It’s been a full year since Liberty and I hit the competition trail in earnest with finishing the LD at Jingle Bell Trot in 2020, and we celebrated that “ride anniversary” with a 50-mile finish at Jingle Bell Trot this year.
2021 was a ride season full of ups and downs as we worked through the learning curve of figuring out the particular combination of boxes to tick in order to happily do 50-milers. We ran through the whole gamut: saddle fit, electrolytes, feet, diet. And while I know we are never really “done” with figuring out what works and what doesn’t for each individual horse, I feel like this fall has gotten us on the right track and moving in the right direction. With a solid 50-mile finish at McDowell in November, that was the first major hurdle crossed — to finally get that official 50-mile completion. From there, Jingle Bell Trot would be a true test — it’s a very rocky course, and I consider it a pretty challenging ride. It’s not a high elevation mountain ride with massive amounts of climbing, but it’s a trail that does a lot of small up and down, and is fairly “non-stop relentless” in that it’s either rocky, or up/down, or if it’s nice footing, you’re really moving out to make some time, so there’s not a ton of “downtime” for either horse or rider along the way.
One of the fun things about this ride for me is that it’s a fairly “new” ride — its first two years were run as the “Dashing Through the Trails” ride, under ride manager Effee Conner, and then last year and this year, the “Jingle Bell Trot” with ride manager Debi Sanger. There have been some trail changes here and there, but for all intents and purposes, it’s remained essentially the “same” ride…and it’s one of the few rides I’ve ridden every year. And even better, I’ve finished every year! 2018 — the 55-mile with Flash; 2019 — the 25-mile with Atti; 2020 — the 25-mile with Liberty; and now 2021 — the 50-mile with Liberty.
Pre-Ride: Thurs & Fri
I had plans to once again glue Liberty’s hind boots on, but by the time Thursday rolled around and I got down to the barn, I seriously couldn’t muster up the energy. I’ve been juggling a lot of irons in the fire lately leading up to the ride, and I didn’t feel like dealing with the mental stress of gluing and “getting it right.” I’ll save my gluing experimentation for training rides at this point. So Liberty got a bath (one perk of it still being 80* out), I packed up the truck/trailer with the stuff I store at the barn, then headed back home to finish packing, with a grocery store stop along the way.
My packing has gotten pretty streamlined — I store all of my ride gear in various bins and totes, so it’s a pretty quick matter of adding my tack, cleaning and doing inventory on my boot stash, and tossing everything into the truck.
Last month at McDowell, I arrived in camp around mid-morning, a little earlier than what I had typically been arriving at rides, and I really liked having the extra time for a more relaxing set-up before check-in and vetting, so I planned for a repeat of that this time around. This is another “local” Valley ride to me — about an hour and half from the barn, since I end up traversing from the east side of the Valley across to the west side — but it’s a pretty easy drive (Phoenix traffic not withstanding, ugh) and I was pulling into camp just a little after 10am.
My friend MJ had once again saved me a parking spot, and she and I were planning to ride together the following day, as she would be riding Liberty’s “favorite” boyfriend Dreamer and the two horses pair and pace really well together.
I got Liberty settled with hay/water, got the rest of camp set up, wandered over to the registration area and got checked in, socialized with some friends along the way, sat down and had lunch, and then as soon as vetting opened, grabbed Libby and hustled over to the vet line.
Interestingly, all year, she’s been vetting in consistently with a pulse of 44 (without going back and pulling all of our old vet cards from the 2013-16 rides, memory makes me want to say this was what she usually vetted in at then, too). This time, she was vetting in at 40. Not sure whether to attribute that to really settling in tot he vetting routine, or if her fitness level has bumped up a notch after McDowell last month. Either way, it’ll be interesting to track.
After vetting, MJ, Lucian and I saddled up and headed out for a leisurely pre-ride. Just an easy meander around some of the competitive track trails right around camp, enough to stretch their legs and make sure brains were still firmly between ears.
