2020 AERC Convention

Has anyone checked the receipt to see if the year 2020 is eligible for a 90-day return? Or any kind of extended warranty policy? Because if so, I’d like to get in line for that, thanks.

I’m glad that Convention happened before all of the Covid-19 stuff really hit the fan. I am already a work-from-home introvert with anti-social tendencies, so was well-set in that regard. However, I am practicing a lot of Social MEDIA Distancing, and have done a thorough “Marie Kondo’ing” of my Facebook feed in order to retain a little bit of joy, sanity, and sensibility in the current climate, and to still be talking to people on the other side of all of this. I can’t get rid of social media entirely, since that is a large part of my job, but I can take steps to protect my own mental well-being. In the meantime, I’ve developed a bit of an addiction to succulent gardening. When people annoy me, I go play with my plants.

I also haven’t felt much like blogging. Since Tonto Twist and the catastrophic implosion of my plans/goals for the endurance season, I’ve been having a hard time mustering up my fairly typical optimism and good cheer, and my endurance mojo had flat out left the building. I had been feeling sorry for myself and throwing a self pity party over my bad luck with endurance, and my seemingly constant uphill struggles to make any kind of significant achievement or progress in this sport. In addition, major drama, upheaval, conflict, and pettiness happening in the sport and in my own state left me waffling between heartsick and angry.

Leading up to Convention, I felt stressed and frazzled, second-guessing my plans and prep for my trade show display, wishing as always that I had come up with something “cleverer” or more unique, or that I was a better graphic designer, or that I had thought of some of my last-minute ideas earlier when I still had time to implement them…you get the picture. All of that added up to that basically, until my butt was actually on the airplane seat, I hadn’t been all that excited about it. However, it ended up being a really, really good time, and I actually wrapped up the weekend in way better spirits that I started.

And then all the CovidCrap hit the fan, derailed plans left and right and all around, and made me very glad that for years now, we’ve already bought our toilet paper in bulk.

Anyway, before too much time passes, I figured I had better get something posted (and still gotta keep that “post a month streak alive…”) about Convention. As I mentioned, I am really glad I had that time, and crammed in some really fun activities and good memories to sustain me with so much of life up in the air right now.

Anyway, that wraps things up for now…hope everyone stays healthy, stays safe…and if anyone finds out anything on a refund for 2020, let me know.

Ride Story: Tonto Twist 50 2020

Sometimes, I think my (endurance) life plays out as one continuous episode of “man plans, God laughs.” I mean, I know I’m not unique in that regard — spend any time talking to any endurance rider behind the scenes, and the actual reality of what is going on often times only bears marginal resemblance to the social media reality that is presented to the public at large. (I get it, I do the same thing…my social media posts try to be positive and low-drama, with a healthy dose of “don’t make my problems and dirty laundry other people’s problem.”) But endurance is definitely a sport filled with mountain highs and valley lows (and I’m not just talking about the trails), and it takes a certain level of mental fortitude and tenacity to not just finish rides, but to stick with the sport through the ups and downs, and the inevitable disappointments as well as the successes.

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photo by Susan Kordish

That was a bit of foreshadowing that Tonto Twist, and subsequently, Project Ridgecrest, did not exactly go according to plan when Atti and I finished all 50 miles at Tonto Twist…and then got pulled at the finish for lameness. Pulls are never fun, especially the finish line ones, and this one just really stings because I felt like I did everything so right. The whole ride, and the training and lead-up to it, was so well executed…hit all the checkboxes of strategic, targeted training and coaching, smooth planning and prep, nailed my ride-day pacing, electrolyting, and ride plan…and it still went sideways in the end. After a while, it’s hard to not feel a bit discouraged and disheartened.

So with all that as a preface…onward to the actual ride story. I absolutely adore the Tonto Twist ride, which is saying something since I am currently 0/2 in finishing it. I love that it’s in my favorite mountains in the state — the Superstitions — so it is super-scenic, and I know the trails and area really well. It’s also impeccably managed, with ride manager Lancette Koerner doing her all to put on a total frills ride, with all kinds of creature comfort (for both the two-legged and four-legged participants), including plenty of checkpoints and water stops with hay, and people snacks/water. The trails are a fun mix of some technical stuff, some jeep roads, some beautiful single-track, and overall really good footing, more than enough to make up for the couple of slower-going sections. It’s also well-marked, and in addition to traditional ribbon markings, she employs the Ride With GPS app (think, “vehicle navigation system, but for trails”) as an additional navigation option (this is a heavily-trafficked area and we share the trails with Jeeps, ATVs, hikers, runners, mountain bikers, and casual trail riders, so the possibility of ribbon removal, be it accidental or less well-intentioned, is very real).

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Scenes from the trail: this is the view partway through loop 2.
The Superstition Mountains.

It’s pretty much a “backyard” ride for me — base camp is about 30 minutes from my house, and about 25 minutes from the boarding stable. So it makes for super-convenient travel, as well as not having to have a ton of prep done days ahead of time. Which is just as well, after the weather turned cold, cloudy, and windy on Thursday ahead of the ride, which is when I had planned to bathe and clip Atti. Those plans got fast-forwarded to Friday morning, and I showed up at the barn in the horse clipping equivalent of hazmat gear, in an attempt to avoid having to dig horse hair out of my bra for the next several days. (It actually worked, and after a quick change of clothes, I was horsehair-free for the rest of the weekend, without having to worry about heading back home to shower/change.)

In relatively short order I had Atti’s neck/chest clipped, gave him a quick spray-down, tossed the last of his feed and hay into the trailer, filled the water tank, did the aforementioned clothing change, and we hit the road, for a just-after-noon arrival into base camp at the Apache Junction Rodeo Grounds.

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Clipped, braided, and only looking slightly-grubby…good enough, for a grey horse in the wintertime. Saddle area is clean, at least.

Camp set-up was quick — hang hay bags, fill water bucket, swing out high-tie and attach pony…done. Ride packets and all of the maps via Ride With GPS had been emailed to us days prior, so I just had to quickly head over to check-in to get my vet card, then gather up Atti and go vet in.

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Shout-out to Flik Equestrian for the fabulous polo shirt. I’ve been wearing these shirts at rides since last year, and always get comments on them. So if you guys like them…grab them while you can. Designs are all limited editions, typically released quarterly, or thereabouts.

