Sunday, December 22, 2013

In which Dixie gets three new legs for Christmas

This is a hard post for me to write.  Most of what I do is either a) clearly stupid or b) uncontroversial within my discipline, but joint injections are a little more contentious.

Like most endurance riders, I'm pretty deeply paranoid and I plan out every option I can think of ahead of time.  I know my "hard limits" for treating most equine health problems, and I've got a bunch of little checklists and flowcharts constantly running in my head. Earlier this week, I pieced together some possible symptoms I'd been seeing this fall and decided that Dixie's hocks were maybe sore.
  • Dixie's been reluctant to go downhill a few times - alone in the dark at VC, in the slippery mud at Briones two weeks ago, and intermittently on the local trails for the last few months.
  • She's started picking her way downhill, zigzagging across the trail instead of walking straight down. 
  • She (infuriatingly) refused to hold her back feet up long enough for me to trim them earlier this week.
Additionally, she'll be 12 next year, she's gaited, and she was padded in her misspent youth - that ridiculous action cannot be easy on baby joints.  Any one of the above symptoms could be Mare Attitude or random variation, but all three points in such a short period of time set off an internal alarm.

So I called the vet.  My usual guy doesn't do joint injections in the field*, so he recommended I haul out to Pioneer Equine in the Central Valley. Friday we headed over for a workup. 

Dr. Lefkowitz got our history and watched D trot out straight and in circles on a hard surface and in a softer arena.  She palpated all her joints, flexed her and had her trotted out again, went at her with the hoof testers, and looked at the rads I got last month.  (I was rather proud that D didn't even wiggle an ear for the hoof testers.)  The vet thought there were some arthritic changes in her front left fetlock, which I hadn't expected but wasn't surprised by.  They blocked her LF and lunged her again and she was much improved, but still not really moving under herself like she should and has in the past.

Twitched for the block.
So she recommended injecting Dixie's hocks and her fetlock.  We could've done more rads, but like flex tests, they're not dispositive.  (That's a real word, but it's also a legal term of art - probative evidence means something probably happened, and dispositive evidence decides the issue.  "You're my husband so you're the father of my child" is probative, but a DNA test on the baby is dispositive.) Anyway, sometimes you can't see the changes on x-rays, and sometimes a horse flexes horribly but stays sound or vice versa, so it's not always easy to say for sure what's going on in those joints.

"Have you ever looked at a dollar bill... on xylazine, maaaan?"
Good girl.

We headed back into the exam room, sedated Dixie (she's a very cheap drunk), and did the injections. The tech (who was great, but I don't remember her name and it's not written on my paperwork) Betadine scrubbed the everloving shit out of D's joints* while the vet prepped the injections.

*Of course, in the two days between deciding that Something Was Going On and actually seeing the vet, I researched the shit out of equine joint problems.  I am in no way a vet, but I can slog through google results with the best of 'em.  The major risk with joint injections is infection, which is rare but Very Bad Indeed.  Current best practices that I read about were to: scrub really well, don't clip or shave, use the smallest gauge needle possible, and pop the needle in and let the joint fluid drip out to clear any debris in the needle - Pioneer did all that.  They also bandaged her ankle (but not her hocks - they're so hard to wrap, and they're higher up so they're probably not going to get foreign matter in them).

Anyway, they loaded her up with some IV bute, wrote some really nice case notes/discharge instructions, took a vast but not unexpected amount of money from me, and sent us on our way.

I kept D inside for the rest of the day and unwrapped her bandage on Saturday.  She's back outside, but on "stall rest" with 15 minutes of handwalking til Monday or Tuesday, then I'll slowly resume our regular schedule.  None of her joints are warm or puffy, so I think we're in the clear.  And she's definitely moving better (straight, free action, no hesitation) downhill already - I don't know if it's just the bute or if her hocks are feeling better from the shots already, but yeah, there was something going on.

The real question isn't "will you treat something that's treatable," it's "what's next?" And for us, it's more of the same.  If her fetlock bothers her again too soon, or if it's been a couple years of biennial hock injections and they're not pain-free and finished fusing, we'll try to find some other sport that we both enjoy this much.  But Dixie really does enjoy endurance rides, and many successful high-mileage horses go through this (even if not everybody confesses it on their blog!), so yeah, I'll give her a chance to keep doing endurance.