Back in camp, I had time for more socializing (including some long-time endurance friends from California who were some of my original endurance mentors and the first ones to introduce me to catch riding, so it was wonderful to see them again and spend some time catching up) before it was time for the potluck dinner. I had whipped up a pot of spaghetti and meat sauce, which has consistently been a ride dinner staple in my camp over the years, and always garners favorable reviews. Contributing it to the potluck was no exception, and there was only a couple small spoonfuls left in the pot at the end. The potluck had a great turnout and some delicious offerings, and it seems like it is quickly becoming a popular tradition.
The ride meeting wrapped up with some curiosity and excitement as a long chain of lights passed overhead in the night sky. Obligatory “look, it’s Santa!” comments were made…and some research once I got back home netted the fact that it was a chain of SpaceX Starlink satellites passing overhead. So, a bit disappointing that it wasn’t Santa out doing practice runs…but still cool.
I got Liberty settled for the night with plenty of hay and water, and her dinner, then I tucked myself into my cozy nest that is the back of the Suburban. A foam mattress has made all the difference for comfort level and staying warm over an air mattress, and with the addition of some string lights and mini lanterns inside, I’ve got lots of light without ever needing to turn on the interior dome lights and potentially drain the battery down. I did a bit of mental winding down with a book for a while, and then turned in for the night, drifting off to the sounds of my mare munching her hay.
Ride Day: Saturday
Ride start for the 50 wasn’t until 7am — when we would have a little bit of daylight — which meant wasn’t until about 5. My morning routine has gotten pretty quick — dress, climb out of bed and throw Libby some hay, get coffee and breakfast going, put boots on the horse, drink coffee, eat, tack up, debate how many clothing layers to keep on because I’m a solar-powered cold-weather wimp that relies on the sunshine to stay warm. Liberty, for her part, has turned into a total professional. If she is tied to the trailer, she is either eating or sleeping. No messing about, no pawing, no wasting energy.
She’s also catching on to the super-handy “pick me up” trick of sidling up to things like trailer fenders when I step up on them, which makes mounting so much easier. One last sip of coffee, and one cozy puffy jacket layer sadly peeled off, I hopped up on the fender, Libby stepped right up, and I was mounted and ready. We had time to do a good warm-up around camp with MJ and Dreamer, check-in, and then once the trail was open, we made our way out after the first half-dozen or so people headed out.
The first part of the ride was a 10-mile loop on one of the competitive track trails. It’s one of the rockier sections, so we took it easy, walking the rough stuff and trotting when it was decent.
It was really pretty single track, and gorgeous morning light on the mountains. The trail twists and turns a lot, sometimes a bit annoyingly so as it doubles back on itself or twiddles around a space that could have otherwise been a straight line…but it’s part of the competitive track that’s used by a lot of mountain bikers, so I understand the “make it interesting/challenging” rationale behind it. The nice thing about this little loop is that it feel like “free miles” in that you end up back in camp before heading out to the main part of the park, so once you’re in the main park, you have this realization that, “oh, we already have 10 miles down.”
The top photo on this post is also in that same spot on the competitive track. I absolutely love Liberty’s expression. She is so happy and so eager…I think she truly loves her job and loves this sport. I put a lot of stock in their expressions and what their eyes look like, and my ride photos this fall/winter are showing me a bold, eager, happy mare. She’s usually had that to some degree in the past, but I’m now seeing a whole new level that’s emerging with this horse as she gets more fit and more seasoned.
Since we had to pass right through camp and right by the trailers to get to the out trail to the main park, MJ and I opted to swing by our trailers momentarily for a potty break, dump jackets/change shirts, and electrolyte the horses. All told, it took less than 5 minutes to do all that and was well worth the “mini break.”
