My Favorite Things: Rides

My Favorite Things: A series of my favorite things of different categories, less formal than a review and more conversational musings. Everything from rides, to tack, to food, to apparel, all following a “Top Three” format. Also, because I’m me, and I’m known for changing my perspective and opinion of such things as favorites from year to year, some of these topics may end up revisited…more than once.

It was hard for me to narrow down my favorite rides, especially limiting myself to the Top Three. I can pretty easily narrow down two…but that third one I just may have to leave as a “rotating space” for now.

Virginia City 100 (Sept 2017)
It’s probably my favorite ride to date, even with not finishing. Yes, that’s how good everything else was to basically negate the Overtime pull. It’ll always be special because it was my first 100-miler attempt. It was a leap of faith, with an uncertain outcome, and I’m still proud of myself for attempting it and taking that chance, even if all the stars didn’t align for a finish.

(FWIW, 100-mile hallucinations are real. I saw land bridges and Easter Island heads.)

VC just has the best atmosphere. Given that it was the 50th anniversary ride when I rode it, it was larger that usual, with over 70 entries…but normal years has entries usually between 40-50 people, which makes for a very laid-back, more intimate type of ride. I love that it’s a 100 only, so everyone in camp to ride is there to do that ride and that distance. Kind of hard to describe, but it gives it a different feeling than other rides.

Yeah, the rocks suck. Coming from Arizona, I’m fairly used to rocks, and many claims of areas being rocky elicit merely an eyebrow raise from me. This one earned the double eyebrows and a few colorful words at opportune moments. That said, I also has the fortune (?) to ride it during “one of the worst footing years to date” thanks to some epic rain/snow earlier in the year that decided to rearrange most of the trail footing and rocks.

But the scenery is gorgeous, and I love how different the Nevada high desert is from my own. The multiple, but not excessive, loop format (50, 26, 24) isn’t as intimidating (or hard to coordinate) as a point-to-point trail, but the loops aren’t so short/frequent that you feel like you’re just doing a merry-go-round of repeat loops around camp. There’s also very little shared trail (and you’re usually in the dark most of the times you’re on it, so does that even count?), and the sections that are shared are the ones you’re happy with because they’re of the “back to camp” variety that makes for happy horses who know where they’re going.

Plus, they feed you well (steak for breakfast, cookies at one of the water stops), and you can get finisher’s buckles. I really want one of those pretty buckles, darn it. One of these years…

Strawberry Fields Forever (June 2018)
Well, Flash, for starters. Hard not to enjoy any ride I’ve done on him. The Strawberry ride had been on my “must do” ride bucket list since I started endurance, so I was super excited to finally get to experience it. The scenery is out of this world amazing. Think “Sound of music” minus the singing nuns. Grass, aspens, an amazing array of micro-climates and vegetation. It’s so different from everything I know that I felt like I was living in a small slice of high elevation, green tree paradise for a few days.

It was also a really good ride experience for me. Flash put me and my horsemanship to the test, since he was feeling very strong and forward on day one. He has his Opinions and doesn’t like to be micro-managed, so he appreciates a certain level of tact and picking one’s battles. I must have done right by him, in his mind at least, since he rewarded me with being sensible and mindful in the technical, tricky stuff.

It was also interesting to experience a pull on day one for thumps, but to be able to work through it, solve the problem, and be cleared to go out again on day two…and then finish that day with a super-strong horse (who probably would have been happy to go day three).

The day two scenery was also gorgeous, and Flash was even more settled, so we had a really enjoyable ride right from the start. He’s also a fun horse to travel with on the road. I also enjoy my road trips, so the scenic, two-day drive up there also doesn’t hurt my feelings. The weekend also involved some of my amazing endurance mentors and friends, and just a ton of fun overall.

