I apologize for the complete lack of brevity in the regaling of this tale. It truly turned into one of those Milestone Rides for us, and I’m trying to capture every moment of it.
Getting the Wickenburg ride to come back has been an event several years in the making — the last time it was held was the last time I rode it, back in 2010. It came back under new management, and a new ridecamp location (the fabulous Boyd Ranch, which is totally worth the 8-mile drive on rutted dirt roads to get back to it)…but like all new, or essentially new, ride, there tend to be some kinks to work out, and you know going in to a first-time ride that you as the rider are going to be something of a guinea pig.
At this particular ride, it was the trail itself that would prove to be the greatest challenge and need the most ironing out — very technical, with a lot of rocks, climbing, and deep sand, with not enough areas to safely move out to balance it out and be able to make up time. Ultimately, we came in overtime, but the fact that we unexpectedly ended up going it alone for most of the ride — the first time Liberty has done that — I was really happy with the outcome, and it was the absolute best learning and training experience I could have hoped for.
Wickenburg is a “local” ride for me — only about 2 hours away, including the last 8 miles of really rough, washboard dirt road that can take about 30 minutes alone if you’re hauling a trailer. (The road should have served as a preview of the terrain that was to come…)
Kirt and Gina were only about 10 minutes behind me, so I secured a good spot in camp (on the outskirts, but we had room to spread out and set up the electric pens). They had brought the usual suspects of my Liberty, Yankee for Gina, and Wicked (the big grey mare who is Liberty’s pasture-mate…it’s good for her to get the trailering and camping exposure…and good “oh, yes, you will leave your BFF” training for Liberty…)
While Kirt set up the pens, Gina and I went and checked in and grabbed our ride packets, then pulled horses out and gave them a thorough brushing before heading over to vet in. (Shedding season…I scraped quite a bit of hair off Libby.)
I’ll be the first to say it: Liberty was a brat for vetting. She was fussy about letting the vet look at her mouth (although she did stand nicely for getting her temperature taken), her pulse was a little high (44) since she was excited over leaving Wicked back at the trailer, and then she had to trod on my foot during our trot-out (trail running and endurance riding: Toenails Optional), which earned her an impromptu schooling session (and a second trot-out). Still needs some more work in the Manners Department.
The predicted forecast was going to be warm: 83°, and while I wished for clippers, I settled for mane braiding on both Liberty and Yankee. Their hooves needed a bit of attention, so they each got a trim, I checked boot fit and did some adjusting (even with a trim, I wasn’t loving how the Classic shells fit her…keep this in mind for later…), and then gathered tack together for the morning.
I haven’t been happy with how the Duett has worked, or rather, not worked, on her, since she’s been sore in the loins every time, even with three different saddle pads. Irony: All of the horses I’ve catch-ridden, she’s been the only one it hasn’t worked on. Fortunately, Gina had a spare saddle I could try: a Frank Baines Reflex dressage saddle, fully kitted out with all the necessary rings and such for endurance. I put it on the saddle stand, sat my own butt in it and determined it felt good enough to at least start the ride in (could always switch at lunch if need be), and then checked the fit on Liberty. I liked how it sat on her, and there’s a little more rock in the tree than the Duett, which is where I think I was running into problems. Also: She’s a tank. The tree is the 4W, which is the widest tree they offer in that particular model. It’s also a monoflap, and substantially lighter than my ridiculously-heavy Duett.
I also electrolyted Liberty and Yankee at this point, knowing the next day was going to be warm. Liberty hates syringes and electrolytes (oh, yay, another one…) so there was Drama and head flinging and electrolytes splattered everywhere…but we eventually got it done…and Yankee was a good boy and took his without complaint.
One of the perks offered at this ride was dinner on both Friday and Saturday night, so around 5ish, we wandered down to the pavilion where management and volunteers had an appetizer spread ready while the dinner of beans, several kinds of pulled pork, coleslaw, and tortillas were being set out.
Ride meeting was really brief — pretty sure there were still people trickling in as the meeting was wrapping up — although it covered the salient points: “Follow these color ribbons on these loops, watch for the chalk arrows/lines/numbers on the ground, when in doubt read your maps with trail descriptions, hold times and pulse parameters are ‘x’ and ‘x’.” (I’m not a fan of long ride meetings, so I appreciated the brevity.)
It was nice to have had enough time in the afternoon to get everything I needed to done, so the evening was relaxing, and I even managed to get to bed in decent time, aided by my new BFF, a tab of melatonin, which helps with my “first-night-in-new-place-plus-pre-ride-jitters” restlessness. I give myself plenty of time (2+ hours before the start) on ride mornings to slowly wake up, dress, make coffee, force myself to nibble on something (green juice smoothie, poptart, banana), then boot/tack up.
