Thursday, July 28, 2011

Oklahoma Trail Riders Beat the Heat on Night Rides!

Extreme heat forces equestrians to find riding alternatives.  This Oklahoma trail group found a fun way to beat the heat.

Article first published as Oklahoma Trail Riders Beat the Heat on Night Rides! on Blogcritics.

Prague Lake Trails
During the Day
Oklahoma has experienced triple digit temperatures for the last 30 days, with the exception of about three or four days where we only hit 98F or 99F. With temperatures as high as 110F, it’s not conducive to trail rides mid-day. Once again, I find myself faced with a challenge.

Some FMS survivors thrive in heat, while some do in the cold. My particular brand of FMS causes me the most amount of difficulty in the cold. It’s not unusual for me to not ride my horse at all between late November and the end of February. I’m much more successful in the summer! Give me low 90’s, a case of bottled water in an ice chest, a light breeze, a low pain day and I’m ready to attack the trails and have a grand time. However, this year temperatures have been rather … brutal.

So the search for options began. This shouldn’t be too hard, right? Just ride during the cooler part of the day! But as I evaluated my options, I found more obstacles.

Option 1: Early Morning!

Yes, that works out, right? Unfortunately, at the moment in this part of the country at 5:00 a.m., it’s upwards of 85F outside. Okay, so it’s still toasty, but it’s tolerable. But, that brings up a unique problem for me.

FMS survivors are not morning people. It’s not because we are lazy or don’t want to get up. It’s due to the fact that many of us have some form of sleep disorder that prevents us from getting restorative sleep. That increases our symptoms, such as pain, migraine headaches, fatigue, and even our ability to handle stress. At the very least, an early morning for me means I’m stiff and sore. On my worst days, it means severe pain, stiffness, a limp, maybe even some nausea thrown in for good measure and light-headedness. When I was diagnosed with FMS, I was also diagnosed with sleep apnea and Restless Leg Syndrome (just a couple of the numerous sister conditions to FMS).  So for me, if at all possible, it’s best that I avoid any commitments in the early morning. So “Option 1” was thrown out the window.

Option 2: Evenings!

That sounds reasonable. The Rangerettes have done that for years. Practice at 6:30 p.m., no big deal. Whoops … at 7 p.m., it is still anywhere from 100F to 104F. Even they have pushed practice times back to later in the evening due to the heat. So a trail ride before sundown probably won’t work well either.  With temperatures this high, it doesn’t take much time and even the healthiest of people and most conditioned of horses could become exhausted from the heat.

Well now what?

In addition to riding parades with the Rangerettes, I co-founded a local non-profit trail riding organization. We are called the Oklahoma Family Equestrians (OFE).  We were not going to let this Oklahoma heat wave ruin our summer fun … no way, not us! We have monthly moonlight rides through the seasonal months, but because of this heat, we have gone bonkers and a large number of us have become night riding addicts.  Yes, addicts.

Every Saturday night our group converges on the small equestrian facility at Prague Lake, Oklahoma, strap on colorful glow bracelets to our horses and hit the trails around 9 p.m., moon, or no moon. The first ride was our normally scheduled moonlight ride. The riders had SO much fun that it “stuck” and now our group rides every Saturday night. The group plans to continue to do so until this heat breaks.

I use to ride moonlight rides all the time at a local rental stable with my youngest son. The rental horses are dead broke. The worst thing you have to worry about is getting stuck on a horse that won’t do anything but stand there and graze. If so, you will sit there kicking the living daylights out of him while trying to pull his head up from his feast, hopefully getting him to move before your group moves on and your $25.00 and two hours expire.

I’ve never ventured out at night on a trail ride with my horse, Filly. I was not sure how she would handle it. I was even more concerned for my son. His horse, Repo, is a very energetic and vivacious four-year old thoroughbred. This would be her first night ride as well. Being the horse lovers and “confessed addicts” that we are, we loaded up and headed east for the lake in search of a great time with a great group of people. We would not be disappointed.

There was no moon this night. But hey, it’s just “the dark,” right? And the horses can see better than we can so I wasn’t too worried about the ups and downs on the trail that I’ve ridden during the day. Besides, I could see this really cool line of glow lights moving in synch with the horses in front of me. It was a pretty sight to behold. I was already having a BLAST. Now, to get out of the parking lot.

Our determined band of riders gathered at the trailhead and headed off into the forest. Suddenly it was black. I mean pitch black, can’t see your hand in front of your face … darkness! But you could see those glow bracelets and the occasional lightning bug. We could hear the rustling of the leaves and feel the cool breeze blowing through the trees. It was so peaceful! I couldn’t see the ground beneath me, but I knew Filly could so I settled in for a nice, enjoyable ride. We chatted back and forth through the line, told stories about the ride the week prior, laughed about ghost stories and practical jokes pulled on a rider last week and started to get to know each other.

