Groom Creek Camping: Gear Assessment

A little late, since this happened back in April…but more for my own records and information purposes than anything.

While it wasn’t a ride weekend, we did manage to get 26 miles in over the course of three days, and a good array of different stuff used.

Saddle
I used the Frank Baines Reflex all three days and loved it. No back soreness for Liberty (with lots of walking, and some technical trail including a lot of step-downs), and very minimal soreness for me, which is good given I’m not in tip-top riding shape currently.

The second day I put my full sheepskin cover on it for a few reasons: a little extra cushion never hurt; I get a little more grip from it; protection of the saddle itself after a near-miss encounter with a boulder the previous day that scraped the heck out of my stirrup and barely avoided the saddle flap. My sheepskin isn’t new and super-fluffy anymore, so I didn’t notice a negative impact on the fit of the saddle for me.

The FB seems to fit Liberty well, although our technical downhills of day three had it sliding forward and hugging her neck…but given her low withers, I suspect that any saddle would have probably done that on that kind of trail. But crupper training and use will be on the menu in the future.

Saddle Pads
Day one, I used the Toklat Matrix Woolback with the Pro-Impact inserts. I’m still very agnostic about this pad…don’t love it, don’t hate it. Still hate how matted it gets after cleaning.

Day two and three, I switched to a sheepskin Fleeceworks pad. Oh, this thing is a cushioned luxury. I would sleep with it if I could. I love how the natural sheepskin repels the dirt, and it’s really easy to just brush off in-between days. It doesn’t have any extra inserts in it, but the sheepskin is a dense 1″ layer, and on a well-fitting saddle, I don’t know how much an additional foam insert layer is needed.

Stirrups
Used my Clouds on day one and two…love them, but they’re just so big and bulky. Switched back to the old standby EZ-Rides on day three and they were reliably fine. Might just end up sticking with them.

Girth
26″ is definitely the right length for her. I had one made from Hooves N Whiskers, custom colors of a black/natural twist mohair with orange mohair accents. My only complaint was the single d-ring for the breastcollar clip versus two rings, which meant I had to pay closer attention to making sure the ring was facing forward. Minor problem, but I’ll probably see about ordering future ones with two rings. I liked the felt backing behind the buckles — nice and flexible and breathable.

Boots
Liberty wore Renegade Vipers the whole time; size 140×135 on the front and 140×130 on the hinds. Day one, I used front boots only. Day two, I booted her all around, and day three, went back to just front boots — I’ve found that on an over-eager young horse, pulling boots off and forcing them to pay attention to their feet and the terrain can be a useful training tool. Day two and three, we crossed water/mud, and never had any problems.

Headgear
We started in her standard aluminum s-hackamore on day one and two. Day one she was great, day two was when she had her behavioral meltdown, and I re-assessed our methods of communication.

She really is very green still, and doesn’t have a firm grasp on flexion and giving to the bit. She has no idea what neck reining is, and tends to brace against a direct rein on the hackamore versus giving to it. She’s also apt to go behind the vertical, and has been fussy in the past about chain curb straps and “too much pressure.”

Given all of that, I opted for a fresh start on day three with a snaffle — specifically, a Myler loose ring, mouthpiece MB04, which is their answer to a three-piece snaffle, and designed to be a really good bit for green or inexperienced horses. I had consulted with her trainers at a prior ride on some of her early training history, and she had indeed been started in a snaffle and understood all of the direct rein basics.

Sure enough, with the bit installed, she was very responsive, was seeking out an active connection/contact (oh that’s what true contact versus leaning on the bit feels like…I’m looking at you, Mimi), very responsive, and I had a lot more effective communication with her. She might start a circle rigid, but then she would relax and give.

At the same time, she wasn’t this super-sensitive, flinchy, can’t-stand-contact, “don’t touch my mouth” kind of horse — I wasn’t afraid to pick up the reins and give her a correction as needed.

With both the s-hack and the bit, I used her Taylored Tack Convert-A-Bridle over her rope halter. I absolutely love the pieces of Taylored Tack I have acquired, and am slowly replacing old tack with new TT pieces.

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need to do something about the clashing oranges, though. time for a black rope halter.

Misc
I used front and rear Snugpax, which allowed me to carry three bottles of water plus plenty of snacks. After epic failing on day one to do much by way of taking care of myself (it’s only 10 miles, I don’t need to bother…), Kaity tasked me with getting back on track with regularly eating and drinking — “if you don’t built the habit during short rides, how are you supposed to remember about it on long rides?” — and I did much better on subsequent days.

Rider Gear
Love my Irideon Synergy tights and my FITS Techtread tights. Both are really comfortable, didn’t overheat, and durable. Like the full seat grip dots on the FITS, and the fact they’re a little less bulky than the kneepatches on the Irideons.

First long riding sessions with my Ariat MaxTrak boots. At first I wasn’t sure how I felt about them, but I swapped out the insoles for a pair of my running ones with more arch support, messed around with the laces, and ultimately was quite happy with how they felt. I like that they finally have more tread on them than the Terrains.