Part of what I’ve worked on with him during “winter training camp” has been trot-outs. Atti’s general outlook on trot-outs at rides is, “Why bother?” so I wanted to sharpen that up and see if we couldn’t improve his attitude and impulsion scores on his vet cards. After every ride, and pretty much every time I would handle him in-hand, we would work on a trot-out — especially at the end of a ride, when he was ready to be done.

It definitely worked, because through the whole ride, he did some very nice trot-outs — matching his shoulder with mine, good forward impulsion, not dragging behind and looking like he’d rather be anywhere but there at that moment.

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Ok, still a little bit sleepy. Can’t totally eliminate the self-preservation factor. But much improved, and very self-contained and controllable — didn’t have to worry about “flying an Arabian kite in-hand.”

He vetted in great, so after that it was time to head out for a bit of a leg stretch and pre-ride. All 3 loops come back into camp essentially the same way — identical on loops 1 and 2 for the last mile and half between the last checkpoint and camp, but then the third loop tacked on an extra mile that took you off the common trail and back into camp a more circuitous route. He was quite lit up and rather spooky out there — uncharacteristic of him, normally, but I had been finding more and more layers to this horse the more I worked with him, and he definitely had no qualms with testing me and challenging me along the way. But we all survived, and I clung to my old theater superstition that “a bad dress rehearsal meant a great performance.”

I had also been waffling back and forth on which headgear to use. I had been mostly running him in a bit with a running martingale, to encourage him to use his body better and not emulate a giraffe…but he is also prone to a bit rub on the corner of his mouth, despite me slathering him in every single no-rub concoction out there. Our last training ride, I had taken him out in his s-hackamore, to see if he had earned his hack privileges back again, and he was very well-behaved, so the hack got added back to the rotation. And then the pre-ride happened, and I was having serious misgivings about starting the ride in just the hack. But I also wasn’t sure about the bit. My favorite approach is to start a ride in a bit, and then switch to the hack as soon as I possibly can, usually at the first vet check, but in this case, the first loop was 30 miles before we would be back to camp.

Ultimately, I shelved the decision for the afternoon, and would make up my mind in the morning, and got down to the serious business of Mad Scientist Endurance Chemistry, aka mixing electrolytes, before the potluck dinner and ride meeting.

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Part of the Mad Scientist’s lab. Not pictured are the mixing/buffering agents of applesauce and Gastro-Ade. I used the soft flasks from one of my running vests to carry them in my saddle pack and it worked perfectly. And those drenching syringes are the best thing ever for dosing fussy ponies. I was already pretty good at dosing reluctant syringe-takers, but these make the job super easy.

The potluck dinner spread was plentiful and yummy, and because a lot of the information had been sent out ahead of time, the ride meeting was able to be kept fairly short and sweet. Critical info for the next day included: 3 loops of 30, 13.5, and 6.5 miles, respectively; ride start time (7am); ribbon colors for each loop (pink; orange/white; lime green); hold times (1 hour after loop 1; a gate-and-go pulse down and trot-by between loops 2/3); and vet criteria (60 all day). I had done the inaugural Tonto Twist ride two years ago, volunteered it last year, and as mentioned, it’s practically in my backyard, so I have been riding various bits and pieces of the ride trails for years now. Which meant I was pretty comfortable with the flow of the trails, and had a pretty good idea of how it would pace out — which is huge for me, because I have struggled with learning to consistently pace endurance rides for years.

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The maps/tracks from all three loops.

After a bit of post-briefing socializing, I headed off to bed in my cozy nest in the back of the Suburban. Toss an air mattress down, and my warm sleeping bag, couple fleecy blankets, and I was warm and comfortable all night long. I actually managed to sleep pretty well for a pre-ride night, and before I knew it, my alarm was going off at 4:30 to crawl out and give Atti breakfast. For me, once I’m awake, I’m awake for good, so there’s no sense in trying to go back to bed — but it means I have time to slowly get ready, make and sip my coffee, nibble on my own breakfast, and not feel rushed.

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Almost all dressed and ready to go, just need to bridle him and pull his sheet I had tossed back on over the saddle.

Ultimately I decided to start him with his bit, slather his mouth with anti-rub cream, and carry the little tub of cream with me and slather his mouth at every stop. Best I could do, and I really wanted the extra fine-tuned communication I got from him with the bit.

(Was I glad I did this? Ultimately, yes. He did come off the first loop with a nice little rub on the corner of his mouth, but there were a couple times early on that he tried a head flipping/tossing trick that probably would have otherwise given me dental work or a nose job if he hadn’t hit the end of the running martingale first. He is small, compact, and with that shorter neck, his head is right there at my face, so there is not a lot of margin of error for shenanigans. )

He was nice and calm, both for getting ready as well as warming up before the start — none of the antics from the Estrella ride last month carried forward, thankfully. But as soon as the ride started, he was ready to move. We headed out pretty much in the middle of the pack, with the sun just starting to lighten the horizon, and create enough ambient light to not have to worry about headlamps or glowsticks, and with the handy little Ride With GPS voice yapping its directions at me, there were no issues with navigating the early miles even in low light.

The first few miles is pretty easy-going, with a few gentle rolling ups and down, and mostly really good footing. It was also trail we had ridden just a couple weeks prior, so Atti knew exactly where we were and what the trail was like, so I spent quite a bit of the time persuading him to slow his roll and hold to a steady trot. Fortunately, about 5 miles or so in, the trail hits the much more technical sections, with one climb in there that will definitely curb their enthusiasm. (Check out my ride story from 2018 for the ride photos that are taken partway up this climb if you want an idea of what it looks like, and also for more pictures of this first loop…because I actually had my hands way more full this year and got way fewer pictures.)

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Up on a ridgeline, looking down on part of the Valley and the early morning sunrise colors.

As mentioned, I didn’t take a ton of pics in this section. After the rains we had this past summer and earlier this winter, the rocks have been breeding and multiplying, and there were a number of sections that were very technical, that involved clambering over large chunks of slick, exposed rock…with a pony who did not want to “slow his roll” or have much semblance of self-preservation. We were riding by ourselves, and I think that just taps his competitive juices. Riding with a buddy, he’s pretty content to stick with them, but on his own, he just wants to fly down the open trail…and he just can’t do that. I mean, he theoretically could, but the point of this whole exercise is for me to be the brains of the operation and stick to a responsible, reasonable pace and try to explain to him why dancing on rocks is a Really. Bad. Idea.