Our trail guide, Phil, has an amazing horse that knows the trails so well that he could probably lead the group without a rider. Phil keeps it fun for all of us. He and his trusty mount, Chance, set a nice easy pace. Together as a team they kept us on the trail as we ventured deeper into the woods. Phil is OFE’s Activities Coordinator and he also takes care of those of us who aren’t in the best of physical condition. This particular trail-riding group is filled with people that are generous, kind and compassionate. We are always willing to help out one another and determined to have fun on the trail.

We also had Harley with us, Phil’s trail dog. He is solid black, so to keep tabs on where he was, a small green glow bracelet was placed on the tags of his collar. As we ventured through the darkness, we could see this green round ring jumping through the brush and trees and having quite the adventure chasing whatever wildlife he could find.

I’m all about desensitizing my horses and if something unexpected happens, I’m okay with it. The unexpected experience makes for a better horse. But by the end of the night, poor Repo had decided that she was dealing with some strange glowing object from outer space. If Harley was in front of her, beside or behind her she was fine. If he popped out of the bushes, she did her four-feet, jump-spook-startle-in-place maneuver.  Every single time. I’m thinking she has a memory problem. Filly couldn’t have cared less; she saw Harley at camp, looked him over, got his scent and was fine with him and his light. We are hopeful that this weekend Repo will remember Harley and not be quite so reactive. But Harley is now lovingly nicknamed by us: “The Ghostlight!

By the first stop, I was already very impressed with the way Filly handled the trail. She actually rides better at night and listens to my cues with less effort! We stopped at the picnic tables and took a break, stretched our legs and visited with each other some more and let the horses have a breather. We didn’t bother tying Repo; she sucked up to Filly like a lost toddler and wasn’t going anywhere. I was starting to hurt a little and had to use the picnic table as a tool to get back in the saddle. Within a few minutes I was back on my horse and we were on our way.

We continued our trek around the lake, up and down, winding and turning, talking and laughing. There were the directional callbacks in the line: “Stay left of the trunk.” “Stepping over a log!” “Going down an incline!” “Wow, look at all those stars!” “Watch for the low limb!”

… (SMACK) …

It was fantastic!

Phil was kind enough to clear all the cobwebs being in the lead, which made it nice for those us in the back with arachnophobia. By the time we made it to the watering hole, it was almost 12:45 a.m.. We stopped for a second break. Filly and Repo had both found their footing and powered up some fairly steep inclines with all the determination and ease of well seasoned trail horses. Personally, I was tired and sore, my FMS was screaming at me but I wasn’t listening. I was too busy having a great time. We headed to the water's edge to allow the horses a drink and managed to pull that off without anyone getting dunked.

Hot temperatures, cool lakes and tired, sweaty horses can result in an unexpected swim for a rider. Many horses will decide to try and take a plunge, passenger or no passenger. They will enjoy a nice cool roll and “shake” when they are finished, not unlike a dog. Some of us with horses that have a reputation for doing this stayed on the bank with lead lines as their horses ventured out to splash around and drink up. I stayed on Filly, simply because it was going to cause me too much pain to get back in the saddle. The moment she even thought about tucking those back legs to go down I yanked her out of there fast. I think the wallet and cell phones are going in Ziploc freezer bags this coming weekend, just to be on the safe side.

The last leg of the ride was just as pleasant as the first. We always have to use caution on the east side where we pass near the home of several mules; they tend to charge at the fence when strange horses pass by on the trail. We could hear the thundering of their hooves. As they grew closer, my thoughts went back to Ichabod Crane from Sleepy Hollow, but we were fortunate and passed before they got close enough to spook any horses in the line.

Everyone arrived back at camp in one piece, maybe a few minor scratches from the low limb that we didn’t miss, but the general consensus was “Wow, that was a great ride!”

Since that ride, Phil has guided at least four more and OFE continues to host these Saturday night rides as long as he is available. Our largest ride so far has been 20 riders. Night rides are absolutely the most fun I’ve had beating the summer heat this year! It is also far better than not riding at all.

Riding at night is a very viable and fun option for many of OFE's members, myself included. It bonds us even closer with our horses and with our friends. If you are an equestrian located anywhere affected by the Heat Wave of 2011, and want to keep riding, think about finding a group near you that will host a night ride.

Make sure you have a reliable guide as these rides aren’t for the faint of heart or the beginning rider. If you can control your horse well during the day and have a trustworthy mount, think about beating the heat and taking a nice leisurely ride with friends through the forest at night!

You will be glad that you did!  As you ride, remember OFE’s motto:

"It’s the way you ride the trail that counts." ~ Dale Evans

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