We were tacked up and ready to go by the time the 50s started, but both Yankee and Liberty were fairly “up” so I took a few minutes to have Liberty walk/slow trot some circles around me and get her brain re-focused before I mounted. She had some moments of wanting to twirl around and head back to the trailer while we were walking over to the start, so I did a lot of walking, and circles, and making her pay attention to me, before we headed over to check in at the start line.
I made one mistake, and I realized it as soon as we started: I had swapped the solid curb strap back to the one with the chain (why???) and I knew immediately it was too much for her, as she tucked her head extremely behind the vertical and got very fussy. *sigh* Too late to change now…but it meant I had to be extremely conscious of how much contact I was using (not as much as I prefer, especially at a ride start). Fortunately, she was much better behaved this time, only hopping a couple of times over the whole passing/being passed thing and then really settling in after the first mile or so (versus the first 6 miles at Bumble Bee). She really does get better and more mature with every ride.
We were sitting about middle of the pack for the first couple of miles, but then the trail quickly turned into deep, uphill sand wash…which neither Yankee or Liberty are legged up for doing much by way of speed work in. So we walked. And people passed us. And we walked some more. We hit some nicer sections of double-track road where we were able to move out…but neither Liberty nor Yankee were feeling particularly like being the Brave Leader, so did a lot of yo-yoing back and forth where one would surge ahead, then the other…it was like riding equine bumper cars.
It was during one of these trotting sections in a not-as-deep sand wash that Liberty started doing a mild-but-consistent head bob on her left front. (Remember, it was her RH she was off on at Bumble Bee.) Uggghhhh. Gina noticed that her boots had accumulated quite a bit of sand, even some small rocks jammed down in the front toe flap, pushing the shell forward and creating the same effect on the captivator as over-tightening the cables would do — pressure on the bulbs and somewhat limiting the movement of the captivator. Apparently I’ve got two horses that are “particular” about their preferred model of boot/captivator.
I pulled the offending boot off, climbed back on…and she trotted off sound. Riiiiggggghhhhtttt…memo to self: “Viper shells and captivators only on this horse from now on.”
Shortly after this point, we pulled off the trail to let a couple of people pass us, and as the last horse passed by, she kicked out and nailed Yankee right in the chest! Seriously?!? What next?!?
Fortunately, Yankee seemed fine, but we took our time, just to make sure — because of course right after this we would be leaving the wash and heading up some very rocky, technical climbs. After climbing out of the wash, there was a water stop/number check. Neither horse drank here, although Liberty drank a little bit at the first water stop (~3 miles in).
Heading out from the water stop, I managed to get Liberty to stay in front for more than twenty feet of trotting…and then all of a sudden she bobbled and started three-legged hopping, kicking out with her right hind leg. I immediately jumped off, and as far as we could tell, it looked like Yankee had crowded her from behind and possibly stepped on her hind boot. Again, this was her “off at Bumble Bee” leg, so I don’t know if it could have been something to do with the weird split that had developed between her frog and bulb (best we could tell at BB, a rock got under her captivator), or what was going on.
So now her hind boots got removed, and I was going to take her totally barefoot. (At the speeds we were going, that was hardly my biggest concern. She also has amazing, rock-crushing hooves from growing up in the desert and running on acreage her entire life.) I hand-walked her for a bit, probably about half a mile, just to make sure she was okay, before climbing back on.
Just when you think, “okay, we’re in the clear, right?”…Gina and Yankee are leading, heading up another technical, very rocky and steep climb that involves cutting a sharp right and then left to stay on the trail and out of the worst of the rocks. Only Yankee doesn’t cut right, but tries to just go left, over-corrects, does a “four legs in eight directions” flail, gathers himself up enough to get back on the trail…and then does it again. Liberty isn’t fazed by any of this, but when we get to the top of the hill, Yankee is off on one of his front legs. Nothing obvious, but he’s ouchy.
So we get off and start hand-walking again. Yankee isn’t improving, so Gina tells me “get back on and keep going, you don’t need to stay with me.”
Easier said than done, since Liberty has had very little solo training time, and never at a ride. Well, what’s a ride other than on-the-job training, right?
I got Liberty trotting away, but every time we would get out of eyesight of Yankee, she would slam to a stop and wait until she could see him again, then get moving. Needless to say, we were not making great progress until we hit a spot of shared trail with the 50s, and I was able to catch a tow from a couple of friends, enough to get us moving and for Liberty to realize “not alone out here. Maybe not going to die.” (Thanks, Cathy and Elaine, for letting me tag along!)
