“Some days you win, some days you learn.”
We set out to do Liberty’s first 50 on one of the days of the Old Pueblo ride in Sonoita, AZ. While we ultimately didn’t finish (our day ended at 42 miles after a CRI exam showed an erratic heart rate and indicated she wasn’t recovering as well as she should), it was under extremely challenging conditions, and I am so incredibly proud of this mare and how she handled everything that was thrown at her, and how much we learned together.
Come along with me for a ride story of epic proportions, a bit of insanity, and plenty of things learned.
The Old Pueblo ride is an Arizona institution and icon of a ride, having been around in some form or fashion since at least the 1980’s (possibly earlier, but AERC records only go back to 1985) and since 2008, has been run as a 3-day Pioneer ride. It’s a ride I’ve done only a handful of times over the years, usually due to schedule conflicts, but the times I’ve been down there I’ve enjoyed the beautiful scenery (base camp is 4200′ elevation, in the rolling grassland foothills of the Santa Rita Mountains, just north of the town of Sonoita in southern AZ) and the fun mix of trails. Camp is located within the Las Cienegas National Conservation Area, and the camp itself is the old airstrip from the historic Empire Ranch.
The ride is a 3-day Pioneer ride on Friday, Saturday, and Sunday, offering distances of 55/30, 50/25, and 50/25, plus intro rides each day. After consulting with one of the ride managers, I had opted to ride the 50 on Saturday, as it was one of the days that involved riding out under the highway and to the Arizona Trail, and is some of the prettiest scenery (and would be slightly easier, and 5 miles shorter, than Friday’s ride). I did drive down early, though, as I wanted the “safety in numbers” travel caravan, and all of my potential travel buddies were heading down Thursday. It ended up being very relaxing to have the extra day in camp, especially because I brought the dogs with me, so that gave me some extra time to make sure they were settled and set for the weekend.
It’s not a long drive — maybe two and a half hours from the barn — and I pulled into camp just shortly before noon, finding a nice open spot close by to a water trough and not far from the check in and vetting area. I spent the rest of the afternoon getting camp set up, transforming the trailer into my kitchen, tack room, and dog hang-out area, and the back of the Suburban into sleeping quarters.
This was my first time juggling the three-ring circus — taking my own horse and my dogs to a ride together. I’ve taken Liberty to a ride, and I’ve taken the dogs to a ride I was volunteering at, and I’ve taken them all camping together, but taking them to a ride while I was going to be riding would be a first. (Although it was old hat for Sofie, who spent the years before I got her on the road with other endurance riders, so she knew the routine and seemed to be happy to be back in ride camp.) Having that extra set-up and downtime day made all the difference though and made for a much more settled time and not feeling rushed. And Liberty was happy to chill out, tied to the trailer, munching her way through her hay manger and going for walks around camp.
Friday morning was chilly, and the breeze just kept increasing, eventually reaching about 25mph steady winds with 35mph gusts. The pups and I chilled out and watched riders out of day one coming in and out of camp, and I got stuff ready to go for the next day, then finally gathered up Liberty and headed over to vet in. She had been totally chill and zen this whole time, until we went to vet in, and then she woke up and seemed to realize we were at an endurance ride. No problem with movement and impulsion scores for her trot-out. (I may have mentioned, “F for attitude” to the vet, after I had to remind Liberty that she does have ground manners and does have to follow them.)
From there, we headed out for a short pre-ride with a friend. She was pretty wound up, especially when we turned around to head back to camp, and wanted to jig the whole way. That’s a habit I really don’t want her to learn, so we did a lot of circling, and weaving around little bushes, and working on keeping the marbles between the ears. Not awesome, but given she is fit, fresh, and it was really, really windy out, I can’t say a whole lot, and while she was sassy and snorty, she was never stupid.
All day long, I had been watching Saturday’s weather report, which was calling for temperatures to drop further, and for snow flurries to move in overnight and into the morning. Maybe I should have pulled my stuff together better Thursday and ridden Friday’s ride after all…but a little late for that now. I’ve ridden in all kinds of wet, crappy conditions before, and a few snow flurries might actually be better than some of the rain-drenched rides I’ve done. (Little did I know…as everyone from actual snow climates laughs.)
Ride briefing was quick, going over the day one finishers, and a short overview of the next day’s trails. There would be three loops of 26, 14, and 10 miles, with two 45-minute holds in-between.
