Ride Story: Lead-Follow @ McDowell 50 2021

❤️ My 50-mile endurance mare ❤️
photo by Susan Kordish

The spoiler-alert, short version: Third time was a charm for getting Liberty’s first 50-mile completion, and after our learning curve this spring, and re-grouping over the summer, everything came together and we achieved that goal at the Lead-Follow @ McDowell ride. Even with the temperatures soaring up to 90*, we had a textbook ride, and I couldn’t be happier with how our weekend went.

Drama, crises, and problem-solving along the way tend to make the most interesting ride stories, so this one probably won’t be super-interesting on that level, because <knock on wood> this was the smoothest sailing I’ve had at a ride for a bit. To start with, my truck did not need any last-minute mechanic visits, so already things were off to a less-fraught start than last month’s Man Against Horse (although that came together so perfectly, I really have no complaints).

I did decide to do some Renegade Pro-Comp Glue-Ons on Liberty for this ride, on her hinds. She will sometimes interfere and catch herself on her hinds, so I wanted to experiment with the super-streamlined profile of the glue-on shell to see if that made a difference, as well as work on dialing in my gluing technique (for working for a boot company, I’ve done very little gluing over the years) and starting to test some different adhesives. That was probably the most stressful part of the whole weekend, because gluing is rarely a stress-free endeavor. I’m confident in my hoof-prep, but the glue itself can be the unpredictable element, especially since the one I was trying was something totally new, so I didn’t know what to expect.

The whole gluing process went fairly smoothly, although I was less happy with the left hind than the right, since Liberty decided to be squirmy and set that hind hoof down and wiggle around before it was 100% set. So I went in with low expectations, and plans to carry spare strap boots on the saddle. The temperatures also decided to start rising again the week of the ride, after a couple weeks of very pleasant, cooling-off temps…right about the time the ponies all decided to start sprouting true winter coats, so I busted out the clippers again and re-did Liberty’s trace clip I had done a couple weeks prior.

Freshly glued and (re)clipped

I’ve got a pretty good system of various tubs and totes for packing purposes, and most of them stay packed with all my ride gear, so generally all I have to add is my tack, and pack food and clothing for me, then throw everything into the back of the suburban. I’m not a minimalist, so I’ve got everything about as streamlined as it gets while still feeling like I’ve got all the essentials covered. And with half a dozen rides or overnight trips I’ve done with my little rig setup now, I’m feeling like I’ve got everything sorted out and a pretty good system in place.

The McDowell Mountain Park ride camp is local for me, only an hour away from the barn, so I didn’t have to roll out ridiculously early. I do like having plenty of time to relax and set up camp, though, so I was out the barn driveway by 9 and pulling in to camp right around 10. My friend MJ (Liberty’s bestest boyfriend Dreamer’s mom) had saved us a parking spot, so I was able to easily pull in and get ourselves settled and make short work of setting up camp (hay manger filled/hung, water bucket filled, horse tied off). Less than an hour after setting up, though, I started having some concerns. Liberty was in the full sun, and just standing there eating, she was already starting to sweat. After some back-and-forthing in my own head (and I didn’t want to turn the whole rig around and re-park since I had everything all set up already, and it would have faced me downhill for sleeping), I finally decided to move her to the other side of the trailer, which was nicely shaded, as well as being the inside part of the “box” that we had formed with three trailers. It would also mean she would have company other the two other horses on their respective trailers. I don’t have that side of the trailer set up for tying — the spare tire is on that side, for one, and that’s also the side that has the escape door and handle, and I still have a mental carryover from my NATRC days of “look for all the hazards the horse could possibly hang a halter/lead rope on” so I’ve avoided using that side. But my concerns over my dark horse standing and baking herself in the sun all day before the ride, as well as then standing and baking during our vet hold, finally won out (that, and making sure I had a few breakaway points on her tie rope set-up).

Just arrived in camp, checking out one of the water troughs.
Photo by John Kordish

It ended up being a really good decision. She ties so politely and quietly these days, she didn’t even come close to getting into anything, and I was much less worried with her having basically full shade from the trailer during the hottest parts of the day. She also liked having the other horses so close by, and having the trailers surrounding the horses also gave an element of protection and hopefully be a deterrent from any loose horses coming through camp. (Which, to my knowledge, didn’t happen this weekend.)

All settled now. She had a little bit of sun at certain times but was nowhere near her previous baking exposure as she had been on the other side.

I’m not typically used to getting into camp quite so early, so it was a bit of a treat to be able to have things all set up, and be able to sit down and chat and enjoy and relaxed lunch with friends before wandering up to check in and get our vet card. Vetting started a little after 2, and we were in line shortly thereafter, with only a short wait. We vetted in with Dr. Mark Anderson, who is one of our long-time ride vets, and he’s vetted us at a number of our rides…for better or worse, as he’s also been one to pull us a couple of times…but the nice thing about that is he knows us and knows some of our history, so it was a good confidence boost to have him vet us in and be very happy with how Liberty was looking and moving.

She vetted in fabulously, with a really nice, polite trot-out (a rope halter did wonders for reminding her she does have ground manners, and to mind them). We got our butt number and hung around and chatted with some friends for a few minutes, then headed back to the trailer to saddle up for a short pre-ride with friends MJ and Lucian.

