First Milestones

It’s been a month and 5 days since Liberty come home. In that time, I’ve put a dozen or so miles on her in the arena, with 7 or 8 rides, plus some non-riding groundwork days, the idea being to make sure we had a solid foundation and all the critical buttons installed and functioning before hitting the trail.

Today, though, I was ready to hit the trail. It was my “birthday gift to myself” — to finally head out and start putting our trail miles on as a team, hopefully the start of what will be many more.

This mare, on her own, is a gift in her own right. She is so much what I needed, moreso than I even realized. While a part of me wishes I had been able to bring her into my life earlier, I also think that both of us are at a better place, mentally, than 7, 6, even 4 years ago. I know I have grown as a horsewoman since our early rides together, largely in part to the years of catching riding, and I’m in a much better state to be the kind of rider that she needs. She’s matured a lot, for her part, and has gotten to be a very good communicator. Or maybe I’m just a better listener now. But either way…I was so pleased with the end result of today’s ride.

She’s been really good for me in the arena, and that’s a venue that she’s not particularly well-versed in. But out on trail? She was stellar. She was bold, solid, and unflappable. Went in lead, middle, or back of our group of three without any issue. Handled the strange “mud run” obstacles that are staged permanently along some of the trail without even a blink — large pits covered in chain link, construction pylons, half-covered culverts, large stacks of straw and palates. She displayed a lovely 4.5 mph walk, was responsive to requests to keep to a walk even when she wanted to trot inclines. And I stayed confident, relaxed, and trusted her, riding with very light contact but staying out of her mouth and trusting her to make smart choices. And she did.

With today’s ride, we reached our first Virtual Tevis milestone — 14 miles to High Camp and Watson’s Monument.

On the actual ride, reaching High Camp was the first real chance I had for a break — quick work of jumping off, tossing Roo’s reins to a volunteer while he drank, and ducking off out of the way to water some non-existent bushes (squat in the weeds/grass, no one cares…), then electrolyting, hopping back on, meeting up with some friends, and starting the last bit of climbing up to Watson’s Monument.

It is Tevis tradition to look back over your shoulder as you crest the top of the mountain at Watson’s Monument and take in the view of Lake Tahoe. Unfortunately, on my year, the smoke from forest fires was so bad, I couldn’t actually see the lake but for a tiny glimmer in one spot. Oh, well. Guess that means I have to go back and get the “proper” view. :D

From Watson’s Monument, it is onward into the Granite Chief Wilderness — which remains to this day one of the prettiest, most fun sections of trail I’ve ridden.

I love how much of a consistent motivator this Virtual Tevis has been, and a great way for Liberty and myself to start “getting our sea legs” together as we slowly accumulate our miles.

Finding My Footing

It’s not even been a month. I never expected to feel this deeply, be so strongly connected already. I knew from previous experiences that I liked this mare, enjoyed riding her, felt like she had potential, and had fun with her. I never thought she would bond to the level of my soul as much as she has.

I also hadn’t realized just how badly I needed this. This being a purpose, a project, to be in the driver’s seat (saddle?), to be in a position of daring to even think about being able to put some of my long-held distance dreams on track again.

I am so thankful for the experiences catch riding has given me. Not only was I able to keep riding and competing, I learned so much during that time period, the kind of learning that can only come from riding that many different horses and riding with that many different people.

But there’s nothing quite like one’s own horse, and the potential for an active future laid out in front of them. I hadn’t realized just how much of my enthusiasm had slowly faded, how much I was going through the motions, but without a whole lot of motivation or inspiration.

To that end, I’ve sent off our first “official” ride entry as a proper team (ie, “it’s my name on the ‘Owner’s Name’ portion). Now, fingers crossed that the ride actually happens. It’s not until October but management is going to decide at the end of this month if they’ll be able to make a viable go of it.

Given that Liberty has had a year off, hasn’t done an endurance ride in about 4 years, it’s ridiculously hot out, and historically, most of our previous ride attempts were done without much by way of ideal conditioning and prep…we’re starting small, aiming for the 12-mile “fun/trail/intro/whatever-you-want-to-call-it” ride. Maybe conservative, but my aim is to set ourselves up for success as much as I can along the way, and that includes not picking one of the hardest LDs around to kick things back off again. The 12-mile course is much more straightforward, and it will be a fun weekend of camping, being among endurance friends again, and starting to figure out our routine together.

