A few months back I was browsing my FB feed one evening and noticed a lady named L offering up a horse available at this year's Muckleratz Run 25 Mile CTR. At this point in time I was just starting to accept fate that Quest and I couldn't compete in distance riding any time soon. Wracking my brain for options, I came upon the idea of catch riding since I'm a person that learns best from hands on participation and it'd give me the experience of a real ride while knowing what to reasonably expect from conditioning my horse later. The big looming question was if anyone would ever trust a 100% novice/rookie/greenbean rider they have never met and has never competed in distance riding. Chances were slim to none, and I couldn't blame them. I had some doubts that L would be okay with a complete beginner but I felt that familiar nagging feeling in my gut, a very similar feeling I got when I saw those pictures of a certain mare at a certain auction.
I decided to give it a night and sleep on it. The next morning, I woke with resolve. Taking a deep breath, I sat down and messaged L with the full story- stating I was greenbean but eager to try out distance riding. I spoke a little about my story/progress with Quest and our rig/traveling dilemma. Proofread to my satisfaction and I sent it off, trying not to get my hopes up too high.
Less than two hours later though, I got a reply. My heart jumped into my throat as I quickly skimmed the message. I had to reread it a few times and when I made duly sure I wasn't imagining the words I had read I sat back, finally allowing myself to feel the flutter of excitement.
L said that I would be perfect for Romeo, a 9yo Arabian gelding owned by her friend C. Her and C have been training their horses together for the past 4 years and they worked very well together. I would be riding the 25 on Saturday with L and her horse Jack. The only thing C wanted from me was half of the ride entry fee and my mailing address for the forms. I asked a couple more questions which L answered promptly and she promised to pass along my information. And like that I had my name in the books to catch ride in my very first distance ride ever- an opportunity do something I DREAMED about non-stop for since I was learning how to ride almost 2 years ago. And not gonna lie, I was secretly thrilled when I found out that Romeo was a grey Arabian...swoon <3
|My workout partner <3|
About two weeks out from the ride, Romeo's owner C and I got ahold of each other on the phone and I learned a bit more about the horse I was going to ride. Romeo has done Muckleratz a couple times and usually takes care of himself pretty well on the trail. He was leased for a year by a timid trail rider who unfortunately made him timid as well so C spent a great deal of time working him out of that. Once he gets moving out on the trail though he was more bold. Since we would be riding with L and her horse Jack who loves to lead and gets fussy if he isn't, my job was basically to ride and make sure Romeo was eating, drinking, cooling off well on trail.
The two weeks crawled by and the Friday afternoon before the ride finally arrived. I took a half day off from work, packed my car, double checked I had what I needed and set off for ride camp. The 3-hour drive was thankfully uneventful though I thought I was lost at one point and got directions from local older gentleman and his wife who happened to be leaving from their driveway. Turns out I literally was less than half a mile down the road from ride camp but second guessed myself since I was coming from the opposite direction.
I located C and L and formal introductions were made- both human and horse. I had good timing and they were about to bring the horses up to do trot out for initial vetting. While we walked over to the vets, C told me she ended up not bringing her mare who came up lame and had to be pulled from the ride. Her trail partner T and her mare Toga would be joining L and me on the trail tomorrow instead. Since Jack has to lead and Toga is a known kicker and doesn't like Jack, it left Romeo and me to keep to the middle as the buffer. Sounds innocuous enough but we ended up playing a bigger role on ride day than I thought.
Romeo has a tendency to "show off a little" while trotting out so C wanted to do the first trot out which he handled well enough. C was elated and said he should be fine for me to handle the trot outs myself the next day. We then got Romeo tacked up for a quick ride so I could get a feel for him. T handwalked her mare along since Toga would get very worked up when separated from Romeo. I mounted up, checked stirrup length and we walked out of camp and down the road. Romeo immediately showed me what C meant by timid as he balked right when we turned down the road. After a couple circles (he moved off of my leg nicely though), he moved forward no problem after that. C told me that would be the worst of it. T and Toga jogged with us down the road as Romeo and I trotted down and back. T gave some tips for riding him since she had ridden him many times before and had high praise for my balanced seat and equitation (...which is a good thing because I haven't had a formal lesson in more than a year...for shame). It was a quick little spin, less than 15 minutes, but it was enough for me to know I would have a SO much fun tomorrow with this grey horse.