It's basically the same thing I said after her tendon pull in 2011 - if she re-injures herself in the same spot, I'll reconsider our sport, but I'm going to give her a chance again.  How soon is "too soon" w/r/t the fetlock?  I'm not sure; I kinda hate the thought of needles in joint capsules.  But shit, if I had a bum joint, I'd probably get cortisone shots if they let me keep doing what I love to do.

After paying the vet bill, I had enough money left to buy Dixie a big candy cane.  And I'd already bought my own horse-related presents - memberships to NASTR, CALSTAR, and WWHA for 2014, whee! Merry Christmas, if that's your thing, and happy solstice to everyone in the Northern Hemisphere!  We're over the worst of it and the sun is coming back - whew!

Saturday, December 7, 2013

Happy Gotcha Day

On December 7, 2007, I bought a five year old horse.
She was very pretty, and quite skittish, and she clunked around on some of the worst feet I've ever seen IRL, but something in her eyes said she just wouldn't ever give up.  She looked me in the eye and very clearly said "You.  Get me out of here."  I already had three other horses, but I didn't even haggle.

I could catch her, and I could even climb on board if I had two people to hold her head, but that was about it.  She had no brakes, and her steering was pretty iffy, and she had only one speed: rack as fast as possible.  I don't even have pictures of how bad her feet were, because she'd fall down if you asked her to hold them up.  But I'd been reading about endurance, and I decided that a horse that only ever wanted to go and didn't want to stop would be perfect - hey, at least she's not lazy!

My life went to shit in various ways over the next couple of years, but I held on to Dixie.  I put my old mare down, and I sold my Percheron.  I had to live three states away from my husband for a year, and I spent most of a winter in a house with no heat.  We moved to Ohio, which was mediocre at best until my good gelding Champ died there.  I could still barely ride Dixie, but at that point, she was all I had left.

Then we moved again, to Reno Nevada, and I finally started to get my shit together.  I met Crysta, who was like "horse has four legs?  you can do endurance, let's go!" and dragged us out on the trails with her.  And she kept dragging me along, patiently answering all my ridiculous questions, reassuring me, and hauling us out to local rides.

(Yall, I really don't mind answering all your stupid questions and reassuring you. I love it, actually! I'm paying forward the gifts I got from Crysta, and I'm helping to drag new people into the best horse sport on the planet.)

Dixie and I slowly started to work out our individual and conjoined issues and get our shit together.  I still had a nightmarish time mounting up, and she would spook and spin any time a rock or sagebrush looked at her funny, and she'd still bolt sometimes, but at least she doesn't buck and there was enough room to ride it out.  I learned to sit down and relax - fake it til you make it!

I got her feet from "disastrous" to "decent pasture trim" before we left Memphis.  In Ohio, I let the barn farrier trim her, but I wasn't very happy with how her feet looked.  I found a really good trimmer in Reno, but I gradually moved back to doing more and more of my own hoofcare.  I started slowly upgrading all my leather tack to biothane.  I gave up on modesty in favor of comfort and learned to ride in yoga pants and sneakers instead of jeans and cowboy boots.

We rode in the blazing high-altitude summer sun and I turned the color of a lobster, numerous times. We rode in the wind - Nevada wind is not fucking around.  We rode in the snow - I've been snowed on in every month except July and August at this point.  We've ridden past the usual trail shit - dead cars and mattresses - and weird shit, like that boat tied to the mailbox in Silver Springs.  And the radio-controlled model airplane airport in Hungry Valley.  Hunters weren't any scarier than dead TVs, so we rode past them too.  I've ridden that horse over bridges, under interstates, and beside freight trains.
Every little victory was usually preceded and followed by disastrous little setbacks, so it was hard for me to tell we were making any progress.  Take the Trailer Saga for instance:

We got a trailer!  It was a dream come true!  But then I had to win the battle of wills to get her to load in the damn thing - she really, really didn't want to load.  Or unload.  We went off and did some trail trials, then we got ready to go to Washoe Valley, and she tried to kill herself.  I never asked her to step foot in that trailer again, and it took a year before I could upgrade to Adventure The Trailer.  One step forward, seventeen steps back.
But it's been the journey of a lifetime, learning how to communicate with that horse and forcing us to both become better individuals in the process.  I still cuss her a lot, and I'm quite sure she cusses me in horse language, but we are a team.

