Ride Story: Lead-Follow @ McDowell 50 2021

❤️ My 50-mile endurance mare ❤️
photo by Susan Kordish

The spoiler-alert, short version: Third time was a charm for getting Liberty’s first 50-mile completion, and after our learning curve this spring, and re-grouping over the summer, everything came together and we achieved that goal at the Lead-Follow @ McDowell ride. Even with the temperatures soaring up to 90*, we had a textbook ride, and I couldn’t be happier with how our weekend went.

Drama, crises, and problem-solving along the way tend to make the most interesting ride stories, so this one probably won’t be super-interesting on that level, because <knock on wood> this was the smoothest sailing I’ve had at a ride for a bit. To start with, my truck did not need any last-minute mechanic visits, so already things were off to a less-fraught start than last month’s Man Against Horse (although that came together so perfectly, I really have no complaints).

I did decide to do some Renegade Pro-Comp Glue-Ons on Liberty for this ride, on her hinds. She will sometimes interfere and catch herself on her hinds, so I wanted to experiment with the super-streamlined profile of the glue-on shell to see if that made a difference, as well as work on dialing in my gluing technique (for working for a boot company, I’ve done very little gluing over the years) and starting to test some different adhesives. That was probably the most stressful part of the whole weekend, because gluing is rarely a stress-free endeavor. I’m confident in my hoof-prep, but the glue itself can be the unpredictable element, especially since the one I was trying was something totally new, so I didn’t know what to expect.

The whole gluing process went fairly smoothly, although I was less happy with the left hind than the right, since Liberty decided to be squirmy and set that hind hoof down and wiggle around before it was 100% set. So I went in with low expectations, and plans to carry spare strap boots on the saddle. The temperatures also decided to start rising again the week of the ride, after a couple weeks of very pleasant, cooling-off temps…right about the time the ponies all decided to start sprouting true winter coats, so I busted out the clippers again and re-did Liberty’s trace clip I had done a couple weeks prior.

Freshly glued and (re)clipped

I’ve got a pretty good system of various tubs and totes for packing purposes, and most of them stay packed with all my ride gear, so generally all I have to add is my tack, and pack food and clothing for me, then throw everything into the back of the suburban. I’m not a minimalist, so I’ve got everything about as streamlined as it gets while still feeling like I’ve got all the essentials covered. And with half a dozen rides or overnight trips I’ve done with my little rig setup now, I’m feeling like I’ve got everything sorted out and a pretty good system in place.

The McDowell Mountain Park ride camp is local for me, only an hour away from the barn, so I didn’t have to roll out ridiculously early. I do like having plenty of time to relax and set up camp, though, so I was out the barn driveway by 9 and pulling in to camp right around 10. My friend MJ (Liberty’s bestest boyfriend Dreamer’s mom) had saved us a parking spot, so I was able to easily pull in and get ourselves settled and make short work of setting up camp (hay manger filled/hung, water bucket filled, horse tied off). Less than an hour after setting up, though, I started having some concerns. Liberty was in the full sun, and just standing there eating, she was already starting to sweat. After some back-and-forthing in my own head (and I didn’t want to turn the whole rig around and re-park since I had everything all set up already, and it would have faced me downhill for sleeping), I finally decided to move her to the other side of the trailer, which was nicely shaded, as well as being the inside part of the “box” that we had formed with three trailers. It would also mean she would have company other the two other horses on their respective trailers. I don’t have that side of the trailer set up for tying — the spare tire is on that side, for one, and that’s also the side that has the escape door and handle, and I still have a mental carryover from my NATRC days of “look for all the hazards the horse could possibly hang a halter/lead rope on” so I’ve avoided using that side. But my concerns over my dark horse standing and baking herself in the sun all day before the ride, as well as then standing and baking during our vet hold, finally won out (that, and making sure I had a few breakaway points on her tie rope set-up).

Just arrived in camp, checking out one of the water troughs.
Photo by John Kordish

It ended up being a really good decision. She ties so politely and quietly these days, she didn’t even come close to getting into anything, and I was much less worried with her having basically full shade from the trailer during the hottest parts of the day. She also liked having the other horses so close by, and having the trailers surrounding the horses also gave an element of protection and hopefully be a deterrent from any loose horses coming through camp. (Which, to my knowledge, didn’t happen this weekend.)

All settled now. She had a little bit of sun at certain times but was nowhere near her previous baking exposure as she had been on the other side.

