For the first time in years, I bailed on my New Year’s Day tradition of riding…because it was pouring rain. Now we’ll find out how superstitious I am (or not), and if this jinxes me and my riding plans for the rest of the year.
To that end…Tonto Twist did not go according to plan. (What is it with me and this ride??? 1/4 on competitions versus attempts…I think I just need to stop. Which is embarrassing considering it’s my “home turf” and trails I utilize on a regular basis.) Ride story still to come on that…because we had a really great ride, right up until we didn’t, when she pulled up lame in the last mile of the first loop. Subsequent vet exam revealed an extremely sore spot on her hoof, so either a bruise or an abscess, and a week later, she was totally back to normal.
My Dream SaddleTM arrived at the beginning of the month. It is a Reactor Panel, Heraldic model with the Tribute tree. It was actually a demo saddle, made at the very end of 2019…but obviously didn’t see a whole lot of use, given the timing…so it is still in outstanding shape, and the leather even still smells good. I waffled back and forth on getting the demo versus a brand-new custom, but the immediacy factor, and the fact that the specs on it are exactly what I was looking for had I gone custom, convinced me to stick with the one I had in my hands. (Besides, me and my indecisiveness on color and design would probably still be sitting here trying to figure out how I wanted to customize it.) This model looks all-black from a distance, but the skirting and cantle inset are actually a super-dark chocolate brown pebbled leather, and I love it. It’s super-classy, with a very subtle contrast. And looks really good with the white tack. So far I’ve put about 75 miles on it, including the 30-mile loop of Tonto we did, and it’s been fabulous right from the start. This is a couple decades of saddle dreaming finally fulfilled, and I couldn’t be happier with it.
I wish I could sort out her bitting/headgear situation as readily, though. I thought Mimi was a challenge but this one has taken that to a whole new level. She’s a tricky combo of sensitive, fussy, and strong. Especially when following in a group. By ourselves, or leading in a group, I can ride her in a sidepull. But put her behind, and I have to really actively ride and remind her that tailgating other horses is completely and utterly unacceptable…and the sidepull doesn’t quite cut it in that environment.She used to go in an s-hack before I got her, but I rescinded those privileges after figuring out she needed a lot more education before the hack could be properly utilized. And she’s still not really at that point to be using something that is, in essence, a curb bit, or at least the same effect of poll/curb pressure and working primarily off of seat and leg.
I have a whole box of bits (and that’s even after selling some), and all of them meet varying degrees of disdain, everything from “will vaguely tolerate” to “absolute fit-pitching.” And she clearly didn’t read the descriptions on some of the bits, either…by all rights, they should be exactly what she needs, and she couldn’t be more unimpressed with them. Work in progress, that’s for sure. Yes, I have a fascination with bits and collecting them, but this extent wasn’t quite what I had in mind…
(And the obligatory disclaimer that she’s been fully examined by veterinarians, equine dentists, equine veterinarians who specialize in dentistry, bodyworkers, clinicians, consults with bit manufacturers, has regular dental work and body work. When it comes to face/mouth pressure, she’s very…particular. And opinionated.)
I may need to look into a career in bit fitting and consulting at this rate. (Any bit companies out there want to sponsor me? [My favorite bits so far have been Bombers, followed by Neue Schule and Myler.])
On the Pony front…Mimi will be 30 this spring. !!! She’s still spunky and bright-eyed, and runs in and out of turnout daily. We have a routine, in which I pull into the barnyard, get out of the truck to hitch up the trailer, she shrieks at me, I go dispense cookies and kisses, then go back to hitching the trailer. She’s happy, and doesn’t care two whits about the amount of time I spend with Liberty as long as she gets her cookies. She’s living her best filthy, semi-feral pony life, and looks about two yaks removed from her former show pony life…but she’s more than earned it.
One last ride to round out the month up at Camp Creek (far NE part of the Valley, on the west side of Bartlett Lake), which included water running in part of Blue Wash. Pretty scenery, good friends, and excellent training trails…can’t ask for more than that.
Monthly Ride Stats 91 miles 1 [partial] endurance ride 5 training rides 1 arena ride
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.)
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.
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.)
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
I’m still behind on my spring ride stories from Bumble Bee and Cinders Trot…and we took the summer off from any competitions, but I had probably one of the best summers ever in terms of managing to get out and condition.
To kick off the fall season, I signed up for the inaugural White Mountain Tango ride, held just outside of Vernon, AZ, in the White Mountains. I was really excited for this ride — not only was it an escape into higher elevation and cooler climate, I spent a lot of time growing up going to the White Mountains…Pine Top, Show Low, Greer, Big Lake…but aside from a few trail rides, I’ve never spent time riding there, so that would be fun to finally merge my lifelong hobby with one of my long-time vacation destinations.
The ride format was interesting — a 2-day ride, 50 miles each day, and because space was limited, there had to be 2 entries per rig — either two people, or one rider/two horses, or one rider/one horse signed up for both days (or ride one day and pay an “occupancy fee” for the non-riding day, which = the $ of an entry fee). I opted to sign up for 2 days and play it by ear as to if I actually rode both days or not. That was the goal, but I freely admit I’m not the biggest fan of back-to-back or multi-days and am much more inclined to go for a 75 or 100 over a multi-day…but that’s just me. One of the beauties of this sport is that there are so many options available to us riders.
