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.)
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.)
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.