The Third Ride
I’m having a tough time narrowing this one down. I look back at my rides and think, “Oh, that one was really fun,” or “That was a major accomplishment,” but I’m not sure one stands out above the rest. Currently in the running are:
Lead-Follow @ Bumble Bee 50 (2018)
Tahoe Rim Ride 50 (2016)
Man Against Horse 50 (2009)
Lead-Follow @ McDowell 75 (2017)

Bumble Bee was excellent because 1) Flash and 2) broke the seeming curse I had in regards to finishing, or even riding, this ride. Had some phenomenal “connected” moments with Flash, and I will never forget how he danced his way up the Black Canyon Trail, with nothing more than a whispered “go get ’em” encouragement to let him know there were horses ahead of us. It was also my first real top ten in a 50, and first time to stand for Best Condition. The only real negative of this ride was figuring out my shoes I was riding in were pretty well shot for padding, and I spent the last 10 miles or so of the ride wanting to cut my feet off at the ankles. But Flash gets a gold star for putting with with several miles of my probably-crappy riding. And the shoes got permanently retired.

Tahoe Rim was a beautiful ride, probably the prettiest I’ve done. It’s also a very challenging ride, so definitely a feather in the cap to finish with a sound, happy horse. It also followed a string of very disappointing pulls at rides, and a badly-needed confidence booster. Roo did really well for me and gave me an excellent ride overall, even if he was being a spooky snot when it came to leading, and we almost parted ways a couple times.

Man Against Horse…probably one of my proudest accomplishments with Mimi. She proved what a tough, game, big-hearted war mare she is when she finished that particular 50. Funny thing is, there were definitely things that didn’t make it an entirely wonderful ride, such as the vet thinking he “might” have seen something in her trot-out at the top of the mountain, and having to re-trot her a couple times. Heart in throat for sure. And my stirrup leathers decide to declare war on my shins, so by the time we were down to the last third of the ride, my shins felt like I had hit knives stabbing into them. But it was one of those “worth any crap along the way” rides in order to get that finisher’s buckle.

McDowell 75 last year was pretty awesome. Not only to be entrusted with a friend’s special horse, but to have it be both his and my first 75, and to finish…and finish well. I fully anticipated needing to take the full time, so to finish mid-pack, with several hours of buffer, was a very pleasant surprise. It was a day that went really smoothly, and I was really pleased with how horse management and pacing went. It was definitely a ride that helped build my own confidence in the “yes, I am a competent endurance rider” department.

So between those four rides, I have a really hard time narrowing it down. I guess I just have to wait for another outstanding ride to come along that tops those four to round out my ultimate Top Three…at least for now.

Happy Gotcha Day, Mimi

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“To many, the words love, hope, and dreams are synonymous with horses.”

On this day in 1996, a small grey mare officially came into my life, fulfilling one dream, and starting us down the path of so many more.

We’ve shared 22 years of dreams, frustrations, hope, heartbreak, teaching, and learning. (We know who’s the teacher and who’s the student. The teacher isn’t the one making a blog post, since she lacks the fingers necessary to type on a keyboard.)

And above all, love. Patience, compassion, understanding, wisdom. A soft mane to cry on, even if you really don’t like being cuddled. A tolerance for my fussing and the fact I sometimes see you as my own personal living, breathing “My Little Pony.” And it’s sometimes involved glitter.

Happy Gotcha Day, Mimi!!

The First 1000

There’s some trail wisdom out there that states that “The first 1000 miles are the hardest” when it comes to endurance and the learning curve.

Considering it took me 13 years to get there, I would say I made the most of that curve. But I finally did it…at least, if you’re counting combined miles (which, hey, I’ve learned just as much off of some LDs as I have longer distances).

1,015 endurance + LD miles. 12 seasons of endurance. 15 different horses (and only 1 of them mine), everything from greenies on their first ride to “hold my beer and watch me show you how its done” experienced campaigners. One heck of a learning experience…and I still feel like I’ve barely scratched the surface.

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This probably deserves some really deep, insightful post about everything I’ve learned from endurance to this point, but I’m not quite sure how to distill down so much of what I’ve learned into neat little salient bullet points. Endurance is such an intensely personal journey, and all of us are in it for different reasons, so are going to take different lessons from it.

