(This story has been a little delayed in the writing of because a week after the ride, my grandfather passed away, and only a few days after his funeral, I unexpectedly lost Artemis, so that sort of took the wind out of my sails for the retelling of the ride tale, especially since it was a ride I had taken the dogs with me. My mojo has been a bit flat for the past month+ and my writing may reflect that, but I just need to get these done before I get too far behind.)
Tonto Twist. It’s become one of my favorite rides, despite the fact I’ve had some really questionable results at it (was 0/2 in finishing it going into this year). It’s my home trails and one of my most frequented training grounds. Ride management is superb (managed by my friend Lancette Koerner and her ace team of co-managers, Ellen and Wendy and a slew of volunteers), it’s a total frills ride with excellent amenities, great trail markings, and a really fun course. It’s a 50-mile only, and while it’s not an easy course, it’s a very doable ride for a horse with solid fitness and a smart rider.
Last year, I wasn’t able to make it to Tonto due to schedule conflicts with another planned event, so this year was going to be my year. I was finally going to get to tackle this ride with my own horse, a horse who had been training on these trails for the past year and half. I was excited, and also really hoping to break my “Tonto curse” and actually finish it this year. (“Third time’s a charm” worked for Liberty & I in finishing her 1st 50, so maybe the same thing would apply here.)
Sometime last year, at some point during one of our training rides or conversations, I had casually mentioned to Lancette that if for whatever reason she was ever unable to sponsor her junior rider granddaughter Hailey, it was something I could probably do. It got filed away on the shelf, as casual mentions do, and then as we headed into winter ride season, Lancette asked me if I had been serious about the offer to sponsor Hailey. Given that Lancette was the ride manager, she wasn’t going to be riding her own ride, but this is Hailey’s last year as a junior, and since Lancette wasn’t going to be riding, Hailey would be able to ride Lancette’s horse and do the ride, provided she had an adult sponsor.
I confirmed that yep, I had been serious — I’ve watched Hailey grow up on horseback since she was about 8 years old, knew she was a competent rider who had catch-ridden a number of different horses, and also knew Lancette’s mare Jantar very well, having done training rides alongside her for a number of years now. All of those factors combined made it a scenario that I knew a lot of the variables involved, and therefore felt very comfortable with, and was immensely honored that Lancette trusted me enough to take me up on my offer.
Before the ride, Hailey and I did a solid 20-mile training ride to make sure that all parties involved were compatible and happy (we all were), and just from that training ride alone, I knew we were going to have a fun ride.
That didn’t mean I wasn’t nervous going into the ride, though. Sponsoring a junior is a big responsibility, and there’s times that I’ve felt that I still need a sponsor out there…so what in the world was I doing, having to be the adult in the room? But my own personal nerves and insecurities didn’t stop the calendar from rolling forward, and before I knew it, ride weekend was upon us.
As I mentioned earlier, these are my home training trails, and base camp is less than 30 minutes away from the barn. I had the suburban packed up Thursday night, and Friday morning, I loaded up the dogs and we hit the road.
Lancette had a parking spot saved for me, and had kindly offered her extra portable corral for Liberty so that the two mares could hang out near each other. In the past I’ve had a Hi-Tie, or in more recent times, have just hard-tied Libby to the trailer, but after this weekend, I ended up being a fan of the corral option as well. Libby’s good in any containment set-up, really, so it’s nice to have flexibility and options.
Once I got all settled in, Hailey and I saddled up and took the mares out for a quick leg-stretch pre-ride. They were both really good, and not at all fizzy, so a really good way to go into the ride. Vetted in when we got back, with all A’s and horses that were happy and ready to go.
Friday evening ride briefing is preceded by a really delicious potluck dinner, and the spread of food never disappoints. It’s a fun way to start off the evening, and my favorite ride format is having a potluck Friday, and the ride dinner on Saturday after the ride.
Ride briefing gave us the pertinent information — loop 1 was 30 miles, with an hour hold back in camp, then loop 2 was 13.5 miles, with a pulse down/trot out check in camp, then back out for the 6.5-mile loop 3 and back in to camp to finish. Loops 2 and 3 are my regular training loops, so I was really curious to see how Libby would handle the whole concept…would she be like, “ho hum, these are my training trails” and lose interest and initiative, or would knowing where she was at be an even stronger motivating factor? I guess we would find out the next day…
I made sure Liberty had plenty of hay and water for the night, got her settled in with a blanket, took the dogs out for a final walk, then tucked ourselves into bed for the night with the serenade of coyotes and owls in the background.
