Ride Story: Old Pueblo 50, March 2022

photo by AZ Cowgirl Photography

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 do love the rolling grasslands of the Empire Ranch and the Sonoita area

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.

Didn’t get pictures of it, but we flushed out a couple of antelope during our 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.

Amazing tree along loop 2. Maybe some sort of desert-y oak?

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.

Water break at the top of the ridge…thanks, MJ, for the photo!

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.

Waiting at the out-timer to head out on loop 4. Big mare looks a little tired…but to be fair to her, I also hadn’t bothered to sponge the sweat fully off of her, and looking like a salt lick isn’t her most flattering look. It was also warming up, and I had just pulled her away from the nice nap she was enjoying.

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…)

Ride Story: Wickenburg Land of the Sun 50, Feb 2022

photo by AZ Cowgirl Photography

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.

She’s got herself a nice little “nest” in the front seat with a bolster cushion all around. I also put a jacket on the center console so she can rest her head there and be really close to me. She’s not world’s most settled traveler but this seemed to suit her.

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.

Traffic jam on the way into jam…impressive longhorns

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.”)

Partway through loop 2, we saw this really cool crested saguaro

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.

Heading down…the photo doesn’t give the steepness of this downhill justice, but we had to make our way down this side of this ridgeline, heading for the wash at the bottom.
Somewhere in my photo archives, I have a near-duplicate of this photo, only taken between Mimi’s ears, from one of our rides at Wickenburg. It’s not the same ride — different camp and different trails — but close enough.

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.

A group of happy girls at the finish

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.)

Ride Story: Tonto Twist 50, Jan 2022

(This story has been a little delayed in the writing of because a week after the ride, my grandfather passed away, and only a few days after his funeral, I unexpectedly lost Artemis, so that sort of took the wind out of my sails for the retelling of the ride tale, especially since it was a ride I had taken the dogs with me. My mojo has been a bit flat for the past month+ and my writing may reflect that, but I just need to get these done before I get too far behind.)

photo by AZ Cowgirl Photography

Tonto Twist. It’s become one of my favorite rides, despite the fact I’ve had some really questionable results at it (was 0/2 in finishing it going into this year). It’s my home trails and one of my most frequented training grounds. Ride management is superb (managed by my friend Lancette Koerner and her ace team of co-managers, Ellen and Wendy and a slew of volunteers), it’s a total frills ride with excellent amenities, great trail markings, and a really fun course. It’s a 50-mile only, and while it’s not an easy course, it’s a very doable ride for a horse with solid fitness and a smart rider.

Last year, I wasn’t able to make it to Tonto due to schedule conflicts with another planned event, so this year was going to be my year. I was finally going to get to tackle this ride with my own horse, a horse who had been training on these trails for the past year and half. I was excited, and also really hoping to break my “Tonto curse” and actually finish it this year. (“Third time’s a charm” worked for Liberty & I in finishing her 1st 50, so maybe the same thing would apply here.)

Sometime last year, at some point during one of our training rides or conversations, I had casually mentioned to Lancette that if for whatever reason she was ever unable to sponsor her junior rider granddaughter Hailey, it was something I could probably do. It got filed away on the shelf, as casual mentions do, and then as we headed into winter ride season, Lancette asked me if I had been serious about the offer to sponsor Hailey. Given that Lancette was the ride manager, she wasn’t going to be riding her own ride, but this is Hailey’s last year as a junior, and since Lancette wasn’t going to be riding, Hailey would be able to ride Lancette’s horse and do the ride, provided she had an adult sponsor.

I confirmed that yep, I had been serious — I’ve watched Hailey grow up on horseback since she was about 8 years old, knew she was a competent rider who had catch-ridden a number of different horses, and also knew Lancette’s mare Jantar very well, having done training rides alongside her for a number of years now. All of those factors combined made it a scenario that I knew a lot of the variables involved, and therefore felt very comfortable with, and was immensely honored that Lancette trusted me enough to take me up on my offer.

Before the ride, Hailey and I did a solid 20-mile training ride to make sure that all parties involved were compatible and happy (we all were), and just from that training ride alone, I knew we were going to have a fun ride.

That didn’t mean I wasn’t nervous going into the ride, though. Sponsoring a junior is a big responsibility, and there’s times that I’ve felt that I still need a sponsor out there…so what in the world was I doing, having to be the adult in the room? But my own personal nerves and insecurities didn’t stop the calendar from rolling forward, and before I knew it, ride weekend was upon us.

As I mentioned earlier, these are my home training trails, and base camp is less than 30 minutes away from the barn. I had the suburban packed up Thursday night, and Friday morning, I loaded up the dogs and we hit the road.

“Yeeaaahhh, rooooaaaaad trippppp!!!” ~Artemis

Lancette had a parking spot saved for me, and had kindly offered her extra portable corral for Liberty so that the two mares could hang out near each other. In the past I’ve had a Hi-Tie, or in more recent times, have just hard-tied Libby to the trailer, but after this weekend, I ended up being a fan of the corral option as well. Libby’s good in any containment set-up, really, so it’s nice to have flexibility and options.