Of course, right about the time I was slowing up our pace to navigate through the trickiest areas was when some faster riders who had started behind us caught up to us, and then the debate over pacing and sticking to our own space bubble was really on. I had more than one “Jesus, take the wheel” moment as I listened to Atti’s shoes clatter and scramble through and over the exposed rock sections, trying to just keep myself balanced and stay out of his way.

It was actually a relief to get out of the technical wash and onto the 5 miles of hard-packed, rocky road that runs through the mountains and connects over to Bulldog Canyon (or, as ride manager Lancette puts it in the Ride With GPS directions, “Be grateful, this road is what allows this ride to happen.”).

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It might be slower-going in sections on this road, but the views are incredible.

Finally, the road connected down to Bulldog Wash, which was in the best shape I’ve seen in years. Washes can go one of two ways in AZ when it rains…they either lose some of their sand, or they gain more of it. In this case, I think Bulldog lost some of its sand, and between the rain and the jeep/ATV traffic, there were some nice, packed-down lines of travel through the sand that were absolutely perfect footing. We trotted, then bumped up to a couple of brief canter sections, enough for both of us to blow off a bit of the frustration we were feeling at each other after the last few miles.

Coming into the first water stop and checkpoint at mile 12, I jumped off, Atti drank, I electrolyted him, hopped back on, and continued on our way. The nice thing about the water stop was we got our space bubble back, and the next 4 miles were delightful. The direction we were traveling Bulldog Canyon was a long, gradual uphill, but with really good footing…so tempting to just let them move out, but this was one time it was really advantageous to know the trail and know how deceiving of a section it would be for difficult, so I really reeled Atti’s pace back in again and made sure to enforce some walking breaks along the way.

The next checkpoint was at 16 miles, with more water, hay, carrots, and people water and snacks. I handed Atti off to a volunteer, ducked behind a bush to recycle the morning coffee, then while he drank and ate, I refilled my water bottles, ate a granola bar, then electrolyted him again and headed out. The trail took us up into Usery Mountain Park, and lots of beautiful single-track.

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Elevation is still high enough to be above the Valley at this point.

Usery is a pretty and well-used park, so we did the usual “sharing the trails with hikers, runners, and mountain bikers” routine. Old hat for both Atti and myself, and there were all kinds of signs and notifications posted in and around the park about the “endurance horse event” that would be taking place on the trails that day. I didn’t have any issues with any of the trail users…everyone was really courteous and stepped off to the side, and I made a point to slow down, not run them over, greet them, and thank them. Not difficult to be a good ambassador for both the sport and equine trail users.

Partway through the park, we had another checkpoint, but before that…ride photographers! Sue and John Kordish were both out, cameras at the ready, and I’m pretty pleased with how my ride photos turned out. Especially since we were still in the middle of pace negotiations, and I was grumbling under my breath about overnight pony-brain-eating zombie apocalypses. The photo at the top of this post is from Sue, and the one below is from John. They always get really good photos, and I’m so happy they cover so many of our AZ rides.

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Photo by John Kordish

Another checkpoint and water stop at 20 miles…Atti drank like a fish, snacked on some alfalfa, another bit of electrolytes, and away we go again. The next section, I was totally alone again, and it was a blast. The trail is smooth single-track with great footing and flow, with the biggest obstacle being the cholla cactus forests you wind around and through.

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Fortunately, the cholla had been cleared away enough so that it was easy to avoid them.

Eventually the trail lead us out of the park, where we then picked up the road/trail that lead up across a couple of roads and into the 28-mile checkpoint at Prospector Park. Another good drink for Atti, and a couple minutes to much some hay. We were only a couple miles out from camp, so it was worth taking the extra time to get some food into him to ensure good gut sounds by the time we hit camp. Leaving Prospector, we picked up the trail we had pre-ridden the day prior, and Atti was all business cruising back into camp. Once ride camp was in sight, I hopped off and jogged him the rest of the way in, loosening his girth, pulling his bit, and starting to unclip tack as we went.

Cristina, who came down for the day to crew along with her friend Victoria (the idea being to treat this as a “dry run” test crewing prior to 20 Mule Team), met us at the in-timer and we quickly yanked his tack and checked his pulse. He was down, so I immediately headed over to pulse, and then vet in. My goal for this first loop had been to do it in 5 hours…our pulse time? 11:59, which meant a time of 4:59 for the first loop. Guess I’m figuring out this pacing thing. :))

He vetted through brilliantly, with all As, good gut sounds, a very nice trot-out, and a CRI of 52/48, and then my lovely crew (such a novelty to have crew…I could get used to this!) trundled him and the tack back to the trailer while I swung over to grab my ride-provided lunch, which was another really nice perk to this ride — between the Friday potluck dinner, provided lunch on Saturday, and chance to buy dinner at the Saturday evening awards, I hardly had to do any meal prep or cooking this time.

The luxury of crew meant I got to sit and eat my lunch and enjoy a few minutes of downtime while they fussed over and pampered Atti, providing him with a buffet of food options to tempt his picky palate, cool wrapping his legs, and cleaning up with worst of the sweat and grubbiness that had been accrued over the past 30 miles. My saddle pack got replenished with fresh waters, snacks, and electrolytes, the saddle went back on, he got his electrolytes, and I decided he could have his hackamore privileges back. We were at the out-timer a couple of minutes ahead of my out-time, so Atti stuffed in a few more last-minute bites of alfalfa, and then we were on our way for loop two.

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Some easy cruising miles on forest service roads early on in loop two.

The first several miles followed the same out trail as loop one, then veered eastward to head in the opposite direction of the morning loop. This loop wouldn’t take us quite as deep into the Goldfields, but we still did a bit of climbing before dropping back down and starting to circle back towards camp. This portion of the trail also overlooked and ran right by the Goldfield Ghost Town, which is a good chunk of Arizona mining history right there.

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Up on more ridgelines, heading into the Goldfields before circling back around towards camp.

We had pre-ridden all but the last few miles of this loop a couple weeks prior, so Atti knew exactly where he was, and was more than happy to cruise through this loop, still going through negotiations as to speed, and his desire for more of it.

We reached the water stop and checkpoint about 9 miles into this loop and he dove into the water, drank really well, and when he showed interest in the hay piles, I gave him a few minutes to stuff his face before electrolyting him and continuing back down the trail. Another few miles brought us back around and into the Prospector Park checkpoint again and another quick stop for a drink and more hay, and then onto the repeat trail back into camp.