We headed out for a couple of miles along the trail we would be starting on in the morning — I wasn’t sure how much daylight there would be at the 6:30am start on the 50, so wanted to get a look at the footing and pre-scout any trail hazards. (As it turned out, we had some nice early dawn light.) Liberty was full of energy and wanted to zoom her way through, especially when we turned around to head back, but she stayed very controllable, and it didn’t take much to get her settled back down to an animated walk. Love her brain, so much. Even when she’s excited, she tries so hard to be good and be responsive.

Ride dinner was held Friday night, just before ride briefing — yummy BBQ, and I could have lived on just the mac-n-cheese alone, it was so delicious. Ride briefing was the usual, and although I haven’t done the 50 at this ride since 2009 (!!! I couldn’t believe it’s been that long, but yep…Nov 2009 with Mimi…) the only real trail changes were some newer single-track trails that the park had installed in the last several years that ran parallel to some of the former sand wash trails, and made for a much nicer ride. I’ve also been conditioning at McDowell a number of times over the summer, so Liberty was familiar with a number of the trails we would be on. Pulse parameter was set at 60, due to the forecast heat, and we would have a one hour vet hold between loops 1 & 2 for the 50.

There was time for a bit of a social hour back at the trailers, one last check on Liberty to top off her hay and water for the night, and then bedtime beckoned. This was the maiden voyage for my new foam mattress, and it passed with flying colors (and hopefully won’t get as cold as the air mattress when the temps drop). As much as I wasn’t looking forward to the heat during the day, the nighttime temperatures were perfectly pleasant, and it was nice to wake up and not have to crank the vehicle heat on, or shiver my way through dressing for the day.

I’ve also gotten my morning ride routine down — crawl out of the truck, start water boiling for coffee, toss Libby some grass hay and a few bites of alfalfa so she thinks she getting “something” for breakfast, clean up her poop, make coffee, crawl back into truck to dress in ride clothes, find something that has some sort of vague appeal for breakfast, work on breakfast in-between getting Libby booted and tacked up, finish breakfast, pack any last-minute saddle snacks, and then mount up ideally with enough time for a 15-20 minute warm-up before the start.

I was really please with how well-behaved Liberty was before the start. She walked around very calmly, only tossing her head and prancing a bit when we would turn away from the starting trail, and settled with just a few light finger taps on the reins. With 19 riders int he 50, there wasn’t a mad-cap rush at the start…the trail is single-track right out of camp, so everyone was very polite and orderly about making their way out onto the course, and after the first 8 or 9 riders headed out, I found a nice little bubble for myself and we were on our way. Liberty picked up a nice working trot, and within a 100 yards out of camp, had settled into her business-like, “let’s do this thing” manner. We passed a couple people, had a space bubble for a couple miles, got passed by a few people, and all the while, kept at her steady, working trot, trying to take advantage of the early miles of smooth, good footing while we could.

About 7 miles in, the trail starts getting rocky and doing a little bit of climbing, so we slowed down and took our time in the rocks. Our goal for the day was “finish with a sound, happy horse” and if that meant walking over every rock out there, so be it.

Note the unamused mare ears

By this time, the sun was up and bathing the desert in beautiful morning sunlight. I absolutely love the desert in the morning and the evening, when the light is still soft enough that the desert colors really show up (versus the mid-day, sun-baked and bleached effect). There was a little bit of a breeze, and the temperature hadn’t started heating up yet, and I was enjoying the morning, sharing the trail with friends and my amazing mare.

The first water stop is about 11 miles in, at the end of a double-track dirt service road. There are some rocky spots of slow down through, but overall, it’s a welcome change to have some trail to move out on again after the last few miles of rocky, slower-going single track, and Liberty was more than happy to use said moving out opportunity. She drank a little bit at the water, I electrolyted her, she grabbed a few bites of hay, and then we were back on our way, heading back on the same road we had just come in on, and partway along some of the rocky single-track.

By about 16 miles in, the trail gets out of the rocky foothills and back out onto the smoother, flatter desert floor, and we were again able to pick up a more consistent pace. There were some lovely stretches of really smooth single track, and some opportunities to let Libby stretch out and pick up a canter. She has a really, really nice canter, but I’ve been working on getting her develop more gears and trot speeds, so haven’t been letting her canter quite as much, but this is a really good ride to strategically use some cantering to make things more interesting and mix it up a bit.

At the maintenance shed checkpoint and water stop, she dove into one of the troughs and about put a frat boy to shame with her drinking. It was starting to warm up, so I also took the opportunity to hose her down, and electrolyte her again. She also got a couple carrots as a snack, and there were a few piles of grass hay and alfalfa for her to munch on. That questionable left hind boot also took this opportunity to detach itself from her hoof, although I was surprised it had hung on this long. But her spinning and pivoting her butt end around to watch another horse leave the check and head down the trail was the final straw and I watched the boot go sailing through the air and land several feet away. Ah, well. As good of a place as any to lose it, and she never had to travel on any rocks with an unprotected hoof. So I handed her reins off to one of the lovely volunteers, wrangled one of my spare boots off the saddle, slapped it on, left the now-defunct glue-on in the care of another volunteer to take back to camp with her, mounted up and headed down the trail.

