Conquering Mt Diablo - What a Place to Start

by Sheila Christiansen, first time rider

I had been hearing about Competitive Trail Riding for years from friends who were into it. I had even gone so far once as to attend a mock-CTR and clinic put on by these same friends, trying their best to reel us in to the sport.

I was toying with the idea of trying a CTR when I was still back there in the Midwest, but had a hard time seeing how to do it and have it be fun for both me and the horse. First, the tying at the trailer overnight is a real sticking point for those of us whose horse has never done that. Will he have to stand all night? Will he lay down even if he can? Will he be exhausted? Will he be safe? Will he still be there in the morning? All thoughts that went through my head.

Secondly, I didn't have a way to camp overnight comfortably. "Comfortably" for me at this age (60) means a real mattress on a firm bed that is not the ground cloth of a tent. We tent-camped lots when our kids were small, and it was fun in a shared-survival-experience sort of way, but I had no desire to go back to that. I had a 2-horse bumper pull with a fair-sized tack room, but not big enough for sleeping. I tried it. I tried sleeping in my truck (not a good fit there, either). So that was a dilemma, as well.

Then my husband and I made the big move to northern CA in late 2010. More and more of my Midwestern friends were getting into the sport and I would read about all their fun adventures and see their ribbons and smiling faces on Facebook and that made me wish I was there to join in. But could I do it HERE where even a light casual trail ride invariably involves rocky trails and mountains and drop-off cliffs? HERE in the heart of endurance ride country where Arabians abound and where a "walk" often meant going 5 or 6mph on a gaited steed?

I own the loveliest of the old-style QH's: Cooper, who is 18 this year. He's done more than his fair share of trail miles and is possibly in the best condition of his life, now that he's met with northern California style trails. But he ain't no Arabian! And in his vocabulary "gait" means a way out to the pasture. Could we really do it HERE?

Would I kill my horse trying? Was he too old?

Could *I* stand up to the rigors of 6 to 8 hours in the saddle? Was I too old?

So many questions. So many fears of what I would be getting myself into.

With encouragement from my friends, new and old, (who I now refer to as partners in crime, or enablers..) I finally mustered the nerve to join NATRC. I figured if I took that step and paid that fee then I would feel compelled to try a ride. I connected with one very nice local NATRC member, Laura Harvey, and she and I met for lunch to talk about it, and later we did a conditioning ride where I got to pick her brain and let her watch me and my horse to see what she thought. I asked her if she thought we could do it. She said yes.

I took a deep breath and signed up for my first ride: Spring Ride at Mt. Diablo.

As I recall the conversation with Laura she described the Mt. Diablo ride as "a nice ride" and she talked about Spring flowers, and said that it was pretty, and she said other things like, "You and Cooper will do fine." Stuff like that. From another gal I was tipped off that "after the lunch break there is this kind of big climb, -- not so steep, just long."

I listened. I made a mental note. But in hindsight, I don't believe I quite understood what she meant by that.

By this time, since I had joined NATRC and "had" to camp overnight for rides, I had convinced my hubby that we needed to upgrade the horse trailer, something with a gooseneck where I could at least throw a mattress. We ended up buying our first "toy" - - - a little Exiss horsetrailer with a weekender LQ! Now I was more than ready on that front!

I had talked my friend, Dani, into joining me on this ride, so we arrived early on Friday and got set up in a lovely spot in a large sandy parking lot, close to the water spigot. We checked in and got our ride packets, including our numbered vests and our maps. My number was 28. We set up our stabling spots as we had been advised, making every effort to cover up any edges or jutting parts on which a horse could catch a halter or hurt himself. We set up water and full hay bags and wandered off to meet and chat with others. Sometime while we were gone the horsemanship judge came by and inspected our "stable" and gave us scores.

Next we were accosted by a man carrying a weight scale who wanted to weigh us. In front of everyone. And announce the results!! What?? So we gathered up all our tack and put on our boots and helmets, carrying all the stuff that the horse will carry during the ride (minus food and water), just like the jockeys at the racetrack. As expected, I surpassed the magic number of 190 that separated the lightweights from the heavyweights. No surprise there. Novice HW division was mine.

The next big event was the vet check-in. I had bathed Cooper the day before and he looked pretty good, so just dry cleaning this time. The footing was deep sand, so no need to put his boots on for that. I braided his mane and washed his face clean and we were ready.

The vet first looked him over, felt his back and legs, asked his age, said something to the secretary, and then she had us trot out, lunge him in a circle each direction, and then trot back. Quick and relatively painless, though I wasn't too sure what the results were.

We had a wonderful meal that night, followed by a raffle and a fairly lengthy pre-ride meeting, with a Q&A session afterwards for the first-timers. It was good to know Dani and I were not the only newbies. But we didn't get to bed early!

Bright and early the next morning (well actually it was still dark) we were awakened at around 5:00AM to start getting ready for the 7:00AM start. Ugh. Feed horses first, then start preparing. It seemed like there should have been plenty of time, but I felt rushed. There was going to be a judged mount first thing, so that meant being ready by around 6:30. Getting the saddle bags on so they didn't bounce was a struggle and I wished I had practiced that earlier!

After the judged mount, which went well for us, we very soon came to another obstacle, navigating an upward slope. We almost missed that little trail as I was not sure why the ladies with the clipboards were standing there and I was not paying attention to ribbons so soon out of camp. Sounds like I was not alone in that mistake!