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I don’t mind repeat trail when it has views like this.

This time, we didn’t have any kind of hold back in camp — just a gate and go check of a pulse down and trot-by. Once camp was in site, I hopped off, loosened his girth, and jogged him in, pausing briefly at the trough outside of camp for him to tank up. Cristina and Victoria met me again, checked his pulse, said he was down, so we went over to the pulse-takers. They confirmed he was down, we went over to the vet for a quick check and trot-out, was pronounced “looking good and good to go.” I gave him a couple more minutes to eat some more hay and mash, electrolyted him, checked in with the out-timers, and hopped back on. I fully expected him to reluctantly stroll out of camp…after all, this was the third loop, and we were following the same trail out again. So imagine my surprise when, on his own volition, he picked up a canter as soon as we were clear of the timers, and merrily cantered his way out to the trail…and then chucked in a little crowhop of protest when I had the nerve to hold him back and not let him go racing off down the now-familiar out-trail.

This final loop was a little over 6 miles, and stuck to the fairly flat and easygoing desert floor. The first 2 miles were the same as the first two loops, then the trail veered off and took us directly over to Prospector Park. We had most of this loop all to ourselves, and he was really relaxed and settled, easily trotting along, walking through any of the downhill or rocky stuff. One last stop in Prospector Park, another drink, and he was so ravenous that I let him stay for a few more minutes to munch hay before heading out to the last few miles of trail.

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Last turn towards camp…or not…

On this third loop, it does a bit of a cruel mind-twist. The mile or so past Prospector is the same, but right about when camp is in sight, the trail turns off and angles you out away from camp for an extra mile or so. Atti was not amused by this turn of events, and I basically had to ride my left rein and right leg for the next half mile or so to keep him from cutting his own shortcut through the desert back to camp. There was a circuitous meander around the perimeter of the overflow parking lot of the rodeo grounds, and then we were at the finish line. My goal for a ride time had been 9 hours (not counting hold times), and I believe we came in just a little ahead of that.

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Still powering along at the finish. Photo by Sue Kordish.

Cristina and Victoria jumped into action, pulling his tack as he ravenously plowed through a pile of alfalfa. His pulse was still a bit above parameters since I had trotted in (and he was fighting me to go faster the whole way), so we gave him a couple of minutes to eat and pulse down, then we headed over to vet.

Vet parameters were all looking good…slightly quiet on guts, but the way he was stuffing the food in on the third loop and when we came in, I didn’t think they would stay that way for long, and As on everything else. Pulse was low — 44 by the time the vet checked it. And then we trotted out. And as soon as I saw him drop back and his head bob, my heart shattered into a thousand pieces.  I think at that very moment I knew we were done, but I still trotted him all the way up, and back, hoping he might have just taken an off step and would work out of it, but I knew before we even got back to the vet. Unfortunately, he was mildly but consistently off on every stride, which is an automatic pull — not “fit to continue” at the finish.

The vet did take the time to look him over, but she couldn’t feel anything or elicit any particular reaction from him at the time. She was pretty sure it was left front, which, unfortunately, had been the leg of concern after comments of “something intermittent” at a ride last year.

Since the barn was so close, it made way more sense to wrap up and head home later that evening, versus camping overnight, so we got Atti’s legs iced, poulticed, and wrapped and got camp packed up, then he got to hang out and work on re-hydrating and replenishing his food stores while we all went to the awards dinner (delicious Indian fry bread tacos). After dinner wrapped up, I dropped him and the trailer off at the barn, then headed home for my own bed.

The Follow-Up: Since this was now a recurring issue, Cristina opted to bring the vet out for a lameness evaluation and imaging. Long story short, Atti has an injury to the upper suspensory, and it has likely been something that’s been somewhat ongoing. When I asked the vet if we could have done anything different, or what might have caused it, his response was, “bad luck.” Cristina said I rode a perfect ride, and read me the riot act when I started second-guessing myself and feeling guilty. But that’s what I do. I second-guess. I look back and wonder what I could have done different, and kick myself for another pull on someone else’s horse on my watch.

The frustrating part is I really feel like I actually did everything so right, and the ride itself was so well-executed. It involved a lot of managing on my part in terms of keeping his enthusiasm contained and not letting him just blow through the whole thing. We came in solidly middle of the pack, with vet scores and pulse rates that indicated he still had plenty in the tank, drinking like a fish and finally discovering a good appetite. I feel like all the boxes got checked, pacing was probably the most spot-on I’ve ever been, felt like I was so contentious about getting it right…and it still didn’t work.

A friend made a comment to me Saturday night at the dinner, that I “just have the worst luck ever.” Gee, thanks. I try not to feed negative self-fulfilling prophecies, but at this point, I’m not sure what else to think. Right now, I just feel disheartened. Endurance is the biggest yo-yo for me…right about the time I get into a rhythm, something bobbles and it smacks me in the face. As is oft-repeated in the household…”Horses are not for the faint of heart.” And I think that goes doubly-so for endurance.

A Quick Gear Rundown

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We look like a walking gear advertisement, in a good way.
photo by Bonnie Miller

I love my Frank Baines Reflex saddle. Technically it is a monoflap dressage saddle, but it’s got all the extra d-rings and attachments to make it a very useful dressage saddle. It, combined with a couple of coaching sessions courtesy of my friend Tammy Gagnon, made all the difference in the world in my position and effectiveness, and I didn’t feel like I was constantly fighting to not be hunched over and braced for the entire 50 miles. I have a fleece seat cover on it right now, but the jury is still out on whether or not that’s actually needed.

The D-Lua Park Pure Wool Saddlecloth was a Christmas present and it just may be my new favorite piece of tack in my life. It is soft, fluffy, super-pliable, and doesn’t clump or get frizzy when it’s washed. (I’m looking at you, Woolback pads.)

The Total Saddle Fit SLIM Leathers really do make a difference in leg stability, and really make a difference in the pressure across my shins. Finally, I could ride in English leathers without ending up with massive bruises across my shins.

Plain black Zilco tack set is part of my tack rotation. Because I love my colors, but sometimes, plain black is the ticket for the day. Especially when you’re riding a “cute” gelding that people have a tendency to mistakenly call “she.” (Breastcollar, HalterBridle, Grip Reins, Martingale)

Fager bit for the first loop, a-hackamore for the second and third loops.

