Thursday, March 02, 2017

Dream Makker: A *Real* Endurance Horse (and More) in the Making - Part 2

Part 1 is here.

by Merri
March 2 2017

With behavioral kinks sorted out, and a solid foundation of partnership between them now, Crysta Turnage and Dream Makker were ready for his first endurance start in May of 2010 as a 5-year-old. It was not an auspicious debut.

Crysta originally planned to ride the 2 days of LDs at the Nevada Washoe ride with some of her regular riding partners. But they weren't able to come at the last minute, so Crysta went with Plan B, opting for the 50 on the first day with her good friends Lucy and Leslie, who were happy to escort Digs and Crysta on a slow ride.

Bad luck struck on the first loop, when Digs clipped himself going down one of the infamous S.O.B. hills. He got back to camp for the first vet check with an inconsistent lameness. The vet first said it was the left front, then at the recheck said it was the right front. Knowing the next loop was sand hills, Crysta opted to pull him. "His very first ride was a RO-L. So we haven't had to worry about preserving a perfect ride record!" she laughed.

While Diego's mental matters had been sorted out, the other half of the Dream Makker endurance equation was coming to light. "In regards to endurance, he's been a challenge in that he's always had very delicate legs. This is a horse that, even from the very beginning, I'd take him out on a little 10 mile ride, and he'd come home and stock up in his corral overnight. That's just him." And these leg issues have randomly plagued Digs throughout his 7-year endurance career, adding another aspect to endurance riding that so many endurance riders must often deal with.

Crysta and Digs took the rest of the year to continue both his physical and mental conditioning, and be able to start the next season fully ready for 50 mile rides. With 4 starts the next year, 2011, Crysta considers that their first actual season. Digs finished 3 of his 4 rides - two 50's and 1 LD - getting pulled with a minor lameness on one of the 50's. "That pull was another good learning lesson. He was trimmed too close to the ride and ended up foot sore. He does best if he's not trimmed more than a week before any event."

Then due to various issues - including a new job and much less time to ride and condition - the pair managed only 3 rides over the next 2 seasons, with Digs finishing 2 50's and getting pulled lame on one.

In the interim, they also branched out into other events, adding to Digs' repertoire of skills. The gelding enjoyed cattle sorting (he tried to bite the cows if they weren't moving fast enough), reined cow horse clinics, and he performed in several parades in full Arabian costume. It just proved what a solid, and fun, horse Digs had matured into.

In 2014, Crysta had more time to ride and condition. Three strong 50-mile starts and finishes on Digs early that season had her entertaining thoughts of that iconic 100-mile Tahoe-to-Auburn ride with her now-solid 9-year-old.

"We were having a really good year so far, and we were prepping to ride Tevis. He'd been doing amazing on our training rides, and we were doing a lot of NEDA rides (a local endurance riding and driving club) in addition to AERC rides, and he was very strong and very consistent."

Then at the May Mariposa Run for the Gold ride, trotting in off the first loop, Digs had a big hind slip on some oak leaves going down a hill. He scrambled and caught himself from falling. At the vet check, the vet could see a slight, inconsistent lameness. Digs went on to complete the Mariposa ride sound, but at their next ride in the June Wild West, Digs had a major groin cramp coming in from the first loop, and he was pulled.

At the July Lake Almanor 50-mile ride, Digs finished the 50, but Crysta could still feel a kind of a skip in the hind end. Veterinarian Michele Roush looked at him and said he looked great, but when they lunged him in a circle, they could see something.

"So at that point we scratched all our plans to do Tevis," Crysta said. "I just gave him some time off, thinking we were probably dealing with some muscle issues at that time. I tried bringing him back in November, but even on training rides, that slight hind lameness came back after 10 miles on the trail."

Other issues had also arisen throughout that season. It turns out Digs had thrown his back out and misaligned his sacrum during his slip in May, and it took a lot of body work with a chiropractor to set him straight. When ultrasounded at the vet clinic, it was discovered that Digs had a high suspensory avulsion on the right hind. Instead of pulling the suspensory itself, he'd partially detached it from the bone. The vet also discovered he'd strained his right front suspensory, possibly from catching himself when he slid in May.