Dogs
Overall, the pups did great. They stayed on long high-lines/cable tie-outs in camp, and in the back of Kaity’s trailer in the shade when we were riding. They had their bed, their favorite red blanket from home, and I tried to stick to their feeding schedule/routine from home as much as possible.

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This was Artemis’s fourth camping trip, and Sofie’s first with me, although Sofie has been to endurance riders with her previous owners.

I would have liked to see both of them eat a little better — may have to experiment with finding something “special” to add to their kibble (wet food) for occasions like this. I always add fresh cooked chicken pieces to their kibble, but they did a marvelous job of picking out the chicken and leaving most of their kibble. So at least they were getting something. It’s not like they were doing high mileage or massive activity, though.

They got to do some on-leash exploring around the campground — massive granite boulder piles for them to climb and scamper around on.

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Foodstuffs
As I mentioned in my write-up, we ate well. Both Kaity and I like to cook and love food. Breakfasts were things like breakfast burritos, pancakes, sausage, chia pudding, and fresh fruit salad. Lunches were on-the-go snacking in the saddle, the usual suspects of protein bars, energy gels, fruit squeezies, energy chews, and similar.

I figured out that Huma Chia energy gels are the best. They’re made with real fruit puree + chia seeds, so don’t have the cooked-in-a-chemistry-lab taste that many of the gels have. ClifFood and Fuel for Fire squeeze pouches are both excellent. Trader Joe’s Apple-Coconut bars are very palatable and inoffensive just about any time.

And dinner…we had fun with dinners, especially campfire cooking. Not all of it turned out perfect…the cheese bread was a little overdone in parts, and the cobbler under-done in parts, but all imminently edible and delicious. And it’s camping cooking, not a 5-star restaurant. ;)

Groom Creek Horse Camping Girl’s Weekend

Back in February at the AERC Convention, Kaity and I put our heads together and decided we needed to get together more often. We generally manage to get together at least once a year, but that also tends to revolve around more stressful events such as riding or crewing Tevis — not always the most relaxing environment — or at another ride. Rarely have we had the chance to just hang out and relax, with no major agenda or schedule to follow.

The idea of horse camping was brought up — somewhere that would be a little cooler, up in the mountains somewhere — and we settled on Groom Creek Horse Camp in Prescott, AZ, the second weekend in May. Kaity also very generously offered to take the driving route that would go through Kingman so that she could pick up and bring Liberty down for me.

Prep started the weekend before, because horse camping in my world means a ton of stuff. Not only for myself, and the horse…but the Decker duo would also be joining us, since horse camp isn’t complete without canine mascots. This would be Artemis’s 4th camping trip, and while Sofie has been to rides with her previous owners, this would be her first trip with me.

Saddle pads were washed, tack and gear was sorted, dog blankets and beds were packed, a new air mattress procured, and a cartful of food from Trader Joe’s purchased. Camping box sorted through and restocked, bedding packed, and dogs washed after Sofie tried to roll in something dead. (A futile gesture, though, since she spent as much time as she could wallowing in the dirt at the campsite. Farm dog.)

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so much stuff…and that’s not all of it

Prescott is only a couple hour drive for me, so I headed out early afternoon. The most eventful part of the drive was the fact that Sofie hyperventilated/panted the whole way (not world’s most happy traveler, that one…), and roughly two and a half hours later (hello, Prescott traffic) I pulled in to the Groom Creek site.

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Driving through Mayer, Bradshaw Mountains ahead. Groom Creek is on the back side of this range.

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Artemis sleeps, while Sofie looks less than impressed. 

I love the final stretch back in to Groom Creek…twisty, turning mountain road through the trees. It’s not that far out of town at all — maybe 20 minutes — but you just feel like you’re getting away from everything once you’re there.

The campground hosts gave me directions for where our site was located (37 sites on 3 small loops…hard to get lost here), and I made my way back to what turned out to be a lovely, spacious site perched right on the top of the hill, overlooking a small ravine/drainage area. A good scattering of trees provided shade on a good part of the site, there was a decent area to set up my behemoth monster of a tent (theoretically fits 10 people…or one person and two terriers), and although it was slightly less convenient to have the picnic table and fire ring a bit of a distance from the parking loop of the site, it also meant the horses weren’t right up next to the campfire.

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monster tent

The only unfortunate part? The bathrooms (vault toilets…that really needed a good pumping out…euw…my only major complaint of the weekend) were down the road…down the hill. Umm, yay for hillwork? Were were equidistant between two hose bibs, and the campground-provided wheelbarrows (for hauling trash and manure to the dumpsters) made it easy to haul water jugs over to be filled up.

