Ride Story: Lead-Follow @ McDowell 50 2021

❤️ My 50-mile endurance mare ❤️
photo by Susan Kordish

The spoiler-alert, short version: Third time was a charm for getting Liberty’s first 50-mile completion, and after our learning curve this spring, and re-grouping over the summer, everything came together and we achieved that goal at the Lead-Follow @ McDowell ride. Even with the temperatures soaring up to 90*, we had a textbook ride, and I couldn’t be happier with how our weekend went.

Drama, crises, and problem-solving along the way tend to make the most interesting ride stories, so this one probably won’t be super-interesting on that level, because <knock on wood> this was the smoothest sailing I’ve had at a ride for a bit. To start with, my truck did not need any last-minute mechanic visits, so already things were off to a less-fraught start than last month’s Man Against Horse (although that came together so perfectly, I really have no complaints).

I did decide to do some Renegade Pro-Comp Glue-Ons on Liberty for this ride, on her hinds. She will sometimes interfere and catch herself on her hinds, so I wanted to experiment with the super-streamlined profile of the glue-on shell to see if that made a difference, as well as work on dialing in my gluing technique (for working for a boot company, I’ve done very little gluing over the years) and starting to test some different adhesives. That was probably the most stressful part of the whole weekend, because gluing is rarely a stress-free endeavor. I’m confident in my hoof-prep, but the glue itself can be the unpredictable element, especially since the one I was trying was something totally new, so I didn’t know what to expect.

The whole gluing process went fairly smoothly, although I was less happy with the left hind than the right, since Liberty decided to be squirmy and set that hind hoof down and wiggle around before it was 100% set. So I went in with low expectations, and plans to carry spare strap boots on the saddle. The temperatures also decided to start rising again the week of the ride, after a couple weeks of very pleasant, cooling-off temps…right about the time the ponies all decided to start sprouting true winter coats, so I busted out the clippers again and re-did Liberty’s trace clip I had done a couple weeks prior.

Freshly glued and (re)clipped

I’ve got a pretty good system of various tubs and totes for packing purposes, and most of them stay packed with all my ride gear, so generally all I have to add is my tack, and pack food and clothing for me, then throw everything into the back of the suburban. I’m not a minimalist, so I’ve got everything about as streamlined as it gets while still feeling like I’ve got all the essentials covered. And with half a dozen rides or overnight trips I’ve done with my little rig setup now, I’m feeling like I’ve got everything sorted out and a pretty good system in place.

The McDowell Mountain Park ride camp is local for me, only an hour away from the barn, so I didn’t have to roll out ridiculously early. I do like having plenty of time to relax and set up camp, though, so I was out the barn driveway by 9 and pulling in to camp right around 10. My friend MJ (Liberty’s bestest boyfriend Dreamer’s mom) had saved us a parking spot, so I was able to easily pull in and get ourselves settled and make short work of setting up camp (hay manger filled/hung, water bucket filled, horse tied off). Less than an hour after setting up, though, I started having some concerns. Liberty was in the full sun, and just standing there eating, she was already starting to sweat. After some back-and-forthing in my own head (and I didn’t want to turn the whole rig around and re-park since I had everything all set up already, and it would have faced me downhill for sleeping), I finally decided to move her to the other side of the trailer, which was nicely shaded, as well as being the inside part of the “box” that we had formed with three trailers. It would also mean she would have company other the two other horses on their respective trailers. I don’t have that side of the trailer set up for tying — the spare tire is on that side, for one, and that’s also the side that has the escape door and handle, and I still have a mental carryover from my NATRC days of “look for all the hazards the horse could possibly hang a halter/lead rope on” so I’ve avoided using that side. But my concerns over my dark horse standing and baking herself in the sun all day before the ride, as well as then standing and baking during our vet hold, finally won out (that, and making sure I had a few breakaway points on her tie rope set-up).

