Ride Story: Wickenburg Land of the Sun 50, Feb 2022

photo by AZ Cowgirl Photography

The month preceding the ride has been a difficult one, after losing my grandfather and one of my dogs, Artemis. Much of the time, I’ve been going through the motions, trying to sort through my grief and emotions. Saddle time has been good therapy for me, but there have been many days that even going through my usual routines and habits has been hard because Artemis was so intertwined in my daily life, and everything reminds me of her. Including going to rides, especially because I had such big plans this year for taking the dogs with me on the road to as many rides as I could.

So my enthusiasm was admittedly low going into the ride. As much as I enjoy the Boyd Ranch basecamp, I loathe the 8+ miles of washboard dirt road that it takes to get back into camp. My one experience with riding the Wickenburg trails out of this location was the first year that the ride moved to the Boyd Ranch, and it was met with mixed results. (Long story short: Liberty and I ended up with the sort of ride you look back on years later and go, “Well, it was a good learning experience.” Didn’t feel quite so magnanimous about it at the time, though, and wasn’t looking for a repeat performance.) I’d heard from others that the trails had been drastically improved since that ride, but there’s only so much you can do to avoid the inevitable rocks and sand that make up much of the Wickenburg area.

A nice rain storm and cold front blew in on Wednesday before the ride, which altered my original plans of “give Liberty a good bath, and do some experimenting with gluing boots” into “I’ll give her a thorough currying at the ride and her regular strap boots will be fine.” Friday morning, I packed up the last of the feed/camp supplies that I store down at the barn, loaded up Libby, and hit the road, with Sofie riding shotgun in the front seat.

She’s got herself a nice little “nest” in the front seat with a bolster cushion all around. I also put a jacket on the center console so she can rest her head there and be really close to me. She’s not world’s most settled traveler but this seemed to suit her.

It’s not a bad drive to Wickenburg — I’m really fortunate to have so many rides in a relatively close radius (most of them end up being 3 hours or less) — and much of the time there isn’t distance so much as it is the fact I end up going from one side of the Valley to the other, so there’s the inherent congestion and traffic to contend with. For whatever reason, I hit a ton of traffic in Wickenburg itself, but even with that, and puttering my way down the dirt road in 4-wheel drive, I still made it to camp in under 3 hours.

Traffic jam on the way into jam…impressive longhorns

I feel like I’ve finally got a good routine down when I get to camp — unload Libby, tie her off, let her munch from her hay bag while I unload everything, get the inside of the trailer set up with my kitchen and mini tack room, more properly set up Libby’s arrangements with hay/water, get sleeping area set up inside the suburban. Having everything sorted into different storage bins/crates has made all the difference and really helps me stay organized, and move things back and forth.

Camp setup came together quickly, including setting up a cushy bed in the trailer for Sofie to hang out while I was out riding, and after I was all set up, I took advantage of it still being fairly early and zipped over to get Liberty vetted in. I’m really proud of how settled she’s gotten at vetting — this ride 6 years ago, she stepped on me, wouldn’t let her mouth be handled by the vet, and needed a major “discussion” about personal space. Now? She’s polite, trots right at my shoulder, and doesn’t bat an eyelash for the vet. Amazing what a bit of time to mentally grow up, and some consistent exposure and handling has done for her.

I socialized for a bit after that, then saddled up for a quick, leg-stretch pre-ride, and met up with Troy and his new young mare to check out the first few miles of one of the loops. Liberty was in fine (read: “spooky”) form, having only done a light arena session the previous weekend, so she had quite a bit of energy pent up. The leg stretch did her good, though…as did the access to the gigantic arena at Boyd Ranch. After our pre-ride, I took her over to the arena and put her through her paces for about 20 minutes. She was not amused, since she really doesn’t see the point of arena work, but it did the trick to blow off a bit more steam and get her brain a little more tuned back in to me.

The ride did a big taco dinner Friday night before ride briefing, so I ate my tacos, did some socializing, listened to ride briefing, did a little more socializing after briefing, finished up some last-minute saddle prep for the next day, then called it a night and crawled into bed.

