Team Lurgy (Fergus + Lucy) made their debut last weekend at the Nevada Derby 50 miler endurance ride.
Fergus is my husband Patrick's 16+ hh Tennessee Walker/Arabian horse and although I am his main caretaker and trimmer, I'd only ridden him twice prior to embarking on our 50 miles together. Given that he's probably twice the weight of pony Small Thing, and travels at twice the speed but half the tempo, I knew we were in for a very steep learning curve when it came to adjusting my riding to suit his way of going. Couple that with having not done a 50 since May last year, this was going to be an interesting ride.
Fergus has never worn shoes (he's about to turn 10 years old) and his arrival in our lives was the main push to convert all the other horses to barefoot. If I was going to have to learn to trim him, I might as well do the other five horses as well.
He was probably in the very first wave of the horses competing in Gloves. We were at the Death Valley Encounter multi-day endurance ride in 2008 - with Patrick planning for Fergus to wear Epics for their first limited distance ride - when we came across Garrett Ford fitting some other horses for the new Glove boot.
I'd heard horror stories about Tennessee Walkers yanking off shoes from their way of going, so was a little worried that we were using an unproven (for Fergus, at least) booting method - especially given that it would be Patrick and his first distance ride together. Fergus went out the next day in a set of size 3 (fronts) and size 2 (rears) Gloves and they completed two days of LD that week with absolutely no problems whatsoever. So much for worrying - Fergus has some TWH traits, but yanking boots isn't one of them.
In the years that have followed, we've downsized his Glove size to 2.5s in front and 1.5s in back, but recent changes in his left rear foot have necessitated bumping him up to a size 2. When I listen to him walking, he steps down differently on that foot so I'm considering getting a chiropractor to take a look at him to make sure there's nothing going on which could be causing this slight anomaly.
Back to last weekend.
Fergus and I went out on a 45 minute pre-ride on Friday afternoon and I came back feeling a little shell-shocked. Fergus has a humungous trot with loads of suspension - there's seemingly 5 seconds of hang-time between each stride and he's like steering the Lusitania - not exactly the short wheel-base of Small Thing.
As luck would have it, the following morning my riding buddy's horse was having an attack of "I'm so fit I left my brain back at the trailer" so we ended up walking most of the first five miles, giving me a chance to really settle in with Fergus and get used to this new balancing act. Perfect (all those trail miles babysitting Uno and Small Thing were paying off in dividends). The fact that Fergus' TWH genes blessed him with an amazingly big walk didn't hurt any either - I could get used to this travelling at speed without breaking into a trot option.
With cattle guards come cattle. Patrick and I discussed prior to me riding him that Fergus had never done anything bad at a ride before... uh, except for when we met those cows on the trail that time. Because of this, we proceeded with caution.
Fergus at the first vet check - having fallen instantly in love with a grey horse he spotted leaving.
The typical NV wind blew... and blew and blew. By the time we'd made the 1800'/550 m ascent to the top of the Dogskin Mountains it was gusting 60 mph, practically blowing us off the horses at times. It seemed like the harder it blew, the faster Fergus wanted to go - a pleasant surprise - I was expecting him to suffer from the "bleahs" from the climb.
Cresting the top of the Dogskin Mountains, before dropping down the other side to Bedell Flat. The steep descent featured several springs that had been diverted into large cattle troughs.
Once down on the flats on the far side of the mountains, it continued to blow and Fergus continued to be far more enthusiastic than I'd ever expected him to be. Unfortunately the muscles in my legs didn't share his enthusiasm and it began to feel like someone was jamming a hot poker into the side of one leg. However tempting it may have been to just let him go and relieve the pain from having my legs tweaked, it was definitely a case of "just because he thinks he can, doesn't mean he should" - his current fitness level was definitely not conducive to finishing a speedy 50 without something going horribly wrong, despite what he might think. So we worked on trying to keep it to a dull roar and get back to camp in some semblance of control.
Back at camp for our hour hold, I quickly checked under each Glove gaiter to make sure he hadn't collected any debris or piles of sand from having slogged through some deeper sand during the descent off the mountains. I was pleased to see that everything was fitting beautifully - he had a small wear at the front of one pastern, so I loosened that gaiter a little, but otherwise his boots were holding up with no problems at all - pretty typical for Fergus (he's not the most interesting horse to write about when it comes to 'boot adjustment').
Inside the back of my trailer, I was confused to discover everything covered in a fine layer of sand. It turned out that while we were out on the trail lamenting the wind, a sandstorm had blown through camp - sand-blasting everyone and everything. I'm going to be washing grit off my belongings for some time to come.
The sandstorm in camp - that's my trailer on the right. Photo: Andy Gerhard
Keeping it to a dull roar. Photo: Bill Gore
During the hour hold, the skies opened and began to rain - Fergus disappeared under a rain blanket to keep him and my saddle dry while he ate his slurpie refreshments.
When it was time to leave, even though the sun was now shining again, we went for overkill dressing - waterproof legs, jacket, gloves and fleecy neck wrap. Just as well - within 30 minutes of leaving camp it began to rain again, gradually degenerating into snow. The horses decided they were on a Death March and we trudged rather unenthusiastically along into the head-wind, icy snow biting into our faces.
All bundled up, but good and toasty on the trail. Woolly gloves are perfect for mopping a continuously runny nose. Photo: Tami Rougeau
One thing I was surprised to learn was how sensitive Fergus was to different footing, despite wearing boots all around. I suspect some of this has to do with my neglect of his feet in the last few months and hope that this will improve as the mud dries out and we get back to regular trims. Trotting along the gravel roads, he would veer decisively to the softer (or seemingly softer) outside edges, and once we got back on the soft stuff he would joyfully increase his speed. I may experiment with 6 mm comfort pads in his boots to see if it helps, assuming adding pads will work with his Gloves - results seem to vary with different horses and sometimes they cause the low-profile Glove to come off.
As soon as we rounded the corner at the northern-most point of the loop, both horses brightened considerably from their Death March. They had no interest in eating or drinking from the fare provided by the Ride, but every interest in catching the group of horses about eight minutes ahead of us. That took about ten minutes and then Fergus and I returned to our battle of wills on exactly what speed was appropriate for an unfit horse, given that we still had 8 miles or so still to go.
And it was this portion of the ride where Fergus really shined - a very long straight road for the last six miles - the least interesting part of the entire day. We got up on the soft verge and he showed me his bestest medium trot (the one I didn't realise he possessed) and the miles flew by. I've never ridden a horse that could cover ground quite so effortlessly before and it was a true gift at the end of a long day on the trail.
We completed the ride dead last in 9.5 hours, but Fergus was still pratting around at trot-out during vetting - displaying his sideways stupid trot and bellowing for his buddies (standing right next to him). Finishing with such a happy horse was the second gift of the day.
Worst part of the day? Having to call Patrick and confess that, yes, his horse *is* the most perfect of all our horses, much as I hate to admit it to him. I'll never hear the end of it now...
Lucy Chaplin Trumbull
Sierra Foothills, California