Photographer Susan Kordish was down the trail just a little ways out from the checkpoint, and got a whole bunch of lovely pics of us coming down the trail. (Seriously, between her and her husband John, they got over a couple dozen photos of me and Liberty. I love having a photogenic horse that photographers love, because I am a shameless sucker for ride photos.) There was another water stop a couple miles out from camp, and Libby tanked up yet again, and then maybe a mile or so out from camp, John Kordish was set up to get photos of us coming through at that spot.

I hopped off just outside of camp, and by the time I got in, got my time slip, let Libby drink and sprayed her off with the hose, her pulse was down, and at 44 by the time the P&R person took her pulse. Waited in line for a few minutes for vetting, and she vetted through with all A’s. Got an excellent compliment from the vet on her trot-out — said that “it was absolutely beautiful and one of the best trot-outs she had seen.” This is something I work on a lot with this mare, so it was really gratifying to hear that kind of feedback and know the work is paying off.

With vetting out of the way, we now had a solid 50+ minutes of our hold left to go back to the trailer and let her eat, uninterrupted. I got her set up with some more hay and a small pan of mash, took care of my “camp chores” of refilling my waters and restocking snacks in my saddle packs, and adding another spare boot to the saddle, then settled in with my own lunch. I enjoyed a good 15+ minutes of down time, then got Libby’s headgear swapped out for her s-hackamore, mounted back up and was at the out timer with a couple extra minutes to spare.

I’ve never had a problem with her leaving camp on a second loop on LDs, but the two previous 50s, we ended up having a buddy with us when we left, so this would be the first time leaving camp after 25+ miles, all by ourselves, with plenty of other horses still behind us at the vet area. Wasn’t sure what to expect, but she happily trotted right out of camp when I pointed her at the out trail, and cheerfully made her way up the same trail we had headed out on in the morning.

We followed the morning trail for about a mile or so, then turned off to what is probably every horse’s least favorite section of trail. It’s a rocky single-track that climbs up to the top of a ridgeline. Once on top, it’s a pretty view, and there’s generally some breeze, but getting there is a slow trudge, uphill, usually in the heat of the day. Gold stars to Libby, she was probably the least trudgy and most cheerful of the horses I’ve taken through this section, but it was still slower-going, between the rock and the multitudes of trail traffic. (There was so. much. trail traffic on ride day. Especially bikes. I swear the park sent out a memo to the effect of, “we have a horse event with over 100 horses on that trails…so everyone else also needs to come out and use the trails.” Thank goodness my horse doesn’t give two craps about bikes and sharing the trail…but that was a major annoyance to have to deal with so much traffic along the way.)

The obligatory spooking spot at the top of the ridge. Mimi has usually taken offense at the bench on the left. Libby decided the rock pile was much more concerning.

Once down from the ridgeline, it was once again on smooth trail, and it was trail that Libby knew well from our summer conditioning, so she was quite happy to pick up the pace again. She tanked up at the next water stop, munched on some hay for a couple minutes, then continued on. The next section of trail is a long, slow uphill grade. Very deceiving, because it doesn’t look like it, but it’s one of those trails that can easily tap a horse out, and because so much of the footing is so good through this area, there aren’t large sections of rock to enforce walk breaks. So I adopted sort of a trot-walk interval, making sure to give her walk breaks along the way.

About partway through this section, my friend Troy (Flash’s owner) caught up to us. The horse he was riding and Liberty paced well together, and Troy is the one who taught me how to really consistently pace a ride, so we ended up riding the rest of the way together. I think Liberty and I were both ready for some company, and it was a lot of fun to ride with Troy again. I always pick up some good advice and feedback from him, and having a second set of eyes telling me my horse looked really good was a big confidence boost.

This felt a bit like old times, when I was catch-riding Flash for Troy and Claire.

It was also getting really warm out at this point, so having someone to talk with was a good distraction from otherwise descending into “sufferfest” mode. If I stay cheerful, Libby stays cheerful. And she stayed in good spirits all day long. Even in the last couple of miles in, she was still peeking at and spooking at dead logs, suspicious cactus, etc, feeling very sassy and full of herself. I was super-paranoid the last 5 miles or so…she was feeling so good, and I didn’t want to do anything that would risk another finish line pull, so if there was even one or two rocks in the trail, we were walking. The last mile or so, we just walked in nice and easy. She had figured out that she wasn’t going to get to trot, so she settled into a really nice, ground-covering walk, and we easily cruised into the finish, already at pulse parameters. I hopped off, let her drink, gave her a quick hose-down, then immediately pulsed through and took her over to vet.

Her final scores netted a couple of B’s on gut sounds, but given that we were pausing along the whole last 10 miles in to let the horses munch on dry grass along the way — Libby perfected the “horsey drive-through takeout” of grabbing a couple of bites of grass and going — and she had eaten and drank her way through the whole ride, I really wasn’t concerned by that. Her recoveries were excellent, gait/movement perfect…so, third time was a charm, and we officially completed her first 50!