The veterinarian put them on a 90 day rehab program, first hand walking, then an hour riding under saddle at the walk, and eventually working in 5 minutes of trotting at a time. "Thankfully his initial time off had already started some healing. We did all that rehab over the winter… all done after work, in the snow, walking around the neighborhood in the dark."

When re-ultrasounded in February 2015, they got the green light: "The vet told me, 'He looks awesome, go ride the horse. Tevis isn't out for the year.'"

But Crysta was ultra-conservative with Digs, and kept her Tevis dreams on the back burner for yet another year. "We just started back with doing shorter training rides again, then working to the 20 mile rides. We did our one 50 for the year in September, in the Kristina Chesterman Memorial ride. We took the entire 12 hours, with only 3 minutes to spare, and I burst into tears when we crossed the finish line."

Crysta had actually started to feel that slight hind end lameness again on the last loop of that ride. The vet didn't see anything at the finish, but Crysta was worried that she had brought Digs back to endurance too quickly, despite the 14 month break from it.

"I think I can feel it more under saddle than what it shows, probably because I'm so paranoid and attuned to it now. When you know you've got a horse that's got a lameness issue, you judge every step that they take. You start to question everything.

"2015 was about putting everything back together again - getting Digs sound again, getting his body corrected, doing different activities, getting him strengthened. We did a lot of dressage lessons that summer since I couldn't take him to rides, working with him on how to use himself better, how to really come through from behind and lift his back and support himself better as we're riding."

The pair qualified to be Sweep Riders for the Tevis Cup that summer. And through their participation in numerous parades, they earned the unique honor of being one of 2 dozen horses and riders that would represent the AERC in the Tournament of Roses parade on January 1, 2016.  "I didn't even realize that was on my bucket list until the opportunity arose.  Once I heard about the AERC Group, I just HAD to be a part of it.  It was one of those lifetime memories I'll cherish forever."

Crysta and Digs in the Tournament of Roses Parade

The time out taken for rehab and re-conditioning and the extracurricular activities helped prepare Diego for a new 'real' season of endurance again in 2016. The idea of the Tevis Cup started forming at the AERC Convention in February, when Crysta's friend Pam Anderson won the Tevis Cup entry in the raffle. Crysta had won the raffle's Tevis Cup entry in 2007, the year she finished on Sinatra.

The pair hatched a plan: they would condition and attend rides together, and pre-ride parts of the Tevis trail together; and if the stars aligned, Crysta and Digs would escort Pam and her gelding Shezada Saheem on the Tevis Cup. The two geldings clicked together, and the season started out well enough.

The 4 of them finished the Rides of March together. Crysta said, "Digs was fine, but not stellar. He got through it OK, no lameness issues, but he didn't feel like a Tevis horse at that time. But it was early in the season, and I told myself we still had plenty of time to get there."

Crysta and Digs then finished two April rides, Whiskeytown Chaser and the American River Classic, riding slow, but finishing without any problems.

Photo by Rene Baylor - Gore/Baylor Photography

The 4 teamed up for the Cooley Ranch 50 in June. It turned out to be a miserably hot traffic-jammed 8-hour commute, and it was a hot ride. The plan was to take it easy and ride both days of 50's, but on day 1, Digs came up with the same on-again-off-again hind end lameness at the 30-mile check. He failed to recover - his pulse hung at 68, and Crysta was sure it was because of the hind end lameness.

"Cooley was our go-no-go ride for Tevis," Crysta said. "And with being pulled metabolic, it threw this huge question mark in the plans.  I took Digs to a well-known lameness vet for an evaluation after Cooley Ranch. The vet couldn't find anything obvious going on in his hind end. It was his left rear which he had been having trouble with this time, not his previously injured right rear. The vet did find a bone bruise on his right front fetlock, which may have been a contributing factor. We started Digs on a round of Pentosan and some Surpass for his fetlock, and he had a few weeks off per recommendation.

"I hadn't had that one ride on Digs yet, all year, where I was like 'Yes. He's awesome. He's totally on and he feels amazing.' I'd sent in my Tevis entry, but I was debating on pulling it, because they hadn't reached the deadline where there was much of a fee to cancel at that time." Crysta knew the stats: even with a perfectly sound and fit horse, one has about a 50% chance of finishing the ride.

Then a couple of terrible monumental events influenced the situation.

