Ride Story: Jingle Bell Trot 25 2020

Her rolling canter swept us over the sandy terrain, wind whispering past my ears, the only sounds her rhythmic snorts in time with her hoofbeats skimming over the ground. Worries, anxieties, politics, drama, the mess that most of 2020 has been…all seemed a world away as I thought of nothing but being in that moment, totally in tune with my magnificent, brave war mare...

photo by John Kordish, AZ Cowgirl Photography

I first met Liberty in April of 2013. She belonged to my bosses at Renegade Hoof Boots, Kirt and Gina Lander. She had been specifically bred by them to be an endurance horse (her Shagya Arabian sire Janos was a 100-mile endurance horse in the USA before being exported to Japan and her dam is a racebred [SW Dawid and Kontiki], track-proven Arabian), and at the time, was a coming 7-yr-old. Gina brought her to the Prescott Chaparral ride for me to catch-ride in the LD alongside her and her Kiger Mustang. We took it slow and steady, but finished the ride with about 15 minutes to spare, and had a fabulous day. My first time climbing on her back was about 10 minutes before the ride start, and from the second my butt hit the saddle, I knew.

I experienced the same click with her that I had with Mimi, so many years ago. I’d ridden a lot of horses between those times, and she was the first horse since Mimi to have that same kind of instant connection. Despite her inexperience, I trusted her immediately, and she went on to prove that trust wasn’t misplaced that day. She showed me then that she was brave, smart, self-preserving, and had heart. As we were making our way back to camp to finish the ride, we were leading through a large sand wash. We were in the lead, her strides comfortably carrying us a distance out in front of her short-striding mustang buddy, and in that moment, I never felt so connected, so one, with a horse. She effortlessly skimmed across the sand in the most gloriously smooth trot I had ever felt, mane blowing back in my face, locked on the trail and moving forward but still in tune with me on her back. To this day, that moment still gives me chills, knowing how connected we were.

At the end of the weekend, we went our separate ways, Liberty back to the Kingman ranch and myself back to suburbia, but with plans for Gina to bring the horses to as many of the AZ rides as we could manage in the foreseeable future.

Before this goes much further, I have to interrupt with a bit of relevant backstory. Just because I connected so well with Mimi right away didn’t mean it was all rainbow-farting unicorns from thereon out. The complete opposite, in fact. We had a delightful first show together, garnering several blue ribbons…and then it went straight downhill from there, with an opportunistic young pony trying to figure out just how much advantage she could take of her young, small, not-very-brave rider, and it took us a couple of years to fully pull ourselves together and once again present a unified front to the world.

Well, history repeats itself. The next several outing with Liberty were rather unspectacular failures. The Bumble Bee ride in 2014 saw us coming in overtime, a combination of “rider (me) couldn’t get her crap together in the morning and so left out of camp late,” some young horse brain training moments (quite a few of those — she didn’t want to follow her riding buddy without crow-hopping, but she also wasn’t feeling brave enough to lead), and some equipment malfunctions of the boot variety with Gina’s horse. I added up all the lost time, and it came up to pretty much the amount of time we were over. Ah, well. Chalk that up to a learning experience, and a good training ride.

2015 was a wash for me when my truck went down for the count, so 2016 was the next time we paired off, once again at Bumble Bee. This time, still cognizant of our overtime pull, we left camp right with the pack and hit the trail right on time, and she wasn’t nearly as inclined to do happy feet antics that required stopping to sort out the brain. Not wanting to get caught on time, I set a smart pace, and was really impressed with how she responded. For her size, she is very agile and athletic, and can accordion herself up and zip through some very technical terrain almost as well as the go-kart pony, so we covered ground and made some good time on the Black Canyon Trail singletrack portion of the course. Unfortunately, I think the pace was probably a little more than what she was conditioned for, though, because as we were coming into camp off the loop, she was startled and spooked from behind, popping up and landing pretty hard, and then was subsequently off on the hind when vetting. Whatever it was turned out to be minor, since she was totally sound the next day, and I still don’t know the exact cause, whether she did the equine equivalent of stepping off the curb and rolling her ankle, or a cramp in already-tired muscles from the sudden jolting movement.

