Lead Dogs

So many little white pony ear shots…the only thing that
changes is the scenery. Always bold and always perky.

In reading Funder’s blog post about her Nevada Derby 50 ride, she had a section where she talked about sled dog racing, lead dogs, and the similarities to that and endurance. She put into words pretty much exacty what I was thinking, so with her permission, I copy it here:

I spent a lot of time thinking about lead dogs. 

This year I fell off into watching the Iditarod pretty closely, and I read two books about long-distance sled racing. It’s fascinating, really, the similarities and differences between endurance riding one horse and endurance racing 8-16 dogs. One of the main things sled racers worry about is their lead dogs. Not every dog has it in her to lead the pack, and only the best of the best can lead for a thousand miles straight. Most teams — even winning teams — rotate between several lead dogs. If your lead dog quits on you, he’s probably nottired, he’s just mentally tired from being in front, and he needs to just run with the pack in the middle for a couple (hundred) miles.

So that was perking along in the back of my mind all day. It’s hard to be the lead dog.When Dixie and I were leading, I noticed that I had to concentrate much harder to make damn sure I was on the right trail. Can I see a ribbon ahead? When’s the last time I saw one? How’s the footing ahead, should I slow us down, don’t forget to signal when you slow down! What do I remember about this section? Can we walk for a quarter mile and get to better trail, or is this a section where you trot ten feet and walk ten feet and trot again?

The horses are the same way. And they’re herbivores, not brave predators. The lead horse has to watch for rocks and pick her footing; the horses behind the lead horse just step exactly where the lead horse stepped. (You’ve seen this — you know that if the horse in front of you stumbles over a rock, there’s a 90% chance your horse is going to stumble over the same damn rock.) It’s hard to be the lead dog for a horse too! 

And I kept that in mind all afternoon as we swapped out our lead dogs. They’d all recovered fine, they weren’t lame, and Dixie and Kody are both hundred-mile horses. They weren’t tired; they were tired of leading. I didn’t get mad at Dixie, and I didn’t fall into my usual “she’s just not cut out for this sport we should give up” pit of despair. She did really well and she was really honest!

I’ve also dabbled here and there with an interest in sled dog racing — enough to have several books on the subject, at least. And there’s nothing like reading about sled dog racing to make you feel good about your sanity level as an endurance rider.
To be honest, I’ve never had to put a lot of thought into the mental pressures of leading. Mimi is naturally a lead horse. She prefers to lead, getting sulky, spooky, pouty, and sometimes downright naughty when kept in the back for too long. (When riding with friends, about the time they hear me cussing behind them is when they know it’s time to let the pony lead.) She can also keep up with or out-pace all the horses we’ve ridden with, and is still overall one of the boldest, bravest horses I’ve ridden. (To be fair, she also has who-knows-how-many hours and miles of experience.)

She’s also a pretty “easy” ride in the sense that the toughest thing to do is try to keep her to a dull roar and persuade her to not dislocate your shoulders. Especially at a ride, when she’s “on” she doesn’t even think about spooking or being naughty — she just wants to get down the trail, preferably faster than what I’d like her to do. But when the pony knows her job and does it, it’s pretty easy for me as a rider to do things like pay attention to the trail and ribbons. (Trail judgment…that’s a topic worthy of its own post…)

My pony has me so spoiled.

This past year, riding so many different horses showed me that this is kind of bold leadership is not par for the course. While it happened to varying degrees with a number of the horses I rode, I’m thinking specifically about Liberty. 

Happy ears, just a couple miles into the ride and still
feeling confident.
Prescott Chaparral 2013
I touched on it a bit in my Prescott Chaparral story, and again in the Bumble Bee write-up, but Liberty is a classic case of needing the mental break from leading. She’s still a young, green horse with not a whole ton of experience, and while she is naturally dominant in a herd, and has a curiosity, willingness, and boldness that will serve her well going down the trail, right now she still very much needs those mental breaks.

Less bold at this ride and much more
“wibbley-wobbley” young horse.