I’m not typically used to getting into camp quite so early, so it was a bit of a treat to be able to have things all set up, and be able to sit down and chat and enjoy and relaxed lunch with friends before wandering up to check in and get our vet card. Vetting started a little after 2, and we were in line shortly thereafter, with only a short wait. We vetted in with Dr. Mark Anderson, who is one of our long-time ride vets, and he’s vetted us at a number of our rides…for better or worse, as he’s also been one to pull us a couple of times…but the nice thing about that is he knows us and knows some of our history, so it was a good confidence boost to have him vet us in and be very happy with how Liberty was looking and moving.

She vetted in fabulously, with a really nice, polite trot-out (a rope halter did wonders for reminding her she does have ground manners, and to mind them). We got our butt number and hung around and chatted with some friends for a few minutes, then headed back to the trailer to saddle up for a short pre-ride with friends MJ and Lucian.

We headed out for a couple of miles along the trail we would be starting on in the morning — I wasn’t sure how much daylight there would be at the 6:30am start on the 50, so wanted to get a look at the footing and pre-scout any trail hazards. (As it turned out, we had some nice early dawn light.) Liberty was full of energy and wanted to zoom her way through, especially when we turned around to head back, but she stayed very controllable, and it didn’t take much to get her settled back down to an animated walk. Love her brain, so much. Even when she’s excited, she tries so hard to be good and be responsive.

Ride dinner was held Friday night, just before ride briefing — yummy BBQ, and I could have lived on just the mac-n-cheese alone, it was so delicious. Ride briefing was the usual, and although I haven’t done the 50 at this ride since 2009 (!!! I couldn’t believe it’s been that long, but yep…Nov 2009 with Mimi…) the only real trail changes were some newer single-track trails that the park had installed in the last several years that ran parallel to some of the former sand wash trails, and made for a much nicer ride. I’ve also been conditioning at McDowell a number of times over the summer, so Liberty was familiar with a number of the trails we would be on. Pulse parameter was set at 60, due to the forecast heat, and we would have a one hour vet hold between loops 1 & 2 for the 50.

There was time for a bit of a social hour back at the trailers, one last check on Liberty to top off her hay and water for the night, and then bedtime beckoned. This was the maiden voyage for my new foam mattress, and it passed with flying colors (and hopefully won’t get as cold as the air mattress when the temps drop). As much as I wasn’t looking forward to the heat during the day, the nighttime temperatures were perfectly pleasant, and it was nice to wake up and not have to crank the vehicle heat on, or shiver my way through dressing for the day.

I’ve also gotten my morning ride routine down — crawl out of the truck, start water boiling for coffee, toss Libby some grass hay and a few bites of alfalfa so she thinks she getting “something” for breakfast, clean up her poop, make coffee, crawl back into truck to dress in ride clothes, find something that has some sort of vague appeal for breakfast, work on breakfast in-between getting Libby booted and tacked up, finish breakfast, pack any last-minute saddle snacks, and then mount up ideally with enough time for a 15-20 minute warm-up before the start.

I was really please with how well-behaved Liberty was before the start. She walked around very calmly, only tossing her head and prancing a bit when we would turn away from the starting trail, and settled with just a few light finger taps on the reins. With 19 riders int he 50, there wasn’t a mad-cap rush at the start…the trail is single-track right out of camp, so everyone was very polite and orderly about making their way out onto the course, and after the first 8 or 9 riders headed out, I found a nice little bubble for myself and we were on our way. Liberty picked up a nice working trot, and within a 100 yards out of camp, had settled into her business-like, “let’s do this thing” manner. We passed a couple people, had a space bubble for a couple miles, got passed by a few people, and all the while, kept at her steady, working trot, trying to take advantage of the early miles of smooth, good footing while we could.

About 7 miles in, the trail starts getting rocky and doing a little bit of climbing, so we slowed down and took our time in the rocks. Our goal for the day was “finish with a sound, happy horse” and if that meant walking over every rock out there, so be it.

Note the unamused mare ears

By this time, the sun was up and bathing the desert in beautiful morning sunlight. I absolutely love the desert in the morning and the evening, when the light is still soft enough that the desert colors really show up (versus the mid-day, sun-baked and bleached effect). There was a little bit of a breeze, and the temperature hadn’t started heating up yet, and I was enjoying the morning, sharing the trail with friends and my amazing mare.

The first water stop is about 11 miles in, at the end of a double-track dirt service road. There are some rocky spots of slow down through, but overall, it’s a welcome change to have some trail to move out on again after the last few miles of rocky, slower-going single track, and Liberty was more than happy to use said moving out opportunity. She drank a little bit at the water, I electrolyted her, she grabbed a few bites of hay, and then we were back on our way, heading back on the same road we had just come in on, and partway along some of the rocky single-track.

