Never stop learning! Austen Gage details the second half of her adventure far from the comforts of her usual dressage when she joined her friend for a 30-mile endurance race.
Austen Gage chronicles her partnership with her OTTB “Guinness” at her blog Guinness On Tap, where readers can typically find the pair working on dressage. In August, however, Austen got the opportunity to try something a little different — and graciously shared the story with Horse Nation in a two-part series.
Did you miss Part I? Click here to get caught up!
Ride Between the Rivers race day dawned cool and overcast. The forecast was calling for warm temperatures and sticky humidity. I had come to the West Virginia mountains from the oppressive summer heat of DC for this race and thought this “warm weather” was rather cool; however, the horses and Liz clearly did not agree.
Liz began talking hydration and electrolyte strategy, emphasizing to me how important it would be to ensure the horses drank enough on the trail. She had mixed up her electrolytes for all the horses in our group the night before, and she set about ensuring everyone was all set for the day. Afterwards, we wandered over to the race start to watch the 50 mile race kick off.
Liz made sure to tell those of us watching the 50 kick off that our start would be much less exciting. She stressed that we were going to try to walk out of camp, avoiding exciting the new horses and riders too much. With that information under our belts, we wandered off to get dressed and tacked up for the start of our 30 mile race.
I’d stressed over what to wear for this ride for a month, finally deciding on a pair of old full seat Kerrits and my half chaps and paddock boots with a Kastel Denmark shirt. Unfortunately, my full seats were still soaked and sandy from my unceremonious dismount the day before. Liz came to the rescue with a pair of ridiculous orange and blue tights. To my inner dressage queen’s delight, they perfectly matched Q’s tack and my lavender Kastel shirt. While annoyed at the lack of belt, I jumped at the chance to look like a real endurance rider in my crazy tights.
Q was decked out in her Ansur treeless saddle, that Liz had graciously covered with sheepskin for my non-endurance hardened backside, and bright orange synthetic tack. She wears a crupper. Putting that on gave me flashbacks to my early childhood, where the fat ponies would often go in a crupper to keep the saddle in the right place.
Once everyone was ready, our group of eight gathered together and headed toward the start…
We were going to be riding this 30 mile race as a large group. This isn’t the normal way endurance riders will ride a race. Because we had several combinations of veterans with newbies (Shiloh and Q being extremely experienced veteran horses with newbie riders, and the rest being a combo of experience levels), we were going to try to keep together as long as possible to ensure as many riders had a chance to finish as possible.
As Liz had requested, we kept the departure from camp quite low key. The whole group chatted and laughed as we strolled out onto the trail at a leisurely walk.
Our 30 miler was made up of two loops. Our first loop was 15 miles, with one big steady climb, a steep downhill, and four river crossings. After this loop, we returned to camp for our first vet check and 45 minute hold. Following the hold, we headed out on the second loop a much more difficult 17 mile trail. Much of the second loop was very rocky, narrow, and steep, where we climbed to the top of the mountain. We only crossed the river twice at the very end. This made it harder to keep the horses cool and hydrated.
The start of our first loop was pretty easy going. We did a little trotting and a little walking. I spent the first half of the loop getting to know Q a little better. She’s an amazing horse with a massive trot stride and incredibly smooth gaits. While she is a very agile little horse, she lacks the maneuverability of my dressage horse. I fiddled with her a little, playing with bend and balance changes. With so many miles left to go, I didn’t want to wear her out or change her way of going. Instead, I settled for giving Liz a running commentary of the things I was trying on Q. Giving Liz this feedback started her thinking about some chronic weaknesses Q has demonstrated in the past. I love how dressage work helps us pinpoint issues with horses!
We quickly came to our first river crossing, where the professional photographer was waiting for us. Liz suggested trying to canter through the water, but Q was having none of that suggestion. Instead, we ended up trotting through while I giggled uncontrollably. It was so much fun!