Bare Equestrian tights. Love. Super comfortable, slight compression. Sticky bum and knees that came in handy a few times. They do come in non-sticky varieties as well…I have a couple pairs of both the sticky and non-stick, and tend to wear the non-stick ones even for non-horse-related daily wear.

Ride Story: Dashing Through the Trails 25 2019

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photo by Susan Kordish, AZ Cowgirl Photography

As my previous post detailed, I’ve got some winter plans at work. Atti, whom I rode at McDowell 75 in 2017, and at Man Against Horse 50 this past October, is hanging out with me for a couple of months for “winter training camp,” and if all goes well, the goal is the 20 Mule Team 100 in February.

Well, it didn’t take long for plans to change. Right out the chute, we went from the planned 50 at Dashing Through the Trails down to the 25, due to a combination of factors:

  • Cristina had taken him to another desert LD the previous weekend, where he got some good sand and trot/canter work (which is the main goal of him being down here)…but we also didn’t want to chuck too much at him all at once.
  • For my part, about a week and half prior to the ride, I stepped off my sidewalk curb and onto a pine cone, falling and rolling my ankle hard. Some aggressive wrapping, taping, TENS unit treatments, and copious applications of arnica had the swelling down in fairly short order, but it was still tender, and I was suspicious of how well it would hold up to 50 miles.

With all of that in mind, and having done this ride last year and knowing it wouldn’t be an easy ride, it was decided to err on the side of opting for the LD. Atti has a good base on him, so my main goal is to find that fine line between taking his conditioning up to the next level, but not beating him up too much.

I was actually looking forward to a fun LD, too. It’s been over 3 years since I’d last done one…and half a dozen years since I finished one. I feel like that topic is worth an entire post unto itself, so I’ll table my thoughts on that for now and leave it at “crap happens at every level of distance riding, whether it’s an LD or a 100.”

Part of Atti being down here is also having Atti’s trailer down here…so Friday morning, for the first time in like 9 years, I was once again in the position of hitching up and heading to the ride in my albeit-temporary own rig. (Which just really cements my desire to have my own trailer again…so if anyone knows anyone selling a lightweight, 2-horse, safe/well-maintained, bumper pull trailer, in or close to AZ, for a reasonable $ and preferably willing to take payments…talk to me. Not that I’m asking for much on that list.)

It wasn’t without a few shenanigans, including not having the right electrical hook-up adapter between the trailer and my truck. Fortunately there’s an auto parts store just a couple miles away from the barn (I was grateful for being in the middle of suburbia in that instance), and they were able to set me up with what I needed.

Estrella is a local ride — about an hour and half to an hour and forty-five minutes away, depending on traffic and time of day — and I was in camp by early afternoon, with plenty of time to set up, do some socializing, check in, get Atti vetted, pack my crew bag, and tack up and go for a short leg stretch ride.

I was able to spend some time catching up with a few friends during the ride dinner that evening, and then the ride briefing gave us our need-to-knows of the trail overview, start times (7:30am), hold times (45 minutes on the LD), and pulse criteria (60 all day). I took Atti for a brief evening stroll afterwards, hauled my crew bag over to the drop-off point, then settled into the cozy nest I had made for myself in the back of the Suburban.

With a 7:30 ride start, I was able to sleep until just before 5, and it actually wasn’t too chilly when I got up. Atti got breakfast first, then I got myself ready for the day and worked on my own coffee and breakfast. Atti was not happy when the 50s left, and we were still hanging out at the trailer…much dirt excavating happened.

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All dressed up and raring to go…

He was also quite ready to hit the trail, and I had to keep him moving in constant walking circles as we waited for the start…if I would stop to chat with anyone, he would start pawing, or backing up. So we walked circles, and worked on leg yielding.

The first mile to the actual trail is a paved road through the park, so we had a controlled start out of camp following the ride manager behind one of the park trucks, and then she turned us loose once we hit the actual start of the trail. It was one of those cases that once the first half a dozen people headed out, there wasn’t a huge rush to leave, and people were sort of hanging back…so I took advantage of the space bubble and headed out.

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Susan Kordish photo

We did some major “negotiations” for the first several miles — he knew there were horses ahead, and every so often, we would hit a spot on trail where he could see them below us, or on a rise out in the distance, and he was in “hunt” mode. But my job as the brains of the operation is to know what we still have ahead of us, and to not let him play Superman, just because he thinks he can. For 14 hands of pony power, he’s amazingly strong, and I had flashbacks to the days of riding Mimi…although he doesn’t drop his head and lean on the bridle the way she did (and still does).

For the first half a dozen miles, I worked on keeping him to a steady pace. Walking any ups and downs, and really rocky bits, but otherwise, maintaining his comfortable trot pace.

Once we reached the back side of the park, some of the trails turn into beautiful areas to move out, and I started incorporating some canter work in as the trail permitted. We had our own space bubble, and although he was still wanting to go, Atti had definitely settled and was doing a good job of listening to my requests.

Around 8 miles in, we reached the first water stop and check-point. He drank, ate a few bites of hay, I electrolyted him, mounted back up, and headed out again for a 6-mile segment that would loop around and bring us back to the water stop. The couple-minute stop had been the final step in really getting his brain settled, and he was a really good boy for the next section. The majority of it was still really good footing, so I was able to set a really consistent pace.

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On the “Homestead” loop

Back around at the water, he dove into the trough and drank like a fish, then I handed him off to one of the ride volunteers to munch on some hay while I darted off behind a bush to recycle the morning coffee. Another half-dose of e’lytes for him (he’s on the “small and frequent doses” protocol), and we were on our way again, this time heading to the vet-check at 19 miles.

We passed through the good footing section again, this time sharing it as a two-way trail with the 50-milers, who had done a 10-mile loop to start before joining the same 19-mile segment of trail as the LD. Atti was a little confused with the horses going the opposite direction — “Home is this way…but the herd is going that way???”

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This section had a lot more rocks and areas of rough footing, but Atti’s got a nice walk on him, and he has a good sense of what is considered trottable or not, and it wasn’t very often I had to request for him to slow down and walk.

The last mile into the check is a wide gravel road…so tempting to use to “make up time” because it’s smooth, and good footing…but the upcoming vet check kept that notion curtailed, and we cruised at an easy trot, pausing just outside the check where management had set out water troughs to drink, dismount, and unbridle before walking into the check. He was at 44 when we arrived and got our pulse.