Libby & the pups. Damp ground in corral courtesy of Libby figuring out she could grab the bucket handle and dump her water buckets. Buckets promptly got tied off to the panels after that discovery.

Once I got all settled in, Hailey and I saddled up and took the mares out for a quick leg-stretch pre-ride. They were both really good, and not at all fizzy, so a really good way to go into the ride. Vetted in when we got back, with all A’s and horses that were happy and ready to go.

Friday evening ride briefing is preceded by a really delicious potluck dinner, and the spread of food never disappoints. It’s a fun way to start off the evening, and my favorite ride format is having a potluck Friday, and the ride dinner on Saturday after the ride.

Ride briefing gave us the pertinent information — loop 1 was 30 miles, with an hour hold back in camp, then loop 2 was 13.5 miles, with a pulse down/trot out check in camp, then back out for the 6.5-mile loop 3 and back in to camp to finish. Loops 2 and 3 are my regular training loops, so I was really curious to see how Libby would handle the whole concept…would she be like, “ho hum, these are my training trails” and lose interest and initiative, or would knowing where she was at be an even stronger motivating factor? I guess we would find out the next day…

I made sure Liberty had plenty of hay and water for the night, got her settled in with a blanket, took the dogs out for a final walk, then tucked ourselves into bed for the night with the serenade of coyotes and owls in the background.

Saturday morning dawned cold and windy. The weather had forecast some wind, but to wake up at 4:30 in the morning and have it already be gusting? The wind typically gets worse as the sun comes up, so I wasn’t sure how that would bode for the rest of the day…

Liberty, at this point, had decided that Jantar was her new BFF, and was definitely up as I tacked her up and got her ready, since Jantar had moved from her corral over to be tied off to the side of the trailer, and Liberty did. not. approve. <sigh> We had to have a couple of discussions about her chilling the heck out and standing quietly, and not moving around so that the wind tried to pick up and relocate the saddle pad…but we eventually got it done and were ready to face the day. I got the dogs settled in the back of the trailer with their coats and a pile of cushy beds and fleeces, then mounted up with plenty of time for a good walking warm-up.

My main concern at the start was to prevent Jantar from getting crowded, which can make her feel competitive and defensive, so to that end, we hung back from the immediate dozen+ horses that headed out at the start, and found a perfect space bubble between the “starting crowd rush” and the crowd of “everyone who wanted to hang back and wait.” We had an absolutely perfect start, with both mares walking out calmly (which is so funny…Libby was fairly “up” during warm-up, doing some head tossing and dancing around…but as soon as we started, she was all business and totally calm on a loose rein) and moving into an easy trot as soon as we hit the trail.

The sun was just starting to come up as we hit the trail, and with it, came even more wind. Fortunately, neither mare was at all fazed by it, and we were able to set a very comfortable pace, making good use of some of the nicer parts of the trail early on. Up on the ridgelines as we made our way into the Goldfield Mountains, the wind was gusting at over 45mph…that was the first time I had truly experienced wind that actually threatened to blow me out of the saddle, and it was wild. Super proud of both mares for forging on through and not even batting at eye at the gusts.

There’s a section of the course that’s about 5 miles of slower-going, rocky dirt road…I don’t think it’s the kind of trail anyone volunteers to go out and ride “for fun” on a training ride, but it’s such a small section of trail compared to the whole rest of the ride which has overall really good footing, that it’s a minor thing in the grand scope of the whole ride, and it’s what makes the ride happen and allows loop 1 to be such a long, large loop without repeat trail or backtracking. It’s also a good chance for the horses to let down a bit — it’s not a road you can get much speed on, so you trot wherever it’s clear, walk the rocks, and enjoy the scenery. And keep some gas in the tank for the 4-mile uphill of sand wash that follows this section.

Down in the wash, it felt really good to stretch out and move. Somewhere along that section, either in the last bit of rocks or in the sand, Libby popped a hind boot off — she had shredded the pastern strap a few miles back on the road, but I had hand-waved it away, figuring I would replace it when we hit the water stop, since she’s held her boots without the pastern strap numerous times before, but when we got to the water stop I glanced down and realized she had managed to slip that back boot off. <sigh> (Fortunately, someone found it and turned it in to lost-n-found, so it wasn’t lost to the sands of time forever…)

I always carry spare boots, though, so I quickly slapped a replacement on, gave her a dose of electrolytes, and hopped back on. We were down in a canyon at this point, and it was serving as a wind tunnel, channeling huge gusts of wind down and peppering us with blowing sand. Neither mare was much interested in hanging out around the water stop, and knowing there was another stop only a couple miles further up the trail, we continued on.

At the next checkpoint, 16 miles in, both mares drank really well, and we paused for a few minutes here to let them eat. With the first loop being 30 miles before we were back to camp, with no forced holds along the way, it was on us as riders to make sure we took the time on our own to let the horses have some small breaks, and the chance to eat along the way. It was also nice to enjoy a few minutes in a more sheltered spot out of the wind!

Heading out from that check, we passed by photographers John & Susan Kordish, who as always, got some fun ride pics of us.

I’d sent Hailey out in front of me, and Liberty was not amused at being held back. Much giraffe-ing ensued, and a handful of truly amusing photos. I especially like where she’s totally blocking me…fine, mare, we know it’s all about you anyway.