And riding horses who don’t have it quite “all together” yet has been more mentally taxing on me as a rider, including a couple of times at rides last year of missing ribbons/getting off course. Apparently I don’t multi-task as well as I thought…

It’s been an eye-opener for me to experience this, especially once I made the connection of what was actually going on versus the automatic assumption of “I broke my horse.” In all the rides we did, I only recall Mimi hitting a wall twice — once on a ride we’d done multiple times on trails we’d trained on, on a hot day, going away from camp yet again and she really just wanted to be done; and once when she tied up. tend to hit mental walls more than she does, and it’s often the perky pony attitude that gets me out of my funk.

I also touched on this a bit when musing about heart rate monitors — that “mental wall” is part of why I do like to ride with one, especially on horses I don’t know as well. It helps tell me whether they truly are tired and it’s reflecting in their pulse, or if they’re just mentally tired.

In front, and braver…but it took a lot of support on my part
to keep her there.

I’m sure some of this is my “growing pains” of adapting to riding other horses. Like I said, the pony has me spoiled, and the faster I get used to the fact that not every horse is going to be another Mimi, the easier it’ll be on me. And fortunately, I’ve still got her to fall back on, when I need a confidence booster or don’t want the pressure of having to be so “on” as a rider the entire time. (Not to say I let my guard down with her…the times I have, it’s usually ended up in a parting of the ways…that pony moves fast.)

It’s certainly true horses are a lifetime of learning, and the more of them you’re around, the more they teach you. I know I’ve learned that my preference in horses is a bold, forward leader…I would rather have one I hold back a bit than one I have to constantly coax, cajole, and pedal. Obviously, there is going to be some degree of coaxing, cajoling, and pedaling on young horses while they’re figuring life out…and that’s okay. As long as they eventually turn into a bold, confident, reliable, trail-safe horse…I’m happy.

Lessons Learned: Bumble Bee edition

Had to cogitate on this one for a few days…didn’t have any major revelations after the initial writing of it, so time to post it.

And now for the ever-popular, “What Worked, What Didn’t, and Other Random Musings.” [Complete ride story here.]

What Didn’t Work

Time-keeping. Obviously. I still don’t know how we got so far behind on getting ready. The only thing I can think of is not being used to starting early on an LD, and it was cold and dark and we were slow.

Self care. More fail. Because of the whole time thing, I managed a cup of coffee and banana for breakfast. And then I ate nothing on the first loop (too busy active riding), and nothing on the second loop. I did semi-okay drinking…probably an entire 20 oz bottle on each loop. The only reason I got away with this was it was 25 miles, and the weather was cool. This is kind of a new challenge for me…I’ve been spoiled by the autopilot pony over the years.

Stirrups. A-freakin’-gain. I hate stirrups. I’ve yet to find ones I truly love. I do like my Cloud Stirrups, but they are so heavy, and on a saddle that’s already on the weighty side, it’s just that much more. So I found a pair of Gaston Mercier stirrups used on a great price, and picked them up…but after riding in them this weekend, I don’t know if there’s enough weight distribution in the footbed, at least not for how heavily I tend to weigh my stirrups when I’m actively riding. Partway through the first loop, my feet were starting to go numb just a bit. I’ll still keep messing with them…I think I also might have had my stirrups a touch short, but that’s my default security setting on a new/young horse.

Saddle. Still not 100% ideal. Liberty was a touch sore on her loins, but not as bad as after Prescott Chaparral. Still…I don’t want to see any soreness, especially after 25 miles, since distance rarely improves that condition. And I’m still so sore where I was getting slammed into the rise on her abrupt stops.

Goatheads. Bleh. Goatheads in the camping area. Still picking them out of my boots. Note to self: Invest in doggie booties and bring them to rides on the off-chance there will be goatheads. (They weren’t there last year.) There were some unhappy dogs this year, mincing their way across the ground. Note to self: Buy dog booties to just keep as part of the ride gear.

What Worked

Tack. Libby and Mimi use the same set-up, sans crupper (for now) on Libby. I just have to let everything out by a hole or two on Libby. (Note to self: Use sharpie to mark the different holes, for ahead-of-time adjusting next time.)

My clothing. The “Lady GaGa” tights are from Evelyn the Tights Lady, and they got more comments than just about any pair I’ve worn. Funky, they coordinated well, and with the full sheepskin saddle cover, not too slippery. I had a polyester tech-material tank top on under a long-sleeved denim shirt, and topped with a lightweight soft shell windbreaker for the first loop. I ditched the jacket at the lunch hold, and kept everything else the same. First ride for my fringed Just Chaps half chaps and they worked excellent. What’s nice about them is they’re short enough that they don’t run into the back of my knee at all, and the suede is super-flexible and soft.

