A Japanese documentary filmed in 2019 (Much of the narration is in Japanese, but the interviews are in English, and the cinematography is stunning and it’s very professionally done. It is about an hour and half long, so allow time for that but it’s well worth it.)
I think I am officially at the, “If at first you don’t succeed, try, try (try-try-try-try-try) again” point. The short version: we went all 50 miles…and got pulled at the finish when she was off on the left front.
At the time, the working theory, after talking with one of the vets later in the afternoon and him assessing her, was she was footsore — she looked worse trotting out without her boots on, and I had made a potentially major user error and trimmed her only two days before the ride. I also didn’t do a great job of taking down her bars enough on one side, so that may have been a contributing factor.
Needless to say, with two pulls in a row, my anxiety is rather high once again. Our next ride is next weekend up in Flagstaff, and right now, I’m questioning everything. The part of me that hates failure is kind of ready to throw in the towel on the whole thing rather than risk another pull. And then the other part of my brain has no patience for that kind of thinking. I don’t know whether to believe “third time’s a charm” or “three strikes, you’re out.” My brain feels like a pinball machine cranked up to 12. The last couple of weeks have also been a stress-y, so that’s not helping.
In the meantime, while I suss out my endurance existential meltdown, I should probably talk about the previous ride from last month…which was pretty fantastic, right up until the moment it wasn’t, and I keep trying to remind myself that horses don’t know or care about things like records or official finishes…all the mare knows is that she went 50 miles, and that I was and am super proud of and pleased with her.
Arizona’s spring weather can best be described as “mercurial” (or via the meme of “You can’t fit all four seasons in one week.” ARIZONA: “Hold my beer and watch this.”) and while it was a month between rides, rather than a week, we went from the 27* and blizzarding of Old Pueblo to a predicted high of 87* and sunny for Bumble Bee. Well, both my mare and I are native-born Arizonans, so we should be able to cope with heat better than the cold…
I hit the road bright and early Friday morning to beat the heat, the worst of the Phoenix traffic, and to have plenty of time to relax and enjoy being in camp. My friend Cathy (my Tevis 2019 crewing rider) had saved me a spot in camp, and we had made plans ahead of time to ride together, or at least start together to give Liberty a steady, consistent-pacing friend to model herself after, versus constantly trying to hook onto and speed off with some of the faster-traveling horses like she kept trying to do at Old Pueblo.
That “rough road” sign was no joke. The dirt road into Bumble Bee was as bad as I’ve ever seen in, with the washboard worn down to the “can’t be graded smooth anymore” bare rock, largely due in part to the offroad vehicles discovering that area. I crawled along at 5mph in 4WD Low in some areas, and it still didn’t help avoid the massive vibrations and rattling. A week or so after the ride, I ended up needing to take the truck in for some major “hind end work” — that road was the last straw on the u-joints and one of the axles.
I had plenty of time to leisurely set up camp and visit with friends before heading over to check in, and then shortly thereafter, vet in. Liberty was really well-behaved for vetting, and she seemed to enjoy wandering around camp, sampling water troughs and socializing. It got pretty warm in the afternoon, so I opted to hang out in the shade with friends until the temperature dropped a little before before heading out for a short pre-ride ahead of dinner and ride briefing.
I slept pretty well for a pre-ride night, and was up early enough to go through my ride morning routine without feeling rushed. I’ve gotten away from doing any kind of morning feeds or concentrates for Liberty, so she got half a flake of grass hay and a small handful of alfalfa, just so she felt like she got “something” for breakfast.
I had plenty of time ahead of the start to walk Liberty around and get her warmed up, and Cathy and I headed out just about mid-pack at the start. I was so impressed with how much Liberty has matured over the years. This ride start was the one that, seven years ago, it took us almost 20 minutes to creep through the barnyard and all of its scary tools and machinery, and past the pen of equinivorous goats. (The goats have since passed on, but there are still some dogs in the pen.) This time, she sauntered right past everything, focused only on “get out to the trail.” This was also the same ride start location that she had crow-hopping fits on a couple of occasions, necessitating a lot of brain schooling and slow starts.
Well, it was worth taking the time way back when to address some of those issues, because I saw the payoff of that happen this weekend. Between the inherent age that comes with maturity, and her having positive learning experiences previously, she was straight to business on this morning, striding out at a working trot and only focused on moving out down the trail. Of course, we have now entered the stage of “pace negotiations,” where she thinks she is a lot fitter and can go a lot faster than she needs to at this point.
Fortunately, riding with Cathy was giving us a good “steadiness anchor” and we alternated back and forth with leading and following. The trail for the first 10 miles or so of this ride can be pretty fast, and it would have been all too easy to let her get swept up in zipping along at a faster pace and burn herself out too soon, when my goal was “finish with some gas in the tank.”
My favorite part of the course is along the Black Canyon Trail — it’s single track and winds along the foothills, twisting in and out and up and down. It’s super-fun, and I’ve always had a blast with Liberty in this section. She is super handy and absolutely loves single-track trail herself…I just sit back and let her do her thing.
The BCT section is about 7 miles long, and spits you out into this fun little wash/creek that runs alongside Bumble Bee Ranch. There is typically at least some water in there, which makes for a really fun and novel experience of splashing through the water.
Liberty had started drinking back around mile 10 at one of the cow troughs along the way, but when we hit the troughs set up outside of camp, she parked herself at them and spent several minutes tanking up. I lost track of how much she was drinking, but it was enough to necessitate a few minutes of walking after she was done, lest she start sloshing her way down the trail. I wasn’t sure what to expect at this point — previously, we had done the LD at the ride a couple of times, and the loop one trail veered into camp at the troughs. This time, the 50-milers loop one continued on and came into camp the longer, back way around…and I wouldn’t have been surprised to get a bit of a “but camp is that way” mutiny on my hands.
Color me pleasantly shocked when I pointed her up the wash and she kept cheerfully trucking, barely even sparing a glance back at camp. Although we had quite a few discussions along the way of this first loop, negotiating with her to keep the pace reasonable, and that she would not be tailgating on Cathy’s mare whenever we were following, I was rather thrilled with her cheerful, forward attitude. Having had numerous “pedal” moments at some of our early rides, I much prefer this version of her.
The vet check and hold was back in camp in-between loops, and I was fortunate enough to have Cristina offer to come by for part of the day and crew for me during the hold. I’m getting really spoiled by having crew at the last couple of rides! She met us as we came into camp, and because it was getting warm, we did strip tack (it was optional at this ride, but I’ve already played the “large, dark horse in the sun” game and knew it would probably be beneficial to pull her saddle off…especially if I had a crew to help schlep it around.
In the couple minutes that it took to pull the saddle, let her drink, and slosh some water on her, Liberty’s pulse was down, so we headed over to P&R, and from there, vetting. I forgot to take a picture of the vet card, but I want to say her pulse was something like 52, and all As from what I remember. Tons of energy still, and a very nice trot-out.
Cristina got Liberty all settled with a sloppy mash, and even sponged her all clean, while I got my own lunch, and changed into a short-sleeve shirt for the warmer afternoon. I even had time to do a quick tack change of swapping out bits, ditching the (hated) running martingale, and pulling out a clean saddle pad. I have to say, I do love the convenience aspect of in-camp checks, having everything right there, and not having to pack a crew bag.
The hour hold flew by pretty quick, and then Cathy and I were on our way on loop 2. The first part of the loop is definitely slow-going. Called the “Miner Bob Loop” for the miner who holds one of the mining claims partway through the loop, the trail spends part of the loop winding in and out of another wash/stream, with a lot of rocks and rough footing. There are also a couple of sizable climbs along the way. It’s not a place you can ever make time, so the ride strategy is to trot whenever you have a clear area; otherwise, walk the rocks.
Fortunately, the Miner Bob loop is only a portion of the whole second loop (about 9 miles), and with the number of water crossings we had, the horses stayed well-hydrated. With only a couple miles to go on the loop, Cathy ended up slowing down and sending me on ahead — she was concerned about the toll the rocks were taking on her mare, who was starting to feel footsore, so she was going to wait at the next accessible point along the trail for her husband to bring her a pair of boots with pads in them. But in the meantime, she didn’t want me slowed up, so she waved me on and insisted that I keep going.
