I think I am officially at the, “If at first you don’t succeed, try, try (try-try-try-try-try) again” point. The short version: we went all 50 miles…and got pulled at the finish when she was off on the left front.
At the time, the working theory, after talking with one of the vets later in the afternoon and him assessing her, was she was footsore — she looked worse trotting out without her boots on, and I had made a potentially major user error and trimmed her only two days before the ride. I also didn’t do a great job of taking down her bars enough on one side, so that may have been a contributing factor.
Needless to say, with two pulls in a row, my anxiety is rather high once again. Our next ride is next weekend up in Flagstaff, and right now, I’m questioning everything. The part of me that hates failure is kind of ready to throw in the towel on the whole thing rather than risk another pull. And then the other part of my brain has no patience for that kind of thinking. I don’t know whether to believe “third time’s a charm” or “three strikes, you’re out.” My brain feels like a pinball machine cranked up to 12. The last couple of weeks have also been a stress-y, so that’s not helping.
In the meantime, while I suss out my endurance existential meltdown, I should probably talk about the previous ride from last month…which was pretty fantastic, right up until the moment it wasn’t, and I keep trying to remind myself that horses don’t know or care about things like records or official finishes…all the mare knows is that she went 50 miles, and that I was and am super proud of and pleased with her.
Arizona’s spring weather can best be described as “mercurial” (or via the meme of “You can’t fit all four seasons in one week.” ARIZONA: “Hold my beer and watch this.”) and while it was a month between rides, rather than a week, we went from the 27* and blizzarding of Old Pueblo to a predicted high of 87* and sunny for Bumble Bee. Well, both my mare and I are native-born Arizonans, so we should be able to cope with heat better than the cold…
I hit the road bright and early Friday morning to beat the heat, the worst of the Phoenix traffic, and to have plenty of time to relax and enjoy being in camp. My friend Cathy (my Tevis 2019 crewing rider) had saved me a spot in camp, and we had made plans ahead of time to ride together, or at least start together to give Liberty a steady, consistent-pacing friend to model herself after, versus constantly trying to hook onto and speed off with some of the faster-traveling horses like she kept trying to do at Old Pueblo.
That “rough road” sign was no joke. The dirt road into Bumble Bee was as bad as I’ve ever seen in, with the washboard worn down to the “can’t be graded smooth anymore” bare rock, largely due in part to the offroad vehicles discovering that area. I crawled along at 5mph in 4WD Low in some areas, and it still didn’t help avoid the massive vibrations and rattling. A week or so after the ride, I ended up needing to take the truck in for some major “hind end work” — that road was the last straw on the u-joints and one of the axles.
I had plenty of time to leisurely set up camp and visit with friends before heading over to check in, and then shortly thereafter, vet in. Liberty was really well-behaved for vetting, and she seemed to enjoy wandering around camp, sampling water troughs and socializing. It got pretty warm in the afternoon, so I opted to hang out in the shade with friends until the temperature dropped a little before before heading out for a short pre-ride ahead of dinner and ride briefing.
I slept pretty well for a pre-ride night, and was up early enough to go through my ride morning routine without feeling rushed. I’ve gotten away from doing any kind of morning feeds or concentrates for Liberty, so she got half a flake of grass hay and a small handful of alfalfa, just so she felt like she got “something” for breakfast.
I had plenty of time ahead of the start to walk Liberty around and get her warmed up, and Cathy and I headed out just about mid-pack at the start. I was so impressed with how much Liberty has matured over the years. This ride start was the one that, seven years ago, it took us almost 20 minutes to creep through the barnyard and all of its scary tools and machinery, and past the pen of equinivorous goats. (The goats have since passed on, but there are still some dogs in the pen.) This time, she sauntered right past everything, focused only on “get out to the trail.” This was also the same ride start location that she had crow-hopping fits on a couple of occasions, necessitating a lot of brain schooling and slow starts.
Well, it was worth taking the time way back when to address some of those issues, because I saw the payoff of that happen this weekend. Between the inherent age that comes with maturity, and her having positive learning experiences previously, she was straight to business on this morning, striding out at a working trot and only focused on moving out down the trail. Of course, we have now entered the stage of “pace negotiations,” where she thinks she is a lot fitter and can go a lot faster than she needs to at this point.
Fortunately, riding with Cathy was giving us a good “steadiness anchor” and we alternated back and forth with leading and following. The trail for the first 10 miles or so of this ride can be pretty fast, and it would have been all too easy to let her get swept up in zipping along at a faster pace and burn herself out too soon, when my goal was “finish with some gas in the tank.”
My favorite part of the course is along the Black Canyon Trail — it’s single track and winds along the foothills, twisting in and out and up and down. It’s super-fun, and I’ve always had a blast with Liberty in this section. She is super handy and absolutely loves single-track trail herself…I just sit back and let her do her thing.
