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Monday, August 22, 2011

Guest Blogger #3: "Endurance Mules!"


Endurance Mule!
Notoriass ManuelLaramie, Wyoming

There’s no denying it. It’s fun to ride a good mule up sandy washes, over slick rock, and between the endless sage and rabbit brush around Moab, Utah. Turns out, it’s more fun to do it fast!
This summer I “traded up,” and my new mule, Manny, is a pleasure to ride. He is a little brown mule with a good mind and a big heart. Forgot your crupper? No problem: this boy will side-pass down the hill. Too cold for gloves? I can stuff my hands in warm pockets and easily ride with cues from my legs and seat. So, of course, now all I want to do is ride. When I was invited to come along to the Moab Canyons Endurance Ride down south of the border in Utah I was packed up and ready to go three days ahead. (What did she say about some little race?)
The trip out of Wyoming (as usual) was less than auspicious. We crept on ice-covered roads towards the Colorado border. It’s the last week in October Wyoming-style. You definitely don’t want to be a ballerina for Halloween; all the smart kids plan bulky, well-insulated costumes. I-70 was closed over Vail Pass, so we snuck in the back way, through Kremmling, over a snow-packed Trough Road. Dropping into the Grand Valley our plan started to seem a bit less crazy. The temperature displayed on the rear-view mirror jumped up and we drove into Spring Canyon in the dark but on dry roads.

No, I Think It’s a Race!
Race day, I crawled out of my tent with the first glow of dawn in the eastern sky. The 50-mile racers were throwing saddles on. As they headed out the whinnying of equine companions left behind filled the camp. Manny the mule was calm as I tacked him up and got some caffeine in my system. Such a good boy, just another trail ride... He walked easily to the starting line as seasoned Arabians skittered around us. We were on the trail. Manny watched as more and more horses trotted passed. He picked up the pace—“I think it’s a race, Mom.” His trot lengthened out. Another horse came from behind. He loped up the next hill.
The day my first horse came as a gift from a neighbor when I was twelve years old and horse-crazy I felt pretty much the same way I do today. All I wanted to do was ride and ride and ride. Seeking out like-minded accomplices I joined the local Pony Club. My mother kindly bought the mandatory Manual of Horsemanship, high black leather boots, and a velvet-covered riding hat (used, but very dapper). She drove me to meetings, and I sat shyly in unfamiliar living rooms, only to discover pony-clubbers didn’t ride in the winter. As a matter of fact, for all the hype and fancy outfits, our chapter didn’t ride much at all. Through many years of riding I’ve noticed a trend here. Lots of people keep horses and mules and maintain tack rooms full of fancy equipment. They talk the talk, but it’s a rare event that they get out and ride. Endurance riders RIDE. It takes many a mile in the saddle to prepare a horse or mule to cover fifty or a hundred miles in a day.
Endurance racing is an ancient pursuit. Equines have been selected for speed and endurance since the first paleo-nutter crawled on a Mongolian wild horse and thought, “I wonder how fast this thing can go?” The modern sport of endurance racing has a few added rules, most of which are designed to keep equine athletes safe and sound. In North America racing is sanctioned by the American Endurance Ride Commission (AERC).
The day before the race, Manny and I headed to the “vet check.” To enter the race my mule needed to qualify with a clean bill of health. Each equine’s vet card has check boxes for normal heart and respiration rates, good hydration, gut sounds, and muscle tone, as well as a sound trot out. This thorough check-up includes 14 measures of health, all graded on a scale A+ to D. Completion depends on passing two more examinations, one at the half-way point of the race and a final check as we come in to finish. In order to pass at these stations equine heart rates must drop back to 60 beats per minute within a half-hour and any sign of lameness, dehydration, or colic—even a saddle sore—is grounds for disqualification. Let’s all note that riders’ butts are not checked. You’re on your own, people! (My endurance mentor, Ronnie, tactfully nodded to a little tube of Vaseline the night before the race.)

TO BE CONTINUED . . . . 

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