With only minor encouragement, Libby left her trail buddy behind, and we forged onward by ourselves. I really enjoyed riding with Cathy — we get along well, and always have a ton to talk about — but I also cherish my solo time with my mare. I’ve had some of the best moments with her when we’ve been by ourselves on the trail, and this ride was no exception. We caught up to and ended up passing one small group of horses, and from that point on, all the way into the finish, we had the trail to ourselves.
The same seven-mile stretch of the BCT that we came down in the morning, we now were heading up. It’s a deceptive uphill grade, and a lot of the trail is pretty easy to move out on and forget you’re constantly going uphill. But being by ourselves, I was able to get a feel for where she was at physically and mentally, and I was blown away by her good life choices. She knew exactly when to dial it back, and when to pick up, when to give herself a break, and when to keep cruising. I barely touched my reins through this section, and still felt so in tune with her.
It was definitely still warm out, although fortunately we had a really nice breeze, and that was a major help in the evaporative cooling angle. Several times I reached down to touch her neck or shoulder and was surprised by how she felt — with her dark coat and larger size, I fully expected her to retain a lot of heat but between the breeze and her own pace regulating, she was doing a great job of shedding heat and keeping herself comfortable.
She continued to drink like a fish through this entire loop, and got quite indignant when I made her bypass one trough on the way back to camp because it had a dozen cows surrounding it. (There was another trough only a mile down the trail, but she was quite miffed at the bovine blockade.)
I was so pleased with her attitude the whole way back to camp. She was still cheerful and happy to move out, and I was letting her set the pace — walk breaks when she wanted, pick up again when she was ready. Something that I found absolutely fascinating was my own mental state when I was out there — I never hit a wall myself. I never found myself thinking, “Ugh, I just want to be done. Ugh, how much further do we have?”
Now, I know some of that was a conscious choice to keep my own spirits up — she is such a sensitive, intuitive horse who is so tuned in to me, that I knew if I let myself start thinking that way, it would likely lead to her doing the same thing. This would be the furthest she had ever gone (although, 42 miles at Old Pueblo, so this wouldn’t be too much longer…) and I wasn’t sure if at some point she would decide, “What the heck are we doing out here still…” so I wanted to make sure I wasn’t going to I wasn’t inadvertently contributing to that.
The other thing was, I was genuinely enjoying myself. I love riding this horse so much. I was relishing the time out there by ourselves, I knew we still had plenty of time left on the clock and didn’t have to rush in, and I was in no hurry to end our day. (I fully admit there have been some horses and some rides that I could not wait for it to be over.) Honestly, that sort of thing hasn’t happened to me very much at rides. There’s typically at least some point along the way that I feel totally over it, and if some magic ride fairy wanted to snap her fingers and teleport me and my horse back to the trailer, I would be quite okay with it. But this time…not the case. Mentally, I was feeling good; physically, I was feeling good.
We made our way back in to camp, finishing somewhere around 4:15 after a 6am start. Minus the one hour hold, that put us at a ride time of 9:15, which I was very happy with for the goal of “finish the 50 with gas in the tank and don’t run the clock down.”
By the time I hopped off, loosened the girth, and sponged her neck while she tanked up, her pulse was down, and we headed over to vet. Parameters were all great…until it came to the trot-out. Never mind she had trotted into camp feeling totally even…some time in that maybe ten minutes between coming in to camp and vetting, she was now off on the left front.
Further consulting with one of the other vets later that afternoon netted the strong possibility that what we were seeing was foot soreness/stone bruise since she was worse without her boots on. And here’s the part where I admit I screwed up: like I mentioned at the start of this tale, I trimmed her on Thursday before the ride. I got overambitious and took off probably more than I should in an attempt to correct some wayward hoof balance issues…and also got sloppy in not taking off enough bar on…guess where? That left front. I mean, I know better…my rule has always been no trimming any closer than the weekend before a ride. (Which means I do some minor touch-ups this weekend and then the rasp gets buried out of sight.)
At the time, I was bummed by not officially completing, but overwhelmingly pleased with how well she had done all day. I was blown away by how mentally strong she was, and she had taken excellent care of herself all day long with eating and drinking. I did a good job of holding up my end of the deal in terms of being an active participant — I got off and walked down some of the rocky downhill spots, I got off and electrolyted her along the way multiple times, I took care of myself, and had so much fun.
The few things that didn’t work:
– Her leg wraps (the hinds were down around her pasterns like little bracelets versus protecting her fetlocks — first time using them and I didn’t get them snug enough, so had to correct that partway through the first loop; and the front splint boots rubbed the backs of her fetlocks — not raw or sore, but took the hair off in a couple of spots).
– My own feet were sore afterwards and it took about a week to get full feeling back in a couple of little toes (this is the second time this has happened and I’m wondering if it’s my own boots, which are heavier and have a narrower toe box than the other Terrains I’ve worn previously).
– Running martingale — I used it on the first loop because I didn’t want a repeat of Old Pueblo, where she emulated an inverted llama…but she hates it. Much fussing and protest, even with it rigged very loose. I took it off on loop 2 and she was much better. I don’t know whether that’s because she had 25-ish miles under her girth, or she was happy without the martingale, but I think I’m going to give it a try going without again at Flagstaff…or maybe start with it and drop it as soon as I can out on the trail versus waiting to get back to camp.
– Itchy/rubbing. She wants to rub and itch on everything, so that’s a work in progress. Especially things like water troughs, buckets, or me when I’m standing there trying to get her pulsed down or vetted through.
– The previously-discussed trimming/soreness
– Not actually getting a completion. Honestly…finish line pulls suck, there is just no other way around it.
Immediately after the ride, I was riding the high of how well she had done…but of course, after a month of having too much time to dwell on my own thoughts, I start second-guessing myself and doubting myself. I know everyone has failures, and pulls, and plenty of steep learning curves along the way, and I’m not unique in this regard. I obviously really love this crazy sport, though, because I can’t think of too many other things I would persistently pursue with this level of relentless whack-a-mole tendencies, regardless of some of the less-than-stellar outcomes. And that, my friends, is the magic of endurance.
Anyway, keep fingers and hooves crossed for us that next weekend at Flagstaff will be “third time’s a charm.”
We set out to do Liberty’s first 50 on one of the days of the Old Pueblo ride in Sonoita, AZ. While we ultimately didn’t finish (our day ended at 42 miles after a CRI exam showed an erratic heart rate and indicated she wasn’t recovering as well as she should), it was under extremely challenging conditions, and I am so incredibly proud of this mare and how she handled everything that was thrown at her, and how much we learned together.
Come along with me for a ride story of epic proportions, a bit of insanity, and plenty of things learned.
The Old Pueblo ride is an Arizona institution and icon of a ride, having been around in some form or fashion since at least the 1980’s (possibly earlier, but AERC records only go back to 1985) and since 2008, has been run as a 3-day Pioneer ride. It’s a ride I’ve done only a handful of times over the years, usually due to schedule conflicts, but the times I’ve been down there I’ve enjoyed the beautiful scenery (base camp is 4200′ elevation, in the rolling grassland foothills of the Santa Rita Mountains, just north of the town of Sonoita in southern AZ) and the fun mix of trails. Camp is located within the Las Cienegas National Conservation Area, and the camp itself is the old airstrip from the historic Empire Ranch.
The ride is a 3-day Pioneer ride on Friday, Saturday, and Sunday, offering distances of 55/30, 50/25, and 50/25, plus intro rides each day. After consulting with one of the ride managers, I had opted to ride the 50 on Saturday, as it was one of the days that involved riding out under the highway and to the Arizona Trail, and is some of the prettiest scenery (and would be slightly easier, and 5 miles shorter, than Friday’s ride). I did drive down early, though, as I wanted the “safety in numbers” travel caravan, and all of my potential travel buddies were heading down Thursday. It ended up being very relaxing to have the extra day in camp, especially because I brought the dogs with me, so that gave me some extra time to make sure they were settled and set for the weekend.
It’s not a long drive — maybe two and a half hours from the barn — and I pulled into camp just shortly before noon, finding a nice open spot close by to a water trough and not far from the check in and vetting area. I spent the rest of the afternoon getting camp set up, transforming the trailer into my kitchen, tack room, and dog hang-out area, and the back of the Suburban into sleeping quarters.
