Ride Story: Tonto Twist 50

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photo by Susan Kordish, Cowgirl Photography

Alternate titles:

“Not According to Plan”
“How Not To Start Off Your Ride Season”
“At Least We Did An LD”
“Did We Get the Bad Stuff Out of the Way Early?”

In short: Lameness pull after the first 30-mile loop. <insert lots of sad trombone noises here> Minor, but consistent, on the right front…the same RF the vet was looking at suspiciously on Friday at vet-in.

Lesson #1: Always trot the horse out at home before you load them into the trailer.

Of course, this doesn’t preclude them from bonking themselves in the trailer along the way, or thrashing on the high-tie, or stepping wrong on the pre-ride, or…or…or…

In short, I still have no idea what happened. No heat, swelling, or reactions to anything on his shoulder or leg. Current working theory is maybe some lingering foot soreness from trimming, because he displayed more of a consistent choppiness/short-striding on that leg versus a pronounced head-bob/limp.

Lesson #2: You will second-guess yourself about everything. Welcome to endurance.

Every pull, I armchair quarterback. I look back and go, “What could I have done different? If I had done such-and-such, could I have changed the outcome?” And then there’s the dangerous path of “maybe I should have just played it safe and never tried.” Because that comes with its own set of “What ifs” to the tune of, “What if I had tried and it worked? Now I’ll never know…”

Yes, endurance riding can sometimes be a metaphor for life.

Luck wasn’t on my side this time around, so it didn’t all go as I had hoped…but I know myself well enough to know that if I had elected to not start, I would have spent the whole weekend wondering.

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settled in camp; time for a pre-ride

So, to the actual ride. Originally, the plan was for Barb to ride K-Man and for me to take Junior. Middle of the week, she texts me that plans changed…she and K had an incident while clipping, with the end result being her on the ground and one very bruised and sore body/tailbone. In other words, “50 miles in the saddle wasn’t going to happen.” But I should still take the rig and Junior and go to the ride.

Ooookay, then. Nothing like mixing things up a bit. Fun fact: This would only be the second time going to a ride all by myself, in 12 years of endurance. I guess I’m pretty adaptable, because I like going with a ride buddy, but I was also okay by myself. It was kind of nice/different to be able to operate entirely on my own schedule/timeline and feel that independent.

This ride won the award for “closest and most convenient ride ever” — only half an hour away from my house, and a little over an hour away from Barb’s. Friday morning saw me gathering up all my stuff (including a last-minute “bring all the jackets I can find” round of packing in response to the 60% chance of rain now being forecast for Saturday) and heading up to pick up the horse and the rig. Got everything transferred over to the trailer, loaded up Junior, and we were on our way. I even got to drag the trailer through my hated nemesis of a freeway exit, which features two roundabouts instead of our standard stoplights. So dumb, so confusing, and so not made for large trailers. But we did it, without a single curb check or running anyone else out of their lane. Not bad for only my 6th time hauling a gooseneck.

In camp, I set up next to some friends, got Junior settled in with food and water, got the lay of the land and some socialization in, fitted and adjusted Junior’s boots, then saddled up for a short, “blow out the cobwebs” pre-ride.

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heading out to pre-ride; those are the Superstition Mountains

One of the things I really appreciate about Junior is how solid he is under saddle. Tacking up, he was all kinds of squirrely and fidgety, but as soon as my butt hit the saddle, he was all business, marching through camp and out to the trails. We got a good stretch in, and Junior felt strong and happy to be out. Back to camp, and I checked in, got my vet card (all printable material such as maps had been emailed to riders ahead of time so that we could print out as much or little as we needed/wanted, and management had extras on-site if needed, but it was really nice to have that material before the ride), then fetched Junior for vetting in.

He felt so good when we were pre-riding, so needless to say I was completely thrown for a loop when the vet said, “trot him again, I think there’s something on the right front.”

Uggghhhh. In my experience, being asked to trot out again has rarely ended well.