When we got back, L introduced me to some of her contacts- they were mostly people I've seen online at the ECTRA FB page but only finally got to meet in person. I had fun networking though it was soon time for the ride meeting and this being my first ride ever, I definitely made a point of going. It was short and to the point: 25 miles in two loops, a 13-mile blue loop and a 12-mile orange loop. The trail would be an gradual but long uphill, miles up top, then the downhill way back into camp. Pulse criteria the same as standards, only change was that the 20-minute mandatory halfway hold was extended so it was 30 minutes total which extended the total ride time by 10 minutes as well.
Meeting over we headed back to the rigs, C's brother-in-law made dinner for us (grilled steak, potatoes and corn- yum!), and spent the rest of the evening sitting around and chatting. It got rather cold in the evening and I was glad I thought to pack a hoodie with me. I was still cold though so C let me borrow a huge blanket which was just perfect and super cozy. Around 10pm, everyone started head back to their respective rigs for sleep and I did the same, knowing that I needed to try and get at least a couple hours so I could be somewhat conscious in the morning. I've got mild scoliosis so my car isn't exactly the best nor most comfortable place to sleep but it'd do for one night. I had rolled down the windows and jerry-rigged some screen mesh over the windows earlier when I arrived into camp so I had plenty of fresh air and zero bugs that night. Very redneck lol but it worked out quite well. It took me awhile to fall asleep and L was right when she said you can hear every sound throughout camp. My vantage point gave me a perfect view of the night sky dappled with bright stars though. I couldn't help but sigh in contentment before I finally went to sleep, excited for what the morning would bring.
True to norm, I woke up before my alarm that I set for 5:30am. I felt rested, though maybe that was the adrenaline talking. I changed into my riding clothes, tidied up my car and headed up to the mess hall to grab some breakfast. I sat down with my bacon hash brown casserole (which was amazing...) and orange juice and talked a little with a nice lady from PA doing her second year of CTRs. I told her that it was my first event ever and she smiled at me knowingly, "You're going to love it."
As I was leaving breakfast, I heard a voice call after me and saw it was L. As we walked back to the rigs together, L told me she had a nightmare last night that she woke up late and we left her behind at camp. "I always get nightmares before rides," she lamented. I grinned and told her it'll probably happen to me also when I get enough rides under my belt. Before we left, I decided to take one ibuprofen just in case. I hate taking unnecessary medication but I didn't want any soreness on my part to impact Romeo's performance. L, T and I were scheduled as one of the first groups out so we planned accordingly and gave ourselves 10-15 minutes to tack, warm up, and meander our way to the starting line.
CTR starts are controlled with groups sent out about 1-2 minutes apart. Since there were only 3 groups ahead of us, we set off on the trail with the welcome coolness of the early morning and let the horses move out once they all settled into work mode. As per plan, L and Jack took lead followed by me and Romeo with T and Toga bringing up behind.
L warned me that there might be some antics in the first few miles but Jack was totally fine. Romeo was definitely eager to move out but he didn't put a foot out of line. I figured out how much contact was needed and just let him do his thing- that was my mantra for the day and stayed open to suggestions from L and T since it was my first time riding him and with all of them. C had given me specific instructions me not to get too far ahead of T and Toga so I glanced back every so often to make sure they didn't fall too far behind. T looked a bit anxious at the start but she relaxed as the miles went by.
There was a fly-by vet check early on so we strung out and called out our numbers as we trotted by. Romeo felt great and I couldn't keep the huge giddy grin off of my face as we floated on. Miles flew by. We walked where needed and trotted for 99.9% of the time. Romeo offered a lovely rolling canter a couple times which I absolutely adored. We soon caught up to the group of riders ahead of us- a mentor with two juniors. L got permission for us to pass on their left and we began making our way around. Suddenly I heard an angry squeal and a sharp correction from T behind me. Toga had kicked out at the other horses as she went by. T had tied a red ribbon in her tail already but she was still visibly shaken and asked that if we passed more groups on the trail for Romeo and I to go in between as a buffer. A couple miles later, we passed another group and then another. Each time Romeo and I took up our position and success- there were no further issues. Having passed all 3 groups, we were the leaders.