It takes a whole community to do endurance - almost everyone I've interacted with has helped me in some major way at some point - but Dixie's the one individual without whom I couldn't have done this. Thank you for choosing me, pretty girl.

2013 Tahoe Rim Ride 50
 2013 Virginia City 100

(And last but most importantly - thank you to my husband.  You make it all possible.  I love you more than Dixie.)

Friday, December 6, 2013

Year-end wrapup, and on to the next!

I know, it's not the end of 2013 yet, but it's the end of the AERC ride year.

So!  In 2013, Dixie and I started seven rides and finished four of them.  The best part of that awful record?  All three pulls were rider option, not injuries.

I started off the season with yet another pull at my nemesis, the Rides of March 50 miler.  I've finished the 30 there twice and pulled twice at the 50, and 2013 just wasn't my year.  I had enough horse, but I was sick and only getting sicker, and the trustworthy old National Bridle saddle was starting to pinch her shoulders.  I made it 35 miles before I could go no further, and she was starting to show some back soreness.

So we went home, bought a Specialized saddle, did some training miles in it, and got ready for the Washoe Valley two-day in May.  The first day started off beautifully, and even the rain that moved in that afternoon didn't phase me.  I was pretty beat up after a long day in a new-to-me saddle, but I got up and did it again on Sunday (with bonus sleet!).  Dixie was extremely unamused, especially when it started sleeting on us that afternoon, but we got it done.

Washoe was also the first ride where I really ran a lot.  I wanted to help Dixie get through her first two-day, and I'm familiar enough with the trails to know where to get off, so I ran a lot of the downhills.  I remember getting off her at the top of Jumbo and slowly jogging down the whole thing, thinking the whole time that I'd run out of steam and have to get back on any minute.  But I didn't - I realized I could run, in certain circumstances.

In June, we headed to Auburn for the Tevis Educational ride.  It was hot as all get out, and I got a touch of heatstroke on the first day and didn't ride the second.  But the educational talks were well worth the price of entry.

Getting too hot was really disappointing, but not unexpected.  Heat is my kryptonite; always has been. I think this is the point where I started running on a more regular basis - I wanted to do some self-heat-conditioning, and just running fit the bill.

Two weeks after TevEd, we headed up to Oregon to try our first hundred, at Sunriver.  My friends Mel and Amanda made the trip just fly by and took great care of me and Dixie, but we didn't finish.  I was disappointed in myself (and the ride), but I was so thrilled that Dixie finished her 80 miles sound and happy that it almost didn't matter.

I licked my metaphorical wounds and did some endurance non-riding in July, with a trip to Washington where I got to volunteer at Renegade Rendezvous.  Then I returned the favor by crewing for Mel at Tevis (who also didn't finish - I seem to have more fun than success at this sport!)

August was the much-anticipated second Tahoe Rim Ride. It's so beautiful up there! It's a hard ride, I'm not going to lie, but it's entirely doable if you ride smart. I'd been running more over the summer, and I ran a lot of TRR. Not fast by any stretch of the imagination, but I was off the horse moving forward with impulsion, and that counts, right? Dixie clearly remembered the ride, and I got this great picture of her right before the start.

"Why are you doing the camera thing already?  Get on!  Get on, it's time to go!"
You'll see this shot again!

And then we geared up to try Virginia City.  We made two trips over to Reno to preride the parts of the trail I'd never seen before, then headed back at the end of September for the Virginia City 100.

It was simultaneously the most fun I've ever had and the worst experience of my life.  Everything was amazing up until the point where I "hit the wall," then it was the lowest low point of a life that's had its fair share of low points.  That two hours walking in the dark, when I thought I was all alone, that was hard. 

But then I got back on my good horse, and she followed the glowsticks out to the road, and my friends were waiting to rescue me, and I was already plotting next year's ride as I passed out with Lucy's hot water bottle clutched to my chest like a baby.  That's really The Thing about endurance for me.  It can be the hardest thing I've ever tried, and it can be the worst decision I ever made, and it can be the stupidest excuse for a hobby in the universe - while I'm on the trail.  But when I get back to camp I can't stop thinking about how awesome it is.