The next section of the trail zipped through Usery Mountain Park…lots of twisting, turning, fun single-track…and dozens of other trail users to make sure we didn’t run over. All of our regional parks in the Valley have gotten so busy and so popular…hard not to feel a bit cranky about it, and the exploding population around here, when in some cases, I literally helped carve out some of the trails that we horse people are now being effectively pushed out of. But I digress…

Usery is a pretty part of the trail, and marks what I consider the start of “the easier part of the ride.” Aside from a couple miles of some climbing up to a ridgeline on loop two, most of the ride is now fairly flat, has good footing, and is really fun to cruise through. Except when your horse is too busy staring at people on a bench to notice the embedded rock in front of her, and catches a toe and takes a knee…<sigh> Fortunately we stayed upright, and she only scuffed up one knee a little bit. Still, not awesome, and I spent the next several miles crossly reminding her to “watch her feet” every time we’d come upon some rocks.

There’s one checkpoint/water stop within the park, and then several checkpoint road crossings to get back to camp. Both Liberty and Jantar really know this route, especially once we hit a certain point in the park, and from there it was “we’re going home!” back to our usual conditioning ride staging grounds out of Prospector Park. For the actual ride, Prospector is a checkpoint, with hay and water, and from there, only a mile or so back to camp. When we popped into Prospector, I think Libby was confused — I could see her looking around, going “where’s our trailer?” and a bit of a “wait, we’re leaving?” when we headed back out to the trailer. But the homing pigeon quickly kicked in again, and both mares hustled their way through the last stretch of the loop back into camp.

They were pulsed down immediately upon coming in, and we vetted right through, then had an hour hold for lunch. Management provide lunch for the riders, so that’s always a super-sweet bonus perk, to have a lovely snack lunch ready and waiting for me. The girls were thrilled to see me…let them out of the trailer and took them for a quick walk, although by all reports it sounds like they were quietly sleeping all morning long (a number of people asked me where I kept them, because they never heard them, so I guess that’s good they’re not sitting in the back of the trailer creating a ruckus).

I also had to fix a couple pastern straps that Liberty was systematically working on wearing through (she sometimes interferes on her hinds, and the spot where she interferes just happens to be right at the inside pastern strap loop, so she’s been wearing through those rather quickly, and I’m not sure if there’s something I need to adjust on her trim, or what’s going on), and before I knew it, our hour was up and we were heading back out on loop 2.

It was still really overcast and windy, and given that part of this next loop was going up on another ridgeline, I actually added another clothing later back on, in the form of a windbreaker vest. All of the loops start out the same for the first few miles, and loop 2 heads out up the same wide dirt road as loop 1, but then continues up the road further before picking up another road and ultimately heading up into the hills again.

The most excitement we had on the loop was when we had just passed over the stepover gate, and a whole pack of dirtbikes came up behind us. The area were had just crossed into is motor vehicle access by permit only (gate code to open the gate next to the stepover) and I don’t know if they just couldn’t be bothered to open the gate…or if they didn’t actually have a permit…but they lined up and decided it would be a good idea to jump their bikes over the horse stepover.

Neither mare thought having that behind them was a particularly funny idea, so after the first one jumped the gate and startled both horses, I told Hailey we were getting out of there pronto. Put the mares into a fast trot and then canter, and boogied our way up the road and away from the dirtbike pack.

From there, the rest of the trail was quiet, and super scenic. From this part of the course, you get a great view of the Superstitions immediately to the southeast, and out in the distance, Four Peaks to the northeast horizon.

The “family friendly” moniker of this particular rock is called “Pistachio Rock”…because it’s green.

Loop 2 is one of my regular training rides out here, so both horses were on autopilot, in a good way. They knew the trail, and were quite relaxed and happy about it. Partway through the loop, I ended up putting Liberty up front. Hailey and Jantar had led a good part of the ride thus far, with the exception of several miles through Usery Park, and had done an amazing job. Jantar actually prefers the front most of the time, but getting her more comfortable with not leading all the time has been part of her training agenda more recently, so I figured this would be a good time to see how she did. Fortuantely, she and Liberty have really hit it off, and she ended up being quite okay with us going in the front for the next few miles, and then trading off again…we rode the whole rest of the ride that way, trading off leading every few miles.

The trail loops around and takes us into Prospector Park again for a checkpoint, then back into camp for a quick pulse and trot-by before heading out for the last little 6-1/2-mile loop. Both mares pulsed and trotted great, and neither Hailey or myself felt the need to linger in camp beyond a couple minutes to let the mares grab a few bites to eat…now let’s get this thing done!

The third loop, all 6-1/2 miles of it, is mostly flat, with excellent footing 95% of the time. The hardest part of it is having to peel away from camp at the last second and take “the long way around” to come into camp to add the last couple of miles on. Horses — and riders! — don’t find this part particularly amusing.

Both mares looked great trotting across the finish line…they pulsed in right away, and vetted through immediately…and I broke my “Tonto bad luck” streak with finally getting a completion! I held my breath right up until the end, since I was pulled at the finish the last time I did this ride, but Libby looked great and the vets were super-pleased with her. And so was I. Tonto isn’t an easy ride, and she was cheerful and forward all day long, on trails that she knows really well, where the pull of “home” and “ugh, I know where this goes” could be strong.