Asides from a single narrow creek crossing, there were no other accessible sources of natural water but ride management did an amazing job keeping the water troughs full to the brim and clean. As per T's request, I made sure to keep Romeo between Jack and Toga at the water stops too. I learned on the fly how to sponge a horse while in the saddle- it was no big deal and Romeo was pretty good about getting sponged each time so it made my life easier. I was also impressed with how well the trails were marked- plenty of ribbons, pie plates and lime lines.
There were lots of sections along the trail where it was wide enough for T and I to trot our horses side-by-side and a few parts were all of us were able to ride three abreast together. I found out that I'm still a quiet person on the trail- not that I was expecting to become suddenly super talkative or anything but apparently according to L and T, I'm just the right amount of chatty-ness compared to other folks they normally ride with haha They didn't talk too much either and we had moments of companionable silence just listening to the rhythmic footfalls of our horses.
|On trail with T and Toga with me and Romeo|
Miles flew by and soon we were back at camp. The first loop only took us around 1.5 hours and we were the first group in which pleased L as she wanted to be in and back out on the trail before the chaos at the hold really began.
C had everything all prepared for us when we got in and the horses dug in. We had 10 minutes to pulse down to 64 and go for official P/R and then trot out. True to what his owner said, Romeo was a pro at pulsing down- I sponged, let him do his thing and he easily came in at 44/16. C reaffirmed that I could do the trot-out so I got to do my first official one ever. It was just the simple out and back; Romeo handled just fine and felt great in hand. Entire time we kept Toga and Romeo close together to keep the mare calm. All three horses got through vetting fine and we had 20 minutes before heading back out so horse and human alike refueled with water and snacks. I was glad I brought both a salty and sweet snack to pick from and I munched on crackers I packed.
The morning coolness was gradually giving way to afternoon heat and it was getting warm. While keeping an eye on Romeo, I was also constantly evaluating my own body condition. I had my hydration pack and made sure to continually drink on the trail since if I got dehydrated I knew I'd be totally done for. I was a little wobbly when I dismounted at the hold, but a couple steps later I was totally fine and very surprised that I wasn't as sore as I thought I'd be as it being the first time EVER that I rode 13 miles non-stop. It could have partly been the ibuprofen but C's treeless saddle was quite comfortable despite being new to me. The only tack adjustment made was fixing the right stirrup which C had accidentally put on backwards? and made it a little hard for me to post with the metal digging into my leg. Once fixed, it was instant glorious relief.
10 minutes before we headed out, L mentioned that Jack was looking off as he wasn't eating and drinking as much and more lethargic than usual (e.g.; he wasn't acting up like he usually does at holds) so she took him back to the vets to recheck. If L had to pull Jack, that meant that T and I would have to do the 2nd loop on our own and Romeo and I would have to lead the way. Three minutes left in the hold, we mounted up and walked to the starting line without L and Jack waiting for the okay from the starting crew.
"Wait, we're coming!" It was L with Jack in tow. His vitals had all checked out fine so L thought that Jack probably needed to pee which he had not yet during the first loop. With our little group reunited once again, we headed back out on the trail for the second loop marked by orange ribbons. The fixed stirrup made my right foot very happy as we cruised along. The miles went by and I felt myself ease right back into Romeo's comfortable trot. He was moving out so well and easily that I rode with one hand on the reins 90% of the time. Similar to the first loop, I continued to switch my diagonals every so often and two-pointed the steepest hills to save Romeo's back.
I'm not sure if it was because I decided to forgo the ibuprofen for the second loop or because I had already ridden 20 miles so far (longest distance in a single day for me thus far...) but my ankles started to ache a little towards the end about half way through the loop/6 miles out from the finish. They weren't super painful but I reminded myself to stretch my heels down and that helped out a lot. Other than that, I was holding up just fine and not sore at all.