Once we were pulsed, I got him settled with a buffet of feed and hay, and took management up on their offer of a sandwich…that egg salad was absolutely delicious.

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Vet check buffet. Getting the signature “eat $h!* and die” look from Atti because I had the nerve to put food in front of him. And I hadn’t even electrolyted him yet.

The vet likes to wait about 30 minutes into our hold time before seeing the horses, to give them a “come down” from any on-trail adrenaline, as well as the chance for any issues that might be lurking to crop up. He vetted through with all A’s, and after that, I had enough time to wrap everything up, swap to his hackamore, and be mounted up and waiting for my out-time.

We scampered out of the check as soon as we were released (and a brief moment of confusion again for Atti when we had to pass by other riders who were coming into the check…he thought we should follow them versus venturing out into the desert by ourselves to get eaten) but he quickly locked back onto the trail and started motoring along…merrily side-eyeing every downed/dead cactus along the way.

A few miles out from camp, we were caught by my friend Jen, and we ended up riding in together, spending some time catching up with each other’s lives. The last couple miles out, she went in front of us and Atti turned into a fire-breathing dragon…he knows and has trained with Jen’s horse up in Prescott, and he was not amused with being left behind. I had also grabbed my s-hackamore that has a flat curb strap on it versus the curb chain, knowing that in the past, he’s always been easy to rate and could probably be ridden in a halter.

Uhhhh…flat curb strap privileges revoked, as we went back into “negotiations” mode after he thought blasting down the side of the hill at an extended trot was actually a good idea. We made our way back down at my pace, caught up with Jen at the water trough at the bottom, Atti drank, and then we walked the last mile along the road into camp.

Atti was down right away, and once we pulsed in, it turned out we ended up finishing in 6th place, in a ride time of 3:39. We also stood for BC, even though the early finishers had some time on us…it’s a really good learning experience, especially for a horse who doesn’t particularly see the point of in-hand trot-outs.

It took me a bit to get everything wrapped up and packed up again, so Atti had several hours of recovery before loading up and heading back to the barn later that afternoon.

I was really pleased with how the ride went. My major goal going in to the ride was to work on a steady, consistent pace, and ride the horse and the course to the best of our abilities — use the good footing to the best of our abilities, and be conservative on the sketchy areas. Don’t waste time, ride smart. I have struggled for years to learn how to pace well at rides, and it’s pretty much been the last year or two that I’ve felt like I’m finally getting a better sense for it, and I was really proud of how that came together at this ride.

Gear rundown:

Frank Baines endurance-dressage saddle
Archer Equine saddle pad
Mohair girth
Zilco Halter-Bridle and Breastcollar
Fager bit, model ‘John‘ (I am in love with these bits)
Flex-Ride stirrups (need to switch back to the EZ Rides, my feet were going numb)
Bare Equestrian tights

I’ve started using drench syringes (30cc for in the saddle, 50cc for in camp) and mixing my own e’lytes again. It worked really well to use a soft flask to carry the mix in my saddle pack, and for longer rides, I can refill the flask at checks as needed between loops. Atti is a brat to e’lyte (he’s not the only one…starting with my own pony…) and the drench syringes are so much easier to work with than trying to wrangle with the large, bulky syringes, especially with his smaller mouth. He also readily spits out more of the solid e’lytes, so mixing them in a more runny consistency made it harder for him to spit out a gooey blob.

My ankle didn’t bother me (wasn’t any more sore after we finished than when we started) but I also didn’t get off and run at all.

I feel like we’ve got a solid base to work with, and the ride helped get some little detailed dialed in, so it’s still onward and upward, moving forward with our plans and training.

A huge thank you to Effee Conner and her family for putting this ride on again! The trails were a great mix of technical and fun, ride dinner Friday night was yummy, the Ride With GPS app in conjunction with trail marking was spot-on, and i had an absolutely delightful day out there! So glad to have more and more local rides on the calendar to support!

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Susan Kordish photo

 

The 2010s Picture Challenge

This is kind of a fun challenge going around blog-land right now…ONE picture per year for the last decade. That’s a cool way to wrap up the decade.

2010

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Mimi’s last competition year…she did her last ride in February of that year.

2011

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A rough year, after Beamer, the trailer, and the truck all went to new homes thanks to a rapidly-crumbling economy.

2012

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The start of my job with Renegade…will be going into year 9 this upcoming January.

2013

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The major start of my catch-riding. 4 different horses ridden this year, and eight rides attended, the most I’d ever done in one year.

2014

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The year I started trail running. I’m currently in a “not running much” stage, mostly because I don’t have the same burning love and drive to make it happen that I have for horses and endurance riding…am pretty much content to do a few miles with my dogs and call it good…but this was a good outlet for getting out on trails and still doing some kind of competition when I wasn’t riding much.

2015

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The year I finally went to the Grand Canyon…and saw it in epic style, via a 3-day backpacking trip to from the South Rim to Phantom Ranch and back.

2016

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Tahoe Rim ride…such a beautiful ride, and a very much needed completion and reminder that I still loved endurance.

2017

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First 100-miler (attempt, at least…)! Might sound weird to call a ride the “best pull ever” but it was truly an epic endeavor and great experience.

2018

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The year of Flash, aka “my favorite horse in the world aside from my own pony.”

2019

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Got Mimi out on trail more this year than I have in probably the last half a dozen years, and it was really nice to see the world between her fluffy little fox ears again.

Ride Story: Man Against Horse 50 2019

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photo by John Kordish

Man Against Horse will always hold a special place in my heart. It was my first AERC ride, the LD back in 2005. It’s also a tough, challenging ride, especially the 50-miler. Historically, I’ve gone up against the 50 three times…and finished once. Perversely, I still love this ride, and the challenge makes me all the more determined to conquer it.

So I was pleased to be offered a ride for the 50-miler this year when Cristina reached out to me to see if I was available and interested in riding Atti. I did the 75 at McDowell on him two years ago and had a great ride — he’s a safe, fun, go-getter little guy, and as a bonus, trains regularly on many of the Man Against Horse trails, so this would be his home turf.

Friday late morning saw me chucking my gear and some food into my truck, then zipping up the highway a couple hours north to Prescott Valley to pick up Cristina’s trailer and Atti. Now, I haven’t had a trailer since 2011, and prior to that, we had the big truck, so my suburban hasn’t had to do any trailer hauling duty for probably at least a decade, so there were more than a few muttered “please let me make it to camp” prayers after I hitched up and headed down the road. (Pleased that I have lost none of my vehicle aligning/trailer hitching skills, even if it was a comedy of errors to get the right hitch dialed in.) I only had a 20-minute, mostly flat and easy drive in which to contemplate brewing an ulcer though, and we made it into camp with no issues.