The Saturday evening awards dinner at Tonto is always a treat — homemade fry bread tacos — and I really appreciate the “production” that is made for this ride in terms of doing a proper awards ceremony and presentation. Even though the barn and home is close by, I still opted to stay overnight…takes me too long to pack up, especially in the dark when I’m tired, so it’s easier to just wait until morning and roll out when it’s daylight.

I was absolutely thrilled with how the ride went…I had a blast with sponsoring Hailey, and truly enjoyed riding with her. She’s clever, enthusiastic, and has a passion for horses and endurance that is infectious and permeates everything she does. Her cheerful, upbeat nature made the miles go by really quickly, and was a really good reminder of why we do what we do out there…for the love of our horses, and the chance to experience some beautiful trails we might not otherwise access.

Ride Story: Jingle Bell Trot 50 2021

Starting the 2022 ride season off right!
photo by Susan Kordish

It’s been a full year since Liberty and I hit the competition trail in earnest with finishing the LD at Jingle Bell Trot in 2020, and we celebrated that “ride anniversary” with a 50-mile finish at Jingle Bell Trot this year.

2021 was a ride season full of ups and downs as we worked through the learning curve of figuring out the particular combination of boxes to tick in order to happily do 50-milers. We ran through the whole gamut: saddle fit, electrolytes, feet, diet. And while I know we are never really “done” with figuring out what works and what doesn’t for each individual horse, I feel like this fall has gotten us on the right track and moving in the right direction. With a solid 50-mile finish at McDowell in November, that was the first major hurdle crossed — to finally get that official 50-mile completion. From there, Jingle Bell Trot would be a true test — it’s a very rocky course, and I consider it a pretty challenging ride. It’s not a high elevation mountain ride with massive amounts of climbing, but it’s a trail that does a lot of small up and down, and is fairly “non-stop relentless” in that it’s either rocky, or up/down, or if it’s nice footing, you’re really moving out to make some time, so there’s not a ton of “downtime” for either horse or rider along the way.

One of the fun things about this ride for me is that it’s a fairly “new” ride — its first two years were run as the “Dashing Through the Trails” ride, under ride manager Effee Conner, and then last year and this year, the “Jingle Bell Trot” with ride manager Debi Sanger. There have been some trail changes here and there, but for all intents and purposes, it’s remained essentially the “same” ride…and it’s one of the few rides I’ve ridden every year. And even better, I’ve finished every year! 2018 — the 55-mile with Flash; 2019 — the 25-mile with Atti; 2020 — the 25-mile with Liberty; and now 2021 — the 50-mile with Liberty.

Estrella through the years. Clockwise from far left: Flash (2018), Liberty (2020), Liberty (2021), Atti (2019)

Pre-Ride: Thurs & Fri

I had plans to once again glue Liberty’s hind boots on, but by the time Thursday rolled around and I got down to the barn, I seriously couldn’t muster up the energy. I’ve been juggling a lot of irons in the fire lately leading up to the ride, and I didn’t feel like dealing with the mental stress of gluing and “getting it right.” I’ll save my gluing experimentation for training rides at this point. So Liberty got a bath (one perk of it still being 80* out), I packed up the truck/trailer with the stuff I store at the barn, then headed back home to finish packing, with a grocery store stop along the way.

My packing has gotten pretty streamlined — I store all of my ride gear in various bins and totes, so it’s a pretty quick matter of adding my tack, cleaning and doing inventory on my boot stash, and tossing everything into the truck.

Last month at McDowell, I arrived in camp around mid-morning, a little earlier than what I had typically been arriving at rides, and I really liked having the extra time for a more relaxing set-up before check-in and vetting, so I planned for a repeat of that this time around. This is another “local” Valley ride to me — about an hour and half from the barn, since I end up traversing from the east side of the Valley across to the west side — but it’s a pretty easy drive (Phoenix traffic not withstanding, ugh) and I was pulling into camp just a little after 10am.

My friend MJ had once again saved me a parking spot, and she and I were planning to ride together the following day, as she would be riding Liberty’s “favorite” boyfriend Dreamer and the two horses pair and pace really well together.

I got Liberty settled with hay/water, got the rest of camp set up, wandered over to the registration area and got checked in, socialized with some friends along the way, sat down and had lunch, and then as soon as vetting opened, grabbed Libby and hustled over to the vet line.

Interestingly, all year, she’s been vetting in consistently with a pulse of 44 (without going back and pulling all of our old vet cards from the 2013-16 rides, memory makes me want to say this was what she usually vetted in at then, too). This time, she was vetting in at 40. Not sure whether to attribute that to really settling in tot he vetting routine, or if her fitness level has bumped up a notch after McDowell last month. Either way, it’ll be interesting to track.

After vetting, MJ, Lucian and I saddled up and headed out for a leisurely pre-ride. Just an easy meander around some of the competitive track trails right around camp, enough to stretch their legs and make sure brains were still firmly between ears.