Not finishing VC is 100% on me.  All of my pulls are my fault to some degree or another, but I should've had VC.  The ride is really well run, and the trail is difficult but doable.  Dixie didn't quite have the reserves to keep up with our friends, but I'm the one who didn't eat and drink enough to keep my head straight.  I took a pretty hard fall at 50 miles, and by 70 miles everything that wasn't numb from cold was hurting, and I just didn't have it in me to keep going.  NEXT YEAR, baby.

In October, I volunteered at Red Rock Rumble, then I got my tattoo.

The artist (Jonah at Temple) and I decided on that headshot from TRR as the basis of the piece, and I really couldn't be happier with it. It's objectively beautiful, and it's a tribute to my best friend Dixie.  Some people with tattoos get really pissy about strangers gawking/touching/asking about their art, but me?  Well, don't touch me, that's weird, but I dare you to ask!  Do you have anywhere to be for the next hour?  Let me tell you all about my horse.

I kept at it with the running thing, too.  I wanted to give Dixie some down time, but I also wanted to be out with her on the trails, and that ended up as a lot of short (5-10 mile) rides where I hiked/ran a quarter or a half of the distance.

Some time in November, I signed up for a 10k (people!) race on New Years Day.  I mean, what with all the running, surely I can finish a 6 mile trail run inside two hours, right? Right?? Anyway, that got me to shift my focus a bit.  I've finally got enough long slow distance base to do interval training, so I've been doing hill sprints a couple times a week, with longer slow runs mixed in there. My focus is still on riding, not running - if I had to pick, I'd absolutely ride instead of running - but if I can do both, I will.

And then we finished out our year with the single best ride I've ever had, at GRS. I religiously did all my self-care stuff, and Dixie was just a perfect joy to ride.  She never got tired, and I never got tired of being out on that trail, and we had no mishaps of any kind.  It feels like it was the most boring ride story ever, because good stories require drama, but dude.  So much fun.


On to 2014!

Well, first up is that 10k.  It's going to be awful, but I'll get a t-shirt and some Auburn In'n'Out, and I've already paid my money, so I have to do it.  ;)

I've been telling people that I was going to try Tevis in 2014 for about five years now, and it feels strange to say this, but I don't think I'm going to enter Tevis next year.  It's really hard, and it's really hard for reasons that are entirely out of my control.  I have a hard time keeping my shit together at the easier rides, and I don't think I have it in me to aggressively jockey for position on the Tevis trail, and aggressively cool down and trot my horse at eight - yes, eight - pulse and vet stops.  It's unbelievably hot in the canyons, and the American Fire took out some much-needed shade.  (It also took out two bridges, but that's not a deciding factor for me.)  Maybe 2015, or maybe never with this horse.

What I am going to do in 2014 is head down to Ridgecrest, CA in February and try another hundred at Twenty Mule Team.  Dixie's doing great, and I'm getting better at this stupidly complicated sport, and maybe we'll get it this time!  Then off to the Nevada Derby in April, back to Washoe in May, and maybe the NASTR 75 at the end of May.  The Derby is well-timed after 20MT, and I'm definitely planning on Virginia City again, and that's two legs of the Triple Crown (pdf). Go big or go home, amirite?

My friend Crysta is putting on Nevada Moonshine again after a couple years' hiatus, as a 30/50/100 this time.  Riding Dixie in it is more than I'd be comfortable asking her to do, but hopefully I can sneak over to Reno and volunteer it.  I didn't even enter the lottery for Tahoe Rim next year, but I'll be there anyway - Adventure will be the pull trailer again, and I'll hang out in base camp and get dinner ready for the riders, and Sunday we'll ride one of the loops and pull ribbons.

December is the month of "fantasy football" for my region's endurance riders, and I'm having a lot of fun plotting out my imaginary perfect year.  Things will probably change, but I have high hopes that this is the year we get our first hundred and finish dead last in the Triple Crown.  Anything else is just bonus.

Monday, December 2, 2013

2013 Gold Rush Shuffle 50

Everything went right!

Yall know that I've had a rough year - 2012 went absolutely perfectly, then 2013 has been a seemingly neverending series of "learning experiences."  I don't regret a single attempt this year, but I really wanted one nice smooth successful ride before the end of the year!