The ride was scheduled for Fri/Sat, so early Thursday morning, I loaded Sofie up in her co-pilot’s seat (nice weather meant I could bring my camp pup with me on this trip), zipped down to the barn to hitch up the trailer and load Liberty, and we were on the road in no time. I made arrangements to caravan up together with several friends, so met up with them along the way and proceeded to have an uneventful drive up. It ended up being a little over 4 hours to camp, including a gas stop (and some slower-going sections for road construction)
As I mentioned earlier, the ride was limited in numbers due to very limiting restrictions on where we could camp (thank you Forest Service management <eyeroll>), but the one benefit to that was it ended up being a very relaxed, laid-back atmosphere that felt more like a casual camping weekend with friends than a high-energy endurance ride.
My barn owner Chris was volunteering all weekend, so she had gone up early to help set up camp, and had a lovely spot for me to set up right next to her rig. (Liberty so hilariously confused all weekend…she didn’t know which one of us to look to when it came to begging for her food, since Chris feeds her all the time at home, but she’s used to me taking care of all of her at-a-ride needs, so she settled for nickering and head tossing any time either of us would walk by.) I’ve got a good system down now for camp set-up, so I had everything unpacked in short order, with enough time to make some lunch, relax, let Liberty relax/re-hydrate after the drive, and socialize a bit before vetting in started.
Our ride vet for the weekend was Dr Mark Anderson, who has been one of the vets at most of our AZ rides now for the last number of years, which means he knows us and our horses, we know him, and makes for a really good working relationship. He was also instrumental in helping me with Liberty at our last ride, the Cinders Trot back in May, when we pulled at 25 miles due to her being weird. Like, pawing frantically at the ground, really agitated, trying to lay down along the trail…classic signs of colic…except for the fact she had great gut sounds, her normal low heart rate, and all normal metabolic signs. The cliffnotes version conclusion? My horse was PMS-y and probably had cramps…or the equine version of. Basically, strong spring heat cycle = miserable mare. Especially since she had done something similar the previous spring, but it was at the barn, not at a ride. But that complete ride story is a story for another day, but it’s enough background to know that Cinders was our last ride before summer break, and this was our first ride back since, so a part of me wasn’t sure what to expect…but I was glad Dr Anderson was there, since he has gotten to know Liberty over the last few years.
Vetting-in was smooth as usual…the mare knows her job, and has gotten so good at it. We then went out for a quick leg stretch pre-ride in a small group of friends. A few dead logs/stumps along the way earned a bit of a side-eye, but overall she was a good girl. Fit and sassy, but a good citizen.
Thursday evening saw a delicious group potluck dinner, with everyone gathered around the fire pits for the ride meeting. This ride was also going to be the first time the Ride With GPS app would be the exclusive trail markings — rather than conventional ribbon markings, we would be relying on following the course via the app, which operates very much like the navigation system on a vehicle, with instructions telling you where to turn, and indicators when you’ve gone off course. In an area that was filled with elk and cows (both of who have been known to eat ribbons), and multi-user trails, the idea that a course couldn’t be tampered with was some reassuring peace of mind, and Ride With GPS has been utilized at most of our rides (in conjunction with traditional flagging markers) now for the last several years, so I feel like people are starting to get pretty familiar/comfortable with it.
A 6:30 ride start meant a 4:30 wake-up, so it was not a late night…refreshed Liberty’s hay and water for the night, took Sofie out for one last stroll, and then tucked into bed. I’ve given up on ever getting a truly solid night’s sleep the night before a ride, since I rarely sleep well the first night in any new place (including my own camp set-up)…and in this case, the elk started screaming in the middle of the night (’tis the season for the elk “rut”, aka mating season, and they get very loud and opinionated about life), which was a bit…disruptive.
At any rate, o-dark-thirty rolled around not-so-bright and plenty early, and I commenced with my usual ride morning routine…dress, take Sofie out, start coffee, put Sofie back in the truck (at least someone got to sleep in more…), give Liberty some more hay to munch on, get her boots on, drink coffee/eat breakfast, tack up, take Sofie out again, get her settled in the trailer, get on the horse and get warmed up.
I would once again be sponsoring my favorite junior Hailey at this ride, since her grandma Lancette was the ride manager and would be busy holding down the fort in camp. I had volunteered to do so back in the spring, because I truly love sponsoring this young woman. It’s been such a delight to see her horsemanship blossom over the course of this ride season, and we truly have a lot of fun sharing the trail together.
It was a fairly small group of 13 that started that morning, but that made for a low-key, easy ride start. Hailey and I quickly got our own space bubble, and then shortly thereafter we picked up a rider named Tracy, whose horse was having a bit of a moment over his first ride start, but was happy to tuck in behind the two mares.
The first few miles were on forest service road, which allowed for a really nice warm-up, and then we picked up more of the single-track trail portion of the course. The first loop for the ride would be 24 miles, and I’d say it was probably about a 60/40 split between single-track and road…but as someone who really loves a good single-track trail, I really enjoyed it overall. There were a couple of areas that required some stop-n-start navigation through some rough patches that precluded maintaining a super consistent pace…but those spots were balanced out by the sections of service road where we would could move out at a good trot or canter.
The scenery was incredible…we were at an elevation that was high enough to get into the aspens, and everywhere you looked, it was a sea of green grass, ferns, wildflowers…the kind of flora you expect to see in the Pacific Northwest. The stock ponds were filled to overflowing, which meant plenty of water for the horses…although contending with sticky mud + boots made for a couple admittedly interesting moments.
