Thursday April 26 - Monday April 30
Most of the training rides are done out of Bank’s Creek, a farm in the forest about 15 miles from Marburg, that backs up to state forest land. There’s miles and miles of eucalyptus forest to ride through on fire roads. “It’s great for training,” says Penny, “There’s no altitude, but there’s hard roads, it’s rocky, and there’s some tough hills.” You want to get horses fit for Tevis? (They did - 3 of them in 2005) Come on here to train.
My first ride was with Penny, Jaimee and Shaylee on Blue Bronco, a little gray Arabian gelding. He’s not all that little, probably about 15 hands; he just feels compact. He wasn’t as big a walker as the other long-legged horses, but he put all his effort into staying up with them. He was really nice to ride, and I understood why, when they told me Bronco’s done a Quilty or two and 4 Shahzadas. The 160 km Quilty is tough enough, but the Shahzada is not just a 5-day endurance ride: to finish the Shahzada, you have to finish all 5 days. If you finish 5 days and vet out (pull) on the last day’s finish, you don’t get any credit for the 4 days you have done. Bronco’s finished 4 Shahzadas - think about that one.
Penny was riding Don, who is now one of her favorites… and one look at him and I fell for him too. You know how I love riding Arabians in endurance, but just like the look of the Thoroughbred-y, bigger different horse - well, Don’s a different horse, alright. He’s “station-bred”, i.e. a mongrel - half Arab, half whatever. Looking at him he could be part Arab, part Cob, part draft horse, part standardbred. He’s got a big honking head (standard bred?) and really big eyes (draft horse eyes), and he’s heavily built - well, the front of him is, anyway; the back could be Arabian - and he’s what some might call coarse. (I wouldn’t call him that, I’d call him beautiful.) Of course I love the look of him.
But the attraction doesn’t end on his looks. They got him in New Zealand about 18 months ago, and he was crazy - as in crazy fast. Penny thinks Don was really mistreated at some point. He’s just coming round to where he trusts people a little, and he’s getting to know her voice when she’s riding him. He’d done several 160’s when they got him. They bought him to resell, as they do many horses; they took him to Europe, but nobody liked the look of him so nobody wanted him. He finished a 160 km in the top ten, but Penny didn’t show him for BC, because people would have thought he was too ugly. (He’s not!) Now he’s not for sale. He’s done several 160’s with the Tofts, including last year’s Quilty with Penny’s sister Helen.
Penny says you don’t touch him on his butt when you’re riding or he’ll take off. In rides he takes off anyway - he’s got no mouth and you can’t control him. In one ride he’d take off on every loop and blow by the other horses, but since he doesn’t have great recoveries, he’d lose all that time in the vet checks getting his heart rate back down. Next loop he’d do the same thing, go tearing past everybody getting back to the vet check first, then having the other horses come in while he was still recovering. She figured the people just thought “Crazy lady! You’d think she’d figure out to slow down!” but she couldn’t! Don can go by himself or with other horses, he doesn’t care one way or the other; when he catches up to horses on the trail he’ll just keep going on by them, not like Murdoch who likes to catch up to horses ahead of him then hang with them. “You can hear him coming down the road. He sets his head, and he goes, crazy fast; he’s got one pace, flat out. When you come to an intersection, he’ll throw on the brakes and buck and kick up. You get on him and he pisses off, no standing around and waiting. He whizzes around corners on 2 legs; he puts his head down like a vacuum cleaner to go under trees and he doesn’t slow down. You have to duck fast! You can’t make him drink if he doesn’t want to, but when he does want to, he drinks like a camel. And he’ll go in every driveway to visit people.” You think Penny’s fond of this horse? I went up to say hi to him later, and he didn’t acknowledge me. Not snooty, just not interested at all. He’s not a people horse.
Our ride took us over an hour, and we just walked down the road, all the way to the river, then walked back. These horses were all ride-fit; they just needed light exercise. As we were getting back to the barn, Penny stopped “You smell that?” I said it smelt like sheep, though there aren‘t any sheep around here. “Yes - it’s koalas.” Oh! We looked in the trees, but didn’t see any. They are quite rare to see, although one day a few workers had seen some after they heard them playing and making noises in the trees.