That’s not to say there aren’t takeaway tidbits worth sharing, though…

  • Tums are a quick source of extra calcium.
  • The time you decide it’s “not worth carrying the extra spare” is when your horse will lose the boot/shoe in that size.
  • You can put out a buffet of food options for them at the vet check…and all they want is grass hay.
  • Know your horse’s “normal” — ‘x’ minutes to pulse may be normal for some, and a red flag for others.
  • Pulls are learning experiences.
  • Food that tastes great at a cold, middle of winter ride might not be quite as awesome in the middle of the summer.
  • Our horses aren’t the only athletes in the equation — we owe it to them to be the best partners we can be, so we have to take care of ourselves as well.
  • That said, nothing in the world is actually appealing to eat at 4 o’clock in the morning before a 100-miler.
  • Be sure to stop along the trail every so often and admire the view.
  • We are the lifeblood of this sport. We are riders, ride managers, volunteers. Without all of us, there is no sport of endurance. Support each other. Thank one another.
  • If you wear bright-colored, wild-patterned tights, hummingbirds may be very interested in you when you sit down for lunch at a vet check.
  • A trail is never boring when you’re riding with good friends.
  • Duct tape, desitin, and baby powder will solve many problems.
  • Horses definitely have way better night vision than us.
  • Electrolyting is a maddening art and science.
  • You will be humbled. At one time or another, everyone finds themselves in the position of thinking, “I got this” only to have Endurance Karma turn around and say, “No, you really don’t…”
  • Sticking the memory foam saddle pad under the horse’s blanket first thing in the morning is a really good way to warm it prior to tacking up. Ditto with the bit inside your jacket.
  • The horse you have at home will not be the same horse you unload from the trailer at a ride. Especially their first ride.
  • Enjoy the journey. It can be easy to get caught up in an end-goal destination and miss some of the milestones along the way.
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Taking my own advice and admiring the view. Strawberry Reservoir up at the Strawberry Fields ride in Utah with Flash. (It was hard to narrow down one pic from this incredibly scenic ride.)

(Okay, so I couldn’t narrow it down. That ride, with that horse, made my Top Three in the list of favorites, so I had to indulge in a bit of remembrance.)

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A collection of all of the random tidbits (most of which end up on Facebook or Instagram)…none that really justify a full post of their own, but collectively, enough for me to justify sitting down and uploading media and chattering on for a bit.

I hit a new level of neon visibility with my tights. These particular pairs are from Ride Boldly, and I love them. They’re completely custom made to size, and they fit me the best of probably any of the tights I own. Plus, they’ve got two large cargo pockets, one on each side, that easily holds a phone. Tested one pair out at the Grand Canyon ride, and they passed with flying neon colors.

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Playing around in the arena. I think I was messing with my camera’s timer feature…I have very little media of me riding, aside from ride photos, and need to figure out a way to get some more. I’m drooling over the idea of the SoloShot3 automatic tracking camera, but the budget decrees that the price point on that level of spiffiness is going to have to come down significantly. Maybe a basic tripod/remote/phone set-up would be in order.

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Cranky pony a couple weeks ago. She was in a mood and half, and we spent a solid half hour schooling manners when she got all kinds of rushy and gate sour. We were both hot, tired, and filthy by the time we were done. She never lets me get too complacent or bored, that’s for sure.

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Happiness is: tack ho’ing. New stirrup leathers (that smell so good…I adore the smell of quality leather goods) for the dressage saddle (to replace the non-matching brown ones above, and so I can stop playing round robin among my saddles with not having enough stirrup leathers to go around) and a new bit for the pony. (Myler loose ring MB33WL, which is a lower, wider port version of the MB33 mouthpiece that’s worked very well for her.)

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First time in the new bit today, and she loved it. For a pony who thinks the purpose of bits is to deliberately lean on them, she was amazingly light and soft in it. No clue how she’ll do in it on trail…but that’s what her s-hack is for anyway.

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Obstacle course play day at the barn today. Fun chance to play around with all of her bells-n-whistles buttons that I spent years installing. Just a few minutes of tuning her up and she was phenomenally responsive and eager. Although she still thinks the point of caveletti is to deliberately hit them.

(I was super proud of her stepping up on the box, too. She doesn’t particularly like it, and it often involves scrambling and flailing on her part. But today she was happy enough to step up, stop, and stand quietly.)

