Thick fog blankets the river valley. The sun is just barely up and it struggles to light the landscape. I’m trotting along a sandy tractor road that snakes through fields planted in potatoes, corn, and sunflowers. The farmer in me admires the soil tilth in this flood plain, imagining the beautiful crops that will soon be harvested.
My horse and I are alone in the fog. We’ve become separated from the pack of front-runners. She wants to gallop her heart out to catch up with them. Her anxiety grows as we catch glimpses of horses appearing and disappearing in the fog across the fields. I hold her back to conserve her energy. We have over 25 miles to cover this morning. It’s an endurance race but she doesn’t know that.
We catch up to our friend and fellow Green Bean rider, Geneva, and her horse, Tango. Together we navigate dirt roads, ditches, wooded trails, paved roads, and open fields at a steady trot.
My legs, lower back, and shoulder muscles are screaming from the sustained trotting. I’m regretting some of my choices in preparation, or lack thereof. I notice a sharp pain on my inner shins and realize that I’m wearing the skin off. My feet and lower legs are wet from fording the Saco River at the start of the ride. The river came up to Mackenzie’s belly and I wasn’t too careful about avoiding splashes; now I pay the price. Come to think of it, my entire body is soaked with sweat from the humidity. I’m thankful that my shins are the only body part affected by the chafing; it could be much worse. Regardless, I strip off my wet half-chaps while mounted and toss them into the bushes on the side of the trail to retrieve later.
Soon after, we arrive at the covered bridge and time-in to our mandatory veterinary hold. It’s now 7:30 a.m. and we’ve ridden almost 15 miles. At this point I have thirty minutes to get Mackenzie’s pulse down to the ride parameter of 60 bpm. However, it is advantageous to get the heart rate down as quickly as possible because our 45 minute holding period doesn’t start until then.
I strip off all her tack and dump it unceremoniously in a heap on a bamboo beach mat that Byron has laid out for us, next to buckets full of water, a mound of hay, and a bowl of mash for the horse to eat. He and I work together to sponge Mackenzie with water, scraping it — and the body heat it has absorbed — off so that she cools faster. She relaxes and her pulse drops quickly.
I lead her to the Pulse Timer who notes our official time. Then, we are examined by the veterinarian. He confirms that her heart rate meets the requirements and we trot in-hand away and back so that he can observe her gait for any signs of lameness. I ask how she looks, eager to know how she fared going “completely barefoot for the first leg of the ride”. The vet looks at me quizzically and I quickly explain that I had intended to put hoof boots on after crossing the river, in order to avoid a buildup of wet sand, but the horse was too excited to let me do it. Nevertheless, she looks great and passes the vet check.
We spend the 45 minute hold period letting Mackenzie eat, continually sponging her to bring her body temp down, and I attempt to fortify my raw shins with diaper rash cream. Unfortunately, it is so hot out that the cream is almost liquefied and barely provides a barrier between skin and fabric. Sand has worked its way into everything so we take care to rinse the girth, breast plate, bridle, and reins. We get her hoof boots on and tack up a few minutes before our hold time ends.
Geneva and I ride out of the hold together. Geneva and her horse are in great shape. They are planning to ride three days in a row to complete 75 miles. She wants to go faster. I’m miserable. I imagine what my shins will look like at the finish if I keep up this pace. I tell her to go ahead without me.
Mackenzie isn’t happy about being left behind when Tango charges off into the corn fields. She fights me for a few minutes, wanting to gallop ahead. I try to keep her distracted by alternately walking, trotting, and doing leg-yielding exercises.
The sun has come out and is blazing down on us now. It’s mid-morning and we are exposed in these open fields. Eventually she seems to realize that it is nice to slow down and walk a bit. I’m relieved. My body recovers during these micro-rests and I begin to feel less miserable. I get a chance to relax enough to take in the scenery for the first time all day.
Mackenzie relaxes too. She is trotting along amiably when all of a sudden a huge tractor with a boom sprayer attachment appears around a bend. She has never seen a contraption like this and it would be perfectly reasonable for her to be afraid of it. I make a split second decision to pretend that it doesn’t exist and continue at our pace. She takes my bravery as a sign that all is well and continues like this is something we do every day. I wave to the driver and trot on.
I’m compulsively checking the time now. I have six hours, including the 45 minute hold and a 30 minute window at the finish to reach pulse parameters, to complete the ride. When we began at 5:30 a.m. I decided I wanted to arrive at the finish by 11:00 a.m. to give us until 11:30 a.m., the latest possible finish time, to pulse down. When I decided to slow down and do lots of walking, I imagined that I’d be nearing elimination at the finish. I’m astounded to see that I’m an hour ahead of schedule and there are only a handful of miles to go.
I breathe a sigh of relief when we hit the river crossing because I know we’re in the home stretch. Mackenzie barges into the water, stretching her neck down and touching her lips to the cool water. She gulps it down and I count the swallows to estimate her water intake. These are her first sips of water other than her wet mash at the hold. She had multiple doses of salt and electrolytes throughout the ride but showed no interest in drinking until now.
I let her drink as we navigate the river. We are both hot. Temperatures are in the high 80s and it’s unbearably humid. I unclip my sponge from the saddle and lower it to the water on its tether. Mackenzie is not interested in standing still so I reel it up and sponge her neck as she plows through the water. I drop it to refill and pull it up again, all while steering us away from the deeper spots where quicksand has been reported.
The water is refreshing both physically and mentally. We are so close to completing the ride. I’m thrilled. I felt like quitting at the hold but pushed through instead. Now, I know we are going to make it.
The final mile and a half fly by. We trot and canter down the wide sandy trail on a loose rein. The shade of the trees is lovely. We emerge from the tree cover at the Fryeburg Fairgrounds parking fields. I dismount nearly crumpling to the ground. My right knee (which was operated on in 2008, following a riding accident) has locked up and it’ll take me a while to work out the stiffness. I loosen the girth and remove the bit from Mackenzie’s mouth. We walk together the remaining quarter mile to the finish line. I tell her how proud I am of her and feed her treats from my pocket.
I take five minutes to strip tack and sponge her off before presenting to the vet. Her pulse has dropped to 56 bpm, way below the parameter of 64 bpm. We trot out and back and she is declared “fit to continue” with all As on her score card. We’ve officially completed our first Limited Distance endurance ride. I receive hugs and pats on the back from fellow Pine Tree Pioneer riders as I shed tears of joy and exhaustion.
Back at our trailer, Mackenzie immediately sets in on her huge bowl of wet mash. She eats with vigor and slurps the remaining liquid like it’s the sugary milk at the bottom of a cereal bowl. When she finishes, I poultice and wrap her legs and deposit her in a stall stocked with water and hay where she can rest out the hot afternoon in the shade, protected from irritating flies.
Once I know that Mackenzie is comfortable, I make a bee-line for the bath house and get cleaned up. My raw skin burns like fire in the hot shower but I don’t care because the water feels so good. I hobble back to our campsite and collapse into my chair. I stuff my face with cucumber slices, cheese cubes, and guacamole. I chug cold coconut water in an attempt to rehydrate my worn out body. I think about my current condition and try to imagine riding 50 miles, or even 100 (gasp!). I’m proud of what I’ve accomplished today but am humbled too.
Later that evening, while the aches and pains are still fresh, I find myself on the American Endurance Ride Conference website, scrolling through the ride calendar, planning my next competition. Am I crazy? Perhaps. Am I addicted? Most likely.