I’m still behind on my spring ride stories from Bumble Bee and Cinders Trot…and we took the summer off from any competitions, but I had probably one of the best summers ever in terms of managing to get out and condition.
To kick off the fall season, I signed up for the inaugural White Mountain Tango ride, held just outside of Vernon, AZ, in the White Mountains. I was really excited for this ride — not only was it an escape into higher elevation and cooler climate, I spent a lot of time growing up going to the White Mountains…Pine Top, Show Low, Greer, Big Lake…but aside from a few trail rides, I’ve never spent time riding there, so that would be fun to finally merge my lifelong hobby with one of my long-time vacation destinations.
The ride format was interesting — a 2-day ride, 50 miles each day, and because space was limited, there had to be 2 entries per rig — either two people, or one rider/two horses, or one rider/one horse signed up for both days (or ride one day and pay an “occupancy fee” for the non-riding day, which = the $ of an entry fee). I opted to sign up for 2 days and play it by ear as to if I actually rode both days or not. That was the goal, but I freely admit I’m not the biggest fan of back-to-back or multi-days and am much more inclined to go for a 75 or 100 over a multi-day…but that’s just me. One of the beauties of this sport is that there are so many options available to us riders.
The ride was scheduled for Fri/Sat, so early Thursday morning, I loaded Sofie up in her co-pilot’s seat (nice weather meant I could bring my camp pup with me on this trip), zipped down to the barn to hitch up the trailer and load Liberty, and we were on the road in no time. I made arrangements to caravan up together with several friends, so met up with them along the way and proceeded to have an uneventful drive up. It ended up being a little over 4 hours to camp, including a gas stop (and some slower-going sections for road construction)
As I mentioned earlier, the ride was limited in numbers due to very limiting restrictions on where we could camp (thank you Forest Service management <eyeroll>), but the one benefit to that was it ended up being a very relaxed, laid-back atmosphere that felt more like a casual camping weekend with friends than a high-energy endurance ride.
My barn owner Chris was volunteering all weekend, so she had gone up early to help set up camp, and had a lovely spot for me to set up right next to her rig. (Liberty so hilariously confused all weekend…she didn’t know which one of us to look to when it came to begging for her food, since Chris feeds her all the time at home, but she’s used to me taking care of all of her at-a-ride needs, so she settled for nickering and head tossing any time either of us would walk by.) I’ve got a good system down now for camp set-up, so I had everything unpacked in short order, with enough time to make some lunch, relax, let Liberty relax/re-hydrate after the drive, and socialize a bit before vetting in started.
Our ride vet for the weekend was Dr Mark Anderson, who has been one of the vets at most of our AZ rides now for the last number of years, which means he knows us and our horses, we know him, and makes for a really good working relationship. He was also instrumental in helping me with Liberty at our last ride, the Cinders Trot back in May, when we pulled at 25 miles due to her being weird. Like, pawing frantically at the ground, really agitated, trying to lay down along the trail…classic signs of colic…except for the fact she had great gut sounds, her normal low heart rate, and all normal metabolic signs. The cliffnotes version conclusion? My horse was PMS-y and probably had cramps…or the equine version of. Basically, strong spring heat cycle = miserable mare. Especially since she had done something similar the previous spring, but it was at the barn, not at a ride. But that complete ride story is a story for another day, but it’s enough background to know that Cinders was our last ride before summer break, and this was our first ride back since, so a part of me wasn’t sure what to expect…but I was glad Dr Anderson was there, since he has gotten to know Liberty over the last few years.
Vetting-in was smooth as usual…the mare knows her job, and has gotten so good at it. We then went out for a quick leg stretch pre-ride in a small group of friends. A few dead logs/stumps along the way earned a bit of a side-eye, but overall she was a good girl. Fit and sassy, but a good citizen.
Thursday evening saw a delicious group potluck dinner, with everyone gathered around the fire pits for the ride meeting. This ride was also going to be the first time the Ride With GPS app would be the exclusive trail markings — rather than conventional ribbon markings, we would be relying on following the course via the app, which operates very much like the navigation system on a vehicle, with instructions telling you where to turn, and indicators when you’ve gone off course. In an area that was filled with elk and cows (both of who have been known to eat ribbons), and multi-user trails, the idea that a course couldn’t be tampered with was some reassuring peace of mind, and Ride With GPS has been utilized at most of our rides (in conjunction with traditional flagging markers) now for the last several years, so I feel like people are starting to get pretty familiar/comfortable with it.