After going again, the vet said there was something really subtle there…subtle enough that if it was during at at the finish of the ride, she certainly wouldn’t pull me…but something to be aware of at the start of the ride, and she wouldn’t prevent me from starting.

Back at the trailer, I immediately called Barb and detailed out what was going on. After chatting for a bit, she ultimately told me to go ahead and start, and if he was off along the way, pull him. He was completely nonreactive to any poking or prodding of his leg and shoulder, and his movement (slightly “short” on that side), coupled with Barb’s comment he had seemed slightly sore a couple days after trimming when she had taken him out the weekend before, had me contemplating if maybe he had some bruising or soreness.

To that end, I promptly starting digging through my supplies for anything I could use to make some pads for his boots. After some digging, I ended up jerrying rigging something together out of spare heel captivator liners, duct tape, and double-sided carpet tape. Not pretty, but certainly innovative…

By the time I got that project all wrapped up, it was time for the potluck dinner and ride meeting. And boy do people know how to potluck. There was a huge spread of food set out, with all manner of main dishes and sides (and desserts). No problem with going hungry here…or worries about dropping below your weight division.

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if you find a buddy to share the chocolate-chip cheesecake with, it doesn’t count

The ride meeting went over the usual — trail markings, water stops, check points, loops (there were 3 — 30/14/6 miles, with a 1-hour hold between loops 1 and 2, and a gate-n-go check between 2 and 3) — although this ride would feature something new: the option to use the “Ride With GPS” app, a turn-by-turn audio track of the trail. The trail was fully marked with traditional ribbons, but we were going to be using some highly-populated, very popular shared trails (other horsepeople, hikers, bikes, ATVs, jeeps, campers), and there was some concerns about removal of trail markers, or the potential for sabotage. Having the app on our phone would give it turn-by-turn directions along the way and act as a back-up in case of questions.

The subject is really deserving of its own post, but the CliffNotes version is that I overall liked the idea. A few times, I got a bit tired of listening to my phone yapping at me so frequently — the directions were very detailed — but I’m also coming from the perspective of knowing and being very familiar with probably a good 85-90% of the trails that were being used and I tend to have a good sense of direction. But what was nice was hearing the voice telling me to do something, see a ribbon, and keep going, versus the worry of “I haven’t seen a ribbon for a while…am I still on the right trail?”

Post-briefing, I took Junior out for one last stroll around camp (the Tour de Water Troughs), tucked him in with a fresh bag of hay, and retreated to the trailer to tuck myself in. With a 7am ride start, I didn’t have to be up ridiculously early — 5am left me plenty of time to dress, walk and feed Junior, feed myself, and get tacked up. I put his newly-padded boots on, and trotted him out in-hand…and he looked good. I had told myself that if he was still off, even after the pads, I wouldn’t start. But he looked good, and when I hopped aboard and walked and trotted him around, he felt good. So off to check-in at the start we went.

Junior is also a really good boy at the start. Will walk out on a loose rein, no matter how many horses around him. But when you trot, you had better be ready, because it will not be a quiet little 5mph dib-dib jog. Nope, the turbo will kick on, and he’ll be ready to roll. He’s one of those horses whose natural, comfortable speed is a little bit on the faster end of the scale, and it’s taken me some time to get used to that and re-calibrate my own internal speedometer, which is used to a much slower default setting. But the more I’ve gotten used to it, the more fun I’m having, and the more comfortable overall I’m becoming in the saddle “at speed” so to speak.

We had a controlled start out out base camp, and through several hundred yards of single-track trail that opened up into a wider, double-track road, at which point we were turned loose. Junior had gotten a nice walking warm-up in, so as soon as we hit the road, I let him trot out, and we actually had our own little space bubble in fairly short order. The first several miles went by really fast — mostly good footing and fairly flat as we made our way up to the Goldfield Mountains and the pass that would take us through the mountains out spit us out on the north side of them.