Kaity would be arriving later, so I used the time to set up what I could — my tent, the dogs’ tie ropes and high-lines, and my part of the camp kitchen and other miscellaneous stuff. I took the dogs for a walk around the whole campground (which meant deterring all of the loose dogs people had running around on their sites…apparently people think the edict of “dogs must be leashed at all times” means only when they’re walking around the campground…having one dog that is overly friendly and one dog that is space defensive makes me very cranky when I have to deal with other people’s off-leash dogs…) and got to take a good look at all of the campsites available, to be filed away for future camping endeavors.

Kaity pulled in around 9, and we got the ponies (my Liberty and her Ani) unloaded and settled — Libby in the 16×16 campsite corral, and Ani on Kaity’s trailer hi-tie — with hay, water, and Kaity’s special recipe beet pulp sloppy mashes. (Liberty is learning one of the perks along the road to Becoming A Real Endurance Horse: delicious extra food other than subsisting on just hay.)

Once the equines were taken care of, Kaity whipped up a quick and delicious dinner of orange chicken with couscous and snow peas, and built up my start of a little campfire into a nice, toasty warm bonfire. The small indulgences of horse camping vacation versus competition weekends…the time to cook really good meals, enjoy adult beverages, and no set time clock, schedule, or plan other than “have fun.”

We munched on chicken, drank beer, and started in on what would be a weekend-long exchange of war stories, ideas, and the utter rabbit-trail randomness that happens every time we get together, while the dogs diligently guarded us from the vicious attack deer that were moving along the hillside below us.

Artemis + Sofie: “Grrr. Grrrrrrrrr. Barkbarkbark. Grrrrrrr. Woof.”
Me: <Oh, great, there’s probably a bear out there.>
Kaity: “What’s out, there, huh? Something interesting? Shall we see?”
Me: <She’s gonna get eaten by a bear.>
Artemis + Sofie: “Grrrr. Grrrrrr. Grrrrrrrrrrr.”
Kaity: “Hey, look at all those eyes!”
Me: <We’re all gonna get eaten by bears. *drink*>
Kaity: “Aww, look at all those deer. Bambi and his five best friends came out to play.”
Artemis + Sofie: “Bark. Barkbarkbark. Woof. Wooooooooooofffff. And some more grrrrrrrrrr for good measure.”
Me: “Good girls, protect us from attack Bambi.”

It was late by the time the campfire burned down, and starting to get chilly, so we headed off to our respective beds. As is standard for me, first nights anywhere are always a little restless, but I countered the worst of it with the help of some melatonin tabs. Throughout the night I could hear Liberty shuffling and pacing — the scrape of her hoof as she worked on an excavation project, the clang of the corral gate as she’d bump the fence, and the chewing of hay, since not even some anxiety over being in a new place stops her from eating.

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view from my tent first thing in the morning

The girlies are early risers at home, and true to form, started shuffling around once it started getting light out…sorry, girlies, but 5:30 in a vacation morning isn’t happening! Go back to bed! They did, and I went back to bed until around 7:30, when we finally crawled out into the bright but still a bit chilly morning.

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Sofie communing with Libby — who has historically not always liked dogs

Since it had been dark when Kaity pulled in, the trailer set-up wasn’t 100% ideal, so we quickly did some vehicle and rig shuffling around while camp was still empty (per the camp hosts, it would be full all weekend starting Friday), then started the morning off right with fresh French press coffee and a breakfast of an egg scramble with sausage, mushrooms, tomatoes, peppers, cheese, and avocado, with tortillas on the side (or as a breakfast burrito like I did).

After breakfast, it was time to do what we had come to do: ride!

The goal for the day was the Groom Creek Loop, a 9.7-mile loop that climbs from 6200′ at the campground/trailhead up to the lookout tower at 7600′, and back down again. It’s single-track 98% of the way, has enough technical to make a green horse pay attention, but still safe as long as they have some trail sense. It had been probably at least 10 or 11 years since I had last ridden there, and I was battling a fire-breathing pony the whole time, but I remember it was really pretty and very interesting.

Liberty was very “up”, more so than I’m used to seeing at rides, so I decided to hand-walk her through camp, and up the first 3/4 of a mile of the trail around the campground, through the trailhead, and up the Groom Creek Loop trail a little ways before mounting up. Once in the saddle, she was settled enough to lead out, and we very quickly started a game of leapfrog of who would lead and who would follow. Yay for green horse brain training!

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getting ourselves sorted out before mounting

The trail starts climbing almost immediately, just winding its way up the side of the mountain, opening every so often to some incredible vistas and views. The footing is still pretty nice in this section, so we would trot where we could, walk where it was necessary.

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and away we go!

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beautiful views!

Partway up the climb, we encountered some people who were hiking with their dog…and a pack llama.

I’ve only encountered llamas once before on horseback, and they were behind a fence and still managed to cause mass hysteria among the group of horses I was riding with. (For the record, Mimi was alarmed but curious, and just wanted to stare at them.) Historically, llamas manage to cause concern at the very least among most horses, and I had no clue if Libby had ever even seen a llama before.

