Sunday, April 22, 2012

My First Endurance Ride

This weekend, I attended my first endurance ride.  Not as a rider, unfortunately, but as an observer and a bit of a helper.  I'm not nearly as organized as my friend SweetPea (I'll have to work on that when I DO start riding), so I had a bit of a gear mishap.

I own a new air mattress I'd never used.  I packed it, but forgot to pack the battery operated pumps I own (or any spare batteries for them, which I also usually do).  However, they wouldn't have done me any good anyway, because when I got the tent set up and unpacked the air mattress from the box it came in, I remembered it was a household double-thickness kind that you plug into the wall to blow up.  There aren't a whole lot of outlets in cattle rangeland in the middle of Oregon.  It turns out the exit valve was HUGE and wouldn't have worked to blow it up with the pumps even if I had brought them.

I asked a couple of people with campers if they had outlets I could "borrow," but they didn't work unless the camper was plugged into an electrical source itself, so that didn't work.  I took the air mattress up to the vet check area, where there was a caterer with a giant motor home and a generator.  They generously let me use some of their electricity to blow up my air mattress.  Part way through blowing it up, they said something that reminded me that I actually HAVE an adapter that plugs into my car's cigarette lighter outlet and has a standard household plug.  Woo!  So I left the air mattress only partially inflated, jammed it into my trunk, and headed back to camp with it.  As I was putting the air mattress back into the tent, I realized it was much less full than when I'd left the caterers with it, and realized I had left the exit valve open the entire time.  Man, I'm dumb.

Sealed that up, turned the car on, plugged the adapter in, it hummed to life (it has a little fan to cool it), and plugged the air mattress in.  No luck.  I guess the adapter has died or something.  Luckily, the neighbors camping near us loaned us the Thermarests they weren't going to use.  (The wife of the couple is a friend of SweetPea's, but I've only met her a few times, and had never met her husband.  It was very nice of them to help us out.)

I also forgot to bring the spare battery for my camera, and the battery IN the camera was nearly dead, so I didn't get nearly as many photos as I would have liked.

I did, however, take a picture of the sunset on the eve of experiencing my first endurance ride, and of the camp area.

I also took some photos of Flash, ready to race.

Show horses get braids to look pretty.  Endurance horses get braids to keep cool.  Looking pretty is just a happy coincidence.

We chatted with our campmates a while, but headed to bed early, because we knew we'd be up with the horses in the morning.

The morning dawned with beautiful clear skies.  I did what I could to help SweetPea get ready, but she had a helper already, so I'm afraid I wasn't much help.  I headed down to the start line with her and took a photo of her and Flash, rarin' to go.

Look at that bluebird sky!  Not to mention the good-looking pair who are the focus of the photo.
Then, since I was there to help SweetPea but she wasn't due back for hours, I helped out at the vet check.  There were two vets for the ride, and they had to check each horse before they left (which had all been done at this point--SweetPea was in the next-to-last wave to leave, by only 10 minutes), at every vet check during the race (one per horse for those riding 30 miles, two for those riding 50 miles, and three or four [I forget which] for those riding 75 miles), and every horse after they finished the ride, twice for those in the top ten for their distance.  So there were only a few lulls all day.  There were also three vet students and quite a few other volunteers there, most of which were "pulsing."  The horses may not be considered "in" to the vet check until their pulse reaches 60 beats per minute or lower (normal resting heart rate for a horse is roughly half that, so it's not quite as low as it sounds for a human).  So when a rider first arrives at the vet check, they have to get "pulsed," and once they reach 60 or lower, the pulser calls out the horse's number plus "down," to the timekeeper.  It sounds kind of bad--"120 down!" but it means their pulse is down, not the horse or rider is down.  :-)  Anyway, the timekeeper then responds with the time that horse may leave the vet check (30 or 45 minutes later for this ride, depending which vet check for which distance).  The horse and rider have until that time to complete the vet check (though most do it right away), hose off (though many do that while they're waiting to pulse down, too), eat, drink, potty, and rest (both horse and rider).

I helped scribe for one of the vets for quite a while--it turns out SweetPea didn't really need my help much because she had a helper already, so I helped from 8 until she was done with her final vet check, around 3:30 or 4.  I can't even imagine how tired the vets, vet students, and any other volunteer who helped the entire time must be--they were busy from before 6 a.m. until probably 9 p.m. or so.

