With the countdown at less than 10 days til T-Day, and less than a week until D-for-T (Departure-for-Tevis) Day, I figured I’d better get a move on and get this story out before too much time goes by.
The Strawberry Field Forever ride has been on my bucket list since I started distance riding. Back in 2002, when I had been doing about half a season of NATRC, I went to Mimi’s and my last POA show…the POA Worlds, up in Spanish Fork, UT. It was an almost week-long gig, with only so much for someone who is not showing (aka, “one’s show parents”) to do…so my dad took a couple of days to go up to the Strawberry NATRC ride. Originally his plan was to hang out and visit, but he got drafted as ride photographer. Long story short, he fell in love with the area and the amazing scenery, and we talked for years about how we needed to get up there again and do the ride.
So imagine my delight when I found out there was also an endurance ride up there. Ir’s been on my ride radar for forever, so I was quite ecstatic when Troy contacted me to see if I would be interested in riding Flash for a couple of days at Strawberry this year.
Let’s see…ride I’m dying to do? On a horse I love to ride? Yeeesssssssssssss!!!
It’s a two-day drive up to Strawberry from the Phoenix area, so we headed out of the Valley Tuesday afternoon, overnighted at the Mt Carmel basecamp, then drove the rest of the way to camp on Wednesday, arriving in the early afternoon with plenty of time to set up camp and take the boys out for a pre-ride.
Flash is a horse who does best on pretty much daily exercise in some form or another, either on the exerciser or being ridden. He’d just been cooped up in the trailer for the past two days, and was happy to express his opinion about that. That opinion amounted to a couple of half-hearted crowhops and some attempts at jigging, but overall, more of a source of eyerolling and bemused chuckles than anything. Opinions…he’s got ’em.
Friend Dayna was the absolute best Queen Bee and camp mom for the weekend. She had food, drinks, and more food made for us riders whenever we possibly needed it, made dinner every night, and was a lot of fun to hang out with for the weekend. I’ve long-admired her as a rider, her ability to be competitive, but always with her horses’ best interest at the forefront. I got to pick her brain during some of the weekend downtimes, and got some great riding tips and advice, plus other relatable life stories.
The plan on Thursday was to get another pre-ride in…7-8 miles this time, just to take that final edge off. 15 miles later…the edge was sufficiently off. We were on ribbons the whole time, but just had no frame of reference for exactly where said ribbons went, and ended up going a lot further than intended. Oops?
So, yeah, that was fun…the worst part of it was I had anticipated about a 1-1/2-hour ride, not 3+ hours, so was a little short in the water and especially the food department. But a good free object lesson in being more prepared than you think you need to be, even for a “quick little ride.”
The Strawberry Fields ride is part of the XP Rides, aka the “Duck” rides, put on by Dave “The Duck” Nicholson and his wife Annie. They’re all multi-day rides, with many of them taking place on or near locations that were a part of the original Pony Express route. They tend to be more casual, laid-back type of rides, with a certain degree of self-sufficiency. There’s often only one vet check (which isn’t an uncommon thing for rides here in the SW region anyway), and the trails usually go into more remote areas. More info on their website: XP Rides.
This was actually my first XP ride, and I loved it. I also love the frills rides, though, too. I guess rides are still enough of a novelty to me, even after 14 years, that it takes a lot for me to not enjoy a ride. Check-in and vet-in was super quick, and ride meeting was brief. The only snag was a fire in the close vicinity had closed access to some of the usual trails, so they had to do some last-minute scrambling to pull the trails together.
Basecamp was at ~8000′ elevation, so the weather was decidedly cooler than back down in Phoenix. Friday morning was a bit chilly, and I scuttled around in three layers, finally (reluctantly) shedding my puffy jacket just before mounting up. Flash is such an interesting horse at ride starts. He’s really business-like, so no funny games or shenanigans, but he is so eager to get going that he literally quivers in anticipation any time you stop.
We headed out on the same trail we had pre-ridden the past two days, the single-track trail helping to space out the pack, and we were soon in a small bubble of four or five riders, just easily motoring along. There was a definitely a technical element to some of the trails — rocks, or downed aspen “cavaletti” to step over — so it kept both horse and rider paying attention.