A 6:30 ride start meant a 4:30 wake-up, so it was not a late night…refreshed Liberty’s hay and water for the night, took Sofie out for one last stroll, and then tucked into bed. I’ve given up on ever getting a truly solid night’s sleep the night before a ride, since I rarely sleep well the first night in any new place (including my own camp set-up)…and in this case, the elk started screaming in the middle of the night (’tis the season for the elk “rut”, aka mating season, and they get very loud and opinionated about life), which was a bit…disruptive.
At any rate, o-dark-thirty rolled around not-so-bright and plenty early, and I commenced with my usual ride morning routine…dress, take Sofie out, start coffee, put Sofie back in the truck (at least someone got to sleep in more…), give Liberty some more hay to munch on, get her boots on, drink coffee/eat breakfast, tack up, take Sofie out again, get her settled in the trailer, get on the horse and get warmed up.
I would once again be sponsoring my favorite junior Hailey at this ride, since her grandma Lancette was the ride manager and would be busy holding down the fort in camp. I had volunteered to do so back in the spring, because I truly love sponsoring this young woman. It’s been such a delight to see her horsemanship blossom over the course of this ride season, and we truly have a lot of fun sharing the trail together.
It was a fairly small group of 13 that started that morning, but that made for a low-key, easy ride start. Hailey and I quickly got our own space bubble, and then shortly thereafter we picked up a rider named Tracy, whose horse was having a bit of a moment over his first ride start, but was happy to tuck in behind the two mares.
The first few miles were on forest service road, which allowed for a really nice warm-up, and then we picked up more of the single-track trail portion of the course. The first loop for the ride would be 24 miles, and I’d say it was probably about a 60/40 split between single-track and road…but as someone who really loves a good single-track trail, I really enjoyed it overall. There were a couple of areas that required some stop-n-start navigation through some rough patches that precluded maintaining a super consistent pace…but those spots were balanced out by the sections of service road where we would could move out at a good trot or canter.
The scenery was incredible…we were at an elevation that was high enough to get into the aspens, and everywhere you looked, it was a sea of green grass, ferns, wildflowers…the kind of flora you expect to see in the Pacific Northwest. The stock ponds were filled to overflowing, which meant plenty of water for the horses…although contending with sticky mud + boots made for a couple admittedly interesting moments.
Liberty did an awesome job of leading for what was probably the first half of the loop, and then from there, the three of us started switching off leading/following. There were a number of gates to open along the way, and Tracy’s horse had proven himself to be super-adept at letting her open/close them from his back, which was awesome. Saves so much time having that as a skill. (I’ve been working on it with Liberty, and she’s getting the hang of it, but we are still very much in the slow, step-by-step stages, so by no means quick.)
In off loop 1, the horses were all pulsed down by the time they finished drinking, so we all vetted through, then went off to our respective trailers for lunch. Sofie was ecstatic to see me, as usual, doing her happy little bounce and howl routine, so I got Liberty settled in with a nice mash, then took Sofie out for a stroll (and to grab my lunch that the ride had provided). I took a few minutes to sit and eat, then it was back in action to finish off the hold and get ready for the next loops…electrolyte Liberty, re-fill water bottles/snacks, get Sofie a snack. At one point, Chris came over and gave Liberty a nice brush-down and got all the dried sweat and dirt off her (which is something I always intend to do, but rarely get around to it)…I am definitely not used to having regular crew help, so that was a very nice novelty.
All three of us riders were ready and waiting at the out-timer by the time the hold was up, so we were out right on time (just how I like it, I hate being late out of a vet hold) and onto loop 2. This loop would be 13 miles, followed by a pulse-down and trot-by in camp before heading right back out for loop 3, which was 10 miles.
This loop featured some spectacular scenery, including single-track trails winding through open mountain meadows. My mountain-and-tree-loving heart was in absolute heaven. Parts of this loop were straight out of teenage fantasy, the notion of cantering through the woods and across meadows, with the wind in the trees and hoofbeats on the dirt.
There was one section on this loop that we had been warned about — a short section, but it had a narrow, drop-off single-track trail, and a steep, stair-step climb up. I’ve never loved cliffy, drop-off trails in the past, but after Tevis this summer, I wasn’t sure how I would be having all that bouncing around in my brain. As it turned out, Hailey was leading the first time we went through the drop-off section, and she took us through it nice and easy, and it wasn’t a big deal.
(As an aside…I am so proud of Hailey…she’s gone from not being all that wild about leading to volunteering a number of times during this ride to lead. She makes good decisions and is learning to pace really well, and I am so beyond tickled to see how her confidence has grown. I never thought I would be in the position of sponsoring a junior ride, but sponsoring Hailey this season has been right up there as one of the most rewarding experiences of my endurance career. As happy as I am with my own rides, watching her be successful is so fulfilling.)