This was my first time juggling the three-ring circus — taking my own horse and my dogs to a ride together. I’ve taken Liberty to a ride, and I’ve taken the dogs to a ride I was volunteering at, and I’ve taken them all camping together, but taking them to a ride while I was going to be riding would be a first. (Although it was old hat for Sofie, who spent the years before I got her on the road with other endurance riders, so she knew the routine and seemed to be happy to be back in ride camp.) Having that extra set-up and downtime day made all the difference though and made for a much more settled time and not feeling rushed. And Liberty was happy to chill out, tied to the trailer, munching her way through her hay manger and going for walks around camp.
Friday morning was chilly, and the breeze just kept increasing, eventually reaching about 25mph steady winds with 35mph gusts. The pups and I chilled out and watched riders out of day one coming in and out of camp, and I got stuff ready to go for the next day, then finally gathered up Liberty and headed over to vet in. She had been totally chill and zen this whole time, until we went to vet in, and then she woke up and seemed to realize we were at an endurance ride. No problem with movement and impulsion scores for her trot-out. (I may have mentioned, “F for attitude” to the vet, after I had to remind Liberty that she does have ground manners and does have to follow them.)
From there, we headed out for a short pre-ride with a friend. She was pretty wound up, especially when we turned around to head back to camp, and wanted to jig the whole way. That’s a habit I really don’t want her to learn, so we did a lot of circling, and weaving around little bushes, and working on keeping the marbles between the ears. Not awesome, but given she is fit, fresh, and it was really, really windy out, I can’t say a whole lot, and while she was sassy and snorty, she was never stupid.
All day long, I had been watching Saturday’s weather report, which was calling for temperatures to drop further, and for snow flurries to move in overnight and into the morning. Maybe I should have pulled my stuff together better Thursday and ridden Friday’s ride after all…but a little late for that now. I’ve ridden in all kinds of wet, crappy conditions before, and a few snow flurries might actually be better than some of the rain-drenched rides I’ve done. (Little did I know…as everyone from actual snow climates laughs.)
Ride briefing was quick, going over the day one finishers, and a short overview of the next day’s trails. There would be three loops of 26, 14, and 10 miles, with two 45-minute holds in-between.
It was definitely cold again overnight, and I was having a hard time staying warm in my sleep set-up in the suburban, even with my furry furnaces tucked in with me. I had the great idea of setting up an air mattress in the back for more cushion…unfortunately in that kind of weather, it turns into sleeping on a cushion of freezing air, so I had a hard time getting warm no matter how many top layers of blankets I piled on (had a couple of bedsheets and blanket between me and the mattress but that apparently wasn’t enough). So I’ll be investigating the solid foam type of cushion/mattresses as the next option for sleeping arrangements…although the air mattress will still work for any time it’s not below-freezing temperatures.
Saturday morning, I did the “wake up and crank the engine on and blast the heater for a few minutes” routine before poking my head outside, only to be greeted with the sight of white, fluffy stuff accumulating on the ground. Ohhh-kay. Guess the weather report was actually accurate. I was grateful for the fact I had thrown a couple pairs of winter tights in my bag — not because I planned to ride in them, since normally they’re overkill for riding, but more as an option for around camp and after the ride. However, my wardrobe plans for the day rapidly changed, and I ended up in a pair of Bare Equestrian winter tights (they were the surprising standout hit of the weekend, because although they’re thin, the lining is dense and my legs stayed very comfortable), and multiple thin top layers, alternating between wool and polyester options (wool tank, l/s poly long underwear top, wool l/s quarter-zip, puffy synthetic down vest, all topped with a softshell jacket). Fortunately, I had also tossed in a pair of winter riding gloves (again, for around camp in the evening), a thin ear muff headband, and multiple Buff-style neck tubes. All of these would get put into play.
It really was just light flurries at this point, so I figured the weather would be right — a few hours of this and then it would clear off. I tossed Libby some more grass hay for her to work on while I put her boots on, then got my own coffee going and breakfast for the dogs and myself before taking the pups out. They were more than happy to take care of business and then jump back in the (comparably) warmer truck. Did my own coffee/breakfast thing, got Liberty saddled (debated about a rump rug, initially put it on, then took it off after contemplating the formula of wind + cold + snow + fresh, fit Arab who has never worn a rump rug before may not be the best recipe for a successful start…), took the dogs out one more time, then got them settled in for the morning. Got Liberty bridled, walked over to check-in for the start, let her bounce around me in a few lunge circles, eventually hopped on her via a handy mounting block, and walked around the start area. She didn’t want to walk nicely — doing sideways movements, bit of bouncing, but I kept her moving around, telling her off a few times for acting like a child, and in general was fairly impressed with myself and how unreactive I was to her antics. Fortuantely there was only a few minutes of that before the controlled start and we walked out of camp. Well, sort of walked, sort of slow-trotted.
We started pretty much middle of the pack and cruised along in a group for the first several miles. The snow was starting to fall a little heavier now, and it was a bit surreal trotting along through the snow, watching it land on Libby’s black mane, or trying to brush it off the front of my saddle as it started to accumulate. My thoughts at this point were mostly, “I hope it doesn’t accumulate too much and then all melt, because then I’ll be soggy the rest of the loop.”
Something to know about the Old Pueblo ride is there are a lot of gates on the trails. A lot. Some are ranch-style barbed wire, others are trail-type designed to be potentially able to be opened on horseback. (Mimi spoiled me in the past at this ride. I could fly through this section on her because all of the gates, I could open and close from her back. Liberty isn’t quite gate-trained yet and doesn’t understand exactly what I want her to do, so that’s something we will be working on. I ended up being fortunate enough to be with someone through a number of the crossings, but still ended up dismounting a good half a dozen times.) Just on the first 26-mile loop, I think there were at least a dozen gates, possibly a few more. The gates start within a few miles out of camp, and it quickly ends up spreading the field out. About five and half miles out of camp, the trail crosses under the highway via a concrete tunnel. Large enough to take a horse through, but it’s highly recommended to get off and walk the horse through, because the ceiling of it is low. No idea if Liberty had ever been through a tunnel before, but she followed the horse in front of us right through with no fuss.
Shortly after the tunnel, I wasn’t thrilled with the pace — Liberty was rather hooked in to the horses in front of and behind us and wanting to go at a speed faster than I wanted, so I worked on getting her to back off and get our own space bubble. What ensued was several miles of negotiations, with me wanting her to do her easy, comfortable trot, and her wanting to rush ahead at Mach 10 through the twisting, turning, up and down single track of the Arizona Trail we were currently on. After a few miles of asking politely, and her pretending she had no idea what I was talking about, I finally had to look for a more open wash area that was large enough to pull her off the trail, where we did a few overly dramatic spins that gradually softened down to circles before she settled and the marbles came back between the ears. From there, I made her walk until I could feel her attention come back to me and not what was on the trail in front of us. (And to think, I was originally concerned that she might not have the “go” or desire to be a good endurance horse.)
The next half a dozen miles or so, we were by ourselves. It was still snowing, and while it was annoying/frustrating to have the snow blown into my eyes when we went through windy areas (I didn’t know I needed to add ski goggles to my packing list), when we were in sheltered areas, the snow was falling softly, and it was so quiet and magical out there. Now, obviously, being a native Arizona desert rat, my experience with snow is very limited. Especially when it comes to riding. As in, “well, this is a first.” Liberty grew up in and came from the northwest part of the state, which is considered high desert and occasionally gets a mild dusting of snow that blows through, but nothing that would likely give her true experience for riding in the stuff.
One of the trickier aspects was that there was enough snow sticking that it was covering the rocks that I knew were underfoot. It had been eight years since I’d done this ride, and the snow was making everything look different, but I had a general idea of where we were and that it was an area with some rocks. (This is Arizona. There isn’t a single ride here that doesn’t involve some level of rocks.) To that end, we navigated carefully. Liberty picked her way down the hills, and seemed to be trying to follow the hoofprints of those in front of us, which had cleared off enough of the snow to provide a bit of a visible path in many areas. The snow was wet, heavy, and coming down in large flakes, so it was doing a good job caking to my jacket, helmet, saddle…the whole thing felt surreal. Surprisingly, I overall wasn’t too cold. My multiple layers were doing a good job keeping me mostly dry, and my core was nice and toasty, and we just kept moving forward, not giving either of us a chance to stop and get chilled.