By about 16 miles in, the trail gets out of the rocky foothills and back out onto the smoother, flatter desert floor, and we were again able to pick up a more consistent pace. There were some lovely stretches of really smooth single track, and some opportunities to let Libby stretch out and pick up a canter. She has a really, really nice canter, but I’ve been working on getting her develop more gears and trot speeds, so haven’t been letting her canter quite as much, but this is a really good ride to strategically use some cantering to make things more interesting and mix it up a bit.

At the maintenance shed checkpoint and water stop, she dove into one of the troughs and about put a frat boy to shame with her drinking. It was starting to warm up, so I also took the opportunity to hose her down, and electrolyte her again. She also got a couple carrots as a snack, and there were a few piles of grass hay and alfalfa for her to munch on. That questionable left hind boot also took this opportunity to detach itself from her hoof, although I was surprised it had hung on this long. But her spinning and pivoting her butt end around to watch another horse leave the check and head down the trail was the final straw and I watched the boot go sailing through the air and land several feet away. Ah, well. As good of a place as any to lose it, and she never had to travel on any rocks with an unprotected hoof. So I handed her reins off to one of the lovely volunteers, wrangled one of my spare boots off the saddle, slapped it on, left the now-defunct glue-on in the care of another volunteer to take back to camp with her, mounted up and headed down the trail.

Photographer Susan Kordish was down the trail just a little ways out from the checkpoint, and got a whole bunch of lovely pics of us coming down the trail. (Seriously, between her and her husband John, they got over a couple dozen photos of me and Liberty. I love having a photogenic horse that photographers love, because I am a shameless sucker for ride photos.) There was another water stop a couple miles out from camp, and Libby tanked up yet again, and then maybe a mile or so out from camp, John Kordish was set up to get photos of us coming through at that spot.

I hopped off just outside of camp, and by the time I got in, got my time slip, let Libby drink and sprayed her off with the hose, her pulse was down, and at 44 by the time the P&R person took her pulse. Waited in line for a few minutes for vetting, and she vetted through with all A’s. Got an excellent compliment from the vet on her trot-out — said that “it was absolutely beautiful and one of the best trot-outs she had seen.” This is something I work on a lot with this mare, so it was really gratifying to hear that kind of feedback and know the work is paying off.

With vetting out of the way, we now had a solid 50+ minutes of our hold left to go back to the trailer and let her eat, uninterrupted. I got her set up with some more hay and a small pan of mash, took care of my “camp chores” of refilling my waters and restocking snacks in my saddle packs, and adding another spare boot to the saddle, then settled in with my own lunch. I enjoyed a good 15+ minutes of down time, then got Libby’s headgear swapped out for her s-hackamore, mounted back up and was at the out timer with a couple extra minutes to spare.

I’ve never had a problem with her leaving camp on a second loop on LDs, but the two previous 50s, we ended up having a buddy with us when we left, so this would be the first time leaving camp after 25+ miles, all by ourselves, with plenty of other horses still behind us at the vet area. Wasn’t sure what to expect, but she happily trotted right out of camp when I pointed her at the out trail, and cheerfully made her way up the same trail we had headed out on in the morning.

We followed the morning trail for about a mile or so, then turned off to what is probably every horse’s least favorite section of trail. It’s a rocky single-track that climbs up to the top of a ridgeline. Once on top, it’s a pretty view, and there’s generally some breeze, but getting there is a slow trudge, uphill, usually in the heat of the day. Gold stars to Libby, she was probably the least trudgy and most cheerful of the horses I’ve taken through this section, but it was still slower-going, between the rock and the multitudes of trail traffic. (There was so. much. trail traffic on ride day. Especially bikes. I swear the park sent out a memo to the effect of, “we have a horse event with over 100 horses on that trails…so everyone else also needs to come out and use the trails.” Thank goodness my horse doesn’t give two craps about bikes and sharing the trail…but that was a major annoyance to have to deal with so much traffic along the way.)

The obligatory spooking spot at the top of the ridge. Mimi has usually taken offense at the bench on the left. Libby decided the rock pile was much more concerning.

Once down from the ridgeline, it was once again on smooth trail, and it was trail that Libby knew well from our summer conditioning, so she was quite happy to pick up the pace again. She tanked up at the next water stop, munched on some hay for a couple minutes, then continued on. The next section of trail is a long, slow uphill grade. Very deceiving, because it doesn’t look like it, but it’s one of those trails that can easily tap a horse out, and because so much of the footing is so good through this area, there aren’t large sections of rock to enforce walk breaks. So I adopted sort of a trot-walk interval, making sure to give her walk breaks along the way.

