Saturday, November 26, 2011

In which Endurance 101 endeavors to prevent "bewildered"

Endurance 101 : Trail markers, route-finding, and avoiding bewilderment

“I can’t say as ever I was lost, but I was bewildered once for three days.”
 --attributed to Daniel Boone (1734-1820)

The last thing you want to be, on an endurance trail, is “bewildered.” 

Actually, that’s not right.

The very last thing you want to be, on an endurance ride, is “bleeding, cold, alone and bewildered.”

It’s up to you (and whatever gods of luck you ascribe unto) to avoid the blood and cold and solitude. 

In this post, I will do my best to keep you from getting irretrievably bewildered on the endurance trail by describing some of the commonly-used trail-marking conventions.  The ride manager (or “RM”) is not obligated to follow the convention, but if the trail-marking system is unusual, the RM will certainly discuss it at the ride meeting—make sure you are there, and take good notes! 

Ribbons on the right
At the ride meeting, you will be told what color to follow on the trail.  Pay close attention!  When trails criss-cross or run together, you may see as many as eight or even twelve differently-colored ribbons hanging on a tree branch or fence post.  To avoid going off the designated trail for your event, keep track of the color you need to follow. 

AERC rules stipulate that riders must do all loops of an event in the correct order, so take steps to ensure that you are in the right place at the right time.  When I’m riding a long event with many loops, I write the loop colors on my arm with a sharpie marker.  I’ve been known to lose the map and the information sheet along the trail, but thus far I’ve always been able to keep track of my left arm.

Trail markers are commonly made from long strips of surveyors tape, tied or attached with clothespins to branches, fenceposts, or even posts pounded into the ground by the trail crew.  The ribbons are hung on the right side of the trail; if you see ribbons only on the left side of the trail, you are going the wrong direction.
blue+white-striped ribbon with solid pink ribbon
Three ribbons mark a turn
This is a trail-marking convention but it is not universal:  as you approach a turn, you will see, instead of a single or pair of ribbons, a trio of ribbons.  That means “slow the heck down and look, because you’re going to change direction!” 

Three ribbons = slow the heck down and watch for a turn!
Some ride managers find that a long, wide strip of bright-yellow or bright-red CAUTION tape is easier to alert riders if a trail has many turns.   Whichever system is in place, learn it, and watch for it so that you don’t wander off-course!

Common trail
Sometime you will encounter a stretch of trail where riders will travel in both directions.  These “common trails” are marked with ribbons on both sides of the trail, so that you will continue to have your ribbons on the right side of the trail no matter which direction you travel.  This can be confusing at first!  Slow down when you see common trail, check your map, and make sure you’re heading in the correct direction.

The RM will often use ribbons that are not only different colors to mark different parts of a trail course, but also different patterns, for example:

Loop 1:  blue+white striped ribbon, paired with a pink ribbon

Loop 2:  white with orange polka-dot ribbon, paired with a green ribbon

Loop 3:  solid red ribbon paired with a solid white ribbon

Ideally, while travelling at a trot, you will be able to see either a ribbon on the trail ahead or a ribbon on the trail behind from any point of the route.  The amount of ribbon needed for this kind of marking varies dramatically, depending on the terrain.  A prairie ride may need 20 ribbon-markers per mile, because the sight lines on the open prairie are long, with nothing to disrupt them except sometimes a ground squirrel.  A route in deep forest may take 100 ribbon-markers or more per mile, depending on the twistiness of the trail and the size of the trees.

Trail tape is often a victim of wind, rain, and sun.   A strong wind will blow the ribbons to Kingdom Come or wrap them tightly around a tree branch so they no longer dangle in plain sight.  Rain will drive the ribbons to the ground, and sun will bleach them until they are all a uniformly unhelpful greyish-white color. 