My next ride was on Salman; a big gray part Arabian. We’d eaten lunch sitting in Salman’s pen, and he came up to me and wanted to share my chicken cheese and avocado sandwich and coke and granola bar. I really didn’t think he’d like the sandwich, but I finally gave in and gave him a bite of my granola bar, which he promptly spit out and then asked for more.
We did an hour and a half ride, walking again the whole way, up and down hills through the forest. They can work up quite a sweat and heart rate plowing up some of these steep hills, and they all attack the hills, using their butts to propel them upward at a fast walk. We encountered a group of ‘brumbies’ - some of Toft’s young horses growing up out there, getting mountain legs on them as they mature. The girls kept apologizing for the forest being so brown everywhere, while I kept commenting on how lush and green it looked! Compared to Meg’s where even the trees were brown and dying, this is indeed a fertile green forest. I can’t imagine how it looks when they’ve had rain and it’s REALLY green. Clouds mostly covered the sky today, and we felt about 5 tiny raindrops but that was it.
Next day was a picnic ride; Penny made sandwiches and we stuffed them in saddlebags. Shaylee, Brooke and Alexandra went with us today. I got Bronco again, and we headed off into the forest. We strolled, chugging up and down hills, and after about 2 hours we came to a spot where we’d have our picnic. We hopped off, and pulled out the sandwiches… now I’m thinking we’ll sit, take our time, lounge around, but everyone had eaten their sandwiches before I had mine half done (I just can‘t eat fast), and so I started tearing off bites and stuffing them down my face, and then they were done, ready to mount, and I stuffed the last bite down, chasing it with water, and still had to put my martingale back on, had to hand Bronco off to Penny to go run behind a bush, then as everyone was waiting, I jumped on Bronco quickly, and we were off.
We came to a long uphill climb, and we trotted all the way up it. At the top we stopped to take pulses - they monitor pulses pretty closely - and then we turned around to go back down, and back home. It was a 3 ½ hr ride, altogether, another beautiful warm sunny day in the green forest of Queensland.
Another day I got to ride Jazzmin, with Penny and Peter and Shaylee. Jazzmin’s another fine horse to ride. They got her from Western Australia - she’d been doing mostly 80 km rides - and quickly discovered she was a really good horse because anybody could ride her. Not everybody can ride any endurance horse, but just about anybody can ride Jazzmin. When a foreign visitor came wanting to do a 160 km ride, he didn’t want to ride Jazzmin, because he thought she was too quiet and uninspiring on training rides. But she flew through the 160 with him, finishing 3rd, and they realized she had quite a bit of gas in the tank too. She went to one World Championship in Dubai, and she was going to go to the World Championship in Germany last year, but got thrush in England and couldn’t go. She’s amazingly comfortable at the trot and canter, and has this fantastic power walk that‘s almost like a Tennessee Walker running-walk. She’s push button to ride.
Peter rode with us an hour then turned for home; we 3 continued on and stepped up the pace. We trotted and cantered up hills and on the flats, and then we came to this one long, and I’m talking long, uphill road. It went on and on, and we trotted and cantered up it, stopping to walk only once or twice briefly, then attacked it again. The horses just seemed to love it, especially Don, who was just powering up it ahead of us. And the road kept going up. Finally, way up there (“Oh this still isn’t the top,” said Penny), we came to a camping shelter and water tank - the rainwater from the roof is collected in this tank - where we filled up the bucket Shaylee’d been carrying and watered the horses. They drank about 2 buckets each. We humans pulled out our sandwiches to eat; Jazzmin thought I’d brought the ham and cheese sandwich for HER, and in fact she ate half of it and got cranky with me when it was gone.
We continued on the road, downhill a little then did some more climbing. We were going to make a loop out of it, but Penny couldn’t find the road we wanted, so we turned around and retraced our steps. It was quite windy today, with branches falling from trees in the forest around us. They were spooking Jazzmin. I told her we wouldn’t be hit, but she wasn’t quite convinced of that, when we’d hear one crack or see one fall in front of us.
We got back after about 4 ½ hrs, maybe 20 miles or so. The 3 horses that are going to the 160 km FEI ride at Imbil this coming weekend will be ready to go. By now I’m ready for a 160 km too, but I’m not an FEI rider! Instead, I’ll be following Don around.