Heading out on a pre-ride. That’s the Phoenix International Raceway grandstands in the background. The access road to the Estrella Mtn Park Competitive Track where we park cuts right through the PIR parking lot.
photo by Susan Kordish

Back in camp, I had time for more socializing (including some long-time endurance friends from California who were some of my original endurance mentors and the first ones to introduce me to catch riding, so it was wonderful to see them again and spend some time catching up) before it was time for the potluck dinner. I had whipped up a pot of spaghetti and meat sauce, which has consistently been a ride dinner staple in my camp over the years, and always garners favorable reviews. Contributing it to the potluck was no exception, and there was only a couple small spoonfuls left in the pot at the end. The potluck had a great turnout and some delicious offerings, and it seems like it is quickly becoming a popular tradition.

The ride meeting wrapped up with some curiosity and excitement as a long chain of lights passed overhead in the night sky. Obligatory “look, it’s Santa!” comments were made…and some research once I got back home netted the fact that it was a chain of SpaceX Starlink satellites passing overhead. So, a bit disappointing that it wasn’t Santa out doing practice runs…but still cool.

I got Liberty settled for the night with plenty of hay and water, and her dinner, then I tucked myself into my cozy nest that is the back of the Suburban. A foam mattress has made all the difference for comfort level and staying warm over an air mattress, and with the addition of some string lights and mini lanterns inside, I’ve got lots of light without ever needing to turn on the interior dome lights and potentially drain the battery down. I did a bit of mental winding down with a book for a while, and then turned in for the night, drifting off to the sounds of my mare munching her hay.

Ride Day: Saturday

Ride start for the 50 wasn’t until 7am — when we would have a little bit of daylight — which meant wasn’t until about 5. My morning routine has gotten pretty quick — dress, climb out of bed and throw Libby some hay, get coffee and breakfast going, put boots on the horse, drink coffee, eat, tack up, debate how many clothing layers to keep on because I’m a solar-powered cold-weather wimp that relies on the sunshine to stay warm. Liberty, for her part, has turned into a total professional. If she is tied to the trailer, she is either eating or sleeping. No messing about, no pawing, no wasting energy.

She’s also catching on to the super-handy “pick me up” trick of sidling up to things like trailer fenders when I step up on them, which makes mounting so much easier. One last sip of coffee, and one cozy puffy jacket layer sadly peeled off, I hopped up on the fender, Libby stepped right up, and I was mounted and ready. We had time to do a good warm-up around camp with MJ and Dreamer, check-in, and then once the trail was open, we made our way out after the first half-dozen or so people headed out.

The first part of the ride was a 10-mile loop on one of the competitive track trails. It’s one of the rockier sections, so we took it easy, walking the rough stuff and trotting when it was decent.

It was really pretty single track, and gorgeous morning light on the mountains. The trail twists and turns a lot, sometimes a bit annoyingly so as it doubles back on itself or twiddles around a space that could have otherwise been a straight line…but it’s part of the competitive track that’s used by a lot of mountain bikers, so I understand the “make it interesting/challenging” rationale behind it. The nice thing about this little loop is that it feel like “free miles” in that you end up back in camp before heading out to the main part of the park, so once you’re in the main park, you have this realization that, “oh, we already have 10 miles down.”

Almost back to camp from the competitive track loop.
photo by Susan Kordish

The top photo on this post is also in that same spot on the competitive track. I absolutely love Liberty’s expression. She is so happy and so eager…I think she truly loves her job and loves this sport. I put a lot of stock in their expressions and what their eyes look like, and my ride photos this fall/winter are showing me a bold, eager, happy mare. She’s usually had that to some degree in the past, but I’m now seeing a whole new level that’s emerging with this horse as she gets more fit and more seasoned.

Since we had to pass right through camp and right by the trailers to get to the out trail to the main park, MJ and I opted to swing by our trailers momentarily for a potty break, dump jackets/change shirts, and electrolyte the horses. All told, it took less than 5 minutes to do all that and was well worth the “mini break.”

We passed by our favorite photographers again as we roughly paralleled the trail we had taken back in to camp, and made our way out to the main part of the park. There’s a bit of a climb up heading out of camp — the left-side photo above gives a rough idea, with the PIR parking lot in the background and camp is just above the parking lot — and a subsequent drop down the other side in a series of switchbacks and Libby was once again rather fascinated with the whole “switchback concept” (here, as well as earlier in the ride on the competitive track we had another set of switchbacks, and her brain had to once again wrap around the concept of “horse below me, how’d they get there…and now they’re above me, what’re they doing up there?”) and I could also see her little brain cells spinning as she worked through the notion.

Thus far, we’d kept Liberty in the lead — Dreamer is still a “work in progress” when it comes to leading sometimes, so we were waiting until a more opportune section of the trail to swap out and put him in front. Once on the flatter, more open part of the trail, we did so, and mostly cruised along, with a few “spook-n-balk” moments from Dreamer here and there, but all minor stuff. At least until the perfectly innocent-looking bush that obviously housed Dreamer-eating gremlins, at which point he pulled a very fast drop and spin maneuver that had MJ on the ground. Fortunately she said she was fine, and was on her feet and back in the saddle in moments. We did put Liberty in the front again after that, though.