Liberty did an awesome job of leading for what was probably the first half of the loop, and then from there, the three of us started switching off leading/following. There were a number of gates to open along the way, and Tracy’s horse had proven himself to be super-adept at letting her open/close them from his back, which was awesome. Saves so much time having that as a skill. (I’ve been working on it with Liberty, and she’s getting the hang of it, but we are still very much in the slow, step-by-step stages, so by no means quick.)
In off loop 1, the horses were all pulsed down by the time they finished drinking, so we all vetted through, then went off to our respective trailers for lunch. Sofie was ecstatic to see me, as usual, doing her happy little bounce and howl routine, so I got Liberty settled in with a nice mash, then took Sofie out for a stroll (and to grab my lunch that the ride had provided). I took a few minutes to sit and eat, then it was back in action to finish off the hold and get ready for the next loops…electrolyte Liberty, re-fill water bottles/snacks, get Sofie a snack. At one point, Chris came over and gave Liberty a nice brush-down and got all the dried sweat and dirt off her (which is something I always intend to do, but rarely get around to it)…I am definitely not used to having regular crew help, so that was a very nice novelty.
All three of us riders were ready and waiting at the out-timer by the time the hold was up, so we were out right on time (just how I like it, I hate being late out of a vet hold) and onto loop 2. This loop would be 13 miles, followed by a pulse-down and trot-by in camp before heading right back out for loop 3, which was 10 miles.
This loop featured some spectacular scenery, including single-track trails winding through open mountain meadows. My mountain-and-tree-loving heart was in absolute heaven. Parts of this loop were straight out of teenage fantasy, the notion of cantering through the woods and across meadows, with the wind in the trees and hoofbeats on the dirt.
There was one section on this loop that we had been warned about — a short section, but it had a narrow, drop-off single-track trail, and a steep, stair-step climb up. I’ve never loved cliffy, drop-off trails in the past, but after Tevis this summer, I wasn’t sure how I would be having all that bouncing around in my brain. As it turned out, Hailey was leading the first time we went through the drop-off section, and she took us through it nice and easy, and it wasn’t a big deal.
(As an aside…I am so proud of Hailey…she’s gone from not being all that wild about leading to volunteering a number of times during this ride to lead. She makes good decisions and is learning to pace really well, and I am so beyond tickled to see how her confidence has grown. I never thought I would be in the position of sponsoring a junior ride, but sponsoring Hailey this season has been right up there as one of the most rewarding experiences of my endurance career. As happy as I am with my own rides, watching her be successful is so fulfilling.)
Back into camp for a pulse and trot-by…horses were all down and sound, so after a couple of minutes to let them eat, we mounted back up and headed out one last time. All three horses had a bit of a skeptical side-eye for us at being asked to leave again — the trail out was uphill, climbing a rocky, gravelly road, and I don’t think any of them were particularly impressed…but Liberty’s good walk covers ground, and it didn’t take her very long at all for her head to be back in the game, and she was more than happy to move out as soon as I asked.
At one point, a couple miles into the loop, we were passed by the three riders who had been behind us…and then we ultimately caught them several miles later, passed them, and I think Liberty was determined to make sure they stayed passed, because she got into the lead in our little group, and pulled out her best “hold me beer and watch this” moves as she motored us along the trail, including through the drop-off section (I was less okay with her zooming along than I was a nice, easy walk…but she was focused and locked onto the trail, so I just stayed out of her way and let her do her thing, and she managed to get us a nice little space buffer between us and the other riders.
The last half of the loop was all repeat trail back to camp, so all the horses knew where we were, and they were all quite happy to keep bopping along, cheerfully making our way back to camp and the finish. We ended up coming in 8th/9th/10th (Hailey, me, Tracy) and finishing with three happy horses. (Liberty was being a total donkey at the finish, pushing me around…she was totally hangry and looking for any food she could get. I swear, it was like having grass to graze on all day long throughout the ride kept her appetite really stimulated, because I’ve never seen her so ravenous at the end.)
Ultimately, I decided to not ride day 2…while we completed, I felt *something* a little weird in her movement coming into camp, and Dr Anderson said he could see something…not enough to jeopardize our completion, but he advised me to pass on day 2…which had been my thinking even before he said anything.
I got starving mare back to the trailer, where she proceeded to dive head-first into her hay manger and not come up for air for a while. She was bright-eyed and full of beans still, with a finish CRI of 52/56. That right there was worth all the 3am wake-up calls for early morning conditioning rides this summer, to go into the fall season knowing that I’ve got a strong, fit horse who is ready for what lies ahead.
That evening was a lovely time spent socializing, drinking wine, and hanging out by the fire pits. We came away with some lovely awards (a large collapsible scoop/bucket, long-sleeve ride shirt, and a towel with the ride logo on it for Top Ten), and that night was the satisfied sleep of a day well done.
I had no desire to drive back down to the land of triple digits any earlier than I had to, and since I had already planned on being gone all weekend, that was just what I decided to do, and Saturday’s day 2 turned into a fun day of hanging out in camp, crewing for friends, and spending a lot of time laughing and socializing.
Saturday night was another repeat of campfire stories and socializing, with a bonus of dinner (like I mentioned, it was more like a casual camping weekend with friends), and even sampling some caramel whiskey (I had no idea this was a thing, and now I must find some).
Sunday morning, I got camp all wrapped up and packed up with Hailey’s help, and was on the road and made it uneventfully back to the barn by early afternoon.