The vets have a checklist of things to check each horse for (and yes, they only care about the horses--the riders could come gimping in bruised and bloody, and as long as the horse is fit to continue, they may; in fact, some riders were unable to jog alongside their horses for the trot portion of the vet check, and they were allowed to have others do it--I trotted a couple of horses for riders who couldn't, in fact).  Each criterion gets a grade of A, B, C, or D.  A or B means they can continue.  C means they technically pass, but it's a huge heads-up to the rider that they need to remedy the situation.  D means the horse may not continue.  I'm not sure if they give Fs, but I'm sure if there is such a thing as an F, they're too busy administering care to actually write an F on the card.  They check:
  • Jugular refill--they block the jugular with their thumb or knuckles, and watch how long it takes to plump back up
  • Skin tenting--they pinch the skin on the neck and see how long it takes to lie flat again (it should snap right back)
  • Mucus membranes--they check that the gums are pink and moist, and that the nostrils appear moist, and not bone dry
  • Capillary refill--they press a thumb against the horse's gum to see how long the thumbprint takes to pink back up
  • Back--the vet massages the saddle area to make sure the horse isn't in pain from the saddle
  • Muscle tone--the vet massages the horse's muscles (especially in the rump) to make sure they are not cramping up and don't show pain
  • Anal tone--a horse will normally clamp its tail down if you try to mess with its personal area--if it's TOO relaxed, it shows that it's getting too tired
  • Gut sounds--the vet listens to a few areas of the horse's abdomen to make sure they can hear the sounds of digestion, showing that the horse is eating and drinking on the trail; the normal response to heavy exercise is for the GI system to shut down, so this was the most common criterion for horses to be marked down on, but the riders do their best to keep their horses eating and drinking both on the trail and in the vet checks
  • Tack galls--if the bit is causing sores or cuts in or around the horse's mouth, or if the saddle, cinch, or boots are rubbing on the horse's skin, this item will be marked down
  • Wounds--existing wounds and scars were noted at the vet check prior to the ride, but were still noted at all the subsequent vet checks; new wounds would also be noted, of course, and result in a lower grade
The first four items above are to check for hydration, the last two are obviously checking for wounds that were caused or exacerbated by the riding, the gut sounds check that the horse is eating and drinking properly, and the back, muscle tone, and anal tone check that the horse isn't getting exhausted or cramping up.

Then, the rider must lead the horse away and back toward the vet at a trot, and the vet will evaluate the gait to make sure the horse isn't becoming lame, and also judge the horse's impulsion (literally, how "forward" the horse is--it's a good sign if the horse appears excited to keep going), and the vet also judges the horse's attitude and gives her overall impression of the horse.

A horse can be pulled from the ride by the vet for one or both of two reasons:  lameness or metabolic.  Lameness means the horse is limping or shows other signs of pain in its limbs and shouldn't continue.  Metabolic means the horse appears to be dehydrated, have muscle cramps, or not be digesting its food well (horses, for as robust as they appear, have VERY delicate GI systems), it's basically not medically well enough to continue.

Riders can also choose not to continue, even if the horse passes the vet check.  They know the horse better than the vet does, so they may feel the horse shouldn't continue even if the vet didn't notice something, or the vet may have given a C but the rider feels it would only get worse if they continued, or it may even just be because the RIDER doesn't want to continue (remember, the vets and ride organizers only care about the horse).

Of course I wasn't wishing for anyone to not complete the ride, but throughout the day, I did get to see a few examples of what can cause a horse to be pulled.  There was a horse that was so lame that I noticed its head bobbing (at the trot, its head should be still) from the corner of my eye.  There was a horse panting so bad its whole body moved with every (rapid) breath.  There was also a mare who had "thumps" (her heartbeat could be seen in her flank) and was tied up (muscle cramps).  Not good.  They started an IV to get fluids and calcium into her as quickly as possible.

Again, I wouldn't wish the illness on any horse, but I took the opportunity to watch the vet start the IV, as I'd never seen it done.  They numbed her skin, made a tiny slice with a scalpel blade, then inserted the IV catheter.  Human IV catheters are just barely thicker than the needle used to insert them, and made of very flexible material, and are only about an inch long.  The horse IV catheter was thicker, a little stiffer, and more like SIX inches long.  It was inserted directly into the slice in the skin and slid down the vein quite easily.  The vet then used sutures in the skin to hold the heavier parts of the apparatus (the ports) in place (in a human, they're taped in place, but that doesn't work very well with a horse).  The tubing is coiled so that it's stretchy, and is kept from tugging on the sutures or insertion site by clipping it to the mane with a zip tie.  We did notice that when the horse lowered her head, it kinked off the catheter in her neck and stopped the flow of fluids, but other than having to keep her head up, she didn't seem to mind the procedure at bit, and even napped a bit while she stood there.  Unfortunately, last I heard, she'd taken a turn for the worse (temperature elevated, whereas it had been just barely above normal while she was standing in the sun).  I hope she's okay!  [Gotta love Facebook--I asked how she was doing on the local riders group on Facebook, and someone replied from their drive home that they were following this mare's trailer (they are friends with the owner), and she's doing fine.  Yay!]

