Ride Story: Man Against Horse 25 2021

photo by Susan Kordish

The Man Against Horse race. My anniversary ride — the first AERC ride I did, back in 2005. It’ll always hold a special place in my heart for that reason alone, but beyond that, it’s just flat out fun. One of the most unique rides of its kind, horses and riders are competing simultaneously with runners in their respective distances. It’s a blast sharing the trail with the runners, and the horses really seem to get into the spirit of it as well — every horse I’ve ridden at this ride has figured out the “chase after the runners” game. It’s also a challenging trail, especially the 50-miler, with quite a bit of climbing, elevation gain, and very rocky footing.

Throughout the summer, my plan was to do the 50. Our spring season had been rough, as Liberty and I worked through the learning curve of figuring out her particular needs and quirks, but I was able to keep riding and putting in some decent mileage over the summer, including putting in a pre-ride of the last third of the MAH 50-mile course. But as the fall season approached, I started having doubts. This is a hard 50. I personally am 2/4 on finishing it, including my first experience with the heartbreak of a finish line pull, and it’s a trail I don’t take lightly. It had also gotten very rocky, and I just wasn’t sure I wanted our next attempt at a 50 to be quite this level of challenging. At this point, I needed to set ourselves up for success, and have the mental confidence that came from a successful finish.

As soon as I made the decision to switch my entry to the 25, I felt like a huge weight was lifted off my shoulders. We’re just going in to the start of our fall season, and if things keep rolling along well, I’ve got an exciting slate of ride plans ahead, and I didn’t want to blow that by biting off too much on the first go-round.

Of course, my plans for the ride almost got derailed at the last minute. What should have been a fairly straight-forward brake job on my truck turned into a more complicated need to re-do some work that had been done on the rear end earlier in the year…and the necessary part wouldn’t be in until the Tuesday after the ride. And with the entire back half of the thing disassembled and sitting up on the mechanic’s lift, “Can you put it back together well enough to get me through the weekend?” wasn’t going to cut it. (Pro Tip Life Lesson: When you drive an older vehicle, pretty much assume every repair is going to be much more involved than originally advertised, and don’t wait until the week of a ride to get something done.)

I was fairly resigned to missing the ride — so many of my plans this year had gone sideways, so it wasn’t exactly a new feeling — but a quick text to my friend Lancette to let her know of my untimely change of plans resulting in her declaration that there was no way I was missing this ride after the work I had put in all summer, and that she would come to the barn, pick us up, take us to the ride, and make sure Liberty and I both had a place to hang our hats for the weekend.

I was pretty much in happy, grateful tears over her offer. Lancette is a gem; the first person I met when I pulled into ridecamp at Man Against Horse 16 years ago, and she’s been a good friend ever since. I always have a hard time asking people for anything — I am independent probably to a fault when it comes to doing things for myself, and I absolutely hate to put people out, be an inconvenience, or put someone in a position of having to say ‘no.’ I don’t know if that’s self-reliance, pride, stubbornness, or some other moniker, but that’s just how my brain tends to work.

Anyway, dime-store psychoanalyzing aside, I now had a plan of action, and could go ahead with doing a major overhaul and stream-lining of my packing. If Lancette was going to be kind enough to haul me and my pony around, the least I could do was make sure it didn’t also involve having to lug around the kitchen sink, since in no lifetime have I ever been considered a “minimalist packer.”

Early Friday morning saw my pile of stuff stacked next to the barn gate, and a quick hose-off bath for Liberty before Lancette showed up. A couple of minutes to throw everything into the trailer, load Libby, and then we were on the road. Another stop to load up Lancette’s horses, and we were officially ride-bound. Prescott’s only a couple hours away, and it wasn’t long before we were pulling into camp and getting set up.

