Groom Creek Camping: Gear Assessment

A little late, since this happened back in April…but more for my own records and information purposes than anything.

While it wasn’t a ride weekend, we did manage to get 26 miles in over the course of three days, and a good array of different stuff used.

Saddle
I used the Frank Baines Reflex all three days and loved it. No back soreness for Liberty (with lots of walking, and some technical trail including a lot of step-downs), and very minimal soreness for me, which is good given I’m not in tip-top riding shape currently.

The second day I put my full sheepskin cover on it for a few reasons: a little extra cushion never hurt; I get a little more grip from it; protection of the saddle itself after a near-miss encounter with a boulder the previous day that scraped the heck out of my stirrup and barely avoided the saddle flap. My sheepskin isn’t new and super-fluffy anymore, so I didn’t notice a negative impact on the fit of the saddle for me.

The FB seems to fit Liberty well, although our technical downhills of day three had it sliding forward and hugging her neck…but given her low withers, I suspect that any saddle would have probably done that on that kind of trail. But crupper training and use will be on the menu in the future.

Saddle Pads
Day one, I used the Toklat Matrix Woolback with the Pro-Impact inserts. I’m still very agnostic about this pad…don’t love it, don’t hate it. Still hate how matted it gets after cleaning.

Day two and three, I switched to a sheepskin Fleeceworks pad. Oh, this thing is a cushioned luxury. I would sleep with it if I could. I love how the natural sheepskin repels the dirt, and it’s really easy to just brush off in-between days. It doesn’t have any extra inserts in it, but the sheepskin is a dense 1″ layer, and on a well-fitting saddle, I don’t know how much an additional foam insert layer is needed.

Stirrups
Used my Clouds on day one and two…love them, but they’re just so big and bulky. Switched back to the old standby EZ-Rides on day three and they were reliably fine. Might just end up sticking with them.

Girth
26″ is definitely the right length for her. I had one made from Hooves N Whiskers, custom colors of a black/natural twist mohair with orange mohair accents. My only complaint was the single d-ring for the breastcollar clip versus two rings, which meant I had to pay closer attention to making sure the ring was facing forward. Minor problem, but I’ll probably see about ordering future ones with two rings. I liked the felt backing behind the buckles — nice and flexible and breathable.

Boots
Liberty wore Renegade Vipers the whole time; size 140×135 on the front and 140×130 on the hinds. Day one, I used front boots only. Day two, I booted her all around, and day three, went back to just front boots — I’ve found that on an over-eager young horse, pulling boots off and forcing them to pay attention to their feet and the terrain can be a useful training tool. Day two and three, we crossed water/mud, and never had any problems.

Headgear
We started in her standard aluminum s-hackamore on day one and two. Day one she was great, day two was when she had her behavioral meltdown, and I re-assessed our methods of communication.

She really is very green still, and doesn’t have a firm grasp on flexion and giving to the bit. She has no idea what neck reining is, and tends to brace against a direct rein on the hackamore versus giving to it. She’s also apt to go behind the vertical, and has been fussy in the past about chain curb straps and “too much pressure.”

Given all of that, I opted for a fresh start on day three with a snaffle — specifically, a Myler loose ring, mouthpiece MB04, which is their answer to a three-piece snaffle, and designed to be a really good bit for green or inexperienced horses. I had consulted with her trainers at a prior ride on some of her early training history, and she had indeed been started in a snaffle and understood all of the direct rein basics.

Sure enough, with the bit installed, she was very responsive, was seeking out an active connection/contact (oh that’s what true contact versus leaning on the bit feels like…I’m looking at you, Mimi), very responsive, and I had a lot more effective communication with her. She might start a circle rigid, but then she would relax and give.

At the same time, she wasn’t this super-sensitive, flinchy, can’t-stand-contact, “don’t touch my mouth” kind of horse — I wasn’t afraid to pick up the reins and give her a correction as needed.

With both the s-hack and the bit, I used her Taylored Tack Convert-A-Bridle over her rope halter. I absolutely love the pieces of Taylored Tack I have acquired, and am slowly replacing old tack with new TT pieces.

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need to do something about the clashing oranges, though. time for a black rope halter.

Misc
I used front and rear Snugpax, which allowed me to carry three bottles of water plus plenty of snacks. After epic failing on day one to do much by way of taking care of myself (it’s only 10 miles, I don’t need to bother…), Kaity tasked me with getting back on track with regularly eating and drinking — “if you don’t built the habit during short rides, how are you supposed to remember about it on long rides?” — and I did much better on subsequent days.

Rider Gear
Love my Irideon Synergy tights and my FITS Techtread tights. Both are really comfortable, didn’t overheat, and durable. Like the full seat grip dots on the FITS, and the fact they’re a little less bulky than the kneepatches on the Irideons.

First long riding sessions with my Ariat MaxTrak boots. At first I wasn’t sure how I felt about them, but I swapped out the insoles for a pair of my running ones with more arch support, messed around with the laces, and ultimately was quite happy with how they felt. I like that they finally have more tread on them than the Terrains.