When I first started thinking about endurance, I was living in Memphis with no plans to ever leave.  I remember seeing the Desert Gold Thanksgiving ride on the AERC calendar, and thinking it would be pretty cool to ride endurance over Thanksgiving weekend, especially in California where, I don't know, it's sunny or something.  When we came west to Reno and then to SF, I kept meaning to go... and then they quit having it.  Sadness!

Shawn Bowling and the Chappells stepped up and took over the Thanksgiving slot, and I wasn't going to miss out again.  I'm planning on taking Dixie down to Ridgecrest in February to bang my head against the wall again finally finish a hundred, and I wanted to get one last ride in before "winter break."  Aaaand I really wanted to get to 500 miles.

So I sent in my entry and watched the weather and headed up to Camp Far West.  It's a reservoir outside of Wheatland, north of Sacramento.  The reservoir land runs beside Beale Air Force Base, and there's a shooting range (infamous among endurance riders) and an archery range.  Most of the Central Valley is as flat as Kansas, but the lake is nestled in some gently rolling hills that make for surprisingly gorgeous views.
The lake property is grazing area and there were a lot of cows with calves out.
We vetted in (42 pulse!) and got settled.  This is Dixie's cleaner side so this is the picture you get of camp.
It was a big ride!  I don't have any idea what kind of attendance they had for Friday and Sunday, but Saturday's ride had almost seventy riders on the 50 and over thirty on the LD.
 Looks like Rob Lydon's hat, so it must be the vet criteria part of the meeting.
Morning came early, as they always do, and I got ready to ride.  I planned to stick with Lucy and Patrick all day, and we plonked out of camp together about ten minutes after the start.
The weather was gorgeous.  I really can't overemphasize that - it was one of the nicest November days I've ever ridden in, and I got to ride in it all day.  This is the best sport.
UNO is the spotted fellow, and Fergus is the buckskin.  They're both half-Arab (unless UNO's saddlebred?) and they're both hundred-mile horses - exalted company!  ;)

Dixie and Fergus alternated leading the way.  Dixie was quite happy to walk big or gait big, and Fergus is a half-TWH with a big walk, so I don't think UNO got to walk more than a couple miles total. UNO didn't seem to mind, but poor Lucy had ridden on Friday too, and she got quite tired of trotting!
I was talking to Mel and Aurora earlier this month, and I whined how depressingly grey-brown California is in the fall.  They disagreed, and Mel said something rather poetic about how the land is poised to explode into green when the winter rains come.  So this ride, I tried to appreciate the scenery.

PFT and Fergus, who really didn't appreciate Dixie's disrespectful attitude.  Whenever he was in front and she'd pass him at a walk, he'd make the most ridiculous grumpy faces.  She completely ignored him, too. Poor disrespected Tevis pony.
Anyway, you can barely see it in the photos, but there's a faint haze of green on the ground.  A couple weeks ago we got a little rain, and all the fall grass germinated.  It is pretty!

The worst thing I can say about the ride is that there are a lot of low-hanging branches.  There were tons of gates, but we only had to close a couple of them behind us - and Patrick was a long-legged gentleman and took care of them for us.  There's loose barbed wire in the grass beside some of the fencelines, but if you know that, you will stay on trail and be fine.  And of course we rode by the infamous shooting range!
Dixie was good about it, but I thought perhaps I shouldn't tempt fate by taking pictures until we'd gotten past it.  There were a lot of guys shooting pistols and a few bigger shotguns, and even the calmest horses were a little anxious about all the banging.

The maps were really terrible, but the trail marking was so good I never once doubted we were on trail. Seriously, bravo on the trail marking, guys!  We rode out for a while, then went under the road and did a loop, picked up a token to prove we'd been out there, went back under the road, and continued down the trail to a trot-by.  Dixie didn't want to drink, but she ate hay while we hung out for a few minutes, then we looped on back to camp.
Back at camp, she finally decided she was thirsty.  I'd been somewhat concerned because she hadn't really drunk yet, but she marched right up the main tank in camp and started slurping it down - I lost count of her swallows in the mid-thirties.  We vetted through with a B- for gut sounds and A's for everything else and a 48 CRI.