The weather isn’t the only element to plague ride managers:  humans can be just as much of a pain in the patoot, either intentionally or in ignorance.  “Teary-eyed tree huggers” are a common breed in our local wilderness.  These are the city-dwellers who visit the trails once or twice each calendar year, and expect the trails to be perfectly groomed but with no obvious sign of humans (or horses) upon them.  They want the trails clear of eye-poking branches and blowdowns, but they don’t want the sound of chainsaws to mar their pristine wilderness experience, and they really don’t want to see the manure left by a trail crew’s pack animals.    TETH are well-intentioned folks who lobby the state legislature for money to maintain trails and trailheads; we are grateful for their efforts and never wish to alienate them…however, we do wish that they knew a little bit about how the trails are built and maintained, and we definitely wish they would leave trail markers alone.   More than once a RM and trail crew has had to load up horses, trucks or quads to re-mark a trail that has been “restored to pristineness” by a TETH on the evening before a ride!

Even more annoying and potentially dangerous are the Pranksters in Jeepsters, who find it amusing to re-route a marked trail into a dead-end or into an area that may not be passable by horses.  These weekend warriors don’t like to get out of their buggies—they prefer to yank down markers and place them elsewhere on a road, so if a RM knows they are in the area, a quick check of all the jeep-road/horse trail intersections may be needed on the morning of a ride to eliminate Prankster damage. 

Even if every human within hundreds of miles is aware of the ride markers and supportive of them, the trail may still be sabotaged by cattle and their cousins.  For some reason, ruminants wild and domestic find trail ribbons absolutely delicious.  Nobody has ever explained why this is so, yet on many occasions I have observed elk, deer, and cattle meandering down a trail, stopping periodically to snack on the colorful delicacies.

If RM’s know that these plastic-eaters (or the human vandals) are nearby, they will usually put out plenty of extra ribbons with the hope that some will still be in place on ride day.  If you are riding in elk territory or have been warned that there are bovines eating the markers, check the ground periodically for clothespins—elk love to eat ribbons, but they always spit out the clothespins.  Finding those little wooden markers on the ground can be a challenge, but they will let you know that you aren’t lost…or bewildered.

Pie plates:  not just for dessert anymore
Pie-plates or paper plates are handy trail marking devices commonly used at intersections or confusing points, because important information can be written on them with indelible ink markers.   

For example, a pie plate for Loop 1 might read:

Loop 1:  blue/white/pink  2 miles to vet checkà

It would be splendid if RM’s had the time and energy to color-code their pie-plate markers, but usually a black marker on a white plate is easiest to read, and that’s the most important thing.

Many of the RM’s in my region are strong proponents of “confidence ribbons”.  Confidence ribbons are the extra markings added to the trail after a confusing turn or intersection.  For example, after making a sharp turn from an elk trail onto a logging road as directed by a pie plate, the rider will see several ribbon markers ahead leading along the correct direction.  These ribbons are cheap insurance to keep as many riders as possible on the right trail.

Clues on the ground
RMs will also put trail markings on the ground itself, using white lime powder, chalk, spray paint, and at one recent event I attended, pancake mix! 
Red-ribbon trail goes left.  Blue-ribboned trail goes right.  Any questions?
These substances can be carried easily on a pack horse and then used to draw arrows or even write brief messages on the hillside beside a trail.

Getting bewildered 
If you are trotting along the trail and cannot see a ribbon, and cannot quite remember the last time you saw a ribbon, you may be off-route.  

Before you panic, look at the ground.  Do you see a lot of hoofprints on the ground in front of you, from horses travelling the same direction?  Do you see fresh manure on the trail?  Those are all signs that many riders from your event have been here and you really ARE on the right trail.  Look carefully at the ground where you think a ribbon marker should be…can you find a clothspin left behind by a marauding elk? 

If you’re still not convinced that you’re in the right place, look up.  You may not see ribbons hanging from branches, but can you spot a clothespin or stub of ribbon?  Cattle can’t reach as high as deer or elk, so they “spaghetti” the ribbons that they can reach, and then stop sucking in when they get to the clothespin, leaving orphaned clothespins high overhead on tree branches.  If you can see those clothespins, you’re probably in the right place.  You may also be able to see that the trail has been “brushed back” and trimmed by trail crews with loppers.  If you see recently-trimmed branches at eye-level for a rider on horseback, you are probably not really off-trail.

