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!

Ride Story: Man Against Horse 50, Oct 2022

The race that began as a bar bet back in 1983 was back for its 38th running this year…the iconic, infamous Man Against Horse Race in Prescott, AZ. Also, incidentally, my “anniversary ride” — the first AERC ride I did, back in 2005. I couldn’t have picked a wilder and woolier ride to kick off my introduction to endurance riding (well, actually, I kind of did…I crewed Tevis twice, in 04 and 05, before I ever even rode an AERC ride), but in spite of that (or maybe because of it?) I fell in love with the sport, and this ride has always held a soft spot in my heart.

Mimi and I tackling the 25miler in 2005

The 50-miler especially is known for its level of difficulty. It is rocky. There’s over 7000′ of climbing (including a climb up Mingus Mountain, in which the most intense part involves a 2000′ elevation gain in only a couple of miles). Did I mention the rocks? The weather can be unpredictable. Oh, yeah, and the rocks. It’s probably one of the most challenging 50-milers in this state. I’ve gone head-to-head with this trail a total of 9 times now…4 times in the 25, and 5 times in the 50. I’ve finished the 25 every time, but the 50 has eaten my lunch a couple of times, leaving me with a healthy respect for the course, and no smug assurances of a guaranteed finish, especially since I’ve been pulled at the finish one year.

Liberty and I did the 25-miler last year, as well as a training ride last summer that introduced her to some of the “upper Mingus ” area (albeit not the intense climb up the 106 trail that the ride course uses), so she was familiar with all but maybe a dozen miles of the course. This was also probably the best summer I’ve ever had as far as regularly conditioning, and going into the fall season feeling like I had a well-conditioned horse. We’d also finished the White Mountain Tango 50 three weeks prior, although the fact she was a little bit off on her left hind afterwards had me seriously nervous going into this ride. The conservative side of me was ready to pull the plug and play it safe…but ultimately, the “take a chance, see what happens” side won out.

So, back to the race itself…it’s super-unique, one of only a handful of races in the world in which horses and runners compete side-by-side for who can get across the line first. It is so much fun to share the trail with the runners, and the aid stations along the way are an added bonus, since they’re more than happy to share the goodies with the riders as well. I thought riding this course was tough enough…I cannot imagine running it. My takeaway from my brief stint into ultrarunning was that I’m a way better rider than I am runner, so I’m going to stick with my strengths and let four hooves carry me down the trail…but mad props to those runners who toe the start line of this race.

With the abundance of rain up in the mountains this summer, I had been warned ahead of time that the rocks were even more prolific than usual. With that in mind, I decided to glue padded Renegade shells on Liberty all around for some extra protection and concussion against the rocks. It was also calling for rain on ride weekend, and if there’s any spot that is going to tax the boots to the limit, it’s climbing up Mingus, especially if it’s wet/muddy…and that is a bad spot to lose a boot. So as much as I try to avoid gluing, I figured this was one time it was justified.

Liberty got her boots glued on Wednesday…messy-looking, but overall a pretty smooth gluing job. Truck/trailer got all packed up, and I rolled out from the barn Friday morning, following the tail-end of morning traffic through Phoenix, and made it up to camp by 10am. Camp is at Fain Ranch in Prescott Valley, smack in the middle of a wide-open cow pasture. The aforementioned rain meant that the vegetation and grass growth was also quite prolific up there, but management had done a great job of going in and bushwhacking out a really nice parking area for all the rigs. It was a slightly different spot than where we’ve previously parked, but it actually ended up being an even nicer option.

I’m really liking getting into camp early…allows for a very relaxed time getting settled in and set up, without any rushing or scrambling around. Cristina stopped by with her littles, since she lives not far from camp, and we got to spend some time visiting and catching up.

Vetting wasn’t until 3, so after camp got all set up, several of us saddled up and headed out for a nice pre-ride leg stretch. Libby was great on the way out, but turned into a bit of a fire-breathing dragon on the way back. Jigging, snorting, fussing with her bit, and being quite sassy and animated.

I’ve been going round and round with her on trying to find a bit/headgear that she deems “acceptable.” I thought Mimi was fussy about bits…turns out this one leveled that up by a factor of about 10, and she’s challenging every notion I’ve had about bits, and clearly didn’t “read the manual” about what “should” work for her. (Yes, teeth are fine…she is regularly seen by a veterinarian who specializes in equine dentistry. This is her being opinionated and having very strong feelings about softening and the idea of yielding to pressure.)