After getting the horses settled, and grabbing some lunch for ourselves, we saddled up for a pre-ride and headed out for a few mile leg-stretch. Going out, the three horses did fairly okay together, trading off positions, but when we turned around to head back, all three started feeding off each other, so I ended up riding Liberty ahead while Lancette and Ellen kept their two back together. I was really happy with how willing Liberty was to leave her travel buddies — she just wanted to stretch her legs out and move.

Out on the pre-ride

Once back in camp, I got her vetted in, finished off packing my crew bag, and got a final few tack adjustments made. Storm clouds had been rolling in and out all day, even getting a few drops of rain during the pre-ride, but as our little camp sat down to dinner, the clouds started clearing, and we were treated to the most spectacular sunset.

Ride meeting went over a couple of minor trail changes — mainly, routing over to a ranch road rather than staying in a sand wash for several miles, as has always been the norm for some of the early miles, and I have to say, I like the changes. It added maybe a mile of extra distance, but it rode well, and faster and more predictable than the sand wash, which often has areas of unknown depth.

Post ride briefing, there was time for a few minutes of hanging out around the fire pit, and then it was off to bed. Ellen and her husband had brought their camper trailer up for sleeping accommodations, and it was a little slice of much-appreciated luxury to have a lovely, real bed to sleep in.

I’ve been pulling some early morning wake-ups over the summer to beat the heat, and I’ve gotten fairly accustomed to it, so despite having my alarm set for later, I still ended up awake at my normal hour. Which was fine, because it gave me plenty of time to slowly get ready and not rush around. I got dressed, grabbed some coffee and a hard-boiled egg for breakfast, then headed out to get Libby ready.

I’ve got my morning routine down to a fairly quick science now, and it doesn’t take much time for me to get her booted and tacked up. With every ride, she’s also getting better about remembering that she does still need to stand politely for mounting, and I was able to hop on from the side of the trailer with no fuss this time. She was definitely alert and ready to go, but also getting better about calmly walking around and moving her feet without needing to dance around.

The start for this ride is always one of the most exciting. It’s a shotgun start on a two-track road across an open meadow, with horses and runners all taking off en masse and more times than not, there’s usually some high level of drama that goes down, especially on the LD. So while I didn’t want to get caught up in front-runner drama, I also didn’t want to get tangled up in a pack of riders who were all vying to hold back and be the last ones out of camp. And that was how I found myself leaving right at the start, just behind the first quarter of the pack of people who were gunning for the front. Liberty handled it all so well. She was calm and professional, picking up a trot and immediately starting to weave around and work our way through the runner pack.

At the start — taken by Cristina, who was riding right around us for a little ways

Not two minutes into the start, I heard the “Loose horse” shout ahead, and watched as a short little dark grey horse started heading up the trail. I didn’t see the actual incident, but watched as the horse followed after some of the front runners. Fortunately, I watched as one of those riders was able to actually grab the loose horse and hold him for the rider to catch up to them. With the loose horse now safely restrained, we were able to pass by that little drama and keep trucking along. We passed quite a few runners through this section — an area we had pre-ridden the day before, so knew where all the slowdown/bottleneck spots would be and where to be able to safely get around people.

A mile or so past the start
photo by John Kordish

Liberty’s the 4th horse I’ve ridden at Man Against Horse, this was my 8th time doing this ride, and this was probably the best/easiest start I’ve had here. She was so business-like, and handled the traffic and high energy without even batting an eyelash. By the time we hit about 3 miles in, she was even feeling really settled and chill, and I began to think we were just going to cruise through the day as a casual, easy jaunt.

Morning trail — up along the top of a natural earthen dam, overlooking a cow tank

And then we hit the ranch road the detoured out of the wash and across the rolling, open plains — the kind of road that, at one point, you could see it spool out in a straight line in front of you for a couple of miles…and all the horses ahead. We also got passed by a few people, and that was all it took to wake up her competitive side, and I then spent the next several miles riding the handbrake fairly strongly, and glad I put the running martingale on, even if she’s not a fan of it. (Guess what? I’m not a fan of potentially getting smacked in the face by someone’s best flailing llama impression. But using it for a short time did what I hoped it would do, and she’s since stopped llama’ing quite as dramatically and is softening to the bit better.)

