Friday, April 26, 2024

2024 Eagle Canyon: Help, My Horse is on Crack!

April 26 2024

For all you Hillbillie Willie fans who’ve been following his Endurance career, you all know that all I really want out of an Endurance ride is a calm start and a sound horse at the finish. At Eagle Canyon, I got neither!

I always underestimate Willie’s fitness in the first ride of the seasons, but I still opted for caution in doing the 25 on Day 2 (I shot Day 1’s ride; Steve Bradley shot Day 2 so I could ride!), particularly because Willie is not a hill-climbing horse, and this ride is *full* of hills. It’s a tough ride for your horse’s first one of the season.

I had no indication Willie would suddenly become demonically possessed at the start of this ride. We’ve been working on calm starts the last 7 years, and last season was pretty much perfect, going out calm every ride on a loose rein, either in a group or riding solo. 

I took him on a long uphill walk on Friday, and he was perfect. After shooting on Saturday, I rode him on a solo warm-up trail ride (I tried this at Autumn Sun two years ago, and he was a total freak riding by himself leaving his buddies in camp; I felt like I was on a half-broke 2-year-old); he was perfect.

Ten minutes before the start on Sunday, he was walking around mostly calmly, grazing, watching horses, a little squirmy, but nothing unusual. I expected everything to go smoothly, because he gave me no indication that a dragon was about to erupt.

As Regina hollered, “Trail’s open!” I tried to find a little bubble. I didn’t want to be right in front of a bigger group, but I didn’t want to be near the faster starters. I found a small bubble but as soon as we hit the road, a crazy demon took over my horse. All his brain cells went out the proverbial window and he morphed into Secretariat (he is an ex-racehorse after all). Oh my lord. Worst start I’ve ever had on him. Instant freight train wanting to run away, legs spinning, feet plop-pounding the road, trotting, cantering, prancing sideways (he’s never done that!), pacing, pogo-sticking, pacelope-i-don’t-even-know-what-those-legs-were-doing, snarling, snorting, bowing his head in a pretzel to his chest, walking that tightrope just this side of exploding, simply demonically possessed and planning to win the Kentucky Derby. Holy crap.

I prayed my reins or snaps wouldn’t break as I had an anchor hold on him, trying to talk him into just not exploding, just ease up a bit, chill out Buster Brown, eeeaaassy, and when we got to Layne’s house and turned left onto a climbing trail, he hobby horsed in place (he’s never done that!) and was snoring blowing pounding wanting to sprint up the hill, doing the work of 12 horses and already we were right behind Vicki Nichols who was in third, with her lovely gelding Rio just trotting steadily and business-like up the hill with Jennifer and Tamara just in sight going over the hill. No way was I letting Willie get his way and sprint up to the front and on to the vet check 15 miles away, I kept him behind Vicki (but not up their butt), and then Cat and DWA Haffir joined us, and finally, after a couple more hills and miles with Willie watching Rio still moving steadily and calmly, Willie started calming down a bit. Good thing as my fingers were going numb on the reins.

Eventually the real Hillbillie Willie, the horse I knew, came back to earth, forward and strong and bowing his head but not pulling, (he looked good by the time we got to the water tower where Steve was taking pictures), and if he did start to pull, just asking with my legs brought him back. I was even able to take one hand off the reins now and then to take pictures. He felt smooth and fit and effortless, handling those hills like they were nothing.

It’s been years since I rode at Eagle Canyon. It is a beautiful ride, in the green (this time of year) foothills rolling off in the distance, with snow-covered Bogus Basin ski area off to the east. We had perfect weather - not too cold or hot or windy, which, at Eagle, can have all of those in one weekend! Willie and Rio and Haffir cruised along the two-track roads at a sensible pace, up and down hills, on the flats, passing cows, passing the canyon with the cross.

(Proceeds from this ride are donated to the Women and Children's Alliance in honor of SueB, a victim of domestic violence, whose husband pushed her off the cliff.The WCA hopes to help other successful, smart, beautiful women like SueB leave these abusive relationships before it’s too late.)

After 15 miles we trotted on into camp for our first vet check. Willie pulsed down right away, and we trotted out for Jessica. But wait - she asked me to trot again with Mel watching! Willie was off behind! I was rather astounded, as I had not felt anything. Mel agreed he was off a bit. She trotted him out for me (I couldn’t see it), Jessica trotted him out for me (I still couldn’t see it), then Jocelyn trotted him out for me and I finally did see it on the right hind. I was glad it was caught before I went back out on those hills on the second loop.

It was only a slight lameness, but I was a bit concerned, because I have gotten good over the years feeling even one bad step, and I had not felt this at all. But, horses can be running on adrenaline in a ride, and when they get into a vet check, they can just let down and relax, and it hits them. It was a bit cool with a bit of a breeze, so standing around would also let a horse stiffen up a bit. I untacked him and purposely let him stand around and cool off even more and eat for half an hour, had Jocelyn trot him out again, and I could detect it a bit more.

Like I said, Willie’s not a natural mountain horse, he’s a flat-lander, and maybe those hills got to him, or, in the exciting drama of the wild start he tweaked something. 

And that wild start - just when you think you have things figured out with your horse, you don’t always! Sometimes, even after seven years of good starts, your horse can lose his marbles, and you just have to ride it out a while until he comes back to you.

Hopefully our next start will be drama free with a sound finish!

top photo by Steve Bradley!