The group traded off leaders, with Dan holding up the back of the group. This camaraderie of endurance riders was a really neat aspect of the race for me. Instead of being every man for himself, riders were happy to attach themselves to groups and be carried along at a similar pace. For some it was about giving confidence to their horses, for others it was about companionship. For our unique group, it was about instructing the new riders and horses and maintaining a positive experience. Most other riders will ride with many different riders throughout a race, as they are all riding an individual pace and strategy. Our group was trying to maintain a group strategy, which made things more complicated.
Still, it was fun to tag along with other riders as our journeys matched up for a time!
Liz did a great job keeping us all together and on task. She was very good about letting riders take control and experience new things, letting both Lauren and I lead at several points on the trail. She and Dan acted as voices of reason, helping us all to regulate our pace so our horses stayed in good shape.
When we came to the long gradual climb on the first loop, Carlos and Jess were in the lead. The trail was a wide gravel road, so they let their horses out a bit. Q was happy to follow along behind them at a ground-eating canter. I am amazed at the mare’s ability to canter on such rough gravel footing without taking a single funny step. She seemed to float over the ground, barely touching a foot to the road. It was truly a unique feeling!
Of course, cantering uphill isn’t a smart thing to do when you’re trying to conserve your endurance horse’s energy. Liz started yelling up to us to slow down on the hill, and I ended up having to urge Q a bit faster to pull up Carlos and Jess who had surged ahead. After pulling everyone to a walk to finish the climb, Liz let me know Q probably could have continued cantering the incline and been fine. However, the less confirmed horses would be too worn out to finish the race if they had been allowed to motor up the mountain at such a pace. As it was, a few of the other horses were quite winded from the exertion.
To ensure all the horses recovered from the climb, Liz had us dismount at the spotter station at top and let the horses have a bit of breather. We encouraged them to graze a bit on the available foliage, and walked them until they cooled a bit. When I first dismounted, Q was breathing a bit hard. Within minutes she had stopped breathing hard, and was looking around bright eyed and full of energy.
Having a horse completely drenched in sweat, but still full of energy was a new feeling. My thoroughbred doesn’t ever really run out of energy, but I can tell when he’s reaching the end of his conditioning. Q’s condition was harder for me to judge. She would breathe so hard, but then recover so quickly. That ability to breathe super hard for a long time reminds me of my own breathing when I run distance. I started to apply distance runner conditioning thinking to Q instead of dressage horse conditioning thinking. This made it easier to get a feel for when she needed a rest. (Never. She never needed a rest. I’m pretty sure Q could give the energizer bunny a run for his money.)
On the second half of the loop, we crossed the river two more times. Each time we crossed we made sure to slow down and let the horses drink if they wanted. Q only drank at the final water crossing, and even then it wasn’t much. She didn’t seem dehydrated, so I wasn’t too worried.
Another reason we slowed at the river crossings was to sponge down the horses. Each rider had a large sponge tied to the saddle by a long string. The riders would drunk their sponge in the water, and use it to rinse the horse’s necks, shoulders and haunches to help cool them.
Liz wanted to be sure all of us passed the first vet easily, so after our final water crossing we all walked the last bit into camp. At the edge of the field outside camp, we dismounted and walked our horses in. By the time we arrived, all the horses appeared to be in good form. No one was breathing hard and everyone looked pretty fresh.
Vetting in was an interesting process. As we crossed the “finish line” of the loop, our numbers were recorded and our times were reported to us. Following our arrival, we had 30 minutes to strip the tack from our horses and prepare them to vet in. We rode over to our sponging station, manned by the outstanding Nicole (who’s write up of her horses and Carlos’ trip is here).
Q and Shiloh were ready to vet immediately, so we stripped their tack quickly and sponged off their sweat marks. Then we headed over where the vets took an initial pulse (Q and Shiloh both at came in at 48), then looked over each horse for any issues (specifically: hydration, lameness, and metabolics) and listened to their gut sounds. We then trotted the horses out to allow the vets to evaluate lameness, and pulsed them out. (Q pulsed out at 48 again, 24 year old Shiloh pulsed at an amazing 40) All this information was recorded on each horse’s race card.