We took a shot at redemption the following month at the newly-resurrected Wickenburg Land of the Sun ride, and right from the get-go, the weekend was a bit of a comedy of errors, starting with her stepping on me during our trot-out and moving on to equipment challenges (boots and headgear), mystery lamenesses (she started head bobbing at the trot and it turned out her front boots had gotten filled with sand and the captivators were super-tight and making her uncomfortable, so pulled them off, only to have Yankee crowd her and step on one of her hinds, leaving her hopping and leg flailing for several strides, so off the hind boots went, leaving her totally barefoot but sound), then Yankee fell over on a rock pile and got some thorns in his knee and fetlock, so Gina decided to walk him in and send us ahead…which was its own comedy routine right there, in which I could get Liberty to trot few hundred feet before she realized, “I’m leaving my buddy…not!” and slam on the brakes until he came in sight again, then would trot off again. Lather, rinse, repeat, until we finally were able to catch a tow from some friends on the 50, and then from there I was able to keep her rolling. But all of that added up, once again, to a ton of lost time, and although she put in a valiant effort on the second loop to make up the time, and I was really overall impressed with how brave she was by herself, we were never able to make up the time, especially given the trail wasn’t particularly conducive to productive moving out.

After that, I was feeling pretty discouraged with endurance in general, and specifically with Liberty. She might have been bred for endurance, but maybe she didn’t get the memo. I felt like a failure, like I had no business doing endurance, and the next couple of years yielded a few ups and quite a few more downs with ride finishes and attempts. It wasn’t until riding Flash at Bumble Bee in 2018 that I started to get my confidence back, and the ultimately four rides I ended up doing with him did more for me than any other horse I’ve ridden in endurance. He gave me courage and confidence, and taught me so much in a short period of time. What I didn’t realize at the time was how much what he was teaching me would end up carrying forward.

Because as it turns out, Flash and Liberty are a lot alike. They are both strong, dominant, proud, opinionated horses who want a partnership with their rider, with respect given to their input and opinions, and who want their rider to trust them. Liberty is the epitome of “discuss it with a mare,” and Flash is definitely not one of those gelding whom you “tell” anything. The time I spent riding Flash taught me a different way to approach horses — to not micromanage so much, and to let go and trust them more. I was definitely guilty of micromanaging Liberty (and most of the horses I’ve ridden) in the past. Some of that, to some degree, was necessary due to young horse brain needing guidance, but I got away with it because I interacted with her for such short time periods. When she became mine, that interaction changed to a lot more frequency, and her independent and strong mind isn’t happy under that kind of micro-managing pressure. But the more time I’ve spent with Liberty, the more readily apparent the similarities in personalities and dispositions became, and it really made me shift my approach with her, and I think we’ve both been overall the better for it.

With that sort of long history and a bit of baggage still hanging on, it’s probably understandable that I approached the weekend with some trepidation. While I had surmised that some of our past failures were due to the fact Liberty really hadn’t been in that fantastic of a shape other than “pasture shape,” and I had diligently been putting in both the conditioning miles and arena schooling on her since July, and she was coming off training rides feeling good…it remained to be seen just how things would come together and shake out at an actual ride again.

Given that it was (and is still) 2020, I was also holding my breath on even getting to the ride, since none of my ride plans this season had gone according to plan. Even up through Wednesday before the ride, I was fairly blase about the whole thing, and then Thursday morning I finally kicked it into gear and started pulling all my stuff together and packing.

What can I say? At this point, it’s become kind of tradition/habit to wash my tack in the bathtub.

With ridecamp only an hour and fifteen minutes away from the barn, it meant I didn’t have to roll out the door at o’dark-thirty in the morning, and instead could wait for the worst of the morning traffic to clear before hitting the road. A new portion of freeway made for much smoother and faster travel, shaving a solid 30 minutes off the typical trip out to Estrella Mountain Park, and I pulled into camp shortly after noon. I found a nice parking spot pretty centrally located to everything and across from a friend’s rig I recognized, got Liberty unloaded, started walking around camp, and had to pinch myself.

It had been over ten years since I had been to an endurance ride with my own rig, and my own horse. I retired Mimi in early spring of 2010, and since then, all of my endurance rides had been catch rides. It seemed surreal, and I had to keep reminding myself, “Yep, that’s my little trailer. Yep, this is my mare that is loudly bellowing her way through camp and announcing her presence to the world.” :) I was the one in the driver’s seat, the responsibility was on my shoulders now. And I couldn’t wait.

Chilling in camp. I was SO proud of how she did. Historically, she has excavated holes to China when tied at the trailer. This weekend, the ground was left as pristine as when we arrived. She was quiet, polite, and didn’t get into anything.