No martingale. Libby did some head slinging at Prescott Chaparral, and I threatened to put a martingale on her the next ride. I decided to start without one, since I’m a minimalist that way, and add it if needed. I never needed it, and her worst behavior indiscretions (happy feet hopping) wouldn’t have been solved with the martingale anyway.

No leg wraps. Yay, she doesn’t interfere. As long as she doesn’t I will continue to not use any kind of splint/ankle boots.

Camera. I remembered to take more photos this time. Why I could do this, and not eat, I’m not quite sure.

Riding buddy. Gina and I always have fun when we ride together. And Libby and Wicked paced well together. Riding with Wicked helped Libby discover that she just might have a decent walk, and she started learning to stretch out her trot when she realized I wouldn’t let her canter.

Boots. Liberty’s Renegade Vipers worked perfectly. At Chaparral, we pitched a hind boot on a water crossing/uphill climb. The only difference was size. This time, we had the next-longer size of Vipers available, and that extra 5mm of length on both fronts and hinds altered the size enough to be exactly what she needed. They didn’t budge this time around.

The horse. I love this mare. She reminds me so much of Mimi. I can’t wait to do more with her.

The ride. Ride management puts on an awesome ride. I’ve been able to peripherally appreciate it, as I’ve been part of the volunteer staff for Bumble Bee and McDowell, but being able to participate in the ride and really benefit from the work management puts into it was fantastic. Well-marked trail, great volunteers, enthusiastic management, and a well-run ride. I’m just sad I didn’t get one of the cute mugs they did for completion awards.

Random Musings

– Battle of Wills: Stubborn Horse vs. Stubborn Rider. This is an interesting one, in that it both did and didn’t work. The “didn’t” part would be I would have just preferred she not pull out the “stubborn mare” card…but what worked was that I had to deal with it. At Chaparral, she pulled that and we sent Uno out in front and she happily followed. This time, she didn’t want to lead, but she started wanting to hop/pitch a fit when following. So she had to lead. She didn’t get to bow out this time. Based on how dominant she is, I fully suspect this was a test to see if I was “worthy” of leading her and whether or not I was sending her to her doom. Overall, I think I did pretty okay…ultimately, she didn’t win on the “dig heels in and refuse to move forward” front. But next time, crop. And she needs more arena time to get sensitized to leg cues. (The good thing: She’s not an over-reactive, emotional horse who goes into hysterics when she’s thumped in the side or swatted on the rear. Subtle riders ‘r us.)

No tire issues. Good start to the year, since the first ride of 2013 was the one that started all of the tire issues…

Ride Story: Bumble Bee 25 2014

Bumble Bee…otherwise known as the ride with the really long name, or “Lead, Follow or Get Out of My Way @ Bumble Bee” ride. I volunteered it last year…this year, I had the chance to ride it. Gina brought Liberty down for me to ride again — our second ride together.

I’m going to segue for a moment to detail out a theory I have that’s tended to hold true over the years. For me at least, on the horses I’ve really clicked with, the first ride has been magical. Heavenly choir and hallelujah chorus echoing in the distance, and the feeling that I can go anywhere and do anything with this horse. The feeling that sears into your subconscious and stays with you forever. A good thing, too…because inevitably, the second ride is when all hell tends to break loose and you find out what you’re really dealing with.

I had that happen with Mimi…my first test ride on her was amazing. And I had to keep reminding myself of that feeling for the next couple of years as we argued and struggled…it was something to cling to, that we could one day reach that level of partnership again.

Guess what happened this weekend? Yep. I got to experience the “other” side of Liberty. But knowing what I know now, coupled with the horse herself…her “other” side is still not going to be that difficult to work with, and most of it will be solved with experience, exposure, and wet blankets.

The very shortened cliffnotes version of the weekend? We finished…but overtime. The fact we got a late start, coupled with a number of “baby horse brain” training moments meant we came in about half an hour over…and I’m okay with it. It was my decision to deal with the issues as they came up, before they turned into major problems down the line, and my decision to back off and not push it as soon as I realized there was no way we were making time. That didn’t take away from the fact I had a great ride in gorgeous scenery on a really fun horse who has a ton of potential. We all finished in one piece, riders stayed on top, no one tripped and face-planted, no one kicked, and there were no tears or blood involved.

