! I think she'd be such a flashy little thing in the sandbox. Beyond being a showy little thing though, I want to pursue more dressage with her to improve her way of going and overall health. Following her suspensory lesions, proper movement and balance are of utmost importance in everything I pursue with her and my other horses these days. I want to guarantee health and longevity and proper movement goes a long way to achieving that goal.

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Still one of the greatest photos 

This mare has opened up worlds for me that I wanted so badly to be a part of, endurance being the biggest. The community I've found within endurance riding is like no other. I've certainly had my own ups and downs, but I've met some really incredible people and learned a ton about horsemanship from endurance riding.

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Such a wonderful community

The other big world I always wanted to experience was riding in remote places. I never had a horse that could go-go-go for miles and miles so easily with such little maintenance before Q. The backcountry and wilderness conditioning miles I've tackled with Q have been the most beautiful and picturesque. She is so foot-perfect which allows me to literally sit back, look around, and enjoy the world around me.

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My very first time riding in the Sods on what is still the most beautiful autumn day I've ever enjoyed

Of everything I've done with this horse, my favorite accomplishments are the Old Dominion 100 and the success I've found in the past year rebuilding Q's lost confidence under saddle.

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30-some miles into the OD 100

It sort of goes without saying why the OD was so incredible, but for those who don't know, it's arguably the hardest 100 in the country when you pair the weather with the unrelenting terrain. To have completed it on our first attempt blows me away. 

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The last ones to finish (and complete!) the OD 100 in 2016 at 5:11am

And regarding her confidence, the year+ I've spent working with her to build her back up has been some of the most fulfilling I've spent with her in our years together. Nothing, absolutely NOTHING, is more rewarding than heading down the trail behind those dark ears to tackle mile after mile with ease and confidence. 

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One of what are becoming many recent spook-free rides with this gorgeous little girl

There are so many more things I hope to accomplish with this little mare in our time together. She's not what I was looking for, but I am so very grateful she's what I have. The trials and tribulations I've had with her have taught me more about horses and about myself than any other animal or human interaction has ever done.

Friday, September 14, 2018

Product Review: Arctic Horse Tongass Long Rain Riding Skirt

All opinions are my own; I have not been asked or reimbursed in anyway for sharing my experience with this product.

Their Claim

As written on the Arctic Horse website:

"The Tongass Rain Riding Skirt forms a 100% waterproof breathable pocket around your legs and captures the combined total heat from your lower body AND your horse. So when the wind + rain roll in and the temps drop, ta-dah: INSTANT dry oven (and bonus: that hay you fed your horse to keep him warm is keeping you warm now, too)! 

Riding Skirts are bound by the laws of nature to be way warmer than pants alone because you're combining multiple heat sources (you + the horse) and trapping it under one big waterproof air pocket.
{Air pockets trap heat: it's why thermos' keep things hot, mittens are warmer than gloves, and sea otter's fur keeps them toasty in Arctic waters}.
The reasons skirts work better than small heaters in separate pockets (read: pants) is due in thanks to the laws of thermodynamics, the properties of heat convection, and something called the “inevitable heat death of the universe theory.”
Layering a waterproof Tongass Rain Riding Skirt over pants gives you all of the close contact your riding pants afford, with the warmth and dryness of a breathable shell on top."
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My Experience

My Arctic Horse Tongass Long Rain Riding Skirt was a Christmas gift from my husband last year (purchased from Riding Warehouse). I've taken my dear sweet time testing it prior to writing this review because, in my opinion, for gear such as this you can't really screw around and test it once or twice and call it good. A sample size of 1 or 2 isn't phenomenal science after all! And when a product is marketed with claims about keeping you warm and dry in cold and wet weather, you've really got to test it in cold and wet weather again and again to be sure you've run it through the gamut of weather possibilities. Cold. Cold and wet. Cold and windy. Cold and windy and wet. Windy and wet. Total deluge. Check, check, check, check, check, and check.

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FIRST IMPRESSION: From the first moment I tried it on, I felt giddy. It's well-made, well-tailored, and the way it moves with you when you move is beyond cool. In some ways, I felt as if I'd been transported back a few centuries into the shoes - or skirts if you will! - of one of the protagonists from the various fantasy-quest books I so enjoy.