I had arrived with plenty of time to get camp all set up and get Liberty settled by the time the vets started to arrive, and I quickly got myself checked in, visited with some friends, and got Liberty brushed and booted for vetting in. She still doesn’t love having her mouth handled, but she was much better than in the past, and her trot-out was picture perfect, even earning a “beautiful trot-out” comment from the vet. (I’ve worked with her on this every single time I ride. We end every session, whether it’s a conditioning ride or arena school, with an in-hand trot-out, and consequently, she is learning beautiful manners and consistency.)

I debated on pre-riding that afternoon but ultimately decided it would probably be a good idea to saddle up (she was already booted anyway) and go out for a stretch and make sure all of our tack was in order and that the marbles were still firmly tucked inside her skull…especially since she hadn’t been ridden for about a week and half. She was a little bit squirmy for mounting, but once I was aboard she was pretty settled, only tossing in a few prancey-jiggy steps as we headed out of camp, but once on the trail she got right down to business. We warmed up for a few minutes, then I let her start slow trotting where it was appropriate, slowly bleeding off some of her energy, but mostly we walked, enjoying each other’s company and the peace and quiet of the Sonoran Desert in the late afternoon.

This was also the first time I’d taken her out by herself since I brought her home. Theoretically I knew she could do it — Gina had ridden her frequently by herself, and we did a good part of the Wickenburg ride by ourselves — but I hadn’t let myself be brave enough to try it until at the ride. And she blew me away. She was brave, curious, confident, settled, and I myself was totally comfortable and felt completely safe. I felt like we had been riding together for years, rather than a few months and a handful of prior moments. And the fact she can sit for a week and half and still be totally sane and not a fire-breathing dragon speaks volumes for her good brain.

She earned that golden halo glow on our pre-ride. It was at this point I think I finally let myself start to get more happy-excited than nervous.

Back at camp, I spent some more time visiting and catching up with friends I hadn’t seen for quite a while, then got Liberty tucked in for the night and fed. The inside of the trailer was set up as my nifty little feed and storage room — tack in one area, horse feed on one wall, human food & “kitchen” set-up on the other. It worked quite well and was a very efficient and convenient little set-up to work out of. Liberty quickly learned from whence food was dispensed, and proceeded to watch me through the trailer slats every time I went in there, in the hopes of procuring more goodies for herself.

The nosy hungry hippo hoping for more snacks.

With the bottomless pit of a mare taken care of for the evening, I made my own dinner, spent some more time visiting with friends and socializing, then finally tucked myself into my cozy nest made in the back of the suburban. An air mattress, sleeping bag, and fleece blankets make for a comfortable set-up that is out of the elements and pretty quiet, and the only downside is I can’t stand up to put my pants on in the morning…but that’s really the only con, and it definitely beats dealing with a tent.

Sleep actually came pretty easily for me for a pre-ride night, and I was up on my own a few minutes before my alarm went off at 5. Start time for the LD wasn’t until 8am, but I really don’t like being rushed in the morning, and this allowed me plenty of time to get up, get Liberty her breakfast and clean up after her, get my own coffee, then retreat back to the suburban and crank the heater on and get dressed once it was nice and toasty inside.

Historically, Liberty has been well-behaved for things like tacking up. Right from the get-go she impressed me with not being a squirmy young wiggle worm, and that good behavior has continued ever since, and improved in the department of booting and hind hoof handling the more I’ve done with her. The 50-milers started to gather, and then leave camp, but while she was curious about what was happening, she still stayed very calm and continued to munch her way through her breakfast hay while I started to tack her up. I had left myself plenty of time, so wasn’t rushed at all, and finally, with about 20 minutes to go before our own ride start, I started hand-walking her around camp to warm up. She was starting to get a bit more ‘up’ at this point — I think she knew it was our turn to head out – but she remained polite on the ground while we walked and visited with some people. It took a few minutes to get her settled enough to mount, but a very cross words had her standing quietly enough by the trailer fender for me to climb aboard, and to her credit, once I was in the saddle she was calm and polite…just wanted to move her feet.

The first part of the ride start is a controlled start down a paved road, which gave us a built-in warm-up, so I didn’t spend too much time in camp with a rigorous warm-up program. Doing too many circles around where everyone was starting to gather was making her brain a little bit fizzy, and she was calmer just by standing and watching.

Waiting for the ride start.

We headed out in about the middle of the pack at the start, and aside from a couple of attempted little jigging steps that were quickly dissuaded with some light rein taps, she was content to stride out at a nice walk the entire controlled start. Once we reached the actual trail, people started slowly spreading out, but almost immediately, the trail starts climbing, gaining several hundred feet in elevation in under half a mile, so a great way to chill out a horse who might be a bit overenthusiastic.