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photo by Susan Kordish/Cowgirl Photography

Photographers Sue and John Kordish were waiting for us part of the way up a steep slickrock climb, and, as always, got some amazing ride photos. I love tackling technical trail on a solid, athletic, trail-savvy horse, and Junior scampered up the rock like no big deal.

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photo by Susan Kordish/Cowgirl Photography

Once at the top of the climb, we started hitting the more technical, rocky, slower-going sections of the trail. But we were also on the top of a ridgeline overlooking the most amazing spread of desert and mountain ranges.

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who cares about going slower with that kind of view?!

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there’s all kinds of legends and lore of gold in the Superstition Mountains (look up the Lost Dutchman mine if you’re curious), but I got a different kind of gold this morning

The predicted clouds and cold front also started rolling in more enthusiastically by this time, and what had started out as breezy, with a few wisps of clouds, was rapidly turning into full cloud cover with a cold wind.

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got rocks? I think I found where I need to go when I want to practice for Virginia City

Fortunately Junior was pretty agreeable about pacing, and had enough experience and trail sense to slow down on his own in the worst of it, and was willing to listen to my suggestions of “no, we are going to walk this section” when requested.

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there’s some sort of cave tucked in that rock formation behind the saguaro

The trail wound us through a wash, and eventually spit us out onto a forest service road. We’d been warned about it — rocky, hard-packed, would probably make people grumble…but also the only way for the trails to be connected and for the ride to happen. It wasn’t dissimilar to the road on the 50 at Man Against Horse, so I just employed the same strategy — trot when you can, walk everything else. We had our own space bubble by that point, and Junior just motored along, steadily eating up the miles as we made our way through the mountain pass and down to Bulldog Canyon.

Bulldog Canyon is about 4 miles of mostly sand wash…take it far enough, and you run into the Salt River, but today, we were heading uphill in the opposite direction. We had caught up to a few people at this point, and four of us took advantage of being off the slow-going road and moved up into a trot and canter through the wash. The company was nice at this point, because there were campers set up out there, so you’d come around a blind turn and there would be a huge campsite set-up off to the side, and more than one horse was somewhat startled by the slightly unusual sight.

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along the road; once we were clear of it, I didn’t end up taking any more pics due to the “moving out and making time” factor

Just a short way up the wash, we had our first water stop and checkpoint, 12 miles in. They also had hay and carrots, so we stayed there for several minutes. Junior drank a little bit, peed, ate several carrots, and chowed down on some hay. There wasn’t much to eat along the trail, so having hay at most of the stops was very welcome, and well worth the extra few minutes of stopping.

The next stop was 4 miles away, at the main trailhead/entrance area to Bulldog Canyon. It’s gorgeous footing, and the wash isn’t too deep, so we had fun boogieing through this section. We were also on my familiar turf now — I’ve ridden Bulldog multiple times, so know what to expect and where we were going. We had a bit of trail traffic through here — it’s a popular off-roading destination for ATVs and jeeps — but everyone was courteous and polite about passing/yielding the trail.

Into the water stop at 16 miles, Junior drank really well, and settled in with a nice flake of alfalfa. They also had volunteers there handing out Platinum flax snack bars for the horses (Junior approved) and trail mix and fruit to the riders. I got a water bottle re-filled, and downed a packet of trail mix while Junior ate. Another 5 minutes there, but Junior ate the whole time, and then when he was ready, he moved himself away from the hay and back towards the trail. Okay, then…on we go. We had our own space bubble back at this point, and picked up the trail that would take us into Usery Mountain Park.

Ah, some of my home trails. I’ve been riding, running, and hiking these trails for probably close to 20 years now, and I love them. Lots of single-track that twists and turns, climbs and drops…mostly good footing, and definitely a trail to enjoy if you have an athletic, agile horse. Lots of trail traffic here — Usery is a major county regional park, so very popular with hikers and bikers, especially on the weekends. I passed numerous hikers in this section, and everyone was really polite and curious.