I have an entire bridle rack that is full of bits now, thanks to her, and I refuse to think about how much $ I have spent on bits over the last 2 years (hey, everyone needs a hobby, right?), and although I have sold off a few here and there, most of them I am reluctant to part with…and I learned well at a young age from my show trainer the concept of having a “bit box” full of bits, because you never know when some dusty, esoteric bit that’s been gathering dust for a decade is going to be The Bit for a particular horse.

One thing I’ve learned with Liberty, though, is she is not a fan of “too much” bit or multiple pressures. Curb pressure and leverage do not make her very happy, whether it’s in the form of a bit with some leverage, or an s-hackamore. It’ll back her off, all right…right back behind the vertical, and she gets all bunched up and off contact. With other bits, she’ll snatch down and forward in response to contact. I’ve been using a running martingale on her, off and on, to counter some of the snatching…but it’s not something I really like to use if I can avoid it.

So I went into the weekend with 3 headgear choices to try…one of which was brand new, one was a new variation of a bit that had been “the most acceptable” so far, and one I had tried….once…on an easy walking ride. First up was a Neue Schule universal ring with the “turtle top” mouthpiece. I’ve used the turtle top before, but she was a little strong in it, so the thought was adding the universal ring cheekpieces would give a little more leverage. Well, testing that one out on the pre-ride was a flat-out “nope.” Great going out, but as soon as she got a little amped up coming home, she was all sorts of fussy and unhappy about it. Okay, that was option one down. Option two was a titanium Bombers bit with a loose ring cheek and one of their elliptical mouthpieces. I’d been running a full cheek sweet iron version of this bit on her with probably the highest degree of success…but she prefers titanium to sweet iron, and the way she likes to rub her face on things (even though she’s not allowed to…), it was only a matter of time before she snagged that full cheek on something. Option three was a padded sidepull noseband that attaches on to an existing headstall. I’d tested that once, on a solo walking ride, and she was a gem…but I didn’t know if I trusted that I would have brakes at a ride start in something so light, especially given that we’d had a bit of a dust-up on a training ride the previous weekend after I had to switch from the s-hack that she was having a fit over to a plain halter…and my brakes were questionable at best in that when we were in a group. I figured I could probably switch to the sidepull after the second vet check…35 miles and a climb of Mingus would probably take the wind out of her sails somewhat. But that left me wondering what to do for the start, which can be very high-energy and exciting, since it’s a shotgun start with the horses and runners all taking off together.

Ultimately, I decided to run with the Bombers loose ring…and no running martingale. One of the premises that Bombers works off of is that “pressure = resistance, and resistance = lack of control.” It’s totally counter-intuitive for someone who has always learned “bit up for control,” but learning more of the psychology of horses, and how they are wired to think, this totally makes sense to me. The question was, did I trust the concept, and my horse, and myself, enough to put it in practice? I guess we’d find out…

The clouds started rolling in over the top of Mingus as we were coming back from our pre-ride, and things were looking quite ominous by the time we headed over to vet. Liberty vetted in well (although the pulse of 44 revealed she was a bit “up”), we got our ride number put on, and we were ready to start the following morning. Right after we got back to the trailer, it briefly started sprinkling for a few minutes, but the clouds passed quickly, and we never got more than a few drops of rain.

Friday afternoon clouds

Friday evening, AZERC (Arizona Endurance Riders Club) hosted a potluck dinner, with great turnout and attendance. People bring really yummy food, and it’s a great way to gather and socialize ahead of the ride. It’s been so heartening to see the overall response the club has gotten…the enthusiasm, being able to bring in new people to the sport, great turnout for learning events, and it’s been really good to have some of our long-time endurance riders sign up and support the club. But the club is probably a topic that deserves its own blog post and attention, so that will be for another day.

Ride meeting was at 7, and went over all the relevant info for the following day. 6:30am ride start for the 50, 30 min hold at vet check 1 (17 miles), 45 min hold at vet check 2 (34 miles), and a gate-and-go at vet check 3 (42 miles).

A final top-off of Liberty’s water and hay for the night, and then I headed straight for bed, since 4:30am would be rolling around plenty early the next morning. I actually slept really well for me the night before a ride…I am typically very restless, and have a hard time getting a good night’s rest. But I slept well this time, even with the bright full moon lighting up the night.