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THE DESIGN: The exterior is softshell-esque to the touch while the inside is brushed fleece. The zipper is a 2-way (zip down from the top or up from the bottom), heavy-duty one that is also sealed with rubber for extra weatherproofing. The pockets, also zippered, are fleece and deep enough to hold a myriad of trinkets (phone, the small tripod I use to film my riding sometimes, remote for my dog's e-collar, etc.) and/or your gloved hand. There are elastic straps to help keep the skirt stable in winds or when riding at speed and snaps to hold the skirt up to make mounting easier. Additionally, the skirt has belt loops if you need to cinch it to your body for a closer fit.

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MY HORSES' REACTIONS: My horses are accustomed to me "torturing" them in various ways. I do this in an effort to help them become them tolerant of as many things as I can and to help minimize their reactions to novel stimuli. As such, they didn't bat an eye when I mounted up for the first time wearing the skirt. The most reaction I received was a very uncertain ear locked onto me for several seconds after mounting as they tried to ascertain whether the additional fabric touching them was a source of danger or not. Spoiler alert, it wasn't and each of them settled within a few steps.

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PERFORMANCE: My first many rides with the skirt were in cold, dry weather. From short rides of 10-20 minutes to longer rides of nearly 20 miles over 2 hours, the skirt performed admirably keeping me warmer than I'd ever been on a winter ride! The biggest difference in my comfort that the skirt contributed toward was having warm toes - this is something I struggle with in the winter no matter my sport or activity. The skirt allowed the heat generated by the horse to keep my entire body warmer, which, in turn, kept my toes warm. That alone was enough to sell me on the skirt right then and there.

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The next level of testing came from riding on a windy, cold day. I mostly flatted Griffin on this day through all gaits with many transitions. Much to my surprise and pleasure, the skirt was remarkably stable despite a steady wind of 8 to 14 mph! In fact, it was so stable that I even did a few small jumps on that day (nothing crazy due to the footing conditions).

Surprisingly, the skirt moved very little when jumping an 18" cavaletti on a windy day. 

Satisfied with how the skirt performed in the cold and the wind, I began trying to plan my rides on days with rain. Try as I might to get out while it was raining, it proved hard to accomplish! I was able to ride in a drizzle a few times - and I stayed dry! - but I wasn't sold on a drizzle as a complete test of the skirt's waterproofing abilities. Many things are water resistant in a drizzle, but the question remained how it would do in a deluge.

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Finally, on a ride this summer with a friend, I got to find out! From the moment we set out on the ride, it was pouring rain. Fortunately, (ha!) the worst of the rainstorm was yet to hit and we were able to ride in it. I had donned my skirt and was SO IMPRESSED to find that it did indeed keep me dry through the heavy rain. It worked so well, in fact, that I had a literal puddle in my lap where the fabric bunched as I rode. I tried to take a few photos, but with my phone in a plastic bag and my hands very wet, it wasn't the easiest. Regardless, the verdict was in - the skirt WAS waterproof and DID do well in a complete downpour at a walk and trot.

Pros

I stay warm. This was a bottom line for me. I love riding in the winter but I do struggle to stay warm sometimes - my toes especially. This skirt keeps me WARM. In fact, sometimes I've been quite hot. It's a delicate balance sometimes for temperature control, but that's more a me/my body's temperature regulation thing than a qualm with the skirt.

I'm SO excited to have this skirt for the upcoming winter - my first with the horses in Canaan Valley! Bring on the brutal arctic temps! I know I'll be warm whether I'm riding or mucking stalls - something my toes are very happy about. Because yes, this skirt is just as great to wear not-riding when performing other barn chores; that warm bubble of heat around your body is far superior to any combination of winter pants I've had for any winter pursuit. (So long as you're in an area that doesn't involve trudging /post-holing through deep snow where pant legs would obviously be better.)

I stay dry. I'll admit, I was skeptical that it would be truly waterproof. I'm an outdoors gear whore (see: my various outdoors sporting activities and lifestyle) and am very accustomed to companies claiming something is waterproof when it is merely water-resistant. Well, ladies and gentleman, this skirt is WATERPROOF. I tested it in a few rain showers and one full on DELUGE and was dry underneath. Color me shocked and completely thrilled. The day of the deluge I literally had a puddle of water in my lap where some of the skirt fabric was bunched up while I was in the saddle. I just stared at it in amazement, incapable of believing for awhile.

It serves as a quarter sheet for the horse. I've always pondered purchasing or making a quartersheet for my horses but never pulled the trigger. Well, now I've got two in one! I enjoy having this feature for those particularly crisp days.