Just arrived in camp, checking out one of the water troughs.
Photo by John Kordish

It ended up being a really good decision. She ties so politely and quietly these days, she didn’t even come close to getting into anything, and I was much less worried with her having basically full shade from the trailer during the hottest parts of the day. She also liked having the other horses so close by, and having the trailers surrounding the horses also gave an element of protection and hopefully be a deterrent from any loose horses coming through camp. (Which, to my knowledge, didn’t happen this weekend.)

All settled now. She had a little bit of sun at certain times but was nowhere near her previous baking exposure as she had been on the other side.

I’m not typically used to getting into camp quite so early, so it was a bit of a treat to be able to have things all set up, and be able to sit down and chat and enjoy and relaxed lunch with friends before wandering up to check in and get our vet card. Vetting started a little after 2, and we were in line shortly thereafter, with only a short wait. We vetted in with Dr. Mark Anderson, who is one of our long-time ride vets, and he’s vetted us at a number of our rides…for better or worse, as he’s also been one to pull us a couple of times…but the nice thing about that is he knows us and knows some of our history, so it was a good confidence boost to have him vet us in and be very happy with how Liberty was looking and moving.

She vetted in fabulously, with a really nice, polite trot-out (a rope halter did wonders for reminding her she does have ground manners, and to mind them). We got our butt number and hung around and chatted with some friends for a few minutes, then headed back to the trailer to saddle up for a short pre-ride with friends MJ and Lucian.

We headed out for a couple of miles along the trail we would be starting on in the morning — I wasn’t sure how much daylight there would be at the 6:30am start on the 50, so wanted to get a look at the footing and pre-scout any trail hazards. (As it turned out, we had some nice early dawn light.) Liberty was full of energy and wanted to zoom her way through, especially when we turned around to head back, but she stayed very controllable, and it didn’t take much to get her settled back down to an animated walk. Love her brain, so much. Even when she’s excited, she tries so hard to be good and be responsive.

Ride dinner was held Friday night, just before ride briefing — yummy BBQ, and I could have lived on just the mac-n-cheese alone, it was so delicious. Ride briefing was the usual, and although I haven’t done the 50 at this ride since 2009 (!!! I couldn’t believe it’s been that long, but yep…Nov 2009 with Mimi…) the only real trail changes were some newer single-track trails that the park had installed in the last several years that ran parallel to some of the former sand wash trails, and made for a much nicer ride. I’ve also been conditioning at McDowell a number of times over the summer, so Liberty was familiar with a number of the trails we would be on. Pulse parameter was set at 60, due to the forecast heat, and we would have a one hour vet hold between loops 1 & 2 for the 50.

There was time for a bit of a social hour back at the trailers, one last check on Liberty to top off her hay and water for the night, and then bedtime beckoned. This was the maiden voyage for my new foam mattress, and it passed with flying colors (and hopefully won’t get as cold as the air mattress when the temps drop). As much as I wasn’t looking forward to the heat during the day, the nighttime temperatures were perfectly pleasant, and it was nice to wake up and not have to crank the vehicle heat on, or shiver my way through dressing for the day.

I’ve also gotten my morning ride routine down — crawl out of the truck, start water boiling for coffee, toss Libby some grass hay and a few bites of alfalfa so she thinks she getting “something” for breakfast, clean up her poop, make coffee, crawl back into truck to dress in ride clothes, find something that has some sort of vague appeal for breakfast, work on breakfast in-between getting Libby booted and tacked up, finish breakfast, pack any last-minute saddle snacks, and then mount up ideally with enough time for a 15-20 minute warm-up before the start.