It was definitely cold again overnight, and I was having a hard time staying warm in my sleep set-up in the suburban, even with my furry furnaces tucked in with me. I had the great idea of setting up an air mattress in the back for more cushion…unfortunately in that kind of weather, it turns into sleeping on a cushion of freezing air, so I had a hard time getting warm no matter how many top layers of blankets I piled on (had a couple of bedsheets and blanket between me and the mattress but that apparently wasn’t enough). So I’ll be investigating the solid foam type of cushion/mattresses as the next option for sleeping arrangements…although the air mattress will still work for any time it’s not below-freezing temperatures.
Saturday morning, I did the “wake up and crank the engine on and blast the heater for a few minutes” routine before poking my head outside, only to be greeted with the sight of white, fluffy stuff accumulating on the ground. Ohhh-kay. Guess the weather report was actually accurate. I was grateful for the fact I had thrown a couple pairs of winter tights in my bag — not because I planned to ride in them, since normally they’re overkill for riding, but more as an option for around camp and after the ride. However, my wardrobe plans for the day rapidly changed, and I ended up in a pair of Bare Equestrian winter tights (they were the surprising standout hit of the weekend, because although they’re thin, the lining is dense and my legs stayed very comfortable), and multiple thin top layers, alternating between wool and polyester options (wool tank, l/s poly long underwear top, wool l/s quarter-zip, puffy synthetic down vest, all topped with a softshell jacket). Fortunately, I had also tossed in a pair of winter riding gloves (again, for around camp in the evening), a thin ear muff headband, and multiple Buff-style neck tubes. All of these would get put into play.
It really was just light flurries at this point, so I figured the weather would be right — a few hours of this and then it would clear off. I tossed Libby some more grass hay for her to work on while I put her boots on, then got my own coffee going and breakfast for the dogs and myself before taking the pups out. They were more than happy to take care of business and then jump back in the (comparably) warmer truck. Did my own coffee/breakfast thing, got Liberty saddled (debated about a rump rug, initially put it on, then took it off after contemplating the formula of wind + cold + snow + fresh, fit Arab who has never worn a rump rug before may not be the best recipe for a successful start…), took the dogs out one more time, then got them settled in for the morning. Got Liberty bridled, walked over to check-in for the start, let her bounce around me in a few lunge circles, eventually hopped on her via a handy mounting block, and walked around the start area. She didn’t want to walk nicely — doing sideways movements, bit of bouncing, but I kept her moving around, telling her off a few times for acting like a child, and in general was fairly impressed with myself and how unreactive I was to her antics. Fortuantely there was only a few minutes of that before the controlled start and we walked out of camp. Well, sort of walked, sort of slow-trotted.
We started pretty much middle of the pack and cruised along in a group for the first several miles. The snow was starting to fall a little heavier now, and it was a bit surreal trotting along through the snow, watching it land on Libby’s black mane, or trying to brush it off the front of my saddle as it started to accumulate. My thoughts at this point were mostly, “I hope it doesn’t accumulate too much and then all melt, because then I’ll be soggy the rest of the loop.”
Something to know about the Old Pueblo ride is there are a lot of gates on the trails. A lot. Some are ranch-style barbed wire, others are trail-type designed to be potentially able to be opened on horseback. (Mimi spoiled me in the past at this ride. I could fly through this section on her because all of the gates, I could open and close from her back. Liberty isn’t quite gate-trained yet and doesn’t understand exactly what I want her to do, so that’s something we will be working on. I ended up being fortunate enough to be with someone through a number of the crossings, but still ended up dismounting a good half a dozen times.) Just on the first 26-mile loop, I think there were at least a dozen gates, possibly a few more. The gates start within a few miles out of camp, and it quickly ends up spreading the field out. About five and half miles out of camp, the trail crosses under the highway via a concrete tunnel. Large enough to take a horse through, but it’s highly recommended to get off and walk the horse through, because the ceiling of it is low. No idea if Liberty had ever been through a tunnel before, but she followed the horse in front of us right through with no fuss.
Shortly after the tunnel, I wasn’t thrilled with the pace — Liberty was rather hooked in to the horses in front of and behind us and wanting to go at a speed faster than I wanted, so I worked on getting her to back off and get our own space bubble. What ensued was several miles of negotiations, with me wanting her to do her easy, comfortable trot, and her wanting to rush ahead at Mach 10 through the twisting, turning, up and down single track of the Arizona Trail we were currently on. After a few miles of asking politely, and her pretending she had no idea what I was talking about, I finally had to look for a more open wash area that was large enough to pull her off the trail, where we did a few overly dramatic spins that gradually softened down to circles before she settled and the marbles came back between the ears. From there, I made her walk until I could feel her attention come back to me and not what was on the trail in front of us. (And to think, I was originally concerned that she might not have the “go” or desire to be a good endurance horse.)