Photographers Sue and John Kordish were set up at the top of the climb, waiting for riders to start coming by.

photo by John Kordish

What goes up must come down, so as soon as we rounded the high point of the climb, we started down the other side, back to the valley floor and onward to the main part of the park trails. I have no clue if Liberty has ever been on true switchbacks before. She was very curious and a bit befuddled about the fact there were horses below her, traveling in the opposite direction, with no readily visible way to explain how they got down there. However, as soon as we turned the corner and started down the lower switchback, she seemed to make the connection. A couple glances up at the horses still above us satisfied the rest of her curiosity, and from that point on, I think she “got” switchbacks.

She was strong and forward, but rateable. There were plenty of horses in front of us, but she listened to my requests to keep the speed down and not do the big trot she seemed so eager to show off. We got passed by some of the front-running 50s, and I was so pleased with how she handled calmly moving off the trail and letting them zip by us. Again, she would have happily followed on their heels if I had let her, but she listened to my requests and kept trucking along at a steady, ground-covering trot.

At previous rides, I have called her a soft and easy ride. She didn’t pull, and sort of just strolled along at an easy trot. Not particularly fast, but a soft little dib-dib-dib that was easy to sit and could be ridden all day. Well, I’m inclined to think the “softness” was due in large part to her overall body softness and lack of fitness, because this time around, I felt like I had a ton more horse under me, with a lot more power and strength than I had previously felt. She wasn’t being obnoxious about it, and was very responsive to half-halts and would sensibly slow her pace for rough sections, but there was a level of keenness and enthusiasm there that tickled me to no end. She also seemed very relaxed out there by ourselves. Competitive, and very aware there were other horses in front of her, but no anxiety or nerves, and very mentally solid.

There’s a certain section of one of the trails that is probably one of my favorites to ride. Not because it’s super-scenic, or an amazing piece of trailwork, but because it is one of the best cantering trails I’ve ever seen. Totally flat, straight, slightly sandy footing. Two years ago, when Flash and I cantered through this section, I felt like I had been transported to another world. It was another one of those moments of feeling perfectly connected with a horse, and a memory I’ll hold onto for life.

I haven’t done a ton of cantering with Liberty. Pretty much none in the arena, because she’s not exactly polished at it yet and I feel like I need a little more elbow space to work with her on it than what the barn arena gives. The last couple of rides out, I’ve started incorporating some small stretches of canter work in good footing. I know she loves it — the canter is her preferred gait around the pasture, and she seems to naturally and comfortably pick it up.

Now seemed as good of a time as any to see what I had to work with, given that she was mentally engaged and very relaxed and settled. I settled myself in the saddle, shoved away the mental uncertainties that always try to pop up whenever I go to pick up the speed, kissed and cued, and after a couple of faster trot strides, she rolled right over into a beautiful canter. She is, hands down, the easiest horse I have ever cantered. She is smooth, and although she’s strong, she collects up beautifully, where I can actually sit down in the saddle, ride with contact, put leg on her, and drive her forward and up into the bridle. Most horses, I have a hard time riding a relaxed canter. They’re either rough enough that it’s not very comfortable, or fast enough that it’s just easier to two-point. Gets you somewhere quickly, but not particularly relaxing, and I always feel way more vulnerable at a canter to either shenanigans or not being able to stay with a sudden shy at speed. In this case, the fact I was able to sit and keep such a strong leg on her meant I felt super secure and stable, even moreso than when she moves into a faster trot. She is also the kind of horse who locks onto the trail and gets even more focused the faster you go, so things that she had been peeking at when we were trotting along (barrel cactus, dead ocotillo, large rocks) didn’t even warrant a side glance at the canter.

Her rolling canter swept us over the sandy terrain, wind whispering past my ears, the only sounds her rhythmic snorts in time with her hoofbeats skimming over the ground. Worries, anxieties, politics, drama, the mess that most of 2020 has been…all seemed a world away as I thought of nothing but being in that moment, totally in tune with my magnificent, brave war mare. All too soon, my internal odometer pinged at me to dial it back down again and to not exceed what she had been conditioned for, but it didn’t matter. Once again, I had forged one of those amazing connection moments, that no matter how the rest of the day went, we had experienced a few moments of perfect partnership.

Liberty continued to impress me with her brain — even adding canter to the repertoire, she still maintained her eager but pleasant forwardness, happy to come back to a trot when asked. We interspersed a few more brief canter stretches until we reached the first checkpoint and water stop at 8 miles. There, she drank, and ate some hay, while I shed my first outer layer.

My friend Jess was working the checkpoint, and got this photo of us as we came through the first time.