Back at the trailer, she was ravenous — she dove into her hay bag, and only lifted her head to move to her water bucket and drink. She was bright-eyed, still full of energy — in short, a perfect example of “fit to continue.” She absolutely could have gone out for another loop with plenty of gas in the tank if we had to, and I think that was probably one of the best finishes I’ve experienced on 50+ miles to date in terms of having a horse with that many reserves still left, and feeling that perky and cheerful. I truly think she was having fun out there, and it makes me feel so good to know that I was still holding her back the last few miles in, and I never had to pedal her once all day.

This face melts my heart. Bright-eyed, cheerful, and engaged after finishing. She knows she did good, and was so proud of herself.

We finished with a ride time of 8:19, and while we were originally 10th across the line, a finish line pull ahead of us put us ultimately finishing in 9th, which totally floored me. All I wanted out of this ride was that first 50-mile finish for her. I rode conservatively, taking care over the rocks, and tried to maintain a consistent of a pace as I could, and made sure I didn’t dawdle at water stops, etc. It’s been over 10 years since I did the 50 here, and I was reminded as I went through it that it isn’t as easy of a ride as it might appear on the surface, so I am super-proud of how strong she finished.

Saturday evening, the AZERC (Arizona Endurance Riders Club) hosted a potluck dinner, and it was super well-received. We had a great turnout — probably a good 35-40 people showed up, there was a delicious spread of food available, and it was a great chance to wind down and socialize. So many people tend to quickly pack up and go home after the ride because there usually isn’t any kind of formal dinner or anything planned for Saturday night, so the thought behind coordinating and offering the potluck was to try to encourage people to stay, and I think it did just that. I think more people stayed overnight than have in the past (social proofing? “Oh, if I know my friends are going to stay overnight I think I’ll stay as well” versus “well, everyone else always packs up and goes home so I’ll be the only one in camp, so I may as well pack up and go, too.”) and I know I really enjoyed the chance to socialize and visit with folks after the ride, when the stresses of the ride are done and past.

Sunday morning, Libby was bright-eyed and perky and demanding breakfast the second I woke up. (From where she’s tied, she can see into the back window of the suburban, so she can see me as soon as I wake up and sit up. As soon as I sat up, I heard her start up the nickering chorus line and start doing her impatient head bobbing/tossing. Never mind she still had some grass hay left, since I left her with a small mountain of hay overnight.) She was happy to go for a walk around camp, and sample some of the hay piles left in the vetting area. She was still bright-eyed, and super cuddly and affectionate, and looked like she hadn’t done anything.

It didn’t take me too long to get packed up and back on the road home — my packing system has definitely streamlined the whole process. Back at the barn, she promptly dropped down in the sand arena and rolled as soon as I turned her out, and then moseyed her way out to the pasture and settled in to grazing.

I couldn’t have asked for a better ride, and it was the perfect way to end the 2021 ride season. It’s been an up and down year with a lot of learning curves, but I keep reminding myself to be kind to myself — she’s only the second endurance horse I’ve started in this sport. For all the catch riding I did, most of that was on horses who were already sorted out, so I didn’t have to do much in terms of “figuring them out.” With this one, we’ve started from scratch, and it’s only been a year and four months. Even our pulls now feel more like “constructive learning experiences” than “major fail moments.” (It also took me a lot of thinking over the summer to get my brain to that perspective…) I hope this is the start of “it all coming together,” but at the end of the day, the one thing that has never changed, whatever the ride outcome has been, is how much I enjoy this mare and how much fun I have with her.

McDowell was the last ride of the season here in AZ (ride season ends Nov 30), but the season rolls right over into 2022, with the next ride up being the Jingle Bell Trot at Estrella in December, and there’s an AZ ride on the calendar every month from now through next May. I’ll keep playing every ride by ear as always, and just see how everything keeps going, but I’m sure enjoying having a potential calendar full of rides coming up.

Ride Story: Man Against Horse 25 2021

photo by Susan Kordish

The Man Against Horse race. My anniversary ride — the first AERC ride I did, back in 2005. It’ll always hold a special place in my heart for that reason alone, but beyond that, it’s just flat out fun. One of the most unique rides of its kind, horses and riders are competing simultaneously with runners in their respective distances. It’s a blast sharing the trail with the runners, and the horses really seem to get into the spirit of it as well — every horse I’ve ridden at this ride has figured out the “chase after the runners” game. It’s also a challenging trail, especially the 50-miler, with quite a bit of climbing, elevation gain, and very rocky footing.

Throughout the summer, my plan was to do the 50. Our spring season had been rough, as Liberty and I worked through the learning curve of figuring out her particular needs and quirks, but I was able to keep riding and putting in some decent mileage over the summer, including putting in a pre-ride of the last third of the MAH 50-mile course. But as the fall season approached, I started having doubts. This is a hard 50. I personally am 2/4 on finishing it, including my first experience with the heartbreak of a finish line pull, and it’s a trail I don’t take lightly. It had also gotten very rocky, and I just wasn’t sure I wanted our next attempt at a 50 to be quite this level of challenging. At this point, I needed to set ourselves up for success, and have the mental confidence that came from a successful finish.

As soon as I made the decision to switch my entry to the 25, I felt like a huge weight was lifted off my shoulders. We’re just going in to the start of our fall season, and if things keep rolling along well, I’ve got an exciting slate of ride plans ahead, and I didn’t want to blow that by biting off too much on the first go-round.