Pre-start group photo.
L-R: Lucian, Susie, me, Kim

The alarm went off at 4:30, and I rolled out of bed, threw Liberty some breakfast, got the coffee started, and cleaned up Liberty’s overnight leavings (most of which she had thoughtfully piled up in a heap…very tidy). It had gotten chilly overnight — clear, and a little breezy — so I was starting the day off with layers. Liberty was a gem for getting ready…stood quietly, munching on her hay while I tacked her up, and even when “her boys” moved out of our immediate camp area, she shuffled around a few times but didn’t throw a fit, and stood super-polite for me to climb on. I was on her back shortly after 6, giving us almost half an hour to calmly walk around and warm up. Again, she was being so good…very calm, loose rein, and even when the whole starting area energy started picking up, the biggest expression of energy she displayed was to turn her forward walk into a few lateral half passes. Dressage pony in the making.

Right at 6:30, the pack was released, and the runners and horses poured out of camp. Immediately out of the starting area, there’s a rocky wash that has to be crossed, and the rain had made it even rockier than usual. Super proud of how she sensibly picked her way through the rocks, and only after we were clear of the wash did she move up into a solid working trot. Having done the 25 here last year, Liberty knew the game of “chase the runners” and she deftly started making her way past them, giving a decisive snort at each one she passed.

We had our own space bubble from the other horses almost immediately, and she was in total business-like mode right from the get-go. Not pulling on me, no head-tossing or fighting, not rushing, but settled into her best working trot, and focused on moving down the trail. We passed riders, had others pass us, and the whole time, she was just focused on me. And we were amazingly in sync. Like, I would just think something like “the right side of the track looks a little smoother” and she would shift over. Or even the thought of “a canter might be nice right about now” and she would roll up into her beautiful canter.

At the start, making our way past runners
A few miles in, on the top of the earthen dam for the stock pond

The first 12 miles or so are easy cruising on ranch roads through rolling plains, so a perfect place to set a smart pace and make some time on good footing. Perfect trotting and cantering area, and that’s just what we did. All the way up to the checkpoint at what I call the “windmill water stop,” since there’s a water trough with a windmill. Super original. ;) Libby drank a little bit there, I hopped off to go duck behind a bush and recycle the morning coffee, and she was a good girl with other horses leaving. Leaving out from that checkpoint, we still had our perfect space bubble. This next section is one I love. Colloquially known as “the grapevine,” it’s a single-track trail that steadily winds up through the base of a canyon for several miles before turning out of the canyon and climbing up to the first vet check. Liberty does great on single-track trail…she is agile and savvy, and can really make time on this kind of terrain. So I sat back and let her do her thing. She sensibly slowed herself down for any rocks, or downhill dips in and out of the streambed, but in-between, she happily zipped along, mostly trotting but occasionally even breaking into a canter. There were times when my brain had some moments of, “What are you doing, cantering along a singletrack trail above a creekbed?” but Liberty was totally focused, surefooted, balanced, not pulling on me, and rather than being worried or nervous, I felt totally safe and exhilarated. That mare danced her way along that creek bed, and then cheerfully tackled the climb up to the vet check.

I hopped off right outside the vet check, and by the time we walked in and she drank, she was pulsed down. I got her vetted through right away, then grabbed my crew bag and found a spot to set up and let her dig in. In short order, she had polished off her mash, and was starting in on a pile of alfalfa that had been left. While she ate, I refilled water bottles, gulped down a can of DoubleShot espresso, and decided that it was still early enough that nothing in my cooler actually looked good and that I wasn’t that hungry yet. I’d been sipping on this Sport Superfuel from Skratch Labs the whole way up to the check, and it was doing a really good job of keeping me feeling fueled and hydrated. So I tossed a couple more chia gels into my saddle bags for later, found a ride volunteer to hold Libby for a couple minutes while I ran to the porta-potty, and then just like that, it was only a few minutes to our out-time, so I wrapped everything up, and since she was being so good, swapped her over to her sidepull now.

We left out of the check right on time, with Libby cheerfully trotting out down the road. The course for the 25 and 50 is the same up to this point, but after the first check, the 25 loops back to camp, while the 50 trail splits off and continues up and further into the mountains. So I’m sure Miss Never Forget A Trail thought we were on the 25, and about to loop back to camp. Surprise was on her when we got to the junction where the 50-mile trail splits off, and we turned up that rather than continue down the road towards camp. However, rather than sulking and questioning my judgment, she took one look at the new trail and went charging off, doing her funny little snorts of satisfaction the whole time. (Can I bottle this enthusiasm? Seriously, I feel like I need an infusion of it sometimes.)