Dogs
Overall, the pups did great. They stayed on long high-lines/cable tie-outs in camp, and in the back of Kaity’s trailer in the shade when we were riding. They had their bed, their favorite red blanket from home, and I tried to stick to their feeding schedule/routine from home as much as possible.

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This was Artemis’s fourth camping trip, and Sofie’s first with me, although Sofie has been to endurance riders with her previous owners.

I would have liked to see both of them eat a little better — may have to experiment with finding something “special” to add to their kibble (wet food) for occasions like this. I always add fresh cooked chicken pieces to their kibble, but they did a marvelous job of picking out the chicken and leaving most of their kibble. So at least they were getting something. It’s not like they were doing high mileage or massive activity, though.

They got to do some on-leash exploring around the campground — massive granite boulder piles for them to climb and scamper around on.

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Foodstuffs
As I mentioned in my write-up, we ate well. Both Kaity and I like to cook and love food. Breakfasts were things like breakfast burritos, pancakes, sausage, chia pudding, and fresh fruit salad. Lunches were on-the-go snacking in the saddle, the usual suspects of protein bars, energy gels, fruit squeezies, energy chews, and similar.

I figured out that Huma Chia energy gels are the best. They’re made with real fruit puree + chia seeds, so don’t have the cooked-in-a-chemistry-lab taste that many of the gels have. ClifFood and Fuel for Fire squeeze pouches are both excellent. Trader Joe’s Apple-Coconut bars are very palatable and inoffensive just about any time.

And dinner…we had fun with dinners, especially campfire cooking. Not all of it turned out perfect…the cheese bread was a little overdone in parts, and the cobbler under-done in parts, but all imminently edible and delicious. And it’s camping cooking, not a 5-star restaurant. ;)

Baby Steps

I’ve made mention here and there in some posts and touched on some of my own personal fear issues + riding, and how it’s something I’ve really battled since the very beginning of my riding days. I think it’s a cyclical thing, generally ushered in by “something bad” happening (usually a parting of the ways with the horse), and then fading away as “nothing bad” happens for a while.

As much as I would dearly love to just completely vanquish this fear and have it completely go away, I don’t know if that will ever happen…I don’t think it’s in my psychological makeup to be that ballsy and fearless about anything.

But at the same time, I’m also tired of being so careful and cautious that I’m letting that fear control me. This particular cycle seems particularly deep-seated and insidious, and I’ve had enough.

Apparently Mimi had enough, too, last weekend, when she mutinied on yet another session of nice “safe” arena work with some very clear and pointed body language that said “I’m over this.” Once we exited the arena, she took matters into her own hooves and marched us straight down the driveway to the property gate and stood there until I reached over and unlatched the gate, which she promptly shoved open, walked through, and then nudged closed again.

So riding out around the neighborhood at any place I’ve boarded at has never been my favorite thing to do in life. Some early on bad experiences such as parting ways with the pony and going skidding across the pavement left an impression (and ruined my favorite shirt) that’s been hard to shake, and I have a hard time relaxing in that setting. Give me real trail any day.

But around the neighborhood is the most feasible option right now…and what better way to start tackling the fear cycle currently set to “on” than something that historically makes me uncomfortable?

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Overall, the roads are pretty quiet around the barn, and most of them have wide dirt shoulders with lots of room to move over, and 95% of the drivers are polite and courteous. (And for the other 5%? Well, the pony isn’t phased by traffic and vehicles, fortunately.)

Last Sunday was particularly quiet. It was still early, and the skies were overcast, with slightly-lower-than-normal temperatures. With traffic non-existent, it was the perfect opportunity to move out a little bit — Mimi is far less prone to “look” at stuff when we’re trotting along. Only at one point, she got it in her head that she needed to practice to be a Top Ten Tevis horse, a la “cantering through the streets of Foresthill,” and started cantering when I wouldn’t let her power trot.

Ummmm…okay, then. Guess there’s a reason I put boots on her.

We didn’t go far — all of a couple of miles — but as the post title suggests, baby steps. Even those couple of miles served as a confidence booster.

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And today, I was willing to try it again. We didn’t even look at the arena…just went jogging in-hand straight down the driveway, mounted up outside the gate, and struck out down the street…where we made it all of 100 yards before she had to dramatically startle-and-spook-in-place because…horses in the pasture trotted over to the fence.

{sigh}

Actually, points to me because all I did was laugh. I did not turn into a clutching monkey, I did not get all control-freak rein-grabby, I did not get scared. I called her a couple of names, tapped her with my heels, and moved on down the street.

We did some nice, purposeful trotting down the street, explored a aside street we hadn’t been on in a while, chased a vulture and its precious roadkill prize, and worked on the pony power-walk.

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vulture + roadkill in the distance

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do we care about things like storm drains and flowing irrigation canals? nope. just other horses/animals.