We came into the checkpoint and water stop at Rosemont Junction at about 13 miles, paused just long enough to let her drink, and kept moving. The trail at this point was really nice double-track service road, the footing was good, and nothing felt like it was slick or icy. One of my main concerns was just not knowing how the boots would do in the snow, and if they would end up being really slick or not. I had friends who live in actually snowy places send me photo evidence of riding in the snow and ice in their Renegades, so I knew it had been done…but it’s one thing to hear about someone else doing it and another to be the one experiencing it myself. But so far, so good.
We had a few more miles of winding along the service road at the base of the canyon, and staying relatively sheltered from the worst of the wind, but eventually the trail turned out of the canyon and started heading up into rolling hills. The wind increased, the soft snow turned into much harder ice/snow mix, and conditions rapidly deteriorated. Around this time, I could feel Liberty start questioning my sanity, especially since we hadn’t seen any other signs of life out there, aside from a random lone cow alongside the road a couple miles back. Fortunately for both of us, within a few minutes, a couple of other riders caught up with us and we were able to tuck in with them as a small group. I knew both riders, and both hailed from areas that actually knew how to better deal with the weather conditions and what to watch out for when it came to potentially tricky footing areas, and had no problem with me tagging along behind.
We set a pretty smart pace heading back. The first loop ends up being a lollipop loop that follows the same 6-ish miles from the morning back into camp. Liberty is a homing pigeon extraordinaire, even on trails she’s never been on, and as soon as the internal compass pointed even vaguely back towards “due trailer” so was full of all kinds of enthusiasm again. At this point, there were four of us riding together and I learned that she doesn’t necessarily love being in the middle of a pack with certain horses behind her. Doesn’t happen all the time, but every so often, especially if there’s a horse in front of her, certain horses behind her will get her trying to spurt or rush forward. That was happening a little bit here and there at this point, so I alternated moving her to the back of the group, or riding side by side, and I was pleasantly surprised by how settled she was even at the back of the pack. Mimi has always hated being anywhere other than in the lead, and riding her in a group was always a nightmare for me. So having this one be perfectly happy to maintain an appropriate space bubble and not tailgate the other horses was sooo nice.
The snow had started to taper off by this point, and the sky was lightening up a bit as the sun made a valiant effort to try to start peeking through. Back through the highway tunnel, the snow continuing to taper, and the ground quickly turning from white back to brown as things started to melt. The last few miles into camp were a ton of fun. I alternated letting Liberty trot and canter, because her canter is only a touch faster than her trot, and she does it so naturally and comfortably, and stays on a loose rein. I’d just as soon she not do a big trot, although a few times she did sneak up the speed and show she has the capability…but a rolling, collected canter seems a lot easier than the big, booming trot, as well as being very aerobically efficient. It’s also a really nice break for me, because her canter is so comfortable. I can easily sit it, and she naturally self-rates on a loose rein (my mind is blown, I didn’t actually think such a unicorn existed), and I am just so dang excited over the whole idea because I’ve never really ridden a horse like this.
We cruised back into camp, walking the last bit in, and I hopped off right at the edge of camp at the water trough and loosened her girth and removed her bit while she drank. She was pulsed down as soon as we went over to the pulse-taker, and as I was getting ready to get in the vet line, my Camp Angel (aka Marcelle Hughes, maker of the best True Grit Endurance Outfitters saddle packs, and my camp neighbor for the weekend) came swooping in, grabbed my bridle, and offered up her and her husband Bill’s help for anything I might need. I got Liberty vetted through (B on guts, not surprising after 26 miles with not much out there to munch on, but all As everywhere else and a 52/52 CRI) and back at the trailer, Bill and Marcelle got her bundled into some blankets and installed in front of her food, then took the dogs out while I sorted out a change of dry clothes, then Marcelle whisked me (and the dogs) off to their warm trailer, where a hot lunch and hot beverages of choice awaited.
That was the absolute lifesaver of the entire weekend. It was only a 45-minute hold, and there is no way I would have been able to do everything I needed to do in that time period. Being able to sit and change into dry clothes in a warm trailer, and down a hot bowl of delicious homemade venison stew and hot coffee made all the difference in the world, and I was feeling comfortably warm and toasty. Marcelle also came to my rescue with a dry rump rug (after the one I left in camp that morning had gotten soaked from sitting under the open slats of the trailer), more electrolytes after I discovered the premade tubes I was carrying on the saddle had practically frozen and were nearly impossible to dose Liberty with (and thus enabled her to spit out what I could get into her), and making a last-second fix to one of the sides of my packs after the velcro I was using to attach it decided to fail. All my years of crewing came back to repay me in the best way possible this weekend, and I am so, so grateful for it.
We headed out on loop two (14 miles) and immediately out of camp were joined by my friend Jen. (She was one of the riders I had joined up with on loop one to get through the snow, and have known her going back a number of years in endurance, as she used to live near me and we would occasionally ride together. Then she moved a few hours away and I don’t get to see her as often, so it was really fun to get the chance to ride together and catch up.) Her gelding and Liberty paced well together, and company made this loop, which featured a lot more rocky, double-track road, a lot more interesting. The snow had totally cleared off by this point, and the sun was out (so was the wind), and all the snow had melted, leaving behind perfect footing — enough to tamp down the dust, but not enough to create mud.
We leapfrogged leading through this loop, with a lot of areas of road to be able to let them move out (more short sections of centering here and there for Liberty, which I loved). At this point, I think she realized she was out on the trail for further than she had ever been, because although she had done a decent job of drinking on the first loop (especially given the conditions, but not as good as I know she is capable of), she went into hyperactive self-care mode on this loop, drinking like a fish from every water stop or water source we came across, and grabbing as much dry grass as she could whenever it was available.
Coming in off loop two, she took a little bit longer to pulse down than off loop one, but was at 60 within a few minutes, and we headed over to vet. She got all A’s, but the vet wasn’t happy with her CRI — 60/68, and she said her heart rate on the return sounded a little erratic. Her assessment was likely an electrolyte imbalance, so recommended I get some electrolytes into her, let her go through our hold time, and then do a re-check before going out on loop three.
No problem, I can do that. I really hadn’t gotten much by way of e’lytes into her (basically, one dose at this point, and the stuff I use [EquiLytes] is a fairly mild formula), both due to the weather, and the fact I’m still very much figuring out my e’lyte protocols with Liberty. I’ve not used them very much in the past with Mimi, always erring on the side of caution over giving too many, but in catch riding, found that at least a few of the horses I rode needed a more aggressive protocol, so that introduced me to that whole side of the equation. And I suspect that’s the side Liberty is going to end up coming down on from what I’ve seen so far.
Marcelle, Bill, and my friend Cathy were all around when I came in, and jumped in at various points to help crew (and electrolyte the beast…time to do more molasses-syringe work, because she was horrible to syringe this weekend). I was still warm and dry after this loop, so didn’t need to change, but while the crew got Liberty settled and electrolyted and fed, I took the dogs out, then sat down with the lunch Marcelle put together for me. With a few minutes left on the hold, I got the dogs settled again, got Liberty all ready to go, then we headed over to the vet. Right away, the vet wasn’t thrileld Liberty was still at 60, even after the recovery and down time of the hold, and her CRI was slightly worse on re-check, so after a brief discussion, we decided to pull her.
Back at the trailer, I pulled tack and bundled her into a dry fleece and her heavy blanket, then worked on cleaning her up, one section at a time, so I never had to fully remove her blankets. She got a big pile of fresh hay to work on, and got her first poultice wraps. I monitored her heart rate and it bounced up and down for a little while longer, then gradually settled (after talking with a friend, I’ve subsequently realized some of her hanging/erratic pulse also correlated to her being damn cold and shivering, trying to warm up, because once she got warmer (salt/dirt removed from her coat, fully dried off, another fresh fleece) and stopped shivering, her heart rate went back down to normal.
Initially I was bummed, but after enough reflection and feedback, I was able to realize just what a difficult day it had been with the weather, and how hard it is on their systems to deal with the sudden weather shift like that, the extra exertion of moving through the snow and slippery footing, and the extra demands of even trying to stay warm. Not to mention, I’m still figuring her out and going through the learning curve. She’s only my second endurance horse. Catch riding taught me a lot, but most of the time, I was also relying on a lot of owner feedback for individual management needs and quirks for any given horse. Now, it’s on me to be the one to figure out what this horse needs, and sometimes, working through that might not always mean instant success. I also have no idea how lingering the effects of the cough/snotty nose crud she had last month may have been, either. She didn’t cough at all, and nose was totally clear, but she may not have been fully 100% from that quite yet, either. Who knows? I could drive myself crazy and chase my tail in circles all day long, second-guessing everything…or I could recognize this as the fantastic learning experience that it is, figure out the takeaways from it (namely, more electrolytes — smaller, frequent doses, methinks), and move forward from here.