Wide open spaces. No one in sight in front of us at the moment, so she settled enough for me to take pics. That runner in front of us was a beast — he was easily keeping pace with her 9mph trot. We leapfrogged with him for several miles, off and on, before he got in front of us at a water stop, and then stayed in front of us the rest of the day. After my fairly brief stint with trail running, I have so much respect for these runners on this course. I’ll stick to tackling it with four hooves and a saddle.

I have to confess: As much as I strive for a settled, relaxed, loose rein cruise of a ride, there is a part of me that was secretly thrilled by her forwardness and enthusiasm and needing to be rated. All of our early rides were marked by a distinct lack of “major go” on her part, and I had wondered sometimes if she really wasn’t cut out to be an endurance horse. But looking back now, I think it was more of a case that she really wasn’t fit, and she was self-preserving enough to not run herself out. On the plus side, she never learned a race brain early on. Now that she’s fit, she is really wanting to go, which I love to see. That said, I’m still needing to be the brains of the operation at this point — I want more foundation well-laid before she’s allowed to pick up the speed. And she’s not hard to manage, just…tenacious. Like, she’s convinced that despite being told, “No, back off and chill out” the previous 10 times that on the 11th time I’m going to relent, throw the reins away, and tell her, “hit the gas.” And she’s so cheerful and good-natured and enthusiastic about it, that it’s really easy for me to laugh and stay chill about “pace negotiations.”

The first two opportunities for water, about 8 or 9 miles in, were a no-go — the first was a cow trough surrounded by a mucky puddle several feet across, and the next was another trough totally overgrown the algae. But there was another one a couple miles further up the trail, so I offered her the opportunity to stop, but didn’t dally too long or waste my energy forcing her or arguing with her.

Sure enough, at the windmill trough a little further along, she decided to take a small drink — not a lot, but it was still early, and the weather was still cool and overcast. From here, we picked up one of my favorite parts of the trail — colloquially called “the Grapevine.” It’s a single-track trail that twists and winds through a (mostly) dry creek bed for several miles before heading up into the scrub oak and manzanita and climbing about a thousand feet up to the vet check.

Along the way, a couple miles out from the check, we came across ride photographer Sue Kordish. She was set up at the top of a long hill, and with our own space bubble and no one around us, I was able to get some great ride photos. From the bottom of the hill, I let Libby go, and she jumped into her war mare charge, until part of the way up the hill, she spotted Sue, and immediately slowed down, put her ears up, and started posing for the camera.

As soon as we came into the check, Libby dove into the water trough and tanked up. We spent several minutes letting her drink, but it gave me a chance to remove her bit and loosen her girth, then headed over to pulse in. She pulsed in right away at 56, and then I gave her a few minutes to eat, then took advantage of a lull in the vet line and scooted over to vet in. She vetted through with all A’s, pulse of 48, then dove back into her food as soon as we were back at our crew area.

The hold was only 30 minutes, so we didn’t have a ton of time, but Libby was able to scarf a pan of feed, I ate a PB&J and drank an iced coffee, then switched Libby’s bridle for her s-hack, wrapped everything up, and was at the out timer right on time. From the check, there were several miles of trail that was different since the last time I had ridden the LD…a forest road that wound through the trees, did a bit of climbing up and down, and eventually we ended up at the spot that is the final gate-and-go vet check on the 50, and only 7 miles from the finish. We had also pre-ridden this section of trail several weeks prior, so Libby knew exactly where she was, and she put the afterburners on. All I did was settle back and hold on, and she cruised down the switchbacks, regulating her own pace in the rocky areas, and flying along whenever it was clear.