Vets rank horses on a letter scale (A, B, C, D, F). The goal is to achieve all As on your vet card. Any horse below a C will be pulled from a race. The vets take their job very seriously.
Griffin was panicking a bit about being slightly separated from Q, which kept his pulse slightly elevated. He stayed below the threshold and vetted out alright, but Liz was worried about him. Once we reunited him with Q, he calmed down and looked no worse for wear.
Upon vetting through, we presented our ride cards to have our times recorded. This let us know when our time would start back up, and we could head back out on the trail. We had 45 minutes to care for the horses and relax a bit a camp.
Having a fit horse like Q or Shiloh is incredibly helpful when vetting, as you don’t waste as much time trying to get the horse vetted in. As Lauren and I realized, our horses were practically ready to vet the moment we got off.
We fed and electrolyted the horses, then fed and electrolyted ourselves. Being used to much hotter weather, I was feeling pretty great. I drank a fair amount of water, as I wasn’t carrying any with me. And I ate a whole pint of strawberries, which I credit carrying me through the final grueling loop. As I am used to hacking my horse out up to 10 miles and riding multiples regularly, the riding wasn’t feeling exhausting. I did notice my calves were a bit worn out from the posting trot.
Quickly, it was time to tack back up and head out on the second loop. We gathered everyone together again, and took note of Nicole’s request to watch Lily for dehydration issues. The horses seemed reluctant to leave camp this second time, so it took some urging to get them to climb the steep hill out of camp where the photographer was waiting (see photo at the top of the post).
The second loop started with a fairly flat section on the wide main road. Quickly, however, it devolved into a rocky and narrow bit of climbing. The trail was quite twisty and full of trappy water holes that held us up. With such a big group, we easily became stuck behind other groups on the trail. We would follow them until they either sped up or pulled aside to let us pass.
This section of trail was a bit frustrating. The easy pace we held for the first loop wasn’t to be found. Carlos often led, sometimes going a bit too fast than the rest of the group should have been going. Liz led for a bit on Griffin, but he quickly let her know he was not comfortable in front.
Finally I jumped into the lead with Q, and we navigated around most of the large mud puddles and twisty turns. Some of the puddles we stopped for, as Q adores drinking from the nastiest muddiest water she can find. I had a ton of fun leading on this part of the trail. It was fun to trot along and try to scout out the best path through the more technical bits. Q was a huge help, often telling me exactly where to pilot her.
With the trail being quite a bit of heavy climbing, we took multiple breaks to let the horses rest. Q was much more interested in grazing on the second loop, as well as taking a few good drinks of scuzzy brown mud water. The other horses were starting to look a bit more tired. Especially once we passed the first spotter and finished the climb to the top of the mountain.
Once we reached the top of the mountain, we dismounted and let the horses rest again. The trail was about to make a turn and start on a long downhill section. It had started to rain a bit at this point, misting our already wet horses. Q was doing alright, but the others looked like they would benefit quite a bit from a long walk. The humidity was high, keeping the sweat from drying properly and making all of us soggy messes.
We meandered for awhile, letting the horses forage a bit and lamenting the lack of water holes for them to drink. At this point Liz started checking pulses to see how everyone was recovering. Q, Shiloh, and Dakota were fine, but everyone else was struggling to drop enough. We mounted up. At this point, Liz formed a new ride strategy: walk all the steep bits (inclines and drops) and trot the flatter bits.
Soon after moving off, Jess asked me if I thought Lily looked off. When I took a closer look, she did look pretty off when trotting on the rough trail. Jess agreed, and decided to walk her. Carlos stayed with her, hoping Lily had simply stepped on a rock and would be recovered after she had walked for a bit.
Around this time, Liz shared that she was a little worried about how Griffin was handling the rocks. He seemed to be very worried about the footing, and was trying to drag her to the softer footing at the sides of the trail. So far she wasn’t super worried, but it was clearly weighing on her mind.