It didn’t take too long before we started climbing. Eventually we would top out at 10,000′, but in the meantime, there was still plenty of trail along the way. Up single-track, along forest roads through a campsite, up more single-track, through some boggy stuff, up more single-track, and finally out to the road that would take us up to 10,000′.
For two mostly flatland horses from Yuma, those boys tackled the climb with good humor, and Flash kept offering to show me just how he could trot all the way to the top. (I declined his offer, numerous times.)
We dropped back down off the top of the peak, wound around on some more forest road, through some more single-track, and back up to another 10,000′ point.
We had a couple moments at this point where the trail markings got a bit…sketchy…and we made a couple of overshoots/alternate routes before finally getting on the right track.
This first loop was every bit of 30 miles, so we took time along the way to let the boys stop and graze, and there was enough grass along the way that they both got pretty good at the grab-n-go maneuver.
Flash was on fire the entire loop…he just wanted to go, and we had quite a few discussions about keeping the pace to a dull roar. I knew he was strong — at Bumble Bee, it took until about halfway through the first loop for him to really settled into an agreeable pace — but this was 30 miles in and he was still cranking along like a freight train.
The way in and out of camp, at least for this loop, crossed a creek, which made for a nice place to stop and sponge them before walking in to the vet check. Rather unusually, it took several minutes for Flash to pulse down, even after more sponging and eventually pulling tack, but he did get there.
At the Duck rides, he doesn’t want to see you vet in immediately — you’re asked to wait for at least 30 minutes before vetting, the rationale behind it being that adrenaline from just coming off a loop can mask any potential issues, both lameness or metabolic. Although I’ve always preferred to vet right away and have the rest of the hold uninterrupted, I can understand this particular practice.
I got all of my stuff squared away with what I would need for loop 2 — refill my hydration pack and snacks — and settled in for some delicious lunch offerings from Dayna. (Iced cranberry juice is super refreshing. Need to file that one away for future reference.) Taking care of the boys and grabbing lunch pretty much took up the 30 minutes, so we gathered the boys up and went over to vet.
Flash vetted through well initially…appropriately low pulse, good gut sounds and hydration parameters, trotted great…but after we trotted, the vet looked him over again and said he was thumping. Sure enough, you could see the telltale fluttering back on his flank. So that was our day done, though I left the vet with instructions to give him some electrolytes, extra alfalfa and extra calcium (Tums were suggested as a good source), and bring him back in a few hours — if all was cleared up, we could still ride the next day.
So that was a new one for me…I’ve never directly dealt with thumps before, but after dealing with it, I can say that if I have to deal with any sort of metabolic incident, thumps would be the preferable one, because it’s straightforward enough, fairly easy to clear up, and as long as it’s corrected, doesn’t leave any lingering issues. Basically, it’s caused by an electrolyte imbalance that leads to an irregular spasming of the diaphragm. He’d been on a more minimalist electrolyte protocol, but he’s one of those horses who really benefits from a more aggressive electrolyte regimen.
So Troy and Rymoni went out on loop two, and Flash and I got to play battle of the syringes. But I haven’t battled with the pony on this very same issues for years for nothing, and eventually I got a couple doses of crushed Tums down his gullet. It took maybe an hour and half to totally clear up (by which time Flash was thoroughly sick of me hovering, and giving me the disgusted stink-eye “bug off, lady, and leave me alone” look), so after Troy finished, we gathered up both the boys to go over to the vet. Rymoni was good to go, both for his day’s completion as well as to start the next day, and Flash was thoroughly checked over and declared good to go for day two.
Saturday morning rolled around even chillier, with some wind and cloud cover, with more clouds trying to move in. All that meant I actually left my outer layer windbreaker on, since we would be climbing up to 10,000′ again fairly early on, and it was bound to be even chillier at the top.
The plan was to take it really easy on this day — ease Flash into the day, make sure all systems were go, and regularly electrolyte him. He was strong from the start, but much more biddable than day one when it came to requests to ease off or not incessantly tailgate Rymoni. Fortunate, because I definitely had a few protesting muscles, and it took me several miles to settle in. It’s been almost 5 years since I last did back-to-back days, and I was feeling it for a little bit there.
