Ride Story: Lead-Follow @ McDowell 75, Nov 2022

I can’t think of a better way to wrap up a ride season than how this ride ultimately went. A few weeks ahead, I had waffled back and forth on if I should go for the 75-miler or 100-miler. The impatient part of my brain really wanted to try the 100-miler, but the reasons for doing so were not plentiful, and there were far more reasons to curb my enthusiasm and do the 75-miler. The overriding reason being that Liberty has never done anything longer than a 1-day 50, and we haven’t done any back-to-back rides, and ultimately, my gut was telling me that doubling her distance in one go would be too much. Or if we pulled it off, it might not be pretty…and what I’ve learned with this horse is every time I’ve tried to bite off too much or gotten too ahead of myself, it’s turned around and bitten us.

To that end, I entered the 75, and as the ride approached, I found myself getting really excited about it. Hard to know specifically why, but I felt probably the most excitement for this ride than I have any other ride this season. Probably the biggest question mark and misgiving I had (aside from the general “I hope we don’t find a rock with our name on it, nothing goes wrong, etc” pre-ride worries, since I’ve learned to never ever take it for granted that I’m going to finish a ride) was how the night portion would go.

A couple weeks prior, we had done a mini-clinic on night riding…and she was rather awful once it got dark. Very amped up and jigging (riding our “home” trails and leading a group of riders who were new to riding in the dark, and she thought we could be going a lot faster than the pace we had set), flinging her head around at bit pressure, and legitimately terrified of the glow lights I had put out. Like, stop and stare at the green glowing lights, snort, try to whirl or bolt past them, trembling, shying…it was a side of her I had never seen displayed before. And I kind of ran out of time to do any further practice with the notion. So I was hoping that having significant mileage under her girth on ride day (I anticipated probably being able to make it at least 60 miles or so before I lost the light) would settle her, or at least make her reactions not so dramatic.

Since we were going a longer distance, on trail that is pretty concussive/hard-packed, and rocky in places, I opted to glue padded boots again. I had some concerns about the size of the front pair (a little snug), but modified them the best I could and hoped for the best, since I didn’t have a larger size. (Yes, could have just used the padded front strap boots, but I was aiming for lighter weight/lower profile over the longer distance, so hoping this would work.)

Glued, clipped, and pre-gaming with a sloppy mash

Friday morning, I was out the door and down to the barn bright and early to get Liberty loaded up, and we were on the road in no time at all. This particular ride is quite close, only an hour away from the barn, and on some of our regular training trails, so it was a quick, easy drive, and I was in camp by 9am, giving me plenty of time to leisurely set up camp.

Liberty was, as usual, her consummate professional self, diving into her hay and steadily draining her water buckets and calmly watching all of the camp goings-on. She really is the best camper ever, always so chill at the trailer and never wasting any extra energy. I’ve contemplated getting her some kind of corral panel set up or a high-tie, but I don’t really have space to store panels, and my trailer roof is a little too low to properly mount a high-tie, so I’ve not really pursued those options, and quite frankly, she’s so polite and quiet at the trailer and ties so nicely, I don’t know if I really need it or if she would actually even use the extra space.

Anyway…I got myself checked in, and hustled Liberty up to vet in as soon as I could. She was very sassy for her trot-out, pinning her ears at her and trying to charge ahead…ahem. Back to manners school for her. Glad you’re fit and feeling fresh, mare, but you still have to be polite about it. From there, we headed out for a little shake-out pre-ride. Normally, my pre-rides are pretty short and sweet, but she was definitely feeling full of herself, so I opted for a longer ride, a 5-mile loop out from camp. Mostly walking, just getting her head together and giving us some quiet time alone on the trail. The route we used would also be the first couple miles of the start — which would be in the dark — as well as the last couple miles back in to camp coming off all the loops, so it was a good preview of those sections.

Checking out the start trail

That leg stretch was just what she needed, and by the time we were back to camp, she was her typical, polite self again. Got her settled back at the trailer again, then had lots of time for the rest of the afternoon to finish my pre-ride prep of adding spare boots to my saddle, mixing and packing electrolytes, and getting as much stuff laid out for the next day as possible. I didn’t have any formal crew help lined up, so I wanted to make sure everything was as streamlined as possible since I would be juggling myself + horse + dog…and then adding a longer distance to all that.