Heading out to the far water stop is one of my favorite parts of the trail, because there’s a whole section of the trail that is perfect for cantering — super shallow sand on a straight line double-track trail. Our timing was such that we hit it during “two way traffic” time — most of the LD riders had finished this section of the trail and were on their way to the vet check — so we were doing quite a bit of head-on passing…usually right about the time we’d get a good canter rhythm going. Ah, well. Good training.

The furthest section of trail is a lollipop loop — out to the water stop, do a small loop out from the water, come back to the water, and then return back on the same lovely sand trail. The first time in to the water, Libby took a few sips, but was more interested in munching on the hay provided. We only took a couple minutes here, since neither horse was super-interested in water, and started on the lollipop loop part of the trail.

Liberty had been “peeking” at a few things here and there — her typical minor “looking” — but not even a mile into the lollipop, trotting along, and all of a sudden she spooked hard and I found myself on the ground before I even knew what was happening. I wasn’t even able to complete my “oh, shi–“ thought before I was hitting the dirt. Lucky for me, we were in a fairly sandy, reasonably soft area, and I landed mostly on my adequately-padded derriere first, then my side and upper arm. I was so completely shocked and taken off guard that I really didn’t even have time to dwell on what happened. Literally took about 2 seconds to internally assess, “nope, didn’t hit my head, everything moves, I’m fine” and jump back up and go after Liberty, who was starting to wander down the trail. Fortunately she didn’t take off running, and she stopped as soon as I caught up to her and grabbed her reins, but I know that’s the first time anyone has ever come off of her, so she was definitely a bit surprised.

I still had plenty of adrenaline going, so I channeled that into jumping right back in the saddle and continuing down the trail before my rational brain caught up to me and I had a chance to think and get scared. I was also a little bit pissed. The more reactive spooking is something new — she almost offloaded me at McDowell when she spooked at a dead log — and this time, we did part ways. So I’m not sure what exactly is going on with that and how to troubleshoot it, because one of the things I’ve always highly valued about this mare is she’s not super reactive or spooky, so I’m thrilled with newly-discovered quirk. :/

It’s also been over a dozen years since I last came off a horse. Even with the plethora of catch ride horses (although there were a few times I quickly jumped off before I could be offloaded), the last equine who was able to make me hit the dirt was Mimi, in one of her infamous pony spooks. So I guess I was probably long overdue, and there’s probably something to the notion that if you ride a horse long enough, you will part company at some point. And with 17 months in of owning her, I’ve got more saddle time with Liberty now than any other horse other than Mimi.

Dead cactus along the lollipop loop. Definitely equinivorous.

The back part of the lollipop is no one’s favorite. It’s heading away from camp, in another long straightaway that looks like it leads into the endless desert. And all of the surface sand that had washed away from the other parts of the park to reveal all the rocks underfoot had apparently decided to settle into this portion of the trail, and it was deep enough neither of us felt particularly comfortable trying to make time through this section. So we got a bit of “sand slogging” in, with both horses trudging through and not really finding the motivation button. Until we got to the intersection where we turned off the endless sand slog and onto the trail that took us back to the water and they were miraculously recovered and had all sorts of forward motivation again. Liberty was also peeking and looking at everything that might have been lurking on the side of the trail, and I shamelessly started taking advantage of taking a hold of that lovely hoop pommel on my saddle.

Back at the water, Liberty suddenly realized she was quite thirsty, and dove into the trough with her “going to put a frat boy to shame” ability to chug. She drank, and drank, and drank some more, and when she finally came up for air, I hopped off and gave her some electrolytes. Even after that, she decided to drink some more, then settle herself down in front of the hay and spend a few minutes munching. There wasn’t much by way of even dry vegetation along this portion of the trail, so it was worth the extra time to get some vittles into their systems.

Drink up, mare. Elytes await.

From the water, we backtracked along the same lovely section we had come in on, this time getting to let the horses stretch out into a really good canter…I think that helped all four of us blow off some steam. There was one more water stop about a mile before the vet check — Libby chugged again — and then we headed down the wide gravel road into the check that waited for us, 30 mile in to the ride.

Not too far out from the vet check.

The vet check is in the large gravel trailhead parking lot of the main park. There’s a little climb up out of the wash below the parking lot, so I rode up almost to the parking lot then hopped off and walked in. By the time Libby finished drinking, she was pulsed down to parameters. There were a couple horses in front of us to vet, so we waited for a bit, then vetted through — all A’s — then headed over to where MJ had set up our crew bags. I got Libby settled with some hay and feed — she doesn’t really love super sloppy mashes, so a cup of her Hygain TruGain feed seems to make her happy and fulfill the “I got something other than hay” need.

Libby & Dreamer sharing lunch

With an hour-long hold, there was plenty of time to take care of all of the typical vet-hold business, and in fact both MJ and I were ready and waiting several minutes ahead of our out time. 30 miles down, just another 20 left. From the check, we would be heading out on a different trail, through a section that was several miles long of rocks, and more rocks, and connecting to the lovely sand track out to the water stop again. Fortunately, we wouldn’t have to do the lollipop loop this time.

