competitive trail riding · gmha

Volunteering at a Competitive Trail Ride

On Sunday, I spent the day volunteering to take pulse and respiration at their spring 15 mile mud ride. I’m always up for learning new things and volunteering at horse events, and Hannah had come up from Massachusetts to volunteer at the ride to learn more about the sport, so I went along with!

We arrived a few minutes before the riders left, and were taught how to take pulse using a stethoscope and to count respiration by watching the horse’s flank. I picked up the knack of listening for a pulse pretty quickly, though the heartbeats were both quieter and slower than I had expected. Respiration was much harder! It took an immense amount of concentration and focus to watch a horse’s flank and discern an actual breath as opposed to huffing, or quivering, or just shifting weight. I was not expecting that to be the trickiest part.

Riders set off not long after we arrived, at about 9:45, the four drivers first and then riders in 2-3 minute intervals.

Rider staging area looking down toward the barns.
Riders setting off.

After they set off we were briefed a little more fully on the mechanics of doing p&r and met our fellow volunteers – in yet another indication of just how small the Vermont horse world is, one of our fellow volunteers worked at my college (in another part of the state) and knew many of the same people I did.

The hold was all ready with buckets of water for cooling out, larger tubs for drinking, and some people had come ahead and left hay for their horses. Everyone at the hold had brought their dog, it seemed, and the pack played around for a while until the first horses arrived and then we got down to business.

Drivers watering their horses soon after arriving.

I got to do the p&r on the first riding horse that came in, a very professional little chestnut Arab who was hardly winded and way at the front of the ridden pack. Horses came in a few at a time, and then there was a great rush as many came in at the same time. I didn’t quite have the knack of approaching riders and talking to them – I kept feeling like I was interfering, though that was clearly the way to do things! I tended to haunt the edges and wait until a horse and rider pair looked like they were ready, then volunteer myself.

Hold area getting busier!

At one point while we were waiting, one rider who had pulled her horse up due to a sudden onset lameness invited me to p&r her horse, who was out of the competition but was a tricky horse to get a heartbeat on because he had an atrioventricular block – a heart murmur, basically. A normal heartbeat has two parts, lub-dub; this horse would have 4-5 regular heartbeats and then a lub with no second half, followed by a long pause, and then lub-dub normally again. It was disconcerting to listen to, and I’m sure the rider was very used to explaining it to people, as if I hadn’t known what I was about to hear I would have been seriously confused.

Riders jogging their horses out for the vet check at the hold.

Once the trickle of riders slowed down, we were among the first to hop in the car and get back to the starting area, where riders had 20 minutes to get their horses’s p&r back to acceptable levels. There was no disqualifying pulse, but anything over 42 beats per minute meant they lost points, and any “inverted” respiration (ie anything more than once a second) meant we had to call the vet.

Again, I was not great at seeking people out, but I did enjoy the horses I worked on. One man who was clearly very serious about his final check out asked me to come into the stall with the horse several minutes before he was due, and he stood with the horse’s head in the back corner, talking to it and stroking it, while I talked to him as well to get the horse used to me. He was also apparently a bit picky about who did the check; I’m not sure what qualified me, but I liked talking to him and his horse was lovely and exceptionally well-behaved, so I was fine with it.

After the horses got their p&r checked at 20 minutes, they had to report in to a vet check, where they jogged out in a line and in a circle, had their backs palpated, and the vet did a general check-over that included listening to gut sounds. I’ve seen less involved annual physicals – it was really impressive!

Final vet check,; the chestnut is having its back palpated.

When we’d done all the p&rs we could find, we turned in our supplies and sat down for the competitor lunch, which was fantastic. I’d let myself get hungrier than I thought and absolutely demolished a huge plate of food – I nearly fell asleep on the drive home as all the adrenaline crashed at the same time all the food started  digesting!

Overall, it was a great learning experience and a really terrific community of riders to work with. I’d do it again in a hearbeat!

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