We had made really good time for that first 8 miles, taking advantage of the fact that it was overall some of the better footing for the day. I was pretty shocked, actually — I had been anticipating our usual “back of the pack shuffle” from previous rides, so operating well within a very comfortable time margin was a very pleasant surprise.

“I see dead things.” (Barrel cactus, ocotillo, some other variety of dead cactus, or large rocks. Take your pick.)

The next 6 miles looped out from the checkpoint in a clockwise loop, first heading in a direction that was vaguely towards camp, and then at the apex of the loop heading directly away. It was hard to make consistent time through this section — there were smooth sections, followed by rough, rocky patches, so we did quite a bit of “trot-trot-trot” followed by “and walk this.” Smart mare started catching on pretty quick, especially after a few “discussion” moments when she thought we might trot through some of the crappy sections, and caught a toe for her troubles. A few cross words later to enforce the idea that we would not be face-planting, and she started slowing down in the rough stuff on her own.

Which was great until it started working a little too well. The bottom of the loop goes along a very flat, very boring, somewhat deep sandy double-track road. It’s deep enough that I was navigating it fairly carefully — we’ve been slowly adding sand conditioning into the repertoire, but a little bit at a time, and not enough to go blasting through the deep stuff for any kind of sustained distance or speed. And it was at this point Liberty had to put her two cents in, hitting the brakes as soon as we came upon a slightly rocky section. She did this a couple of times before I figured out that maybe this was some mental mutiny on her part. We were going further away from camp with every step, and based on how she kept diving for the crispy shrubbery on the side of the trail, she thought she was starving, despite the few minutes of snacking at the check point.

But if there’s something I have learned in recent years, it’s “pick your battles.” And don’t micromanage. She’s a strong-minded, opinionated horse who is very much into seeing things be a partnership versus dictatorship. Which horse taught me about that previously? Oh, yes, that would be Flash. Whom she was reminding me of more and more by the minute as the weekend progressed.

With that in mind, and not wanting to mentally sour her, I opted to turn this section of the course into “mental downtime.” She got to pick the pace. For a few minutes, that meant walking, snatching at some of the dry bushes on the side of the trail, and giving the stink eye to some dead cactus. After a few minutes, she offered to trot, so I let her trot a bit,then asked her to walk again before she stopped. We continued down the couple of miles of road this way, and then when the trail abruptly turned off the road to head back to the checkpoint, she miraculously perked back up again and we were back to negotiating to keep to a not-mach-12 trot.

I suspect this may be where some of her inexperience is showing through, in terms of hitting mental walls — she was probably convinced I had taken her out to the desert all by herself and all of her new friends had abandoned her, since we had done such a good job of finding a space bubble for ourselves that we didn’t run into anyone else out there on that loop aside from riding out for the first few minutes from the check with one of the front-running 50’s, who had then gone on to step up to a much faster pace than what we were going.

But that’s how she learns is by doing and by being out there. We reached the checkpoint once again (14 miles in now), and she drank really well, then settled in to munch on some day. She is so very food motivated, so I figured spending a few minutes letting her eat now would do wonders for her mental outlook. We also had a couple other horses come into the checkpoint while we were there, so she got the mental reassurance that we weren’t, in fact, all alone out there. It took a little bit of persuading to get her to leave the other horses (or maybe it was the food?) but we were only 5 miles away from the vet check and 45-minute hold where she could eat her way through the entire time is she so desired.

Back out on trail, we were following the same tracks we had originally come into the checkpoint on, and she needed no extra encouragement to motor along. We did a few more short canter segments through the beautiful flat straightaway section, had a brief exchange of opinions when the trail to the vet check turned off the trail from the morning (and therefore away from the direction of camp), but her protests were half-hearted, and more for form than anything. This section was probably the roughest of the whole day, and we did quite a bit of walking through the rough rocks.

This is what a rock breeding ground looks like.

About a mile out from the check, management had set out a big trough, and Liberty tanked up really well there. Right about when she was done and couple of other riders caught up to us, and we waited for their horses to finish drinking, then ending up riding the last mile into the check with them.

I hopped off and hand-walked the last little bit into the check and she was below parameters as soon as we arrived — pulsed in at 56 (parameter was 60). Since there wasn’t a line, I went over to vet her through right away, and notice at that point she had busted one of the captivators on a hind boot, and the pastern strap was merrily flopping around back there. Ah, that was the strange flapping noise I had heard a few miles back, but when I glanced at her hooves, nothing had seemed amiss. No matter, I had a spare boot in my vet check bag, as well as on my saddle.