Last weekend, I had also pulled out my old Big Horn saddle. It started life as our gymkhana/barrel saddle, then migrated over to be our initial trail saddle. After one too many “ribs meet saddle horn” incidents, I sawed off the horn, wrapped the pommel in leather, and led a much happier existence when it came to climbing hills.

Funny thing, though…I’ve never loved this saddle. I always felt like the twist was uncomfortably wide for me…never mind we managed around 200 competition miles, between NATRC and LD endurance rides, plus upteen training miles…and it’s never made Mimi sore. I was never brave enough to try a 50 in it, despite messing with things like swapping out the original fenders for more flexible biothane ones, and trying to make it as comfortable as possible for me.

But it’s also the saddle that lives down at the barn. Since the tack room is a large metal box, it gets ridiculously hot in there, and I don’t feel like storing my really nice leather saddles in that. I’m also out of room for any more saddle storage at the house, so it’s the Big Horn’s luck that it gets to live down at the barn as my “spare” saddle for when I don’t feel like toting one of the others back and forth.

But it’s also the saddle that has never done me wrong. In all the years I’ve owned it…my butt has stayed Velcro’d to it. And right now, I could use that little bit of mental confidence.

So last week, the Big Horn got pressed back into service…with my knees reminding me the whole time of how much I hate the regular Western fenders, and Mimi not loving the Western cinch set-up. A bit of garage rummaging, plus a quick blitz through Riding Warehouse, and this weekend, the Big Horn got another makeover:

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Biothane English billets to replace the standard Western cinch set-up, which allows me to use one of her preferred mohair girths, and fenders replaced with thin, flexible Zilco English leathers covered in sheepskin fleeces were the two big changes I made. I need to remember to bring one of my fleece seat covers, though, since that seat is not particularly cushy.

Interesting to note: the twist no longer feels as wide as it used to. Theorizing that the last time I spent a significant amount of time in this saddle, I weighed about 50 pounds more than I do now. In dropping the weight, I also dropped inches…all around…so it’s entirely possible that losing a bit of the thigh spread has given me more room to more comfortably sit in the saddle.

Just changing the fenders out made for a much more comfortable ride today, and I found myself actually enjoying riding in that saddle. Yet I don’t feel too guilty leaving it down at the barn, so that’s one less thing I have to lug back and forth.

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snoozy girl

And for another “go figure” moment: turns out Mimi loves the Myler pelham with the reins set on the lower curb setting. She’s super-soft, responsive, doesn’t fight against it at all, and didn’t protest in the slightest when I asked that she not jig home when vehicles were passing us. Okay, then. Didn’t think a pelham versus kimberwick would be that big of a difference, but apparently in Pony World…it is.

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And finally, if there’s another equine on this planet that makes as much of a mess of their electrolytes as this one…I have yet to meet them. Pretty sure she got maybe 40% of the dose, and the rest ended up on her face, her legs, the ground, my hands, my hair (euw), the barn dog, the barn chickens…you get the idea.

So that’s two productive weekends. Maybe not productive in the traditional sense of “look at all the miles we rode”, etc…but productive for me, with where I’m at in life right now and some of the things I have to address. This isn’t going to happen with leaps and bounds or overnight progress…but proactively taking even baby steps in the right direction is still better than sitting around just hoping something changes on its own.

It’s funny…when I got her, Mimi was the pony I needed for me at the time…and 20 years later, she’s still being the pony I need for me right now. I am so, so fortunate to have gotten my Heart Horse right off the bat, and to have her be able to slide into whatever role I’ve needed at whatever time. She is truly my once in a lifetime horse, with a spot in my heart that is permanently hers.

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So, rather shockingly, I realized I have actually managed a at-least-one-post-per-month streak on this blog since August of 2011…and that a week out from the end of June, I was in danger of breaking that streak.

I just haven’t had much to blog about.

It’s been hot here…although that’s not really a newsflash, this is summer in Arizona after all. Rather amusingly, the weather “forecasters” have been doing all kinds of hand-wringing predictions of “unusually high heat waves” (no, actually, we regularly hit 115° here in June, thanks), practically salivating over the idea of us “hitting new record temps”…and then it’ll fall two to three degrees short of what they’re predicting.

(Yes, mentally, there’s a big difference between 115° and 111°.)

So when it’s this hot, I really don’t ride. Even the Go Pony prefers to hang out in her shaded stall with her fan, and the barn owner who goes through a couple times a day and sprays them with the hose, and turnout at night when the sun doesn’t bake them.

Also not too inclined to get the running miles in. I try to be up between 4:30 and 5 in the morning to get out the door with the dogs while the weather is quasi-passable (85° and the sun isn’t up high enough to start cooking us yet) but even then, it’s hard to get more than a couple of miles in.