One of the things I've been working on this year is consciously trusting my horse to take care of herself. I mean, horses are idiots, and she'd happily gallop ten miles and then graze for the rest of the day, so I have to set the pace.  But she drinks when she's thirsty, and she eats when she's hungry, and she rests when she's tired, and I'm trying to respect that.  I wish she'd drink at every puddle, and I wish she'd graze the unappetizing dead grey grass along the trail, but I can't make her do those things.  All I do is worry needlessly and irritate her if I try to force her to drink.

So once she started drinking, the last little worry I had subsided.  At the hold, she scarfed down some mash, then napped and watched the horses headed out of camp.  I wandered around eating and filling up my camelbak and whatever else it is that I do that takes me an hour - I don't even know, really.
We were back out on the trail before 1.  The last loop ran along the shore of the lake, which was quite low, so it's "below water level."  I think the piles of rocks are probably fish habitat - they seemed deliberately piled up in areas.
Trail marking is hard with such flat terrain.  They'd done a good job spray-painting green arrows on boulders and putting ribbons on stumps, but I can see why people were unhappy on Friday.  Friday's ride was a 55, so the slower riders were headed mostly west, at sunset, looking for green markers that were hidden by sharp shadows.  But Saturday was a 50, so we were coming through much earlier and had an easy time.
Dixie actually marched out of camp on her own.  No coaxing or kicking or leading the angry horse required - she powerwalked away briskly, leaving UNO and Fergus far behind for a couple minutes.  I was like, Dixie, we're ditching our friends!  But I couldn't bear to shut down her post-lunch impulsion, and the boys caught up soon.
 So we plonked on through the last loop quite cheerfully and vetted out with all A's.  Woo!
Saturday was the last day of the 2013 ride season, so that's a wrap, folks: we completed four of seven rides, bringing us to 500 lifetime miles.  I'll get a mileage patch and my name in the AERC magazine (wooo!), but it felt like more of a milestone for Dixie than for me.

Horses don't get a shout-out in the magazine til 1,000 miles.  A thousand miles is a truly huge accomplishment, and I think Dixie's got a good shot at getting there, but I'm still quite proud of her for making it to 500.  I felt like our first fifty was a total fluke, and I've felt like every fifty since then has also been a total fluke, but maybe not.  It's just another part of the "trusting the horse" lesson I've been learning:  she really is an endurance horse.

I didn't run at all; I wanted to see how Dixie would do if she really had to carry me the entire day.  My knees were killing me by the end of the ride - in the future I am going to get off and jog for at least five minutes every hour.  Since I wasn't running, I didn't wear my compression socks, and my legs are actually MORE sore than they were after the 25 at Briones.  I ate a lot, I drank a lot of water, and I took my electrolytes - I'm stiff today, but it's the least sore I've ever been after a 50.

My feet were numb/tingly off and on all day, which is a sign that I'm not riding correctly, but I'm not sure what I'm doing wrong.  Dixie goes with great impulsion when she's out with other endurance horses, but she's a lazy-ass slug when we're alone, and I only get the tingly feet when she's motoring along.  I must be bracing somehow.

I put Dixie in properly-fitted 0 Gloves on the front and too-loose very old 0.5 Gloves in the back, and once I'd pounded them on I never touched them again all day.  Mostly the trail was dry, but there were a few creek crossings followed immediately by hill climbs, and I was pleased that I didn't lose boots there.  Boots that don't fit are nightmares, but boots that do fit are a thousand times better than shoes.  I put her compression socks on her fronts after the ride, and the next morning she had no fill in either the wrapped fronts or the unwrapped hinds.

I rode with a crupper for the first loop, but it rucked up her hair pretty good and I started to worry about rubbing, so I pulled it at lunch.  I have an interesting bruise on my inner thigh, because I started the ride with a carabiner flapping around the pommel and I slammed into it for an hour straight before I really noticed, but once I got my pommel bag properly secured all was well.  Dixie started flipping her head on the way into camp at lunch, so I put the running martingale on and that put an end to that nonsense.

Also, very early Sunday morning, that horrible monster stepped on my foot, PIVOTED, and froze there.  Sorry if I woke you up yelling "fuck, ow, get off my foot!" at 6:35.  But after I got my foot back she let me hang on her neck and sniffle into her mane - we have the most beautiful abusive relationship :)

Next:  Year-end wrap up and goals for next year!  Or maybe a story about my Souvenir Tumbleweed I brought home when I was 12.