Management had done a ton of advertising about the ride ahead of time, and there were signs posted at all of the trailhead access points, informing trail users of an event going on that day. That said, we were still on shared trails — and while horses always have the right of way, I try to be cognizant of not abusing that right. Yes, we were in a competition setting…but that doesn’t mean “run over everything in your way.” Part of being out on these trails and using them is to be ambassadors for the sport. Stopping and walking by hikers, exchanging greetings, or even pausing to give a brief explanation of what you’re doing, all go a long way towards building and keeping good trail relationships. They also tend to get a kick out of seeing Junior’s Renegades — I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard, “Hey, those look like Crocs for horses!” or “That horse has hiking boots on!” over the years when using Renegades. Again — it becomes something they can relate to (special gear that has a purpose, just like their own hiking boots) and fosters that sense of trail community.

Okay, PSA over…I just feel like because I’m on shared-use trails so much, I spend a lot of time on trail practicing said etiquette, building community relations, and educating people about trail sharing, so it’s something that’s a pretty big part of my riding (and running) life.

Mile 20, at one of the Usery trailheads, we had another water stop and checkpoint. Junior had done so well in the eating department at the last one that we just stayed here for a couple minutes, long enough to get a drink and to wait for a very large group of hikers to come in off the trail. Back on the trail, this was one of the super-flat, easy sections that eventually ended up at the “Channel” trail — a completely flat, perfect footing trail at the base of a flood control levee. It’s one of the most fun trails for a straightaway canter…and Junior thought so, too.

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from a training ride with Mimi, the “Channel” trail…for years, I have longed to canter this trail in a ride setting…got my wish

It was one of those “superbly in sync with the horse” moments…he was locked on to the trail and focused on nothing but moving ahead, I was balanced and super-secure, and we flew down that stretch. So much fun, and I’m pretty sure I was giggling with glee when we finally pulled up and got back on more single-track trail.

And right about this time, the predicted rain caught us. It started as just noticed a spot of water or two on my saddle pommel, and then a couple drops on my arms. So out came the jacket again, and as we made our way closer to camp, the rain started coming down heavier. Apparently getting wet at numerous events in 2017 wasn’t enough…we have to carry the tradition forward into the new year.

Volunteers stationed at all the road crossings made it super safe and easy to get across the roads (3 of them) on the way back to base camp. One last water stop at Prospector Park, just a couple miles from camp. It was raining quite steadily now, and the last couple miles into camp got a bit interesting. Junior threw a mutiny, basically…sulked his way out of the water stop because there was only water there, and no hay, and he decided at that moment he was starving as he tried to grab bites of nasty dry desert vegetation on our way out. He also isn’t a fan of the rain or the cold. I had a rump rug on him, but he still wasn’t amused, and I could also feel him hesitating slightly on one side, especially at the trot when I would post on that right diagonal. Crap. Combination of all those factors = equine mutiny.

I was pretty sure I knew what would happen when we got back to camp, but also had decided that if the vets didn’t pull us, I would…even if the last 20 miles were much easier, and way kinder footing, I’ve ridden Junior enough to know he is not a “pedal” horse…the fact I was having to pedal him, even that close to camp, meant he was telling me in the only way he knew how that he was done for the day.

We pulsed down as soon as we got in to the check, and he was already down to 56, and the vet said he looked phenomenal — all As on metabolics, fantastic gut sounds (those minutes at the stops to let him eat paid off)…but when we trotted out, agreed that there was something on that right front, and it was a more apparent than at vet-in. Given what she saw, and my own feeling, and the fact that, as much as a pull sucks, I would rather be safe than sorry, especially with someone else’s horse, we reached a mutual “He’s pulled” decision. I think the vet was almost as sad as I was, because she commented multiple times on how good he looked otherwise, and his metabolics were amazing.