Troy and Claire had saved me a parking spot in camp, so I didn’t have to do the typical avoidance run of “don’t park in the middle of a rock pile or cactus patch” that someones comes with the territory of camping in the middle of a cow pasture. This was probably the most “on my own” I’ve been at a ride since retiring Mimi, and selling the truck and trailer, but I quickly fell back into doing my thing.

One thing catch riding has definitely done has been to knock off a lot of my uptight, control freak rough edges, and I feel like I’ve actually gotten pretty laid back and settled about the whole production, especially Friday afternoons before the ride. I used to be ridiculously neurotic about “OMG EVERYTHING HAS TO GET DONE AND THIS HAS TO HAPPEN AND…AND…AND…” and if I wasn’t right on top of things, or I didn’t check in right away or didn’t vet as soon as vetting started, it was grounds for a nervous meltdown. I recognize a lot of that for the nerves and inexperience that it was, but with catch riding, and operating more off of so many other people’s schedules, it’s really taught me some valuable flexibility, going with the flow, and that the world doesn’t end if things don’t fall 100% in accordance with The Schedule of Ashley.

So I got Atti settled and my little camp set up, socialized and blew off some mental steam (I love my endurance family, just putting that out there), checked in, socialized a bit more, got Atti’s saddle all set up, vetted in with no drama (all As, and a smart little trot-out), then tacked up and headed out for a short pre-ride. Had to fuss with the stirrup length at one point, but other than that, we were ready to roll the next morning. Back at camp, I tucked Atti in front of his dinner, then rounded up my homemade blueberry crisp and headed over to a potluck dinner gathering before ride briefing.

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afternoon pre-ride

I’ve done this ride half a dozen times prior…3 years of the LD, 3 years of the 50. The trail doesn’t change, vet checks are the same, pink ribbons on your right. 6:30am start for the 50, 30 minute hold at vet check 1, 45 minute hold at vet check 2, pulse-n-go at vet check 3. Pulse parameters of 60 all day. One thing I should mention for anyone not familiar with this ride — it’s called Man Against Horse for a reason — riders and their horses are sharing the trail and competing with runners. Just like the ride, there is a 12/25/50 mile run distance offered. It’s a super-unique thing, with only a couple of rides in the world offering it that I’m aware of (the Vermont 100/Moonlight in Vermont on the east coast, and a Man Against Horse in the UK). Because of my handful of years of dabbling in trail running, I have friends both riding and running, so it’s a fun merging of two of my worlds.

Post-briefing, I checked Atti, settled him in with a warmer blanket and more hay, packed the last few things in my crew bag — all I needed to add was my food/lunch in the morning — then retired to the comfy sofa bed Claire had offered. (My endurance family spoils me.)

As typical for pre-ride nights, sleep was a little bit elusive, and I felt like I drifted in and out all night, but at some point, I must have fallen asleep, because I was rudely awoken by my 4am “get up and feed Atti” alarm. Crawled out of bed, loaded him up with some more hay and a dose of electrolytes, put my riding clothes on…and then crawled back into bed for another hour. By 5:15, I was fully up, mainlining my precious cup of coffee (ride mornings, I reluctantly limit my caffeine-addicted self to one cup) and stuffing in some breakfast before doing my final crew bag last-minute packing and hauling it over to the truck that would take it to the vet checks. This ride is one of the few remaining “single loop” courses, so all the vet checks are out  along the trail and you don’t come back to camp until the finish.

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ride map

Atti was saddled, and my butt was in the saddle a good 20 minutes before the start, checking in with ride management, and giving Atti some warm-up time. He was really “up” for him — this ride is very high energy at the start, with an en masse shotgun start of horses and runners all taking off, in and out of a rocky wash and then up a wide, gentle uphill grade. “Wild” is often the kindest way to describe the annual start line antics, and it can set off even the best-behaved horses. So it wasn’t exactly a surprise to see Atti transform into a bit of a “I’m Superman, let me fly” attitude.

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pre-start…he’s the cutest little guy

My friend Taylor and I had made plans to at least start together for some moral support and “don’t let me die” safety in numbers. We ended up going out a couple minutes after everyone else, dealt with some shenanigans for the first half-mile or so, and then it was smooth sailing, and by the time we hit a few miles in, both boys were cruising along.

The first 9 miles is a pretty smooth cruise — a few miles of sand wash, some gentle rolling hills, mostly double-track road through grassy plains. At mile 9, the trail changes to single-track, and more of the climbing starts. “The Grapevine” dips in and out of a sandy/rocky streambed at the bottom of a canyon, and it’s one of my favorite sections of trail, especially on a handy little mountain goat. We traded off leading for a bit, then put Atti in the lead, and he scampered through this section. He’s surefooted and nimble, and flies over narrow single-track without batting an eye. After a few miles, the trail turns out of the streambed and starts climbing, up through stands of manzanita and scrub oak, and opens up to views out towards Prescott Valley and Prescott beyond.

On the way up to the vet check, we saw photographers Susan and John Kordish, who got fantastic pics as always.

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photo by Susan Kordish

In to vet check 1 right about 9, which was absolutely perfect and right on track with my rough internal timeclock I had in mind for ride times/goals. Atti took a big drink when we got in, and was pulsed down by the time he finished drinking. I had an absolutely lovely surprise coming into the check — Claire was waiting to crew for me! Troy had already come in to the check, and left just before I came in, and Claire stayed to give me a hand. Like I said, I’m so spoiled, and very thankful…I was not expecting crew at all, and it was delightful to have an extra set of hands, or to be able to hand his reins over and briefly sit down and take care of myself for a few minutes.

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super-flattering mid-shake…which he also likes to do under saddle

Atti’s vet scores were good — a couple of Bs on hydration parameters, but everything else As, and he’d been drinking well so far. Before heading out, I switched him over to his hackamore, electrolyted him, mounted up and we were out of there right on time. The next section of the ride is a lot of forest roads. A couple miles of some interesting quasi-cross-country  and some zippy little single-track bits, but for the most part, lots of lots of dirt road. The longest stretch is about a 9-mile section. It’s very rocky, tends to be slow-going, and a very good section of trail to share with a buddy. Atti and Taylor’s gelding Mouss were still pacing well together, so our plan was to stick together as long as the boys were happy, and it really took the potential doldrums out of this section. Sure, we whined about the rocks, but did a lot of laughing, and I’m pretty sure we chatted non-stop for a solid 48 out of 50 miles.