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Super-happy pony by the time we were done today. She looks so ridiculously cute in her tack get-up, too. So perfectly coordinated and matchy-matchy. Once an endurance pony, always an endurance pony…

And I like seeing that kind of happy expression on her face. I know she’s getting old, and aging…her quality of movement definitely isn’t the same, and I know she’s got some arthritis happening. (No surprise, she is 25, and has lived an active life.) But as long as she’s serviceably sound, happy, and wants to keep working, that’s what we’ll do.

Ride Story: Grand Canyon XP 2018 Day 1 55

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OT Raemone RSI, Grand Canyon XP Steve Bradley photo

I’ve wanted to attend the Grand Canyon XP ride for years, so when I was offered a catch ride for one of the days this past weekend, I really didn’t have to think too hard about that decision. Held near the North Rim of the Grand Canyon, the current ride format is 6 days long — two 3-day pioneer rides with one rest day in-between.

This time, my catch ride offer came from Crockett Dumas — he had a 9-year-old mare who was ready to do her first ride and would I be available and interested in riding her? Ooo, yes, please. It’s been several years since I’ve taken a greenie on their first ride, but the few times I’ve done it, I’ve enjoyed it.

It’s a 6-hour drive up to the North Rim for me, so I left out at o’dark thirty on Saturday morning. That is the best time to travel — I’ve never seen I-17 so emtpy — and I made it up to Flagstaff in near-record time. Flagstaff always means a stop at Macy’s, a truly excellent coffee shop that has probably some of the best coffee in the state. Grabbed coffee and breakfast to go, topped off with gas, then hit the road again.

This was the longest road trip I’ve done on the suburban again since probably…2010? The older she got, the shorter and shorter I kept the trips…then the “cascading system failures” of the past 3 years happened, to the point now I think every major component has been replaced (reman engine, rebuilt transmission, new catalytic, a/c repairs, front end work) and it’s like driving a new vehicle again. This would be the ultimate acid test of making sure all those repairs had been work it. Spoiler alert: They were, and I am more than delighted to have that level of road trip freedom at my disposal again.

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As I put on Facebook: “In the words of JRR Tolkien, ‘the road goes ever on.’ Who knew he was talking about road-tripping through Arizona?”

Northern AZ finally got monsoon activity this summer, so the drive up was actually fairly green and pretty, and several fires that had put the status of the ride and trails into question were out (up until a couple days before the ride, the fire crews were camped out in the spot that is normally the ride basecamp). I can’t say I would be overly enamored of taking a rig up through 89-A to get up to the Rim, but in a passenger vehicle, it’s quite a fun drive. I might have grown up in the city, but I love a good twisty, turning mountain road. Not to mention the fact that the temperature was a good 40* cooler than it was back home, and pleasant enough to drive with the windows down. Ah, fresh mountain air…nothing like it.

The current basecamp for the ride is easy enough to get to — only a few miles off the main road, on well-maintained forest service roads, in the spot that serves as the snowmobile play area in the winter, which means solid parking and rigs don’t sink when it rains. (Which it often can…this is AZ high country, which means monsoon season…fortunately, although the clouds built up every day, it didn’t ever rain on us.)

As soon as I pulled in to camp, I got introduced to my ride — OT Raemone RSI, a 9-year-old chestnut mare from Crockett’s long-time Outlaw Trail breeding program. She’d been a broodmare with one 3-yr-old filly on the ground, and Crockett had broken her to saddle earlier in the summer. She was still green, but so far had proven to have good trail sense and a solid nature. There were a lot of firsts for her this weekend…first ride, first camping trip, first time with that many other horses around, first time riding among groups of horses.

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Meeting Nene. All saddled up and ready to go for a pre-ride.

Right from the get-go, I got along well with her. Crockett insists his horses stand politely for mounting, which always goes a really long way towards boosting my confidence — really starts the ride off on the right foot, so to speak, if they’re calm enough to stand quietly. I figured out pretty quickly that “power steering” wasn’t exactly installed, but she was responsive to leg, so I got a great reminder of “soft hands, strong leg” that would continue through the weekend. (Which, face it, I needed that anyway…I can always stand to use less hand and more leg.)