The trail was a rocky single-track that wound through the trees, up and down, and eventually around to one of the forest service roads. From there, was passed through a couple more checkpoints, and around to another service road, one that makes its way around Mingus Mountain. I don’t think this road is anyone’s favorite section, at least not the first part of it. About 9 miles long in total, the first half is very rocky and slow-going. In fact, we walked pretty much all of the rocky portion…which was fine, because Liberty has a nice walk on her, so it didn’t really slow us down too much, and my main objective for the day was to take it easy on the rocks and just get a finish.

This was my first time tackling this 50 all by myself — I’ve always ridden this 50 with at least one other person, which tends to make the miles go by a little faster, especially when they are “slog it out, slow-going” types of miles. The road in particular feels like it takes forever, so I wasn’t sure how I was going to feel being out there all by myself, just me and my mare.

Funny thing, as it turned out…I felt like this was the easiest journey along that road I’ve done. For whatever reason, it went by really fast, and I was shocked to reach certain milestone parts of the road when we did. Mentally, it was really smooth-sailing, and I found myself focusing more on being in the moment and savoring the quiet time and bond with Liberty. As someone who spends a lot of time talking to people during the week, due to the customer service nature of my job, and in general being very interactive, the solitude of just me and Liberty sharing the trail together seemed particularly special and meaningful. Occasionally I would quietly murmur something to her but for the most part, I was taking in the scenery, snapping some photos here and there, and reveling in being out on the trail on a beautiful day with my bestest big mare.

The latter half of the road smooths out and from there, it’s much easier to pick up the pace…and after walking for the last few miles, Libby was more than happy to pick up the pace. No encouragement from me, as soon as it was clear, she would trot out, then self-adjust down whenever we’d reach a rocky patch…or some of the rather large puddles of water that would take up the entire trail. She also figured out how to “siphon” water on the go from the puddles…she’d splash in, put her mouth to the puddle, and start walking, slurping as she went. Talk about efficient. I was so, so thrilled with her at this point…the trail was going further and further away from camp, and she was still so game and cheerful to keep seeing “what was around the next corner.”

There’s a spectacular viewpoint that looks out over the Verde Valley and to the red rocks of Sedona, and it marks the start of the climb up Mingus. There’s a checkpoint and water stop there (shoutout to Checkpoint 6, and the amazing pre-peeled and chilled tangerines they served!), and it’s a good place to stop for a few minutes before starting the climb. Liberty didn’t want to stop much longer than the time it took to drink, give her electrolytes, and convince her to grab a few bites of grass while I polished off a couple of tangerines, so at the mare’s insistence, we were off after only a couple of minutes. Bless her enthusiasm…but she had no idea what was coming…

starting the climb up Mingus…we would eventually get up to that top plateau level

The trail peels off the road and quickly turns into a narrow singletrack that starts making its way up the side of the mountain. It’s beautiful — there’s tree cover and dappled shade, and the first part of the trail is a steady but gradual climb…right up until it’s not. Things get really intense really fast, with some technical maneuvering and boulder hopping. This part of the trail always intimidates me, ever since the first time I took Mimi through and we had a bit of a wipe-out. This year, the trail had gotten more worn and washed out, so the jump up through the boulders was even higher, and even more technical…not much room to maneuver, or to get good momentum up through, and definitely not time to sit and contemplate “the best route through” without losing what little momentum you had. I was so proud of how Libby powered through that section. I could feel her uncertainty in a couple of moments, but she bravely picked a path through and cleared that particular obstacle. From there, there’s another couple of short and but steep climbs, and then the trail levels off for a while. There was a lot of grass growing here, so we would pause and let Libby grab a bite every couple minutes, then keep on continuing on, since she has perfected the art of “walk and eat.”

After a nice break of fairly easy trail (no intense climbing, but some rock maneuvering and technical stuff that makes me glad I have a really good trail horse), the second round of climbing starts, with some more rock hopping, and a section that looks like a set of rock “steps” to be navigated. Half a dozen intense switchbacks, and then you finally reach the top of Mingus Mountain. I was sooooo impressed with Liberty on this climb. She only stopped to puff a couple of times, very briefly, and I never once had to ask her for anything. I let her dictate her pace, when she needed to stop, and when she was ready to go again…and she was always ready and willing to go. She pretty much grazed her way up that climb, and was ready to keep going even when we reached the top.