A little later in the afternoon, I had a new endurance recruit join me — a gal that I had done a boot fitting for last year, got chatting about endurance with, and long story short…she attended one of the club 101 Clinics earlier this year, came out to our night riding clinic last month…and then signed up for the intro ride at McDowell! I’m super excited to have made an actual recruit to the sport, so it was really fun to take her around camp and show her the ropes. She’s super enthusiastic about everything, so I’m looking forward to seeing how she goes and offering whatever help I can.

Ride dinner at this particular ride is done Friday night…in this case, since I didn’t know when I would be finishing the 75, I do kind of like that…no worries about coming in after dinner is over, etc. And the club was doing a potluck on Saturday night, so I knew I could count on someone saving me a plate for whenever I was done. There ended up being 9 in the 75-miler, 2 in the 100, 23 in the 50 and 31 in the 30. A Facebook memory popped up, from when I was at this ride probably a decade ago, and I had made a comment in the caption that there were 20 riders in the 75 alone (this was before a 100 was offered). A lot has changed in the last decade, that’s for sure.

Something I do like about fall rides…it gets dark early, so it’s easy to get things wrapped up for the evening and head to bed early! Which is exactly what I did…tucked Liberty in with her blanket, plenty of hay, topped off her waters, took Sofie for one more walk around camp, and then retreated to my cozy truck nest. With a 6am start, that meant a 4am wakeup, so the earlier I could attempt to sleep, the better.

I won’t say I have gotten used to 4am wakeup calls…but I’ve done quite a few of them this past year or so, especially trying to get out to ride this summer (some days were even 3am!) and so 4am no longer sounds quite as inhuman of a time to wake up as it once did. Did my usual morning routine of dressing in the clothes I had laid out the night before, then crawling out of the truck, taking Sofie out to potty before tucking her back into the truck, then starting my morning coffee and breakfast. Liberty got herself a little “morning snack” (scoop of Outlast and a handful of her favorite feed) to work on while I got her tacked up, in between working on my own breakfast and coffee. I’ve got my routine pretty streamlined these days, and it doesn’t take me much time at all to be ready to go. One more walk for the dog before getting her settled into the trailer (she gets to use Liberty’s nice warm blanket for her bed while we’re gone), some back-and-forth with Liberty about how tight was the girth going to be or not, and then it was time to hop on and head to the start.

I had allotted plenty of time for warm-up…lots of walking in big circles around the starting area. Way-too-smart mare knows the out-trail, so she was perfectly calm and polite near that area, but when we’d walk away from the trail, she’d give me a little sass in the form of head tossing and trying very hard to walk in the direction of the out-trail. Well, gotta love a horse who really wants to get out on the trail.

With only 9 in the 75, it wasn’t exactly a madhouse start…half the field wasn’t even there right at 6…so we walked out, walked down the slightly downhill, slightly rocky section of trail, Liberty’s good walk had us passing someone right in front of us, then we picked up a trot and just went. It was still dark — sunrise wasn’t until 7 — but she was locked onto the trail and comfortably cruising. Pre-riding this section had really helped — she knew where there were spots that dipped in and out of washes — and she didn’t put a hoof wrong. (This, from the horse I sometimes have to watch with her toe-catching in broad daylight.)

Desert morning light

The morning didn’t offer any particularly dramatic sunrise this time…rather, a gradual lightening of the sky that slowly got brighter and brighter. The first 15 miles of the first loop are probably the rockiest section of the ride, especially down at the southern end of the park, so we did a lot of “walk the rocks, trot the clear” to get through, eventually making our way to the first checkpoint and water stop at 12 miles. Liberty drank really well here, got electrolyted, and took a few minutes to stuff in some hay while ducked behind a bush to recycle the morning coffee. Then it was back in the saddle and on our way again. Shortly out from the water, we caught up to my friend Dayna and her riding companion, and I asked if she minded if I tucked in behind them for a bit. See, the front-running 50s (starting half an hour after us) had actually caught up to us at the water…and some of the faster 50s were our training buddies and horses Liberty knows, so I didn’t want her to get too “motivated” by their faster pace and spend the rest of the loop doing “negotiations” with her. Liberty paced really well with Dayna’s horses, and she was happy to have me ride with them, so that’s what we did for the remainder of the loop.

We had a brief water/electrolyte stop at the maintenance shed checkpoint at 21 miles, where she drank really well, and another one at 24 miles, just a couple miles from camp, where she drank really well again. Super thrilled with this, since the weather was still very pleasantly cool. And then she drank again as soon as we reached camp. By the time she drank, I dropped her bit, and loosened her girth, she was pulsed down, so I got her pulsed in, then right over to vet. Just short wait with one other horse in front of us, then it was our turn. I totally forgot to take a picture of my vet card, but from what I remember, she had all As, and was still sassy enough to jump around and try to knock into me on our trot-out. (Seriously, back to remedial trot-out school for her.)