Of course, my plans for the ride almost got derailed at the last minute. What should have been a fairly straight-forward brake job on my truck turned into a more complicated need to re-do some work that had been done on the rear end earlier in the year…and the necessary part wouldn’t be in until the Tuesday after the ride. And with the entire back half of the thing disassembled and sitting up on the mechanic’s lift, “Can you put it back together well enough to get me through the weekend?” wasn’t going to cut it. (Pro Tip Life Lesson: When you drive an older vehicle, pretty much assume every repair is going to be much more involved than originally advertised, and don’t wait until the week of a ride to get something done.)

I was fairly resigned to missing the ride — so many of my plans this year had gone sideways, so it wasn’t exactly a new feeling — but a quick text to my friend Lancette to let her know of my untimely change of plans resulting in her declaration that there was no way I was missing this ride after the work I had put in all summer, and that she would come to the barn, pick us up, take us to the ride, and make sure Liberty and I both had a place to hang our hats for the weekend.

I was pretty much in happy, grateful tears over her offer. Lancette is a gem; the first person I met when I pulled into ridecamp at Man Against Horse 16 years ago, and she’s been a good friend ever since. I always have a hard time asking people for anything — I am independent probably to a fault when it comes to doing things for myself, and I absolutely hate to put people out, be an inconvenience, or put someone in a position of having to say ‘no.’ I don’t know if that’s self-reliance, pride, stubbornness, or some other moniker, but that’s just how my brain tends to work.

Anyway, dime-store psychoanalyzing aside, I now had a plan of action, and could go ahead with doing a major overhaul and stream-lining of my packing. If Lancette was going to be kind enough to haul me and my pony around, the least I could do was make sure it didn’t also involve having to lug around the kitchen sink, since in no lifetime have I ever been considered a “minimalist packer.”

Early Friday morning saw my pile of stuff stacked next to the barn gate, and a quick hose-off bath for Liberty before Lancette showed up. A couple of minutes to throw everything into the trailer, load Libby, and then we were on the road. Another stop to load up Lancette’s horses, and we were officially ride-bound. Prescott’s only a couple hours away, and it wasn’t long before we were pulling into camp and getting set up.

After getting the horses settled, and grabbing some lunch for ourselves, we saddled up for a pre-ride and headed out for a few mile leg-stretch. Going out, the three horses did fairly okay together, trading off positions, but when we turned around to head back, all three started feeding off each other, so I ended up riding Liberty ahead while Lancette and Ellen kept their two back together. I was really happy with how willing Liberty was to leave her travel buddies — she just wanted to stretch her legs out and move.

Out on the pre-ride

Once back in camp, I got her vetted in, finished off packing my crew bag, and got a final few tack adjustments made. Storm clouds had been rolling in and out all day, even getting a few drops of rain during the pre-ride, but as our little camp sat down to dinner, the clouds started clearing, and we were treated to the most spectacular sunset.

Ride meeting went over a couple of minor trail changes — mainly, routing over to a ranch road rather than staying in a sand wash for several miles, as has always been the norm for some of the early miles, and I have to say, I like the changes. It added maybe a mile of extra distance, but it rode well, and faster and more predictable than the sand wash, which often has areas of unknown depth.

Post ride briefing, there was time for a few minutes of hanging out around the fire pit, and then it was off to bed. Ellen and her husband had brought their camper trailer up for sleeping accommodations, and it was a little slice of much-appreciated luxury to have a lovely, real bed to sleep in.

I’ve been pulling some early morning wake-ups over the summer to beat the heat, and I’ve gotten fairly accustomed to it, so despite having my alarm set for later, I still ended up awake at my normal hour. Which was fine, because it gave me plenty of time to slowly get ready and not rush around. I got dressed, grabbed some coffee and a hard-boiled egg for breakfast, then headed out to get Libby ready.

I’ve got my morning routine down to a fairly quick science now, and it doesn’t take much time for me to get her booted and tacked up. With every ride, she’s also getting better about remembering that she does still need to stand politely for mounting, and I was able to hop on from the side of the trailer with no fuss this time. She was definitely alert and ready to go, but also getting better about calmly walking around and moving her feet without needing to dance around.

The start for this ride is always one of the most exciting. It’s a shotgun start on a two-track road across an open meadow, with horses and runners all taking off en masse and more times than not, there’s usually some high level of drama that goes down, especially on the LD. So while I didn’t want to get caught up in front-runner drama, I also didn’t want to get tangled up in a pack of riders who were all vying to hold back and be the last ones out of camp. And that was how I found myself leaving right at the start, just behind the first quarter of the pack of people who were gunning for the front. Liberty handled it all so well. She was calm and professional, picking up a trot and immediately starting to weave around and work our way through the runner pack.

At the start — taken by Cristina, who was riding right around us for a little ways

Not two minutes into the start, I heard the “Loose horse” shout ahead, and watched as a short little dark grey horse started heading up the trail. I didn’t see the actual incident, but watched as the horse followed after some of the front runners. Fortunately, I watched as one of those riders was able to actually grab the loose horse and hold him for the rider to catch up to them. With the loose horse now safely restrained, we were able to pass by that little drama and keep trucking along. We passed quite a few runners through this section — an area we had pre-ridden the day before, so knew where all the slowdown/bottleneck spots would be and where to be able to safely get around people.