But what if you ARE off-trail?  A few words of advice:

·       Don’t panic.  Before you go anywhere, stop for a moment, take a drink from your water bottle, and breathe. Check your trail map, and try to figure out where you are. Think about the last time you saw a trail marker.

·       Mark your location.  Tear up a bandana and tie a strip of cloth to a tree branch, stick a scrap of paper under a rock in the middle of the trail, make a pile of rocks or branches on the right side of your trail to mark where you are now, or partially break off a branch beside the trail and leave it dangling.  This gives you a landmark that you can return to if you can’t find the trail.  You do not want to get more bewildered! 

·       Look in all directions for clues to the trail.  Remember that your trail is marked for RIDERS, so if possible, stay on your horse so you can see the markers 6 to 8 feet off the ground.

·       Backtrack your trail, if possible.  If you aren’t sure you’re going the right direction, mark the trail as you go with strips of cloth tied to branches, piles of rocks or dangling branches.  Scuff an arrow into the dirt with your boot to indicate the direction you travel to backtrack.

·       Listen for other riders.  They may not be talking, but you should be able to hear their horses’ hoofbeats. 

Don’t worry too much about taking wrong turns, it happens to everybody.  In my first few years of endurance riding, I took a wrong turn at least one time at every event, but usually discovered my mistake within a few minutes.  Stay alert and watch your trail markers, and you will always find your way back to camp.

There are a few ride managers who pride themselves on not “over-marking” the trail.  This attitude is not a secret—anyone who has ever attended at ride managed by “The Duck” will attest to that manager’s steadfast refusal to make an endurance ride easy by making the route easy to find. 

If route-finding is a concern for you, find another person to ride with, preferably one who has ridden the event in past years.  Although some trails change from year-to-year, due to the effects of changing riverbeds, logging operations, and even urban sprawl, the basic “shape” of the trail will be familiar to some of the riders in camp, and one of those is bound to help you.

Thursday, November 24, 2011

In which Endurance 101 addresses the care of a good crew

Endurance 101:  Be kind to your CREW

A Song for The Crew!  with apologies to Sir Paul McCartney
(to the tune of “When I’m 64”)

When I get tired, starting to stare
Many miles from now
Will you still be listening when I start to whine
Mend my bridle with baling twine?

If I'd stay out ‘till quarter to three
A hundred miles (or more!)
Will you still lead me
Will you still feed me
At mile ninety-four?

(ooooooh) You'll be tired too
And if you say the word
I might crew for you!

I could be handy driving the rig
When you start to yawn
You can mend my breeches by the fireside
Early  mornings, go for a ride
Trotting my horse out, while I go pee--
Who could ask for more
Will you still lead me
Will you still feed me
At mile ninety-four.

Every summer we can go to ridecamp 
At Trout Lake or Nile, if it's not too dear
We shall scrimp and save
(oooooh) Bandages on my knee
Ice pack, Vet wrap, tape!

Send me a postcard, drop me a line
stating point of view
indicate precisely what you mean to say
yours sincerely, trotting away
Here is my entry—fill out the form,
Mine forever more
Will you still lead me
Will you still feed me
At mile ninety-four?

Although a crew isn’t necessary to compete in long-distance rides, sometimes you might get lucky and some wonderful person will offer to “crew” for you. 

So, what, exactly does a crew do?

A “crew” (which can be one person or several) comes to an event to help the rider get through it.  Crew are often family members—parents, children, spouses, or siblings—but they can also be friends or even new acquaintances who are interested in learning more about the sport of endurance.  Sometimes crew are experienced equestrians, and sometimes they’ve never been near a horse. 

If you are clever and plan ahead, it’s possible to make crew of all skill levels feel helpful, welcome and valuable. 

The most important thing to remember is this:   BE KIND TO YOUR CREW!  

The crew can do almost anything that will help the rider in camp and/or in a vetcheck.  Crews are not allowed to help you on the trail, however.