The next half a dozen miles or so, we were by ourselves. It was still snowing, and while it was annoying/frustrating to have the snow blown into my eyes when we went through windy areas (I didn’t know I needed to add ski goggles to my packing list), when we were in sheltered areas, the snow was falling softly, and it was so quiet and magical out there. Now, obviously, being a native Arizona desert rat, my experience with snow is very limited. Especially when it comes to riding. As in, “well, this is a first.” Liberty grew up in and came from the northwest part of the state, which is considered high desert and occasionally gets a mild dusting of snow that blows through, but nothing that would likely give her true experience for riding in the stuff.
One of the trickier aspects was that there was enough snow sticking that it was covering the rocks that I knew were underfoot. It had been eight years since I’d done this ride, and the snow was making everything look different, but I had a general idea of where we were and that it was an area with some rocks. (This is Arizona. There isn’t a single ride here that doesn’t involve some level of rocks.) To that end, we navigated carefully. Liberty picked her way down the hills, and seemed to be trying to follow the hoofprints of those in front of us, which had cleared off enough of the snow to provide a bit of a visible path in many areas. The snow was wet, heavy, and coming down in large flakes, so it was doing a good job caking to my jacket, helmet, saddle…the whole thing felt surreal. Surprisingly, I overall wasn’t too cold. My multiple layers were doing a good job keeping me mostly dry, and my core was nice and toasty, and we just kept moving forward, not giving either of us a chance to stop and get chilled.
We came into the checkpoint and water stop at Rosemont Junction at about 13 miles, paused just long enough to let her drink, and kept moving. The trail at this point was really nice double-track service road, the footing was good, and nothing felt like it was slick or icy. One of my main concerns was just not knowing how the boots would do in the snow, and if they would end up being really slick or not. I had friends who live in actually snowy places send me photo evidence of riding in the snow and ice in their Renegades, so I knew it had been done…but it’s one thing to hear about someone else doing it and another to be the one experiencing it myself. But so far, so good.
We had a few more miles of winding along the service road at the base of the canyon, and staying relatively sheltered from the worst of the wind, but eventually the trail turned out of the canyon and started heading up into rolling hills. The wind increased, the soft snow turned into much harder ice/snow mix, and conditions rapidly deteriorated. Around this time, I could feel Liberty start questioning my sanity, especially since we hadn’t seen any other signs of life out there, aside from a random lone cow alongside the road a couple miles back. Fortunately for both of us, within a few minutes, a couple of other riders caught up with us and we were able to tuck in with them as a small group. I knew both riders, and both hailed from areas that actually knew how to better deal with the weather conditions and what to watch out for when it came to potentially tricky footing areas, and had no problem with me tagging along behind.
We set a pretty smart pace heading back. The first loop ends up being a lollipop loop that follows the same 6-ish miles from the morning back into camp. Liberty is a homing pigeon extraordinaire, even on trails she’s never been on, and as soon as the internal compass pointed even vaguely back towards “due trailer” so was full of all kinds of enthusiasm again. At this point, there were four of us riding together and I learned that she doesn’t necessarily love being in the middle of a pack with certain horses behind her. Doesn’t happen all the time, but every so often, especially if there’s a horse in front of her, certain horses behind her will get her trying to spurt or rush forward. That was happening a little bit here and there at this point, so I alternated moving her to the back of the group, or riding side by side, and I was pleasantly surprised by how settled she was even at the back of the pack. Mimi has always hated being anywhere other than in the lead, and riding her in a group was always a nightmare for me. So having this one be perfectly happy to maintain an appropriate space bubble and not tailgate the other horses was sooo nice.
The snow had started to taper off by this point, and the sky was lightening up a bit as the sun made a valiant effort to try to start peeking through. Back through the highway tunnel, the snow continuing to taper, and the ground quickly turning from white back to brown as things started to melt. The last few miles into camp were a ton of fun. I alternated letting Liberty trot and canter, because her canter is only a touch faster than her trot, and she does it so naturally and comfortably, and stays on a loose rein. I’d just as soon she not do a big trot, although a few times she did sneak up the speed and show she has the capability…but a rolling, collected canter seems a lot easier than the big, booming trot, as well as being very aerobically efficient. It’s also a really nice break for me, because her canter is so comfortable. I can easily sit it, and she naturally self-rates on a loose rein (my mind is blown, I didn’t actually think such a unicorn existed), and I am just so dang excited over the whole idea because I’ve never really ridden a horse like this.