A mile or so past the start
photo by John Kordish

Liberty’s the 4th horse I’ve ridden at Man Against Horse, this was my 8th time doing this ride, and this was probably the best/easiest start I’ve had here. She was so business-like, and handled the traffic and high energy without even batting an eyelash. By the time we hit about 3 miles in, she was even feeling really settled and chill, and I began to think we were just going to cruise through the day as a casual, easy jaunt.

Morning trail — up along the top of a natural earthen dam, overlooking a cow tank

And then we hit the ranch road the detoured out of the wash and across the rolling, open plains — the kind of road that, at one point, you could see it spool out in a straight line in front of you for a couple of miles…and all the horses ahead. We also got passed by a few people, and that was all it took to wake up her competitive side, and I then spent the next several miles riding the handbrake fairly strongly, and glad I put the running martingale on, even if she’s not a fan of it. (Guess what? I’m not a fan of potentially getting smacked in the face by someone’s best flailing llama impression. But using it for a short time did what I hoped it would do, and she’s since stopped llama’ing quite as dramatically and is softening to the bit better.)

Wide open spaces. No one in sight in front of us at the moment, so she settled enough for me to take pics. That runner in front of us was a beast — he was easily keeping pace with her 9mph trot. We leapfrogged with him for several miles, off and on, before he got in front of us at a water stop, and then stayed in front of us the rest of the day. After my fairly brief stint with trail running, I have so much respect for these runners on this course. I’ll stick to tackling it with four hooves and a saddle.

I have to confess: As much as I strive for a settled, relaxed, loose rein cruise of a ride, there is a part of me that was secretly thrilled by her forwardness and enthusiasm and needing to be rated. All of our early rides were marked by a distinct lack of “major go” on her part, and I had wondered sometimes if she really wasn’t cut out to be an endurance horse. But looking back now, I think it was more of a case that she really wasn’t fit, and she was self-preserving enough to not run herself out. On the plus side, she never learned a race brain early on. Now that she’s fit, she is really wanting to go, which I love to see. That said, I’m still needing to be the brains of the operation at this point — I want more foundation well-laid before she’s allowed to pick up the speed. And she’s not hard to manage, just…tenacious. Like, she’s convinced that despite being told, “No, back off and chill out” the previous 10 times that on the 11th time I’m going to relent, throw the reins away, and tell her, “hit the gas.” And she’s so cheerful and good-natured and enthusiastic about it, that it’s really easy for me to laugh and stay chill about “pace negotiations.”

The first two opportunities for water, about 8 or 9 miles in, were a no-go — the first was a cow trough surrounded by a mucky puddle several feet across, and the next was another trough totally overgrown the algae. But there was another one a couple miles further up the trail, so I offered her the opportunity to stop, but didn’t dally too long or waste my energy forcing her or arguing with her.

Sure enough, at the windmill trough a little further along, she decided to take a small drink — not a lot, but it was still early, and the weather was still cool and overcast. From here, we picked up one of my favorite parts of the trail — colloquially called “the Grapevine.” It’s a single-track trail that twists and winds through a (mostly) dry creek bed for several miles before heading up into the scrub oak and manzanita and climbing about a thousand feet up to the vet check.

Along the way, a couple miles out from the check, we came across ride photographer Sue Kordish. She was set up at the top of a long hill, and with our own space bubble and no one around us, I was able to get some great ride photos. From the bottom of the hill, I let Libby go, and she jumped into her war mare charge, until part of the way up the hill, she spotted Sue, and immediately slowed down, put her ears up, and started posing for the camera.

As soon as we came into the check, Libby dove into the water trough and tanked up. We spent several minutes letting her drink, but it gave me a chance to remove her bit and loosen her girth, then headed over to pulse in. She pulsed in right away at 56, and then I gave her a few minutes to eat, then took advantage of a lull in the vet line and scooted over to vet in. She vetted through with all A’s, pulse of 48, then dove back into her food as soon as we were back at our crew area.

The hold was only 30 minutes, so we didn’t have a ton of time, but Libby was able to scarf a pan of feed, I ate a PB&J and drank an iced coffee, then switched Libby’s bridle for her s-hack, wrapped everything up, and was at the out timer right on time. From the check, there were several miles of trail that was different since the last time I had ridden the LD…a forest road that wound through the trees, did a bit of climbing up and down, and eventually we ended up at the spot that is the final gate-and-go vet check on the 50, and only 7 miles from the finish. We had also pre-ridden this section of trail several weeks prior, so Libby knew exactly where she was, and she put the afterburners on. All I did was settle back and hold on, and she cruised down the switchbacks, regulating her own pace in the rocky areas, and flying along whenever it was clear.

I had such a blast cruising down this trail with her. This is one of my favorite sections of trail, and traversing it on a horse that I am so comfortable with, who is so surefooted and trail-confident, makes it all the more fun. At the bottom of the canyon (where we had parked on the pre-ride), she seemed a little puzzled that the trailer wasn’t there waiting, but she kept cheerfully trucking on — I think her “camp” radar kicked in at this point, and I was still needing to rate her back a bit.