The BCT section is about 7 miles long, and spits you out into this fun little wash/creek that runs alongside Bumble Bee Ranch. There is typically at least some water in there, which makes for a really fun and novel experience of splashing through the water.
Liberty had started drinking back around mile 10 at one of the cow troughs along the way, but when we hit the troughs set up outside of camp, she parked herself at them and spent several minutes tanking up. I lost track of how much she was drinking, but it was enough to necessitate a few minutes of walking after she was done, lest she start sloshing her way down the trail. I wasn’t sure what to expect at this point — previously, we had done the LD at the ride a couple of times, and the loop one trail veered into camp at the troughs. This time, the 50-milers loop one continued on and came into camp the longer, back way around…and I wouldn’t have been surprised to get a bit of a “but camp is that way” mutiny on my hands.
Color me pleasantly shocked when I pointed her up the wash and she kept cheerfully trucking, barely even sparing a glance back at camp. Although we had quite a few discussions along the way of this first loop, negotiating with her to keep the pace reasonable, and that she would not be tailgating on Cathy’s mare whenever we were following, I was rather thrilled with her cheerful, forward attitude. Having had numerous “pedal” moments at some of our early rides, I much prefer this version of her.
The vet check and hold was back in camp in-between loops, and I was fortunate enough to have Cristina offer to come by for part of the day and crew for me during the hold. I’m getting really spoiled by having crew at the last couple of rides! She met us as we came into camp, and because it was getting warm, we did strip tack (it was optional at this ride, but I’ve already played the “large, dark horse in the sun” game and knew it would probably be beneficial to pull her saddle off…especially if I had a crew to help schlep it around.
In the couple minutes that it took to pull the saddle, let her drink, and slosh some water on her, Liberty’s pulse was down, so we headed over to P&R, and from there, vetting. I forgot to take a picture of the vet card, but I want to say her pulse was something like 52, and all As from what I remember. Tons of energy still, and a very nice trot-out.
Cristina got Liberty all settled with a sloppy mash, and even sponged her all clean, while I got my own lunch, and changed into a short-sleeve shirt for the warmer afternoon. I even had time to do a quick tack change of swapping out bits, ditching the (hated) running martingale, and pulling out a clean saddle pad. I have to say, I do love the convenience aspect of in-camp checks, having everything right there, and not having to pack a crew bag.
The hour hold flew by pretty quick, and then Cathy and I were on our way on loop 2. The first part of the loop is definitely slow-going. Called the “Miner Bob Loop” for the miner who holds one of the mining claims partway through the loop, the trail spends part of the loop winding in and out of another wash/stream, with a lot of rocks and rough footing. There are also a couple of sizable climbs along the way. It’s not a place you can ever make time, so the ride strategy is to trot whenever you have a clear area; otherwise, walk the rocks.
Fortunately, the Miner Bob loop is only a portion of the whole second loop (about 9 miles), and with the number of water crossings we had, the horses stayed well-hydrated. With only a couple miles to go on the loop, Cathy ended up slowing down and sending me on ahead — she was concerned about the toll the rocks were taking on her mare, who was starting to feel footsore, so she was going to wait at the next accessible point along the trail for her husband to bring her a pair of boots with pads in them. But in the meantime, she didn’t want me slowed up, so she waved me on and insisted that I keep going.
With only minor encouragement, Libby left her trail buddy behind, and we forged onward by ourselves. I really enjoyed riding with Cathy — we get along well, and always have a ton to talk about — but I also cherish my solo time with my mare. I’ve had some of the best moments with her when we’ve been by ourselves on the trail, and this ride was no exception. We caught up to and ended up passing one small group of horses, and from that point on, all the way into the finish, we had the trail to ourselves.
The same seven-mile stretch of the BCT that we came down in the morning, we now were heading up. It’s a deceptive uphill grade, and a lot of the trail is pretty easy to move out on and forget you’re constantly going uphill. But being by ourselves, I was able to get a feel for where she was at physically and mentally, and I was blown away by her good life choices. She knew exactly when to dial it back, and when to pick up, when to give herself a break, and when to keep cruising. I barely touched my reins through this section, and still felt so in tune with her.
It was definitely still warm out, although fortunately we had a really nice breeze, and that was a major help in the evaporative cooling angle. Several times I reached down to touch her neck or shoulder and was surprised by how she felt — with her dark coat and larger size, I fully expected her to retain a lot of heat but between the breeze and her own pace regulating, she was doing a great job of shedding heat and keeping herself comfortable.
She continued to drink like a fish through this entire loop, and got quite indignant when I made her bypass one trough on the way back to camp because it had a dozen cows surrounding it. (There was another trough only a mile down the trail, but she was quite miffed at the bovine blockade.)
