Sunny and I have been enjoying the NATRC rides: new trails, learning things, and meeting new people. I decided Sunny and I would do the Bear NATRC, in Calero Park, near San Jose. It’s relatively close to Santa Cruz, so no five hour drives. Also, the ride was on the Sunday of Labor Day weekend, which means that we would be in camp on Saturday afternoon, ride on Sunday morning/afternoon, and come home on Sunday night. Since it *was* Labor Day weekend, there wouldn’t be crazy traffic on either Saturday afternoon or on Sunday night, coming home.
We got to camp about 2 PM and set up next to Tammy and Doug, with whom Sunny and I had ridden at Jackson Forest on the first day. As I got Sunny out of the trailer, Laura, who I rode with on Day 2, showed up. The Gang was all there.
The one thing I was really worried about was the temperature. Most of the other horses are from inland, where it’s been stinkin’ hot. Over here, it’s been a really cool, damp summer, so Sunny’s not used to the heat at all. While I was sitting in the ride meeting, it got cooler and cooler, until several people left to get jackets. Ha! All was well – actually, it got really cold, as in I had to blanket Sunny!
The alarm went off at 5:30 and it was still dark. I fumbled around in the dark until 7 AM, when the ride started, and Tammy and Lark and Sunny and I went to the start line. Sunny was as nervous as she’s ever been at a ride, and threw a little fit every time time Lark got out of sight. I guess they bonded, spending the night together.
We met Laura and her horse, Tango, at the start. I was supposed to ride with Tammy and Lark, but deep down I figured that Laura and Tammy would ride together: Tango and Lark are both *really* fast walkers, both having left Sunny in the dust at Jackson Forest. However, I got lucky and Tango was in total go mode. Within about 5 minutes, Tango just power walked away from us. Tammy and I were on our own.
And Tammy wasn’t having an easy day, either: about a half mile from the start, at the first significant downhill, Lark started bucking and threw about three bucks every five yards or so. It did not look fun.
Lark calmed down after the first downhill, and we started walking out. Sunny did *great*, keeping up with Lark for most of the ride. The ride. It was killer.
It was 18.8 miles and, by my measurements from the topo map, there was about 3800 feet of climbing in it. And there was a total of about a half mile of flat. By the way, the start of the ride is the point at the top, up near the lake.
We climbed up to about 1200 feet by lunch, which was on the trail. We packed lunch bags and ride management took them out to a point on the trail. Tammy and I both put grain lunches for the horses in our bags, so the four of us ate lunch together, several miles out of camp.
After lunch, the trail went straight up to 1800 feet, where there was a Pulse and Respiration check. There was one before lunch, as well, but it was pretty routine, that is, Sunny came down and almost went to sleep during the 10 minute wait before the P&R were measured. At the afternoon P&R, she came in with a 120 bpm heart rate. After about 7 minutes, she was down to somewhere between 40 and 48 bpm, which is typical for her. As soon as the woman stepped up to take her measurements, her heart rate went up to 60. The woman stepped away, it went down to 48. She stepped up again, it went up to 60. It was pretty funny – I think Sunny just didn’t like the volunteer!
As soon as we got out of the P&R, the trail headed downhill, and we only had about 7 miles to go. In some ways, the downhill was as bad as the uphill. There were really steep parts, and the trail was leaf-covered and slippery; the mares had to really watch their steps, and even being really careful, there were a couple of pitches that they slalomed down on their rear ends. The consolation was the beautiful views all the way down.
We were doing well – until the guns started to go off, that is. Sunny is somewhat used to them because they shoot them at the dump near Wilder Ranch, but Lark had never heard gunfire before. Someone was shooting guns in a canyon close to the trail, and they sounded close and they echoed. The shots came at random intervals and every time they started, Lark jumped. The shots finally quit, but we didn’t know they were over, so we stayed braced for another round. Sheesh.