It looks really f-cking cool, and I always receive compliments. Every time I wear the skirt, without fail, at least one person tells me how badass/medieval/cool it looks. And I agree wholeheartedly. It's a huge perk to look good while being warm and dry in a world where most clothing that keeps you warm and dry means you're definitely sacrificing some semblance of "attractive". But also, in a society that is so recently focused on girl power and feminism, it feels so empowering to put on this skirt and ride around, perform barn chores, or stand along the sidelines of a clinic.




Cons

Overall, I've found very few cons with the skirt. And honestly, I doubt the cons I do have will be shared by many others unless you're also enjoying a faster-paced endurance conditioning ride in a summer storm. Regardless, I wanted to note them here.

At a canter on trail it does flap a bit resulting in my knees getting wet. I don't half-ass my rides just because it's raining outside. I'm conscientious of the terrain and keep to areas with more secure footing when it's wet as much as I can, but I still pursue training miles at a trot and canter in inclement weather because it's valuable training. I've competed in a few rainy endurance rides, and I'm grateful I had knowledge of what limitations my horse and my gear would have ahead of time instead of finding out in the moment. After all, by failing to prepare, you are preparing to fail! Personally, I'd rather be prepared for as much as I can to narrow the window of failure as much as possible.

The skirt inevitably flaps about some at a canter. In heavier rain, my legs will get damp around the knee where skirt exposes my legs while the horse is in motion. It's not the end of the world, but I do get a bit wet! That said, I'm much drier than I would be without the skirt which I greatly appreciate. Nothing chills me to the bone more than being soaked through to the skin in a cold rain.

Sometimes in our humid Appalachian climate, it's too hot. Summer rain can be chilling compared to non-rainy days, but with the humidity we still often experience on rainy summer days, adding a heavy skirt to my riding attire for the sake of being dry is sometimes overboard and quickly causes me to overheat. But honestly, on these types of days I easily overheat in a raincoat, too. So I usually just opt to be wet if I'm going to ride in weather like that and prepare by wearing natural fibers (merino usually) against my skin so I don't become too chilled.

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Final Verdict

10/10, 5 stars, 2 enthusiastic thumbs up!

I LOVE this skirt for both its form and function. It keeps me warm and dry and looks completely badass. I absolutely recommend this product to anyone in a winter clime or an area that receives a lot of rain. Arctic horse has other skirts, too, that vary in their targeted function (just warmth instead of warm & dry), their material, and in their length. They are pricey, but the workmanship and quality are worth it. The ladies at this company do a bang-up job and charging less would be an injustice. Thank you, Arctic Horse Team, for creating such an incredible alternative product for riding in inclement weather.

Tuesday, August 14, 2018

Miles on Miles on Miles

The past month+ has been really great for riding, getting fitness built on all three horses, and enjoying great company. 

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It's such a treat to get all three horses out at once!

When I sit down and quantify it, I can see that in the past 6 weeks I've logged more than 124 miles on trail with the horses thanks to friends joining me for rides.

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Chelsey on Stanimal atop Cabin Mountain

Q has tackled ~108 miles, Stan ~76 miles, and Grif ~43+ miles (I don't log mileage for a lot of his flat rides - of which there were 7 - only the time and qualitative data about what we worked on).

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Q (and Taiga the white dot) and I on a conditioning ride

It's a real shame I don't have the finances to compete this year when I look at how freaking fit the horses are!

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A gorgeous misty morning en route to Aimee's ranchette; I love that it's quicker to ride the 2½ miles than to trailer!
We rarely see cars on this road...though clearly some dumbdumb drove off it the night before evidenced by all of the berm gravel out of place!

But that's just life sometimes. 

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Almost back to the field! It's behind the trees after the road signs.

Ultimately, I'm grateful the horses are all in good health and that I've been able to enjoy so many wonderful miles with so many lady friends in Canaan. It's been such a treat!

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Ponied Miss Thing for 12 miles from Stan

And competition or no, it's really nice to be able to put such a strong fitness base on the horses. 

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Hello, Mister HunkaChunk!

Q in particular I know will take this fitness and hold it through the inevitable winter break. After a year+ of little to no work following her suspensory lesions, this is exactly what she needed - a rebuild of her base fitness that will last.

