a nice horse like you doing in a place like this?
A dressage horse changes careers
(This story was written in 1999. Unfortunately I lost my good buddy, Muscatyr, in 2001.)
Muscatyr is an Arabian gelding I have owned since he was weaned. He is now eleven, and in those eleven years, only about two people other than me have ever ridden him. And for the majority of his life, his career had been dressage. It is not the career he chose for himself, but one I chose for him, since that is what I love, and it is what I had done with several horses prior to him. Muscatyr was horse #4 that I had raised and trained myself. So I knew sort of what I was doing, but admittedly still had along way to go.
From the beginning, Muscatyr was a physically talented horse, but also very complicated, technically, to ride in dressage. He was extremely supple.... too supple, in fact. Trying to keep Muscatyr’s shoulders and haunches aligned was like trying to keep a slinky perfectly straight. But he had incredible movement, including an extended trot that earned him 8s in dressage competition in his very first attempts. But he also sometimes found the tedium of dressage and the pressures of competition too much -- making him a bit frustrating as a competition horse, since he could win everything with scores near 70% or be dead last with scores in the dumpers. (He did manage to win some year-end awards from Houston Dressage Society and a national championship from the Arabian Sport Horse Assn. at Training Level.)
Despite his unpredictability, the glimpses of what he could do, and the wonderful way he worked at home kept me plugging along. But when we hit First Level, it was pretty apparent Muscatyr was a square peg and dressage was the round hole!
Selling him was simply not an option. He was my buddy and he loved me. It was time to find him a new career...something he could be happy with and somewhat successful, and something I could enjoy as well.
In the back of my mind, I always thought he would make a good endurance horse. Don’t ask me why. I had read a few articles and somehow I thought since Muscatyr had a nice big trot that that was about all that was required.
I met some friends who did endurance (including a man who is now my husband - but that is another story!) and I set about learning about it, and conditioning Muscatyr for my first 25-mile limited distance ride.
In his entire life, Muscatyr had never been ridden outside an arena. Suddenly, this sheltered dressage horse was trotting and cantering down the median of a four-lane highway -- with 18-wheelers, trucks and cars whizzing by. It was about the only place I could ride that wasn’t fenced in.
He made the transition amazingly well. However, I don’t think I would have tried this when he was a four-year-old! (And I have to add I ALWAYS wear a helmet when I trail ride.)
Eventually, I discovered a series of irrigation canals where I could train, within riding distance of my house. Although it is a fairly urban area, when we get out on our trails, it feels like we’re miles from civilization. There is something immensely satisfying about riding outside an arena. It stirs memories from my teenage years, when my horse was my only mode of transportation, other than my bicycle, and I rode him all over creation!
Out on the trails, I regularly see blue herons, coyotes, water moccasins (ok, I could do without the snakes), turtles, rabbits and more. I love riding by myself out there. There is such a bond that develops between horse and rider, when you know you are dependent on each other for your very safety.
In fact, once while we were galloping along all by ourselves, Muscatyr stepped in a hole and flipped. At the time, I did not realize he had stepped in a hole – all I knew was we galloping with the wind in our face one minute, and the next we were both eating dirt. I have this vivid “snapshot” memory of being on the ground and looking up and seeing Muscatyr somersaulting above me. Despite my helmet, I was knocked silly and for a while I could not figure out how to get home. Muscatyr stayed with me instead of leaving me, about eight miles from home in the middle of about a 4,000 acre rice field. I don’t remember getting back on him, but when the cobwebs finally cleared from my head, he was stoically carrying me toward home, despite a cut leg.
But I digress…
Over a period of about six months, we gradually worked up to riding about 8-12 miles on each of our training rides before our debut at a 25-mile ride. My goal was to just finish the ride. We certainly didn’t plan to go fast. You are allowed 6 hours to finish a 25-mile ride, including the half an hour or 45-minute hold and vet check that is held near the middle of the ride. In November of 1996, we went on our first ride, in the Sam Houston National Forest near Coldspring, Texas.
Muscatyr’s adrenaline was racing, with horses milling around the camp area, waiting for the trail to open for the 25-mile ride. We’d been briefed about the trail during the ride meeting, the ride vets had explained to us newbies how to gauge our horses’ condition, and I had my map and knew what color ribbons to look for on the trail. I had a heart monitor with electrodes that I placed under the saddle, with a readout of his heart rate on a watch I wore, so I could assess how he was doing during the ride. I had dosed him with electrolytes the night before the ride and the morning of the ride. I had trace clipped his already-long winter coat, since it was unseasonably warm. I was ready for anything - or so I thought.
With nearly 70 horses milling around, and then trotting briskly off down the trail when the ride manager declared “trail is open,” my passive, somewhat lazy horse was transformed into a competitive racehorse who was fighting with me to get to the head of the pack! His grandsire was a famous Arabian racehorse in Russia, and I believe those genes, long dormant, were now on red alert! First mistake: Do not do your first limited distance ride in a big ole fat snaffle bit. You will pay for it with much Ben Gay and hot showers afterwards!
Muscatyr's heart rate - which I had trouble even getting to my target of 150 at a flat-out gallop on a training ride - was 170 standing still. Well, standing still is a relative term. We weren’t making much forward progress, but he certainly wasn’t standing still! He was piaffing – but at a canter, not a trot!! In his frenzy, he’d completely forgotten how to trot! I was afraid Muscatyr was going to have a massive coronary right then and there! My goal was to just go slow and finish the ride. However, Muscatyr had other ideas. He was NOT happy about the faster, more experienced (and conditioned!) horses passing him. He was so bad I finally had to get off of him and walk him in the opposite direction to try and settle him down. ! I spent more time OFF his back then ON his back for at least an hour of the ride!
I decided I was going to hand-walk him all the way back to camp and that would be the END of my endurance-riding career! But a couple of really nice women who were riding at a nice slow pace “rescued” Muscatyr and me. He was happy to have two buddies and finally bonded with them and was finally able to ignore all the horses passing us. His heart rate dropped and I was able to quit hanging on his face! We rode into the vet check with no mishaps – and when it was time to go back out on the trail for the second half of the ride, I made SURE I found Muscatyr’s buddies again!
We finished our first ride in under five hours and we weren’t even last! And I realized, except for that first hour or so, it was fun! I decided I would try it again!
That was 12 rides and nearly 3 years ago. I have come to love my endurance rides. And so does Muscatyr. His dressage training has not gone to waste, either. When he is in a rounded frame with his head and neck lowered, his heart rate is lower! He can back up, move sideways and open gates from horseback. And when there’s a narrow, twisty, turning trail through the woods – he shines. He can fly along, bending right and left with the subtlest of cues – never knocking my knees on the trees! We don’t try to win – although we have top tenned at a few rides. We generally finish in the top third to middle of the pack, with riding times between 3 and 4 hours.
Muscatyr is my “fun” horse. I love going camping with him and my friends and riding different scenic trails with my buddy. We are very proud of our record – 12 starts and 12 finishes. The endurance crowd’s motto is “To finish is to win.” Muscatyr is a winner!
If you would like more information about the sport of endurance riding,
and a calendar of local endurance rides, visit http://www.endurance.net.
There you will find a wealth of information about how to get started in