Depending on the age, sturdiness, and skills of your crew, you might ask them to do any of the following:
·       Wave and clap and cheer as you enter the vet-check.
·       Meet you at the in-gate to help you cool the horse.
·       Take your horse through the vet’s evaluation.
·       Trot out your horse for the vetcheck.
·       Act as a “hitching post” while you run to the porta-pottie.
·       Care for your horse during the vetcheck, providing him with access to food and water. 
·       Care for you during the vetcheck, handing you food and water.
·       Re-stock the saddle and packs with water, food, glowsticks, etc.
·       Perform needed repairs on tack.
·       Assess the health/comfort needs of the rider: do you need more fluids?  More food?  A nap?  A bandaid?  A benedryl?  A clean pair of socks or a dry jacket or a warmer sweater or more sunscreen? 
·       Keep you informed as to the behavior of your horse:  is he eating/drinking/resting normally? 
·       Try to anticipate the needs for the next leg of the journey:  will you need a raincoat, or a cold drink, or a flashlight?
·       Keep an eye on the time so that you and your horse are ready to exit on-time if appropriate.
·       Provide cheerful company to you and possibly to other tired, cranky, DIMR riders. 
·       Take photos.
·       Wave and clap and cheer as you leave the vetcheck for on the next stretch of trail.
·       Meet you at the next checkpoint and do it all over again.

Crewing is often hot (or cold), dusty (or muddy), and thankless…unless YOU MAKE SURE TO THANK YOUR CREW.  One of the effects of DIMR is that riders will often lose basic politeness skills learned in kindergarten.  Make an effort to be a polite, kind rider. 

Here is a basic list of things you may want to provide for your crew:
·       A folding camp chair
·      A cooler of food/beverages meant for them, not for riders
·       A paperback book or two
·       Sunscreen or a raincoat or a lightweight fleece blanket (or all three, depending on the weather!)
·       Disposable camera
·       Map of the ride and trail description page (if available); write your estimated time of arrival for each checkpoint, and a few notes about which supplies you think you will need there.
·       An introduction to the ride manager, the timer, and/or a few friendly people who will be working in the vetcheck. 

If ride management provides a meal to riders, ask to purchase meals for your crew members.  It’s a kindness to give a present of some sort to your crew if you are able: a little gift from the tack vendor if there is one in camp, or an extra ride t-shirt if any are available.  You can also stop on the drive home to buy your crew a nice meal to express your thanks.

Here’s some advice for new crew:
DO:                 ask the rider to spend time the day before the ride to list the kinds of things she would like you to do on ride day
DON’T:          ask the rider to make a list of stuff 5 minutes before the start time

DO:                 take photos of the horse and rider
DON’T:          post photos of the rider covered in electrolyte-and-mud warpaint on Facebook

DO:                 hand the rider a sandwich
DON’T:          hand the rider a sandwich and a can of V-8 and two bottles of water and a clean pair of socks and a flashlight while she’s still holding onto the horse’s leadrope.

DO:                 offer to dump a bottle of water on the rider’s head in hot weather
DON’T:          dump liquid on a rider before she’s had a chance to pee

DO:                 try to anticipate the rider’s needs
DON’T:          worry if “mindreading” is outside your skill set

DO:                 speak clearly
DON’T:          holler

DO:                 offer to electrolyte the horse when the rider is getting ready to leave the vetcheck
DON’T:          give electrolytes to the horse without checking with the rider first

DO:                 feel free to offer help to a crew-less rider when your rider is still out on the trail
DON’T:          give away all your rider’s food and warm horse blanket if your rider is going to need that stuff later!

DO:                 ask for help from other non-busy crews if you need it
DON’T:          flip out if your normally-polite rider is so focused on her ride and her horse that she forgets to smile and say “thank you.”

DO:                 your best
DON’T:          worry about not knowing everything!

DO:                 Take care of yourself, too.  If the heat bothers you, find some shade (or make some shade using a horse blanket and the vet’s truck).  If you are prone to sunburn, wear a hat and use sunscreen.  If you chill easily, pack a thermos of hot coffee or tea to drink while you wait for your rider.

DO:                 Chat with ride management, other crew, and other volunteers.  They are very nice people!

DO:                 Have fun!

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

In which Endurance 101 describes DIMR, which is a real thing

Endurance 101:  DIMR
When I first heard about DIMR, I laughed.  I was sure that it was a joke.