We cruised back into camp, walking the last bit in, and I hopped off right at the edge of camp at the water trough and loosened her girth and removed her bit while she drank. She was pulsed down as soon as we went over to the pulse-taker, and as I was getting ready to get in the vet line, my Camp Angel (aka Marcelle Hughes, maker of the best True Grit Endurance Outfitters saddle packs, and my camp neighbor for the weekend) came swooping in, grabbed my bridle, and offered up her and her husband Bill’s help for anything I might need. I got Liberty vetted through (B on guts, not surprising after 26 miles with not much out there to munch on, but all As everywhere else and a 52/52 CRI) and back at the trailer, Bill and Marcelle got her bundled into some blankets and installed in front of her food, then took the dogs out while I sorted out a change of dry clothes, then Marcelle whisked me (and the dogs) off to their warm trailer, where a hot lunch and hot beverages of choice awaited.
That was the absolute lifesaver of the entire weekend. It was only a 45-minute hold, and there is no way I would have been able to do everything I needed to do in that time period. Being able to sit and change into dry clothes in a warm trailer, and down a hot bowl of delicious homemade venison stew and hot coffee made all the difference in the world, and I was feeling comfortably warm and toasty. Marcelle also came to my rescue with a dry rump rug (after the one I left in camp that morning had gotten soaked from sitting under the open slats of the trailer), more electrolytes after I discovered the premade tubes I was carrying on the saddle had practically frozen and were nearly impossible to dose Liberty with (and thus enabled her to spit out what I could get into her), and making a last-second fix to one of the sides of my packs after the velcro I was using to attach it decided to fail. All my years of crewing came back to repay me in the best way possible this weekend, and I am so, so grateful for it.
We headed out on loop two (14 miles) and immediately out of camp were joined by my friend Jen. (She was one of the riders I had joined up with on loop one to get through the snow, and have known her going back a number of years in endurance, as she used to live near me and we would occasionally ride together. Then she moved a few hours away and I don’t get to see her as often, so it was really fun to get the chance to ride together and catch up.) Her gelding and Liberty paced well together, and company made this loop, which featured a lot more rocky, double-track road, a lot more interesting. The snow had totally cleared off by this point, and the sun was out (so was the wind), and all the snow had melted, leaving behind perfect footing — enough to tamp down the dust, but not enough to create mud.
We leapfrogged leading through this loop, with a lot of areas of road to be able to let them move out (more short sections of centering here and there for Liberty, which I loved). At this point, I think she realized she was out on the trail for further than she had ever been, because although she had done a decent job of drinking on the first loop (especially given the conditions, but not as good as I know she is capable of), she went into hyperactive self-care mode on this loop, drinking like a fish from every water stop or water source we came across, and grabbing as much dry grass as she could whenever it was available.
Coming in off loop two, she took a little bit longer to pulse down than off loop one, but was at 60 within a few minutes, and we headed over to vet. She got all A’s, but the vet wasn’t happy with her CRI — 60/68, and she said her heart rate on the return sounded a little erratic. Her assessment was likely an electrolyte imbalance, so recommended I get some electrolytes into her, let her go through our hold time, and then do a re-check before going out on loop three.
No problem, I can do that. I really hadn’t gotten much by way of e’lytes into her (basically, one dose at this point, and the stuff I use [EquiLytes] is a fairly mild formula), both due to the weather, and the fact I’m still very much figuring out my e’lyte protocols with Liberty. I’ve not used them very much in the past with Mimi, always erring on the side of caution over giving too many, but in catch riding, found that at least a few of the horses I rode needed a more aggressive protocol, so that introduced me to that whole side of the equation. And I suspect that’s the side Liberty is going to end up coming down on from what I’ve seen so far.
Marcelle, Bill, and my friend Cathy were all around when I came in, and jumped in at various points to help crew (and electrolyte the beast…time to do more molasses-syringe work, because she was horrible to syringe this weekend). I was still warm and dry after this loop, so didn’t need to change, but while the crew got Liberty settled and electrolyted and fed, I took the dogs out, then sat down with the lunch Marcelle put together for me. With a few minutes left on the hold, I got the dogs settled again, got Liberty all ready to go, then we headed over to the vet. Right away, the vet wasn’t thrileld Liberty was still at 60, even after the recovery and down time of the hold, and her CRI was slightly worse on re-check, so after a brief discussion, we decided to pull her.