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Q after 15 solo miles. Yes, I removed hind hoofboot then paused for a photo lol

All of the horses have been doing so very well with the miles. I think it's been good for all of our brains.

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Aimee on Griffin. The view from their ranchette really doesn't suck. This is the horses' main turnout pasture.

Griffin had quite the hiatus from trails for a few years after we lost access at the old barn. I can't express how nice it is to see his happy ears again when he's out in front. He hunts the trail like he hunts jumps. It's no wonder he enjoys XC so much - it's the perfect combo of his two favorite jobs. Additionally, he's picked up another job he  had taken a break from in recent years and is now giving a lesson once a week(ish) to our friend Aimee. She's a natural rider with innate ability, but none of it has been channeled or honed until now.  We have SO much fun working together! Her progress is absolutely astounding in the three lessons we've had, and she is working so very well with Griffin. I daresay he's even enjoying the lessons!

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Oh yes, and Griffin turned 8 at the end of July! Where does the time go?! His topline isn't where I want it, but the rest of him is lovely.

Stan is as patient and stoic as ever. I've ridden him only 12 miles this summer as he's the perfect companion for my friends who don't ride as often to get to enjoy miles with. Of all my horses, Stan has built quite the reputation in the Valley. Between the ladies who have enjoyed riding him the past few weeks and the men who worked with him during the Army training last year, he is very loved by so many. It thrills me to see the horse I've had so many amazing memories with over the past 13 years give others so many more memorable experiences. He is truly one of a kind. 

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Look at those happy ears!!

And Q. Oh, Q. I'm so very happy to see this mare absolutely THRIVING for the first time in a long time. After a year+ of only being ridden by me as I worked with her to build confidence and trust, I've finally let friends ride on her and she has been a doll for them! She's been so lovely for me, too, but to see her ridden by others is such a treat; I fall head over heels for her all over again every time - she is such a gorgeous little thing when she's in motion. Amy had Q leading at a hand gallop for miles and miles of trail last weekend with only 2 spooks the entire time. I was just thrilled to watch Q zoom along the trail so happy and confident.

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Being a good trail poneh

And yeah... That's basically it lately. Nothing too crazy or exciting. Just lots of miles full of smiling faces surrounded by gorgeous scenery. The year isn't quite what I expected it would be, but the contingency plan sure doesn't suck. 😉

Thursday, July 26, 2018

New Friends & Rugged Trails

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Sweet, sweet Canaan Valley summertime. Not much is better than this!

Canaan is considered "high elevation" for the east coast and Appalachians. The valley floor rests at ~3,200 feet while the mountain top plateaus surrounding the valley are anywhere from 3,700 to 4,200 feet.

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Our high elevation valley surrounded by higher peaks and plateaus

As such, winters are more "wintery" and summers are mild. Our average summer days have highs in the 70s°F and lows in the 50s°F and the humidity is quite bearable in comparison with lower elevations. Overall, it's quite blissful!

With my travel and show budget completely blown (twice over, now) by unexpected vehicle-related purchases, I've been relegated to whatever horse-related fun I can find locally. Which really doesn't suck! Sure, I'm not honing in, tweaking, or vastly improving certain aspects of dressage or jumping like I'd hoped to do. Nor am I testing our eventing prowess against peers. But we sure as shit aren't just sitting around doing nothing!

In fact, with the aid of friends new and old, all three horses are getting out on trail, building fitness a few times a week. It's been pretty fantastic.

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Our ride track in blue, public lands trails in red and green

The most epic ride so far was this past Sunday. Though it didn't quite go as planned! The beginning was fraught with miscommunication and the end was a mess with some uncertainty finding the correct trail home. Fortunately, everyone and animal made it back in one piece and the whole experience made my heart SO happy.

Two huge and exciting things happened as a part of this ride: (1) I finally got to meet the new endurance family that moved to Canaan after years in Brazil, and (2) Q was a fucking rockstar.

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Originally, I was to meet the new family and Dan at 5pm to strike out on our ride. Instead, I left my house at 1pm to get Q ready and then met Chuck around 1:30pm and we rode 4 miles across the valley to the family's new farm.

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Upon arrival, I was so delighted to finally meet Chris, Aimee, and Annamaria. They're very into endurance and will quickly become well-known within the region, I expect! For me, it means more opportunities to share travel to rides and company for conditioning rides. Between Dan, this family, and myself, we've got quite the endurance contingent in Canaan again for the first time since the 70s and 80s.