This was the inaugural weekend for the White Mountain Tango ride, and I would highly recommend it to anyone for next year. Ride managers Lancette and Ellen did a phenomenal job, as did all of their extended management team. Brand-new rides can always be a bit of an unknown quantity, and it seems like the fall ride calendar is really stacked with a lot of rides this year (between AZ, CO, UT, and NM), but I would strongly encourage people (especially AZ/SW region riders) to put this one on your calendar next year.
So, with that starts our fall season. I’ve learned to take my schedule one ride at a time, so next up is the 50-miler at Man Against Horse. Won’t lie, it’s a hard ride, so I’m always nervous about how it will go, but we had a blast at the 25 last year, and Liberty seems to really like the course, so we’ll see. I’ve done everything I can to make sure she is prepped and well-conditioned for it. It’s one of my favorite rides, and I’m looking forward to sharing that trail with my big mare.
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…
Ah, Old Pueblo. It’s a ride that’s considered a bit of an Arizona institution, having been around in some form since the 1990s. Despite that, it’s a ride I’ve been to only a handful of times, and a ride I’ve had questionable luck at. It was my very first attempt at a 50-miler, catch riding a friend’s horse, and my day ended with an inglorious Rider Option partway through after the constant torquing of an out-of-position stirrup fender left my ankle sprained and unable to bear any weight. So, yeah, that was fun…
I did a couple of really fun LDs with Mimi, in which my little spitfire pony actually Top Tenned (there are a ton of gates along the trail at this ride, and some of them can be gotten from horseback, if you have a gate-savvy horse…Mimi is the savviest of gate-savvy horses [literally, she will push the gate open if you unlatch it for her] and we were able to save so much time and [comparatively] fly through the courses), and then for the next number of years, consistently ran into schedule glitches and conflicts when it came to attending this ride.
2013 saw me doing my first back-to-back 50s (on Rocco and Frenchy), and then I didn’t make it down to OP again until last year, and the infamous Snowmaggedon day (aka, “Liberty’s first 50-mile attempt that involved 26 miles in a blizzard and a pull at 42 miles because apparently someone needs electrolytes even when it’s snowing”).
This year, I had redemption on my mind. When I get pulled at a ride, I have a hard time letting it rest until I go back and “get it right.” Fortunately, this year’s forecast wasn’t calling for any precipitation whatsoever, at least not on the day(s) I was planning to ride. I also had in the back of my mind to maybe try back-to-back 50s with Liberty, depending on how the first day went. Although, full disclosure: I’m personally not a huge fan of multi-days. I’d rather do a 75, or a 1-day 100, versus multi-days.
I headed out Thursday, meeting up at a convenient truck stop partway down with both MJ and Susie, and caravaning the three rigs the rest of the way together. MJ and I planned to ride Liberty and Dreamer together on the first day, with Susie possibly joining us as well, so traveling down together made for subsequently easier parking together in camp. It was a super-smooth trip down, and even the rough road into basecamp (that cost me some vehicle front end work last year) had been graded out and repaired.
In camp, we set up a “circle the wagons” arrangement with the trailers, parking in a square with horses on the inside of the rigs, and a space saved for Lancette, as the tentative plan was for me to sponsor Hailey on day 2 if all went well for everyone on day 1.
I got camp set up quite fast (getting everything pretty well streamlined and developing a good system for packing and unpacking), took Sofie for a stroll around camp, then took advantage of being one of the fairly early arrivals in camp and hustled over to get checked in and quickly vetted Liberty through. Once MJ & Susie vetted in, we all tacked up and headed out for an easy leg-stretch pre-ride.
The weather was downright pleasant for Sonoita — breezy, but nowhere near the gale-force gusts I’ve experienced, and almost a little warm when standing in the sun and out of any breeze, which meant that with the breeze, it was perfect riding weather. Spent the last bit of the afternoon getting stuff for the next day finished off — electrolytes mixed and packed in the saddle, and spare boots added to the saddle (I was running with glue-ons this time, both with the thought in mind of riding multiple days and not wanting to deal with boots, and to keep on working with a new glue we’re testing at work…but I have more faith in my strap boots than I do glue-ons, so plenty of spare strap boots were on hand).
For some reason, ride turnout wasn’t huge this year. It’s always been a popular ride, but attendance was definitely lower than in the past, and I’m not sure exactly what to attribute that to…although I’m sure the current gas prices aren’t helping anything.
Regardless of attendance numbers, it was a cheerful crowd gathered for ride briefing, with much appreciation for new ride manager Debi Sanger taking over the management of this long-time ride and ensuring that it keeps going. There were a few questions to get sorted out on the Ride With GPS app that so many of our AZ rides have started adopting as an accompaniment to traditional trailer marking. (I’ve mentioned it before, but think “car GPS, but for trails” in that it will talk to you, and make obnoxious noises at you if you go off-course. Awesome for areas where markers have been known to get removed or moved, as well as a “proof of life” GPS track for your route and where you were at on the trail.) We got our trail overview basics — 17-mile loop, back into camp for a trot-by, 7-mile loop, into camp for vet check and 45-minute hold, 12.5-mile loop, back to camp for another vet check and 45-minute hold, and then one last 12.5-mile loop.
