Jill, from Connecticut, and I arrived at Orlando Airport in Florida at roughly the same time on the afternoon of Thursday, March 10th to begin our three-hour journey to the Fun In The Sun (“FITS”) Endurance Ride in Williston, Florida. We rented a little economy car for which both of our large luggage bags just barely fit. Thankfully we were only bringing our riding clothes, hydration packs and riding boots and not saddles, as that little car was jammed packed.
We had both leased young horses from a Canadian veterinarian who was living in the area with her stable of endurance Arabians. When we arrived, we were greeted by a very sullen and disappointed horse owner who was pulled from the 100 mile for lameness. We were also advised that the horse Jill had originally leased, Style, was lame and was replaced with Lady. This sudden change in horses caused a bit of bewilderment, as Jill had taken out insurance on Style and had to contact the insurance company at 4:58 p.m. and have the insurance changed. Luckily for Jill, the agent answered the phone and helped her with the changes.
It was not the greeting or beginning we were hoping for and we wondered if this was foreshadowing for the weekend to come. We were told to be up at 5:00 a.m. to feed and water the horses and be organized for our day. We were then shown the LQ trailer we would be sleeping in and we were very thankful for the free accommodations.
As we were unpacking and getting ready for our short but desperately need sleep, we couldn’t help but notice a strange but increasingly potent smell emerging from the sleeping quarters. We opened all the windows and doors and tried to air out the place. We checked the propane to make sure there wasn’t a leak and made sure it was turned off. We checked the dirty dishes in the sink to see if we could wash away the smell, but it was not the dishes. We both started getting headaches and my eyes were watering and sinuses were plugged. I don’t normally have allergies, but something funky was going on. We finally lifted up the mattress to find a roach sleeping or dead, we didn’t stick around long enough to ask him. Without a further word, we retreated to our tiny car and sat in silence, eventually drifting off to sleep to dream about warm sleeping bags we should have brought with us.
We woke up at 5:00 a.m., fed and watered the horses and proceeded to get fed and watered ourselves. Today was the first endurance ride ever for Jill and she was starting off with an AERC 50 mile riding Lady. This was going to be my first FEI 50 mile riding Lilly. For those of you who don’t know, in order to be qualified to ride a FEI 50 mile, the rider and horse (not necessarily in combination) must complete two 25 mile (40 km) rides and complete two 50 mile (80 km) within a 24 month period. So heading into this ride, Lilly was a more experienced FEI competitor than I was!
We decided not to head out with the front runners, but rather wait for the majority of riders to leave the start gate before we headed that way. We wanted our very hot and dancing horses to understand that just because we are leaving on a ride, does not mean that we need to start out running or keep up with the others. The loops were 12.5 miles each, with 40 minute holds after each loop. Another first timer joined us as she heard through the grapevine that we would be holding a very conservative pace.
Unfortunately, after two loops, the second vet check, one third of our group dropped out due to lameness. It appears as though her horse may have sustained a stone bruise which is one of the disadvantages of riding barefoot over rocky trails.
Jill and I headed out on our third 12.5 mile loop. The terrain was very sandy and the horses struggled to get through the deeper spots. I could feel my mare was tiring so we walked the last mile, which was cutting our time very close. We met our crew, took off all the tack and cooled down the horses. Their pulse rates were in the 50s and steadily dropping. Our crew cleaned up the horses and we both made it through the vet check with the vet noting that my mare, Lilly, seemed to be tiring but capable of continuing. As we waited for the rest of our hold time to be over, we noticed that Lilly was starting to get stiff and was exhausted. We discussed her condition, watched her trot out again and decided that it would be in Lilly’s best interests if we pulled her. It did not seem fair to make her continue when she was obviously exhausted, even though she was cleared by the vet to continue.
This meant that Jill, on her first endurance race ever, would need to head out on her own. Her horse was still in great condition and wanting to continue. Jill headed out at a brisk walk, a little unsure of herself, but since we had already rode that path on our first loop, she felt she would be fine. About an hour and a half into her ride, Jill called to say she had gotten lost, but was now back on the trail. She figured that she had ridden an additional five miles so she would be late getting back to camp. We waited another hour, hoping she would be back soon. The sun was getting low in the sky and we were all getting concerned about her progress. Another hour went by and finally Jill and Lady came walking down the road. They both looked worse for wear, exhausted and perhaps a bit of a head bob on Lady.
Lady pulsed down quickly, but that was not going to be the issue. It seems as though the deep Florida sand may have succeeded in weakening another horse. Jill had tried her best to take it as slow as possible, but with getting lost and adding on the extra mileage, it was simply too much for the both of them. During the vet check, the vet noticed the stiffness and Lady’s irregular gait. He commended Jill on finishing her first 50 and how well Lady had looked at all the other vet checks, it was just unfortunate that the extra mileage in the sand took its toll.
Although a disappointing result, it was a great learning for both Jill and I about how the differences in terrain must be managed very carefully, how imperative it is to keep track of the flags for the marking of the trails, and, most importantly, that the vets are not the enemy – they are there to help us be successful, not just for one event but for all our future rides with our chosen equine partner.