We passed by our favorite photographers again as we roughly paralleled the trail we had taken back in to camp, and made our way out to the main part of the park. There’s a bit of a climb up heading out of camp — the left-side photo above gives a rough idea, with the PIR parking lot in the background and camp is just above the parking lot — and a subsequent drop down the other side in a series of switchbacks and Libby was once again rather fascinated with the whole “switchback concept” (here, as well as earlier in the ride on the competitive track we had another set of switchbacks, and her brain had to once again wrap around the concept of “horse below me, how’d they get there…and now they’re above me, what’re they doing up there?”) and I could also see her little brain cells spinning as she worked through the notion.
Thus far, we’d kept Liberty in the lead — Dreamer is still a “work in progress” when it comes to leading sometimes, so we were waiting until a more opportune section of the trail to swap out and put him in front. Once on the flatter, more open part of the trail, we did so, and mostly cruised along, with a few “spook-n-balk” moments from Dreamer here and there, but all minor stuff. At least until the perfectly innocent-looking bush that obviously housed Dreamer-eating gremlins, at which point he pulled a very fast drop and spin maneuver that had MJ on the ground. Fortunately she said she was fine, and was on her feet and back in the saddle in moments. We did put Liberty in the front again after that, though.
Heading out to the far water stop is one of my favorite parts of the trail, because there’s a whole section of the trail that is perfect for cantering — super shallow sand on a straight line double-track trail. Our timing was such that we hit it during “two way traffic” time — most of the LD riders had finished this section of the trail and were on their way to the vet check — so we were doing quite a bit of head-on passing…usually right about the time we’d get a good canter rhythm going. Ah, well. Good training.
The furthest section of trail is a lollipop loop — out to the water stop, do a small loop out from the water, come back to the water, and then return back on the same lovely sand trail. The first time in to the water, Libby took a few sips, but was more interested in munching on the hay provided. We only took a couple minutes here, since neither horse was super-interested in water, and started on the lollipop loop part of the trail.
Liberty had been “peeking” at a few things here and there — her typical minor “looking” — but not even a mile into the lollipop, trotting along, and all of a sudden she spooked hard and I found myself on the ground before I even knew what was happening. I wasn’t even able to complete my “oh, shi–“ thought before I was hitting the dirt. Lucky for me, we were in a fairly sandy, reasonably soft area, and I landed mostly on my adequately-padded derriere first, then my side and upper arm. I was so completely shocked and taken off guard that I really didn’t even have time to dwell on what happened. Literally took about 2 seconds to internally assess, “nope, didn’t hit my head, everything moves, I’m fine” and jump back up and go after Liberty, who was starting to wander down the trail. Fortunately she didn’t take off running, and she stopped as soon as I caught up to her and grabbed her reins, but I know that’s the first time anyone has ever come off of her, so she was definitely a bit surprised.
I still had plenty of adrenaline going, so I channeled that into jumping right back in the saddle and continuing down the trail before my rational brain caught up to me and I had a chance to think and get scared. I was also a little bit pissed. The more reactive spooking is something new — she almost offloaded me at McDowell when she spooked at a dead log — and this time, we did part ways. So I’m not sure what exactly is going on with that and how to troubleshoot it, because one of the things I’ve always highly valued about this mare is she’s not super reactive or spooky, so I’m thrilled with newly-discovered quirk. :/
It’s also been over a dozen years since I last came off a horse. Even with the plethora of catch ride horses (although there were a few times I quickly jumped off before I could be offloaded), the last equine who was able to make me hit the dirt was Mimi, in one of her infamous pony spooks. So I guess I was probably long overdue, and there’s probably something to the notion that if you ride a horse long enough, you will part company at some point. And with 17 months in of owning her, I’ve got more saddle time with Liberty now than any other horse other than Mimi.
The back part of the lollipop is no one’s favorite. It’s heading away from camp, in another long straightaway that looks like it leads into the endless desert. And all of the surface sand that had washed away from the other parts of the park to reveal all the rocks underfoot had apparently decided to settle into this portion of the trail, and it was deep enough neither of us felt particularly comfortable trying to make time through this section. So we got a bit of “sand slogging” in, with both horses trudging through and not really finding the motivation button. Until we got to the intersection where we turned off the endless sand slog and onto the trail that took us back to the water and they were miraculously recovered and had all sorts of forward motivation again. Liberty was also peeking and looking at everything that might have been lurking on the side of the trail, and I shamelessly started taking advantage of taking a hold of that lovely hoop pommel on my saddle.