Crysta's son Taren riding Digs, Crysta leading Gunny

Around this same time, Crysta had been bringing along her new horse Gunny, a 6-year-old Arabian gelding she found as a rework-needed rescue case on Facebook. She'd done a lot of confidence building and restart work with him, and had just had her first little ride on him.

At the end of June, Gunny got himself into an appalling panicked wreck in her home arena when he got tangled in his bridle. "It was the most horrifying thing I'd ever had to deal with. He was throwing himself on the ground and bashing his head on the ground before I could get his bridle off."

The vet came out immediately and treated him with what she could, but Gunny ended up with severe neurological damage, putting out the vision in his left eye, and paralyzing part of his face to where he couldn't drink. He deteriorated over the week and started to have seizures, and on Tuesday Crysta made the decision to put him down the next afternoon.

Crysta could not get out of going to work Wednesday morning, and her husband AJ stayed home to keep an eye on Gunny until Crysta and the vet could come in the afternoon.

"So I'm at work that morning, knowing we're going to put Gunny down in the afternoon, and I get on Facebook, and I hear about Kevin Myers. It was that day it came out that Kevin had committed suicide. I went in the bathroom at work and had a total breakdown, just shaking and crying. I called my husband and said, 'I can't stay here, I don't know how I'm going to get through these meetings. I'm totally falling apart."

Crysta's dear friend Kevin Myers - who had given her Dream Makker as a youngster in 2008 - devastated the world around him when he ended his life the day before.

"My husband told me, 'You can do it, you're just going to have to block it off, put it aside for now and totally focus at the task at hand. I know you can do it.' Somehow I got through my meetings until I could leave, and I went home and we put Gunny down the same day I'd heard about Kevin.

"That was ultimately my motivation for riding the Tevis. Here's a very dear friend, that Tevis was very special for him. And here's this horse I'd just gotten, that I'd had a lot of hopes and dreams and big plans for, and now he's gone too.

"I still didn't think Digs and I would actually finish Tevis, but I thought, at least I'm going to start, just to honor everyone who wants to do Tevis and can't. I thought, we are going to ride for Kevin, and Lisa's horse Tux (just weeks earlier, Crysta's friend Lisa lost her horse while marking trail for the Tevis), and my own sweet Gunny. We are going to ride for those who will never have the chance to go down this magical trail again. And while our chance of finishing may be lesser than others, we have a CHANCE and I'm going to take it. Because you never know what life has in store. And I'm going to carry them all in my heart, and hopefully get them to Auburn."

July 23 2016 - the 61st Tevis Cup

165 riders and horses at the starting line, 2 of which are Pam Anderson, aboard Shezada Saheem (Sammy) on their first Tevis Cup adventure, and Crysta Turnage, aboard Dream Makker (Digs), an endurance horse with an imperfect, unimpressive record, with 600 miles to his name (and never even back-to-back 50-mile finishes), on his first 100-mile ride.

From finishing in 2007, Crysta knew pace-wise what they needed to do. The four of them made it without mishap to Robinson Flat vet check, the first hour hold at 36 miles. "Digs had to trot twice for the vet at Robinson Flat; the vet saw something but it was inconsistent. He couldn't even pick a leg, just 'hind end,' but we were cleared to go. I hadn't felt anything in the saddle yet, but it certainly put my radar up."

The horses were strong though the hot canyons, but Crysta was starting to feel the little hind end hitch again coming into Foresthill, the second vet check at 68 miles. She was being really careful, managing which diagonal she was posting on, to give him a break on that left rear.

"At the Foresthill vet check we had to trot out THREE times, with them adding a vet each additional time, so we had three watching by the end. And then the vet held our card, and we had to come back for a recheck before leaving. It was the left hind again. Talk about nerve wracking!"

Crysta and her crew fed Digs and got everything ready, in case they were going back out on the last 32 miles. A friend, Karon Dutcher thought that Digs had a cramp in his left rear, and she pinpointed the muscle, showing Crysta's crew, friend Ronda Gentry and husband AJ, how to massage it.

Crysta was having this huge internal debate with herself. "I was thinking, he's not 100% right, should I just Rider Option and pull him? We'll be going for four more hours until the next vet check. It's a long way to get to Francisco's (Gate and Go at 85 miles), and that's the worst place to be pulled, with the logistics of being hauled out.