Proof that, especially in dry conditions, on a well-fitted boot, the pastern strap is very much secondary, and almost unnecessary. This stayed on for what I figured was at least 4 miles of trotting and cantering and a ton of picking through rocks.

I yanked the offending strap off the rest of the way before heading over to the vet — nothing like loose, flapping pieces of things to make a vet take a second look. She vetted really well — stood politely, looked around for where her new buddies had disappeared to but didn’t holler or get upset, let the vet look at her mouth, and then did a lovely trot-out — and we were pronounced good to go. The hold was 45 minutes, and with vetting right away and not having to wait at all, I now had about 40 minutes of uninterrupted rest time for the mare. I fetched my crew bag, Liberty trailing along behind me, attempting to snatch hay out of the bag on the go, then found a spot to set up. The vet check was in the middle of the main equestrian parking lot at Estrella Mountain Park — a large gravel lot — so it was pretty much a matter of “find your own personal patch of gravel and settle in.”

She started browsing on her hay while I made her a quick sloppy mash, then went to work on that while I did some quick boot swapping. On closer inspection, the pastern strap on the opposite boot was nearly worn through, so I replaced that with the still-good strap from the broken captivator, then replaced that boot with a new one from my crew bag. Taking a look, I could see she had been doing some side-to-side interfering, and had also nicked her inside fetlock. So it’ll be interference boots on the hinds for sure on her, and time to do some investigating via bodywork and trimming as to why she’s interfering. I had run her a little long on her trim, because it was so rocky, in the hopes it would give her a little extra protection, but I wonder if that wasn’t enough to tip her over into interference territory.

Once the mare was all squared away, I took a few minutes to sit down and enjoy my own PB&J sandwich and iced coffee. I had been pretty actively riding for much of the past 19 miles, and the only downtime I really took to eat and drink along the way was at the checkpoint stops, so it felt good to take a bit of time to refuel and rehydrate.

The time went by pretty quickly, and before I knew it, I was down to the last few vet check tasks before heading to the out-timer — wrap up her fleece cooler, pack up feed, give her a dose of electrolytes, bridle her, and make it over to the out-timer with a minute still left on our hold time, just enough time to mount up and be waiting to go exactly on time. Perfect, just the way I like it.

Liberty happily walked out of the check by herself, even with other horses coming in from the opposite direction. I gave her a few minutes of warm-up, then it was back to picking up the pace, which she was more than happy to do. The ladies that we came into the check with were just a couple minutes behind me, and they caught up and passed me probably a mile or so out of the check. They were travelling just a little faster than we were, so I let them go ahead of us, and Liberty again got some really good practice in “riding our own ride.” I was super proud of how she did, and she maintained the pace I asked for, even when she clearly wanted to keep stealthily increasing the speed. But at this point, we had plenty of time to finish, so now my focus was on the latter goal of “finish sound” and really didn’t want an errant misstep to wreck that goal now.

Listening ears. She did such good work, alternating between keying in on me, and paying attention to the trail.

The last 4 or so miles are coming in on the same trail that we went out on in the morning, so the internal compass was fully calibrated to “due camp.” Which also meant going up the same switchback trail we came down. Shortly before climbing the hill, we were passed by a couple more riders, which meant there were several horses above us, and Liberty was very curious again.

“We’re going up there? Okay, got it.”

As the last big climb/effort of the day, I suggest she might want to walk the climb…? “No, thank you,” she declined, and proceeded to easily trot up the gentle inclines, slowing to a sensible walk around the switchback corners, then picking it up again on the straightaways. This was definitely the most cliffy dropoff trail I’ve taken her on to date and I was totally comfortable trotting along right on the singletrack. She was making me more and more proud of her with each passing moment of the ride.

Photographers John and Sue were still in their respective spots as we came back through, and got some amazing photos again. The photo at the very top of this post is one of them from as we were coming back, and probably my newest favorite ride photo. To date, every ride I’ve done with Liberty, the Kordishes have been the photographers, and every ride, I’ve come back with at least one amazing new favorite photo, and this ride was no exception. I had a really hard time narrowing down which ones to get.

photo by John Kordish
photo by Sue Kordish

From there, it was just a couple miles back to camp, going down the long climb we had done in the morning — and it rides much nicer going up than going down. It’s too steep to comfortably trot, mounted, but a little too rough and rubbly for me to want to get off and try to jog down without begging for a twisted ankle. There were a couple times I had to tell Liberty we weren’t going to jig down the hill, but for the most part she gave me a really nice walk and covered some good ground. There were water troughs at the bottom of the hill, and she drank really well again there.