We rode out in a big loop around camp for about an hour, just getting a feel for each other, and getting “Nene” used to being in a group…front, middle, back…as Crockett, Terry, and I all rotated and lepfrogged back and forth. Once back in camp, we wandered through camp and did some horseback socializing. Great exercise in standing politely for the green horse, but as it turned out, she loves people, so she though socializing her way through camp was the best thing ever.

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Getting socialized. She also falls into the Magnificent Mare Ears category.

Vetting in later that afternoon, her trot-out was a bit…erm…inglorious. But given that it was her first time trotting in hand…she gets a pass. Fortunately The Duck was tolerant/understanding of “green horse, first ride,” and I promised to do better the next day. Worked her a little bit on the concept on the way back to the trailer, and she started getting the idea.

At ride briefing, I was super-excited to learn we would be doing part of the Rim Trail the next day. Not every day goes to the canyon, and I was really, really hoping for one of the iconic ride photos taken with the canyon in the background, the same photos I’ve drooled over as I’ve edited them for work promos and displays. If I could only ride one day, at least I would get that wished-for photo!

Ride start was a super-civilized 7am, so I crawled off to bed sometime around 9, and managed a fairly solid 8 hours until the alarm went off around 5. It was a very, very bright full moon that night, and with the large expanses of windows in the suburban, I was woken up a few times by that bright moon shining right into my face. As much as I hate my sleep being disturbed, it’s hard to grumble (too much) about that beautiful of a sight.

My “two hours ahead of ride start” wake-up gives me plenty of time to dress, braid my hair, make coffee, and down some breakfast before it was time to saddle and boot Nene. About 10 minutes before the start, we headed to the perimeter of camp, mounted, and quietly made our way around camp, winding through the trees and giving her things to focus on such as stepping over legs and around trees, taking her mind off of things like the ride start.

We made it over to the ride start after the main pack had left, so just eased onto the trail and headed out at a nice walk, Nene comfortably sandwiched between Crockett and Terry’s horses. We made it probably a good mile of calm walking before horses started to come up on us, and I could feel Nene getting wound up as the other horses went bouncing by, so we headed up into the trees and paralleled the trail, weaving through trees and over logs as groups of riders passed by. That really helped, and we did that several times for the first couple of miles. By the time we hit about 3 miles in, we were in our own little pocket, and Nene was once again mentally focused.

We did a lot of walk-trot-walk-trot for the next several miles,…small bites, letting Nene ease into the day. It was a super low-key way of starting a green horse at a ride, and definitely something I will keep in mind for the future, because it kept the whole experience very positive and no-drama. The trail was lovely — winding through tons of trees, crossing small grassy meadows, mostly-good footing, alternating between some forest roads, then back onto trails.

Nene quickly got the memo about all the grass available on the trail for grazing purposes, and in short order, was picking up on the “grab and go” concept of stuffing her mouth on the fly when directed. At the first water tank we reached, she snorkeled right in and tanked up, and she had no qualms about stopping to pee along the way. And everything that was being stuffed into her mouth was exiting the other end.

The cardinal rule of endurance horse function is EDPP  (Eating, Drinking, Peeing, and Pooping) and she nailed all of them. She was also politely following along behind Crockett’s mare, and I could tell she was doing some “watch and learn” from the experienced horse…but she was also attentive to me and my requests, such as “you wait to trot until I cue you, not go just because the other horse did.” Very smart, very “thinky” mare.

About 13 or 14 miles in, we reached the rim, and our first sighting of the canyon. This was only my second time at the North Rim, and third time to the canyon, and I’d not been this far west before. If you haven’t seen the canyon…it’s hard to put into words. The scope and grandeur of it is just breathtaking, and no photograph can ever do it full justice or capture the feeling of actually being there.

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For several miles, the trail follows the rim, sometimes right along it, other times veering in to skirt around and follow some of the tiny side canyons. And along the way, photographer Steve Bradley was set up to get our photos right along the rim. And we managed to get some excellent “greenie’s first ride photos.”