So in the end, I’m super proud of that mare, and what we accomplished that day. She shows me more and more heart every time I ask her for something, and the connection I feel with her is both immense and humbling, and hard to even adequately put into words. She handled the tricky footing and bad weather with no fuss, got her (as far as I know) first introduction to attempts at opening/closing gates from horseback (needs work, but it’s something to build on), went through the highway tunnel (twice!), wore a rump rug for the first time and didn’t care about it flapping or the string under her tail, let me take my jacket on and off at a trot on a loose rein, went the furthest she’s ever gone and was mentally ready to go out for more, and looked fantastic again the next day. She never quit, never faltered, and I didn’t have to wear spurs to dissuade her from her balking routine. She handled being in camp ahead of time amazingly well, hoovered her hay all day and night long, drank well, and acted like the endurance horse she was bred to be.
Nothing like a bit of snow, ice, and wind to put stuff to the test…
No issues with anything. I put her boots on in the morning, and didn’t touch them until after we were done for the day. I admit it was a pain doing up the straps at 6 o’clock in the morning in the barely-dawn light, with freezing fingers, trying not to let the velcro shred my skin, and to stuff the ends through the little rubber keepers (a hoofpick helps in this endeavor), but once they were on, I glanced at them during the holds, but they always looked good and I never had to mess with anything. They gave really good traction in the snow (and the mud when everything started melting), and loop two even involved a muddy creek crossing. She was also interfering on the hinds way less at this ride, which I attribute to her getting more fit.
The Rider – Alternating wool/polyester layers on top: wool tank, poly l/s long underwear shirt, wool/poly l/s zip neck, synthetic down vest, all topped with a softshell jacket (loop one); changed into a l/s poly shirt, l/s wool zip neck, softshell jacket, and light Goretex shell (that I constantly removed and put back on) (loop two). All of this stuff is miscellaneous gear gathered over the years, and mostly a lot of running/outdoor type of gear. – Bare Equestrian winter tights (loop one); Ariat winter tights (loop two). The BE were the surprise hit of the weekend. They are thin, but surprisingly dense and warm and slightly compressive. The Ariat tights, not so much. Not very windproof and I was glad it stopped snowing by the time I was wearing them. (Good “normal” AZ winter tights.) – Wool socks – Ariat Terrains (zip-up, waterproof model) – Ariat Terrain Half-Chaps – LAS helmet – Kerrits winter riding gloves (loop one, surprisingly effective); random pair of Roeckl gloves on loop two – various and sundry Buff-style neck tubes
…Her rolling canter swept us over the sandy terrain, wind whispering past my ears, the only sounds her rhythmic snorts in time with her hoofbeats skimming over the ground. Worries, anxieties, politics, drama, the mess that most of 2020 has been…all seemed a world away as I thought of nothing but being in that moment, totally in tune with my magnificent, brave war mare...
I first met Liberty in April of 2013. She belonged to my bosses at Renegade Hoof Boots, Kirt and Gina Lander. She had been specifically bred by them to be an endurance horse (her Shagya Arabian sire Janos was a 100-mile endurance horse in the USA before being exported to Japan and her dam is a racebred [SW Dawid and Kontiki], track-proven Arabian), and at the time, was a coming 7-yr-old. Gina brought her to the Prescott Chaparral ride for me to catch-ride in the LD alongside her and her Kiger Mustang. We took it slow and steady, but finished the ride with about 15 minutes to spare, and had a fabulous day. My first time climbing on her back was about 10 minutes before the ride start, and from the second my butt hit the saddle, I knew.
I experienced the same click with her that I had with Mimi, so many years ago. I’d ridden a lot of horses between those times, and she was the first horse since Mimi to have that same kind of instant connection. Despite her inexperience, I trusted her immediately, and she went on to prove that trust wasn’t misplaced that day. She showed me then that she was brave, smart, self-preserving, and had heart. As we were making our way back to camp to finish the ride, we were leading through a large sand wash. We were in the lead, her strides comfortably carrying us a distance out in front of her short-striding mustang buddy, and in that moment, I never felt so connected, so one, with a horse. She effortlessly skimmed across the sand in the most gloriously smooth trot I had ever felt, mane blowing back in my face, locked on the trail and moving forward but still in tune with me on her back. To this day, that moment still gives me chills, knowing how connected we were.
At the end of the weekend, we went our separate ways, Liberty back to the Kingman ranch and myself back to suburbia, but with plans for Gina to bring the horses to as many of the AZ rides as we could manage in the foreseeable future.
Before this goes much further, I have to interrupt with a bit of relevant backstory. Just because I connected so well with Mimi right away didn’t mean it was all rainbow-farting unicorns from thereon out. The complete opposite, in fact. We had a delightful first show together, garnering several blue ribbons…and then it went straight downhill from there, with an opportunistic young pony trying to figure out just how much advantage she could take of her young, small, not-very-brave rider, and it took us a couple of years to fully pull ourselves together and once again present a unified front to the world.
Well, history repeats itself. The next several outing with Liberty were rather unspectacular failures. The Bumble Bee ride in 2014 saw us coming in overtime, a combination of “rider (me) couldn’t get her crap together in the morning and so left out of camp late,” some young horse brain training moments (quite a few of those — she didn’t want to follow her riding buddy without crow-hopping, but she also wasn’t feeling brave enough to lead), and some equipment malfunctions of the boot variety with Gina’s horse. I added up all the lost time, and it came up to pretty much the amount of time we were over. Ah, well. Chalk that up to a learning experience, and a good training ride.
2015 was a wash for me when my truck went down for the count, so 2016 was the next time we paired off, once again at Bumble Bee. This time, still cognizant of our overtime pull, we left camp right with the pack and hit the trail right on time, and she wasn’t nearly as inclined to do happy feet antics that required stopping to sort out the brain. Not wanting to get caught on time, I set a smart pace, and was really impressed with how she responded. For her size, she is very agile and athletic, and can accordion herself up and zip through some very technical terrain almost as well as the go-kart pony, so we covered ground and made some good time on the Black Canyon Trail singletrack portion of the course. Unfortunately, I think the pace was probably a little more than what she was conditioned for, though, because as we were coming into camp off the loop, she was startled and spooked from behind, popping up and landing pretty hard, and then was subsequently off on the hind when vetting. Whatever it was turned out to be minor, since she was totally sound the next day, and I still don’t know the exact cause, whether she did the equine equivalent of stepping off the curb and rolling her ankle, or a cramp in already-tired muscles from the sudden jolting movement.
We took a shot at redemption the following month at the newly-resurrected Wickenburg Land of the Sun ride, and right from the get-go, the weekend was a bit of a comedy of errors, starting with her stepping on me during our trot-out and moving on to equipment challenges (boots and headgear), mystery lamenesses (she started head bobbing at the trot and it turned out her front boots had gotten filled with sand and the captivators were super-tight and making her uncomfortable, so pulled them off, only to have Yankee crowd her and step on one of her hinds, leaving her hopping and leg flailing for several strides, so off the hind boots went, leaving her totally barefoot but sound), then Yankee fell over on a rock pile and got some thorns in his knee and fetlock, so Gina decided to walk him in and send us ahead…which was its own comedy routine right there, in which I could get Liberty to trot few hundred feet before she realized, “I’m leaving my buddy…not!” and slam on the brakes until he came in sight again, then would trot off again. Lather, rinse, repeat, until we finally were able to catch a tow from some friends on the 50, and then from there I was able to keep her rolling. But all of that added up, once again, to a ton of lost time, and although she put in a valiant effort on the second loop to make up the time, and I was really overall impressed with how brave she was by herself, we were never able to make up the time, especially given the trail wasn’t particularly conducive to productive moving out.
After that, I was feeling pretty discouraged with endurance in general, and specifically with Liberty. She might have been bred for endurance, but maybe she didn’t get the memo. I felt like a failure, like I had no business doing endurance, and the next couple of years yielded a few ups and quite a few more downs with ride finishes and attempts. It wasn’t until riding Flash at Bumble Bee in 2018 that I started to get my confidence back, and the ultimately four rides I ended up doing with him did more for me than any other horse I’ve ridden in endurance. He gave me courage and confidence, and taught me so much in a short period of time. What I didn’t realize at the time was how much what he was teaching me would end up carrying forward.