Back at the trailer, I pulled tack and bundled her into a dry fleece and her heavy blanket, then worked on cleaning her up, one section at a time, so I never had to fully remove her blankets. She got a big pile of fresh hay to work on, and got her first poultice wraps. I monitored her heart rate and it bounced up and down for a little while longer, then gradually settled (after talking with a friend, I’ve subsequently realized some of her hanging/erratic pulse also correlated to her being damn cold and shivering, trying to warm up, because once she got warmer (salt/dirt removed from her coat, fully dried off, another fresh fleece) and stopped shivering, her heart rate went back down to normal.
Initially I was bummed, but after enough reflection and feedback, I was able to realize just what a difficult day it had been with the weather, and how hard it is on their systems to deal with the sudden weather shift like that, the extra exertion of moving through the snow and slippery footing, and the extra demands of even trying to stay warm. Not to mention, I’m still figuring her out and going through the learning curve. She’s only my second endurance horse. Catch riding taught me a lot, but most of the time, I was also relying on a lot of owner feedback for individual management needs and quirks for any given horse. Now, it’s on me to be the one to figure out what this horse needs, and sometimes, working through that might not always mean instant success. I also have no idea how lingering the effects of the cough/snotty nose crud she had last month may have been, either. She didn’t cough at all, and nose was totally clear, but she may not have been fully 100% from that quite yet, either. Who knows? I could drive myself crazy and chase my tail in circles all day long, second-guessing everything…or I could recognize this as the fantastic learning experience that it is, figure out the takeaways from it (namely, more electrolytes — smaller, frequent doses, methinks), and move forward from here.
So in the end, I’m super proud of that mare, and what we accomplished that day. She shows me more and more heart every time I ask her for something, and the connection I feel with her is both immense and humbling, and hard to even adequately put into words. She handled the tricky footing and bad weather with no fuss, got her (as far as I know) first introduction to attempts at opening/closing gates from horseback (needs work, but it’s something to build on), went through the highway tunnel (twice!), wore a rump rug for the first time and didn’t care about it flapping or the string under her tail, let me take my jacket on and off at a trot on a loose rein, went the furthest she’s ever gone and was mentally ready to go out for more, and looked fantastic again the next day. She never quit, never faltered, and I didn’t have to wear spurs to dissuade her from her balking routine. She handled being in camp ahead of time amazingly well, hoovered her hay all day and night long, drank well, and acted like the endurance horse she was bred to be.
Nothing like a bit of snow, ice, and wind to put stuff to the test…
– Zilco Add-On Halter-Bridle
– Zilco Endurance Breastcollar
– Hought roo-laced beta reins
– Archer Equine wool saddle pad
– Frank Baines Reflex monoflap dressage saddle
– Wintec girth + JMS sheepskin girth cover
– True Grit pommel pack
– Renegade Viper hoof boots
– Professional’s Choice rear ankle boots
No issues with anything. I put her boots on in the morning, and didn’t touch them until after we were done for the day. I admit it was a pain doing up the straps at 6 o’clock in the morning in the barely-dawn light, with freezing fingers, trying not to let the velcro shred my skin, and to stuff the ends through the little rubber keepers (a hoofpick helps in this endeavor), but once they were on, I glanced at them during the holds, but they always looked good and I never had to mess with anything. They gave really good traction in the snow (and the mud when everything started melting), and loop two even involved a muddy creek crossing. She was also interfering on the hinds way less at this ride, which I attribute to her getting more fit.
– Alternating wool/polyester layers on top: wool tank, poly l/s long underwear shirt, wool/poly l/s zip neck, synthetic down vest, all topped with a softshell jacket (loop one); changed into a l/s poly shirt, l/s wool zip neck, softshell jacket, and light Goretex shell (that I constantly removed and put back on) (loop two). All of this stuff is miscellaneous gear gathered over the years, and mostly a lot of running/outdoor type of gear.
– Bare Equestrian winter tights (loop one); Ariat winter tights (loop two). The BE were the surprise hit of the weekend. They are thin, but surprisingly dense and warm and slightly compressive. The Ariat tights, not so much. Not very windproof and I was glad it stopped snowing by the time I was wearing them. (Good “normal” AZ winter tights.)
– Wool socks
– Ariat Terrains (zip-up, waterproof model)
– Ariat Terrain Half-Chaps
– LAS helmet
– Kerrits winter riding gloves (loop one, surprisingly effective); random pair of Roeckl gloves on loop two
– various and sundry Buff-style neck tubes