Back at the water, Liberty suddenly realized she was quite thirsty, and dove into the trough with her “going to put a frat boy to shame” ability to chug. She drank, and drank, and drank some more, and when she finally came up for air, I hopped off and gave her some electrolytes. Even after that, she decided to drink some more, then settle herself down in front of the hay and spend a few minutes munching. There wasn’t much by way of even dry vegetation along this portion of the trail, so it was worth the extra time to get some vittles into their systems.
From the water, we backtracked along the same lovely section we had come in on, this time getting to let the horses stretch out into a really good canter…I think that helped all four of us blow off some steam. There was one more water stop about a mile before the vet check — Libby chugged again — and then we headed down the wide gravel road into the check that waited for us, 30 mile in to the ride.
The vet check is in the large gravel trailhead parking lot of the main park. There’s a little climb up out of the wash below the parking lot, so I rode up almost to the parking lot then hopped off and walked in. By the time Libby finished drinking, she was pulsed down to parameters. There were a couple horses in front of us to vet, so we waited for a bit, then vetted through — all A’s — then headed over to where MJ had set up our crew bags. I got Libby settled with some hay and feed — she doesn’t really love super sloppy mashes, so a cup of her Hygain TruGain feed seems to make her happy and fulfill the “I got something other than hay” need.
With an hour-long hold, there was plenty of time to take care of all of the typical vet-hold business, and in fact both MJ and I were ready and waiting several minutes ahead of our out time. 30 miles down, just another 20 left. From the check, we would be heading out on a different trail, through a section that was several miles long of rocks, and more rocks, and connecting to the lovely sand track out to the water stop again. Fortunately, we wouldn’t have to do the lollipop loop this time.
A couple miles out from lunch, we had been trotting along and all of a sudden I felt Libby start hip-hopping on her hind end. Quick glance down and I saw one of her boots around her pastern. Hopped off and turns out she had broken a cable. Quick swap out of pulling my spare boot out of the pack, slapping it on, stuffing the broken one back in the pack, and less than two minutes later, we were continuing on our way. As it turns out, that’s only the second cable I’ve ever broken in 15 years of using the boots, so I really can’t complain.
This section was slower-going, mostly due to it being more technical and so rocky. It was also warming up a bit in the afternoon sun, and parts of the trail didn’t have much by way of a breeze reaching them. Fortunately, we had another rider a little bit in front of us at this point — her gaited horse made much better time in the rocks than we did, so we weren’t trying to keep up with her but Dreamer liked her mare, and that was sufficient enough incentive for him be able to go in the front for a while and give Libby and myself a break.
Once we reached the trail to the water stop, both horses threw in a bit of a mutiny. They knew where we were, they knew camp was in the opposite direction, and didn’t have much desire to go repeat this same trail they already knew. It took a bit of coaxing and pedaling but I got Liberty out in front again and moving…not overly enthusiastically, but it was forward movement and we were covering ground, which was all I wanted.
Back at the water stop, I hopped off and Liberty drank and drank and drank, then settled herself in front of the hay to eat. We took several minutes here this time to let them drink and eat, then gathered ourselves up and headed out again. With the internal compass pointed “due trailer,” they had all kinds of cheer and forward enthusiasm now. Libby was still peeking and spooking at random things, so I once again employed my shameless, “just hold on and go forward” tactic and it worked to get us through the beautiful sand section one more time.