Because as it turns out, Flash and Liberty are a lot alike. They are both strong, dominant, proud, opinionated horses who want a partnership with their rider, with respect given to their input and opinions, and who want their rider to trust them. Liberty is the epitome of “discuss it with a mare,” and Flash is definitely not one of those gelding whom you “tell” anything. The time I spent riding Flash taught me a different way to approach horses — to not micromanage so much, and to let go and trust them more. I was definitely guilty of micromanaging Liberty (and most of the horses I’ve ridden) in the past. Some of that, to some degree, was necessary due to young horse brain needing guidance, but I got away with it because I interacted with her for such short time periods. When she became mine, that interaction changed to a lot more frequency, and her independent and strong mind isn’t happy under that kind of micro-managing pressure. But the more time I’ve spent with Liberty, the more readily apparent the similarities in personalities and dispositions became, and it really made me shift my approach with her, and I think we’ve both been overall the better for it.
With that sort of long history and a bit of baggage still hanging on, it’s probably understandable that I approached the weekend with some trepidation. While I had surmised that some of our past failures were due to the fact Liberty really hadn’t been in that fantastic of a shape other than “pasture shape,” and I had diligently been putting in both the conditioning miles and arena schooling on her since July, and she was coming off training rides feeling good…it remained to be seen just how things would come together and shake out at an actual ride again.
Given that it was (and is still) 2020, I was also holding my breath on even getting to the ride, since none of my ride plans this season had gone according to plan. Even up through Wednesday before the ride, I was fairly blase about the whole thing, and then Thursday morning I finally kicked it into gear and started pulling all my stuff together and packing.
With ridecamp only an hour and fifteen minutes away from the barn, it meant I didn’t have to roll out the door at o’dark-thirty in the morning, and instead could wait for the worst of the morning traffic to clear before hitting the road. A new portion of freeway made for much smoother and faster travel, shaving a solid 30 minutes off the typical trip out to Estrella Mountain Park, and I pulled into camp shortly after noon. I found a nice parking spot pretty centrally located to everything and across from a friend’s rig I recognized, got Liberty unloaded, started walking around camp, and had to pinch myself.
It had been over ten years since I had been to an endurance ride with my own rig, and my own horse. I retired Mimi in early spring of 2010, and since then, all of my endurance rides had been catch rides. It seemed surreal, and I had to keep reminding myself, “Yep, that’s my little trailer. Yep, this is my mare that is loudly bellowing her way through camp and announcing her presence to the world.” :) I was the one in the driver’s seat, the responsibility was on my shoulders now. And I couldn’t wait.
I had arrived with plenty of time to get camp all set up and get Liberty settled by the time the vets started to arrive, and I quickly got myself checked in, visited with some friends, and got Liberty brushed and booted for vetting in. She still doesn’t love having her mouth handled, but she was much better than in the past, and her trot-out was picture perfect, even earning a “beautiful trot-out” comment from the vet. (I’ve worked with her on this every single time I ride. We end every session, whether it’s a conditioning ride or arena school, with an in-hand trot-out, and consequently, she is learning beautiful manners and consistency.)
I debated on pre-riding that afternoon but ultimately decided it would probably be a good idea to saddle up (she was already booted anyway) and go out for a stretch and make sure all of our tack was in order and that the marbles were still firmly tucked inside her skull…especially since she hadn’t been ridden for about a week and half. She was a little bit squirmy for mounting, but once I was aboard she was pretty settled, only tossing in a few prancey-jiggy steps as we headed out of camp, but once on the trail she got right down to business. We warmed up for a few minutes, then I let her start slow trotting where it was appropriate, slowly bleeding off some of her energy, but mostly we walked, enjoying each other’s company and the peace and quiet of the Sonoran Desert in the late afternoon.
This was also the first time I’d taken her out by herself since I brought her home. Theoretically I knew she could do it — Gina had ridden her frequently by herself, and we did a good part of the Wickenburg ride by ourselves — but I hadn’t let myself be brave enough to try it until at the ride. And she blew me away. She was brave, curious, confident, settled, and I myself was totally comfortable and felt completely safe. I felt like we had been riding together for years, rather than a few months and a handful of prior moments. And the fact she can sit for a week and half and still be totally sane and not a fire-breathing dragon speaks volumes for her good brain.
Back at camp, I spent some more time visiting and catching up with friends I hadn’t seen for quite a while, then got Liberty tucked in for the night and fed. The inside of the trailer was set up as my nifty little feed and storage room — tack in one area, horse feed on one wall, human food & “kitchen” set-up on the other. It worked quite well and was a very efficient and convenient little set-up to work out of. Liberty quickly learned from whence food was dispensed, and proceeded to watch me through the trailer slats every time I went in there, in the hopes of procuring more goodies for herself.
With the bottomless pit of a mare taken care of for the evening, I made my own dinner, spent some more time visiting with friends and socializing, then finally tucked myself into my cozy nest made in the back of the suburban. An air mattress, sleeping bag, and fleece blankets make for a comfortable set-up that is out of the elements and pretty quiet, and the only downside is I can’t stand up to put my pants on in the morning…but that’s really the only con, and it definitely beats dealing with a tent.
Sleep actually came pretty easily for me for a pre-ride night, and I was up on my own a few minutes before my alarm went off at 5. Start time for the LD wasn’t until 8am, but I really don’t like being rushed in the morning, and this allowed me plenty of time to get up, get Liberty her breakfast and clean up after her, get my own coffee, then retreat back to the suburban and crank the heater on and get dressed once it was nice and toasty inside.
Historically, Liberty has been well-behaved for things like tacking up. Right from the get-go she impressed me with not being a squirmy young wiggle worm, and that good behavior has continued ever since, and improved in the department of booting and hind hoof handling the more I’ve done with her. The 50-milers started to gather, and then leave camp, but while she was curious about what was happening, she still stayed very calm and continued to munch her way through her breakfast hay while I started to tack her up. I had left myself plenty of time, so wasn’t rushed at all, and finally, with about 20 minutes to go before our own ride start, I started hand-walking her around camp to warm up. She was starting to get a bit more ‘up’ at this point — I think she knew it was our turn to head out – but she remained polite on the ground while we walked and visited with some people. It took a few minutes to get her settled enough to mount, but a very cross words had her standing quietly enough by the trailer fender for me to climb aboard, and to her credit, once I was in the saddle she was calm and polite…just wanted to move her feet.
The first part of the ride start is a controlled start down a paved road, which gave us a built-in warm-up, so I didn’t spend too much time in camp with a rigorous warm-up program. Doing too many circles around where everyone was starting to gather was making her brain a little bit fizzy, and she was calmer just by standing and watching.
We headed out in about the middle of the pack at the start, and aside from a couple of attempted little jigging steps that were quickly dissuaded with some light rein taps, she was content to stride out at a nice walk the entire controlled start. Once we reached the actual trail, people started slowly spreading out, but almost immediately, the trail starts climbing, gaining several hundred feet in elevation in under half a mile, so a great way to chill out a horse who might be a bit overenthusiastic.
Photographers Sue and John Kordish were set up at the top of the climb, waiting for riders to start coming by.
What goes up must come down, so as soon as we rounded the high point of the climb, we started down the other side, back to the valley floor and onward to the main part of the park trails. I have no clue if Liberty has ever been on true switchbacks before. She was very curious and a bit befuddled about the fact there were horses below her, traveling in the opposite direction, with no readily visible way to explain how they got down there. However, as soon as we turned the corner and started down the lower switchback, she seemed to make the connection. A couple glances up at the horses still above us satisfied the rest of her curiosity, and from that point on, I think she “got” switchbacks.
She was strong and forward, but rateable. There were plenty of horses in front of us, but she listened to my requests to keep the speed down and not do the big trot she seemed so eager to show off. We got passed by some of the front-running 50s, and I was so pleased with how she handled calmly moving off the trail and letting them zip by us. Again, she would have happily followed on their heels if I had let her, but she listened to my requests and kept trucking along at a steady, ground-covering trot.