About partway through this section, my friend Troy (Flash’s owner) caught up to us. The horse he was riding and Liberty paced well together, and Troy is the one who taught me how to really consistently pace a ride, so we ended up riding the rest of the way together. I think Liberty and I were both ready for some company, and it was a lot of fun to ride with Troy again. I always pick up some good advice and feedback from him, and having a second set of eyes telling me my horse looked really good was a big confidence boost.

This felt a bit like old times, when I was catch-riding Flash for Troy and Claire.

It was also getting really warm out at this point, so having someone to talk with was a good distraction from otherwise descending into “sufferfest” mode. If I stay cheerful, Libby stays cheerful. And she stayed in good spirits all day long. Even in the last couple of miles in, she was still peeking at and spooking at dead logs, suspicious cactus, etc, feeling very sassy and full of herself. I was super-paranoid the last 5 miles or so…she was feeling so good, and I didn’t want to do anything that would risk another finish line pull, so if there was even one or two rocks in the trail, we were walking. The last mile or so, we just walked in nice and easy. She had figured out that she wasn’t going to get to trot, so she settled into a really nice, ground-covering walk, and we easily cruised into the finish, already at pulse parameters. I hopped off, let her drink, gave her a quick hose-down, then immediately pulsed through and took her over to vet.

Her final scores netted a couple of B’s on gut sounds, but given that we were pausing along the whole last 10 miles in to let the horses munch on dry grass along the way — Libby perfected the “horsey drive-through takeout” of grabbing a couple of bites of grass and going — and she had eaten and drank her way through the whole ride, I really wasn’t concerned by that. Her recoveries were excellent, gait/movement perfect…so, third time was a charm, and we officially completed her first 50!

Back at the trailer, she was ravenous — she dove into her hay bag, and only lifted her head to move to her water bucket and drink. She was bright-eyed, still full of energy — in short, a perfect example of “fit to continue.” She absolutely could have gone out for another loop with plenty of gas in the tank if we had to, and I think that was probably one of the best finishes I’ve experienced on 50+ miles to date in terms of having a horse with that many reserves still left, and feeling that perky and cheerful. I truly think she was having fun out there, and it makes me feel so good to know that I was still holding her back the last few miles in, and I never had to pedal her once all day.

This face melts my heart. Bright-eyed, cheerful, and engaged after finishing. She knows she did good, and was so proud of herself.

We finished with a ride time of 8:19, and while we were originally 10th across the line, a couple of finish line pulls ahead of us put us ultimately finishing in 8th, which totally floored me. All I wanted out of this ride was that first 50-mile finish for her. I rode conservatively, taking care over the rocks, and tried to maintain a consistent of a pace as I could, and made sure I didn’t dawdle at water stops, etc. It’s been over 10 years since I did the 50 here, and I was reminded as I went through it that it isn’t as easy of a ride as it might appear on the surface, so I am super-proud of how strong she finished.

Saturday evening, the AZERC (Arizona Endurance Riders Club) hosted a potluck dinner, and it was super well-received. We had a great turnout — probably a good 35-40 people showed up, there was a delicious spread of food available, and it was a great chance to wind down and socialize. So many people tend to quickly pack up and go home after the ride because there usually isn’t any kind of formal dinner or anything planned for Saturday night, so the thought behind coordinating and offering the potluck was to try to encourage people to stay, and I think it did just that. I think more people stayed overnight than have in the past (social proofing? “Oh, if I know my friends are going to stay overnight I think I’ll stay as well” versus “well, everyone else always packs up and goes home so I’ll be the only one in camp, so I may as well pack up and go, too.”) and I know I really enjoyed the chance to socialize and visit with folks after the ride, when the stresses of the ride are done and past.

Sunday morning, Libby was bright-eyed and perky and demanding breakfast the second I woke up. (From where she’s tied, she can see into the back window of the suburban, so she can see me as soon as I wake up and sit up. As soon as I sat up, I heard her start up the nickering chorus line and start doing her impatient head bobbing/tossing. Never mind she still had some grass hay left, since I left her with a small mountain of hay overnight.) She was happy to go for a walk around camp, and sample some of the hay piles left in the vetting area. She was still bright-eyed, and super cuddly and affectionate, and looked like she hadn’t done anything.