This is called summer hibernation, and it happens pretty much every year. It makes for good endurance heat conditioning, if you have certain plans on the ride calendar that call for heat conditioning…but if not, it’s a really good excuse to stay inside, hug the air conditioning, and dream of when it was cold enough to justify wearing more clothing than just running shorts and a tank top.

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got to head up to Zion, and slightly cooler temperatures, earlier in the month

Groom Creek Horse Camping Girl’s Weekend

Back in February at the AERC Convention, Kaity and I put our heads together and decided we needed to get together more often. We generally manage to get together at least once a year, but that also tends to revolve around more stressful events such as riding or crewing Tevis — not always the most relaxing environment — or at another ride. Rarely have we had the chance to just hang out and relax, with no major agenda or schedule to follow.

The idea of horse camping was brought up — somewhere that would be a little cooler, up in the mountains somewhere — and we settled on Groom Creek Horse Camp in Prescott, AZ, the second weekend in May. Kaity also very generously offered to take the driving route that would go through Kingman so that she could pick up and bring Liberty down for me.

Prep started the weekend before, because horse camping in my world means a ton of stuff. Not only for myself, and the horse…but the Decker duo would also be joining us, since horse camp isn’t complete without canine mascots. This would be Artemis’s 4th camping trip, and while Sofie has been to rides with her previous owners, this would be her first trip with me.

Saddle pads were washed, tack and gear was sorted, dog blankets and beds were packed, a new air mattress procured, and a cartful of food from Trader Joe’s purchased. Camping box sorted through and restocked, bedding packed, and dogs washed after Sofie tried to roll in something dead. (A futile gesture, though, since she spent as much time as she could wallowing in the dirt at the campsite. Farm dog.)

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so much stuff…and that’s not all of it

Prescott is only a couple hour drive for me, so I headed out early afternoon. The most eventful part of the drive was the fact that Sofie hyperventilated/panted the whole way (not world’s most happy traveler, that one…), and roughly two and a half hours later (hello, Prescott traffic) I pulled in to the Groom Creek site.

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Driving through Mayer, Bradshaw Mountains ahead. Groom Creek is on the back side of this range.

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Artemis sleeps, while Sofie looks less than impressed. 

I love the final stretch back in to Groom Creek…twisty, turning mountain road through the trees. It’s not that far out of town at all — maybe 20 minutes — but you just feel like you’re getting away from everything once you’re there.

The campground hosts gave me directions for where our site was located (37 sites on 3 small loops…hard to get lost here), and I made my way back to what turned out to be a lovely, spacious site perched right on the top of the hill, overlooking a small ravine/drainage area. A good scattering of trees provided shade on a good part of the site, there was a decent area to set up my behemoth monster of a tent (theoretically fits 10 people…or one person and two terriers), and although it was slightly less convenient to have the picnic table and fire ring a bit of a distance from the parking loop of the site, it also meant the horses weren’t right up next to the campfire.

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monster tent

The only unfortunate part? The bathrooms (vault toilets…that really needed a good pumping out…euw…my only major complaint of the weekend) were down the road…down the hill. Umm, yay for hillwork? Were were equidistant between two hose bibs, and the campground-provided wheelbarrows (for hauling trash and manure to the dumpsters) made it easy to haul water jugs over to be filled up.

Kaity would be arriving later, so I used the time to set up what I could — my tent, the dogs’ tie ropes and high-lines, and my part of the camp kitchen and other miscellaneous stuff. I took the dogs for a walk around the whole campground (which meant deterring all of the loose dogs people had running around on their sites…apparently people think the edict of “dogs must be leashed at all times” means only when they’re walking around the campground…having one dog that is overly friendly and one dog that is space defensive makes me very cranky when I have to deal with other people’s off-leash dogs…) and got to take a good look at all of the campsites available, to be filed away for future camping endeavors.

Kaity pulled in around 9, and we got the ponies (my Liberty and her Ani) unloaded and settled — Libby in the 16×16 campsite corral, and Ani on Kaity’s trailer hi-tie — with hay, water, and Kaity’s special recipe beet pulp sloppy mashes. (Liberty is learning one of the perks along the road to Becoming A Real Endurance Horse: delicious extra food other than subsisting on just hay.)

Once the equines were taken care of, Kaity whipped up a quick and delicious dinner of orange chicken with couscous and snow peas, and built up my start of a little campfire into a nice, toasty warm bonfire. The small indulgences of horse camping vacation versus competition weekends…the time to cook really good meals, enjoy adult beverages, and no set time clock, schedule, or plan other than “have fun.”

We munched on chicken, drank beer, and started in on what would be a weekend-long exchange of war stories, ideas, and the utter rabbit-trail randomness that happens every time we get together, while the dogs diligently guarded us from the vicious attack deer that were moving along the hillside below us.