We had been in our own space bubble since a few miles before the vet check all the way to the very last checkpoint about a mile and half out of camp, but just past the checkpoint, as we were doing an easy trot through a section of trail that was little more than a light track that made a cross-country path down a ridgeline, we got passed by three riders who felt like cantering downhill through the rocks was the best way to traverse this section, and I recognized one as the rider who had parted ways with her horse at the start. Okay, kids, knock yourselves out. Run into camp…and then we’ll see you how long it takes to pulse down for your actual finish time.

I was super proud of Libby…she didn’t fuss at all over being passed, and kept on doing her steady pace, picking up a bit when we dropped into a nice, sandy wash single track. We cruised through the short section of wash, and just as we popped up over the bank out of the wash, I saw a rider walking on their own two feet, and a horse trotting off down the trail just ahead.

If your first thought was, “same rider as the morning?” you would be right. I stopped to check on her — apparently she got “clotheslined” by a tree down in the wash — and she asked if I could try to catch her horse. Fortunately, he wasn’t screaming along at Mach 10 ahead of us, so following behind him at Liberty’s nice trot allowed us to catch up to him in fairly short order, and the fact he stopped and was watching us didn’t hurt either, and I was able to reach over and snag his reins.

We weren’t very far out from camp, but I initially tried to turn around and head back to the rider, but neither horse was having any of that, so I ended up ponying him into the finish. He wasn’t the most willing participant — I couldn’t unclip his reins from the bit to attach them to the halter (the one time I wasn’t riding with my spare tailing rope!), so I was having to lead him from the bit, which he wasn’t super-thrilled with, but we got the job done and handed him off to a volunteer at the finish. The advantage of walking the last bit in was Liberty pulsed in right away.

photo by John Kordish

I’m so beyond thrilled with how Libby handled that. As far as I knew, she had never ponied another horse. Came to find out later that she had been ponied, but had never been the pony horse. She handled having a strange horse in her space, and me doing all kinds of contortions and re-positioning, and she just kept marching right towards the finish. So, so proud of her, and the mental maturity that she’s displaying.

After pulsing, I briefly went back to the trailer to untack and swipe the worse of the dirt off her, then headed over for our final vetting. There was a bit of a wait, with vets juggling finish vetting with BC judging at the same time, but we eventually got it done, and vetted through with all A’s and a still very-perky Libby.

Three successful finishes for our camp!

The fun part about doing the LD was having the rest of the afternoon to chill out, socialize, watch other riders come in, and relax around camp. Ride dinner was delicious, catered by one of the local Prescott restaurants, with steak or chicken, tortillas, rice and beans, and all the fajita fixings. We all stayed over Saturday night again, and spent a leisurely Sunday morning cleaning up camp before heading home.

This was the perfect way to go into the upcoming season. I couldn’t have asked for a better ride, finishing with a sound, happy horse who still had tons of gas in the tank, and is primed and ready for more!

September Summary

Per the calendar, today the supposed to be the last day of the monsoon season…but I grew up with the monsoon as being defined by starting whenever the weather went over a certain dew point for several days, and ending…whenever it felt like it, rather than arbitrary calendar days. And with a ride this morning of starting humidity of 60% (but temps are cooling off!), and a whole bank of lightning clouds off on the horizon first thing, I will be ignoring the weather people that think they know everything. Liberty is also starting to get a bit velvety-feeling on her coat, a precursor to the winter hair starting to come in. After a long summer, we are all beyond ready for cooler temperatures.

With the local ride season (“local” being defined as “4 hours or less of a drive for me”) getting ready to start next month, Liberty and I have been out racking up the miles. Our mileage total for Aug-Sept came to about 110 miles, with everything from 7-mile technical trail rides to a 20-mile preview run at Mingus Mountain and the latter part of the Man Against Horse course (a preview that helped contribute to my decision to drop our entry from the 50 to the 25, mostly because I need a confidence win after our rough spring season, and starting the fall with the toughest 50 in the state, after a summer of conditioning that, although it was fairly consistent, wasn’t exactly rigorous, or at least not the degree I ideally want to see before heading into that particular 50, wasn’t rattling around in my head as the smartest thought I’ve had).

One of my goals this summer has been “get out and ride in different places.” It’s too easy for me to fall into always going to the same convenient locations, but after riding many of those places for so many years already even prior to Liberty, I quickly get burned out on the same old-same old. Especially when those spots are overrun with other trail users. Some days I’m just not in the mood to deal or share my trails.

So in the last month, I’ve been able to revisit some trails I used to do with Mimi but were new to Libby, and then we’ve done some stuff that was totally new to both of us (including this morning, which I failed to get any photos of because we were boogieing along at such a good clip 98% of the time). It’s been fun to mix it up and keep things fresh and interesting for both of us, and really enjoyable to re-visit some of my old favorite riding spots.

I’ve done a mix of riding solo and riding with friends. Liberty is good either way. Solo is where we get a lot of our quiet bonding moments and can really further our connection. Riding with others is great training, both physically and mentally. She is versatile enough that I can ride her with anyone, and put her anywhere in a group. Following still tends to result in some negotiations about living her best llama life (“No, you are not going to run along behind them inverted with your head straight in the air because you don’t like that I’m asking you to not tailgate”) but she’s getting so much better, and I’m thrilled with how strong and forward but still sensible she has become.

