It's January again.
This means that my old mare, Kayla Queen, has reached yet another milestone year. As an unraced Standardbred mare with no papers and no known history, it's hard to judge her exact birth date. But I was told by her previous owner that she was born on January 6th, and so I still celebrate her birthday early in the month even though it might actually be just a random number.
She turned 35 this year! It's hard to believe that she's still going strong, still bright eyed and bushy tailed (for real), and still enjoying each morning turn out (she can't wait to breathe the fresh air no matter the temperature), and each evening turn in (she can't wait to come into her snugly barn no matter the time of year), and every meal that is set in front of her (despite a few molars that are now worn right down to the gum).
There have been many a highlight through the 27 years that we have been partnered together, but I selected a vignette I wrote about her old endurance days when the following piece was first published five years ago, titled "The Standardbred Mare That Could," in Horse Canada, a national equine magazine. Back then, I was celebrating her 30th birthday, fully aware that these years are precious years, and to showcase the Standardbred's ability to be sure-footed and reliable riding horses far after their racing years.
It was our second endurance ride, a 55-miler over some of the most beautiful trails in Ontario. Enjoy!
As we swept around yet another turn while negotiating a mild downhill slant, the slick ground underfoot gave way. Before either Kayla or I could realize our error, all four feet swept out from underneath her, and we found ourselves skidding on a sideways slant, heading to the ground. Luckily, we fell onto a hill rising up to our right side, so the fall was short and soft. Kayla immediately found her feet and righted herself. I was on my side on the uphill slope, unhurt but quickly discovering that I was horseless.
Kayla looked for the horse ahead of us. The rider had unknowingly continued at the canter and disappeared from sight. I was on my feet but not fast enough to catch the mare. In a flash she disappeared around the turn in swift pursuit of the horse, and I was left to myself in a suddenly deafeningly quiet woods, with no assistance.
I walked around the corner, wild thoughts running through my mind. I started reviewing the event and all the “should-haves” popped into my mind. I should have slowed Kayla down – she was too inexperienced to handle that kind of footing at that speed. I should have leaned farther back as I noticed the downhill slant. I should have….
But I’m getting ahead of myself.…
Very, very early that morning, we had set off on our adventure. The sky was still pitch black as we left camp, waiting for the most competitive horse and rider combinations to leave before heading out on the trail. In the dark, it was difficult to see the trail markers that were undoubtedly set up to keep us on track.
In the shine of the almost full moon, I looked down for guidance from below and followed the weaving path already expertly drawn into the grass by the horses ahead of us. The tall autumn grass gleamed with wet dew and splattered cool droplets over Kayla’s eager footfalls as we headed off on our second ever endurance ride, the 55-mile “Oktoberfest” contest held each year by the Ontario Competitive Trail Riding Association.
The darkness seemed to last forever, and most of the beginning of the trail was completed before I could really see the surrounding scenery. At long last, the first hint of grey daylight began washing over the foliage around us, and I could begin to pick out the trail markers – ribbons of red for right, blue for left and white for straight.
I let Kayla settle into her own rhythm; being a Standardbred mare, her casual footfalls tended to be faster and more ground-covering than the typical Arabian horse. I had learned over the years to let her do her thing, as she had an uncanny way of picking through the terrain to find the best landing spot for each foot. She rarely got snagged in underbrush or took a misstep over tree roots or rocks. The remarkable thing was that she could do all of this – FAST!
Three years prior to the ride, I had been taking riding lessons at my friend's lesson facility when I met Kayla for the first time. Impressed with her calm temperament and rideability, I bought her as my “dream come true horse”. Our initial outing together was to a trail ride organized by the local Trail Riders Association. At that ride, I realized that she had a lot of potential for speed on the trails, and one of the members introduced me to OCTRA.
Having little experience with Standardbred horses, I searched for information and assistance in training a racing-bred horse. A little research revealed that Standardbreds had originally been raced at the trot under saddle in the 1600s in America. It was about 150 years later that people began to race them in harness. I was convinced then that her flair for the trails was more than just my own wishful thinking.
Kayla’s history was vague and limited to the anecdotes of her previous owner, who had been unsure of her life story. Although trained to harness as a two-year-old, she had never made the qualifying track times, so she was never tattooed or raced. Typical to a retrained Standardbred, Kayla offered excessive speed at all gaits. As a “free-legged” pacer, she often switched into the pace, a lateral gait where both legs on the same side progress together. Even when ridden under saddle, she was quite content to settle into a rhythmical, side-to-side sway that matched the speed of an average Arabian horse’s canter.
