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Heraldic: One Determined Horse Part I - John Crandell
Heraldic: One Determined Horse Part II (The Return) - John Crandell

Heraldic - One Determined Horse Part 2 (The Return) - John Crandell

My heart sank that day in August of 2008. Heraldic was in training for the 2008 FEI World Endurance Championship in Malaysia, and only a few weeks from departing to a training camp in Florida. He had been moved to a smaller meadow the evening before and was slated for shoeing in the morning. As I approached to bring him in, I realized something was terribly wrong. Heraldic looked both ways, contemplating evasion as always, but never moved. Getting closer I could see his left hind leg was bloodied from a 2.5 inch diameter open wound medial on the stifle; Grade 5 lame.

I hobbled Heraldic 50 yards to a nearby shed for treatment. Dr. Jeannie Waldron rushed over and we begin what I already knew would be a long ordeal.

There was little need for sonograms to visualize the critical tissues around the stifle; we could see it all with the naked eye. The collateral ligaments were visibly bruised but intact, and we saw no evidence that the integrity of the joint capsules critical infection barrier had been compromised. By extremely narrow margins, we were spared these aspects of athletic career ending injury, but there were still huge uncertainties that threatened not just his athletic ability, but his life itself.

Dr. Waldron thoroughly cleaned stones and debris out a nine inch deep pocket of loosened skin extending below the stifle, and installed drain tubes to allow the wound to expel fluid as it healed from the inside out. We anticipated that we would have a critical recovery period in a the next weeks as the bruised ligamentation around the joint went through an even more fragile stage in the early phases of healing, so the same shelter just yards from his injury was prepared to be the site of a long convalescence; as fully immobilized as a horse can survive.

The Barbaro tragedy demonstrated to the world how difficult it can be to survive a horse through an extended period with a non-weight bearing limb. It is the opposing sound limb that must bear the load of the horses’ weight without a moment’s relief that is prone to the most irreversible demise. We were fortunate that Heraldic seem comfortable to face down-slope in his shed stall, providing some physical load relief to the overburdened hind limb. We selected bedding that would fill the concavity of his hoof for the most diffused support possible. Now there were weeks of careful monitoring, and wound nursing, and hoping ahead.

It was more than a month before Heraldic could bear weight for even a moment on the left hind leg.

It would be several more months before Heraldic would walk freely in a paddock. His entire left hind quarter was completely atrophied, which stood in stark contrast to the muscular right. The wound itself had healed as flawlessly as we could have ever hoped, but the road back to the athletic wonder that Heraldic had been before would be a very long one. It was like starting his endurance racing development all over again, with additional attention needed on rebalancing.

We will never know exactly what caused the accident, which was probably just a high speed fall and skid on the abrasive soils in the mountain meadow. Something must have startled him for such a violent wipe-out, but those reasons why are lost in the dark of that night in August.

Starting all over again has not been without some benefits. My extended family is always improving our training processes, and raising the standards of education we expect of our horses as they advance in a physical fitness program. Every endurance trainer struggles between the investment of time toward more refined training standards, and the rigors of a fitness program. With more effective training techniques we are able to set higher standards early, which leads to better efficiency later in the program. This integration is pivotal to raising the ceiling of performance. It’s not just about grinding workouts; it’s about working hard without sacrificing precision. It’s about eloquent sweat.

After a year and half invested in the therapy and retraining, Heraldic came out of the ordeal re-educated, more disciplined, and better prepared to train for fitness than ever.

The 2010 Old Dominion 100 was the first ride we attempted after his two year absence from the endurance scene. Just as in developing a new endurance horse, his fitness program to this time had favored certainty that his soundness durability had been fully developed. He was still not at peak physical performance, but like the Tevis, the Old Dominion tests fitness and a lot more. Heraldic at 90% fitness is still not shabby, and the Old Dominion is our home turf (rock and sauna). We were first place and BC by a modest margin.

Two weeks of rest after Old Dominion and then several cardio/muscular focused workouts had us physically right where I felt we needed to be for Tevis. Greyson had been on a similar work schedule all season, and was performing flawlessly, so he was the clear choice for an alternate. It takes a lot of investment of time and logistics to prepare for the Tevis from out of the region. It’s both practical and fairest to the horses not to put all that pressure on one horse.

To have Shannon Constanti ride Greyson, was a late opportunity offered by Linda Glaiser, who with Roger Yohe had been a trusted friend and gracious host in our Tevis adventures for several years. Heraldic is strong and focused to the end with or without company, so we had always performed in quiet solitary for most of our endurance races. I estimated that the rider weight difference between us would be a just enough of offset the very slight difference in the ability of the two horses, and that they would be very well matched together. I was determined to ride each horse to its own best advantage, but new that we just might be able to stay together all day.