Discretion being the better part of valor (it’s bad form to die on the first day of your riding vacation), as well as the fact we were on a single track trail with drop offs, I jumped off and lead her in hand past the llama. Fortunately, we were at a spot where they had a clear area they could step aside.

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climbing!

And it was a total non-issue. (With both horses.) I think Liberty was more interested in the Golden Retriever. Go figure…but better safe than sorry. Once we passed, I hopped back on at the next convenient mounting rock, and we scuttled up the trail, pausing every so often to let the ponies grab a bite of nice green mountain grass.

At the top of the mountain, we took a few minute break to grab a snack and visit the vault restroom, and from there, it was a fun four miles downhill back to camp. Liberty did some great footwork on some of the technical/step-down obstacles, and for the most part, I stayed out of her way and provided support, but tried to let her make her own smart trail decisions.

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d’you love our matching hers-n-hers bays with orange tack? Ani’s more of a bright bay to Libby’s dark bay, but the close matchiness was pretty amusing…

 

We had some impressive reining horse sliding stop moments when she spooked at some of the trail traffic — fortunately, her head comes up and she skids to a stop, so it’s pretty easy to stay with.

The loop itself might be around 9.7 miles, but with leaving on the trail out from the horse camp, and by the time we got back, it put us at 10.5 miles. Excellent start to the weekend! While we didn’t have specific goals, I thought it might be nice to try to get 25+ miles over the course of the trip.

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Once the ponies were untacked and settled in with more sloppy mashes, it was happy hour time for us…hard root beer, caprese salad skewers, crackers, chips, and onion dip to munch on while we chatted, then started working on dinner.

True to “we’re having an enjoying and relaxing camping trip and going to take our time making nice meals” form, the menu for the evening called for me grilling tri-tip steak, Kaity made mashed potatoes and a salad, and then I did a campfire blueberry cobbler for dessert. Another nice campfire hangout time (no visiting Bambi), and then off to bed.

Saturday morning, the pups once again tried to convince me to get up early, but were persuaded to lay low until around 7. We did our standard morning routine of visiting the bathroom, the rock outcroppings for them to explore, then back up to the campsite to throw the Hungry Hungry Hippo some more hay while I cleaned her corral, and then attempted to give her a touch-up rasping on her hooves.

Actually, I was hoping for a more thorough trim, but touch-up was all I got, since she was in a mood for hoof handling, and I wasn’t getting enough cooperation for in-depth trimming. Oh, and I attempted all of this before my morning coffee.

Once Kaity was up, coffee was procured, and we set to the task of map reading and figuring out a route for the day. We ended up plotting out a course that would take us south of the horse camp, down to the Hassayampa Creek, and along the way, have some off-shoot trails for potential exploring.

 

After breakfast, the wind started picking up, and some fairly ominous-looking clouds started building in the distance. May is when monsoons start happening, especially in the mountains, and I crossed my fingers that this wouldn’t turn into the fourth camping trip in a row in which I got rained on. (Mostly because I hate having to set up and dry out the wet tent back at home.)

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Please go away, clouds…fortunately for me, they never actually produced any rain, but kept things really pleasant, temperature-wise

We saddled up and headed out…and I knew almost right away that I was going to be in for A Day with the mare. Back to back days are, I suspect, something of a novel concept to her, and she felt uptight and edgy, like she was just looking for an excuse to blow up. That’s always a fun feeling on a green horse I still don’t know all that well (since, let’s recap, this was actually only my 6th ride on her…) and don’t entirely know her reactions.

We had a few “hmmm, which way?” moments where we weren’t 100% positive which forest road would get us to the original direction we had planned, so we scrapped that plan and followed the more readily-marked route.

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There was quite a bit of trail traffic out — it was a Saturday, and it was a multi-use trail that allowed hikers, bikes, horses, and off-road vehicles like quads and dirt bikes, so the horses had some good exposure to other trail users.

We paused for a brief stop at a little tiny creek where Ani drank, and people (okay, me, having gotten the “stern voice” from Kaity the previous day over my lapse in taking good care of myself along the way) drank/ate/electrolyted.

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One of my S-Caps electrolytes had broken open when I grabbed it, so I was trying to convince Liberty to lick the salt from my hand. Didn’t really work…

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Kaity luvs her pony (all 16+hh of him…)

The next section of trail was lovely, some nice single-track through the trees (where we passed a very cute mountain biker, and I almost regret not stopping and getting his phone number… ;) ) and up onto some wide open forest roads that allowed for some trotting.

At one point, the trail paralleled the Hassayampa Creek, and we were able to go down at one of the road crossings and let the horses drink. And drink. And drink. One of Liberty’s virtues is no matter how uptight or nervous she is, she reliably eats, drinks, pees, and poops along the trail and under saddle.

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Once off the forest roads, the trail went back to some lovely single track, mostly uphill back to camp. We had another stream crossing, and then were at the trail junction from earlier in the day.