The trail spits out into a parking lot, and from there, it’s about a mile and half of forest road into the second vet check, and she cheerfully picked up a trot and trotted most of the way into the check. Walked the last bit of more rocky footing, and as soon as she got into the check, she dove into the trough and snorkeled for several minutes. The pulse-takers kept trying to check her pulse…she hung at 68 for a couple minutes while she was chugging water, and then as soon as she came up for air, she was pulsed down immediately. She was also the textbook definition of Hangry Mare…she was starving, and just wanted food…NOW. There were a couple people already vetting, so rather than try to convince The Hangry One to stand quietly, I grabbed my crew bag and let her dive into food.

The clouds had started rolling in as we climbed Mingus, and at the top, it was overcast and breezy, and getting chillier, enough to justify pulling out the fleece cooler. After a few minutes of her eating, the vet line had cleared, so I was able to convince her to leave her mash pan long enough go over and get vetted through. She was still really perky and vetted through great, and couldn’t wait to get back to her food. She plowed through all the mash I had brought for her, chomped down on the entire flake of alfalfa I brought, and then went to work on finishing off our neighbor’s leavings. Never seen her quite so starving, except maybe at the finish of White Mountain Tango. Something about these mountain rides must bring out her appetite.

She wasn’t the only one. I polished off a packet of tuna salad, cup of chicken salad, a pickle juice shot, and a can of cactus water. The 45-minute hold went by pretty quick, and before I knew it, it was time to wrap everything up and get ready to head out again. From here, we would be traveling on some trails that Liberty “sort of” knew from our training ride last summer — only the ride course travel them in reverse of how we had ridden them. So it would be interesting to see if she recognized them and made any correlation.

Based on how she hustled out of the check…I think she did. There were a couple of gates to dismount for, and most of the trail for several miles out of the check was walk-only due to the rocks, but again, she put that good walk to use and managed to cover some ground without trying very hard. The trail out of the check is mostly single track that winds its way down (what goes up must go down, and now we were on the “down” part), and eventually spits you back out at one of the aid stations along the forest road (the same road that goes along Mingus, but before the really rocky part). We took a couple minutes at the aid station — Liberty drank really well at the water trough there, and I munched down on a little bean burrito roll-up thing…a carryover from my trail running days, where I discovered the best trail snacks were bean roll-ups, pickles, and potatoes.

Then we had several more miles of road to cover, heading in the opposite direction of how we’d come through earlier. About partway through, Liberty’s motivation flagged a bit. She would trot small sections, but mostly wanted to walk, and grab grass alongside the road. So that’s what we did. She was being such a good girl, and we had plenty of time, and my goal was to ride her ride. I trust this horse to know her limits…she is self-preserving, so if she wants to go, she’s capable of going…and if she wants to walk, she’s ready for a break. I also think this was a bit of a mental wall, because we were going away from the direction of camp…and the road was doing some climbing again. (Gradual, but still. Climbing again after we just did all this downhill? For what???)

And then we reached a checkpoint where the course moved off the road onto single-track, heading in the “campward” direction…and she was miraculously cured. This particular section of single-track we had ridden both out and back on our training ride, so she was familiar with it…and oh boy, did she fly. The first part was rocky, and she was careful and sensible through there, but as soon as it smoothed out, she was ready to rock and roll. It also started drizzling on us, and she wasn’t amused by raindrops on her ears.

Leaving the last check…

At one point, the trail leveled out and was nice and smooth, and she stretched out into a spectacular canter…thundering through the woods, rain drizzling all around, feeling that absolute connectedness with her. Hard to even put into words that experience. Towards the end of that single-track section, we chased down and passed a couple runners…and of course they passed us again when we stopped for the gate-and-go vet check 3.

This check was just a pulse down/trot-by…as soon as they reached pulse criteria, we could go. With just one vet there, and two people that came into the checkpoint just in front of me, it took a couple of minutes to get through, but once she was down and had a good drink, we were on our way again, with only 7 miles to go until the finish…and it was all downhill from here. literally. The trail out from the vet check descends through a series of switchbacks along the side of the mountain, eventually ending up at a road at the base of the mountain. We were also back on the same trail that the 25-mile course follows, so Liberty knew we were heading home for sure. She was so eager, but she did an amazing job of navigating that trail. I know that she knew I was not harboring any warm, fuzzy, positive thoughts towards cliffy canyon trails, and she took such care through this section. She was forward, but so balanced and so careful, slowing down every time there was a rock, surefootedly navigating around every switchback, and quickly but safely getting down to the bottom of that mountain.