DIMR, which stands for Distance Induced Mental Retardation, is a condition readily observed in endurance riders in competition:

The further you ride, the dumber you get.

Unfortunately, it’s not a joke.  DIMR is real. 

DIMR is the result of a combination of three factors: 
·      Fatigue

·      Dehydration

·      Highway hypnosis, the mental state in which a person can respond appropriately to a host of external events in an appropriate manner with no recollection of consciously have done so. 

DIMR is inevitable, given the somewhat monotonous and rhythmic nature of the sport of endurance riding, which lulls the rider’s body and brain into a relaxed state which can easily lead to an advanced state of dumbness.  Marathon runners and Iditarod mushers report similar symptoms in late stages of their events, as do long-haul truck drivers:  their focus is on the road or trail ahead and the need to move down it.  At break points in the activity, these individuals (like endurance riders) struggle to concentrate on diverse stimuli, find it difficult to communicate with people who are standing still, and experience an inability to describe recent landmarks.

DIMR is temporary, and the effects can be greatly reduced by addressing the root causes of the condition.

If your horse has been properly conditioned for your event, you are probably also adequately fit for the exertion as well; however, if you need a reason to exercise more, the threat of DIMR might be a good motivator!  The more physically fit you are, the less fatigue you will experience from the event. 

Stress will also contribute to your fatigue level at a ride.  If you are worried about a lot of things, you will tire yourself unduly.  Try to problem-solve before ride day, so that you aren’t completely stressed-out during the event by trying to fix issues.

I also recommend that you start stocking-up on sleep a week before a long event, because even with the best of planning and organization, you will inevitably be short of sleep on ride day.  There is no substitute for sleep, and it’s a cheap and easy way to keep the stupids away from your brain.

Mental acuity begins to diminish in humans at 1% dehydration.  Unfortunately, most people begin to feel “thirsty” at 2% dehydration…and at 2% dehydration, you are already a little dumber!  Eeek. 

Head off dehydration by starting your day with a pint or two of water, not coffee, tea, or Mountain Dew!  Caffeine is a diuretic, and will act to rid your body of fluid.  Drink your morning cuppa if you must, but don’t count it as your pint or two of hydration.  If you find it difficult to drink a bunch of water in the morning (I do), eat salty food for lunch and dinner the day before a ride to encourage you to drink a bunch of fluid in advance of ride morning. 

Some people advocate drinking sports drinks during exercise, which ideally contain a nice balance of electrolytes; however, many commercially-available sports drinks also contain a bunch of sugar and gawd-knows-what-else.  If you know that you need electrolyte supplementation, do your homework and choose a beverage that will work for you and not make you sicker.  And do not try a new sports drink on the day of an event!  (voice of experience here).

If you do feel thirsty, you may need to drink up to a quart of fluid to replenish your loss and bring your body back to normal.  Do you suppose that’s easy to remember and accomplish when you are dehydrated and mentally fuzzy?  Nope.  It isn’t.   

The best way to fix dehydration is to prevent it.  Or, as a very wise endurance rider told me, “if you don’t need to pee desperately by the time you arrive at the vet check, you need to stay there and keep drinking water until you do desperately need to pee.”  (as I recall, she threatened me with duct tape to keep me in a check until I could prove that I was re-hydrated, but that may have been just a threat…or, maybe not…) 

Savvy endurance riders learn to monitor the color of their own urine as well as the color of their horse’s urine.  Just as with the horse: light color is good.  Dark color is bad.  If your urine is dark yellow, drink a pint of fluid now. 

In hot weather, that may mean that you need to drink a cup to a quart of water every hour—figure out where that water is going to be carried with you on the trail (on your saddle?  on your body?), and practice drinking it while you train to establish good habits in competition. 

Highway hypnosis
If you’ve ever driven from Seattle to Boise with no memory of the city of Spokane, you’ve experienced highway hypnosis.  Highway hypnosis happens when the monotony of repeated stimulus lulls your brain into a semi-hypnotic state.  The rhythm of a trotting horse is an excellent example of "repeated stimulus."  You’d think that the sound and the motion would keep you alert, but instead, it gradually numbs your brain, which is already a little numb from fatigue and dehydration, unless you have actively been combatting those issues!