"Then I decided, well, let's just see how he looks at the recheck, and let the vet make that decision. If he's still questionable, then I'll pull him." AJ trotted out Digs for the re-check while Crysta watched with the vet. "He looked really good. Much better! We were cleared to go.

"Leaving Foresthill, Digs was super strong, because he'd ridden that section of trail 3 times over the last couple months." Everything was fine until they passed the Cal 2 point at 78 miles, when Digs suddenly went Dead Lame. "Like the leg had fallen off. I had such a guilt trip! I thought I broke him. I shouldn't have asked that of him."

Crysta threw Digs' rump rug down to keep his hind end warmer, and she jumped off to lead Digs, instructing Pam to ride on without her. After a long while, three ladies came up behind them and wanted to pass, but the trail wasn't wide enough. Crysta got on Digs so they could move a bit faster to get to a wider area in the trail. She asked him to jog… "and he felt good again! I left the rump rug on him, and we jogged on and off, and he still felt fine by the time we arrived at Francisco's."

Catching up with Pam there, Crysta massaged Digs' hind leg again while the horses rested and ate. She took Digs to the vet for the moment of truth. "We trotted out and back, and the vet said, 'OK, here you go,' and handed me my card. He was cleared to go!"

Two hours later, at 3:31 AM, Pam and Crysta arrived at the Quarry, the last Gate and Go check, at 94 miles. "Same thing. We let the horses eat, got the rump rugs on, got our blankets on, grabbed some snacks for us, massaged Digs, headed over to the vet… trot out, trot back, 'Here's your card,' and off we went!"

The girls covered the last 6 miles of the Tevis trail in an hour and 15 minutes, arriving at the finish at 4:53 AM, with 22 minutes left. Now came the final moment of truth.

"Jamie Kerr vetted us out, and I had my husband AJ trot him, so I could watch him go. I started crying as I watched him trot out, because he looked GOOD."

It had been a long, long trail, and a very challenging journey from that first dubious endurance start - a pull - back in 2010. Crysta and Dream Makker had completed the Tevis Cup.

"It was very emotional. The ride wasn't about me at all. I knew I could do it. But could Digs? It was about honoring those who couldn't do the ride, and about achieving a goal with Pam and riding as a team. 

"To set that goal together with her, way back in February at the AERC Convention, of, 'Let's do this Tevis thing', and to help get a rider and a horse who had never been through Tevis before, and Digs with all his issues he had - to get there, and to get through it, and to actually finish, when I started the ride thinking that there was no way we were going to make it to the finish, that we were going to get pulled somewhere along the trail…

"It was just amazing. I don't know if anything will ever compare.

"Digs has come so far, from being that spooky crazy horse that kicked me in the face, and dumped me on the ground and broke my arm, and freaking out about a kid climbing on the fence, to becoming the horse I absolutely trust to take care of me, and anyone else who rides him. He's reliable, and he's just amazing, and this Tevis was really special, because of Gunny and Kevin and Tux, and all of that. It was like, 'Roll credits!' - the ending to a great movie."

Crysta and Digs will continue down the endurance trails, taking each ride as it comes (Digs was pulled lame at his next 50-mile ride in October, on his left front leg, which ironically hasn't had a problem before). Long-term, flexible goals are riding more 100's, and working on being a Decade Team.

"Does one Tevis finish make him a 100 mile horse? I don't know. But we're going to try some more of them. And as for Decade Team - with all his lameness issues, a couple of seasons we only rode and completed one 50. But I fully intend we'll get Decade Team."

With Crysta's careful management, exceeding patience, immense caution, and the lack of her need to push her horse hard, there's no doubt they'll get there.

Crysta and Dream Makker's endurance odyssey was by no means what everybody would or should take to reach their goals, but their journey was infinitely rewarding, the end product being a completely trustworthy partner, an ultimate working partnership in a sport (and many other activities) they both enjoy.

"I love to share Digs with people, because it has been such a journey to get where he's at now. It gives people hope. They don't have to be extraordinary and be riders with all this mileage. i just hit my 2000 miles last year.

"It's all been part of that learning process as I go."

*top photo at Cougar Rock by Bill Gore - Gore/Baylor Photography

1 comment:

GSMarlene said...

Wow, you have an amazing level of persistence. I've dealt with some difficult and reactive horses but not with the challenge of lameness too. Very impressive story!