I had such a blast cruising down this trail with her. This is one of my favorite sections of trail, and traversing it on a horse that I am so comfortable with, who is so surefooted and trail-confident, makes it all the more fun. At the bottom of the canyon (where we had parked on the pre-ride), she seemed a little puzzled that the trailer wasn’t there waiting, but she kept cheerfully trucking on — I think her “camp” radar kicked in at this point, and I was still needing to rate her back a bit.

We had been in our own space bubble since a few miles before the vet check all the way to the very last checkpoint about a mile and half out of camp, but just past the checkpoint, as we were doing an easy trot through a section of trail that was little more than a light track that made a cross-country path down a ridgeline, we got passed by three riders who felt like cantering downhill through the rocks was the best way to traverse this section, and I recognized one as the rider who had parted ways with her horse at the start. Okay, kids, knock yourselves out. Run into camp…and then we’ll see you how long it takes to pulse down for your actual finish time.

I was super proud of Libby…she didn’t fuss at all over being passed, and kept on doing her steady pace, picking up a bit when we dropped into a nice, sandy wash single track. We cruised through the short section of wash, and just as we popped up over the bank out of the wash, I saw a rider walking on their own two feet, and a horse trotting off down the trail just ahead.

If your first thought was, “same rider as the morning?” you would be right. I stopped to check on her — apparently she got “clotheslined” by a tree down in the wash — and she asked if I could try to catch her horse. Fortunately, he wasn’t screaming along at Mach 10 ahead of us, so following behind him at Liberty’s nice trot allowed us to catch up to him in fairly short order, and the fact he stopped and was watching us didn’t hurt either, and I was able to reach over and snag his reins.

We weren’t very far out from camp, but I initially tried to turn around and head back to the rider, but neither horse was having any of that, so I ended up ponying him into the finish. He wasn’t the most willing participant — I couldn’t unclip his reins from the bit to attach them to the halter (the one time I wasn’t riding with my spare tailing rope!), so I was having to lead him from the bit, which he wasn’t super-thrilled with, but we got the job done and handed him off to a volunteer at the finish. The advantage of walking the last bit in was Liberty pulsed in right away.

photo by John Kordish

I’m so beyond thrilled with how Libby handled that. As far as I knew, she had never ponied another horse. Came to find out later that she had been ponied, but had never been the pony horse. She handled having a strange horse in her space, and me doing all kinds of contortions and re-positioning, and she just kept marching right towards the finish. So, so proud of her, and the mental maturity that she’s displaying.

After pulsing, I briefly went back to the trailer to untack and swipe the worse of the dirt off her, then headed over for our final vetting. There was a bit of a wait, with vets juggling finish vetting with BC judging at the same time, but we eventually got it done, and vetted through with all A’s and a still very-perky Libby.

Three successful finishes for our camp!

The fun part about doing the LD was having the rest of the afternoon to chill out, socialize, watch other riders come in, and relax around camp. Ride dinner was delicious, catered by one of the local Prescott restaurants, with steak or chicken, tortillas, rice and beans, and all the fajita fixings. We all stayed over Saturday night again, and spent a leisurely Sunday morning cleaning up camp before heading home.

This was the perfect way to go into the upcoming season. I couldn’t have asked for a better ride, finishing with a sound, happy horse who still had tons of gas in the tank, and is primed and ready for more!

4 thoughts on “Ride Story: Man Against Horse 25 2021

  1. What a great ride! Congrats on the completion. Loved reading about how mature and fit Libby is getting. I’m slightly jealous as always. I am like you in the fact that I hate to put anyone out or make them say no to me. Glad you were able to get a ride though :) And I will admit I chuckled at that rider at the beginning/end. I’m glad she wasn’t hurt, but it sounds like she got some karma.

    • Yes, there was definitely a case of karma at work. First-time rider, and came in with the mentality of “racing” and “winning.” Poor horse was only a 5 year old Mustang. Ultimate karma — she didn’t finish, horse was rubbed raw on his front heels/pasterns from boots, and he was lame at the end. (Still gets me so steamed to think about, because the horse doesn’t deserve to get caught up in karmic retribution from owner stupidity.)

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