I was really please with how well-behaved Liberty was before the start. She walked around very calmly, only tossing her head and prancing a bit when we would turn away from the starting trail, and settled with just a few light finger taps on the reins. With 19 riders int he 50, there wasn’t a mad-cap rush at the start…the trail is single-track right out of camp, so everyone was very polite and orderly about making their way out onto the course, and after the first 8 or 9 riders headed out, I found a nice little bubble for myself and we were on our way. Liberty picked up a nice working trot, and within a 100 yards out of camp, had settled into her business-like, “let’s do this thing” manner. We passed a couple people, had a space bubble for a couple miles, got passed by a few people, and all the while, kept at her steady, working trot, trying to take advantage of the early miles of smooth, good footing while we could.

About 7 miles in, the trail starts getting rocky and doing a little bit of climbing, so we slowed down and took our time in the rocks. Our goal for the day was “finish with a sound, happy horse” and if that meant walking over every rock out there, so be it.

Note the unamused mare ears

By this time, the sun was up and bathing the desert in beautiful morning sunlight. I absolutely love the desert in the morning and the evening, when the light is still soft enough that the desert colors really show up (versus the mid-day, sun-baked and bleached effect). There was a little bit of a breeze, and the temperature hadn’t started heating up yet, and I was enjoying the morning, sharing the trail with friends and my amazing mare.

The first water stop is about 11 miles in, at the end of a double-track dirt service road. There are some rocky spots of slow down through, but overall, it’s a welcome change to have some trail to move out on again after the last few miles of rocky, slower-going single track, and Liberty was more than happy to use said moving out opportunity. She drank a little bit at the water, I electrolyted her, she grabbed a few bites of hay, and then we were back on our way, heading back on the same road we had just come in on, and partway along some of the rocky single-track.

By about 16 miles in, the trail gets out of the rocky foothills and back out onto the smoother, flatter desert floor, and we were again able to pick up a more consistent pace. There were some lovely stretches of really smooth single track, and some opportunities to let Libby stretch out and pick up a canter. She has a really, really nice canter, but I’ve been working on getting her develop more gears and trot speeds, so haven’t been letting her canter quite as much, but this is a really good ride to strategically use some cantering to make things more interesting and mix it up a bit.

At the maintenance shed checkpoint and water stop, she dove into one of the troughs and about put a frat boy to shame with her drinking. It was starting to warm up, so I also took the opportunity to hose her down, and electrolyte her again. She also got a couple carrots as a snack, and there were a few piles of grass hay and alfalfa for her to munch on. That questionable left hind boot also took this opportunity to detach itself from her hoof, although I was surprised it had hung on this long. But her spinning and pivoting her butt end around to watch another horse leave the check and head down the trail was the final straw and I watched the boot go sailing through the air and land several feet away. Ah, well. As good of a place as any to lose it, and she never had to travel on any rocks with an unprotected hoof. So I handed her reins off to one of the lovely volunteers, wrangled one of my spare boots off the saddle, slapped it on, left the now-defunct glue-on in the care of another volunteer to take back to camp with her, mounted up and headed down the trail.

Photographer Susan Kordish was down the trail just a little ways out from the checkpoint, and got a whole bunch of lovely pics of us coming down the trail. (Seriously, between her and her husband John, they got over a couple dozen photos of me and Liberty. I love having a photogenic horse that photographers love, because I am a shameless sucker for ride photos.) There was another water stop a couple miles out from camp, and Libby tanked up yet again, and then maybe a mile or so out from camp, John Kordish was set up to get photos of us coming through at that spot.

I hopped off just outside of camp, and by the time I got in, got my time slip, let Libby drink and sprayed her off with the hose, her pulse was down, and at 44 by the time the P&R person took her pulse. Waited in line for a few minutes for vetting, and she vetted through with all A’s. Got an excellent compliment from the vet on her trot-out — said that “it was absolutely beautiful and one of the best trot-outs she had seen.” This is something I work on a lot with this mare, so it was really gratifying to hear that kind of feedback and know the work is paying off.