One loop, and the longest at 26 miles, down. Back to the trailer, where I installed her in front of her buffet selection (two kinds of hay, two kinds of mash) then grabbed a sparkling water and took Sofie for a walk. This check was very much like a typical hold for most 50s for me — I’ve got an hour, so plenty of time to let her eat, take care of the dog, take a few minutes to sit and eat, then get waters, saddle snacks, and elytes refilled. A dose of elytes into the horse…swap her bit out for a hackamore…add a running martingale because her head-tossing on the first loop had reached truly epic levels of aggravation and I was afraid she was either going to face-plant herself or crack me on the nose (bitting/bridling this horse and teaching her to soften to any sort of face pressure has been quite an undertaking and we’re still not there yet, and yes, she’s had full dental work, vet exams, bodywork, etc)…and we were ready to head out. We were at the out-timer with several minutes to spare, so I kept her walking in circles until we reached out out-time, then trotted right out of camp.

On the “Escondido Trail” which is lots of fun singletrack

The next loop started with a section of trail I really like. Lots of twisty single-track, and it’s a newer trail to the park, so it’s one I’ve only ridden a couple of times previously. In fact, Libby and I had just preridden it about a week and half prior to the ride, so it was fresh in both of our minds, and she cruised through this section. Tammy had left out from camp a little bit ahead of us, and we kept playing peek-a-boo through this section — I would see her on a trail section ahead of us, then the trail would turn, or drop down into a wash, and we’d loose sight of each other, only to come around the next bend and see her a couple turns ahead. Both horses were pretty much evenly matched in pacing, so it continued like this for much of the first half of the loop. I could also see Dayna and her friend behind us, the same sort of “few minutes and a few trail turns back.”

From miles 33 to 38 is a long, gradual uphill section. It doesn’t look like it’s really climbing, and the whole trail is smooth single-track, so this section is super-tempting to really let the horses go if you don’t know the trail. I know the trail…Liberty knows the trail. The long, uphill slog doesn’t overly impress her. It was hitting noon-time, the sun was high overhead, and there’s no shade on this section of the trail. And every time I’ve ever done this ride, every horse I’ve ridden hits a bit of a wall through here. Which is fine…like I said, not a great time to let them blow out all their reserves. A strategy of walk/trot intervals served us well to get through this section, and once we got about halfway through this stretch, the breeze picked up, Liberty perked up again, and although we kept to the intervals, she was doing so with a little more motivation and impulsion. We were also doing some leapfrogging with Tammy and Dayna, so having the other horses around/nearby was also serving to keep her quite happy.

The trail then headed back down to the maintenance shed checkpoint. Liberty drank well again, ate some hay, and then it was back to camp again, in a more roundabout fashion than the first loop. Another few miles of a different “uphill slog” trail that took us around to a long, gradual downhill stretch, and around to the water stop a couple miles from camp. Onto the 2-mile stretch of single-track into camp. Partway through this section, I felt Libby take a few funky steps whenever we would go through rocks. My brain immediately went into “disaster mode,” wondering if this was it, if our ride would be done by the time we got back to camp, if she had stepped wrong somewhere…and then I looked down and noticed she was missing a front glue-on. Wait. Make that missing both front glue-ons. Oh. Well, that would explain the off steps. Fortunately we were only a short distance from camp at this point, on good footing, so I walked her in. She was pulsed down immediately, and when I took her over to vet in, I pointed out her missing boots to the vet, assuring him I had spare boots back at the trailer for the third loop. (I had a spare boot on my saddle, but I figured that with one hoof bare and one hoof covered, she would look really imbalanced and funky on the trot-out so I opted to leave both fronts bare.) Her vetting wasn’t quite as good as loop 1…gut sounds a little quieter, and not as wildly perky on the trot-out (also, protecting her bare hooves, so understandable) but we were cleared to keep going. Second loop, 24 miles, down.