4:30 rolled around way too soon the next morning, and I had the most unmotivated sense of, “ugh, I don’t want to do this” going on. So much of this ride, I had been going through the motions, still existing in a fog of emotional grief, and having a hard time really caring about the whole endeavor. The only thing keeping me from bailing was the fact I had agreed to sponsor Hailey again, after our successful ride at Tonto Twist the previous month, and my commitment to that was enough to get me crawling out of bed and grabbing about for ride clothing. Normally, I lay out my ride clothes the night before, but I was so “meh” about everything, it ended up being a “whatever comes out of the duffel is what’s going on” morning.

It was also chillier than I had expected it to be and what the weather had predicted, and I was wearing several layers by the time it was all said and done. My morning ride routine has gotten pretty quick — dress, take Sofie out, then put her back in the truck to snooze and stay warm while I start coffee and put Libby’s boots on. Drink coffee, eat breakfast, saddle Libby, take Sofie out one more time, settle her in the back of the trailer, mount up, and start warming up. We had a sort of early start — 6:30 — and in mid-February, that meant it was still dark out when we started. I collected Hailey from her rig, and we spent some time warming the mares up and walking them around, then headed out in the middle of the pack at the start.

We ended up letting pretty much all of the pack go around us within the first few hundred yards out of camp, due to Jantar getting a little perturbed over leaving her stablemate (whom Lancette would be riding in the LD)…so we took it nice and easy, found a space bubble for ourselves, and got Jantar well settled before picking up the pace and cruising down the trail.

The trails around Boyd Ranch are a combo of dirt roads, single track, and sand wash. It’s the Arizona desert, so there’s a fair share of rocks along the way as well, but that’s pretty much an inescapable par for the course around here anymore. Fortunately, there seemed to be enough smooth, well-flowing sections of the trail to offset the rocky areas. The course consisted of three loops — 17 miles, then a pulse-down and trot-by in camp, out for another 12 miles, then an hour hold in camp, and then out for the final 19 mile loop. The first loop flowed really well…some fun single track (when you’re on two athletic horses, twisty single track is fun), some short climbing up and down the desert ridgelines, plenty of sand wash, and my favorite section of trail that passes through an old-growth mesquite forest (that I unfortunately failed to get pictures of because I really needed a third hand to juggle the camera at that point in the ride).

Both mares were pulsed down right away when we got back into camp, and cleared to continue on to the next loop. We stayed for a few extra minutes in camp to let them eat (Libby got to experience the wonders of bran mash for the first time in her life, and I practically had to crowbar her away from the pan when it was time to leave), then headed out for the second loop.

Photographers John & Susan Kordish were set up on loop 2, just a little ways out of camp, and John’s spot included an angle that hilariously captured this zen rock garden labyrinth thing that was set up right next to the trail, and garnered more than one hairy equine eyeball in passing by.

I had once again sent Hailey in front of me for the photographers, and when I do that, I certainly get…amusing…ride photos, as Libby doesn’t see the humor in having her new BFF head down the trail in front of her, so tends to toss in some humorous expressions and animation. (I think her zen garden mantra was “embrace your inner giraffe.”)

Partway through loop 2, we saw this really cool crested saguaro

There was quite a bit of really fun single-track on this loop, and both mares were quite happy zipping along the trail. We would trade off leading, and Jantar was probably the most relaxed I’ve ever seen her. Normally, she really likes to lead, but this time around, she was quite content to do a lot of swapping back and forth and calmly follow behind Libby. (I don’t know what it is about Liberty, but this isn’t the first time this has happened…a lot of horses that I ride with end up really liking this mare. And she likes….eh, probably 98% of other horses. There’s just a handful that hold “mortal enemy” status.)

At one point, I had to rather strongly enforce one of my pet topics…trail etiquette. Specifically, water trough etiquette. If riders in front of you are at a water trough, you STOP AND WAIT. DO NOT CROWD INTO A TROUGH THAT ALREADY HAS HORSES DRINKING.

This has probably been the area I have run into the most challenges at during rides. I’ve had my horses barged into, bitten, crowded, pushed out of the way, kicked at…all at water troughs. I’ve gotten pretty good at dealing with it for myself…but if you do that to my junior rider and potentially threaten her well-being when her horse starts getting upset at being crowded…well, let’s just say I didn’t know I actually possessed that level of inner Mama Bear to unleash…but apparently I do.