I’m excited about being back in the position of ride planning and speculating on ideas and schemes for the future, but even beyond that…

This mare makes my heart happy.

Virtual Tevis: Week 2 and into Week 3

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We’re currently sitting at a little over 7 miles along the Virtual Tevis trail, which means we’ve crossed under Highway 89 and are making our way into the Squaw Valley ski resort and up to High Camp. I loved the section from the start to the highway on the ride, and I really enjoyed seeing it is full daylight last year when I took my rider’s mare out for a pre-ride on Friday.

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Just a little taste of what the area between the start and Hwy 89 looks like.

And for fun, a video of what the area of the highway crossing looks like. This is looking south, from the north edge of the bridge over the trail crossing. Riders come down the trail on the east side (at some points you can see them snaking their way down some switchbacks in the background), cross under the highway via a trail underpass, ride up alongside the bridge, make a sharp turn to ride northbound alongside the highway (there’s a concrete barricade between the trail and the highway), and then another turn off the road onto the trail. This is from 2018, the year I rode, and Roo and I show up at about the 1:30 point in the video — little grey Arabian in yellow tack, and I’ve got a grey shirt, black tights, and white helmet.

I tried to embed this, but the Facebook embedding code doesn’t want to play nice with my blog, so here’s the direct link for the public Tevis Cup Facebook page and subsequent video:

https://www.facebook.com/TevisCup/videos/1975576312466525/ 

And a second video, this one from 2016, from the perspective at the south end of the bridge, watching riders come up from the underpass.

I’ve hung out and taken photos/videos at the Hwy 89 crossing twice before, and it’s a ton of fun. Timing is such that if you’re part of crew that needs to be at Robinson Flat, you can’t be at 89 and still make it to RF in time to catch the front-runners, but it’s a great place to hang out and get to see the entire field of entrants come through in a relatively short period of time. Everyone is still clustered together as this point, so it usually takes less than an hour to see everyone go by.

It’s currently 113* here in Phoenix, and I’m really missing my annual Tevis getaway now. Not only for the Tevis environment and social aspect and catching up with my tribe of like-minded Tevis obsessees, but also for the fact that for at least a day or two, it means a respite in weather and the higher-elevation cooler temperatures. (In fact, yours truly briefly appears in the second video as well, about 2 minutes in. The wild tangle of blondish curls and the multi-colored puffy jacket? Yep, that’s me and my very distinctive jacket.)

But even more than the weather, the socialization…I find myself craving the energy and unique sensation that only Tevis has. There’s a vibe there, the kind that gets under your skins, the kind that fuels hopes and dreams. It might be a long shot, or it might not. At this point, I have no clue, so I can’t help but dream big and find my motivation from the possibilities.

With Liberty, I’m finding that baby steps now are going to lead to incremental leaps in the future. This mare is so smart, and has such a huge try, that I feel like taking the time now to really lay this foundation and establish trust between each other will really pay off in the long run. Because she is also stubborn, dominant, and opinionated…but that’s okay, because I know how to work with that.

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War Mare Personified

Funny realization I had…she and Flash remind me so much of each other. They both equine personality test as “rock stars,” and she would be the “queen” counterpart to his regal, slightly imperious “king” aspects. Initially I didn’t make the connection of similarities — it had been a couple of years since I had been around her when I started riding Flash, but having ridden him and spent time with him off and on over the past couple of years, the similarities really struck me this time around as I’ve been working with Liberty. And that knowledge has been super instrumental in leading to success with her, because it’s taught me to respect their opinions, and to stay very level and matter of fact, and not take their opinions and small acts of defiance or attitude personally or overreact to them, but still stay firm, and redirect or correct as necessary, but done in a way that isn’t emotionally charged or defensive. I know Flash made me a better horsewoman, and in turn, I find myself now transferring those same skills into Liberty. It’s calm, confident leadership that supports but extends trust to the horse.

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Today’s nemesis was something in that corner by the evil trailers.