Sooo, now for details…

Friday afternoon saw me and one stuffed suburban heading out, leaving Future Ridecamp Dog in the extremely capable hands of my parents for the weekend. Much as I would have loved to bring her, she’s just a little young still. Hopefully sometime this year…

overlooking the Bradshaws

The last four miles of the dirt road into Bumble Bee wasn’t quite as icky as I remember it being…but that could also be because I remembered that I have a 4-wheel-drive vehicle…and remembered to use said four-wheel-drive this year. (Blonde moment? What blonde moment?)

pretty sure they have more cattle than that now…

arriving to basecamp

I had a chance to meander around camp and visit with friends while I waited for Gina and Kirt to arrive. Once they did, we whisked the horses out of the trailer and vetted them in before we ran out of daylight.

Liberty watching the vetting area

Liberty vetted with all As, except for a B on guts, and 40 pulse — not bad for just hopping out of the trailer, being near-dusk, and being several horses away from her travel-and-riding-companion-horse. I would also like to remind people this is only her third ride, at a brand-new basecamp she’s never been to, and only the second time I’ve handled her.

Yeah, pretty sure she’s got a good (if young) brain between those ears.
ranch pavilion where ride meeting was held

After we vetted them in, we found the permanent ranch corrals we had reserved for the weekend. The horse Gina had brought to ride hadn’t been tested on the hi-tie, as since there were permanent corrals available, we figured that would be the better way to go. And was it ever. The corrals were 35×50, so gave the horses a ton of room to move around all night. There were also feeders (no need to hang hay mangers) and large auto water troughs, so no hauling water. I could get used to this.

After settling in Liberty and Gina’s horse Wicked, we scuttled back over to the pavilion where they were just starting to serve the ride dinner (spaghetti, salad, garlic bread, and brownies with ice cream). We munched down on dinner and listened to the ride meeting, including fun things like the “horse name raffle” in which all of the horses who are entered in the ride have their names put into a jar and a random drawing is done for various door prizes. It was kind of strange listening for a horse’s name other than Mimi’s. Liberty’s name wasn’t drawn, but it was still fun.
And then ride meeting was over, and it was back to the trailer to throw the horses another flake of hay, pack saddles, and socialize with friends before bed. I got a nice sofa bed, with a heater down on the floor and Gina’s Rottweiler as a foot-warmer.

As is typical for me on Friday nights before a ride, I didn’t sleep all that well…but new settings combined with the always-present pre-ride nerves mean this is pretty much standard practice for me. It’s always kind of a relief when the alarm finally goes off and I can wake up for good, get dressed, and get on with things.

Ride morning was when we made our first tactical error. I don’t know what it was, but it seemed like time flew by. I had allowed almost two hours before the start, and I was still scrambling, to the point where I forgot my vet card as we were walking up to go check in and had to run back for it. (Yay, early morning cardio.)

Liberty was somewhat up, but still well-behaved, with the exception of trying to paw the air when I wanted to pick her hooves and put her boots on. Least they go on easily…

Liberty is currently running in Renegade Vipers, 140×135 on the fronts and 140×130 on the hinds. To put that in perspective, I can fit Mimi’s boots inside Libby’s with room to spare. This mare has nice, big, lovely feet.

I had the same set-up from Prescott Chaparral, with the exception of a different girth and Woolback pad instead of Skito (my Skito foam inserts have just about had it and I really need to get them replaced). I don’t know if it was the pad, or her being slightly more trim, but my saddle fit her better this time around.

We probably should have allowed more time to get ready, but it’s hard to think about that when it’s cold and dark out, and you’re not used to starting an LD at 7:30 in the morning. Oh, well…now we know…

So we hand-walked over to the start (halfway down, I discovered I’d forgotten my vet card, prompting the aforementioned dash to the trailer and back), Kirt gave both of us a leg up (which I need to practice…I was about as graceful as a flopping tuna, not being used to this whole “leg up” concept), and we made our way out of camp.

mares moving out from the start

“Out of camp” meant down a dirt road and through the ranch barn yard…past things like ranch equipment, wired horses, and…goats. Here, Liberty’s lack of exposure to a lot of things made itself known, as it took us probably another ten minutes to make it through and out to where the actual trail started. (Hindsight: Should have hand-walked. But I didn’t relish remounting, since Libby’s a little taller than my usual pony fare.)

indecisive mare ears…not sure if she wants to lead or make
Wicked go first

I gotta say, the ride name is kind of ironic…”Lead, Follow…” since neither mare wanted to lead particularly well, but neither did they necessarily want to follow. In their pasture, Liberty is boss over Wicked…but Wicked is the more experienced of the two out on trail and at rides.