Artemis + Sofie: “Grrr. Grrrrrrrrr. Barkbarkbark. Grrrrrrr. Woof.”
Me: <Oh, great, there’s probably a bear out there.>
Kaity: “What’s out, there, huh? Something interesting? Shall we see?”
Me: <She’s gonna get eaten by a bear.>
Artemis + Sofie: “Grrrr. Grrrrrr. Grrrrrrrrrrr.”
Kaity: “Hey, look at all those eyes!”
Me: <We’re all gonna get eaten by bears. *drink*>
Kaity: “Aww, look at all those deer. Bambi and his five best friends came out to play.”
Artemis + Sofie: “Bark. Barkbarkbark. Woof. Wooooooooooofffff. And some more grrrrrrrrrr for good measure.”
Me: “Good girls, protect us from attack Bambi.”

It was late by the time the campfire burned down, and starting to get chilly, so we headed off to our respective beds. As is standard for me, first nights anywhere are always a little restless, but I countered the worst of it with the help of some melatonin tabs. Throughout the night I could hear Liberty shuffling and pacing — the scrape of her hoof as she worked on an excavation project, the clang of the corral gate as she’d bump the fence, and the chewing of hay, since not even some anxiety over being in a new place stops her from eating.

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view from my tent first thing in the morning

The girlies are early risers at home, and true to form, started shuffling around once it started getting light out…sorry, girlies, but 5:30 in a vacation morning isn’t happening! Go back to bed! They did, and I went back to bed until around 7:30, when we finally crawled out into the bright but still a bit chilly morning.

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Sofie communing with Libby — who has historically not always liked dogs

Since it had been dark when Kaity pulled in, the trailer set-up wasn’t 100% ideal, so we quickly did some vehicle and rig shuffling around while camp was still empty (per the camp hosts, it would be full all weekend starting Friday), then started the morning off right with fresh French press coffee and a breakfast of an egg scramble with sausage, mushrooms, tomatoes, peppers, cheese, and avocado, with tortillas on the side (or as a breakfast burrito like I did).

After breakfast, it was time to do what we had come to do: ride!

The goal for the day was the Groom Creek Loop, a 9.7-mile loop that climbs from 6200′ at the campground/trailhead up to the lookout tower at 7600′, and back down again. It’s single-track 98% of the way, has enough technical to make a green horse pay attention, but still safe as long as they have some trail sense. It had been probably at least 10 or 11 years since I had last ridden there, and I was battling a fire-breathing pony the whole time, but I remember it was really pretty and very interesting.

Liberty was very “up”, more so than I’m used to seeing at rides, so I decided to hand-walk her through camp, and up the first 3/4 of a mile of the trail around the campground, through the trailhead, and up the Groom Creek Loop trail a little ways before mounting up. Once in the saddle, she was settled enough to lead out, and we very quickly started a game of leapfrog of who would lead and who would follow. Yay for green horse brain training!

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getting ourselves sorted out before mounting

The trail starts climbing almost immediately, just winding its way up the side of the mountain, opening every so often to some incredible vistas and views. The footing is still pretty nice in this section, so we would trot where we could, walk where it was necessary.

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and away we go!

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beautiful views!

Partway up the climb, we encountered some people who were hiking with their dog…and a pack llama.

I’ve only encountered llamas once before on horseback, and they were behind a fence and still managed to cause mass hysteria among the group of horses I was riding with. (For the record, Mimi was alarmed but curious, and just wanted to stare at them.) Historically, llamas manage to cause concern at the very least among most horses, and I had no clue if Libby had ever even seen a llama before.

Discretion being the better part of valor (it’s bad form to die on the first day of your riding vacation), as well as the fact we were on a single track trail with drop offs, I jumped off and lead her in hand past the llama. Fortunately, we were at a spot where they had a clear area they could step aside.

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climbing!

And it was a total non-issue. (With both horses.) I think Liberty was more interested in the Golden Retriever. Go figure…but better safe than sorry. Once we passed, I hopped back on at the next convenient mounting rock, and we scuttled up the trail, pausing every so often to let the ponies grab a bite of nice green mountain grass.

At the top of the mountain, we took a few minute break to grab a snack and visit the vault restroom, and from there, it was a fun four miles downhill back to camp. Liberty did some great footwork on some of the technical/step-down obstacles, and for the most part, I stayed out of her way and provided support, but tried to let her make her own smart trail decisions.

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d’you love our matching hers-n-hers bays with orange tack? Ani’s more of a bright bay to Libby’s dark bay, but the close matchiness was pretty amusing…

 

We had some impressive reining horse sliding stop moments when she spooked at some of the trail traffic — fortunately, her head comes up and she skids to a stop, so it’s pretty easy to stay with.

The loop itself might be around 9.7 miles, but with leaving on the trail out from the horse camp, and by the time we got back, it put us at 10.5 miles. Excellent start to the weekend! While we didn’t have specific goals, I thought it might be nice to try to get 25+ miles over the course of the trip.

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Once the ponies were untacked and settled in with more sloppy mashes, it was happy hour time for us…hard root beer, caprese salad skewers, crackers, chips, and onion dip to munch on while we chatted, then started working on dinner.