The trail took us through some of the sagebrush flats (watch out for badger holes!) before starting to climb. Up, up, up, into the aspens, making time and trotting where we could, walking all the climbs.
This was our “climb to 10,000′” part of the day, and the views from the top were beyond breathtaking.
I was glad for the jacket — it was definitely chilly as we made our way across the ridgeline for a bit before dropping down into the bowl on the backside and cross-countrying our way down to the drainage/trail.
The next section was about 4 miles of pretty much downhill, hardpack, rocky road. We took it easy and walked a lot of it, with intermittent jog-jog sections when it was decent enough footing for the first couple miles, then in smoothed and leveled out enough to pick up the pace again. We eventually made one big loop, and came out on the sage brush from earlier in the morning.
This morning’s loop wasn’t as long as day one — I think it was about 25 miles by the time we got back in to camp. Both boys were down right away (yay! That hanging pulse of Flash’s on day one had been the first red flag), so we repeated the same routine — give them food, sit down and eat our own lunches, go vet. Vet check was an all clear this time, so we headed back to the trailer to wrap up the last few vet-check niceties (bathroom, last bit of food, bridle, and go…).
We were out on loop two right on our out time, and Flash cheerfully took up leading, heading out one more time on the familiar creek-crossing trail in/out of camp. And I had my favorite version of Flash — relaxed and happy, easy trotting in the lead on a loose rein.
On this loop, we would follow part of the first loop from day one, so we were on super-familiar turf. Along the way, we picked up Miriam, who had gotten a bit turned around, and she ended up hanging out with us for the rest of the ride. She was super fun to ride with, and I always enjoy meeting and befriending another person in the sport within my own age bracket.
The “Norwegian Forest” section of this loop basically cut off the whole “climb to 10,000′” part of the previous day, and connected over to the same last 7 or 8 miles in to camp from day one/loop one. As soon as the trail connected, Flash knew exactly where we were, and his homing pigeon radar kicked in. He was more than keen to go, but we just kept to the same strategy we’d been doing all day of a nice steady pace. Plus, there was so much grass along the way, and all three boys were more than happy to stop and graze their way into the finish.
Of course, we couldn’t end the ride without a bit of humor and hilarity. We stopped in the larger creek crossing just a mile or so out from camp for one last sponging…and I managed to lose my hold on the sponge string and send it straight into the water. Water that was over knee-deep on Flash. I’m 5’4″. Flash is 15.3. There was no way I was going to manage the “lean over and retrieve an object” trick, so I was resigned to hopping off into the creek for sponge retrieval. Fortunately Miriam came to my rescue — she’s tall, and adorable Mighty is a tiny little power pony, so she was able to lean over and snag the errant sponge for me. Crisis averted! (And I didn’t have to get my feet wet.)
It was a pleasant surprise to find out when we crossed the finish line we were in 5th/6th/7th…we had really taken it easy through the whole day, and rode the ride that the boys needed, and just stayed consistent. Completion awards for the day were really cool insulated stainless steel water bottles — I can never have too many water bottles.
Sunday morning, we wrapped up camp and hit the road…back down to Mt Carmel for the night again, and then home again Monday. Dad volunteered to drive up to Troy and Claire’s place outside of Prescott to pick me up, so that was fun for him to get to meet Flash in person (since I’ve been talking about this horse since April), and I had someone to rehash the weekend to on the drive back home.
So, Flash and I both go to Tevis in a little over a week…although not together. Flash will be taking a rider from Australia through, and I will be riding my favorite “summer camp pony,” Roo, who has shown up on this blog numerous times (I’ve crewed for him and Lucy at Tevis twice, ridden him in the Tahoe Rim 50, and pre-ridden parts of the Tevis trail on half a dozen occasions).
I would definitely keep the Strawberry ride on my “must do rides” list…the scenery is amazing, and it’s a good, challenging, true endurance ride. Great pre-Tevis prep, and a great ride to teach a horse to take care of themselves.
And after Tevis? Who knows. The thing about catch riding is I rarely have plans set in stone. I’ve learned to be very flexible, and take opportunities as they come up. But I know I’ll happily ride Flash again any time he’s offered!