Ride start was 7am, which meant a 5am wakeup for me. As usual, it was a fairly restless night for me, especially heightened by the full moon shining into the truck window like a beacon, so it felt like I got my sleep in fits and starts. It was a bit chillier than predicted when I got up in the morning, which had me scrambling for more layers before reluctantly crawling outside. Sofie, for her part, knows the routine…go out, quick walk around, go potty, then scuttle back to the truck and jump back in bed. As she smugly curled back up in her nest of fleece blankets (and part of my sleeping bag), I had a brief moment of wanting to join her…
But Libby was nickering for breakfast, and so ended that thought. She, too, has gotten our morning routine down and knows exactly what is up. All it took was using the inside of the trailer to mix feed for her one time, and now she thinks every time I duck inside and start making noise, it must mean there’s something for her. Even if it’s just making my coffee.
I’ve actually gotten away from feeding much by way of traditional “breakfast” before ride start — she gets her supplements and feed the evening before, and goes to bed with unlimited grass hay and a bit of alfalfa, and in the morning, I “refresh” her grass hay, and give her a few bites of alfalfa, so she thinks she’s gotten “something” but I’m not overloading her system with a heavy morning feed.
Quick coffee and breakfast for me, then get the mare tacked up, take Sofie out again, then get her settled in the trailer with water, kibble, and blankets, then time to mount up and start warming up. Libby was a little up, but being polite enough…unless we started walking away from the start area, then she started getting a bit opinionated. Fortunately, there was quite a bit of open space that made a good warm-up area, large enough to start schooling some trot circles and figure-eights and get her more focused on me, rather than the trail. It worked, because at the start, she moseyed out of camp on a loose rein. That’s much more like it.
We started a small field that morning — 9 riders in the 50 — and having to deal with 3 gates to open/close in rapid succession pretty much right out of camp kept most of us pretty bunched up together through all the gates. Once through the third gate, the next couple miles were dirt road, and the group naturally started to separate out, and MJ and I got our own space bubble pretty much in the middle of the pack.
As I mentioned earlier…one thing about this ride…there are a lot of gates. Something like 23 gates just on the first 17-mile loop. Some of them can be gotten from horseback, especially if you have a horse who knows what they are doing (Of course I’ve been *meaning* to work on Liberty’s gate-maneuvering abilities, since I discovered last year at this ride she has no clue about what I’m doing or asking for when it comes to opening/closing gates…but have I actually done anything? Eh, not so much by way of actual gate work, but she’s learning things like sidepassing, pivoting, and some of the more finely-tuned precision cues, so I figured we would at least give it a try at appropriate gates.) but other gates are either barbed-wire cowboy gates, or ones that were just awkwardly designed and not intended to be gotten from horseback.
Fortunately, the next few gates had been opened for us, so we were able to cruise through and get a nice, steady pace going for a bit until we heading into the section of unending gates. Just within a several-mile section, there had to be at least half a dozen gates.
There’s a “mini loop” that’s part of this loop that has been known as the “Ag Loop” over the years. I don’t know why, other than if you look at the satellite view of the area, it’s a road that loops around what looks like used to be some sort of farming/planting field…can see the shadow of old planting rows still on the overview. It adds about 2 miles onto the loop…but it’s flat and really good footing most of the way. We kicked it up into a canter and zipped around that loop, going by photographers Susan and John Kordish along the way.
I absolutely love how these photos turned out…we were both having fun as we went through that section.
From there, it was just a few miles back to camp. Maybe a mile or so out from camp, MJ commented that it looked like Libby might have lost one of her rear glue-ons, but it was hard to tell because we were on on a section of the trail that was basically bushwhacking through tall grass. But once we got to a clear spot…yep, sure enough, she had pitched a boot somewhere in the last couple miles. The trail right into camp was really good footing, though, so we kept on trucking, and when we stopped at the water trough at the edge of camp, I jumped off and slapped one of my spare strap boots on her before hopping back on and heading through camp for the trot-by. Both horses got cleared to continue, and since the next loop was a quick little 7-mile jaunt, we elected to not bother to stop at the trailers or anything, and get the next loop done.
This loop did a little climbing up to one of the ridgelines, which meant we got some beautiful scenic vistas of all the surrounding mountain ranges.
The last mile or so into camp was the same trail for all of the loops, so as soon as we hit that section, the horses were quite happy to hustle into camp. Both were pulsed down immediately, and got them vetted through right away, then back over to the trailers for the rest of the 45-minute hold.
Sofie did her usual song-and-dance routine for me when I let her out, then took her for a quick stretch, got Libby settled with some food, and sat down and ate a quick lunch for myself. (I still have some aspects of my tastebuds that are akin to that of an elementary school kid, since I grabbed a couple Lunchables when I was at the grocery store, and that really hit the spot this weekend for lunch.) Water bottles refilled, Libby switched from bit to hackamore, Sofie settled back in the trailer, and then it was time to head over to the out-timer. We had a couple minutes to wait, then time to head out on loop 3.
We headed out the same way as loop 1 for the first several miles, then cut across a different section of trail that cut several miles off the southern-most section of loop 1. We had quite a few more gates to wrangle along the way, including a few rather dismal cowboy gates that were little more than a heap of barbed wire and sticks.
It also included a shallow creek crossing that both horses were wildly unimpressed with…we spent a good 5 minutes trying to convince them to cross before MJ finally jumped off and marched across the water, dragging Dreamer behind her…and Libby reluctantly followed behind him. No idea what gremlins were whispering in their ears over that, since Libby happily went through that same crossing last year.
Loop 3 re-joined the loop 1 trail just a few miles before the Ag Loop section…but for loop 3, we didn’t have to do the Ag Loop. Just a stop at the trough, and then continue on up the road, only a few miles away from camp. A little ways up the road, I got a major “heart in throat, oh crap” moment when Libby all of a sudden started head bobbing, on what felt like a front leg. I thought my ride was over right there…and then glanced down and realized she had lost a front glue-ons. Hop off, install strap boot, hop back on…continue on totally sound. Okay, minor crisis averted, and only a couple miles left until camp.