Once at the bottom, she power-trotted along the road, paused briefly at the trough set out at the end of the road, and then we hit the powerline road that would take us back to camp. She alternately trotted and cantered the road, then zipped through the final checkpoint and picked up the single-track cow path that would take us right into the finish. There’s one tiny little wash to cross right before the finish line, and she trotted through that and then voluntarily broke into a canter, easily cantering the rest of the way to the finish.

As we crossed the line, the timer announced that we were in 10th! I had no clue…I thought we were further back than that. Ever since the first time I attended this ride, it’s been one of my goals to someday Top Ten the 50…and we had done it!

I still wasn’t ready to breathe easy, given that I’ve been pulled at the finish of this ride before…once she was pulsed down, I took her right over to the vet…and she passed! Officially completed, in the Top Ten! A whole bunch of our regular riding buddies were there at the finish, having either ridden the 25 earlier in the day…or ridden the 50 faster and already finished ;)…but we were surrounded and mobbed by a whole happy group. I know I was in tears, from sheer happiness…which had been happening throughout the day every time this mare did something amazing.

Not only was I so, so proud of Liberty for finishing this ride…it was the best ride that I’ve ever had in my entire endurance career. I have never had such a consistently good day and good time, and been so connected and in tune with a horse. I don’t think I could have ridden her any better than I had that day…I felt balanced, confident, and secure. Even when she tossed in some obligatory shies over the horse-eating culvert pipes along the mountain road (which I’m used to, because Mimi always did the same thing), all it did was generate giggles. Everything went so right, all day long. All day long, I kept thinking, “I could get pulled at the next check, and that would be okay, because we’ve had such an amazing time so far.” (Until we got to the last check, and then the finish, and it turned into, “oh, please, please, please don’t let us get pulled at the finish.”)

I was so impressed with Liberty’s professionalism and calm demeanor all day long. From starting the ride in the lightest bit I’ve ever put on her, to being able to go in a sidepull from mile 16 onward, she was polite, responsive, and totally in tune all day. A light squeeze on the reins, and she would slow her pace. All I had to do was think “this is a good place to pick up the pace” and she would be off and going. She finished looking bright-eyed, with tons of gas still in the tank, and easily could have gone out for more miles. She dragged me back to the trailer from the finish line, marching along with all sorts of intent and purpose. Her appetite was amazing, and she stood by the trailer tossing her head and pawing the air to demand more food, both after the finish and again the next morning.

Bright eyes. Did you just do 50 miles, mare?

After finishing (one of these days I’ll actually stand for Best Condition, but when the top finishers are a couple hours in front of me, I don’t think I can eat enough cheeseburgers for the weight points to cancel out the time difference points), I got her bundled up in a fleece cooler and blanket, as the sun was starting to head towards the horizon and the temperatures were dropping, got her legs wrapped, tucked her in to a pile of hay, and then headed off to ride dinner.

The dinner was a delicious catered Italian offering, including the most amazing tiramisu I think I’ve ever tasted. The ride had a fantastic completion rate of 100% for all distances — absolutely no pulls whatsoever, which is a great reflection on how smart people rode and how good of care they took of their horses. There were I think a dozen or so in the 13-mile fun ride, 30-something (35 or so?) in the 25, and 16 in the 50. And of course the 50-milers get buckles for finishing. This year’s awards also started something new: The Steel Cup, awarded to the Best Conditioned Horse in the 50-miler, in honor of Susie Kramer’s amazing Steel, who won Best Condition the last three years in a row at this ride.

After dinner, a small handful of us who were staying the night gathered around a firepit and rehashed the ride before eventually calling it a day and crawling off to bed. I was out of it until about 3am, when Libby woke me up bashing her mostly-empty hay bag against the trailer, so I got up, refilled her hay, and then went back to bed until my alarm went off around 6. Got camp wrapped up and was on the road back home by 8. Made good time and got through Phoenix very smoothly and was back at the barn by late morning. Libby got a quick shower, then I turned her out, where she went tearing off like a crazy thing, galloping all the way out to the pasture.