It didn’t take me too long to get packed up and back on the road home — my packing system has definitely streamlined the whole process. Back at the barn, she promptly dropped down in the sand arena and rolled as soon as I turned her out, and then moseyed her way out to the pasture and settled in to grazing.

I couldn’t have asked for a better ride, and it was the perfect way to end the 2021 ride season. It’s been an up and down year with a lot of learning curves, but I keep reminding myself to be kind to myself — she’s only the second endurance horse I’ve started in this sport. For all the catch riding I did, most of that was on horses who were already sorted out, so I didn’t have to do much in terms of “figuring them out.” With this one, we’ve started from scratch, and it’s only been a year and four months. Even our pulls now feel more like “constructive learning experiences” than “major fail moments.” (It also took me a lot of thinking over the summer to get my brain to that perspective…) I hope this is the start of “it all coming together,” but at the end of the day, the one thing that has never changed, whatever the ride outcome has been, is how much I enjoy this mare and how much fun I have with her.

McDowell was the last ride of the season here in AZ (ride season ends Nov 30), but the season rolls right over into 2022, with the next ride up being the Jingle Bell Trot at Estrella in December, and there’s an AZ ride on the calendar every month from now through next May. I’ll keep playing every ride by ear as always, and just see how everything keeps going, but I’m sure enjoying having a potential calendar full of rides coming up.

Ride Story: Man Against Horse 25 2021

photo by Susan Kordish

The Man Against Horse race. My anniversary ride — the first AERC ride I did, back in 2005. It’ll always hold a special place in my heart for that reason alone, but beyond that, it’s just flat out fun. One of the most unique rides of its kind, horses and riders are competing simultaneously with runners in their respective distances. It’s a blast sharing the trail with the runners, and the horses really seem to get into the spirit of it as well — every horse I’ve ridden at this ride has figured out the “chase after the runners” game. It’s also a challenging trail, especially the 50-miler, with quite a bit of climbing, elevation gain, and very rocky footing.

Throughout the summer, my plan was to do the 50. Our spring season had been rough, as Liberty and I worked through the learning curve of figuring out her particular needs and quirks, but I was able to keep riding and putting in some decent mileage over the summer, including putting in a pre-ride of the last third of the MAH 50-mile course. But as the fall season approached, I started having doubts. This is a hard 50. I personally am 2/4 on finishing it, including my first experience with the heartbreak of a finish line pull, and it’s a trail I don’t take lightly. It had also gotten very rocky, and I just wasn’t sure I wanted our next attempt at a 50 to be quite this level of challenging. At this point, I needed to set ourselves up for success, and have the mental confidence that came from a successful finish.

As soon as I made the decision to switch my entry to the 25, I felt like a huge weight was lifted off my shoulders. We’re just going in to the start of our fall season, and if things keep rolling along well, I’ve got an exciting slate of ride plans ahead, and I didn’t want to blow that by biting off too much on the first go-round.

Of course, my plans for the ride almost got derailed at the last minute. What should have been a fairly straight-forward brake job on my truck turned into a more complicated need to re-do some work that had been done on the rear end earlier in the year…and the necessary part wouldn’t be in until the Tuesday after the ride. And with the entire back half of the thing disassembled and sitting up on the mechanic’s lift, “Can you put it back together well enough to get me through the weekend?” wasn’t going to cut it. (Pro Tip Life Lesson: When you drive an older vehicle, pretty much assume every repair is going to be much more involved than originally advertised, and don’t wait until the week of a ride to get something done.)

I was fairly resigned to missing the ride — so many of my plans this year had gone sideways, so it wasn’t exactly a new feeling — but a quick text to my friend Lancette to let her know of my untimely change of plans resulting in her declaration that there was no way I was missing this ride after the work I had put in all summer, and that she would come to the barn, pick us up, take us to the ride, and make sure Liberty and I both had a place to hang our hats for the weekend.

I was pretty much in happy, grateful tears over her offer. Lancette is a gem; the first person I met when I pulled into ridecamp at Man Against Horse 16 years ago, and she’s been a good friend ever since. I always have a hard time asking people for anything — I am independent probably to a fault when it comes to doing things for myself, and I absolutely hate to put people out, be an inconvenience, or put someone in a position of having to say ‘no.’ I don’t know if that’s self-reliance, pride, stubbornness, or some other moniker, but that’s just how my brain tends to work.

Anyway, dime-store psychoanalyzing aside, I now had a plan of action, and could go ahead with doing a major overhaul and stream-lining of my packing. If Lancette was going to be kind enough to haul me and my pony around, the least I could do was make sure it didn’t also involve having to lug around the kitchen sink, since in no lifetime have I ever been considered a “minimalist packer.”