True to “we’re having an enjoying and relaxing camping trip and going to take our time making nice meals” form, the menu for the evening called for me grilling tri-tip steak, Kaity made mashed potatoes and a salad, and then I did a campfire blueberry cobbler for dessert. Another nice campfire hangout time (no visiting Bambi), and then off to bed.

Saturday morning, the pups once again tried to convince me to get up early, but were persuaded to lay low until around 7. We did our standard morning routine of visiting the bathroom, the rock outcroppings for them to explore, then back up to the campsite to throw the Hungry Hungry Hippo some more hay while I cleaned her corral, and then attempted to give her a touch-up rasping on her hooves.

Actually, I was hoping for a more thorough trim, but touch-up was all I got, since she was in a mood for hoof handling, and I wasn’t getting enough cooperation for in-depth trimming. Oh, and I attempted all of this before my morning coffee.

Once Kaity was up, coffee was procured, and we set to the task of map reading and figuring out a route for the day. We ended up plotting out a course that would take us south of the horse camp, down to the Hassayampa Creek, and along the way, have some off-shoot trails for potential exploring.

 

After breakfast, the wind started picking up, and some fairly ominous-looking clouds started building in the distance. May is when monsoons start happening, especially in the mountains, and I crossed my fingers that this wouldn’t turn into the fourth camping trip in a row in which I got rained on. (Mostly because I hate having to set up and dry out the wet tent back at home.)

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Please go away, clouds…fortunately for me, they never actually produced any rain, but kept things really pleasant, temperature-wise

We saddled up and headed out…and I knew almost right away that I was going to be in for A Day with the mare. Back to back days are, I suspect, something of a novel concept to her, and she felt uptight and edgy, like she was just looking for an excuse to blow up. That’s always a fun feeling on a green horse I still don’t know all that well (since, let’s recap, this was actually only my 6th ride on her…) and don’t entirely know her reactions.

We had a few “hmmm, which way?” moments where we weren’t 100% positive which forest road would get us to the original direction we had planned, so we scrapped that plan and followed the more readily-marked route.

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There was quite a bit of trail traffic out — it was a Saturday, and it was a multi-use trail that allowed hikers, bikes, horses, and off-road vehicles like quads and dirt bikes, so the horses had some good exposure to other trail users.

We paused for a brief stop at a little tiny creek where Ani drank, and people (okay, me, having gotten the “stern voice” from Kaity the previous day over my lapse in taking good care of myself along the way) drank/ate/electrolyted.

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One of my S-Caps electrolytes had broken open when I grabbed it, so I was trying to convince Liberty to lick the salt from my hand. Didn’t really work…

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Kaity luvs her pony (all 16+hh of him…)

The next section of trail was lovely, some nice single-track through the trees (where we passed a very cute mountain biker, and I almost regret not stopping and getting his phone number… ;) ) and up onto some wide open forest roads that allowed for some trotting.

At one point, the trail paralleled the Hassayampa Creek, and we were able to go down at one of the road crossings and let the horses drink. And drink. And drink. One of Liberty’s virtues is no matter how uptight or nervous she is, she reliably eats, drinks, pees, and poops along the trail and under saddle.

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Once off the forest roads, the trail went back to some lovely single track, mostly uphill back to camp. We had another stream crossing, and then were at the trail junction from earlier in the day.

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We were almost to the trail turnoff that would take us back to camp when we had an equine brain melt experience. There was a Polaris-type ATV approaching us from the front, and a dirt bike coming up behind us. Normally, Libby really doesn’t care — she’s used to off-road vehicles all around the ranch — but she was still on edge and I suspect the stimulation was a bit much.

 

We walked past the ATV, then pulled over and had the dirt bike slowly pass by us. All was well, and we almost immediately turned down the trail to go back to camp, only to have Ani, and then Libby, pause to pee in tandem. And then when we walked over Ani’s pee spot, that was the final straw and big mare pitched an epic temper tantrum fit. It felt like she wanted to simultaneously buck, rear, bolt and spin all in one move…and given my past history of several different horses who could essentially pull off that maneuver, that’s what my panicky little squirrel brain immediately went to, and I reverted to my “cling like a mollusk” mode…and then as soon as I could get her to stop dancing and throwing her fit for two seconds, off I bailed.

I was really close to one of my “angry because I’m scared” reactions in response (because that’s always helpful…) when Kaity wisely intervened. She’s started and worked with a number (at least half a dozen) green horses, and is a way braver rider than I am, so she handed me Ani’s reins, hopped up into the saddle, and proceeded to give Liberty the firm but quiet schooling session that she really needed.

I’ve ridden some very sensitive but reactive horses in the past, the kind that you had to handle with kid gloves lest they explode, and so that has become my default reaction to handling naughtiness and misbehavior.

Kaity schooled Liberty the whole way (maybe a mile?) back to camp on not jigging, walking politely, and not throwing her little temper tantrums because she isn’t getting her way.