How can you fight off highway hypnosis?  Keep your brain busy by chatting with your riding partners if you are riding in a group, or by singing to your horse if you aren’t.  When you run out of verses to your favorite songs, make up new verses…you have plenty of time out there on the trail to find the rhymes you need.  Consult your map periodically, and compare the landmarks you see around you with the landmarks on the map.  Compose haiku, text a message to your friends in camp if there’s any signal for your phone, or take photos! 

In other words, do whatever it takes to keep your brain alert. 

DIMR can last a few hours to a few days, depending on the severity of the condition.  If you allow yourself to get really dumb, it will take quite a while for your normal sharpness of wit to return.  If you intend to drive home the morning after the ride, do everybody on the road a favor, and prevent DIMR symptoms when you ride…or bring a designated non-DIMR driver!

Monday, November 21, 2011

In which Endurance 101 discusses Junior distance riders

Endurance 101:  Let’s hear it for the JUNIORS

The AERC Rules and Regulations book has an entire section devoted to the special needs and requirements for junior riders.   I’ll list the important parts with my commentary and observations.

All Junior riders in both full and Limited Distance rides, whether they are AERC members or not, must be accompanied by a competent adult (21 years or older) sponsor throughout the competition.

This rule is listed first because it’s most important: juniors must ride with an adult.

What the rule doesn’t say is that competent juniors often sponsor their adult companion(s), especially on the longer rides!  While junior riders are younger, and thus more vulnerable and needful of guidance at times, senior riders are older and thus more fragile and needful of youthful assistance! 

Let me tell you, there’s nothing quite as lovely when you drop your water bottle on the ground at the 48 mile mark of a 50-mile ride, and before you can even heave a heavy sigh, the junior beside you is on the ground, handing it back up!

Juniors are riders who are less than 16 years old on December 1st.  Just as Thoroughbreds all celebrate their official “birthday” on January 1st of each year regardless of actual foaling date, our Juniors count their age as of December 1st, which is the first day of the national ride season.

Juniors must wear a helmet.  If Juniors are smart, they ask (sweetly and kindly, you understand) for their sponsors to wear a helmet as well. 

Juniors may change sponsors only at vet checks…and I have lost track of the number of times I’ve come into a vet check and had the timers give me “that look”, signifying that they have a sponsorless-junior for me to take forward! 

One time I picked up the grandson of an adult competitor at the first vetcheck of a 50-mile ride; at the time, I barely knew the grandfather and only seen 10-year-old Chad once or twice before in my life. Grandpa’s horse was lame and pulled from competition, and Chad was a little shy of heading off into the wilderness with a strange adult and the handful of teen girls riding with me that day. However, Grandpa assured me that the kid was “a good hand”, and, when our horses checked through, we all trotted cheerfully away towards the second vetcheck…where we were met by Chad’s very concerned dad, who was acting as crew that day.  When Dad saw the smile on Chad’s face, put there by riding his lovely big red gelding on some of the most beautiful mountain trails in the world in the company of five pretty girls (plus me), he threw up his hands and welcomed us all to camp.  “If I’d known you were riding with them,” I heard him tell his son, “I’d have come along with you!”  Chad, a young man of few words, just grinned and grinned and grinned.

Sponsorship may change between checks only in the event that a competitor or a competitor’s mount is unable to continue forward safely.  Kids take such good care of their horses, it’s not usually the junior’s horse who gets stuck.  It’s almost always the sponsor or the sponsor’s horse who needs a lift back to camp.  In a circumstance like this, it’s entirely okay for the junior to continue forward with another competent adult. 

Most savvy endurance kids know that stuff happens on the trail, and they line up a bunch of potential sponsors in advance.  Still, “stuff happening” can include “all the potential sponsors have already got pulled,” which happened once to my young friend Jill.  Her horse was still good to go, but a number of her sponsors (including me) had gotten pulled during the course of the day for a variety of reasons.  When it came to the last leg of the ride, Jill was in last place, and there were no more competitors left in the ride to go with her.  Undeterred, the ride manager turned to me.  “If you can ride another 13 miles, I’ll loan you my horse,” she offered.  I grabbed my helmet, hopped up on the borrowed horse, and Jill and I did the last leg together so that she could get her completion.  The rules allow a last-place junior to go accompanied by an adult running along beside, but (as a non-runner myself) I’ve never actually tested this.