Early Friday morning saw my pile of stuff stacked next to the barn gate, and a quick hose-off bath for Liberty before Lancette showed up. A couple of minutes to throw everything into the trailer, load Libby, and then we were on the road. Another stop to load up Lancette’s horses, and we were officially ride-bound. Prescott’s only a couple hours away, and it wasn’t long before we were pulling into camp and getting set up.

After getting the horses settled, and grabbing some lunch for ourselves, we saddled up for a pre-ride and headed out for a few mile leg-stretch. Going out, the three horses did fairly okay together, trading off positions, but when we turned around to head back, all three started feeding off each other, so I ended up riding Liberty ahead while Lancette and Ellen kept their two back together. I was really happy with how willing Liberty was to leave her travel buddies — she just wanted to stretch her legs out and move.

Out on the pre-ride

Once back in camp, I got her vetted in, finished off packing my crew bag, and got a final few tack adjustments made. Storm clouds had been rolling in and out all day, even getting a few drops of rain during the pre-ride, but as our little camp sat down to dinner, the clouds started clearing, and we were treated to the most spectacular sunset.

Ride meeting went over a couple of minor trail changes — mainly, routing over to a ranch road rather than staying in a sand wash for several miles, as has always been the norm for some of the early miles, and I have to say, I like the changes. It added maybe a mile of extra distance, but it rode well, and faster and more predictable than the sand wash, which often has areas of unknown depth.

Post ride briefing, there was time for a few minutes of hanging out around the fire pit, and then it was off to bed. Ellen and her husband had brought their camper trailer up for sleeping accommodations, and it was a little slice of much-appreciated luxury to have a lovely, real bed to sleep in.

I’ve been pulling some early morning wake-ups over the summer to beat the heat, and I’ve gotten fairly accustomed to it, so despite having my alarm set for later, I still ended up awake at my normal hour. Which was fine, because it gave me plenty of time to slowly get ready and not rush around. I got dressed, grabbed some coffee and a hard-boiled egg for breakfast, then headed out to get Libby ready.

I’ve got my morning routine down to a fairly quick science now, and it doesn’t take much time for me to get her booted and tacked up. With every ride, she’s also getting better about remembering that she does still need to stand politely for mounting, and I was able to hop on from the side of the trailer with no fuss this time. She was definitely alert and ready to go, but also getting better about calmly walking around and moving her feet without needing to dance around.

The start for this ride is always one of the most exciting. It’s a shotgun start on a two-track road across an open meadow, with horses and runners all taking off en masse and more times than not, there’s usually some high level of drama that goes down, especially on the LD. So while I didn’t want to get caught up in front-runner drama, I also didn’t want to get tangled up in a pack of riders who were all vying to hold back and be the last ones out of camp. And that was how I found myself leaving right at the start, just behind the first quarter of the pack of people who were gunning for the front. Liberty handled it all so well. She was calm and professional, picking up a trot and immediately starting to weave around and work our way through the runner pack.

At the start — taken by Cristina, who was riding right around us for a little ways

Not two minutes into the start, I heard the “Loose horse” shout ahead, and watched as a short little dark grey horse started heading up the trail. I didn’t see the actual incident, but watched as the horse followed after some of the front runners. Fortunately, I watched as one of those riders was able to actually grab the loose horse and hold him for the rider to catch up to them. With the loose horse now safely restrained, we were able to pass by that little drama and keep trucking along. We passed quite a few runners through this section — an area we had pre-ridden the day before, so knew where all the slowdown/bottleneck spots would be and where to be able to safely get around people.

A mile or so past the start
photo by John Kordish

Liberty’s the 4th horse I’ve ridden at Man Against Horse, this was my 8th time doing this ride, and this was probably the best/easiest start I’ve had here. She was so business-like, and handled the traffic and high energy without even batting an eyelash. By the time we hit about 3 miles in, she was even feeling really settled and chill, and I began to think we were just going to cruise through the day as a casual, easy jaunt.

Morning trail — up along the top of a natural earthen dam, overlooking a cow tank

And then we hit the ranch road the detoured out of the wash and across the rolling, open plains — the kind of road that, at one point, you could see it spool out in a straight line in front of you for a couple of miles…and all the horses ahead. We also got passed by a few people, and that was all it took to wake up her competitive side, and I then spent the next several miles riding the handbrake fairly strongly, and glad I put the running martingale on, even if she’s not a fan of it. (Guess what? I’m not a fan of potentially getting smacked in the face by someone’s best flailing llama impression. But using it for a short time did what I hoped it would do, and she’s since stopped llama’ing quite as dramatically and is softening to the bit better.)