Saturday morning dawned cold and windy. The weather had forecast some wind, but to wake up at 4:30 in the morning and have it already be gusting? The wind typically gets worse as the sun comes up, so I wasn’t sure how that would bode for the rest of the day…
Liberty, at this point, had decided that Jantar was her new BFF, and was definitely up as I tacked her up and got her ready, since Jantar had moved from her corral over to be tied off to the side of the trailer, and Liberty did. not. approve. <sigh> We had to have a couple of discussions about her chilling the heck out and standing quietly, and not moving around so that the wind tried to pick up and relocate the saddle pad…but we eventually got it done and were ready to face the day. I got the dogs settled in the back of the trailer with their coats and a pile of cushy beds and fleeces, then mounted up with plenty of time for a good walking warm-up.
My main concern at the start was to prevent Jantar from getting crowded, which can make her feel competitive and defensive, so to that end, we hung back from the immediate dozen+ horses that headed out at the start, and found a perfect space bubble between the “starting crowd rush” and the crowd of “everyone who wanted to hang back and wait.” We had an absolutely perfect start, with both mares walking out calmly (which is so funny…Libby was fairly “up” during warm-up, doing some head tossing and dancing around…but as soon as we started, she was all business and totally calm on a loose rein) and moving into an easy trot as soon as we hit the trail.
The sun was just starting to come up as we hit the trail, and with it, came even more wind. Fortunately, neither mare was at all fazed by it, and we were able to set a very comfortable pace, making good use of some of the nicer parts of the trail early on. Up on the ridgelines as we made our way into the Goldfield Mountains, the wind was gusting at over 45mph…that was the first time I had truly experienced wind that actually threatened to blow me out of the saddle, and it was wild. Super proud of both mares for forging on through and not even batting at eye at the gusts.
There’s a section of the course that’s about 5 miles of slower-going, rocky dirt road…I don’t think it’s the kind of trail anyone volunteers to go out and ride “for fun” on a training ride, but it’s such a small section of trail compared to the whole rest of the ride which has overall really good footing, that it’s a minor thing in the grand scope of the whole ride, and it’s what makes the ride happen and allows loop 1 to be such a long, large loop without repeat trail or backtracking. It’s also a good chance for the horses to let down a bit — it’s not a road you can get much speed on, so you trot wherever it’s clear, walk the rocks, and enjoy the scenery. And keep some gas in the tank for the 4-mile uphill of sand wash that follows this section.
Down in the wash, it felt really good to stretch out and move. Somewhere along that section, either in the last bit of rocks or in the sand, Libby popped a hind boot off — she had shredded the pastern strap a few miles back on the road, but I had hand-waved it away, figuring I would replace it when we hit the water stop, since she’s held her boots without the pastern strap numerous times before, but when we got to the water stop I glanced down and realized she had managed to slip that back boot off. <sigh> (Fortunately, someone found it and turned it in to lost-n-found, so it wasn’t lost to the sands of time forever…)
I always carry spare boots, though, so I quickly slapped a replacement on, gave her a dose of electrolytes, and hopped back on. We were down in a canyon at this point, and it was serving as a wind tunnel, channeling huge gusts of wind down and peppering us with blowing sand. Neither mare was much interested in hanging out around the water stop, and knowing there was another stop only a couple miles further up the trail, we continued on.
At the next checkpoint, 16 miles in, both mares drank really well, and we paused for a few minutes here to let them eat. With the first loop being 30 miles before we were back to camp, with no forced holds along the way, it was on us as riders to make sure we took the time on our own to let the horses have some small breaks, and the chance to eat along the way. It was also nice to enjoy a few minutes in a more sheltered spot out of the wind!
Heading out from that check, we passed by photographers John & Susan Kordish, who as always, got some fun ride pics of us.
I’d sent Hailey out in front of me, and Liberty was not amused at being held back. Much giraffe-ing ensued, and a handful of truly amusing photos. I especially like where she’s totally blocking me…fine, mare, we know it’s all about you anyway.
The next section of the trail zipped through Usery Mountain Park…lots of twisting, turning, fun single-track…and dozens of other trail users to make sure we didn’t run over. All of our regional parks in the Valley have gotten so busy and so popular…hard not to feel a bit cranky about it, and the exploding population around here, when in some cases, I literally helped carve out some of the trails that we horse people are now being effectively pushed out of. But I digress…
Usery is a pretty part of the trail, and marks what I consider the start of “the easier part of the ride.” Aside from a couple miles of some climbing up to a ridgeline on loop two, most of the ride is now fairly flat, has good footing, and is really fun to cruise through. Except when your horse is too busy staring at people on a bench to notice the embedded rock in front of her, and catches a toe and takes a knee…<sigh> Fortunately we stayed upright, and she only scuffed up one knee a little bit. Still, not awesome, and I spent the next several miles crossly reminding her to “watch her feet” every time we’d come upon some rocks.