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Steve Bradley photo

Lunch wasn’t until about 33 miles in, so we really took our time…set a very easy pace, with lots of short walk/trot segments, and plenty of pauses along the way for grass. The open meadow with the lunch hold was a very welcome nice…we walked in and pulsed right down, then settled the horses in front of hay. Nene thought lunch was the best thing ever…she tucked her head right now into my crew bag with the hay into, and barely came up for air. The ride provided lunch for riders, and that tuna sandwich tasted absolutely delicious (I like tuna on a normal basis, but for some reason, it tastes just beyond delightful when I’ve had it at rides). I scarfed my food almost as fast as Nene was hoovering hers (we were a good match, we ate our way through the ride), then took care of my “vet hold chores” like refilling water bottles and replenishing my snack supply on the saddle.

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Along part of the Rim Trail

Nene did great on her vet check, and nailed her trot-out that time. And if she thought it was strange to be pulled away from her hay, made to run back-n-forth, then plopped back in front of her hay, she didn’t show it. Total professional, that one. By this time, I was having a hard time remembering it was her first ride, and even the power steering was coming along to the point that she was even starting to neck rein. (Did I mention ‘smart’?)

The hour hold was more than sufficient, and we were mounted up and ready to go as soon as they waved us out of the check. Leaving lunch, we passed through the old basecamp at Dry Park (which became not-so-dry when it would rain, and rigs had a tendency to then get stuck) and continued along, gradually making our way up a several-mile-long climb up a sort of rocky dirt rock. The trail might not have been particularly fascinating, but I got some impromptu botany lessons in high mountain flora, which kept things a lot more interesting.

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Our conga line of climbing chestnuts

As we wound our way back to camp, we passed through some beautiful aspen groves…dappled shade, with perfect single-track winding through the trees. For a desert rat, this is my idea of a little slice of paradise. (Never mind that Nov-Apr would be a “hard pass” on the snow levels they would get there at 8000′.)

The last 6 or 7 miles was roughly paralleling some small powerlines along a primitive double-track road, and we just kept to the same trot/walk pattern we had been doing, with plenty of grazing stops along the way (Nene was now doing her best “hungry hungry hippo” impression). We also did quite a bit of alternating who was leading/following…Nene truly loves being in the lead, and she’s super-bold and not spooky. She also has a fast walk, and I believe is naturally inclined to have a slightly faster trot speed, although for the sake of both her mental and physical conditioning, I was working on keeping her at a slower, “multi-day” pace while she’s learning.

There was much celebrating when the trail connected back to the same trail we had headed out in the morning…only a couple miles to go! And with a mile to go, we slipped Nene into the lead again, and she proudly marched into camp, all sparkling eyes and flagged tail, still wanting to trot up the hill to the finish. We vetted through right away, with flying colors, acting like she had just been out for a casual stroll versus 55 miles in just under 10 hours ride time.

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55 miles and finished!

I was pleasantly surprised we finished when we did — I was fully expecting to be out there longer, but we still had plenty of time to untack, groom, take care of legs, and make sure they were all settled and tucked in before moseying over to the ride meeting.

Despite some impressive cloud build-up, especially out over the canyon, and some thunder booming and echoing all around, it never did materialize into anything other than a spectacular sunset….for which I’m grateful. I’m still not fond of getting rained on at rides.

It was super-easy to crawl into bed that night, and I stayed pretty much unconscious, bright moon and all, until about 6 the next morning when I staggered out of bed (oooo, sore legs…) and immediately set to mainlining coffee. I did, unfortunately, have to head home that day, so got my little camp all packed up, spent a bit more time socializing with some friends, then reluctantly headed down the road to home.

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I’ve been hoping for a completion mug for a while…I use coffee mugs the most out of just about everything out there.

One stop on the outskirts of Flagstaff to fuel up, and then I was pulling up to my house mid-afternoon…6 hours up, 6 hours back. Quick trip, but well worth it! Nene was a super-fun ride, and I feel very flattered and honored to have been entrusted with her first ride. It went as well as could have ever been hoped for, and Nene got herself a great introduction into the sport. Watch out for this mare in the future…I think she’s going to be one of the good ones.

Thank you to The Duck and Annie for putting on a wonderful ride…I will definitely stay longer next time!!

PS — Still working on my Tevis write-up. If you’re friends with me on Facebook, you know we didn’t finish, but we had one heck of a good time anyway.