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While waiting for our meet with Dan later, Chuck talked us all into seeing a few "shortcuts" within the Timberline development. So Annamaria, Chris, Chuck, and I all headed out for a pretty easy 6 mile meander.

Chuck's horse was increasingly difficult to deal with as the ride went on. Over the course of the day he broke the reins twice and Chuck fell off at least once. As a result, Chuck opted to head home while Chris and Annamaria and I headed back to their barn to await Dan's arrival.

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Waiting for Dan coincided perfectly with the only rainfall of the day. While I don't mind rain, I'll admit it was really nice to get to chill under a roof for those 30 minutes!

Dan showed up as the rain slacked off. He'd brought an extra horse along for Annamaria to ride so her mom could have her horse back.

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The five of us struck out from their house to the closest trailhead, the same one I'd navigated to a few weeks ago on Q.

Dan, riding Butch, led us to the trailhead and down the first mile or so of trail. Throughout this time, he remarked to me how good Q was being. "Thanks," I replied, "I've really been working with her to build her confidence!"

"Want to get her out front for awhile?" he asked.

"Sure, why not!" I answered.

And like that, Q pushed into the front for several miles of trail. She was alert, but the feeling of sitting on a powder keg ready to blow and spook hard at any moment was absent. She didn't move out quite as fast as Butch does (Dan has an uncanny ability that enables him to put a 12-14 mph trot on every horse he works with), but it was a very respectable pace nonetheless!

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Eventually, we reached a junction in the trail. Chris wanted to head to the right which would take us up into Dolly Sods where we could then loop back to Timberline. I've looked at this route on maps but hadn't yet traveled it, so I quickly agreed with his plan.

Q and I took the lead again and headed down a completely new-to-us trail!

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As with many trails throughout Canaan and the Sods, we quickly came to a short boardwalk bridge gapping first a wetland and then a small stream. Fortunately, Q has never questioned bridges like this. We tackled the first one with no issue, but the second one was a bit more precarious, so I opted to dismount and lead her over it.

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Crossing the first bridges

The others dismounted for both and all but Chris on his new horse Beijo crossed with minimal issue. Beijo was NOT okay with the bridges or the water though! Trolls clearly live under them, if you asked him. Chris and I worked in tandem from the ground to get Beijo across. It took several minutes, but he did finally cross.

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As we struck out again, Dan and Butch took the lead for a time. But then we came to another bridge where Butch expressed strongly that he agreed with Beijo's view about the potential for trolls. So I leapfrogged Q around him and we struck off in the lead again.

That bridge would be the first of nearly a dozen! Every horse was quite confirmed with crossing by the end, most following Q's lead and trotting across with no hesitation.

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Finally, we reached the end of the bridge-riddled trail and climbed up Cabin Mountain into Dolly Sods.

We knew roughly where we were, but weren't 100% certain about the best way to link back to trails we knew. My inner compass screamed to go one way, and Chris agreed, but Dan insisted another. As Dan knows the Sods best, we went with his idea first.

After reaching a certain viewpoint along the trail, Dan changed his mind and we all turned around to head back the way Chris and I thought was right.

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Well, it turns out Dan's hunch was correct. If we'd only continued another ½-mile, we'd have confirmed that! As it was, we ended up conquering a new section of trail that horses most likely had never been on before - at least not on purpose!

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A normal type of rugged trail

If you've followed this blog for any length of time, you've seen the kind of terrain I often ride. It's riddled with rocks and often resembles a creekbed more than a trail. As a result, I don't often complain about rugged trails or balk at much of anything. It is what it is, and it's what I'm used to and my horses are adept at dealing with it.

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Also a normal rugged trail

So it may come as a bit of a surprise when I tell you that the pieces of trail we crossed in error to get home amidst a quickly darkening sky on this ride were FUCKING RUGGED AS HELL. Like, I would NOT have done them without Dan present, and if I find myself in that situation again I will quickly turn tail and retrace my path no matter how long it may take.

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ALSO our rugged norm

You see, we found ourselves amidst one of the several boulder fields that make up this area of the Sods. These areas aren't hard for hikers who can adeptly hop the gaps between the boulder tops, which are anywhere from 5 to 30+ feet high. But with a horse? Yeahhhhhhhhh... Not so much!