The orange loop flew by and we quickly came up to the 2 mile marker and checked our watches. We had done the first loop so fast that we had 1 hour to do the last 2 miles so we walked, trotted, walked, trotted. It felt more like a training ride then an actual competition. Jack finally did pee right before we got into camp which thrilled L. We meandered across the finish line at a walk with a final ride time of 4:36, well within parameters.
C again did a great job supplying us with what we needed at the hold. Final pulse had to be at 44 after 20 minutes so I untacked and sponged away while Romeo did his thing. When it was time, we all headed over to vetting to get final P/R and trot-out.
Romeo's final P/R was 40/10, no problems there. The final trot out was straight out, circles in both directions, then trot straight back. C and the rest of our group watched on as Romeo and I trotted away. When we circled to the left, Romeo got a little excited and tried to cut into my space- I stuck out my elbow and moved him aside; he was perfect for the rest of the trot out. Vet gave the okay and just like that, we completed! I rode 25 miles! I finished my very first CTR!
C had a huge smile on her face, "I was holding my breath- that little moment he had made me nervous but you did great!" I grinned back, "He's a fantastic horse, I absolutely loved riding him."
Since we were second group to finish, it was going to be awhile until the final hands-on evaluation so we went back to the rigs to give the horses some time to relax. We had a lunch of potato salad and burgers made by C's brother-in-law, which were AMAZING. Full and quite content, I felt myself nodding off a little as I sat in the shade of C's trailer overhang. L noticed and was nice enough to offer the futon and cot in her trailer to let me rest. I gratefully accepted and wandered over for a quick power nap. I ended up dozing off for 20 minutes which did a world of good for me. I wanted to sleep more but I knew it would probably be counterproductive so I made myself get up and hung out with the rest of the group until we got called up for hands-on.
Jack and Toga were evaluated first. When it came to Romeo's turn, I had a chance to watch the vet and lay judge work already so knew what to expect and let them do their thing. Once done, I gave the judge a big smile and thanked her. She returned the smile and thanked me for coming out to the ride. We led the horses back to camp and settled in until it was time for awards.
They first did the fun awards- messiest campsite, slowest time, craziest trail mishap- all of which everyone had a good laugh over. Then junior awards and mentor awards. When it came time for completion awards, dead silent hush fell over the audience- the suspense was tangible. One by one they announced the riders, beginning with the lowest scores first. Then they moved on to top 10. I felt a small tremor of excitement. L nudged me with a smile and whispered, "Hey, that means you're getting a ribbon!" When they got to 5th place and still did not call my name, I half-heartedly joked with L that they probably misplaced my form and there was some mistake. Then L stood to get her a third place ribbon. When they finished announcing top 10 and my name still had not been called, I was in utter shock. I had been doing a decent job of keeping it together then all I heard was my name and "Reserve Champion". I stood to receive my final score sheet accompanied by a huge satin ribbon and awards along with my rookie award.
L gave me a huge hug and T came over to say congrats. A few riders also came over to congratulate me and each time, I praised the horse- all I did was ride and stay out of his way. Romeo's final score was a 98.5 out of 100; 1 point off for slight fill in the legs (which apparently all the horses got marked off for that day) and 0.5 point off for anal tone.
I wanted to stay and celebrate but I had a drive ahead of me and had to hit the road soon if I wanted to get home at a reasonable hour. I finished packing up my things and said my goodbyes. I thanked L and T for being a wonderful mentors on the trail and my appreciation for their advice. They said they were happy we got to ride together and had a lot of fun. And of course, I thanked C for taking a leap of faith with me and entrusting her horse to me. C was thrilled with Romeo's performance and was glad I had fun.
The 3-hour drive back home was done mostly in a state of semi-giddy shock as I felt like I was in a surreal dream. Completing was my first and foremost goal. Top 10 would have been amazing....but Reserve Champion?
I totally wasn't expecting that at all. Just a completion with a happy, sound horse would have sufficed but I guess it was our lucky day. Romeo was an amazing horse to ride and an incredible athlete. Muckleratz Run was a great and well-run event and I got a chance to network with so many people that I had seen online in various distance riding FB groups but finally got to meet in person. Until I figure out a rig arrangement for Quest and me, I'd love to continue catch riding if the right opportunities come up. This sport is absolutely addictive and I definitely found my discipline.