I have to take a moment here to gush about and admire Kaity and her riding. There was no drama on her part, just a firm, quiet, low-key response with lots of circles, walking away from camp, walking back politely, more circles when she wanted to rush or jig, following behind Ani, leading, and back and forth. She set a really, really good example for me, and was able to give me a really good read on Liberty’s temperament and misbehavior.

And as a credit to her, Ani was a gentleman and took complete care of me in my fragile, “feeling like a failure because I’m never going to be able to cope with anything other than my trained pony” depressed and emotional mental state.

The good news? Kaity’s assessment of Liberty was “she’s got a good brain, she’s smart, and she’s very uncommitted to her bad behavior.” My biggest worry was when she was crowhopping that it might escalate into her going up into a full rear, but Kaity was convinced that her temper tantrums were just that — low-grade tantrums without a whole lot of commitment behind them; basically, a kid acting out and looking for guidance.

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Liberty getting a schooling session from Kaity

We managed 8 miles, although I suspect some of that was Libby’s extra circles and schooling session.

Back at camp, it was another round of happy hour snacks + drinks, and after looking at the clock and the amount of daylight still left, decided to take the dogs out for a hike (they spent the day while we were riding in the back of Kaity’s trailer where they had their bed, blanket, water, fluffy shavings, shady…and the coolest spot in the whole camp). We did a loop out and around the horse camp, and probably got in 3 miles or so.

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evening in camp

Dinner that evening was my homemade vodka marinara meat sauce with pasta, salad, and campfire cheesy bread…and lots of discussion about green horses, riding, dealing with fear, effectiveness of riding and a whole myriad of related topics.

The wind kicked up overnight, and off and on through the night I could hear parts of the rain fly on my tent thwapping in response. Great, just what we need. Wind. Because that’s great for keeping horses calm. (And that right there is a really good example of my “looking for trouble” thinking I have to break. Because that is the kind of thinking horses end up picking up on, and they’re really good at then providing you with self-fulfilling prophecies.)

During breakfast, we discussed our trail options and opted to go for a repeat of most of the Groom Creek Loop, but to explore one of the cutoff trails shown on the map for something different instead of going all the way to the lookout tower.

I’ll freely admit: I was really scared to get started that morning. When I went in to the tent to change, I sat down on my mattress and just started crying. I hate the part of me that is overrun by fear and anxiety, that thinks of worst-case scenarios and threatens panic attacks…and that threatens to interfere with something I love to do.

But the thought of not doing this anymore, of not pursuing and fulfilling my long-held dreams, is even more unbearable. So I put on my tights and half chaps, filled my water bottles, and (shhh, don’t tell, it’s my secret weapon…) took a tiny little nip of whiskey.

(Seriously…not condoning drinking + working around horses. It was less than half a mouthful, but more of the mental placebo effect than anything.)

One of the things Kaity had told me about what how “mentally visual” horses are, and in her experience, they can sense “thought bubbles” that we have…so try to think and project happy, positive images when you’re around the horse, as well as try to carry on a normal conversation with them. (I do this all the time with the pony, so I’m not sure why it doesn’t transfer over to working with other horses.)

Another change we did was to switch her from her s-hackamore to a snaffle. Libby’s still too green to use an s-hack properly — doesn’t neck rein, still needs more direct lateral pull, doesn’t bend or give well when asked, and seems to overly react to too many point of contact. At the same time, Kaity said she was seeking out some kind of contact, so the Myler snaffle I had with me would allow me to take up steady and consistent guidance and contact, without the multiple points of pressure and contact that come from a curb device such as the s-hack.

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mare models her bit set-up

And finally, I was going back to my show days of pre-riding lunging. Not all the way back to “stand back and let them yeehaw on the line”, but more than “three courtesy stretch circles and you’re done.” There was a nice sandy open spot in front of the bathrooms, so after the ponies were tacked up, we traipsed down there and I put Liberty to work trotting circles for a good ten minutes. Several changes of direction, asking her to listen to me and stay engaged, but maintain the steady trot work that slowly bleeds of pressure and puts them in a working frame of mind.

We hand-walked through camp, across to the trailhead, and I mounted up and we set off down the trail. Kaity had also instructed me on making some changes to my riding position…and the changes she had me make are the missing puzzle piece I’ve been searching for on my own for a number of years. I had been mistakenly adopting too much of a chair seat, thinking that was the key to trying to stay centered, but in reality, it was tipping me back too much, not letting me put leg on the horse, and being countered with my tendency to then hunch my upper body.

Implementing Kaity’s suggestions immediately had me feeling balanced, centered…and much braver. I also consciously kept light but consistent contact on my reins, since I have a tendency to get lazy and let the contact drop, and made sure I was mentally engaged and actively riding for success.

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leading out…Brave New World

It was a 180° change from the previous day. Liberty was alert, but moving out well (really well…she discovered she can do more than a 2.5mph molasses crawl walk!) and responding to the contact and direction. We did some leapfrogging off and on, although the nice thing about leading was having Kaity behind me reminding me to keep my shoulders back, chest up, heels down.