Maybe it’s the fact I started in NATRC, where etiquette and control is such an integral part of the ride, to the point where you are being judged on it, or my showring background, which comes with its own set of protocols and ring etiquette…but this is one area I feel like I just can’t emphasize enough. To the point where I did an entire learning event presentation on it last year for the Arizona endurance club, and will happily do it again. It’s a topic that really deserves its own blog post for me to really get my teeth into it, so for now, we’ll just leave it at my above mini-rant.

All of the loops share the same last mile+ of trail back into camp, and both mares knew exactly where they were by the time we hit that shared trail point, and they went hustling back to camp. Pulsed down immediately and vetted through with great scores, then headed back to the trailers for our hour hold.

The nice thing about doing 30 miles before your hold is that you know you’re over halfway done. The not as nice thing is you’re really ready for a break by that point, so it felt really good to sit down for a few minutes, gulp down a cup of ramen noodles, tend to a wardrobe malfunction (*thisclose* to slicing my underwear off during that second loop), and take a short breather. Not for too long, though, since there was the dog to walk, water bottles to refill, horse tack to switch over (Libby’s been earning her hackamore privileges back on the latter part of the ride), and all the other little housekeeping items that get crammed into the span of less than an hour.

Onto the last loop…19 miles. We headed out on a trail that paralleled part of loop 2 for a few miles, then headed out through an area that is still host to a bunch of active mining claims. There was some really nice trail through here…double-track roads that weren’t super rocky, so we were able to make some good time and maintain a pretty consistent pace.

It’s usually around this time — the 40-something mile point — that I start thinking that 50 miles really is a long way, and start questioning my sanity, and why I do this for fun…so I gotta say I was immensely grateful once again to have Hailey there. Her cheer and enthusiasm helped make the miles go by faster, and I really enjoy sharing the trails with her.

Heading down…the photo doesn’t give the steepness of this downhill justice, but we had to make our way down this side of this ridgeline, heading for the wash at the bottom.
Somewhere in my photo archives, I have a near-duplicate of this photo, only taken between Mimi’s ears, from one of our rides at Wickenburg. It’s not the same ride — different camp and different trails — but close enough.

Coming back into camp for the third time, we had a couple of seriously motivated mares on our hands…instead of leisurely meandering in, they were in “we’re going to trot in, thanks” mode…not that I was arguing. Nice to be finishing up a ride with strong, energetic horses. I didn’t know where we were at, placing-wise, exactly…I just knew we were roughly mid-pack based on people we had passed over the course of the day. As it turned out, we came in 10th & 11th — and I had sent Hailey across the line in front of me, so she was able to come in Top Ten. Super proud of her, and she definitely earned it…she’s a competent, caring rider, and her excitement and delight over her finish made it well worth it.

A group of happy girls at the finish

Both mares were pulsed down, so we vetted through right away, and our completion netted me my 1000 endurance miles…finally. Which is a whole other blog post and topic unto itself. Annnndddd…the “champagne at the finish” tradition from the old Wickenburg ride was also carried over, so I got to enjoy a little glass of bubbly on the way back to the trailer. (Which Liberty was quite intrigued by, but I don’t share.)

Saturday night awards was preceded by an amazing potluck spread…people keep outdoing themselves in the food department, and I am here for it. Had some really good company and conversations over dinner, the awards presentation and recognition of all the riders was really nice, and everything wrapped up before it got too late.

What started as a ride I really hadn’t been very excited about doing — between life circumstances, the road into the ranch, and a general distaste for the trails due to past experience — ended up turning into a very good, cathartic, healing weekend, proving once again that a good horse and saddle time is a cure for so much.

We’re in the thick of ride season now…as I write this, at the beginning of April, we have recently done a day at the Old Pueblo ride in Sonoita in March, and have another ride coming up next weekend. There have never been so many rides in AZ since I got started in the sport, and I’m so excited about it. So stay tuned, because it’s really nice to have a lot to blog about.)

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