Meanwhile, it was still raining, so back at the trailer, I did a quick yank of all of Junior’s tack and bundled him up in a couple layers of fleeces and blankets and installed a mash and more hay in front of him while I scuttled around cleaning everything up. Somewhere along the way, the trailer batteries had stopped holding a charge…so if the sun was out, the solar panels provided enough juice to run everything…but since it was raining and completely cloud-covered, the batteries were completely tapped out. Which meant nothing worked (and the carbon monoxide detector was chirping like crazy with its low-power warning)…no water pump, no water heater, no shower…how quickly I’ve gotten spoiled. :)

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ghetto-blanketing…no neck cover? just add a second blanket and strap it around the neck

Couple all of that with the fact it was still raining, and Junior was standing outside and pouting and shivering, I looked at the clock and figured I had enough time to pack everything up, drive Junior and the rig back to Barb’s, and then drive back to the ride for the rest of the afternoon and for dinner. So that’s what I did. Junior got some more recovery time while I worked on getting everything packed up and wrapped up (why does it take so much longer in the rain to pack everything up?), then I loaded him up and we headed back.

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back home…sun was shining, he was feeling fine enough to chase K-Man around, and he got mash leftovers

Once home, he was feeling good enough to chase K-Man around the pasture and away from the mash leftovers. I got everything unpacked and spread out to dry in the now-shining sun, and all my stuff thrown into my truck, then headed back down to the ride to hang out for the rest of the afternoon. It was so worth coming back for the dinner (homemade Indian fry bread tacos), and it was wonderful to see such a large turnaround stick around for the dinner and awards.

Of course I’m disappointed in the pull (sucks when it’s your own horse, doubly sucks when it’s someone else’s), but I couldn’t be happier with the ride itself. Management was absolutely top-notch, and you would have never known it was a first-time ride. Normally they come with some growing pains and things to be ironed out for subsequent years, but I honestly can’t think of anything I would have changed on this ride. Well, except for maybe the getting rained on part. I loved having a ride so close by, on trails I know so well. This felt like a classic endurance ride — challenging in some areas, and super fun in others. Really hoping it sticks around and becomes part of the regular AZ ride circuit.

4 thoughts on “Ride Story: Tonto Twist 50

  1. Blaahhh! I’m so sorry about the pull. He sounds like such a fun horse to ride! And he’s beautiful.

    The scenery. Oh. My. It’s SO gorgeous. And the trails sound fun, too! I wish I had a teleporter because I’d love to do this ride! Maybe one day when I retire I’ll bring a horse and just ride myself across the west? lol

    And I fully understand your PSA about trail users and not abusing the right to have right-of-way all the time. I’m also super cognizant of that when I’m out. And YES to people noting boots as crocs or shoes or whatever-else-they-come-up-with. The common ground always gives people something fun to talk about! I love being an ambassador for good trail use/etiquette on horses. I try to speak to everyone I come across and have even let people take selfies with my horses in recent years haha.

    • He’s a blast…my absolute favorite type of personality to ride. Bold, forward, not spooky. Of course, he’s 16, with almost 3000 miles, so definitely at the point of being a solid citizen.

      I woke up this morning to a notification in my inbox…it’s on the schedule already for January 2019. Maybe you need a westward vacation? I’m sure I can find an extra horse for you… ;) It is such a fun, pretty area to ride. Kind of a hard call, because I tend to think all of the mountains here are pretty in their own way…some are stunning from a distance, and some look like nothing far away, but are stunning up close and when you’re riding them…but I think the Superstitions are some of the prettiest.

  2. So sorry to hear about the pull :( As always, you did right by your horse, but that doesn’t make it any easier. That GPS app sounds like something I could use at rides, especially if I’m solo. I’m definitely not allowed to be in charge of navigation, haha. And I LOVE those ride photos. I also whole-heartedly agree with your ambassador attitude! Just brief, polite interactions can make such a difference in how non-riders see our sport!

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