Near the top of the mountain we stopped for a quick breather and mental break (and snack break) for both me and Libby before continuing on to our turnoff trail, which looked like an old mining trail, and it obviously hadn’t been maintained for a few years based on the amount of deadfall trees and obstacles. It was true trail riding at its core — going up and around on re-routes, stepping through multiple logs, lots of navigation, and so much brain work for the horses…and a pretty intense trust-building exercise for a green horse and her scaredy-cat rider.

 

I was so proud of how well Liberty held it together…we were following Ani (like most horses, she feels more vulnerable being the one in the back, and can be sensitive to the idea of things jumping her from behind), there was some very technical trail obstacles, we were going downhill on a pretty good grade, and to top it off, the saddle was threatening to slide up on her ears and I’m sure it wasn’t particularly comfortable. (She will definitely be a crupper horse.)

At the bottom, we were rewarded with finding a little creek, and there was enough space for us to lead the horses in one and a time and let them drink and eat some lovely green grass.

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Ani at the creek

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very happy for the water break

After that, it was a good climb back to to where we re-connected with the Groom Creek Loop trail, which would be repeat trail from Friday, heading home. Aka “ripe for another green horse tantrum.” But no time like the present to nip her behavior in the bud and get in a schooling session.

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climbing up and out from the creek

She actually did really well for the first mile or so on the repeat trail, and then couldn’t stand it…had to start throwing a little jigging hissy fit. At which point I turned her off the trail, and asked for some circles around the closest tree, and around some bushes. Once she offered a relaxed neck and relaxed walk, she was given the opportunity to continue in the “home” direction. If she rushed, she got to do some more circles until she was ready to walk nicely again, and then we could continue on.

That did the trick for the next mile and half, and then she started getting snorty and amped. (She give you warning, at least…she does these little snorts as she goes along…one or two snorts is “I’m relaxed and having a good time” but consecutive small snorts is a precursor to “I wanna go and if you don’t let me I’ll throw a tantrum.”

The last half a mile or so, she got more and more wound up, and we ended up pausing and taking about ten minutes to do some slow, deliberate schooling of circles and serpentines over and around some convenient logs. We also took a more circuitous route around to return to the trailhead, so right about the time she thought, “Oh yeah, we’re back”, we continued on for another quarter mile for a total of an 8.5 mile loop.

All in all, couldn’t have asked for a better counter to the previous day. I was actually glad she acted up towards the end, as I was able to implement Kaity’s suggestions, and realize that I can handle her, that I do know what I’m doing, and am capable of doing this.

Afternoon back at camp was definitely a celebratory happy hour, with delicious fresh melon, cheese, lunchmeat, chips, onion dip, and the ubiquitous hard root beers. It was also warm(ish) enough for me to briefly brave using the sun shower to scrape off several days of dirt (baby wipes just aren’t the same), although with the still-blowing wind, it was cold. But being clean was worth it.

Our final wrap-up dinner that night was “clean out the cooler salad” — I made a big salad with baby greens, romaine lettuce, tomatoes, mushrooms, mozzarella and feta cheeses, croutons, bacon bits, bell peppers, avocado, and topped with the leftover tri-tip cut into thin slices, and Kaity made a side of a broccoli and cheese macaroni.

We did a big roaring bonfire to use up most of the firewood, stayed up way late with discussions over a thousand and one different topics, and finally headed off to bed when the temperatures dropped enough that the fire wasn’t even enough to keep us warm.

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campfire

That night was the only night I was really cold — I keep forgetting that the fuzzy acrylic socks don’t actually do any good on cold camping nights, and keep bringing them with me. Plus, it was cold enough that the air in the air mattress was chilly — in the future, I will further insulate the mattress by putting a foam layer between the mattress and the bed sheet. (Since it’s nearly impossible to fit one person and two dogs into a standard-sized sleeping bag, I opted for the route of putting bed sheets on the air mattress, and unzipping the sleeping bag into more of a comforter. It worked really well, especially with the bed-and-blanket-hog pups.)

Monday morning was pack up time…got the camp all cleaned up and put to rights, ponies loaded right up in Kaity’s trailer, she headed out, and I followed just a few minutes behind her. Heading home, Sofie settled within about half an hour, and both dogs slept the whole way home. Since I was coming home on a week day, I didn’t hit the standard Sunset Point traffic on I-17, and made it home in two and half hours with plenty of time to unpack the vehicle, get stuff put away, and start getting back into the swing of things.

It’s been a while since I’ve been horse camping just for fun, and this trip was one of the most invaluable learning experiences I’ve had for a very long time in my entire horse career. I learned some tools that will carry me forward, not just for this horse but for all future horses, I squared off with some of my own personal demons and beat them back, and I had a blast getting to spend several days with one of my best friends.

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