A couple miles out from lunch, we had been trotting along and all of a sudden I felt Libby start hip-hopping on her hind end. Quick glance down and I saw one of her boots around her pastern. Hopped off and turns out she had broken a cable. Quick swap out of pulling my spare boot out of the pack, slapping it on, stuffing the broken one back in the pack, and less than two minutes later, we were continuing on our way. As it turns out, that’s only the second cable I’ve ever broken in 15 years of using the boots, so I really can’t complain.

Did I happen to mention the rocks? The new nickname for this ride is “Jingle Bell Rocks.”

This section was slower-going, mostly due to it being more technical and so rocky. It was also warming up a bit in the afternoon sun, and parts of the trail didn’t have much by way of a breeze reaching them. Fortunately, we had another rider a little bit in front of us at this point — her gaited horse made much better time in the rocks than we did, so we weren’t trying to keep up with her but Dreamer liked her mare, and that was sufficient enough incentive for him be able to go in the front for a while and give Libby and myself a break.

Once we reached the trail to the water stop, both horses threw in a bit of a mutiny. They knew where we were, they knew camp was in the opposite direction, and didn’t have much desire to go repeat this same trail they already knew. It took a bit of coaxing and pedaling but I got Liberty out in front again and moving…not overly enthusiastically, but it was forward movement and we were covering ground, which was all I wanted.

Back at the water stop, I hopped off and Liberty drank and drank and drank, then settled herself in front of the hay to eat. We took several minutes here this time to let them drink and eat, then gathered ourselves up and headed out again. With the internal compass pointed “due trailer,” they had all kinds of cheer and forward enthusiasm now. Libby was still peeking and spooking at random things, so I once again employed my shameless, “just hold on and go forward” tactic and it worked to get us through the beautiful sand section one more time.

Working on draining the trough.

The trail “back” to camp is a circuitous route, one that goes over some of the trail from earlier in the ride, before peeling off and taking you back towards the location of the vet check. Along the way, we encountered a hiker who was flying a drone. No big deal, initially…he had it overhead but seemed like it wasn’t too close in…we went by him, continued trotting up the trail, then heard the buzzing getting louder. Glanced back and it looked like the drone was following us. Kicked it in to a bit of a canter since the trail was clear and got ahead of it , only to go through a gully and have it hovering behind us as we came out of the gully. Again, neither horse was bothered…but I happen to know plenty of them who would be, and trailing after horses with the drone really isn’t cool behavior. So as we kept going up the trail, I lifted my hand and I gave it the ol’ one-fingered salute. Message must have been received since the drone backed off and I didn’t hear it any more.

(Additionally, I just looked it up and learned that drone use isn’t allowed within the Maricopa County Regional Parks. Good to know.)

Drone drama aside, this was a really pleasant section to ride. Still rocky in parts (but that’s just Estrella, period) but a pretty area, with interesting single-track trail that kept things a very active ride. Liberty was in good spirits, still very forward and happy to move out, necessitating a few negotiations about what was considered acceptably trottable or not. Eventually the trail took us to the same water stop and gravel road that led to the vet check. Another drink and e’lyte dose, then back down the gravel road again. This time we didn’t go all the way to the vet check, but rather turned off and started heading back to camp — only 7 miles to go.

This section always seems like it should be shorter than it is. A lot of it looks visually similar, too, so it feels like you’re repeating some of the same ground that you just covered five minutes ago. It’s also the section we had gone out on in the morning, so the horses know it really well.

But eventually, we were back at the switchback hill — climbing up the same switchbacks we had gone down in the morning.

Rounding the final switchback

From the top of the hill, we took a tiny little connector trail piece that popped us over to the competitive track again, and the last mile or so into camp was the same as coming off the competitive track in the morning. The homing pigeon horses were in full “let’s get back to camp mode,” while I was in full “do not lame yourselves 200′ out from camp by falling on a rock” mode. But the last bit of trail was all clear, and we trotted into camp with happy horses, just a little under 10 hours after we had started that morning (for a ride time of just under 9 hours).

Liberty once again partook of the water troughs at the finish line, then I headed over to do her completion vetting. Her pulse was just a little high still, so I pulled my saddle and almost immediately she was down to the required 60bpm. She finished with a very good vet card (a couple of B’s on cap/jug refill, but she drank like a fish all day long so I’m not sure what else I could do to affect that…?), and a very high compliment from the vet acknowledging the amount of work I’ve put into this mare between the spring and now and how it way paying off. Those kinds of comments mean the world to me, and I love that our vets are watching us and paying that kind of attention to us.

Furthermore, finishing this tough ride makes me feel encouraged that we’re on the right track now with diet, electrolytes, feet, everything. Because I wasn’t sure. My biggest takeaway in this sport has been, “Never take any finish for granted.” That’s been one of the pluses about so many pulls learning opportunities. I’ve managed horses through rides that weren’t the most suitable candidates for the sport…and I’ve been pulled on experienced, “this should be old hat” campaigners. So it’s never a guarantee or foregone conclusion, and every single finish is meaningful.

As always, my main goal is a finish. The secondary goal for this ride had been “finish in daylight,” and I’m happy to say we accomplished that as well. Back at the trailer, she was starving and buried her head in the hay manger while I gave her a good rubdown and got the worst of the dried sweat off, then got her tucked in to her blanket as the temperatures started dropping.