And then the other front glue-on came off, less than a mile later. And I was out of spare boots on my saddle. Oh, well…nothing to do but press on, walking the rougher sections and trotting when the footing was good. The last half-mile or so, I hopped off to jog into camp, doing everything I could to ensure she didn’t get too ouchy.
In camp, she pulsed right away, and I got one of the volunteers to hold her for a moment while I dashed over to the trailer to grab another spare boot before we vetted through. Boot installed, we vetted through great…and I noticed that she had pitched her other hind glue-on as well, sometime in the last couple miles into camp. Uggghhhhh.
Back over to the trailer, same routine as before…only this time, add in “make sure all strap boots are squared away.” I was definitely feeling a little “over it” by this point. Libby was being really spooky, but Dreamer wouldn’t lead, so it was on us to lead pretty much the entire way, doing her best “Arabian pinball” impression along the way, spooking at every dead log, clump of strange brush, and large rock along the way. I have thrown in the towel on retaining any semblance of dignified rider, and was shameless using the pommel hoop on my saddle as an “anchor” point. Dealing with the glue-ons also had shredded whatever specks of patience I had left, so when a couple of friends stopped by to see how it was going, I know my response was probably slightly colorful, punctuated by a few tears (because apparently I was still also riding the emotional rollercoaster of the first couple months of 2022, so honestly, it hasn’t taken much for the waterworks to surface).
I swear, I do this for fun.
But, for better or worse…this is the reality of endurance riding. Not everything is going to be smooth sailing and glitter-farting unicorns. There’s ups and downs, troubleshooting along the way, and some rides that are just better than others.
Out on loop 4…the same way we went for loop 2, but keep going further out before turning back towards camp. The further we went, the less “wildly motivated” Libby was. See, we had done this portion of the trail last year, and as far as she knew, we were going all the way out across the highway and onto the Arizona Trail section. I knew we weren’t going out that far, and cutting back towards camp before we reached the highway, but she didn’t. And while it never reached levels of having to pedal her, I did have to do some extra encouraging here and there for “enthusiastic forward motion.” (Okay, fine, mare, it doesn’t have to be enthusiastic, but I would like it to be more than 6.5mph.)
Riding a horse who is pretty sensitive and intuitive also means I have to guard my own mindset…if I’m looking at the GPS going, “How many more miles do we have? What do you mean we’ve only gone a mile since I last looked?”, she’s going to pick up on that, so it’s hardly fair to ask her to be the enthusiastic party for both of us. Once we hit the far point of the loop and started heading back around towards camp, we both perked up more, though. And we were up on some ridgelines again, so lots of beautiful scenery to admire.
Pictures don’t do this area justice. The grasslands and foothills running right up into the wild, rugged mountain ranges…the fact that so much of it is still wild and untouched, that there are still places left that I can escape from the urban sprawl and sea of tile roofs…it’s not hard to imagine the days of Tombstone and the old west alive and well. (The Empire Ranch is just about 45 miles west of Tombstone, for the geography and history segment out there.)
The last several miles of loop 4 connected up to the in-trail from loop 2, so it was cruising in on familiar turf from that point on, and all of us were in “get ‘er done” mode. (No problem with motivation now.) My lovely forward rhythm was rudely interrupted when Libby blew one of her hind boots just outside of camp (literally, camp was in sight, and we had just started cantering in on the smooth road that lead into camp). Fortunately, MJ noticed it, and stopped and waited for me to jump off, slap it back on (she had ripped the pastern strap and then stepped on it, yanking the boot off), make myself crawl back on my increasingly-taller horse, and resume our lovely canter in.
We ended up coming in 5th and 6th, in a ride time of 8:16. Libby vetted through nicely, although she was pretty reactive on one side in front of her girth — at first glance it looked like some sort of scrape or gall. I took her back to the trailer and got her cleaned up, and she definitely had something there that had broken the skin — it looked more long and skinny than a typical gall, though, so I wonder if a stick caught and jabbed in when we were doing some of the bushwhacking sections? Whatever the case, she wasn’t happy about it, so between that, and my own general sense of being done, I opted out of going for day 2.
When Saturday morning rolled around, Libby was bright-eyed and perky…but still sore on that side, so I was satisfied with my decision. Hung around camp and socialized a bit, then got packed up and headed home, getting back to the barn early afternoon with a mare who was still full of beans enough to go running out to the pasture when I turned her out.
And so the ride season rolls on. We’ve got something on the books every month through June, and then will pick back up again in September. Fun rides ahead, and plenty of club activities and training to keep me busy for a while…(and a desperate need to practice my gluing techniques, apparently…)
The month preceding the ride has been a difficult one, after losing my grandfather and one of my dogs, Artemis. Much of the time, I’ve been going through the motions, trying to sort through my grief and emotions. Saddle time has been good therapy for me, but there have been many days that even going through my usual routines and habits has been hard because Artemis was so intertwined in my daily life, and everything reminds me of her. Including going to rides, especially because I had such big plans this year for taking the dogs with me on the road to as many rides as I could.