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We were almost to the trail turnoff that would take us back to camp when we had an equine brain melt experience. There was a Polaris-type ATV approaching us from the front, and a dirt bike coming up behind us. Normally, Libby really doesn’t care — she’s used to off-road vehicles all around the ranch — but she was still on edge and I suspect the stimulation was a bit much.

 

We walked past the ATV, then pulled over and had the dirt bike slowly pass by us. All was well, and we almost immediately turned down the trail to go back to camp, only to have Ani, and then Libby, pause to pee in tandem. And then when we walked over Ani’s pee spot, that was the final straw and big mare pitched an epic temper tantrum fit. It felt like she wanted to simultaneously buck, rear, bolt and spin all in one move…and given my past history of several different horses who could essentially pull off that maneuver, that’s what my panicky little squirrel brain immediately went to, and I reverted to my “cling like a mollusk” mode…and then as soon as I could get her to stop dancing and throwing her fit for two seconds, off I bailed.

I was really close to one of my “angry because I’m scared” reactions in response (because that’s always helpful…) when Kaity wisely intervened. She’s started and worked with a number (at least half a dozen) green horses, and is a way braver rider than I am, so she handed me Ani’s reins, hopped up into the saddle, and proceeded to give Liberty the firm but quiet schooling session that she really needed.

I’ve ridden some very sensitive but reactive horses in the past, the kind that you had to handle with kid gloves lest they explode, and so that has become my default reaction to handling naughtiness and misbehavior.

Kaity schooled Liberty the whole way (maybe a mile?) back to camp on not jigging, walking politely, and not throwing her little temper tantrums because she isn’t getting her way.

I have to take a moment here to gush about and admire Kaity and her riding. There was no drama on her part, just a firm, quiet, low-key response with lots of circles, walking away from camp, walking back politely, more circles when she wanted to rush or jig, following behind Ani, leading, and back and forth. She set a really, really good example for me, and was able to give me a really good read on Liberty’s temperament and misbehavior.

And as a credit to her, Ani was a gentleman and took complete care of me in my fragile, “feeling like a failure because I’m never going to be able to cope with anything other than my trained pony” depressed and emotional mental state.

The good news? Kaity’s assessment of Liberty was “she’s got a good brain, she’s smart, and she’s very uncommitted to her bad behavior.” My biggest worry was when she was crowhopping that it might escalate into her going up into a full rear, but Kaity was convinced that her temper tantrums were just that — low-grade tantrums without a whole lot of commitment behind them; basically, a kid acting out and looking for guidance.

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Liberty getting a schooling session from Kaity

We managed 8 miles, although I suspect some of that was Libby’s extra circles and schooling session.

Back at camp, it was another round of happy hour snacks + drinks, and after looking at the clock and the amount of daylight still left, decided to take the dogs out for a hike (they spent the day while we were riding in the back of Kaity’s trailer where they had their bed, blanket, water, fluffy shavings, shady…and the coolest spot in the whole camp). We did a loop out and around the horse camp, and probably got in 3 miles or so.

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evening in camp

Dinner that evening was my homemade vodka marinara meat sauce with pasta, salad, and campfire cheesy bread…and lots of discussion about green horses, riding, dealing with fear, effectiveness of riding and a whole myriad of related topics.

The wind kicked up overnight, and off and on through the night I could hear parts of the rain fly on my tent thwapping in response. Great, just what we need. Wind. Because that’s great for keeping horses calm. (And that right there is a really good example of my “looking for trouble” thinking I have to break. Because that is the kind of thinking horses end up picking up on, and they’re really good at then providing you with self-fulfilling prophecies.)

During breakfast, we discussed our trail options and opted to go for a repeat of most of the Groom Creek Loop, but to explore one of the cutoff trails shown on the map for something different instead of going all the way to the lookout tower.

I’ll freely admit: I was really scared to get started that morning. When I went in to the tent to change, I sat down on my mattress and just started crying. I hate the part of me that is overrun by fear and anxiety, that thinks of worst-case scenarios and threatens panic attacks…and that threatens to interfere with something I love to do.

But the thought of not doing this anymore, of not pursuing and fulfilling my long-held dreams, is even more unbearable. So I put on my tights and half chaps, filled my water bottles, and (shhh, don’t tell, it’s my secret weapon…) took a tiny little nip of whiskey.

(Seriously…not condoning drinking + working around horses. It was less than half a mouthful, but more of the mental placebo effect than anything.)

One of the things Kaity had told me about what how “mentally visual” horses are, and in her experience, they can sense “thought bubbles” that we have…so try to think and project happy, positive images when you’re around the horse, as well as try to carry on a normal conversation with them. (I do this all the time with the pony, so I’m not sure why it doesn’t transfer over to working with other horses.)

Another change we did was to switch her from her s-hackamore to a snaffle. Libby’s still too green to use an s-hack properly — doesn’t neck rein, still needs more direct lateral pull, doesn’t bend or give well when asked, and seems to overly react to too many point of contact. At the same time, Kaity said she was seeking out some kind of contact, so the Myler snaffle I had with me would allow me to take up steady and consistent guidance and contact, without the multiple points of pressure and contact that come from a curb device such as the s-hack.