I was in charge of keeping us on time, so I had set my watch at 12:00 as instructed. According to the map we had an hour and a minute to go four miles. Sounds easy enough, doesn't it? In reality it required us to do some serious hustling, since it was hilly and there were a couple watering opportunities along the way where we lost some time, plus my horse (and my companions' horses) didn't have fast natural walks, so we did quite a lot of trotting to get to the first marker just over minimum time. There was a judged downhill as we neared that first marker.

On we went.

At the second marker there was a 15-minute P&R stop, so we got off and tried to quiet our horses so they could relax. The first person to take the pulse said, "13. Do you want a recheck?" (Um . . . Yes?) I wasn't sure, as I knew they were OK to go on if it was 16 or under, but it sounded like she was offering me something good, so I said yes. The next guy got 12 on him. As I learned at the end of the ride you lose a point for every beat past 12. Resp. 6. But the vet showed me that capillary refill and hydration wasn't as good as it should be, so I lost points there and made a note to stay longer at the watering holes to encourage him to drink.

By the time we got to lunchtime (marker 4 on the map) we were ready to get off awhile. P&R 13 and 5, but I didn't know yet about the points off so I didn't ask for a recheck. Lost a point.

We ate our sack lunches in a big old pasture. There was a watering tank and hay for the horses. I unsaddled him and got some water to sponge him a bit. I gave him some of his Purina Senior and electrolytes in a soupy mash. I was happy to see him drink off the soup to get to the grain! He also drank very well, twice, so I was feeling encouraged about his hydration status. And I was so glad the air temperature remained pleasant with a cool breeze. The first half of the ride was done and we felt we were doing pretty well!

On the way out of camp they had us do a trot-by on a loose rein. My two ride partners went first, which meant I had to turn Cooper's butt to them so he could not see them running off. Of course when it was his turn and he saw them way down there he wanted to run to catch up, but I was able to slow him to a trot, and off we all went.

Then we started climbing the Never-Ending Hill. Up, up, up.

And up. And up.

And more up.

Cooper began needing breaks. Breaks became longer and more frequent. Then he started getting shaky and I was getting scared for him. Around every corner where I hoped to see a water tank sitting on top of the mountain there was just another climb.

Eventually it did happen, two magical white giant tubs of clear water appeared in the shade at what looked like the peak of the climb. Thank God. I got off and gave Cooper a big drink. We weren't supposed to use the water for sponging, so I dumped my water bottle over the insides of his legs, his groin, the underneath of his neck, but it wasn't enough. I thought about using my Gatorade, but we still had a long ride ahead of us. I cheated and stole a little water from the magical white tubs for a little more cooling for my horse. I figured we were out of competition by then, that we would be unable to finish within the time window, and I didn't care. I was trying to decide whether I should try to go on, or call someone for help, or just sit and take a break and wait for others to come along. I encouraged my friends to go on without me, but they wanted to stay, afraid them leaving would make things worse for Cooper.

But Cooper was drank well and then started grazing, his usual preferred activity. Respirations were slowing, things were looking up, so we decided to slowly go on, since the climb was over. Now one of the other horses was having trouble with the downhill, so we were not trying to make up time; each of us doing whatever our horse needed to be OK.

By the time we reached the next P&R, working our way downhill, Cooper's P&R's were excellent! 10 and 2. He had made a remarkable turnaround. I didn't even know how to process that. So we just went with it. The horses were more than willing to trot on the more level areas, so we let them. And we were making up time.

At one point there we had to do a trot-by for the vet, stop in front and back up 6-8 feet, and then trot on. The next obstacle was crossing the murky pond. Honestly, by the time we got there (a mile from the finish maybe?) I was fried and had put all thoughts of competing behind me. I followed the horse in front of me into the water too closely (points off) as the lady with the clipboard watched. I just wanted this ride to END. My knees and thighs and crotch didn't want to do this any more.

But my horse must have smelled the trailer --- he got his second wind. We trotted, we made up time. We caught up with Michelle P. and her husband and I said, "How far to the end?" She said, "We're here." I looked around, I looked ahead. I stood in the stirrups and tried to see over her head. I didn't see any stinkin' lady with a clipboard and a stopwatch.

We trotted on. And on.

I had been told that the last two miles will feel much longer, and that was true. It felt like five.

Then we saw people - we had reached the end. HALLELUIA!

At the trailer I drug myself off and was happy to find my knees could still hold me. I could almost hear my horse sigh in relief.

I quickly pulled off tack and got him to water and fresh hay. I asked for advice in how to get him cleaned and groomed within the half hour we were given. He wanted to roll, but I promised him I would let him do it AFTER the check-out. We were called within about 40 minutes and waited in line for our turn. I saw others had brought a brush with them. I had rinsed him off, combed out his braids, wiped off his face, but he was still far from "clean", in my opinion. But good enough. It would have to be good enough because that's all the time and energy I had left.

Cooper, being the good boy he is, trotted his usual casual circle in each direction just like he was asked. Then we were excused, turned in our vests, and the game was over.

After resting and cleaning up a bit we enjoyed a delicious grilled tri-tip and chicken dinner - food never tasted so good!

The vet and horsemanship judge's reports were fun to listen to, and of course there were the results, which were fun to witness. Cooper and I even placed, and my friend and her horse won Novice Sweepstakes! Holy cow! It was awesome.

I couldn't promise anyone that day that I would be back for another try. It was a tough ride for us. But now, two days later - - - I just sent in my registration for Cowboy Camp!