Today was a day that demanded some tact and patience. Liberty’s biggest issue is she can be balky. If there’s something she doesn’t like, she will stop, plant her hooves, and refuse to move. She’s gotten away with it, too, because she learned that rather than fight her, her rider preferred to just dismount and lead her if they were solo, or rely on a tow from the other horse if they were riding with people. I myself employed the “buddy tow” system when I’ve ridden her in the past, especially at rides, or found myself relying a little too much on the ability to smack her with a crop. And I just don’t want to have to rely on that in the long run. So I was rather pleased to have her balky side pop its head up sooner, rather than later, and give me the opportunity to work through it today.

Shagyas are known for having a stubborn streak, which can make them interesting characters to work with, especially when that’s on top of an already opinionated horse. But by my own genetic background, I’m half-Slavic, which means I’m just as stubborn as my mare, and I was determined that I would out-patience her.

Ultimately, we stood in that arena corner for almost 10 minutes, eking out one step at a time. I had a couple of simple guidelines: she couldn’t back up, and she couldn’t bolt or rush through. And by the end of that time, she had made her way up to the scary corner, given several good Arab snorts, and then finally, I felt her give a big breath and relax her whole back and body. From there, we proceeded to do another 10 minutes of solid walk work until I really felt her settle, and then from there, we were able to do almost 10 minutes of solid trot work. I also started asking her for a little “more” in her trot, not just the soft little dib-dib trot, and it turns out she’s got a very nice 8mph trot in there. Not only is this building her fitness, it’s building my comfort levels, as well as readjusting my own internal odometer to “normal horse pace” versus years of “pony pace.”

I was thrilled with how the session went today. Was she perfect? Nope. I don’t know her well enough to know if we’re still working the kinks out (very likely), she’s still getting into the habit of regular work (also likely), or something is not comfortable — still haven’t found a bit she likes, and I don’t know if she likes the Total Saddle Fit girth versus the mohair. Thing to keep experimenting with. But we worked through some hiccups, and I’m super-proud of how both of us handled it. I kept my patience and my cool, and most importantly, my confidence. And she worked through a major balky moment without becoming scared, or resentful.

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Definitely still talking to each other at the end.

When we finished, as I was untacking her back in the barn, that mare’s face was fascinating. I could see the wheels turning in her eyes as she was processing everything, and she stood for a solid five minutes licking and chewing and yawning. Some major releasing and processing happening.

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Post-shower, enjoying making a mess of her sloppy mash. She’s definitely getting more svelte, and I’m seeing some more muscle development. She’s also reverting to more of her true seal bay color that she’s usually been. Previously, I’ve never seen her as dark, almost black, as she was when I brought her home. Which was fine, she’s beautiful either way, but I do lean more towards the seal bay shading as my preference, just because it’s a little more contrast on her beautiful face. Guessing some of this is sweat/salt/sunfade…but she was in 24/7 unsheltered turnout up in Kingman, and they get plenty toasty up there, too.

On the pony front…

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She received the talk about using your powers for good or evil at some point in her life. I now know which side she chose…

Fine, Mimi, I get it. No more fly sheets this year. Obviously making her exuberance over not having to wear clothes anymore known…

Destructive tendencies aside, Mimi is loving retirement life. As long as she gets first cookies, a cool shower when it’s hot, her itchy spots scratched, and the food supplied, she’s a happy camper, and seems to be rather content that I have something else to occupy my riding time and attention.

 

The Year Tevis Wasn’t

You know it’s a strange year when Tevis cancels. In all of the years since its inception, there have only been two major disruptions to the ride’s scheduled date — the 2008 cancellation due to massive wildfires, and the 2011 date change to October due to late-season snow. But 2020 has been the first time the Tevis Board of Governors has preemptively voted to cancel the ride, and well in advance of the scheduled date.

Given that I’ve made an annual pilgrimage to Auburn every summer since 2012 (and several other intermittent times prior to then), it feels very strange to not be there this year.

(The WSTF has creatively offered a “virtual Tevis” this year — 100 miles in 100 days, based on your miles submitted from training rides, competitions, and other horsey endeavors. Liberty and I are signed up, as our first major “goal” together. It kicks off Aug 1 — what was supposed to be Ride Day — and continues through Nov 9.)