I was so pleased with her attitude the whole way back to camp. She was still cheerful and happy to move out, and I was letting her set the pace — walk breaks when she wanted, pick up again when she was ready. Something that I found absolutely fascinating was my own mental state when I was out there — I never hit a wall myself. I never found myself thinking, “Ugh, I just want to be done. Ugh, how much further do we have?”
Now, I know some of that was a conscious choice to keep my own spirits up — she is such a sensitive, intuitive horse who is so tuned in to me, that I knew if I let myself start thinking that way, it would likely lead to her doing the same thing. This would be the furthest she had ever gone (although, 42 miles at Old Pueblo, so this wouldn’t be too much longer…) and I wasn’t sure if at some point she would decide, “What the heck are we doing out here still…” so I wanted to make sure I wasn’t going to I wasn’t inadvertently contributing to that.
The other thing was, I was genuinely enjoying myself. I love riding this horse so much. I was relishing the time out there by ourselves, I knew we still had plenty of time left on the clock and didn’t have to rush in, and I was in no hurry to end our day. (I fully admit there have been some horses and some rides that I could not wait for it to be over.) Honestly, that sort of thing hasn’t happened to me very much at rides. There’s typically at least some point along the way that I feel totally over it, and if some magic ride fairy wanted to snap her fingers and teleport me and my horse back to the trailer, I would be quite okay with it. But this time…not the case. Mentally, I was feeling good; physically, I was feeling good.
We made our way back in to camp, finishing somewhere around 4:15 after a 6am start. Minus the one hour hold, that put us at a ride time of 9:15, which I was very happy with for the goal of “finish the 50 with gas in the tank and don’t run the clock down.”
By the time I hopped off, loosened the girth, and sponged her neck while she tanked up, her pulse was down, and we headed over to vet. Parameters were all great…until it came to the trot-out. Never mind she had trotted into camp feeling totally even…some time in that maybe ten minutes between coming in to camp and vetting, she was now off on the left front.
Further consulting with one of the other vets later that afternoon netted the strong possibility that what we were seeing was foot soreness/stone bruise since she was worse without her boots on. And here’s the part where I admit I screwed up: like I mentioned at the start of this tale, I trimmed her on Thursday before the ride. I got overambitious and took off probably more than I should in an attempt to correct some wayward hoof balance issues…and also got sloppy in not taking off enough bar on…guess where? That left front. I mean, I know better…my rule has always been no trimming any closer than the weekend before a ride. (Which means I do some minor touch-ups this weekend and then the rasp gets buried out of sight.)
At the time, I was bummed by not officially completing, but overwhelmingly pleased with how well she had done all day. I was blown away by how mentally strong she was, and she had taken excellent care of herself all day long with eating and drinking. I did a good job of holding up my end of the deal in terms of being an active participant — I got off and walked down some of the rocky downhill spots, I got off and electrolyted her along the way multiple times, I took care of myself, and had so much fun.
The few things that didn’t work:
– Her leg wraps (the hinds were down around her pasterns like little bracelets versus protecting her fetlocks — first time using them and I didn’t get them snug enough, so had to correct that partway through the first loop; and the front splint boots rubbed the backs of her fetlocks — not raw or sore, but took the hair off in a couple of spots).
– My own feet were sore afterwards and it took about a week to get full feeling back in a couple of little toes (this is the second time this has happened and I’m wondering if it’s my own boots, which are heavier and have a narrower toe box than the other Terrains I’ve worn previously).
– Running martingale — I used it on the first loop because I didn’t want a repeat of Old Pueblo, where she emulated an inverted llama…but she hates it. Much fussing and protest, even with it rigged very loose. I took it off on loop 2 and she was much better. I don’t know whether that’s because she had 25-ish miles under her girth, or she was happy without the martingale, but I think I’m going to give it a try going without again at Flagstaff…or maybe start with it and drop it as soon as I can out on the trail versus waiting to get back to camp.
– Itchy/rubbing. She wants to rub and itch on everything, so that’s a work in progress. Especially things like water troughs, buckets, or me when I’m standing there trying to get her pulsed down or vetted through.
– The previously-discussed trimming/soreness
– Not actually getting a completion. Honestly…finish line pulls suck, there is just no other way around it.
Immediately after the ride, I was riding the high of how well she had done…but of course, after a month of having too much time to dwell on my own thoughts, I start second-guessing myself and doubting myself. I know everyone has failures, and pulls, and plenty of steep learning curves along the way, and I’m not unique in this regard. I obviously really love this crazy sport, though, because I can’t think of too many other things I would persistently pursue with this level of relentless whack-a-mole tendencies, regardless of some of the less-than-stellar outcomes. And that, my friends, is the magic of endurance.
Anyway, keep fingers and hooves crossed for us that next weekend at Flagstaff will be “third time’s a charm.”