We did quite a bit of frequent trading off and on of who was leading for the first half of the first loop, which was a mix of sand wash and road like the above photo. Liberty also started drinking when we hit the water at 7 miles, and proceeded to drink at every available opportunity afterwards. Hydration will not be a problem with this mare.
About halfway through the loop, we hit the Black Canyon Trail, which was an awesome section of single track with some technical sections. Liberty excels at this kind of trail. For being 15.1 (or thereabouts) and somewhat rectangular in her build, she can compact herself up and motor right through those twisty trails. Of the two, she did much better at leading through at a speed faster than a walk, so she got elected to lead for the next 7 miles. We had a couple of battle of the wills, that involved her planting her feet and me convincing her that forward was actually the order of the day, but overall, I was extremely pleased with how she did. She did some smart footwork, and really, really tried. There were a lot of large rocks and rock piles along this section that were quite scary, and she was brave as long as I was right there with her. It was definitely a lot of active riding on my part — rein contact, leg contact, core muscles engaged, steer the horse, look ahead, pay attention, let Libby know she’s doing good…no autopilot today.
cross-country section that routed around a rock slide on the
Black Canyon Trail

Gina and Wicked behind us on the Black Canyon
Trail. Wicked is every bit as big as she looks — at
least 16 hands tall.
short climbing section on the BCT…Libby acts
like the hills aren’t even there.

The last bit of loop one took us off the Black Canyon Trail and down into a wash that lead back to camp. The wash actually had a flowing little stream-lette going through it, and ride photographer Susan Kordish was there to take what I’m sure will be awesome ride photos.

Heading back through the wash and stream was a blast. Liberty was a bit unsure of the water, so as long as Wicked went ahead, we were actually able to trot through the wash, splashing through the water. (Next time, I must remember to get video.) 
Yes, this is the AZ desert. Really.

We hand-walked back down the same road we had left on, and back into camp. Both mares were pulsed immediately (Libby was at 44(!)), and she vetted through with all As, except a B on gut sounds. She also pawed the air because there was alfalfa on the ground right. there. and I wouldn’t let her grab it, and cantered and leaped through part of her trot-out. Yeah, worn out, that one.

We were in for our hold at 10:52…recommended in-time was 10:30. So if we hadn’t started late, we actually would have been right on target, pace-wise, even with the young horse training moments.

Back at the trailer, she tucked into the bucket of soaked pellets Kirt had made up, and proceeded to slop and scarf her way through the next hour.
“I shall call you Mush Face, and a lovely Mush Face you shall be.”

Gina, Wicked, and Kirt at the hold

We were actually early for our out-time (and yet another graceful leg up into the saddle for me…), and I laughed as Liberty stood in the road, doing her trademark air-pawing. As soon as we hit our time, we were off, and as soon as we cleared camp, both mares sprang into a trot and booked it out of there. 

Okay, cheerful willingness to leave camp is good.
The second loop was only 9 miles, but we had been warned it was slow-going. A lot of the trail followed the Black Canyon River (which is a tiny stream by most definitions), crossing over the river bed and paralleling it for over half of the loop. Which meant we had a ton of water crossings, and sand, and climbs. (Otherwise known as rigorous conditions for hoof boots.)