A rider 14 years or older who has completed 500 AERC miles or more (in any distance) may “emancipate” in order to ride without a sponsor.  The emancipation process requires that the junior and his/her parent write a letter to the AERC office well in advance of an event, consenting to and requesting the unsponsored status.  Emancipated juniors ride in the senior division, and a ride manager does not have to honor the emancipation.  As I implied at the start of this article, junior riders can be incredibly savvy, and sometimes more competent than their senior rider sponsors.  As outrageous as some modern parents may find the concept of allowing teens to ride a horse all alone, for many miles, in the wilderness, endurance parents learn that most kids who qualify for emancipation really can handle almost everything that happens on the trail. 

In fact, the “parenting” of endurance juniors is a shared task accepted by many adults in the endurance community.  It may take "a village to raise a child”; it also apparently takes “a ridecamp to raise a horse-kid.” 

Some kids come to events with family members, but many others come with neighbors, riding instructors, or just interested adults who recognize that a “horse kid” needs to spend time with “horse people” and are willing to move heaven and earth to make sure that this time gets spent. 

Lest you think that these unparented kids are wont to run wild in camp, let me assure you:  kids in a ridecamp have work to do.  They know what needs doing, and they know who needs to do it, and they make sure it all gets done.  If you ever want to see a bunch of truly mature, responsible, and totally fun kids, please come visit us in ridecamp sometime.

It’s not always easy for kids, riding off into the wilderness with adults they don’t know very well.  Sometimes the adults ride too fast for the junior’s horse.  When they experience this, juniors tell me that it’s awkward asking the adult to slow down, and they usually just bide their time until the vetcheck, where they try to find a slower-moving sponsor.  Sometimes the sponsor moves so slowly that the junior despairs of ever finishing the ride…and sometimes, they don’t have any options other than to “suck it up” and cope, as best they can. 

Kids tell me that they really hate riding with adults who complain a lot, or married couples who spend the entire ride arguing.  The kid-network is quick, though—and they tell each other which adults to avoid and which to seek out when a sponsor is needed.  I’m honored that they keep coming back to me, and I think, quite honestly, that they think I’m nicer than I feel, especially at the end of 50 miles or more of strenuous riding!

I love having kids along with me, to sing the songs they know, and tell me stories.  On long rides in the wilderness, some of the older teens want to confide in me, which I encourage.  They are totally aware that I will talk to their parents after the ride, and some find it easy to tell me the concerns they want to share but don’t feel comfortable telling directly to their parents.  Honesty is always the best policy when talking with kids; I don’t pretend that they are adults, but I also don’t pretend that they are stupid, because they aren’t.  Endurance kids are smart, cool, and excellent company. 

When riding with juniors, I find it’s a good idea to keep an eye on what they eat and drink during the ride.  They will feed only the choicest hay and freshest grass to their ponies, but somehow they forget that a pack of Skittles and a can of Mountain Dew is not adequate nutrition for themselves.  It’s not too difficult for me to pack an extra container of yogurt and ziplock baggie of almonds in my vetcheck box, so I try to do that if I suspect that I’ll be riding with a junior.  Other items I like to pack for my younger companions include a heavy trash bag (aka emergency raincoat) and a tube of sunscreen.  They might tease me about “anointing” them with sunscreen, but they take the lotion, and they put it on without complaint, bless them.

I can’t think of another physical endeavor that throws unrelated adults and kids together in such a haphazard—and yet, nurturing—manner.   It turns out that, when people spend time together in the wilderness, working towards the common goal of getting healthy horses to the finish line, they take care of each other, even when one of the people is young and the other is, um, not so young. 

What happens when the juniors grow up?  Well, let me tell you:  eventually, they grow up and have little juniors of their own.  And when those kids get old enough to ride endurance, their parents know exactly who to call and ask for sponsorship.