So my enthusiasm was admittedly low going into the ride. As much as I enjoy the Boyd Ranch basecamp, I loathe the 8+ miles of washboard dirt road that it takes to get back into camp. My one experience with riding the Wickenburg trails out of this location was the first year that the ride moved to the Boyd Ranch, and it was met with mixed results. (Long story short: Liberty and I ended up with the sort of ride you look back on years later and go, “Well, it was a good learning experience.” Didn’t feel quite so magnanimous about it at the time, though, and wasn’t looking for a repeat performance.) I’d heard from others that the trails had been drastically improved since that ride, but there’s only so much you can do to avoid the inevitable rocks and sand that make up much of the Wickenburg area.
A nice rain storm and cold front blew in on Wednesday before the ride, which altered my original plans of “give Liberty a good bath, and do some experimenting with gluing boots” into “I’ll give her a thorough currying at the ride and her regular strap boots will be fine.” Friday morning, I packed up the last of the feed/camp supplies that I store down at the barn, loaded up Libby, and hit the road, with Sofie riding shotgun in the front seat.
It’s not a bad drive to Wickenburg — I’m really fortunate to have so many rides in a relatively close radius (most of them end up being 3 hours or less) — and much of the time there isn’t distance so much as it is the fact I end up going from one side of the Valley to the other, so there’s the inherent congestion and traffic to contend with. For whatever reason, I hit a ton of traffic in Wickenburg itself, but even with that, and puttering my way down the dirt road in 4-wheel drive, I still made it to camp in under 3 hours.
I feel like I’ve finally got a good routine down when I get to camp — unload Libby, tie her off, let her munch from her hay bag while I unload everything, get the inside of the trailer set up with my kitchen and mini tack room, more properly set up Libby’s arrangements with hay/water, get sleeping area set up inside the suburban. Having everything sorted into different storage bins/crates has made all the difference and really helps me stay organized, and move things back and forth.
Camp setup came together quickly, including setting up a cushy bed in the trailer for Sofie to hang out while I was out riding, and after I was all set up, I took advantage of it still being fairly early and zipped over to get Liberty vetted in. I’m really proud of how settled she’s gotten at vetting — this ride 6 years ago, she stepped on me, wouldn’t let her mouth be handled by the vet, and needed a major “discussion” about personal space. Now? She’s polite, trots right at my shoulder, and doesn’t bat an eyelash for the vet. Amazing what a bit of time to mentally grow up, and some consistent exposure and handling has done for her.
I socialized for a bit after that, then saddled up for a quick, leg-stretch pre-ride, and met up with Troy and his new young mare to check out the first few miles of one of the loops. Liberty was in fine (read: “spooky”) form, having only done a light arena session the previous weekend, so she had quite a bit of energy pent up. The leg stretch did her good, though…as did the access to the gigantic arena at Boyd Ranch. After our pre-ride, I took her over to the arena and put her through her paces for about 20 minutes. She was not amused, since she really doesn’t see the point of arena work, but it did the trick to blow off a bit more steam and get her brain a little more tuned back in to me.
The ride did a big taco dinner Friday night before ride briefing, so I ate my tacos, did some socializing, listened to ride briefing, did a little more socializing after briefing, finished up some last-minute saddle prep for the next day, then called it a night and crawled into bed.
4:30 rolled around way too soon the next morning, and I had the most unmotivated sense of, “ugh, I don’t want to do this” going on. So much of this ride, I had been going through the motions, still existing in a fog of emotional grief, and having a hard time really caring about the whole endeavor. The only thing keeping me from bailing was the fact I had agreed to sponsor Hailey again, after our successful ride at Tonto Twist the previous month, and my commitment to that was enough to get me crawling out of bed and grabbing about for ride clothing. Normally, I lay out my ride clothes the night before, but I was so “meh” about everything, it ended up being a “whatever comes out of the duffel is what’s going on” morning.
It was also chillier than I had expected it to be and what the weather had predicted, and I was wearing several layers by the time it was all said and done. My morning ride routine has gotten pretty quick — dress, take Sofie out, then put her back in the truck to snooze and stay warm while I start coffee and put Libby’s boots on. Drink coffee, eat breakfast, saddle Libby, take Sofie out one more time, settle her in the back of the trailer, mount up, and start warming up. We had a sort of early start — 6:30 — and in mid-February, that meant it was still dark out when we started. I collected Hailey from her rig, and we spent some time warming the mares up and walking them around, then headed out in the middle of the pack at the start.
We ended up letting pretty much all of the pack go around us within the first few hundred yards out of camp, due to Jantar getting a little perturbed over leaving her stablemate (whom Lancette would be riding in the LD)…so we took it nice and easy, found a space bubble for ourselves, and got Jantar well settled before picking up the pace and cruising down the trail.
The trails around Boyd Ranch are a combo of dirt roads, single track, and sand wash. It’s the Arizona desert, so there’s a fair share of rocks along the way as well, but that’s pretty much an inescapable par for the course around here anymore. Fortunately, there seemed to be enough smooth, well-flowing sections of the trail to offset the rocky areas. The course consisted of three loops — 17 miles, then a pulse-down and trot-by in camp, out for another 12 miles, then an hour hold in camp, and then out for the final 19 mile loop. The first loop flowed really well…some fun single track (when you’re on two athletic horses, twisty single track is fun), some short climbing up and down the desert ridgelines, plenty of sand wash, and my favorite section of trail that passes through an old-growth mesquite forest (that I unfortunately failed to get pictures of because I really needed a third hand to juggle the camera at that point in the ride).