Though her owner and handlers were concerned, the horse was clearly not upset at all the goings-on.  She was enjoying her nap in the shade.

Close-up of the IV (insertion site on the left, with the red catheter hub), sutures holding the ports to the skin, zip tie in the mane, and coiled tubing to allow the horse to move around a bit without getting tangled.

Finally, SweetPea and Flash completed their 30-mile ride, and though she'd been thinking she'd be in the middle to later end of the pack, they were in ninth place out of 24 riders!  This meant they qualified for "Best Condition" (one horse out of the first ten in each distance is awarded this distinction).  To be judged for BC, they had to have a vet check at exactly 10 minutes after their finish that included all of the above steps plus a CRI (Cardiac Recovery Index).  For the CRI, the vet takes the horse's heart rate, then the horse must be trotted out a prescribed length (longer than the usual trot-outs), then one minute after the first heart rate (20-30 seconds after returning from the trot-out), the heart rate is taken again.  The idea is that while the heart rate will have elevated during the brief trot, it should also have recovered back to the original heart rate or very close to it, after the brief rest.

The final step of competing for Best Condition is that the horse and rider must return and have a final vet check exactly 60 minutes after completion.  This check is like all the others, except the criteria are given a number grade on a scale of 1-10 instead of the letter grade system.

The rider must also be weighed with all the tack that was on the horse to determine the total weight the horse was carrying.

To determine the Best Condition horse, the scores from that final vet check are tallied and multiplied by ten.  Then the rider with the best time is given a set number of points, and each of the riders who came in later are given less points, depending how far after the winning rider they finished.  In SweetPea's case, the winning rider was riding a horse that often competed in (and won?) hundred-mile races, so she finished the 30-mile ride WAY ahead of the other riders, setting the bar high and getting a HUGE advantage on that section of the BC scorecard.  Lastly, the heaviest rider/tack combo are given a set number of points, and the lighter riders are given a proportionally lower number of points (the idea being that if all other things are equal, the horse that carried more weight and finished feeling just as good as the other horses is in better condition).  These three sections are combined, and the highest score gets Best Condition.  Apparently in the 30-mile ride, the other scores weren't good enough to overcome the advantage of finishing an hour and a half ahead of the rest of the field and/or that horse scored equally well in the other aspects, so the first-place horse also received BC.

My friend K and her friend K both successfully completed 50 miles, and a different friend and her mom each rode horses that weren't suitable for higher mileage in the 10 mile ride and completed successfully as well.  I didn't know any 75-mile riders, and I don't know how long it took them to finish, but they were still vetting and heading out on further legs during the award ceremony at 6:00 p.m., 12 hours after they started.  Most rides also have a 100-mile option, which I can't even imagine.

Here's a photo of SweetPea and Flash after their ride, and after horse and rider had rested, hydrated, and eaten a bit.  Sorry for the glare--my camera's aperture was wide open.  I promise SweetPea isn't that shiny.

Tired and sunburned rider, tired horse, and awesome pink argyle hay bag).
I can't wait to attend another ride.  If I attend as a non-rider again next time, I already know a few things I'll do better.  More sunscreen, more often.  Bring a chair to the vet check area and sit every chance I get (my feet were tired and sore--my horse boots aren't the most comfortable for spending a ton of time on my feet), and bring all the water and snacks I'll want for the whole day, as there likely won't be many good chances to head back to the campsite to get them later.  Though the caterers for this ride were AWESOME, and I really appreciated the sandwich they made me, and especially the citrus drink they made--they muddled slices of citrus fruit and sugar, then added ice and water to make a fresh homemade lemonade-type drink of awesomeness.

But hopefully, I will have a horse before the end of the season so I can experience a ride from the other side of the operation.  :-)


  1. This was so FUN to read. I felt as if I were at the ride camp. I was mentally making lists (from your experience.) of what I would need should I ever go uh "help" at an endurance event. Thanks, I had a great time, and didn't get sunburned. ;)

  2. Yep, SweetPea, I think that's a pretty accurate portrayal, other than the shininess. You were both exhausted, but pleased. :-)

    Jane, I'm glad you liked my post. I think the biggest thing for me, if I volunteer again, would be to find comfier but still horse-safe shoes. My riding boots don't have a whole lot of padding inside the soles (which is good--I haven't liked riding in "squishy" boots when I've had them), but I wouldn't want to wear sandals or anything flimsy. So yeah, something leather and completely covering the foot, but squishy and comfy would be good. :-)

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