Ride awards dinner was a really tasty BBQ, and I dove into my food with as much enthusiasm as my mare. Granted, she did the majority of the work, but still…Estrella is a very active ride — there’s not a lot of trail where you can really sit back and relax, so I was definitely feeling more tired than last month’s ride at McDowell.

I opted to stay overnight Saturday night, since it takes me a bit to pack up camp…I’d be much faster in the morning. Plus, staying overnight, I get to keep an eye on Libby and have her right there with me, which makes monitoring post-ride recovery really easy.

Looking bright-eyed Sunday morning, watching the 30-milers leave and wondering why we weren’t going out again?

This ride was a great way to start the 2022 ride season, and marks one full year of competition for Liberty and myself. It’s been a great year, and I can’t wait to see what the future might hold for us as we head down the trail…

2021 Ride Season Recap

Since the AERC season runs from Dec 1-Nov 30, the 2021 season is over and the 2022 season has started. While I brought Liberty home in 2020, we didn’t actually get to our first ride until Dec of 2020, so the 2021 season, making it our first full ride season that we did together.

So, how did it go? To put it mildly…”not according to plan.” But we finished the season on a strong note, and learned a ton along the way. It’s also been the most prolific season I’ve had with my own horse, making it to 5 rides. I had planned on more, but between schedule conflicts, horse colds, and mystery lamenesses, that nixed at least 3 of the rides I had planned. Ah, well. I’m thrilled with what we were able to do, and am trying to embrace learning to take things as they come and roll with whatever changes get chucked in our path.

Let’s recap:

December

Jingle Bell Trot 25. After a rough fall of having conditioning and ride plans curtailed by horrific air quality from wildfires, and personal life priorities, we finally hit the competition trail and started our season off with a solid finish on the LD. It was the confidence boost I needed, and I started to get my first glimpses of what Liberty could do when she was fit and conditioned.

January

Schedule conflict month; the Tonto Twist ride fell on the same weekend as the Mark Rashid-Jim Masterson clinic, and ultimately, I decided that the clinic would probably be the better long-term investment in myself and my horse. I was right, and it ended up being a very learning-full weekend.

February

We were all set to go with Wickenburg, and Libby came up with a cold: snotty nose, cough, and temperature. Obviously that cancelled our ride plans, and it took a couple weeks for her to be back to her sparkly-eyed normal.

March

Old Pueblo 50: Otherwise known as “Snowmaggedon 2021.” We made it 42 miles on our first 50, doing the first 26 mile loop in a blizzard. The cold weather made her not want to drink very well, and she got a bit out of whack on her electrolytes, and had an erratic, hanging pulse at the end of the second vet hold, so after talking to the vet, we decided to Rider Option. Lesson Learned: Don’t ride in a snow storm. Seriously, though, I was so impressed with how she handled the snow. She stayed sensible, never slipped once, and was totally game all day, albeit a bit of a fire-breathing dragon for the first 5 or 6 miles.

April

Bumble Bee 50: Our 2nd 50-mile attempt. We made the full distance this time…and got pulled at the finish for lameness. (Most likely hoof soreness, most likely cause by yours truly being an idiot and trimming too close to the ride.) That one I feel bad about because it was likely caused by my own error, and the big mare didn’t deserve that. She did amazingly well all day long. We went from the cold of Sonoita to unseasonably hot at Bumble Bee, and she wasn’t phased at all by the heat. Drank like a fish all day long, and was super cheerful and always happy to go — I never had to ask her twice.

May

The plan was to head up to Flagstaff for the Cinders Trot, but a couple days out from the ride, I still wasn’t happy with how she was moving, and pulled our entry. That was also the unofficial “end” to the first part of the AZ ride season until the fall, and with our questionable spring, I definitely wasn’t going to make any out-of-state plans and associated expenses until I was sure we had our ducks in a row.

June-Sept

My goal for the summer was to just keep her tuned up as much as possible. It wasn’t easy, with the heat, and there were quite a few 3am wakeups but I was able to consistently put some good mileage on and head into the fall season in good shape.

October

Man Against Horse 25: While we stayed fit over the summer, I wasn’t confident that it was “conquer Mingus Mountain” level of fit, and again, after our spring, I really wanted to stack the deck in our favor and set ourselves up for success, so opted to go for the 25 instead of the 50. I don’t regret that decision at all. She was strong and fit all day, had fantastic vet scores, and a solid finish.

November

Lead-Follow @ McDowell 50: Third time’s a charm, and we finally got that 50-mile finish. She had no problem going the distance, had awesome vet scores and P&Rs all day, and she had so much gas still left in the tank at the finish. This was probably one of the best finishes I’ve had in my endurance career in terms of having a fresh, spunky horse who truly could have gone out for another loop, and on that alone, makes it one of my rides I’m really thrilled with and proud of how both my horse and I did.

With that, the ride season ends…and we roll right into 2022. While most of the country is on their winter break, Arizona is in the thick of our winter season, and there’s a ride on the calendar every month from now through May.

All ride photos are courtesy of AZ Cowgirl Photography; Susan and John Kordish