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mare models her bit set-up

And finally, I was going back to my show days of pre-riding lunging. Not all the way back to “stand back and let them yeehaw on the line”, but more than “three courtesy stretch circles and you’re done.” There was a nice sandy open spot in front of the bathrooms, so after the ponies were tacked up, we traipsed down there and I put Liberty to work trotting circles for a good ten minutes. Several changes of direction, asking her to listen to me and stay engaged, but maintain the steady trot work that slowly bleeds of pressure and puts them in a working frame of mind.

We hand-walked through camp, across to the trailhead, and I mounted up and we set off down the trail. Kaity had also instructed me on making some changes to my riding position…and the changes she had me make are the missing puzzle piece I’ve been searching for on my own for a number of years. I had been mistakenly adopting too much of a chair seat, thinking that was the key to trying to stay centered, but in reality, it was tipping me back too much, not letting me put leg on the horse, and being countered with my tendency to then hunch my upper body.

Implementing Kaity’s suggestions immediately had me feeling balanced, centered…and much braver. I also consciously kept light but consistent contact on my reins, since I have a tendency to get lazy and let the contact drop, and made sure I was mentally engaged and actively riding for success.

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leading out…Brave New World

It was a 180° change from the previous day. Liberty was alert, but moving out well (really well…she discovered she can do more than a 2.5mph molasses crawl walk!) and responding to the contact and direction. We did some leapfrogging off and on, although the nice thing about leading was having Kaity behind me reminding me to keep my shoulders back, chest up, heels down.

Near the top of the mountain we stopped for a quick breather and mental break (and snack break) for both me and Libby before continuing on to our turnoff trail, which looked like an old mining trail, and it obviously hadn’t been maintained for a few years based on the amount of deadfall trees and obstacles. It was true trail riding at its core — going up and around on re-routes, stepping through multiple logs, lots of navigation, and so much brain work for the horses…and a pretty intense trust-building exercise for a green horse and her scaredy-cat rider.

 

I was so proud of how well Liberty held it together…we were following Ani (like most horses, she feels more vulnerable being the one in the back, and can be sensitive to the idea of things jumping her from behind), there was some very technical trail obstacles, we were going downhill on a pretty good grade, and to top it off, the saddle was threatening to slide up on her ears and I’m sure it wasn’t particularly comfortable. (She will definitely be a crupper horse.)

At the bottom, we were rewarded with finding a little creek, and there was enough space for us to lead the horses in one and a time and let them drink and eat some lovely green grass.

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Ani at the creek

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very happy for the water break

After that, it was a good climb back to to where we re-connected with the Groom Creek Loop trail, which would be repeat trail from Friday, heading home. Aka “ripe for another green horse tantrum.” But no time like the present to nip her behavior in the bud and get in a schooling session.

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climbing up and out from the creek

She actually did really well for the first mile or so on the repeat trail, and then couldn’t stand it…had to start throwing a little jigging hissy fit. At which point I turned her off the trail, and asked for some circles around the closest tree, and around some bushes. Once she offered a relaxed neck and relaxed walk, she was given the opportunity to continue in the “home” direction. If she rushed, she got to do some more circles until she was ready to walk nicely again, and then we could continue on.

That did the trick for the next mile and half, and then she started getting snorty and amped. (She give you warning, at least…she does these little snorts as she goes along…one or two snorts is “I’m relaxed and having a good time” but consecutive small snorts is a precursor to “I wanna go and if you don’t let me I’ll throw a tantrum.”

The last half a mile or so, she got more and more wound up, and we ended up pausing and taking about ten minutes to do some slow, deliberate schooling of circles and serpentines over and around some convenient logs. We also took a more circuitous route around to return to the trailhead, so right about the time she thought, “Oh yeah, we’re back”, we continued on for another quarter mile for a total of an 8.5 mile loop.

All in all, couldn’t have asked for a better counter to the previous day. I was actually glad she acted up towards the end, as I was able to implement Kaity’s suggestions, and realize that I can handle her, that I do know what I’m doing, and am capable of doing this.

Afternoon back at camp was definitely a celebratory happy hour, with delicious fresh melon, cheese, lunchmeat, chips, onion dip, and the ubiquitous hard root beers. It was also warm(ish) enough for me to briefly brave using the sun shower to scrape off several days of dirt (baby wipes just aren’t the same), although with the still-blowing wind, it was cold. But being clean was worth it.

Our final wrap-up dinner that night was “clean out the cooler salad” — I made a big salad with baby greens, romaine lettuce, tomatoes, mushrooms, mozzarella and feta cheeses, croutons, bacon bits, bell peppers, avocado, and topped with the leftover tri-tip cut into thin slices, and Kaity made a side of a broccoli and cheese macaroni.