The shared trail split off at that point, but we had gotten far enough ahead of Yankee that Liberty was rolling along nicely…and the internal compass was pointed “due camp.” Photographers John and Sue Kordish were set up along this loop, and for the first time, Libby didn’t even pause to stare at them…so I got some nice trotting action photos of us!
Shortly after passing Sue, the trail opened up to this fairly smooth, wide, level dirt road…and I got to do something I’ve been dying to do…canter Liberty. In the past, I’ve been tempted, but have held back, not wanting her to learn too early on that canter was an acceptable option, especially during the start and early-on ride excitement. I am also not brave when it comes to cantering new/strange horses…it is the gait where I feel the least secure and comfortable, like I can be all-too-easily off-loaded if they spook or buck…but now, the timing felt right.
Fortunately, she has apparently been trained in the standard canter cue (sit, kiss, little bit of rein, use one heel to cue) and moved right into this lovely, rolling canter.
*cue heavenly choir of angels singing*
She has one of the most wonderful canters I’ve ridden. Smooth, powerful, efficient…and perfectly controllable. And completely business-like — it was like she just locked onto the trail and had no interest in anything other than steadily moving forward. I have a feeling I will be working her up to this and utilizing it to great effect in the future.
We cantered for probably less than a quarter mile, then I broke her down to a trot to navigate through some rough areas, and then when the trail spit us onto the big dirt road leading to camp, I got one more canter in. (Super pleased with how responsive she was…and it didn’t make her rushy or at all race-brained to be allowed to move out…she came right back to a trot and walk as soon as I asked.)
So I basically power-trotted and cantered the last mile into camp, and hopped off right at the gate and hand-walked in the last 100′ or so to the in-timer. (Y’know…”how to bring a horse in nice-n-easy for pulsing down…”) I let her drink while I sponged her, and then she insisted on being allowed to munch on some of the alfalfa and bran mash that was sitting right there…so by the time I got her sponged and she got her initial munchies fulfilled, it took 5 minutes to pulse. I had the volunteer check her right when we came in and she was up at 80, then dropped to 70, hung there for a minute…and then when she checked her again a minute later, she had dropped to 52. (Criteria was 60, I believe. Or 64. Maybe 64 was the finish?)
She vetted out with all As — and was better behaved this time, although she still didn’t like the vet messing with her mouth. Her trot-out was excellent and she stayed right with me and didn’t use my feet for target practice.
Back at the trailer, I was surprised to see the corral was empty, and figured Kirt was maybe taking Wicked out for a walk around camp to keep her from missing her buddies. Well, I was partially right…he ended up saddling her up and taking her out on the fun ride! (Which was the same trail as loop 1 of the LD.) So Liberty had to stand at the trailer, all by herself, and alternate between drinking, eating, pawing, and screaming for her lost BFF. (And the learning experiences just keep on coming.)
I got her a bucket of water and flake of alfalfa, sponged a little more of the sweat off of her, and left her to her own devices for a little bit while I refilled my water pack, used the bathroom, and grabbed some lunch for myself. I took a couple of minutes of downtime to send a quick text update to friends/family, then got back to work: swapping out the curb strap on the hackamore, fishing my riding crop out (I knew we would need the extra encouragement if we were going to do the second loop all by ourselves), and re-booting her with Vipers on her fronts.
Gina got back with Yankee partway through my hold — the vet had taken a look and hadn’t found anything on his leg that would indicate tendon or ligament involvement, so it was likely that he probably tweaked something in his fetlock area. Gina said the vet had pulled a large, inch-long thorn out of Yankee’s leg as well (probably from a crucifixion thorn bush, fairly common to the area, with thorns that are larger/sturdier than cactus spines).
Liberty was good about walking away from camp — we had about 3 minutes to wait at the out-timer, and she did some circling and calling at that point, but with a little “hand on the halter and point in the right direction” assist from Gina, we got out on the trail — trotted out of camp, woohoo!! Which lasted all of 100 yards before we saw 50s coming in from one of their loops, and she had to stop, scream, and try to go with them. A couple of solid whacks with the crop got her persuaded that listening to me was the better idea, and he headed out on Loop 2A. There were more parts in this loop where we were able to move out — nice single-track running atop ridgelines — and then more technical climbs in and out of some big washes.