As I write this now, it is the evening on Friday of what would have been the day before Tevis.  The scenic drive across I-80 from Auburn to Truckee would have been completed, the temperatures dropping the further east we headed, the scenery changing from the Auburn foothills to the soaring alpine peaks of the Sierras. The long last stretch into Robie Park would have been made, with obligatory remarks among all in the vehicle of, “I always forget how long of a drive it is back here.” The vehicles would have received their first coating of Tevis dust.

A parking spot would have been found — most people have a “favorite” spot, and all of us are convinced that “our” spot is the “best” for various reasons.

Riders would have checked in, signed their waivers and paperwork, and picked up their rider packets. Horses would be vetted in, numbered, and gone out for a pre-ride to the start line, and perhaps the first couple miles of the trail. There was also likely some time slotted in there for perusing the vendor tents. (Pro Crew Tip: When your rider goes out for a pre-ride, that is a great time to sneak in a blitz round of shopping.)

Crew and rider will all be tending to some of the details around camp — making sure the crew bags are packed and that everything that needs to go to the Robinson Flat vet check is set aside, or packed in a secondary crew vehicle. Horses may be getting last-minute tending such as mane braiding, or making sure they’re eyeballs-deep in a bucket. Camp is being tidied up so there is minimal clean-up in the morning before leaving Robie Park. All afternoon long are chances to attend various pre-ride meetings (crew meeting, first-time rider meeting, junior rider meeting) although none of these are mandatory (unless you’re a junior rider/sponsor) until the main ride briefing later in the evening.

The ride offers the opportunity to purchase meal tickets to a pre-briefing dinner, but over the years, my core Tevis group has found that it is easier/less stressful/more predictable to put together our own meal ahead of time and eat dinner before briefing.

By 6pm, all horses will have been vetted, and ride briefing started at 6:45. For as much information as there is to be covered, much of it has been provided ahead of time via the e-packet emailed out to riders in the weeks preceding the ride, and the briefing serves to reiterate the most critical parts of that information, as well as any last-minute changes to be made. This meeting is mandatory for riders, and most crew members will also attend.

After the meeting adjourns, riders may linger for a few moments to briefly socialize, must most quickly disperse back to their trailers. Horses are taken out for a final walk for the evening. Tack is given a final once over, set-up and ready to go first thing in the morning.

Some crew leave out early in a separate crew car to spend the night back down the hill in Auburn or Foresthill, so as to be that much closer to Robinson Flat and avoid the log-jam of rush hour that is the great trailer exodus out of Robie Park in the morning.

 

The morning will roll around all too quickly, and most riders try to get to bed as early as possible. Pony noses are kissed goodnight, accompanied by a quick cuddle and gentle admonition to eat and drink well overnight, and rest up.

Finally, before bed, the full moon is glanced up at. Wishes are being made on it, and not on stars, tonight. Wishes from the riders that hope they’ll be seeing that moon again the following night, along the trail and all the way to the stadium in Auburn. Wishes from crew for a safe ride for their horse and ride, and that they’ll be watching the moon from the dark, quiet knoll next to the finish line as they wait for their rider to appear out of the darkness and sweep under the banner.

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Good night Tevis riders, and Tevis crews. May we all be gathered back together under that Rider’s Moon in 2021. Best of luck to all participating in the virtual ride this year, and I will “see” you on the virtual trail.

A New Addition

In the 27 years I’ve been riding, I have ridden dozens of horses. At one point, I even had a running list going, and I think I managed to remember the vast majority of them. But in all that time, only one of those horses has ever been mine. This fall will mark 24 years for me and Mimi, and what a ride it’s been. She has given me more than I could have ever asked for, is my heart and soul, and she was well-earned the right to gracefully retire, with her dignity, soundness, and spirit still intact. And as long as she still gets the first cookie handouts of the day, I don’t think she will object too strenuously over me bringing in a new pony.

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Prescott Chaparral 30, 2013; AZ Cowgirl Photography

Welcome home, Liberty.