The trail “back” to camp is a circuitous route, one that goes over some of the trail from earlier in the ride, before peeling off and taking you back towards the location of the vet check. Along the way, we encountered a hiker who was flying a drone. No big deal, initially…he had it overhead but seemed like it wasn’t too close in…we went by him, continued trotting up the trail, then heard the buzzing getting louder. Glanced back and it looked like the drone was following us. Kicked it in to a bit of a canter since the trail was clear and got ahead of it , only to go through a gully and have it hovering behind us as we came out of the gully. Again, neither horse was bothered…but I happen to know plenty of them who would be, and trailing after horses with the drone really isn’t cool behavior. So as we kept going up the trail, I lifted my hand and I gave it the ol’ one-fingered salute. Message must have been received since the drone backed off and I didn’t hear it any more.
(Additionally, I just looked it up and learned that drone use isn’t allowed within the Maricopa County Regional Parks. Good to know.)
Drone drama aside, this was a really pleasant section to ride. Still rocky in parts (but that’s just Estrella, period) but a pretty area, with interesting single-track trail that kept things a very active ride. Liberty was in good spirits, still very forward and happy to move out, necessitating a few negotiations about what was considered acceptably trottable or not. Eventually the trail took us to the same water stop and gravel road that led to the vet check. Another drink and e’lyte dose, then back down the gravel road again. This time we didn’t go all the way to the vet check, but rather turned off and started heading back to camp — only 7 miles to go.
This section always seems like it should be shorter than it is. A lot of it looks visually similar, too, so it feels like you’re repeating some of the same ground that you just covered five minutes ago. It’s also the section we had gone out on in the morning, so the horses know it really well.
But eventually, we were back at the switchback hill — climbing up the same switchbacks we had gone down in the morning.
From the top of the hill, we took a tiny little connector trail piece that popped us over to the competitive track again, and the last mile or so into camp was the same as coming off the competitive track in the morning. The homing pigeon horses were in full “let’s get back to camp mode,” while I was in full “do not lame yourselves 200′ out from camp by falling on a rock” mode. But the last bit of trail was all clear, and we trotted into camp with happy horses, just a little under 10 hours after we had started that morning (for a ride time of just under 9 hours).
Liberty once again partook of the water troughs at the finish line, then I headed over to do her completion vetting. Her pulse was just a little high still, so I pulled my saddle and almost immediately she was down to the required 60bpm. She finished with a very good vet card (a couple of B’s on cap/jug refill, but she drank like a fish all day long so I’m not sure what else I could do to affect that…?), and a very high compliment from the vet acknowledging the amount of work I’ve put into this mare between the spring and now and how it way paying off. Those kinds of comments mean the world to me, and I love that our vets are watching us and paying that kind of attention to us.
Furthermore, finishing this tough ride makes me feel encouraged that we’re on the right track now with diet, electrolytes, feet, everything. Because I wasn’t sure. My biggest takeaway in this sport has been, “Never take any finish for granted.” That’s been one of the pluses about so many
pulls learning opportunities. I’ve managed horses through rides that weren’t the most suitable candidates for the sport…and I’ve been pulled on experienced, “this should be old hat” campaigners. So it’s never a guarantee or foregone conclusion, and every single finish is meaningful.
As always, my main goal is a finish. The secondary goal for this ride had been “finish in daylight,” and I’m happy to say we accomplished that as well. Back at the trailer, she was starving and buried her head in the hay manger while I gave her a good rubdown and got the worst of the dried sweat off, then got her tucked in to her blanket as the temperatures started dropping.
Ride awards dinner was a really tasty BBQ, and I dove into my food with as much enthusiasm as my mare. Granted, she did the majority of the work, but still…Estrella is a very active ride — there’s not a lot of trail where you can really sit back and relax, so I was definitely feeling more tired than last month’s ride at McDowell.
I opted to stay overnight Saturday night, since it takes me a bit to pack up camp…I’d be much faster in the morning. Plus, staying overnight, I get to keep an eye on Libby and have her right there with me, which makes monitoring post-ride recovery really easy.
This ride was a great way to start the 2022 ride season, and marks one full year of competition for Liberty and myself. It’s been a great year, and I can’t wait to see what the future might hold for us as we head down the trail…