Of course, she still had a bunch of glue now stuck to her hooves that I was going to have to get off in order for her strap boots to really go on and fit well. I also wanted to pull her tack, give her saddle pad a chance to dry, and get all of our night gear together. My expression must have looked slightly stressed as I left the vetting area, because I was immediately joined by my friend Ellen, who had ridden the 30-miler that day and was already finished, and she asked me what I needed help with and what she could do. And then on the way back to the trailer, my friend Tracy (who I rode with at White Mountain Tango earlier in the fall) jumped into the fray as well. Both of them were incredibly helpful — back at the trailer Liberty got untacked, and Tracy started cleaning her up while Ellen took Sofie out for a walk, giving me a chance to sit and eat. Once Sofie was taken care of, Ellen took care of refilling my saddle waters and snacks, while I pulled out the rasp and scraped the worst of the glue chunks off Libby’s hooves and put her strap boots on. Tack back on…jacket added to the saddle…headlamp on helmet, warmer shirt changed into…hackamore swapped for a sidepull…and time to go again. So grateful for Ellen and Tracy’s helping hands, as I don’t know if I would have gotten everything done in time.

Chasing the sun

Once again I had a few minutes at the out-timer, and I was pleasantly surprised by Libby’s happy attitude to the idea of heading out again. She cheerfully trotted right out of camp once more, and out the same trail we had started on first thing in the morning…and promptly spooked at the trail intersection. <sigh> She had been so good all day long so far and the spooks had been super minimal, but as we headed into the late afternoon, her alert levels definitely went up, and things that hadn’t even warranted an ear-flick earlier in the day were now worthy of snorts and side-teleports. Oh, well. This is why my saddle has a nice hoop pommel on it.

This loop also had another long, uphill stretch…one that we regularly use in one of our favorite training loops, so I was hoping the familiar trail, and some “force of habit” would kick in and motivate her to motor up this section. Which it did…she was definitely more lively than the uphill section of loop 2, albeit not as spunky as she is on training runs. (Granted, she usually has about 11 miles under her girth on a training ride versus 55 at this point…)

Once through the uphill stretch, she knew exactly where we were, and she was ready to fly. Dusk was approaching and the whole desert was turning golden, the mountains on the horizon starting to take on a purple cast. One more time into the maintenance shed water and checkpoint, where she drank, ate some hay, took her elytes, and we headed out again. She did really good as evening fell, and the spooks were fairly minimal. And I was right…we made it to right around 65 miles before we lost the light completely. And now we were on familiar trail…trail we had traversed earlier in the ride, and trail that we use all the time for training rides. And she was quite happy to keep moving out.

Last pic before I lost the light…

Unfortunately, with total darkness also came quite a bit of spooking. Which is hard when you can’t see whatever it is they see and have no advanced warning. Fortunately, she wasn’t reacting nearly as dramatically over the lights as she had during the clinic, but she was still peeking at some of them, especially if there was a light “puddle” being cast on the trail. We only had about 6 miles or so to go a this point, but I didn’t really relish spending them dealing with two handfuls of spook, so I was grateful when I heard voices ahead…we had caught up to Dayna and her friend. And even more grateful when Dayna was okay with me tucking in behind them for the remaining miles.

A few miles out from camp, we stopped at the last water stop to let the horses drink, and had a really good discussion about the finish. The last few miles in were single track trail, with cactus around, and very little area that is conducive to pulling off the trail or passing, and definitely no racing in. With that in mind, we talked finish order out on the trail. Dayna offered that if I wanted the higher finish or was chasing points, she would be happy to let me go ahead. But I really didn’t feel right doing that. She had done me a solid, both earlier in the ride and then helping us get through this section in the dark, so I really felt like it was way more appropriate for her to have the higher finish. I also picked up some really useful insights and tips along the way from Dayna, as I usually do whenever I’ve had the chance to spend time with her, which is always appreciated. And so our group of 3 rode in together the last few miles…no pressure, not rushing, but not dawdling…and finished 2/3/4, coming in at 7:24 for a ride time of 11:24…and turns out only 9 minutes behind 1st place. (And my “if it all goes right, upper-level” goal was to finish 7-7:30.)

Since we had ridden easy in, Liberty was cool and not sweaty, and pulsed down as soon as we got in. I had preemptively packed my crew cart during the 2nd hold, and had Ellen take it up for me and leave it at the finish so I would have everything I needed right there…including snacks for Libby. I parked her in front of the cart and she dove into her food while I stripped off her tack and got a cooler on her. I made sure she was pulsed down, and then went over to check in with the vet. Dr Anderson asked me if I wanted to stand for Best Condition…to which I was finally able to happily say yes. He’s asked me that at a few rides this season now, and previously, I either wasn’t prepared (had never dreamed I would Top Ten rides with this horse, so we had never practiced showing for BC and in-hand circles), or she hadn’t finished solid enough where I felt like we would stand a chance. But this time…she felt really solid coming in, so I thought it would be worth it.

