First ‘Long Distance’ Ride – A great experience

Hi everyone, my name is Morgan and I work for LongRun Thoroughbred Retirement Society and we are so grateful for Sarah’s support as she embarks on her journey to the Mongol Derby.

An idea that formed out of this fundraising partnership was to take a turn at each others’ sport, by taking Sarah on a backstretch tour here at Woodbine, getting a behind the scenes look at the training, knowledge and care that is taken with our athletes during their first career, and to get me out to see, and even participate, in an endurance race (a whole different world to me!) Once Sarah and I can coordinate a morning schedule, I’m sure she’ll post all about her Woodbine experience!

I, personally, have been riding since I was 5/6 years old and have done a teensy bit of everything. A couple years ago I had a really devastating, confidence-killing fall. I’ve been taking weekly lessons with a fantastic coach and some amazing western-pleasure trained horses to help get over the after-effects, but Bentley has been my first non-school horse I’ve ridden in over a year! Below is a bit of lesson footage, showing off the trot my butt has gotten used to in the last year… needless to say Bentley’s is MUCH bigger!

Riding lesson
My trusty lesson steed – Romeo the blue eyed wonder kid! You can tell by the smile on my face, in my lessons the tension and apprehension from the fall is basically non-existent!

You can hear my amazing coach, mentor and butt kicker, Toni, in the background keeping me focused on all the little things that make us riders and our horses look good! Putting it all together in a neat and tidy package is a goal I’m still working towards!

As for the endurance riding, I got started this past long weekend at the Cayuse Canter, in the stunning Ganaraska Forest. Being an avid pleasure trail rider for most of my riding life, a big draw to the endurance world is getting to see some of the greatest scenery Ontario (and after speaking with many riders this weekend, really in North America if you so wish) has to offer – and this ride was living up to that expectation.

One of the most important parts of the ride (aside from actually riding!) is having an extra set  (or two) of hands at the mandatory holds. Saturday morning was perfect because focusing on keeping all the horses and riders cared for kept me from getting stuck in my own head about my upcoming adventures.

The routine for the pit crews is not unlike my work at the track as a hotwalker. You get to the track ahead of your horses’ race to make sure everything is taken care of, and to set up a kit to take with you to the test barn – because that’s where you want to be going post race (USUALLY means you’ve finished 1st or 2nd – other finishers may also be called in). After the horse has come back, you have a strict routine to help the horse cool down – including keeping a good pace walking, letting the horse stop to drink every other turn of the shedrow (about 800m) and then bath about 20 minutes after getting back to the barn, once their breathing has come down closer to normal, to aid in the cool-out process.

Woodbine Racetrack - 2006 hotwalk
Image of Devil and I in 2005 at Woodbine Racetrack – she was one of my favourite horses to work with. I think she returned my affections!
Hotwalk 2005
Cooling out Devil on the shedrow at Woodbine racetrack.

Solstice’s mom, Phylis, took the time to help me get both Linda and Sarah’s gear set up while they were both out doing the first loop of the 14 mile set speed. I got to learn a bunch of things that really complimented what I’ve learned in my time around horses (like how to take a horses’ pulse with a stethoscope! way cool!!)

After the first hold was over and done with, the rest were a breeze! Basically follow Sarah’s mandate – eat, sleep (or pulse down!), ride, repeat!

Then… it was my turn! I got Bentley tacked up and ready to go, and took a quick walk around camp while Linda got Sable vetted from the set speed. After our group was all mounted and set to go, we set off down the hill to the start line. Sarah, taking off on foot, had already started her run, expecting us to catch up and pass her on the trail. Watching a few horses start ahead of us, Bentley realized he was “in a race” and expected his usual strong trot start. Excitedly, he offered a couple (admittedly very nice) canter strides which caught me a bit off guard. Asking him to come back to me, he understandably offered a bit of protest, throwing in a several small bucks. The few people around the start line started asking “Is that Bentley? We’ve never seen him buck!” I laughed it off, saying I’d been promised an easy ride, regrouped and carried on up the first hill.