At previous rides, I have called her a soft and easy ride. She didn’t pull, and sort of just strolled along at an easy trot. Not particularly fast, but a soft little dib-dib-dib that was easy to sit and could be ridden all day. Well, I’m inclined to think the “softness” was due in large part to her overall body softness and lack of fitness, because this time around, I felt like I had a ton more horse under me, with a lot more power and strength than I had previously felt. She wasn’t being obnoxious about it, and was very responsive to half-halts and would sensibly slow her pace for rough sections, but there was a level of keenness and enthusiasm there that tickled me to no end. She also seemed very relaxed out there by ourselves. Competitive, and very aware there were other horses in front of her, but no anxiety or nerves, and very mentally solid.
There’s a certain section of one of the trails that is probably one of my favorites to ride. Not because it’s super-scenic, or an amazing piece of trailwork, but because it is one of the best cantering trails I’ve ever seen. Totally flat, straight, slightly sandy footing. Two years ago, when Flash and I cantered through this section, I felt like I had been transported to another world. It was another one of those moments of feeling perfectly connected with a horse, and a memory I’ll hold onto for life.
I haven’t done a ton of cantering with Liberty. Pretty much none in the arena, because she’s not exactly polished at it yet and I feel like I need a little more elbow space to work with her on it than what the barn arena gives. The last couple of rides out, I’ve started incorporating some small stretches of canter work in good footing. I know she loves it — the canter is her preferred gait around the pasture, and she seems to naturally and comfortably pick it up.
Now seemed as good of a time as any to see what I had to work with, given that she was mentally engaged and very relaxed and settled. I settled myself in the saddle, shoved away the mental uncertainties that always try to pop up whenever I go to pick up the speed, kissed and cued, and after a couple of faster trot strides, she rolled right over into a beautiful canter. She is, hands down, the easiest horse I have ever cantered. She is smooth, and although she’s strong, she collects up beautifully, where I can actually sit down in the saddle, ride with contact, put leg on her, and drive her forward and up into the bridle. Most horses, I have a hard time riding a relaxed canter. They’re either rough enough that it’s not very comfortable, or fast enough that it’s just easier to two-point. Gets you somewhere quickly, but not particularly relaxing, and I always feel way more vulnerable at a canter to either shenanigans or not being able to stay with a sudden shy at speed. In this case, the fact I was able to sit and keep such a strong leg on her meant I felt super secure and stable, even moreso than when she moves into a faster trot. She is also the kind of horse who locks onto the trail and gets even more focused the faster you go, so things that she had been peeking at when we were trotting along (barrel cactus, dead ocotillo, large rocks) didn’t even warrant a side glance at the canter.
Her rolling canter swept us over the sandy terrain, wind whispering past my ears, the only sounds her rhythmic snorts in time with her hoofbeats skimming over the ground. Worries, anxieties, politics, drama, the mess that most of 2020 has been…all seemed a world away as I thought of nothing but being in that moment, totally in tune with my magnificent, brave war mare. All too soon, my internal odometer pinged at me to dial it back down again and to not exceed what she had been conditioned for, but it didn’t matter. Once again, I had forged one of those amazing connection moments, that no matter how the rest of the day went, we had experienced a few moments of perfect partnership.
Liberty continued to impress me with her brain — even adding canter to the repertoire, she still maintained her eager but pleasant forwardness, happy to come back to a trot when asked. We interspersed a few more brief canter stretches until we reached the first checkpoint and water stop at 8 miles. There, she drank, and ate some hay, while I shed my first outer layer.
We had made really good time for that first 8 miles, taking advantage of the fact that it was overall some of the better footing for the day. I was pretty shocked, actually — I had been anticipating our usual “back of the pack shuffle” from previous rides, so operating well within a very comfortable time margin was a very pleasant surprise.
The next 6 miles looped out from the checkpoint in a clockwise loop, first heading in a direction that was vaguely towards camp, and then at the apex of the loop heading directly away. It was hard to make consistent time through this section — there were smooth sections, followed by rough, rocky patches, so we did quite a bit of “trot-trot-trot” followed by “and walk this.” Smart mare started catching on pretty quick, especially after a few “discussion” moments when she thought we might trot through some of the crappy sections, and caught a toe for her troubles. A few cross words later to enforce the idea that we would not be face-planting, and she started slowing down in the rough stuff on her own.
Which was great until it started working a little too well. The bottom of the loop goes along a very flat, very boring, somewhat deep sandy double-track road. It’s deep enough that I was navigating it fairly carefully — we’ve been slowly adding sand conditioning into the repertoire, but a little bit at a time, and not enough to go blasting through the deep stuff for any kind of sustained distance or speed. And it was at this point Liberty had to put her two cents in, hitting the brakes as soon as we came upon a slightly rocky section. She did this a couple of times before I figured out that maybe this was some mental mutiny on her part. We were going further away from camp with every step, and based on how she kept diving for the crispy shrubbery on the side of the trail, she thought she was starving, despite the few minutes of snacking at the check point.
But if there’s something I have learned in recent years, it’s “pick your battles.” And don’t micromanage. She’s a strong-minded, opinionated horse who is very much into seeing things be a partnership versus dictatorship. Which horse taught me about that previously? Oh, yes, that would be Flash. Whom she was reminding me of more and more by the minute as the weekend progressed.
With that in mind, and not wanting to mentally sour her, I opted to turn this section of the course into “mental downtime.” She got to pick the pace. For a few minutes, that meant walking, snatching at some of the dry bushes on the side of the trail, and giving the stink eye to some dead cactus. After a few minutes, she offered to trot, so I let her trot a bit,then asked her to walk again before she stopped. We continued down the couple of miles of road this way, and then when the trail abruptly turned off the road to head back to the checkpoint, she miraculously perked back up again and we were back to negotiating to keep to a not-mach-12 trot.
I suspect this may be where some of her inexperience is showing through, in terms of hitting mental walls — she was probably convinced I had taken her out to the desert all by herself and all of her new friends had abandoned her, since we had done such a good job of finding a space bubble for ourselves that we didn’t run into anyone else out there on that loop aside from riding out for the first few minutes from the check with one of the front-running 50’s, who had then gone on to step up to a much faster pace than what we were going.
But that’s how she learns is by doing and by being out there. We reached the checkpoint once again (14 miles in now), and she drank really well, then settled in to munch on some day. She is so very food motivated, so I figured spending a few minutes letting her eat now would do wonders for her mental outlook. We also had a couple other horses come into the checkpoint while we were there, so she got the mental reassurance that we weren’t, in fact, all alone out there. It took a little bit of persuading to get her to leave the other horses (or maybe it was the food?) but we were only 5 miles away from the vet check and 45-minute hold where she could eat her way through the entire time is she so desired.
Back out on trail, we were following the same tracks we had originally come into the checkpoint on, and she needed no extra encouragement to motor along. We did a few more short canter segments through the beautiful flat straightaway section, had a brief exchange of opinions when the trail to the vet check turned off the trail from the morning (and therefore away from the direction of camp), but her protests were half-hearted, and more for form than anything. This section was probably the roughest of the whole day, and we did quite a bit of walking through the rough rocks.
About a mile out from the check, management had set out a big trough, and Liberty tanked up really well there. Right about when she was done and couple of other riders caught up to us, and we waited for their horses to finish drinking, then ending up riding the last mile into the check with them.
I hopped off and hand-walked the last little bit into the check and she was below parameters as soon as we arrived — pulsed in at 56 (parameter was 60). Since there wasn’t a line, I went over to vet her through right away, and notice at that point she had busted one of the captivators on a hind boot, and the pastern strap was merrily flopping around back there. Ah, that was the strange flapping noise I had heard a few miles back, but when I glanced at her hooves, nothing had seemed amiss. No matter, I had a spare boot in my vet check bag, as well as on my saddle.
I yanked the offending strap off the rest of the way before heading over to the vet — nothing like loose, flapping pieces of things to make a vet take a second look. She vetted really well — stood politely, looked around for where her new buddies had disappeared to but didn’t holler or get upset, let the vet look at her mouth, and then did a lovely trot-out — and we were pronounced good to go. The hold was 45 minutes, and with vetting right away and not having to wait at all, I now had about 40 minutes of uninterrupted rest time for the mare. I fetched my crew bag, Liberty trailing along behind me, attempting to snatch hay out of the bag on the go, then found a spot to set up. The vet check was in the middle of the main equestrian parking lot at Estrella Mountain Park — a large gravel lot — so it was pretty much a matter of “find your own personal patch of gravel and settle in.”