At the top of the hill, looking down on camp in the foreground, and the Phoenix International Raceway track in the background.

On the paved road into camp, I let her do a little bit of trotting, basically a last-second “soundness check” to make sure she still felt good, which she did, and then we moseyed into camp. While I hopped off as soon as we got to camp and hand-walked her in, in hindsight, since we had to go past the trailer to get to the finish area, I could have quickly stripped off her tack and dumped it there. But I didn’t think of it at the time, and just headed straight to the finish.

Glancing over at the roaring engines over at PIR.

Her pulse was still a little high for finish parameters, and it took her a few minutes to come down. I got her another drink, but I didn’t really think about pulling tack or sponging, which probably would have helped. We ended up giving up a couple placings at the finish due to her taking a few minutes to come down (but once she did, she dropped like a rock), so I’ll probably need to work on some more aggressive cooling strategies, given that she’s a dark-coated, larger-bodied horse. Anyway, live and learn, but I think we came in somewhere around middle-ish of the pack, and a very respectable 4:36 finish time. We vetted for completion as soon as she was pulsed down, and she finished with all A’s on her card. Even sweeter was two of the vets who were vetting us this weekend knew us from the past and have had the misfortune of pulling us, or seeing our inglorious overtime finishes, so I got some really good kudos from them this weekend on how good Liberty looked, and of course, the best affirmation of all of good vet scores and passing the vet checks with flying colors and an official finish.

Talk about floating on cloud nine. I was so proud of that mare, I could have just burst. The whole ride went even better than I had dared hope. I was after “finish in time, sound, and not have to pedal the horse.” Well, we finished in plenty of time, with a very sound and still very forward horse who was still talking to me at the end. Couldn’t have asked for better, and a much-needed confidence booster after the struggles we’d had at previous rides. I feel like we might have been a slow start, but maybe now is when we hit our stride, and the possibilities start to open up for us.

We headed home later that evening, after giving her a few hours of recovery time (and for me to pack up camp and grab dinner). She looked great coming out of the trailer — it had been warm enough in the afternoon I was able to sponge her down, so she wasn’t a sweaty, gross mess — and dove into her food as soon as she got into the barn. And the next day, I went down to take her compression socks off and she came right up to me in the pasture, looking totally fresh and ready for more. Her back was great, and when the socks came off, her legs looked good, too.

With that solid of a finish, I don’t feel the need to further pursue more LDs with her at this point — we’ll get the mileage via training rides, but I would rather she not get too into the competition mindset of “done after 25.” Long distances are my main goal with her, so I’d like to build the distance on her first, rather than doing more “shorter and faster” competitions. We’ll be setting out sights on a 50 this spring — not sure quite yet which one, we’ll see how winter conditioning progresses.

In the meantime, I’m going to continue to bask in just how absolutely thrilled I am with this mare, and that I finally feel validated for all the years I continued to believe in her, despite the speed bumps along the way.

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
Wickenburg 25 2016
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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Ride Story: Dashing Through the Trails 25 2019

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photo by Susan Kordish, AZ Cowgirl Photography

As my previous post detailed, I’ve got some winter plans at work. Atti, whom I rode at McDowell 75 in 2017, and at Man Against Horse 50 this past October, is hanging out with me for a couple of months for “winter training camp,” and if all goes well, the goal is the 20 Mule Team 100 in February.

Well, it didn’t take long for plans to change. Right out the chute, we went from the planned 50 at Dashing Through the Trails down to the 25, due to a combination of factors:

  • Cristina had taken him to another desert LD the previous weekend, where he got some good sand and trot/canter work (which is the main goal of him being down here)…but we also didn’t want to chuck too much at him all at once.
  • For my part, about a week and half prior to the ride, I stepped off my sidewalk curb and onto a pine cone, falling and rolling my ankle hard. Some aggressive wrapping, taping, TENS unit treatments, and copious applications of arnica had the swelling down in fairly short order, but it was still tender, and I was suspicious of how well it would hold up to 50 miles.

With all of that in mind, and having done this ride last year and knowing it wouldn’t be an easy ride, it was decided to err on the side of opting for the LD. Atti has a good base on him, so my main goal is to find that fine line between taking his conditioning up to the next level, but not beating him up too much.

I was actually looking forward to a fun LD, too. It’s been over 3 years since I’d last done one…and half a dozen years since I finished one. I feel like that topic is worth an entire post unto itself, so I’ll table my thoughts on that for now and leave it at “crap happens at every level of distance riding, whether it’s an LD or a 100.”

