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John Henry Chapter 2 - Susan Garlinghouse DVM

It was now April of 2012, and several weeks had gone by while I recovered from bilateral mastectomy surgery. I was home from the hospital, had spent several weeks mostly sleeping with the help of heavy painkillers and was just starting to get up and around a little more. There was still more surgery and other treatment ahead, but I wanted to get back in the saddle, hoping John Henry and I could get back on track for Tevis in just 13 weeks.

My good friend Julie Herrera had been riding John Henry for me, and he had benefitted from a break from competitions, getting stronger and putting some weight back on. My master’s thesis data had been collected at Tevis measuring the effect of relative thinness to completion rates in 100-mile horses and I knew Himself would perform better if he toed up to the starting line carrying good cover, neither too fat or too thin.

I was also mindful of the advice of many successful Tevis finishers, including Julie Suhr, who had warned it’s better to show up with a horse in good weight and only moderately fit, than one who was overtrained, tired and thin.

John Henry was rested, in good weight and feeling full of himself, but now I was by far the weakest link in our chain. With dire warnings from my surgeon to wear a body protector so as not to undo all his work, I was back in the saddle for careful training rides a month after surgery. While I wouldn’t have tried this with just any horse, I’ve often said that John Henry is always exactly the horse you need him to be on any given day. He thoroughly nudged and sniffed me over head to toe, and surprisingly, refrained from bashing me with his suitcase-sized head as he usually does by way of friendly greeting. As pig-headed and exasperating as he can be when he knows all is right with the world, he carefully walked with me like he was carrying eggs for those first few tentative rides while I was still recovering.

My doctors were rolling their eyes and muttering dire predictions, but gave me a grudging go-ahead to enter a ride, as long as I rode bandaged, with a body protector, and didn’t try running, especially on the downhills. Nine weeks after surgery, we went to Descanso 50, a hot, rocky and technical ride often used by Pacific South riders as a last tune-up before Tevis.

John can be a freight train, especially early in the ride, but he carried me like he was a kid’s lesson horse all day long. As expected, it was hot and difficult, but we finished mid-pack. John looked great, but I was utterly drained, nauseated and miserable with pain. I could barely lift my arms the next day, a far cry from previously being ready to go out again day after day.

We had done what we came to do that day, but the take-home message was that I wasn’t in the physical condition I needed to tackle Tevis. I had promised John Henry that when we tackled those mountains, I would be his partner, not just a passenger, especially in those blazing hot, steep canyons. I wasn’t yet strong enough to do that and so, once again, I decided this wasn’t going to be the year for us. Instead, I scheduled the second of three surgeries I ultimately needed, and sent John Henry off with Julie to have a good time riding in the Sierras at the Eastern High Sierra Classic. The next fall, I was feeling better and took John through a careful 50 miles at Manzanita, making sure I was fully recovered after my second surgery. I felt good afterwards, so three weeks later, we went to the Bill Thornburgh 50 to see what we could really do. John was up on his toes, wanting to go and I turned him loose.

When John is ‘on the hunt’, he will pick out the next horse on the horizon and steadily chase them down until they are behind him and gone, then start looking for the next—a habit he had picked up from his previous barn and conditioning buddy, Maximum Heat, who had finished in fourth place at Tevis in 2011 with Bruce’s wife, Dayna. We finished the Bill Thornburgh in 4th place and first Middleweight out of 30 starters in just over six hours, a very respectable average pace of 11mph for a horse that looks more like a cow pony than endurance horse. Will we ever make an international team on our best day, nope. Will we ever win a really big race, nope. John Henry’s and my goals are about working with what we have, overcoming our own challenges and maintaining our partnership. We look out for each other, and wouldn’t have it any other way.

Now finally back on track, I didn’t want to compete John too hard or too often, but needed to peak him for the following summer. We did another 255 endurance miles together that spring, with an LD for good measure with his second mom Julie. At Julie’s suggestion, we added in swimming at a local thoroughbred facility, a good cardiovascular activity that didn’t add stress to his legs. Most racehorses in training will swim, at most, perhaps a dozen laps of the pool. Years later, John Henry still holds the “record” after swimming 68 laps on one occasion, and 50-60 laps on many other days, a distance of over 2 1/2 miles.

In addition, I started trailering him up into the mountains to a local ski resort to train at altitude after the snows had melted. We didn’t do long miles, but clambered around the mountains and did short but intense wind sprints up the steep maintenance roads and ski trails, getting a lot of bang for our buck without excessive wear and tear. I’m guessing that John Henry is likely the only horse in the past century that has summited Mt. Harwood at 9600’, casually climbing up a razor-thin single track called the Devil’s Backbone, usually only occupied by hikers and bears.

Finally, we added in heat training down in the valley. The weather was pleasant and much cooler than the 100-plus degrees we needed to be ready for in the canyons. I put a waterproof rain sheet on between the saddle and pad and we walked and jogged, with stops every ten minutes to check his temperature with a rectal thermometer. We worked to raise his temp and maintain it at 103 degrees, but stopped and let him cool down when the temp reached 103.5, the point at which hyperthermia becomes potentially dangerous if it continues to climb. This strategy developed more neovascularization, the extensive network of surface capillaries that helps efficiently transport heat from the body’s core to the outer skin to be dissipated. Since John is built more heavily muscled than the average Arabian, handling the heat of Tevis could make or break our day. By the middle of June, John’s neck and shoulders were looking as veiny as any pumped-up Kentucky Derby runner.

Fair is fair, and I needed heat training, too. Every time I asked John to go jogging in his rain sheet, I rode in a heavy sweatshirt and jacket as well. Other riders on the trails wearing t-shirts would look at us as though we were certifiably crazy when we jogged past looking decidedly steamy.

John’s last tune-up was again Descanso 50, the same ride where I’d decided the year before that 2012 wasn’t going to be our year for a buckle. My partner in crime, Julie Herrera, had worked as hard as I had at getting John Henry ready, and she’d earned the right to ride him in the 50. They had a great day and finished in sixth place, just where John needed to be fitness-wise six weeks before Tevis. It was our green-light ride and we were good to go to make a try for a Tevis buckle.

Our entry was in the mail. From here forward, we would keep John tucked away in bubble wrap, resting, eating and getting ready for our trip north to the starting line at Robie Park. More soon.