Wide open spaces. No one in sight in front of us at the moment, so she settled enough for me to take pics. That runner in front of us was a beast — he was easily keeping pace with her 9mph trot. We leapfrogged with him for several miles, off and on, before he got in front of us at a water stop, and then stayed in front of us the rest of the day. After my fairly brief stint with trail running, I have so much respect for these runners on this course. I’ll stick to tackling it with four hooves and a saddle.

I have to confess: As much as I strive for a settled, relaxed, loose rein cruise of a ride, there is a part of me that was secretly thrilled by her forwardness and enthusiasm and needing to be rated. All of our early rides were marked by a distinct lack of “major go” on her part, and I had wondered sometimes if she really wasn’t cut out to be an endurance horse. But looking back now, I think it was more of a case that she really wasn’t fit, and she was self-preserving enough to not run herself out. On the plus side, she never learned a race brain early on. Now that she’s fit, she is really wanting to go, which I love to see. That said, I’m still needing to be the brains of the operation at this point — I want more foundation well-laid before she’s allowed to pick up the speed. And she’s not hard to manage, just…tenacious. Like, she’s convinced that despite being told, “No, back off and chill out” the previous 10 times that on the 11th time I’m going to relent, throw the reins away, and tell her, “hit the gas.” And she’s so cheerful and good-natured and enthusiastic about it, that it’s really easy for me to laugh and stay chill about “pace negotiations.”

The first two opportunities for water, about 8 or 9 miles in, were a no-go — the first was a cow trough surrounded by a mucky puddle several feet across, and the next was another trough totally overgrown the algae. But there was another one a couple miles further up the trail, so I offered her the opportunity to stop, but didn’t dally too long or waste my energy forcing her or arguing with her.

Sure enough, at the windmill trough a little further along, she decided to take a small drink — not a lot, but it was still early, and the weather was still cool and overcast. From here, we picked up one of my favorite parts of the trail — colloquially called “the Grapevine.” It’s a single-track trail that twists and winds through a (mostly) dry creek bed for several miles before heading up into the scrub oak and manzanita and climbing about a thousand feet up to the vet check.

Along the way, a couple miles out from the check, we came across ride photographer Sue Kordish. She was set up at the top of a long hill, and with our own space bubble and no one around us, I was able to get some great ride photos. From the bottom of the hill, I let Libby go, and she jumped into her war mare charge, until part of the way up the hill, she spotted Sue, and immediately slowed down, put her ears up, and started posing for the camera.

As soon as we came into the check, Libby dove into the water trough and tanked up. We spent several minutes letting her drink, but it gave me a chance to remove her bit and loosen her girth, then headed over to pulse in. She pulsed in right away at 56, and then I gave her a few minutes to eat, then took advantage of a lull in the vet line and scooted over to vet in. She vetted through with all A’s, pulse of 48, then dove back into her food as soon as we were back at our crew area.

The hold was only 30 minutes, so we didn’t have a ton of time, but Libby was able to scarf a pan of feed, I ate a PB&J and drank an iced coffee, then switched Libby’s bridle for her s-hack, wrapped everything up, and was at the out timer right on time. From the check, there were several miles of trail that was different since the last time I had ridden the LD…a forest road that wound through the trees, did a bit of climbing up and down, and eventually we ended up at the spot that is the final gate-and-go vet check on the 50, and only 7 miles from the finish. We had also pre-ridden this section of trail several weeks prior, so Libby knew exactly where she was, and she put the afterburners on. All I did was settle back and hold on, and she cruised down the switchbacks, regulating her own pace in the rocky areas, and flying along whenever it was clear.

I had such a blast cruising down this trail with her. This is one of my favorite sections of trail, and traversing it on a horse that I am so comfortable with, who is so surefooted and trail-confident, makes it all the more fun. At the bottom of the canyon (where we had parked on the pre-ride), she seemed a little puzzled that the trailer wasn’t there waiting, but she kept cheerfully trucking on — I think her “camp” radar kicked in at this point, and I was still needing to rate her back a bit.

We had been in our own space bubble since a few miles before the vet check all the way to the very last checkpoint about a mile and half out of camp, but just past the checkpoint, as we were doing an easy trot through a section of trail that was little more than a light track that made a cross-country path down a ridgeline, we got passed by three riders who felt like cantering downhill through the rocks was the best way to traverse this section, and I recognized one as the rider who had parted ways with her horse at the start. Okay, kids, knock yourselves out. Run into camp…and then we’ll see you how long it takes to pulse down for your actual finish time.