I couldn’t be happier with how the weekend went. Ride managers Ron and Stacy Barrett handle the horse side of things, with manager James Bonnett taking care of the running aspect, and together, they put on an amazing event. A huge thank you to all of them for undertaking this event every year. I love the old school feel of this ride…it’s challenging, you question your sanity at times, but when you finish, you know you and your horse have done something incredible. The radio checkpoint operators (Yavapai County Jeep Posse) are lovely to have along the trail…always cheerful and smiling and encouraging. The aid stations are so gracious in sharing their wares with us riders, and I love chatting with them along the way. Liberty’s glue-on Renegades got a lot of interest, as did our syringes of electrolytes. And thank you to all of the volunteers who came out to help put this ride on. Pulse takers, timers, vet scribes, rescue trailer (that was never needed, but always good to know there’s one available)…it takes an army of volunteers to put on a successful ride. To the veterinarians, thank you for your time that you give to this sport, and your care and attentiveness to our equine partners. Kirt and Gina Lander…my bosses at Renegade, and Liberty’s original breeders/owners…thank you for letting me “relieve” you of this mare. She’s everything you bred her to be, and she’s doing you proud out there.

With this weekend’s finish, Liberty earned her dance ticket to the next level…the Lead-Follow @ McDowell ride next month, which is offering a 30/50/75/100. The 50 there last year was her first 50 completion…so now it’s time to see if we can level up and tackle the next big challenge.

I have a buckle from each of my mares now.

Ride Story: White Mountain Tango 50, Sept 2022

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)

the road in to camp

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.

heading back in to camp on the pre-ride. the mountains have been getting so much monsoon rain this summer, and the grass and wildflowers were unbelievable

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.

taking Sofie out for a stroll behind camp

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.

waiting to head out on loop 2

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.

leaving out from camp, either on loop 2 or loop 3…

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.)

vetting at the finish

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…

Vlogging the Sonoran Preserve

I did something different this week and finally pulled out my GoPro and did something with it. I’ve taken video clips before, but never sat down and turned them into anything useful, but this time, I finally took my video footage and played around with editing it and turning it into a postable video.

I’m still very much in the learning process of editing/software/etc…but it wasn’t nearly as frustrating as I had expected it to be. Plus, the video format and pretty footage is a lot more interesting to watch…my training ride recaps can only be so interesting/entertaining, especially when there’s nothing dramatic to report (which is how I like it, so not complaining about that…). And I’m still behind on a couple ride stories (plus most of the summer), so this may be a way for me to keep my interest in blogging/vlogging and employ a bit of a chance of format.

So, let me know what you guys think! More videos? (And for anyone who does vlog…I am always game for any feedback and tips/tricks for whatever makes the process easier, or what you’ve learned along the way for what works well.)

Liberty’s Gotcha Day

Two years…and what feels like a lifetime.

Two years since a whirlwind day trip of leaving my house before dawn, driving up to Kingman, hanging out and chatting with my boss for several hours, and then relieving her of one marshmallow-fluffy, dreadlocked, out-of-shape mare who hadn’t been ridden in a year…who took a few minutes to be persuaded to hop in a strange trailer, but once was in, traveled without even a peep…then making the drive back down to the east valley and unloading said mare while there was still enough daylight for her to explore her new surroundings, then settling her in a stall for probably one of the first times in her life.

That was only two years ago, but it feels like it’s been forever. I mean, technically I’ve known Liberty for almost a decade — we did our first ride together in 2013. But having her actually be mine? The connection we’ve forged just in the last two years wasn’t something I thought was possible in that relatively short amount of time.

I brought her home with low expectations when it came to endurance. I really just wanted something I could ride, and be able to retire Mimi with dignity and not make her keep schlepping my bum around. Maybe we could dabble in a few LDs again — I suspected that in most of our previous attempts, she hadn’t really been solidly conditioned as well as she could have been, and was too self-preserving to overrun her conditioning — so I was curious to see what she might be able to do given a chance. What she’s done has blown me away. And furthermore, we’ve been having fun. To me, this is everything that I have wanted endurance to be for me…the chance to see some beautiful trails, to challenge myself and my horse, to be able to craft a conditioning plan to be able to meet goals, to have fun with rides, and ultimately, the deep connection and bond that forms when you and a horse have spent so many hours together.

As with all of life, I have no idea what the future will bring…if I’ve learned anything over the years, it’s that plans have a way of changing, and nothing is predictable…but to enjoy things as they happen, and to focus on the now, versus getting too hung up on what may come. And the enjoy every ride.