With vetting out of the way, we now had a solid 50+ minutes of our hold left to go back to the trailer and let her eat, uninterrupted. I got her set up with some more hay and a small pan of mash, took care of my “camp chores” of refilling my waters and restocking snacks in my saddle packs, and adding another spare boot to the saddle, then settled in with my own lunch. I enjoyed a good 15+ minutes of down time, then got Libby’s headgear swapped out for her s-hackamore, mounted back up and was at the out timer with a couple extra minutes to spare.

I’ve never had a problem with her leaving camp on a second loop on LDs, but the two previous 50s, we ended up having a buddy with us when we left, so this would be the first time leaving camp after 25+ miles, all by ourselves, with plenty of other horses still behind us at the vet area. Wasn’t sure what to expect, but she happily trotted right out of camp when I pointed her at the out trail, and cheerfully made her way up the same trail we had headed out on in the morning.

We followed the morning trail for about a mile or so, then turned off to what is probably every horse’s least favorite section of trail. It’s a rocky single-track that climbs up to the top of a ridgeline. Once on top, it’s a pretty view, and there’s generally some breeze, but getting there is a slow trudge, uphill, usually in the heat of the day. Gold stars to Libby, she was probably the least trudgy and most cheerful of the horses I’ve taken through this section, but it was still slower-going, between the rock and the multitudes of trail traffic. (There was so. much. trail traffic on ride day. Especially bikes. I swear the park sent out a memo to the effect of, “we have a horse event with over 100 horses on that trails…so everyone else also needs to come out and use the trails.” Thank goodness my horse doesn’t give two craps about bikes and sharing the trail…but that was a major annoyance to have to deal with so much traffic along the way.)

The obligatory spooking spot at the top of the ridge. Mimi has usually taken offense at the bench on the left. Libby decided the rock pile was much more concerning.

Once down from the ridgeline, it was once again on smooth trail, and it was trail that Libby knew well from our summer conditioning, so she was quite happy to pick up the pace again. She tanked up at the next water stop, munched on some hay for a couple minutes, then continued on. The next section of trail is a long, slow uphill grade. Very deceiving, because it doesn’t look like it, but it’s one of those trails that can easily tap a horse out, and because so much of the footing is so good through this area, there aren’t large sections of rock to enforce walk breaks. So I adopted sort of a trot-walk interval, making sure to give her walk breaks along the way.

About partway through this section, my friend Troy (Flash’s owner) caught up to us. The horse he was riding and Liberty paced well together, and Troy is the one who taught me how to really consistently pace a ride, so we ended up riding the rest of the way together. I think Liberty and I were both ready for some company, and it was a lot of fun to ride with Troy again. I always pick up some good advice and feedback from him, and having a second set of eyes telling me my horse looked really good was a big confidence boost.

This felt a bit like old times, when I was catch-riding Flash for Troy and Claire.

It was also getting really warm out at this point, so having someone to talk with was a good distraction from otherwise descending into “sufferfest” mode. If I stay cheerful, Libby stays cheerful. And she stayed in good spirits all day long. Even in the last couple of miles in, she was still peeking at and spooking at dead logs, suspicious cactus, etc, feeling very sassy and full of herself. I was super-paranoid the last 5 miles or so…she was feeling so good, and I didn’t want to do anything that would risk another finish line pull, so if there was even one or two rocks in the trail, we were walking. The last mile or so, we just walked in nice and easy. She had figured out that she wasn’t going to get to trot, so she settled into a really nice, ground-covering walk, and we easily cruised into the finish, already at pulse parameters. I hopped off, let her drink, gave her a quick hose-down, then immediately pulsed through and took her over to vet.

Her final scores netted a couple of B’s on gut sounds, but given that we were pausing along the whole last 10 miles in to let the horses munch on dry grass along the way — Libby perfected the “horsey drive-through takeout” of grabbing a couple of bites of grass and going — and she had eaten and drank her way through the whole ride, I really wasn’t concerned by that. Her recoveries were excellent, gait/movement perfect…so, third time was a charm, and we officially completed her first 50!