Starting line
All ready to go, our group heads out to the starting line!

Sarah had told me ahead of time that with new riders, Bentley will throw in a few “tests”. We did end up having a few fun discussions, mainly, in what I can assume, is Bentleys thoughts on the matter:

Bentley: Hey, newbie, this here is trotting territory – and I trot BIG. WEEEEEEE!!!

Me: Uh… no. My stirrups are a touch to long, Sarah’s booked you in for 55 miles tomorrow and if I can’t get up off your back, I’m a floundering fish. I will NOT risk you getting a sore back! WALK (for now!)

Bentley:Well then… I shall take the lead and show you my WONDERFUL 20m circles. Look at how WONDERFULLY I can execute them at a lovely trot or even canter!

Me: That’s nice. Now let’s follow Sable…

Bentley: NOOOOO THE HORROR! Ok I’ll walk (or trot) nicely! Just let me lead!

After we dismounted, adjusted my stirrups and did some nice trot and even a bit of canter work, Bentley settled right in and really was the champ Sarah told me he was. (Post-race we figure the slower speed and the fact that I opted to ride in the more western-style Mongol Derby saddle probably contributed most to his small bucks.)

After expecting to have us pass her on trail, Sarah was a bit nervous for us as we came into the vet hold at the 4 mile mark. Me letting her know we’d had a few bucks at the start & a few more up the big hill she’d warned us about certainly didn’t ease her concerns!

Sarah hopped on Sable, in order to comply with the ride n’ tie rules that the riders have to switch, jumped back off, and took back off as we vetted our group of 3 through. All of us passed with flying colours.

The last three miles had some of the most fun trails, in my opinion, for our white loop, including the “Rail trail” – grounds that trains used to operate on. They are wonderfully flat and smooth (great for some of that fast trot or rocking horse canter Bentley has!) but have steep sides.

I really can’t describe the ride with much more enthusiasm then that – I think I am still processing just how much fun I had! And yes, you did spot Sarah’s GoPro on my helmet (still don’t know how, after we charged it Saturday, it ended up empty for her! bummer) so I did get some footage of the white trail: I pared down my +\- hours worth of footage to about 10 minutes, trying to provide a bit of everything I caught on camera.

(I spared you all the audio of all of us talking and singing “American Pie” singing really does sooth the senses!)

All in all, I really did have an amazing time the entire weekend (crewing Sunday was just as fun!). I had a couple big take-aways that I thought I would share from my experience:

1) I can actually ride. Given my bad fall, and this being my first time back riding an unfamiliar, fresh and extremely athletic horse, I had a big confidence boost in my ability to suck it up, get over my stuff,  and get on with having an amazing ride.

2) The people at all sides of this sport were so welcoming, understanding and really put the idea of “a great experience” ahead of all the competitive sides of this sport. Linda, Sarah’s usual partner-in-crime and my guide for the ride, along with several other riders on Saturday mornings’ set speed ride took off to help a fellow rider, whose horse decided to have a bit of an “escape” after some stirrup malfunctions, round up her horse, ponied her back to camp, and they all took off for the second loop together once again – awesome work ladies!

3) There really is a ride for everyone – the 7 miles was probably just the perfect introduction for me as a rider to the sport, and the trail, although at times more on the technical side, would have been suitable to introduce a less experienced horse, who had some conditioning on it. Flexible completion times ensure that you can “ride your race”, enjoy the experience and make it a good one for rider and horse. Another huge bonus, is so many of the experienced riders are willing to mentor those new to the sport – after the friendly encouragement and welcoming nature I experienced I would 100% recommend that to anyone willing to try endurance riding take advantage of this!

Bentley sunset
Bentley says “Hi” during the golden hour, Friday night.
Sable Sunset
Sable overlooks the ride camp, surveying her domain. Friday night was perfect for testing out my photo gear after having it sit dormant for far too long

I can’t wait to get another crack at this sport – and join Sarah, Linda, Bentley, Sable, and the entire endurance community at the next ride!

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