She started browsing on her hay while I made her a quick sloppy mash, then went to work on that while I did some quick boot swapping. On closer inspection, the pastern strap on the opposite boot was nearly worn through, so I replaced that with the still-good strap from the broken captivator, then replaced that boot with a new one from my crew bag. Taking a look, I could see she had been doing some side-to-side interfering, and had also nicked her inside fetlock. So it’ll be interference boots on the hinds for sure on her, and time to do some investigating via bodywork and trimming as to why she’s interfering. I had run her a little long on her trim, because it was so rocky, in the hopes it would give her a little extra protection, but I wonder if that wasn’t enough to tip her over into interference territory.
Once the mare was all squared away, I took a few minutes to sit down and enjoy my own PB&J sandwich and iced coffee. I had been pretty actively riding for much of the past 19 miles, and the only downtime I really took to eat and drink along the way was at the checkpoint stops, so it felt good to take a bit of time to refuel and rehydrate.
The time went by pretty quickly, and before I knew it, I was down to the last few vet check tasks before heading to the out-timer — wrap up her fleece cooler, pack up feed, give her a dose of electrolytes, bridle her, and make it over to the out-timer with a minute still left on our hold time, just enough time to mount up and be waiting to go exactly on time. Perfect, just the way I like it.
Liberty happily walked out of the check by herself, even with other horses coming in from the opposite direction. I gave her a few minutes of warm-up, then it was back to picking up the pace, which she was more than happy to do. The ladies that we came into the check with were just a couple minutes behind me, and they caught up and passed me probably a mile or so out of the check. They were travelling just a little faster than we were, so I let them go ahead of us, and Liberty again got some really good practice in “riding our own ride.” I was super proud of how she did, and she maintained the pace I asked for, even when she clearly wanted to keep stealthily increasing the speed. But at this point, we had plenty of time to finish, so now my focus was on the latter goal of “finish sound” and really didn’t want an errant misstep to wreck that goal now.
The last 4 or so miles are coming in on the same trail that we went out on in the morning, so the internal compass was fully calibrated to “due camp.” Which also meant going up the same switchback trail we came down. Shortly before climbing the hill, we were passed by a couple more riders, which meant there were several horses above us, and Liberty was very curious again.
As the last big climb/effort of the day, I suggest she might want to walk the climb…? “No, thank you,” she declined, and proceeded to easily trot up the gentle inclines, slowing to a sensible walk around the switchback corners, then picking it up again on the straightaways. This was definitely the most cliffy dropoff trail I’ve taken her on to date and I was totally comfortable trotting along right on the singletrack. She was making me more and more proud of her with each passing moment of the ride.
Photographers John and Sue were still in their respective spots as we came back through, and got some amazing photos again. The photo at the very top of this post is one of them from as we were coming back, and probably my newest favorite ride photo.To date, every ride I’ve done with Liberty, the Kordishes have been the photographers, and every ride, I’ve come back with at least one amazing new favorite photo, and this ride was no exception. I had a really hard time narrowing down which ones to get.
From there, it was just a couple miles back to camp, going down the long climb we had done in the morning — and it rides much nicer going up than going down. It’s too steep to comfortably trot, mounted, but a little too rough and rubbly for me to want to get off and try to jog down without begging for a twisted ankle. There were a couple times I had to tell Liberty we weren’t going to jig down the hill, but for the most part she gave me a really nice walk and covered some good ground. There were water troughs at the bottom of the hill, and she drank really well again there.
On the paved road into camp, I let her do a little bit of trotting, basically a last-second “soundness check” to make sure she still felt good, which she did, and then we moseyed into camp. While I hopped off as soon as we got to camp and hand-walked her in, in hindsight, since we had to go past the trailer to get to the finish area, I could have quickly stripped off her tack and dumped it there. But I didn’t think of it at the time, and just headed straight to the finish.
Her pulse was still a little high for finish parameters, and it took her a few minutes to come down. I got her another drink, but I didn’t really think about pulling tack or sponging, which probably would have helped. We ended up giving up a couple placings at the finish due to her taking a few minutes to come down (but once she did, she dropped like a rock), so I’ll probably need to work on some more aggressive cooling strategies, given that she’s a dark-coated, larger-bodied horse. Anyway, live and learn, but I think we came in somewhere around middle-ish of the pack, and a very respectable 4:36 finish time. We vetted for completion as soon as she was pulsed down, and she finished with all A’s on her card. Even sweeter was two of the vets who were vetting us this weekend knew us from the past and have had the misfortune of pulling us, or seeing our inglorious overtime finishes, so I got some really good kudos from them this weekend on how good Liberty looked, and of course, the best affirmation of all of good vet scores and passing the vet checks with flying colors and an official finish.
Talk about floating on cloud nine. I was so proud of that mare, I could have just burst. The whole ride went even better than I had dared hope. I was after “finish in time, sound, and not have to pedal the horse.” Well, we finished in plenty of time, with a very sound and still very forward horse who was still talking to me at the end. Couldn’t have asked for better, and a much-needed confidence booster after the struggles we’d had at previous rides. I feel like we might have been a slow start, but maybe now is when we hit our stride, and the possibilities start to open up for us.
We headed home later that evening, after giving her a few hours of recovery time (and for me to pack up camp and grab dinner). She looked great coming out of the trailer — it had been warm enough in the afternoon I was able to sponge her down, so she wasn’t a sweaty, gross mess — and dove into her food as soon as she got into the barn. And the next day, I went down to take her compression socks off and she came right up to me in the pasture, looking totally fresh and ready for more. Her back was great, and when the socks came off, her legs looked good, too.
With that solid of a finish, I don’t feel the need to further pursue more LDs with her at this point — we’ll get the mileage via training rides, but I would rather she not get too into the competition mindset of “done after 25.” Long distances are my main goal with her, so I’d like to build the distance on her first, rather than doing more “shorter and faster” competitions. We’ll be setting out sights on a 50 this spring — not sure quite yet which one, we’ll see how winter conditioning progresses.
In the meantime, I’m going to continue to bask in just how absolutely thrilled I am with this mare, and that I finally feel validated for all the years I continued to believe in her, despite the speed bumps along the way.
To be fair, it’s better than some of the years I didn’t get to any rides at all…but even then, there were usually plenty of volunteer opportunities, crewing shenanigans, and overall good spirits to counter the “not according to plan” outcomes along the way.
The new AERC ride season starts Dec 1 (I still don’t know the rationale behind a season that runs Dec 1-Nov 30)…but the calendar year is still 2020, so my approach is a decidedly low bar of expectations, starting with “just getting to the ride,” since the latter half of the season, my plans to get Liberty to a ride got derailed on multiple occasions.
The season started well, with a super-fun LD on Atti at Dashing Through the Trails. And then the wheels promptly fell off the bus at the Tonto Twist 50 where we were pulled for lameness at the finish with what turned out to be the culmination of an ongoing, off-and-on suspensory issue. And thus my spring ride plans went the way of the dodo.
The pups and I volunteered at the Wickenburg ride at the end of the month, doing everything from timing to P&Ring to vet scribing. The AERC Convention managed to happen right on the cusp of the entire world collectively imploding, and then from that point on, the wheels fell off the 2020 bus entirely and there was no more ride season to be had until late fall, when things have slowly, albeit restrictively, started to happen again.
Bringing Liberty home over the summer was a definite highlight of the year, and even though she tosses some challenges my way here and there, bringing her up to condition and working on her training has given me a lot more purpose and motivation in my riding, and having the aspects of “still needs some training” gives me something to focus on and work on even when the competition goals may be a nebulous and ever-moving goalpost, depending on what is actually able to happen or not.
With Mimi, there’s not a lot of training to be done anymore. She knows her job, and really prefers for me to not micromanage her, thankyouverymuch. So arena work isn’t her idea of fun, at all, anymore. Trails or bust.
But I don’t always have time to hitch up and haul out to trails (and the state land by the barn I used to be able to ride just sold off to a homebuilder, so goodbye riding space and hello even more traffic and an endless sea of tile roofs), so sometimes arena riding has to be a thing still, and fortunately, Liberty is in a phase where she benefits from arena work just as much as trail conditioning.
All that said, today is officially the start of a new ride season, and I’m doing a lot of breath holding and finger crossing that it ends up being fun, productive, and above all, sane and normal. Here’s hoping, at least.