The “highlight” of the 50 is the climb up Mingus Mountain to vet check 2 — a roughly 1800′ elevation gain in about 3 miles, on single-rack that can have some steep, technical, or steep and technical sections. Before starting the climb, we paused for a few minutes at the checkpoint and water stop strategically placed just before it. There was some fresh green mountain grass growing, enough for some good grazing time and fortification before tackling the climb.

It starts innocuous enough. Narrow singletrack, but a gradual grade. And then it turns interesting real quick, with some sharp turns and steep step-ups. I hopped off Atti on a couple of sections to give him a break — at 13.3, he’s not a big guy, and I’m about 20 pounds more than what he’s used to carrying, so I was doing everything I could to make it easier for him. We were also at about 6000′ elevation at that point, so that’s always super-fun for this flatlander desert rat to try to breathe and hike up a climb at the same time.

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before the tough climbing started

Fortunately the climb levels out partway through, so there’s a chance for some easy walking recovery before the second part of the climb, and a ton of grass growing along the trail, so Atti worked diligently on perfecting his grab-n-go grazing skills. The second part of the climb also has some interesting “rock stairstep” sections that are a little technical, so I hopped off again, lead through a couple of them, then let Atti go ahead and tailed off of him for some of the steeper uphill climbing portions. Finally, after a few more switchbacks, we reached the top of the mountain. It was about a mile of easy forest road into the check, and after walking/climbing that much, it felt really good to let him out and easy trot down the road.

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about halfway there — we’re heading to the top where all the trees are. this is my favorite photo spot because the leaves are always starting to change.

Coming into the check, I hopped off and walked the last little bit in, let him drink (and drink, and drink) and by the time he was done, he was pulsed down. We were in a little before 1, so still right within the time frame I had expected, especially given how rocky the trail was this year. Claire and Taylor’s mom Luci had set up our crew bags for us in a nice spot, and after getting Atti settled in front of his hay and pan of grain, I just plopped myself right down on the ground next to him and proceeded to tuck into my own lunch.

There had been a line for the vet when we first came in and pulsed down, so I gave Atti some time to eat first, and once the vet line cleared up, headed over for our check. Again, some Bs on hydration parameters, but all As everywhere else and vet said he looked great. We still had a bit of time before our out-time, so back in front of the food for both of us for a few more minutes before wrapping up the crew bag, electrolyting, and mounting up.

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photo by Susan Kordish

Heading out from the check, the first couple miles of trail is lovely — single track, weaving through the pine trees. I even ended up flushing a flock of wild hen turkeys out — came around a corner and started up a climb and saw about half a dozen of them on the trail ahead of me. As soon as they saw us, they headed up the hill further, and wow, can they move fast. But that was super cool, as it was my first time seeing turkeys in the wild here in AZ.

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turkeys! I promise, they’re there (circled in pink)

Shortly thereafter, the trail kind of degenerated into a bit of a singletrack rock pile. What used to be this smooth-flowing, slightly downhill trail that you could just fly down has gotten super-rocky, to where it’s impossible to really make time on. At that point, I hopped off and started hiking, with Atti trucking along cheerfully behind me. (Cristina runs and hike with him all the time, so on singletrack trails, you can clip your reins to the saddle and take off in the lead, and he’ll follow right along behind.) I know it was probably only a couple of miles, but it felt longer, and it was a major relief to pop back out to one of the checkpoints we had gone through earlier, back out onto forest road. It may be road, but we could finally move out again! Both boys were more than happy to make up some time here and kicked into a trot, then canter. We were able to make pretty short work of the several miles of road between checkpoints before hopping onto another singletrack trail. Fortunately, this one was in better shape, and aside from slowing for a few sections of rocks early on, we were able to make much better time.

That singletrack spit us back out onto another forest road, right before the last vet check — a pulse and go style of check. We brought them in nice and easy, let them drink, both pulsed down and trotted out for the vet, and then they sent us on our way — only 7 miles to the finish, and literally all downhill from here. Another rocky section of trail put from the check, and then we were on one of my favorite trail sections. It’s smooth singletrack, and it switchbacks down the side of a canyon, all the way down to the bottom. It’s really trottable, and super fun on a nimble horse. Atti knows this trail really well, and he flew down it. By the time we reached the bottom, both boys were firmly in “going home” mode, and it took absolutely no encouragement to keep them moving. There’s another bit of road section, and then the last two miles from camp heads across open pasture, into a wash, and then back into open pasture, following cow paths right back into camp.  I’m pretty sure Atti would have galloped in if I let him, but I kept him to a smart trot the whole way in, and we crossed the finish line right at 5:15 pm.

After he tanked up at the finish line water trough, we vetted through right away, my heart in my throat the whole time after my finish line pull at this ride in 2017. But no worries this time — Atti trotted out beautifully, good scores, and we were officially finished! Took him back to the trailer and got him untacked, wrapped legs, tucked into a fleecy cooler, and settled him in front of a huge pile of hay.

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Finished! Sound, happy pone and tired, happy rider.

I had perfect timing — once Atti was all taken care of, it was just in time for ride dinner and awards. For all 50-mile finishers, they hand out beautiful buckles. I earned my first buckle at this ride in 2009 on Mimi, and now my second one a decade later.

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By the time awards wrapped up, it was getting late enough I decided to stay in camp for the night rather than tackle the 2-hour drive home…and I had the sofa bed and a hot shower on offer again, so I spent the rest of the evening talking horses, ride strategy, AERC politics, and more horses with Troy and Claire.

Atti was bright-eyed and still talking to me the following morning, and looked good when I took him for a leg stretch first thing. He was also quite happy to be clean-up crew for the extra grain as I worked on cleaning out my crew bag and getting camp packed up. It didn’t take too long to get everything in order, load up, say good-byes, and head down the road. Dropped off Atti and the trailer, got him settled, then headed back down to the Valley.

This year has been light on the ride happenings for me, with a lot of ups and downs in regards to plans and horses, so it felt really good to get this one on the books and have it be so successful, and I’m grateful to Cristina for once again entrusting me with her special pony.

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photo by John Kordish