This loop, even though it was slow-going, was So. Much. Fun. I’d call it alone worth the price of admission. Water is a novel concept for this desert rat, as well as for my desert rat horse, but Liberty was with the program, and she proceeded to drink out of every single stream crossing. I wasn’t going to discourage the hydration, but this wasn’t helping our time…
paralleling the Black Canyon “River”
Partway through the loop, we had a big climb up a steep jeep road, and she powered up it, pausing only once for a brief moment. Her heart rate peaked at 160, then immediately started dropping, and she was back down to 80 in under a minute, and not even breathing hard. I cannot wait to see what this horse does when she’s in shape…
After the climb, we were on a jeep road that slowly started winding back towards camp. With the internal compass pointed due “trailer”, both mares perked up even more…perhaps a bit too much so, as Wicked started trying to canter the small uphills, which in turn meant Liberty also wanted to canter…and exercise her canter-induced “happy feet” (read: crowhops that threatened to turn into some bucks). Uh, not in my world, sweetheart. 
She definitely wanted to go faster, but some of the footing was tricky (lots of embedded rock slabs in the road), and she had started doing a bit of tripping — I don’t know if it was because she was getting tired, or just not paying attention to her feet — but either way, it meant it was time to slow down and re-group the baby horse brain. It was also at this point that I realized we were still roughly 4 miles out from camp and had 15 minutes before cut-off. Unless the two mares magically sprouted wings, that wasn’t going to happen, and there’s no sense in pushing it.
So we proceeded back at a sensible, not-rushing-the-clock pace, treating it as we would have had we still been on time…trotting where it was good, walking the rough, keeping brains intact. We also got more great photos from Susan as we crossed the “river”, and I had a “discussion” with Liberty about making nasty faces when being passed, as well as the inappropriateness of spinning and trying to take off after them.
We headed back in the same running-stream wash, and back into camp the same way.
We were officially a touch over 30 minutes over…so, our late start, plus the fact we just meandered the last few miles in. But we pulsed down to 48 immediately, and vetted out with As, and a B for gut sounds. When I asked Dr. Rick about the B on guts and whether that was just “her”, he said that, at least to him, a B is what he considers “normal” and As are “exceptional.” She also trotted out great…keeping it to a civilized dull roar this time.
And then we were done. :) We went back over to the trailer, un-tacked, and pulled and examined boots. I hadn’t touched Liberty’s boots all day, including at the lunch hold, and they hadn’t budged, even through all the water, sand, climbs, and fancy footwork. Safe to say we’ve got her boots ironed out.
We were even able to give the mares a bath afterwards, then put them in their corrals to roll, dry off, and eat some more while we went back to the trailer for food and to do some Renegade customer service.
Requisite goofy picture of normally-attractive mare

I love this part of going to rides and working with Kirt and Gina in a hands-on setting…I always end up picking up just one more tip or trick on fitting/sizing/troubleshooting, or learning something I hadn’t previously known or thought of.

Kirt and Gina headed back home later that evening, so I shared my friend Angie’s living quarters for the night, since I’m not overly fond of driving I-17 at night, then headed home the next morning, where I had a very enthusiastic puppy welcoming committee.
Officially, we might not have “completed”, but we ended up with a great 25-mile training ride over some gorgeous scenery with good company on a great horse. I call that a win.
until next time, big mare… *kisses*

a week in pictures

It’s been one of those weeks where nothing has happened that warrants its own full blog post…just a lot of random little stuff here and there.

The Man Against Horse ride is next weekend and I can’t wait! Liberty and I are going to be doing the 25. It’s been four years since I’ve done this ride and I’ve been on pins and needles for the past month, just wanting the ride weekend to Be Here already.

Gina sent this to me. Liberty went out all by
herself like a big girl and was very good. :)

This amusing face got worked last weekend, her first time since her massage. I could tell a big difference under saddle. She was moving well, and it wasn’t like trying to steer a 2×4.

“Behold me, in my innocence.”

Innocent-face got a sloppy mash…

…which she proceeded to drool all over my
suburban. Which had just gone through the
car wash the day before.

I’ve been doing ride prep for Man Against Horse here and there in the evenings as I think about stuff that needs done. The other night, I made a new fancy red tail ribbon for Liberty to wear, since the first one I made got sacrificed to the manzanita at the Prescott Chaparral ride. Trying not to get too attached to this one, since there is also more manzanita along this trail. Lots of manzanita.

She didn’t end up needing it at the last ride,
but I’m still using it as a precaution. Young
horses are unpredictable.

And somewhere along the way, fall happened:

Running errands mid-morning. Nice.

Display of multi-functionality:

Hoof boot. Water bottle holder.

And finally, it’s the weekend. Let’s make some trail dust.

good life philosophy