We did a big roaring bonfire to use up most of the firewood, stayed up way late with discussions over a thousand and one different topics, and finally headed off to bed when the temperatures dropped enough that the fire wasn’t even enough to keep us warm.

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campfire

That night was the only night I was really cold — I keep forgetting that the fuzzy acrylic socks don’t actually do any good on cold camping nights, and keep bringing them with me. Plus, it was cold enough that the air in the air mattress was chilly — in the future, I will further insulate the mattress by putting a foam layer between the mattress and the bed sheet. (Since it’s nearly impossible to fit one person and two dogs into a standard-sized sleeping bag, I opted for the route of putting bed sheets on the air mattress, and unzipping the sleeping bag into more of a comforter. It worked really well, especially with the bed-and-blanket-hog pups.)

Monday morning was pack up time…got the camp all cleaned up and put to rights, ponies loaded right up in Kaity’s trailer, she headed out, and I followed just a few minutes behind her. Heading home, Sofie settled within about half an hour, and both dogs slept the whole way home. Since I was coming home on a week day, I didn’t hit the standard Sunset Point traffic on I-17, and made it home in two and half hours with plenty of time to unpack the vehicle, get stuff put away, and start getting back into the swing of things.

It’s been a while since I’ve been horse camping just for fun, and this trip was one of the most invaluable learning experiences I’ve had for a very long time in my entire horse career. I learned some tools that will carry me forward, not just for this horse but for all future horses, I squared off with some of my own personal demons and beat them back, and I had a blast getting to spend several days with one of my best friends.

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Catalina camping trip

Holiday shenanigans abounded this weekend when I loaded up the Go Pony, the puppy, and myself and headed down to Catalina State Park for an overnight camping trip. It was the puppy’s first camping trip, and since my plan for her is to be my ridecamp and travelling companion, it only made sense to get her started early on the whole idea.

As for the pony? She was beyond thrilled to be going. It was her first camping trip in nearly four years, only lacking all of the typical pre-ride prep such as a bath. (She got to go in all of her filthy pony glory and her “sparkly whiteness” was still commented on.)

I was able to borrow a friend’s truck/trailer to go down, complete with gooseneck trailer space for sleeping. Both puppy and pony traveled well, Artemis in her crate in the truck with me, and pony happy because she was by herself. (Not exactly prone to lone travel anxiety, that one. She seems to prefer an open trailer, only bellowing once when she got in as we were leaving, and upon arrival at the campground.)

Of course, this still being 2013, the Tire Misadventures weren’t quite done with me, and I had to deal with this on the trailer before even pulling out of the barn:

better to discover it now than on the road…

At least it was on the trailer, not the truck, and I had it changed in about 15 minutes. Then the pony was loaded up, and we were on our way!

puppy goes on An Adventure

I didn’t hear so much as a peep out of the pony, and after her customary first five minutes of crying and squirming about being shut in her kennel, Artemis quieted down and slept pretty much all the way down.

Catalina State Park is about an hour and half drive from the barn, and it’s a nice, easy, smooth drive — perfect for someone hauling an unfamiliar rig. (I’m also completely sold on gooseneck trailers now.)
The whole point of the trip was to meet up with endurance friends Lucy and Patrick, who were spending their holiday horse camping at Catalina. Catalina seemed to be a super-popular designation for the weekend — fortunately, they saved me a spot to park as well as snagged a corral that morning for Mimi to stay in. (Yay for not having to listen to the pony attached to the trailer all night. Love her, but she’s active — she rolls, she boings her hi-tie, she clatters buckets, she rubs, she slings her hay manger around…)
Pony installed in her temporary weekend home

This was one of those trips where I was super-grateful to have the experienced pony along — no drama or fuss from her, being an old hand at this whole camping thing, so not having to worry about her left me free to deal with the puppy.

late afternoon sunlight on the Catalinas

morning sunrise over the Catalinas

The beauty of camping trips is the ability to kick back and not really have any pressing schedule to follow. (I’m sad to admit that the last horse camping I did for fun, and not associated with being at a ride, was back in 2009. 2014 goal: Change that.) Just doing a single-night stay meant that I didn’t have a whole lot to set up, either.

But winter in the desert does mean chilly nights, and I broke my cardinal “no dogs in bed” rule and let Artemis into my sleeping bag to stay warm. (Apparently I am a sucker for the “small, shivery puppy” routine.) I had a portable little propane heater, which was working pretty well right until the middle of the night when it ran out of propane, and I figured getting out of my warm sleeping bag nest would be more trouble than it was worth. Hindsight, maybe I should have at that point, since it got quite chilly in the next couple of hours, but I had extra sleeping bags, and managed to create quite a nest up in the gooseneck for us.
Artemis typically has me up between 5:30 and 6 to go out. This time, she poked her head out of the sleeping bag, then promptly ducked back in and snuggled closer. We both eventually dragged out of bed once the sun was peeking up over the mountains and it wasn’t quite as frigid, and went outside long enough for the puppy to relieve herself. Back inside, she requested (looked up at the goosebeck area and whined) to be put back in her nest, so I put her back up there, she dove into the sleeping bags, and stayed there for another couple of hours while I did pony chores.
(Having just seen Disney’s “Frozen” the night before I left, thoughts of eternal winters and ice and talking snowmen were at the forethought of my brain…)
“coldcoldcoldcoldcoldcoldcold…”

Mimi was warm and toasty, ensconced in her fleece and sheet. She was also quite happy about not having to be up at the crack of freezing-cold dawn for an early ride start. I thawed out slightly by doing pony chores — feeding, watering, cleaning the stall — and once that was done, puppy was ready to wake up and join the world for things like breakfast and enjoying the sunshine.