Back into camp for a pulse and trot-by…horses were all down and sound, so after a couple of minutes to let them eat, we mounted back up and headed out one last time. All three horses had a bit of a skeptical side-eye for us at being asked to leave again — the trail out was uphill, climbing a rocky, gravelly road, and I don’t think any of them were particularly impressed…but Liberty’s good walk covers ground, and it didn’t take her very long at all for her head to be back in the game, and she was more than happy to move out as soon as I asked.
At one point, a couple miles into the loop, we were passed by the three riders who had been behind us…and then we ultimately caught them several miles later, passed them, and I think Liberty was determined to make sure they stayed passed, because she got into the lead in our little group, and pulled out her best “hold me beer and watch this” moves as she motored us along the trail, including through the drop-off section (I was less okay with her zooming along than I was a nice, easy walk…but she was focused and locked onto the trail, so I just stayed out of her way and let her do her thing, and she managed to get us a nice little space buffer between us and the other riders.
The last half of the loop was all repeat trail back to camp, so all the horses knew where we were, and they were all quite happy to keep bopping along, cheerfully making our way back to camp and the finish. We ended up coming in 8th/9th/10th (Hailey, me, Tracy) and finishing with three happy horses. (Liberty was being a total donkey at the finish, pushing me around…she was totally hangry and looking for any food she could get. I swear, it was like having grass to graze on all day long throughout the ride kept her appetite really stimulated, because I’ve never seen her so ravenous at the end.)
Ultimately, I decided to not ride day 2…while we completed, I felt *something* a little weird in her movement coming into camp, and Dr Anderson said he could see something…not enough to jeopardize our completion, but he advised me to pass on day 2…which had been my thinking even before he said anything.
I got starving mare back to the trailer, where she proceeded to dive head-first into her hay manger and not come up for air for a while. She was bright-eyed and full of beans still, with a finish CRI of 52/56. That right there was worth all the 3am wake-up calls for early morning conditioning rides this summer, to go into the fall season knowing that I’ve got a strong, fit horse who is ready for what lies ahead.
That evening was a lovely time spent socializing, drinking wine, and hanging out by the fire pits. We came away with some lovely awards (a large collapsible scoop/bucket, long-sleeve ride shirt, and a towel with the ride logo on it for Top Ten), and that night was the satisfied sleep of a day well done.
I had no desire to drive back down to the land of triple digits any earlier than I had to, and since I had already planned on being gone all weekend, that was just what I decided to do, and Saturday’s day 2 turned into a fun day of hanging out in camp, crewing for friends, and spending a lot of time laughing and socializing.
Saturday night was another repeat of campfire stories and socializing, with a bonus of dinner (like I mentioned, it was more like a casual camping weekend with friends), and even sampling some caramel whiskey (I had no idea this was a thing, and now I must find some).
Sunday morning, I got camp all wrapped up and packed up with Hailey’s help, and was on the road and made it uneventfully back to the barn by early afternoon.
This was the inaugural weekend for the White Mountain Tango ride, and I would highly recommend it to anyone for next year. Ride managers Lancette and Ellen did a phenomenal job, as did all of their extended management team. Brand-new rides can always be a bit of an unknown quantity, and it seems like the fall ride calendar is really stacked with a lot of rides this year (between AZ, CO, UT, and NM), but I would strongly encourage people (especially AZ/SW region riders) to put this one on your calendar next year.
So, with that starts our fall season. I’ve learned to take my schedule one ride at a time, so next up is the 50-miler at Man Against Horse. Won’t lie, it’s a hard ride, so I’m always nervous about how it will go, but we had a blast at the 25 last year, and Liberty seems to really like the course, so we’ll see. I’ve done everything I can to make sure she is prepped and well-conditioned for it. It’s one of my favorite rides, and I’m looking forward to sharing that trail with my big mare.
The Gear Rundown
Equine: Renegade Viper hoof boots, Taylored Tack headstall/breastcollar, Gaston Mercier reins, Bombers bit (full cheek elliptical dressage control), PK Saddle, Equitime stirrup leathers, True Grit saddle packs, Toklat Matrix ProImpact Woolback pad
Human: Ariat Ascent tights, Ariat Ascent half chaps, Sergio Grasso riding boots, LAS helmet
PS — Our longtime ride photographers John and Susan Kordish have retired from ride photography this summer after over a decade of doing photography at the Arizona rides. I greatly miss seeing their smiling faces waiting for us along the trail, and seeing the results of their good photographic eyes and creative minds. If there are any photographers out there who are looking to get into endurance photography, our AZ rides are without a photographer at this point, so the opportunity is there…