I realized as I woke the morning of the Tevis that the high altitude temperature was freakishly warm. I knew that we were as well prepared for heat as anyone could be, so it only bolstered my confidence. The “new” Heraldic gave me the calmest, most disciplined start ever, so we warmed up and moved out with excellent early efficiency.

I never have as much concern about the competitive racing aspect of the challenge as most people would think. To me the day is simply an opportunity for a nature based test of training theories and techniques, and other riders in the field are simply providing welcomed additional benchmarks. I was a little concerned that I might be over-pacing when we pulled into Red Star Ridge only a few moments behind the leaders, but the horses pulsed faster than I could take a wiz, and we were on our way.

With careful regard to the low oxygen levels at that elevation we cruised along at a very conservative pace to Robinson Flat. These horses have trained at <15 mph paces through extended mountain grades, so the pace we held was comparatively lazy. The trail after Robinson Flat is dominated by gentle downgrades on fair footing. These are bone-jarring to horses that are not well educated for a controlled and collected ride, but they are an opportunity to demonstrate low stress “free mile” canters for the well prepared.

While the Western States Trail is often referred to as a tough and rugged course, I’d like to offer another perspective that better describes this tests value as a benchmark for horse and horsemanship. To simply say this is a tough course is really only a comparison, relative to the modern norm in endurance riding today. Against the whole of challenges in the evolution of horses and horsemanship, this test is not really such an extreme.

The Tevis race is really much more than just a grueling challenge. In fact, only a modest proportion of the 100 mile distance is really all that arduous. We spend a lot of our time in those more rugged sections of the course, but they are not really as large a part of the total miles of testing. It’s the complement of other parts of the course that offer different challenges, test different aspects, that make this course such a comprehensive assay. This is a FULL SPECTRUM test that considers many criterions. This creates potential for broad separation of the field of competitors. Great performances here don’t come by excellence in any one aspect, but by scoring not badly in EACH AND EVERY of many aspects.

The hot canyon lands passed smoothly. As always, I was much too focused on taking optimal care of my own horses to pay much attention to what the rest of the field might be doing. We passed through each vet station as efficiently as possible. We departed each check-point carrying out nibbles of food for the horses’ consumption elsewhere along the trail were the pause was more comfortable and effective. Hot and humid weather conditions are extremely critical of finer details about how the work is approached. Advantage goes to those that press on with care and reverence, and avoid the need to stop completely for rests, for this spoils the apparent breeze and compromises the efficiency of vascular circulation.

“Never Hurry, Never Tarry”-- Matthew Mackay-Smith

After showering away the high sierra and a change of clothes at Forest Hill, I did happen to ask “where is everybody else?” and was told by a member of the crew that the next horses where about half hour behind. This turned out to be incorrect. We later supposed that someone had miss-read across the lines of the leaderboard, and compared the next horses’ departure from Chicken Hawk, the previous vet station.

Leaving Forest Hill with gross misinformation of where the other horses in the field were really didn’t affect our pacing judgment. As I’ve said before, I ride to give my horses their optimum test result. The competitive placing is a secondary concern. Our horses were rolling for home smoothly, with plenty of untapped energy waiting at our request. It was simply a matter of getting them home for dinner at the healthiest hour.

No other riders showed up at Fransisco’s, and I didn’t think to ask if they had any statistical information. We lingered just a few moments extra for forage, and then moved on with more feed in hand as usual.

It wasn’t until we rode into Lower Quarry, when Dr. Fellers offered that we were three hours ahead of the next horse, did it occur to me that I might for once adjust my pace due to the competition. I reasoned that we were well poised for a notable finish, where a few minutes more or less would be forgotten. We basked in those last miles at “zero risk” pace, stopped to bath the horses for cleanliness in presentation more than cooling, and generally just allowed ourselves to enjoy the moonlight trail ride. Critiques about not holding a negative split pace, or boasting about completing the last leg faster than the winner really have no credibility when the front runners are so securely apart from the field of competition.

Since the 2010 Tevis, Heraldic has continued to be only wiser and stronger. We had a rare non-completion after he broke through a sub-surface hole at the AERC Championship, but he quickly recovered from that shoulder sprain. Early this year we comfortably turned out a 7:58 hr. winning hundred and BC in the sands of Florida, demonstrating the range of Heraldics athletic prowess, and making it clear that Heraldic is back, better than ever before.

A background of training toward FULL SPECTRUM tests like the Tevis leaves us confident and prepared over the earth’s full range of terrain and course profiles. We are currently fund-raising and training for a bid to represent the U.S.A. in the Pan-American Championship in October.

John Crandell III