Both mares were pulsed down right away when we got back into camp, and cleared to continue on to the next loop. We stayed for a few extra minutes in camp to let them eat (Libby got to experience the wonders of bran mash for the first time in her life, and I practically had to crowbar her away from the pan when it was time to leave), then headed out for the second loop.
Photographers John & Susan Kordish were set up on loop 2, just a little ways out of camp, and John’s spot included an angle that hilariously captured this zen rock garden labyrinth thing that was set up right next to the trail, and garnered more than one hairy equine eyeball in passing by.
I had once again sent Hailey in front of me for the photographers, and when I do that, I certainly get…amusing…ride photos, as Libby doesn’t see the humor in having her new BFF head down the trail in front of her, so tends to toss in some humorous expressions and animation. (I think her zen garden mantra was “embrace your inner giraffe.”)
There was quite a bit of really fun single-track on this loop, and both mares were quite happy zipping along the trail. We would trade off leading, and Jantar was probably the most relaxed I’ve ever seen her. Normally, she really likes to lead, but this time around, she was quite content to do a lot of swapping back and forth and calmly follow behind Libby. (I don’t know what it is about Liberty, but this isn’t the first time this has happened…a lot of horses that I ride with end up really liking this mare. And she likes….eh, probably 98% of other horses. There’s just a handful that hold “mortal enemy” status.)
At one point, I had to rather strongly enforce one of my pet topics…trail etiquette. Specifically, water trough etiquette. If riders in front of you are at a water trough, you STOP AND WAIT. DO NOT CROWD INTO A TROUGH THAT ALREADY HAS HORSES DRINKING.
This has probably been the area I have run into the most challenges at during rides. I’ve had my horses barged into, bitten, crowded, pushed out of the way, kicked at…all at water troughs. I’ve gotten pretty good at dealing with it for myself…but if you do that to my junior rider and potentially threaten her well-being when her horse starts getting upset at being crowded…well, let’s just say I didn’t know I actually possessed that level of inner Mama Bear to unleash…but apparently I do.
Maybe it’s the fact I started in NATRC, where etiquette and control is such an integral part of the ride, to the point where you are being judged on it, or my showring background, which comes with its own set of protocols and ring etiquette…but this is one area I feel like I just can’t emphasize enough. To the point where I did an entire learning event presentation on it last year for the Arizona endurance club, and will happily do it again. It’s a topic that really deserves its own blog post for me to really get my teeth into it, so for now, we’ll just leave it at my above mini-rant.
All of the loops share the same last mile+ of trail back into camp, and both mares knew exactly where they were by the time we hit that shared trail point, and they went hustling back to camp. Pulsed down immediately and vetted through with great scores, then headed back to the trailers for our hour hold.
The nice thing about doing 30 miles before your hold is that you know you’re over halfway done. The not as nice thing is you’re really ready for a break by that point, so it felt really good to sit down for a few minutes, gulp down a cup of ramen noodles, tend to a wardrobe malfunction (*thisclose* to slicing my underwear off during that second loop), and take a short breather. Not for too long, though, since there was the dog to walk, water bottles to refill, horse tack to switch over (Libby’s been earning her hackamore privileges back on the latter part of the ride), and all the other little housekeeping items that get crammed into the span of less than an hour.
Onto the last loop…19 miles. We headed out on a trail that paralleled part of loop 2 for a few miles, then headed out through an area that is still host to a bunch of active mining claims. There was some really nice trail through here…double-track roads that weren’t super rocky, so we were able to make some good time and maintain a pretty consistent pace.
It’s usually around this time — the 40-something mile point — that I start thinking that 50 miles really is a long way, and start questioning my sanity, and why I do this for fun…so I gotta say I was immensely grateful once again to have Hailey there. Her cheer and enthusiasm helped make the miles go by faster, and I really enjoy sharing the trails with her.
Coming back into camp for the third time, we had a couple of seriously motivated mares on our hands…instead of leisurely meandering in, they were in “we’re going to trot in, thanks” mode…not that I was arguing. Nice to be finishing up a ride with strong, energetic horses. I didn’t know where we were at, placing-wise, exactly…I just knew we were roughly mid-pack based on people we had passed over the course of the day. As it turned out, we came in 10th & 11th — and I had sent Hailey across the line in front of me, so she was able to come in Top Ten. Super proud of her, and she definitely earned it…she’s a competent, caring rider, and her excitement and delight over her finish made it well worth it.
Both mares were pulsed down, so we vetted through right away, and our completion netted me my 1000 endurance miles…finally. Which is a whole other blog post and topic unto itself. Annnndddd…the “champagne at the finish” tradition from the old Wickenburg ride was also carried over, so I got to enjoy a little glass of bubbly on the way back to the trailer. (Which Liberty was quite intrigued by, but I don’t share.)
Saturday night awards was preceded by an amazing potluck spread…people keep outdoing themselves in the food department, and I am here for it. Had some really good company and conversations over dinner, the awards presentation and recognition of all the riders was really nice, and everything wrapped up before it got too late.
What started as a ride I really hadn’t been very excited about doing — between life circumstances, the road into the ranch, and a general distaste for the trails due to past experience — ended up turning into a very good, cathartic, healing weekend, proving once again that a good horse and saddle time is a cure for so much.
We’re in the thick of ride season now…as I write this, at the beginning of April, we have recently done a day at the Old Pueblo ride in Sonoita in March, and have another ride coming up next weekend. There have never been so many rides in AZ since I got started in the sport, and I’m so excited about it. So stay tuned, because it’s really nice to have a lot to blog about.)