It had been some time since I had volunteered at a ride. Having discovered of late that my aging body can no longer withstand the rigors of heat and humidity I’ve been sidelined for the summer as far as any intensive riding. It was a huge disappointment for me personally as I am on a TEAM and had hoped to pull in a better point score for the group. You can’t change the wind and the waves, but you can adjust your sails and point your compass in a new direction. So I drove about eight hours this weekend to volunteer at the Black Sheep Boogie out of the Wayne National Forest in Ohio (right near the West Virginia border). My trip down was uneventful until the last twenty miles, when I discovered that on winding semi-mountainous roads I can indeed get horribly car sick while driving which has never happened to me previously. I arrived at ride camp literally grey with beads of sweat clinging and so extremely ill. The ride manager saved the day for me (as if she didn’t have enough on her plate) by shoving me into an air conditioned bunk room where I was able to “mostly” recover, and actually volunteer as planned the next day. Thank you Mollie Krumlaw Smith for your kindness.
My previous forays into volunteering involved scribing for the vets, and trail clearing. This weekend I was to work in the pulse gate. I thought it would be interesting, but it never occurred to me that working the gate and sitting under the tent in between horses coming in could be so educational. I learned a lot this weekend. Partly related to taking the pulses, but more so in watching the behavior of advanced vs. not so much endurance riders. Please don’t misconstrue that statement. It isn’t a judgement on those of our ilk who haven’t learned all the ropes, we often don’t know…what we do not know.
So what did I learn this weekend working the gate and chilling under the tent as the rain poured down?
- Experienced (50 mile) endurance riders are worth their weight in gold if you just quietly observe and absorb what you are seeing. I was able to watch how these hot horses were carefully cooled out prior to hitting the pulse gate, and how some of the lesser experienced brought them in hot…way hot.
- A high pulse rate can mean multiple or unexpected things. The highest pulse encountered by me was in 95 bpm range which hung there for about 30 minutes until the horse was finally timed out. The vets of course followed up on this horse and it was finally determined that the horse had an underlying (unknown previously) condition of a heart murmur. So this event on the rider’s part may have been unrelated to how the horse was ridden, and secondary to the underlying health issue. But it showed me the importance of the pulse rate as an indicator to look harder, and observe the horse that does not pulse down. Question why. Are you running to fast? Has the horse been jabbed by a stick and you can’t see the hole because of the mud? Is the horse hurting somewhere and responding from pain? Do not discount the importance of the pulse as an indicator of this horse is okay vs. not okay.
- There is sponging a horse and there is cooling out a horse. The front running horses really were like “the school of endurance.” Not because I’m interested in running in the front, but because they have to have their ducks in a row to get that horse down the trail fast (and hot) and bring it into the hold pulsed down and ready to recover. That takes some skill. A novice might luck through a time or two but would most likely get tripped up if they haven’t learned how to bring that pulse down. I saw some interesting strategies. Those riders were doing a lot more pouring of water, and vigorous scraping than I have applied to my own rides. I saw ice packs on one horse’s poll tucked under the halter, in one instance an entire bag of crushed ice poured into the sponging buckets and applied and dumped liberally over the horse, and just as liberally scraped off. These folks take their cooling efforts way seriously. There were a couple of horses that came into the hold and pulsed down quickly without intervention but those horses were not running in the front or were being carefully managed on pace and how they came into the hold or naturally are some freak of nature that they can stop and drop to 47 bpm.
- Riding in the Midwest (and other humid areas) is not the same as riding in the dryer climates. It just isn’t. Humidity is insidious, and the equestrian / or the equine have the metabolic fortitude to handle it with precautions, or not the proclivity to not handle it no matter what you do. So it is important to take those precautions by using the proper electrolyte for the conditions your horse is facing. Here in the Midwest it being important to have an electrolyte that is balanced not only in the need for replacement of sodium, but also potassium, and calcium. The horse will sweat profusely trying to cool, the sweat will not actually cool the horse, so they sweat some more, and they quickly loose their electrolyte balance. If we are not resupplying those salts/minerals a metabolic crisis will ensue. So look hard at your electrolyte regimen and make an analysis of what that particular brand/ mix is replacing and try to determine what doseage may keep your horse running on a hot humid day. Even though the temperature was relatively low at this ride, the humidity was near 100%. It made for a tough ride with some metabolic pulls / rider options. Do not under estimate the importance of replacing electrolytes and how it may effect your horse’s performance.
- Don’t over estimate your horse’s over all fitness by its cardiac fitness. This little lesson came to me by sitting under the tent in the rain while there was a break in the action at the pulse gate. One of the veterinarians was talking to a competitor (a green bean) about how your horse can get fit very quickly in the the cardiovascular sense and still be vulnerable to injury in the two years it may take to build the bone, muscle, tendons, and cartilage to fitness. There really are no short cuts in regard to this. So the twelve week fitness program that gets your horse “started” is not meant to be a short cut to running long and fast. The patience to run long and slow is what gives your horse the pay off of longevity.
- Expectations of human behavior. While working the pulse gate you see how riders function under stress. How they relate to their horses and how they project themselves to you the volunteer. For the most part the riders were a gracious bunch of folks, concerned with their horses, and polite in regard to your volunteer hands in the gate. But no matter where you go, there are one or two that are bad apples. Not nice to their hard working horses, not nice in the human interactions. Endurance competition is stressful stuff. We put a lot of time, energy, and money into playing the game. That is not an excuse for behaving badly at a ride. I tend to get wound way too tight at a ride and this weekend reminded me that I need to “chill a little” and not take it so seriously that I lose my good manners in the process. Endurance rides need to have one of those little portable jail cells on a wagon like you see at the county fair…so you can pay $5 and put the offender in the cell for the duration of the ride. Now that would be clean endurance at its best! I’d have locked one couple up for the weekend that is for sure ☺ It also made me appreciate those riders who take the whole endurance riding thing in good form and with grace and gratitude for their equine partners. Those people are my heroes.
If you have not volunteered at a ride yet, pick a weekend, leave your horse at home for a little R&R and spend a day or two volunteering. You will be amazed at what you will see, hear, and learn. It will make you a better endurance rider and a better endurance citizen.
Jacke Reynolds, Co-Director, Green Bean Endurance.org