By that time, both MJ and Lancette had come over (both had ridden the 50 that day) and gave me a hand with horse and tack juggling for me to get weighed, then it was time for Liberty’s 10 minute CRI. She trotted out great, and I think her CRI was something like 56/60. Then it was time to take her back to the trailer and get her cleaned up and come back in an hour for the full BC exam. MJ and Lancette came back with me…Lancette stopping to get me a plate of dinner and bowl of hot soup, and MJ taking Libby and getting her settled in back at the trailer. Fortunately, Tracy’s sponge bath of her earlier in the day had done the job, and she hadn’t gotten very sweaty at all out on the third loop, so it didn’t take much to get her brushed, then let her stuff her face…while I stuffed mine, and MJ took Sofie out for a walk. Lancette’s hot soup tasted amazing, and it felt really good to sit down. The last five miles, my thighs and feet had been screaming at me, since I had been bracing myself a lot holding Libby back and keeping her a polite distance from the other horses. I’m still shocked I was riding the handbrake more in the last 5 miles of the ride than the first 5.

The next morning. This look means everything to me. Soft, happy, bright eyes, and a lot left in the tank.

When my hour was almost up, Lancette took Sofie and I grabbed Libby, and we all headed up to the vetting area again (Susie had come in on the 100 during that time, so MJ had gone to help her). I had a few minutes to wait, as Dayna was showing her horse for BC, so I walked Libby around, then it was our time to present. All of her vet parameters were good…all A’s, from what I remember…and then it was time to trot circles. And from what Lancette and MJ and a couple others who were watching said, she looked good. It took no effort or encouragement on my part for her to keep right up with me on a loose lead, and all of the practice we did at making smooth circles and staying at my shoulder really paid off. I was super happy with how that had gone…that was only my second time ever showing for BC (first time was with Flash at Bumble Bee several years ago), and Libby’s first time ever. And my main goal had been to put in a respectable showing with a happy, sound horse…which I certainly had, based on Dr Anderson’s comment of, “well, she looks ready to go for a fourth loop.”

After that, I took her back to the trailer, got her tucked in with her blanket and plenty of food, then Sofie and I headed back up to hang out at the firepit and wait for the last few riders to come in on the 75. There was about a dozen of us hanging around waiting up, so we had lots of laughter and sharing of the day’s ride stories, and by 10:30, all the riders were in. After everyone had vetted and gotten their completions and things were winding down, I couldn’t help myself…I “casually” asked Dr Anderson if they’d had a chance to calculate BC scores…and they had…and after leaving me on pins and needles with some teasing misdirection…told me that Liberty had gotten Best Condition!!!!!

I think I floated back to the trailer…gave my mare the biggest hug ever…and finally crashed into bed around midnight. I woke up around 6:30 the next morning, and crawled out as it was getting light. Libby was bright-eyed and nickering for breakfast. She had put a serious dent in her hay overnight, drank really well, and looked perky and happy. I hadn’t bothered to wrap her legs, and they didn’t look any more filled than what they usually look like after she’s been in her stall overnight. I took her for a stroll around camp and she was strong and forward, even looking over at the trail and out-timer area like, “Can we go again?”

It took me a couple of hours to get camp packed up, and then I got my prizes from the weekend (engraved folding knife for completion, rope halter for top ten, and mesh hay manger for Best Condition), got the mare loaded up, and hit the road for home. Back at the barn, Libby popped out of the trailer, charged across the barnyard, and went strutting out to the pasture.

Two weeks later, she is full of beans and feeling good. I’ve given her a solid two weeks off, and will give her a light arena workout this week, followed by an easy, slow ride this weekend pulling ribbons at another local ride. It was the absolute best way to end what’s been an incredible ride season. We set out to finish Liberty’s first 75, and we finished well beyond what I was expecting. And to finish the season with a Best Condition…she truly did get better and stronger as the season went on.

Our next ride won’t be until January, the super-local-to-me Tonto Twist 50. In the meantime, Liberty gets some well-earned rest and easy rides as we head into the holidays, and be ready to rock-n-roll in 2023!

One thought on “Ride Story: Lead-Follow @ McDowell 75, Nov 2022

  1. Hell yes, girl! I am so happy for you! Congratulations on a ride well ridden. You had a season to be proud of out there with your best girl. Can’t wait to see where you go next.

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