If you’ve been following my blog for any length of time, she will be a recognizable face. I first rode her back in 2013, and she was another “instant click” horse I bonded with the moment my butt hit the saddle. We’ve done four limited distance endurance rides together, have the most breathtakingly unimpressive, bordering-on-laughable record together (we are 1/4 on ride completions, thanks in large part to under-preparation and a pinch of bad luck), but every single time, I’ve had fun with her. And that’s what I’m after right now — fun, and the ability to ride without feeling a low-grade sense of guilt or anxiety over “why am I still asking my aging pony to tote me around.” She’s a fabulous trail horse, and although she’s 14 now, she has done so very little in life that she has virtually no wear and tear on her.

Prescott Chaparral 30 2013
Bumble Bee 25 2014
Bumble Bee 25 2016
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Groom Creek camping weekend 2016

My goal is to start small, and with low expectations. I just want to see what she does with more regular conditioning, and if it’s a positive result…go from there. I believe she has the ability to be very versatile as well, so if she doesn’t absolutely love tearing up the endurance trail, I think we can find plenty of options to amuse ourselves with as alternates. In the meantime, she’s a quasi-project — she has a solid foundation of training and decent amount of life exposure and experiences, but she’s been sitting around for the past year+, so is a bit soft and fluffy. So while she’ll need some work to get back into fitness, she’s not a training project the same way a youngster would be (the kind who need ideally need 5-6 short, frequent training sessions/week, and that’s just not going to happen in my current reality). She’s also in “pasture condition” and has lived a lifestyle of 24/7 herd turnout with lots of movement and a very simple, grass-hay diet, so she doesn’t have a bunch of extra “fat pounds” to melt off.

When the topic of horse shopping comes up, and what to look for in an endurance horse, there’s all kinds of advice given about the conformation, the brains, size, temperament, age, training how they move/travel/hold a saddle, what to look for, what to avoid…everyone has their own personal preferences. The bit of advice that has been my favorite has been from Lucy: “They should make you laugh.”

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Bumble Bee 25, 2016; AZ Cowgirl Photography

Well, this mare makes me laugh. I’ve spent time around her in ride environments, as well as a casual camping weekend. I have seen just about every mood she has. I have shoved her off the deep end on numerous occasions and she has always risen to the task. It hasn’t always been pretty, but we’ve always gotten it done, for better or for worse. I’ve ridden her a collective 7 times to date, and I trust her completely. I enjoy spending time around her, and she’s a really fun ride. She’s also really smooth, and although I suspect she has a competitive streak that is not far below the surface (she is bred for endurance, after all, with a 100-mile-proven Shagya sire and a racebred [and raced] Arabian dam), she is easy to rate, has a very soft face, and doesn’t pull. She’s opinionated, affectionate, loves attention, and isn’t afraid to throw her feed pan at you to make her point.

As far as endurance goes, she definitely has some stuff in her favor, despite our “hot mess” of a record. She travels well, she camps well, she has EDPP down to a science (she is the embodiment of “hungry, hungry hippo” and drinks like a fish — the only horse I’ve ever ridden who stops 3 miles into a ride to drink — and cheerfully evacuates it out the back end with no hesitation as she trucks down the trail), she is mostly good on manners in-hand (probably needs a refresher on that, she can be pushy), can lead or follow in a group, will ride out by herself, is not particularly spooky and really not reactive, and doesn’t seem to ever get overly worried about life. Or if she is worried, it doesn’t put her off her feed (grab a bite, chew, scream for friend, go back to eating) or disrupt her. More, she does the disrupting, because she is loud and will loudly scream for her friends…but that’s all she does. She has really good metabolics (even under-conditioned, she pulses down really fast) and absolutely eats hills for breakfast and asks for seconds. She’s been barefoot her whole life, has grown up in the brutally rocky Arizona desert, and can go flying over 10+ miles of an endurance rock completely barefoot and not even hesitate once. Fortunately, as long as the size/style is right, she wears boots really well.

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Exhibit A. Truly, it’s more of a bellow than scream. Lungs…she’s got ’em.

And some hills for Exhibit B.

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Rock crushing at Wickenburg after some hoofwear malfunctions. (When you work for a boot company; sometimes guinea-pig testing doesn’t always go to plan.)
AZ Cowgirl Photography

I know she’s 14…but she wasn’t started until she was 6, has lived in a large pasture turnout setting her entire life, and hasn’t had hard enough work to put a ton of wear and tear on her. So we’ll see what happens. I have big dreams…but starting with low expectations.

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