Towards the end of this loop, we encountered Kirt and Wicked on a section of shared trail. What are the odds, right? Of course, neither mare wanted to separate from the other, so we both ended up jumping off and walking our recalcitrant mares away from each other down our respective trails. I ended up having to hand-walk Liberty for about half a mile before she stopped her screaming and twirling (with several “discussions” along the way about respecting personal space) and I was able to get back on and keep jamming down the trail.
To pick up the second part of the loop (Loop 2B) we had to cross in front of the ranch — more fun convincing the big mare that we were *not* going down the same in-trail we had earlier. Once I got her un-stuck and past that point, we swung by the water trough that was out and she drank well — impressive for her still being mentally keyed up and wanting to join her buddies — and then started into the second part of the loop.
We passed photographer Sue again, and then almost immediately, a cluster of 50s come up on us. Very good news for us: It was Stephanie DuRoss and her group, and they didn’t have any problem with me falling in with them and catching a tow for the next several miles of shared trail. (Thank you, Taylor, Steph, and Kecia!) Another excellent learning experience: Liberty had to be the caboose in a train of strange horses that she didn’t know, and had to choose to either act like a grown up and follow them, or end up on her own again (remember her “omg, stange horses, I must bounce up and down and act like I don’t know what another horse is” antics from Bumble Bee?). She decided that New Friends were a very good thing indeed and it was a sad time when our shared trails parted ways and we had to go forth on our own yet again.
We did some pretty good climbing, basically cross-country, and I’d coax a bit of a trot out of her on smooth sections here and there, but basically we walked. At about 2.8-3mph. Speed demons, us. ;) I also started singing at this point as a way to keep both of our spirits up…it’s a good thing we were alone, since I’m not exactly musically gifted.
Eventually the single-track spit us down and around into a large wash, but shallower and running slightly downhill, so we were able to get into a pretty good trot rhythm. I have pretty good navigational and “point of reckoning” skills, and I knew camp was basically on the other side of the hills we were winding our way through…so when we came upon one of the number checkers, I asked how far we were from camp…”oh, probably another 45 minutes to an hour.”
Oh. So much for the hope that the ride would “measure short” and we were just around the corner from being done.
We had about 20 minutes left on the clock as this point, so I knew we weren’t going to make it, time-wise…which totally took the pressure off. Sure, we weren’t going to finish in time, but we were going to stay out there and finish the course.
Once out of the washes, we went through a really pretty section of single-track that wound through some trees and grass before spitting us out into a big open flat field with the single-track cutting straight through it, leading to the next water stop. It was here that Liberty had her one big spook of the whole ride…at a century plant next to the trail. She did a pretty impressive sideways spook with about a quarter of a spin…enough to just slightly unseat me, but a handful of mane braids (and the fact she stopped) kept me in place, she got a boot in the side for her troubles, and we proceeded onward to the water tank.
It was a Super Scary water stop, with a windmill and shed and lots of stuff right around the trough, but she stopped and really tanked up. There’s a rough formula of ~30 swallows = 1 gallon (give or take, depending on horse size and gulp capacity), so just for fun, I counted her swallows…ended up being right around 50 swallows, so she had almost 2 gallons in one go! Gooooooood mare! (She is really good at EDPP on trail…very self-preserving and takes care of herself and her rider. That right there is solid gold.)
We had to “tiptoe” past the old building and wooden corrals, and then I let her walk for a few minutes after her large drink. Finally, finally, the trail turned back towards camp, and we got some more forward motivation…that lasted until we encountered the Dead Barrel Cactus of Doom laying right next to the trail. Since we were surrounded by cholla, and there was no good “go around” option, we stood there quietly until she inched her way past it, step by step. After that, we kind of hit our wall, as the trail was very twisty and turny, rocky, and lined with enough cholla that trotting didn’t seem like an inviting option.
So we walked. And we walked. And we walked some more. I worked my way through a pack of Clif energy ShotBlocks and drained the rest of my water pack. A few short trot bursts through sand and some flatter stuff, but more up and down cross-country rocky stuff, now heading away from camp…and then crossing a bit of trail from the morning…and more up-down-rocks…and then back on shared trail from loop 2A. Shared trail + directly heading towards camp = motivated trot, and we trotted the last mile or so back in to camp.
We were so overtime (by about an hour) but I still treated our finish like we were still in the game: come in, let her drink and eat while I pulled her saddle and sponged her down, and got her pulse (pulsed down to 60 in just a couple of minutes, impressive with it being as warm as it was, and her being a dark, still-fluffy, large-bodied horse), and then took her over to vet out.