Kayla’s racing ancestry enabled her to be a prime candidate for long distance trail. Aside from her good “wind” (her large flared nostrils could exchange large amounts of air in each breath), she also had that can’t-put-your-finger-on-it characteristic: heart. Having a strong intrinsic work ethic, she was most encouraged when she saw even the tiniest outline of horse and rider ahead. A competitive drive in a horse might be frowned upon in other riding disciplines, but in distance riding (and particularly endurance races), her insistence to always be first became a remarkable asset.
It took some time to learn how to correctly condition for a ride, and with no other competitive trail riders in my area, I was left on my own to read books on the topic and devise my own conditioning strategy to build us up for our first ride. Carefully, I started with “long, slow distance” rides, where I walked, then trotted, then walked again to end the ride.
Next came a change in her feed plan. After consulting with the local feed mill representative, I changed her grain over to a high performance, textured complete feed program. She stayed on the already good quality hay given at the barn, and I added a Vitamin E/selenium supplement to support her muscle cell requirements over long periods of exertion.
Week to week, I lengthened the trot component and slowly reduced the walk sections. Eventually, I added the canter, first only over short distances, then working up to canter/trot sections before a long walk to cool down. We entered our first 25-mile competitive trail ride after 6 months of steady conditioning.
Now at the endurance ride, having made a potentially serious mistake, I wondered what was going to happen to my horse on these strange trails. Alone and walking on the trail, I felt vulnerable and lost. Although I could follow the trail markers, it would be some time before I would get to a vet check. I was also keeping an eye behind me in case another competitor came up from behind me at speed.
I looked up when I heard a rustling ahead of me. To my amazement and wonder, the rider ahead reappeared, coming toward me with Kayla in tow! Both horses were walking calmly, and he courteously asked me if I was injured. When I responded in the negative, he gently handed Kayla’s reins to me. Noticing that I was going to get back on, he faced his horse toward us and stood still.
As I mounted, I was in awe that this rider, who was obviously in the race to win, had the generosity and composure to stop his rhythm long enough to know that I was safe, on my horse, and able to continue the ride. After a humble “thank you” on my part, he swung his horse around in the tight quarters and sped around the turn, back into his strong canter.
For the remainder of the ride to the first vet stop, Kayla and I matched the horse ahead in speed, with a significant change of strategy from my end – I rated her speed with more insistence at any area that seemed to have questionable footing. We slowed at the 2-mile marker and then came in calmly and confidently to the 20-mile stop.
In an endurance ride, you can strategize your entry into the hold. Knowing that Kayla usually had a higher pulse and breathing rate than the Arabian horses, it was to my advantage to walk almost to the vet check rather than come in at speed. I had slowed her pace early enough to give her parameters plenty of time to recover, and by the time we stepped into the vet check, she was below the mandatory pulse rate of 64 beats per minute and breathing slower than 12 breaths a minute. The lay vet checked her for possible injuries, palpated her back for any discomfort, listened to her gut sounds, took a look at her capillary refill rate and hydration status, and sent us through with no worries.
I checked my watch – only 2 hours had passed since we had left the start! We had completed the first section at an astounding 10-mile per hour pace – almost twice as fast as our competitive trail rides during the summer! It was then that I realized that the rider ahead was probably one of the most competitive in this ride (he was the eventual winner).
We negotiated the second loop at a more relaxed trot. Somewhere at the 35 mile point, after several hours of posting, my legs cramping and crying out for a break, I started wondering why I was doing this in the first place. For some time, although Kayla kept up a good trot, I caught myself thinking, “And this was my idea of fun?” I realized I was experiencing “the wall” that many long distance riders speak of.
When I could post no longer, I dismounted and walked casually beside her. For almost half an hour, I worked the tension out of my legs and gave Kayla plenty of time to recover and move without weight on her back. At the final two-mile marker, I remounted and we headed off at a very calm trot, aiming to finish strong. There were just two miles to go, a final vet check and a completion certificate to seal our achievement. Kayla scored mild hydration loss and slightly lowered gut sounds. However, her pulse, respiration and capillary refill time indicated good recovery parameters.
As we left the final vet check, I gazed into the infinite wisdom of her deep brown eyes. Kayla’s butterfly wink seemed to say, “I knew we could do it.” I looked at Kayla with the sort of awe reserved only for the most extraordinary and inspiring moments, thinking, “We really DID that… ?”
“To Finish Is To Win” – the Ontario Competitive Trail Riding Association motto – was certainly our experience that day. Although we were both exhausted, I was exhilarated with the realization that we had completed one of the biggest accomplishments of our lives.
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