I was super proud of Libby…she didn’t fuss at all over being passed, and kept on doing her steady pace, picking up a bit when we dropped into a nice, sandy wash single track. We cruised through the short section of wash, and just as we popped up over the bank out of the wash, I saw a rider walking on their own two feet, and a horse trotting off down the trail just ahead.

If your first thought was, “same rider as the morning?” you would be right. I stopped to check on her — apparently she got “clotheslined” by a tree down in the wash — and she asked if I could try to catch her horse. Fortunately, he wasn’t screaming along at Mach 10 ahead of us, so following behind him at Liberty’s nice trot allowed us to catch up to him in fairly short order, and the fact he stopped and was watching us didn’t hurt either, and I was able to reach over and snag his reins.

We weren’t very far out from camp, but I initially tried to turn around and head back to the rider, but neither horse was having any of that, so I ended up ponying him into the finish. He wasn’t the most willing participant — I couldn’t unclip his reins from the bit to attach them to the halter (the one time I wasn’t riding with my spare tailing rope!), so I was having to lead him from the bit, which he wasn’t super-thrilled with, but we got the job done and handed him off to a volunteer at the finish. The advantage of walking the last bit in was Liberty pulsed in right away.

photo by John Kordish

I’m so beyond thrilled with how Libby handled that. As far as I knew, she had never ponied another horse. Came to find out later that she had been ponied, but had never been the pony horse. She handled having a strange horse in her space, and me doing all kinds of contortions and re-positioning, and she just kept marching right towards the finish. So, so proud of her, and the mental maturity that she’s displaying.

After pulsing, I briefly went back to the trailer to untack and swipe the worse of the dirt off her, then headed over for our final vetting. There was a bit of a wait, with vets juggling finish vetting with BC judging at the same time, but we eventually got it done, and vetted through with all A’s and a still very-perky Libby.

Three successful finishes for our camp!

The fun part about doing the LD was having the rest of the afternoon to chill out, socialize, watch other riders come in, and relax around camp. Ride dinner was delicious, catered by one of the local Prescott restaurants, with steak or chicken, tortillas, rice and beans, and all the fajita fixings. We all stayed over Saturday night again, and spent a leisurely Sunday morning cleaning up camp before heading home.

This was the perfect way to go into the upcoming season. I couldn’t have asked for a better ride, finishing with a sound, happy horse who still had tons of gas in the tank, and is primed and ready for more!

Updated Tevis Links for 2021

The last time I complied a bunch of Tevis links and information, it was well-received, so here it is again, with some new/updated additions.

My Personal Tevis Write-ups (Riding and Crewing):

Main Tevis Website (for ride information, entry forms, rider list, and more)

Tevis webcast (will be updated/live on ride day)

Facebook Page

Endurance.net coverage on the Events section

A collection of ride stories

Videos:

YouTube playlist of misc Tevis-related media

The Tevis Cup YouTube channel and secondary channel, which also has some good playlists

HRTV’s “Inside Information” feature on Tevis

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.)

Ride Story: Bumble Bee 50 2021

photo by Susan Kordish, AZ Cowgirl Photography

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.

photo by John Kordish, AZ Cowgirl Photography

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.”

Ride Story: Old Pueblo 50

photo by Susan Kordish

“Some days you win, some days you learn.”

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.

Ride map. Camp is the “BC VC” label between Loop #3 an Loop #2.

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.

That is the face of a mare unimpressed by the weather’s shenanigans.

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.

Heading out at the start. Bit of a Mare Face over the fact I wanted her to act like a mature adult.
photo by Susan Kordish

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.

This was just a little ways before we reached Rosemont

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.

The ears were a bit skeptical at times, but she was so game and kept trucking on.

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.

Heading out on loop two, photo from Marcelle.

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.

Fun area through old-growth mesquite. Also, gorgeous footing.

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.

photo by Susan Kordish

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.

Taking a moment during pulsing.
photo by Susan Kordish

Tack/Gear Rundown

Nothing like a bit of snow, ice, and wind to put stuff to the test…

The Horse
– Zilco Add-On Halter-Bridle
– Zilco Endurance Breastcollar
– Hought roo-laced beta reins
– Archer Equine wool saddle pad
– Frank Baines Reflex monoflap dressage saddle
– Wintec girth + JMS sheepskin girth cover
– True Grit pommel pack
– Renegade Viper hoof boots
– Professional’s Choice rear ankle boots

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