While all of this was happening, the trail started making a substantial downhill turn. Still extremely rocky, Liz decided to hop off Griffin and run alongside him down the descent. Q and I followed her, as did Lauren and Shiloh. We quickly left behind Jess and Carlos, though the others stayed behind with them.
The trail was extremely rough through this section. Griffin actually handled it beautifully with Liz on the ground. Q and Shiloh did just fine, as well. Though we walked quite a bit behind Liz and Griffin. After the crowd of eight riders, it was quiet and lovely with just the three of us. However, the weight of the time cut off for the race and the distance we still had to travel was weighing on us.
Eventually we hit a slight incline and Liz mounted back up. We waited a bit for the others, where Dan, Orion, and Charlie joined us. They let us know that Lily was still struggling. Liz decided we had best separate so we all had a chance to finish. Our group of eight had come to a point where we were splitting to protect the chances of finishing for the largest group of us.
Our smaller group of six headed off down the trail, finding it finally leveling off onto the main road. All of our horses seemed to be doing alright, so we kept the pace fairly peppy. Finally hitting the finally spotter station, where we found out we were going to be the last riders on the trail. We let the spotters know about Jess and Carlos behind us, tanked up on some moonshine, and headed across the river towards camp.
After the river, we had a quick section of trail through the woods. Liz encouraged me to take the lead with Q, and go for it. This was the most fun part of the trail. Q trotted and cantered along with her ears pricked boldly forward the whole way, and I settled into her rhythm with a smile on my face. By this time I had a feel for her spooks, and just needed to close my legs for her to continue going forward.
At one point, we cantered along through a narrow S-curve between trees. I called back to Liz that Q needs lead changes to make sections like that much more fun! She laughed and told me she’s going to have to learn a lot more about dressage before that point.
When we got to the final bit of trail, Liz told Lauren, Charlie, and I to keep trotting on into the finish. She and the others were going to walk in. She wanted to ensure Griffin pulsed down enough and Dan’s horse was lame from stepping on a rock. Liz wasn’t worried about our horses’ pulsing down in the slightest.
We headed off, having a blast trotting up to the finish.
Once across the line, we hopped off and began stripping tack and sponging the horses. By the time Liz got to us, she declared both horses fit to vet in. Both passed with pulses in the 40s, As in all quadrants of the gut, and sound trot ups! Griffin passed with pulses in the 50s, and lots less screaming. All three of us completed, with Liz and I tying for last place. (See Liz’s full write up here.)
The rest of the group was a more mixed bag. Charlie and Dakota finished without a problem. Butch’s stone bruise was really causing problems, and he was spun out of the vet. Orion’s Nell was also failed by the vets in the trot up. Neither Dan or Orion completed, but both horses trotted out fine the next morning.
Jess had ended up pulling up out of the race when she and Carlos reached the last spotter. A horse ambulance picked them up and brought them back to camp. Lily had lost a shoe, and was definitely off. Thankfully some farrier magic helped her feel better quickly. Once she ate and drank, she was fine. Carlos and Gracie did finish, but were far over time and so they did not complete.
Once the horses and camp affairs were settled, Liz and I grabbed some beers and headed down to the swimming hole to wash off the ride and celebrate healthy horses for everyone.
The ride festivities continued into the evening with a big dinner and awards ceremony. Finishers received a beer mug and access to the keg. In addition to our completion prize, Liz and I shared the stuffed turtle marking our prestigious last place tie.
Silliness aside, Ride Between the Rivers was an amazing experience. I might have left West Virginia little addicted to the sport of endurance, and with even more respect for the crazy things our horses do for us. I want to extend a HUGE thanks to Liz for all her mentor-ship, and for giving me the chance to experience such a wild adventure.
Austen Gage is a bronze medal dressage rider, schooling 4th level with her long time partner, a creaky and ancient OTTB. She promises to someday retire him from this fancy prancing sport, so he can spend his days galloping instead of collecting.