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My husband for scale...definitely not horse-friendly terrain!
On the day of our ride, we unfortunately found ourselves on a trail that led to the tops of boulders that had drop offs like these

Dan in the lead on Butch quickly dismounted upon reaching the first tricky section. He handed me Butch's reins and scouted ahead, calling back to us, "This is a no go. I'm going to try to find a work around." *cue rustling of shrubs, trees, and other vegetation as Dan scuffled through the very dense understory*

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Once again, the type of rugged trail we're used to

With a few broken branches to provide passage, Dan found us a workaround for the boulder field. He had each rider lead their horse to him to lead down in turn. With Chris et al. in the clear, Q and I queued up.

I stepped off the trail toward the workaround and squatted down to pick some blueberries while I waited for Dan to walk back up. Q, interested in following the other horses even though Butch was still behind with us, followed me and sidestepped me as I was picking blueberries. I cautioned her with my voice and she stopped, but not before her right hind broke through the thin humus layer atop the rocks that make up the Sods, sinking down to her hock into a very rocky void.

For context: Dolly Sods and the surrounding areas (and most of West Virginia) were heavily timbered in the early 1900s. In order to get the timber to surrounding cities, it was floated downstream on the Blackwater River where it was loaded into waiting trains in Davis. The steam engines that powered the trains often flung still-burning coals from their chimneys as they traveled through the mountains; these coals often started forest fires that would smolder in the rich, organic humus layer for months and years on end. The only thing that would truly put them out was a long, hard winter of heavy snow. The present day result of those long-smoldering fires is a lot of exposed rock and a thin layer of humus and soil with hardy trees that cling to rocks under the shallow layer of humus/soil.

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Questioning my life choices.
Stirrups tossed up on the saddle to avoid getting caught in spruce branches
You get an idea from this photo how narrow the areas we passed were - and this is a GOOD section!

My eyes bugged out of my head as I watched Q's hind leg sink down to the hock in that void. In a matter of milliseconds, my brain conjured up images of Q breaking the leg and the resulting tussle as she thrashed in pain as I inevitably screamed for Dan to come help calm her and then put her down (how?!) right then and there in the backcountry.

As my shocked brain took all of 1 second to process and another second to fire the synapses required to reach out to Q and open my mouth to talk to her, my Very Smart Mare carefully extracted her hind leg from the void and set it down in a safe place.

I quickly led her away from the area back onto the trail where she then took weight off of the right hind as I watched blood bubble to the surface along numerous scrapes. In no time at all, I was sitting underneath her in the tight quarters assessing every inch of her leg from the hock down. The skin was broken, certainly, but only the upper layer(s) of epidermis. Nothing had punctured below that, there was no swelling, and the bleeding was minimal and roughly the equivalent of turf burn.

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Grateful to be in a much more open and clear area!

Confident that Q was okay, Dan led her down through the workaround and we all continued handwalking the horses down the trail.

We had two more boulderfield workarounds - neither as tricky as the first! - before finding a trail Dan and I knew. We all remounted on this trail and were once again able to intermittently trot as we picked our way through the typical rugged mess we knew.

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Finally, we came to the section of trail we travel every time we visit the Sods on horseback and were able to really pick up the pace.

The sun was setting in earnest by this point!

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It sucked to have dealt with the tricky section of trail, but damn if the sunset didn't make it all okay in the end.

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This photo gives you a sense of the scooped out valley, thanks glaciers!
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After riding along the ridgeline edge, we opted to dip down into the Timberline development roads to head back to Chris' place instead of doing another 2 miles of Sods trails to the ski slope. As it was, we still didn't reach Chris' place until ~9:15pm!

I was SO proud of Q in those final dark miles on the gravel road after we parted ways with Dan. Despite fleeing deer and one field of very excited strange horses, she led the way alert, but confident and trusting in my guidance, floating along in her biggest of trots.

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Back at Chris', I praised Q immensely and hand fed her some hay while I waited for Chris to take care of his horses before trailering us back across the valley. I could have ridden Q, but knowing we had at least 1½ miles of paved road travel in the dark AND the fact that she'd already tackled nearly 30 miles that day, I had nothing to prove and was so grateful for the ride.

All in all, while not to plan the whole time, it was a really fantastic day. Q not only proved she's got the ability post-injury to go the distance, but that she's also come SO FAR with her confidence under saddle on trails. I honestly cannot put into words how absolutely over-the-moon I am with her! I had so much fun. I can't wait to get back on trail with this little mare and my new friends.