Back at the trailer, she was ravenous — she dove into her hay bag, and only lifted her head to move to her water bucket and drink. She was bright-eyed, still full of energy — in short, a perfect example of “fit to continue.” She absolutely could have gone out for another loop with plenty of gas in the tank if we had to, and I think that was probably one of the best finishes I’ve experienced on 50+ miles to date in terms of having a horse with that many reserves still left, and feeling that perky and cheerful. I truly think she was having fun out there, and it makes me feel so good to know that I was still holding her back the last few miles in, and I never had to pedal her once all day.

This face melts my heart. Bright-eyed, cheerful, and engaged after finishing. She knows she did good, and was so proud of herself.

We finished with a ride time of 8:19, and while we were originally 10th across the line, a couple of finish line pulls ahead of us put us ultimately finishing in 8th, which totally floored me. All I wanted out of this ride was that first 50-mile finish for her. I rode conservatively, taking care over the rocks, and tried to maintain a consistent of a pace as I could, and made sure I didn’t dawdle at water stops, etc. It’s been over 10 years since I did the 50 here, and I was reminded as I went through it that it isn’t as easy of a ride as it might appear on the surface, so I am super-proud of how strong she finished.

Saturday evening, the AZERC (Arizona Endurance Riders Club) hosted a potluck dinner, and it was super well-received. We had a great turnout — probably a good 35-40 people showed up, there was a delicious spread of food available, and it was a great chance to wind down and socialize. So many people tend to quickly pack up and go home after the ride because there usually isn’t any kind of formal dinner or anything planned for Saturday night, so the thought behind coordinating and offering the potluck was to try to encourage people to stay, and I think it did just that. I think more people stayed overnight than have in the past (social proofing? “Oh, if I know my friends are going to stay overnight I think I’ll stay as well” versus “well, everyone else always packs up and goes home so I’ll be the only one in camp, so I may as well pack up and go, too.”) and I know I really enjoyed the chance to socialize and visit with folks after the ride, when the stresses of the ride are done and past.

Sunday morning, Libby was bright-eyed and perky and demanding breakfast the second I woke up. (From where she’s tied, she can see into the back window of the suburban, so she can see me as soon as I wake up and sit up. As soon as I sat up, I heard her start up the nickering chorus line and start doing her impatient head bobbing/tossing. Never mind she still had some grass hay left, since I left her with a small mountain of hay overnight.) She was happy to go for a walk around camp, and sample some of the hay piles left in the vetting area. She was still bright-eyed, and super cuddly and affectionate, and looked like she hadn’t done anything.

It didn’t take me too long to get packed up and back on the road home — my packing system has definitely streamlined the whole process. Back at the barn, she promptly dropped down in the sand arena and rolled as soon as I turned her out, and then moseyed her way out to the pasture and settled in to grazing.

I couldn’t have asked for a better ride, and it was the perfect way to end the 2021 ride season. It’s been an up and down year with a lot of learning curves, but I keep reminding myself to be kind to myself — she’s only the second endurance horse I’ve started in this sport. For all the catch riding I did, most of that was on horses who were already sorted out, so I didn’t have to do much in terms of “figuring them out.” With this one, we’ve started from scratch, and it’s only been a year and four months. Even our pulls now feel more like “constructive learning experiences” than “major fail moments.” (It also took me a lot of thinking over the summer to get my brain to that perspective…) I hope this is the start of “it all coming together,” but at the end of the day, the one thing that has never changed, whatever the ride outcome has been, is how much I enjoy this mare and how much fun I have with her.

McDowell was the last ride of the season here in AZ (ride season ends Nov 30), but the season rolls right over into 2022, with the next ride up being the Jingle Bell Trot at Estrella in December, and there’s an AZ ride on the calendar every month from now through next May. I’ll keep playing every ride by ear as always, and just see how everything keeps going, but I’m sure enjoying having a potential calendar full of rides coming up.

Thanks for reading! Comments are always welcome!

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