For as active as my riding summer has been, I feel like I haven’t managed to blog about most of it. I still haven’t written this year’s Tevis crewing story, or about the new saddle (from Australia!) that I’ve been testing and riding in since early summer, gear testing (we’re not going to talk about how many bits I have added to my stash), the amazing response to the official formation of the AZ Endurance Riders Club…it’s been a really good summer around here, and I’ll try to catch up on the backlog.

With age comes the privilege of getting to free-graze around the barnyard.

Book Review: GALLANT: The Call Of the Trail

The usual review disclaimers: I review stuff I like. Not paid, not sponsored, not saying nice things just because someone is a friend. If I don’t like something, I don’t do negative reviews…I just don’t talk about it. So if I’m talking about it, that means I liked it and want to pass that along. Bonus points if whatever I’m reviewing is connected to a friend, and I can help send some interested parties their way.

I am a voracious reader. Always have been. When I got in trouble at school, it wasn’t because I was talking, or causing classroom shenanigans…it was because I had my nose in a book and wasn’t paying attention. I grew up in the era of when bookstores were still a thing. Larger bookstores like Borders and Barnes & Noble were just coming onto the scene, and being surrounded by that much reading material was a little slice of heaven for me. I read a variety of books, but my favorites were always the young adult horse series. Thoroughbred and The Saddle Club were always my go-to favorites, and of course anything penned by Marguerite Henry was an automatic favorite (still the case today) but I’m pretty sure I worked my way through just about anything out there that had a horse on its cover. Some were better than others.

Faster forward 25+ years, and I’m still that same voracious reader. My bookshelves are still constantly overflowing beyond capacity, with a wide range of both fiction and non-fiction offerings. And apparently I still have a soft spot for young adult horse fiction, because when my friend Claire Eckard told me about the book series she was planning to write, centering around the story of a young girl and the horse she shares a special bond with, pursuing the sport of endurance riding, I couldn’t wait to read it.

While the print version of the book isn’t out until later in September, the e-book version of the first book was just released today. I pre-ordered my print copy a while ago, but I was too impatient to wait for it…so I downloaded the e-book this morning.

The print version (signed copy!) can be purchased directly from Claire’s website and a portions of the proceeds will be donated to the Western States Trail Museum.

If you’re like me and impatient, the Kindle version is available now, and a portion of the proceeds from the Kindle version will also be donated to the WST Museum.

From the website:

The gripping journey of a young girl and a foal who are raised together in The Valley of Hearts Delight. 

Gallant and Gracie have a special bond, rarely seen between a human and a horse. 

Separated by a bad accident when Gallant is five, each gets a second chance of happiness pursuing the long-distance sport of endurance riding, neither knowing they are leading parallel lives. 

Will Fate bring them together again? 

Gallant’s arch nemesis, The Almighty Flash, threatens to destroy all that Gallant has worked for. His misguided ambition and greed, developed at the hands of an abusive owner, has created a darkness in his soul that turns to blind fury when his endurance career is threatened. 

I was glued to my computer screen from page one, and didn’t get up from my desk until I had closed the figurative cover. Any horse-crazy girl, young or old, who has ever felt like they’ve had a particular bond with a special horse will appreciate this story. It tugged my heartstrings in all the best of ways. I don’t want to give away too much, but I really enjoyed how the horses themselves are their own characters, and some of the story is told from their perspective.

From an endurance rider perspective, I love how the spirit of endurance is captured. There’s a disclaimer in the beginning that some “artistic liberty” has been taken with some of the technicalities/specific rules of endurance…but this isn’t a “how to ride endurance” book. This is a book about the possibilities of endurance riding, how it makes one feel, the joy of sharing the trail with an equine partner, and the many life lessons that can be learned along the way.

I love how many cameos, tributes, and hat tips are included. The character of Gracie is inspired by Julie Suhr, and anyone who has read her autobiography (Ten Feet Tall Still) will recognize some familiar names along the way, and the character of Gallant is based on Julie’s beloved HCC Gazal, who still to this day holds the record for most number of Haggin Cup wins (three).

Additionally, and this one personally grabs all my heartstrings and yanks them along for the ride, the “bad guy” of the book is The Almighty Flash, based on none other than….yep…that Flash.

My favorite badass. The fact that the real life version is the most cuddly, goofy, snuggly, big-hearted caretaker under the mohawk’d war horse exterior makes reading about his evil alter ego rather entertaining.

The illustrations in the book, by Phylicia Mann, also remind me very much of the Wesley Dennis style of art that featured in so many of Marguerite Henry’s books, so anyone who grew up on the ‘Misty’ books will feel an immediate sense of familiarity and homecoming.

The intended audience might be of the young adult age bracket, but I truly think anyone who is horse crazy, and has experienced a bond or certain connection with a special horse, will find something to relate to in this book, and I would highly encourage folks to pick up a copy. This is the first in what will be a trilogy, and I cannot wait for the next two books to come out. Because apparently, it doesn’t matter how old I am, there’s a part of me that’s still that same girl who used to sit on the floor in the bookstore and dive right into the next book in my favorite horse series.