There’s one checkpoint/water stop within the park, and then several checkpoint road crossings to get back to camp. Both Liberty and Jantar really know this route, especially once we hit a certain point in the park, and from there it was “we’re going home!” back to our usual conditioning ride staging grounds out of Prospector Park. For the actual ride, Prospector is a checkpoint, with hay and water, and from there, only a mile or so back to camp. When we popped into Prospector, I think Libby was confused — I could see her looking around, going “where’s our trailer?” and a bit of a “wait, we’re leaving?” when we headed back out to the trailer. But the homing pigeon quickly kicked in again, and both mares hustled their way through the last stretch of the loop back into camp.
They were pulsed down immediately upon coming in, and we vetted right through, then had an hour hold for lunch. Management provide lunch for the riders, so that’s always a super-sweet bonus perk, to have a lovely snack lunch ready and waiting for me. The girls were thrilled to see me…let them out of the trailer and took them for a quick walk, although by all reports it sounds like they were quietly sleeping all morning long (a number of people asked me where I kept them, because they never heard them, so I guess that’s good they’re not sitting in the back of the trailer creating a ruckus).
I also had to fix a couple pastern straps that Liberty was systematically working on wearing through (she sometimes interferes on her hinds, and the spot where she interferes just happens to be right at the inside pastern strap loop, so she’s been wearing through those rather quickly, and I’m not sure if there’s something I need to adjust on her trim, or what’s going on), and before I knew it, our hour was up and we were heading back out on loop 2.
It was still really overcast and windy, and given that part of this next loop was going up on another ridgeline, I actually added another clothing later back on, in the form of a windbreaker vest. All of the loops start out the same for the first few miles, and loop 2 heads out up the same wide dirt road as loop 1, but then continues up the road further before picking up another road and ultimately heading up into the hills again.
The most excitement we had on the loop was when we had just passed over the stepover gate, and a whole pack of dirtbikes came up behind us. The area were had just crossed into is motor vehicle access by permit only (gate code to open the gate next to the stepover) and I don’t know if they just couldn’t be bothered to open the gate…or if they didn’t actually have a permit…but they lined up and decided it would be a good idea to jump their bikes over the horse stepover.
Neither mare thought having that behind them was a particularly funny idea, so after the first one jumped the gate and startled both horses, I told Hailey we were getting out of there pronto. Put the mares into a fast trot and then canter, and boogied our way up the road and away from the dirtbike pack.
From there, the rest of the trail was quiet, and super scenic. From this part of the course, you get a great view of the Superstitions immediately to the southeast, and out in the distance, Four Peaks to the northeast horizon.
Loop 2 is one of my regular training rides out here, so both horses were on autopilot, in a good way. They knew the trail, and were quite relaxed and happy about it. Partway through the loop, I ended up putting Liberty up front. Hailey and Jantar had led a good part of the ride thus far, with the exception of several miles through Usery Park, and had done an amazing job. Jantar actually prefers the front most of the time, but getting her more comfortable with not leading all the time has been part of her training agenda more recently, so I figured this would be a good time to see how she did. Fortuantely, she and Liberty have really hit it off, and she ended up being quite okay with us going in the front for the next few miles, and then trading off again…we rode the whole rest of the ride that way, trading off leading every few miles.
The trail loops around and takes us into Prospector Park again for a checkpoint, then back into camp for a quick pulse and trot-by before heading out for the last little 6-1/2-mile loop. Both mares pulsed and trotted great, and neither Hailey or myself felt the need to linger in camp beyond a couple minutes to let the mares grab a few bites to eat…now let’s get this thing done!
The third loop, all 6-1/2 miles of it, is mostly flat, with excellent footing 95% of the time. The hardest part of it is having to peel away from camp at the last second and take “the long way around” to come into camp to add the last couple of miles on. Horses — and riders! — don’t find this part particularly amusing.
Both mares looked great trotting across the finish line…they pulsed in right away, and vetted through immediately…and I broke my “Tonto bad luck” streak with finally getting a completion! I held my breath right up until the end, since I was pulled at the finish the last time I did this ride, but Libby looked great and the vets were super-pleased with her. And so was I. Tonto isn’t an easy ride, and she was cheerful and forward all day long, on trails that she knows really well, where the pull of “home” and “ugh, I know where this goes” could be strong.
The Saturday evening awards dinner at Tonto is always a treat — homemade fry bread tacos — and I really appreciate the “production” that is made for this ride in terms of doing a proper awards ceremony and presentation. Even though the barn and home is close by, I still opted to stay overnight…takes me too long to pack up, especially in the dark when I’m tired, so it’s easier to just wait until morning and roll out when it’s daylight.
I was absolutely thrilled with how the ride went…I had a blast with sponsoring Hailey, and truly enjoyed riding with her. She’s clever, enthusiastic, and has a passion for horses and endurance that is infectious and permeates everything she does. Her cheerful, upbeat nature made the miles go by really quickly, and was a really good reminder of why we do what we do out there…for the love of our horses, and the chance to experience some beautiful trails we might not otherwise access.