Saturday morning was a chance to loll about and relax. Lucy made breakfast, we walked the dogs (they had Finn the standard poodle, who became Artemis’s new best friend), then Lucy helped me with Mimi’s hooves. I feel like I’ve gotten into a trimming rut — after a while, you either don’t see the problems or you’re not sure what to do differently to address them, and a fresh set of eyes really helps — and I like how Lucy trims, so she gave me some pointers, adjusted a couple of things, and the pony had pretty feet again. It also helped give me another good baseline to try to maintain when I trim. (Pony feet…a constant learning process.)
future ridecamp puppy watches the proceedings

Artemis watched all the goings-on from the safety of a camp chair — she’s still very leery of the horses, something I’m doing nothing to discourage at this point, since she has a strong prey drive and the last thing I want her learning is how to nip at horse hooves.

All of that done, we eventually got tacked up, stashed the dogs in Lucy’s trailer, and headed out.
Patrick on Fergus (buckskin) and Lucy on Roo (grey)

I’d never ridden the Catalina trailers before, and they’e gorgeous. A great mix of some technical bits, single-track, sand, and rocks, always with the magnificent Catalina range in view/overhead. I couldn’t tell you where exactly we went, other than it was around 11 miles, and we covered a whole range of trails, including heading back to a hidden waterfall. But I think the photos tell the story best…

rude pony showing how well she tailgates
(never mind death to any horse who tries it with her…)

gorgeous view only improved by the addition
of a cute grey pony

after seeing ‘The Hobbit’ before I left, I was getting somewhat
of a Mirkwood/Middle Earth feel…

first view of the waterfalls

Mimi and Roo could pass for twins

technical bits!
to my recollection, I don’t think I’ve ever done
steps with Mimi before…no big deal

in the lead and moving out

water!!!
the creeks were running, and we probably crossed
water half a dozen times
(did we drink? of course not)

I honestly can’t remember the last time I had such fun on my pony. She was an absolute blast, and cast some major questions as to why she was retired in the first place. She was competitive, fast, strong, and definitely showing off for her new audience. I’m pretty sure she thought she was at a ride again, and SO happy about it.

The last couple of rides with other people, she’s been testing the limits a bit with her s-hack, sticking her nose in the air and generally ignoring my requests to travel nicely. So I put a running martingale on her…and oh, boy, was I glad for it. After all, it’s not every day your coming-21-year-old pony tries to run off with you…
I think one of the biggest differences was my attitude and approach to Mimi and her enthusiasm. I’ve always treated her like she’s made of glass, always afraid I was asking her for too much, trying to protect her. Riding as many different horses as I have this year has really given me more confidence in their toughness (yes, they can be delicate, but they can also be incredibly tough) and that I need to trust her to be able to handle herself. Well, she handled herself just fine, and we only had one “discussion” when she was too busy dinking around  in speed-racer excitement to watch her footing and almost face-planted at a fast trot.
Also, she-who-doesn’t-canter gave me some gorgeous, collected canters with a ton of impulsion and enthusiasm. And while I’m sure the adrenaline probably helped, I’m thinking some of her arena reluctance has been more mental than physical, since she wasn’t at all sore or tired afterwards. We did a total of 11 miles, and while her winter coat had her looking like a sweaty yak, she pulsed down immediately, drank well, and when we got back to the barn, jumped out of the trailer and tore off across the arena and pasture, herd trailing behind her.
The trip home was without incident — I even navigated a gas station with the trailer — and she was acting like she won the Kentucky Derby, trumpeting her return to the entire herd as soon as I pulled in the gate. 
If anything, this weekend showed me she’s not quite done yet, and I’m making plans to attend an upcoming NATRC ride in January with her. We will do the 9-mile fun ride, which she should easily handle. And this showed me that I just need to make a point to get her out more. I’ve got the opportunity to borrow the same rig again and more often, so I just need to do it. Getting out = happy pony and happy rider.
Next weekend is the Bumble Bee endurance ride with Liberty…can’t wait to see and ride her again, either! Great way to kick off the 2014 ride season. We’re doing the 25…should be a fun ride!
(And in other news, I changed my weight division for 2014…dropped down to Featherweight. My saddle, stuffed to the gills with way more than what I need/want to carry was the only thing keeping me in Lightweight anymore. )