She finished with all As (still didn’t like the vet handling her mouth, *sigh*) and a lovely trot-out, and then she got to chow down on the lovely bran mash + carrots provided by the ride for a few minutes while I sponged her off a little more (and then flopped the saddle back on her, since we were parked a ways away and it’s still not *that* light) and then we headed back to the trailer.
She got to rejoin her BFF in their corral, I committed the grave crime of electrolyting her again, and then afterwards, I flopped down on a lounge chair with a water bottle in one hand, cold beer in the other, and plenty of snacks, and regaled Kirt and Gina with our Tales of Being On Our Own and Not Dying. After the beer ran out and I’d put a dent in the food supply, I headed over to the ranch bathrooms where they have lovely permanent showers. (Living quarters are really nice, but the perk of permanent bathrooms at a facility is you don’t have to worry about draining the water tank or running out of hot water, so if they’re there, I will use them.) I washed a ton of trail dust and sweat off, changed into fresh, clean clothes, and headed back to the trailer for a bit before ride dinner.
I really have to give a nod to ride management at this ride. They provided some excellent perks, including dinner both nights, the volunteers were friendly and helpful, the trail markings were fabulous…it was just the trail itself that wasn’t entirely practical for endurance competition purposes, and management has already expressed a desire to take into account any constructive feedback and use that for the betterment of the trails for next year. (And kudos to the ride attendees: Everyone I have talked to or have seen feedback from has remained polite, courteous, and provided appropriate constructive criticism, versus just complaining and bitching. So good job, all around.)
That grilled hamburger dinner tasted delicious (and I really liked not having to cook), and it looked like a decent number of people stayed around for dinner/awards. We had planned from the beginning to stay Saturday night, so we had time to socialize and catch up with people before retiring back to the trailer for hot chocolate and cookies, and eventually bed.
I crashed hard until about 7, when sunrise and quiet horse murmurings pulled me out of the sleeping bag. I appeased the starving herd, then fortified myself with coffee. Liberty looked great — legs cool and tight, no back soreness (!!! and there hadn’t been any when we finished), bright-eyed, and most important: still talking to me. Yankee was back to normal — while I was out on the second loop, Gina had taken a closer look and found another thorn pretty deeply embedded in his fetlock, and once she removed that, he immediately started moving better and was completely fine by morning.
We did some hoof/boot consultations (Kirt have me one of those “show me what you’ve learned” tests by having me evaluate the hoof and what I would adjust on the trim…I passed with flying colors, which is always nice to hear since I tend to second-guess and doubt my abilities and skills when it comes to hooves and trimming) and slowly started to pack things up. Gina and I took the horses for a walk around camp, then loaded up and hit the road.
I swear, the road going out was almost worse than coming in, but I had good music on the radio, and a happy sense of success and fulfillment after a dynamite weekend, so the drive home went fast, and I was back by early afternoon to be greeted by my very excited Terrier Greeting Committee.
I am so, SO proud of this mare, I could just burst. She has not done very much training solo, and never at a ride. This is only my fourth time riding her, so she really doesn’t know me that well…and this was only the third time I would take a horse through a ride by myself. (The first was Mimi’s and my first 25, the second time was when I took Beamer on an LD at McDowell — both times on horses I knew very well and had spent a lot of time around.)
I felt so safe and comfortable on her. She’s sensible, not over-reactive, and keeps her head even when fairly stressed (such as leaving or meeting-and-leaving buddies). She never blew up, and she wasn’t even what I would consider particularly spooky. She’s got a stubborn streak that definitely shows up, particularly when she needs a mental break, and a walk that’s slower than a sloth dripped in peanut butter crawling over a glacier…but those are things that will be improved on with time. (And her trot and canter make up for her walk…and in-hand, she walks out quite nicely, so she can learn to do it.)
I don’t think of myself as particularly brave, but in this case, there wasn’t any second thoughts about heading out by ourselves. This horse and I feed off each other — she gives me confidence, she challenges me in all the right ways, and she makes me want to be the best version of the horsewoman I can be.
That was the longest 25 I’ve ever done, but it was worth taking whatever time we needed to make sure we both had a good experience. Liberty will for sure have a long, slow distance base on her, and all of her rides thus far (with the exception of the Bumble Bee pull) have had her on the trail for 6 or so hours, so she’s never learned the “race fast and you’re done in two hours” mentality…to her, you’re always on the trail for 6+ hours, so while moving up in distance will be a change, the longer time out on the trail won’t be as much of an adjustment. (It’s unconventional as a training method but maybe it’ll work?)
So, a Gold Star weekend for both of us, and one more building block layer in Creating a Distance Horse.