We were relaxing a little when Sunny did the biggest spook of her career. I stayed on, but just barely. Just as she came to rest, pointing backwards, a little chestnut gelding came barreling around the corner behind us. The rider sort of grinned and shrugged and went on up the next hill – I interpreted the look as “I’m just a passenger here!” Tammy and I shook our heads and continued on behind them.
About three-quarters of a mile up the trail, the little chestnut was completely down on the ground, with the rider trying to rouse the horse to get up. The rider said that they were trotting along when the horse tripped and almost went down, then recovered. He was still unsteady so the guy just got him off the trail when the horse collapsed and wouldn’t get up. Tammy and I listened to him and watched the horse – he wasn’t breathing. I pulled the heart rate monitor from Sunny and took it over to the downed horse and put the electrodes on him – no heart beat either. The horse was dead.
We weren’t sure what to do. Although Tammy and I both thought that the horse was gone, we both thought that he should be seen by the vet, just to make sure. The way these rides work is that almost the whole management team goes on the trail to man the P&Rs and obstacles, so we weren’t sure if anyone in charge would be in camp. On the other hand, we knew the vet and safety riders were behind us, but we didn’t know exactly where.
We decided to split up. Tammy would go forward and see what she could do from camp. If she could get into phone coverage, she’d call 911 and have them contact the park rangers. I’d go back, toward the last vet check. I’d probably run into the safety riders first, but they had contact info for ride managers, so maybe they could get in touch with someone. So off we went.
I rode Sunny for about a half mile until I figured out that she’d already done about 17 miles of hills and we were going to have to get back to camp somehow, so I got off and started walking. Sunny was a handful; she definitely knew the direction of home and she definitely didn’t want to leave Lark. Then we passed four more riders going toward camp, and she wanted to go with them, too.
We made it about another mile before we ran into the safety riders. I mounted and we trotted back to the site. One of the safety riders had a cell phone that got coverage – I don’t know what carrier she had – and started down the list of ride management. I had been riding with my GPS, so when she was able to contact someone, I was able to tell them exactly where we were.
While the safety rider was calling around, I was talking to the rider. His name was Mike Tracy and he’d owned the horse for 22 years. He told me that they’d done endurance and ride-and-ties, as well as NATRC. Later I talked to other people about them. It turns out that they had done the Tevis 6 times, and had won the Pard’ner Award from the American Endurance Ride Conference (AERC) in 2007.
After help was alerted, the safety riders stayed with the rider and his horse, and Sunny and I rode on in alone. When we got in, we had (of course) blown through our time limit. Ride management, without my asking, did a rules check with the judge and rules interpreter and adjusted our time so that we could compete.
Meanwhile, the park rangers and ride management had gotten together and verified that the horse was dead and gotten its body down to camp, where the rider had it loaded into his trailer, and he left.
I talked to several people about the horse and rider. The rider was Mike Tracy and the horse was Aron Moon. The award write up is at the AERC website . I think that Mike will end up taking comfort in the way that Aron Moon went. He had just gone through a vet check, so he was good to go thirty minutes before he died. The vet looked at his body and saw that his gums were completely white, which means that he burst an aneurism and bled out. The vet guessed that it took no more than 20 seconds for the entire event – Aron Moon had no time to feel pain.
Dinner and the awards meeting were subdued, but Sunny ended up winning best horse in our class again (Novice lightweight) and I won best horsemanship in our class.
It was a really stressful ride, especially for Sunny, I think. First, she had to do an additional three miles, and to do them, she had to leave her buddy. Also, a horse died at our barn, and the other horses seemed to know it and were unusually wired until the body was taken away.
Anyhow, Sunny was a complete piece of work after the race. She couldn’t settle down at the trailer when I was trying to clean her up. Then, when the vet was doing her check, she tried to kick her! When I took her back to the trailer and went to dinner, she pawed and whinnied. When I loaded her into the trailer after dinner, for the first time in her life, she started to paw and kick in the trailer.
So. What’s up? Did I let her get too bonded to Tammy’s horse, Lark? Could the whole experience put her on edge? What can I change next time to keep her more comfortable?