Part of Atti being down here is also having Atti’s trailer down here…so Friday morning, for the first time in like 9 years, I was once again in the position of hitching up and heading to the ride in my albeit-temporary own rig. (Which just really cements my desire to have my own trailer again…so if anyone knows anyone selling a lightweight, 2-horse, safe/well-maintained, bumper pull trailer, in or close to AZ, for a reasonable $ and preferably willing to take payments…talk to me. Not that I’m asking for much on that list.)

It wasn’t without a few shenanigans, including not having the right electrical hook-up adapter between the trailer and my truck. Fortunately there’s an auto parts store just a couple miles away from the barn (I was grateful for being in the middle of suburbia in that instance), and they were able to set me up with what I needed.

Estrella is a local ride — about an hour and half to an hour and forty-five minutes away, depending on traffic and time of day — and I was in camp by early afternoon, with plenty of time to set up, do some socializing, check in, get Atti vetted, pack my crew bag, and tack up and go for a short leg stretch ride.

I was able to spend some time catching up with a few friends during the ride dinner that evening, and then the ride briefing gave us our need-to-knows of the trail overview, start times (7:30am), hold times (45 minutes on the LD), and pulse criteria (60 all day). I took Atti for a brief evening stroll afterwards, hauled my crew bag over to the drop-off point, then settled into the cozy nest I had made for myself in the back of the Suburban.

With a 7:30 ride start, I was able to sleep until just before 5, and it actually wasn’t too chilly when I got up. Atti got breakfast first, then I got myself ready for the day and worked on my own coffee and breakfast. Atti was not happy when the 50s left, and we were still hanging out at the trailer…much dirt excavating happened.

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All dressed up and raring to go…

He was also quite ready to hit the trail, and I had to keep him moving in constant walking circles as we waited for the start…if I would stop to chat with anyone, he would start pawing, or backing up. So we walked circles, and worked on leg yielding.

The first mile to the actual trail is a paved road through the park, so we had a controlled start out of camp following the ride manager behind one of the park trucks, and then she turned us loose once we hit the actual start of the trail. It was one of those cases that once the first half a dozen people headed out, there wasn’t a huge rush to leave, and people were sort of hanging back…so I took advantage of the space bubble and headed out.

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Susan Kordish photo

We did some major “negotiations” for the first several miles — he knew there were horses ahead, and every so often, we would hit a spot on trail where he could see them below us, or on a rise out in the distance, and he was in “hunt” mode. But my job as the brains of the operation is to know what we still have ahead of us, and to not let him play Superman, just because he thinks he can. For 14 hands of pony power, he’s amazingly strong, and I had flashbacks to the days of riding Mimi…although he doesn’t drop his head and lean on the bridle the way she did (and still does).

For the first half a dozen miles, I worked on keeping him to a steady pace. Walking any ups and downs, and really rocky bits, but otherwise, maintaining his comfortable trot pace.

Once we reached the back side of the park, some of the trails turn into beautiful areas to move out, and I started incorporating some canter work in as the trail permitted. We had our own space bubble, and although he was still wanting to go, Atti had definitely settled and was doing a good job of listening to my requests.

Around 8 miles in, we reached the first water stop and check-point. He drank, ate a few bites of hay, I electrolyted him, mounted back up, and headed out again for a 6-mile segment that would loop around and bring us back to the water stop. The couple-minute stop had been the final step in really getting his brain settled, and he was a really good boy for the next section. The majority of it was still really good footing, so I was able to set a really consistent pace.

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On the “Homestead” loop

Back around at the water, he dove into the trough and drank like a fish, then I handed him off to one of the ride volunteers to munch on some hay while I darted off behind a bush to recycle the morning coffee. Another half-dose of e’lytes for him (he’s on the “small and frequent doses” protocol), and we were on our way again, this time heading to the vet-check at 19 miles.

We passed through the good footing section again, this time sharing it as a two-way trail with the 50-milers, who had done a 10-mile loop to start before joining the same 19-mile segment of trail as the LD. Atti was a little confused with the horses going the opposite direction — “Home is this way…but the herd is going that way???”

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This section had a lot more rocks and areas of rough footing, but Atti’s got a nice walk on him, and he has a good sense of what is considered trottable or not, and it wasn’t very often I had to request for him to slow down and walk.

The last mile into the check is a wide gravel road…so tempting to use to “make up time” because it’s smooth, and good footing…but the upcoming vet check kept that notion curtailed, and we cruised at an easy trot, pausing just outside the check where management had set out water troughs to drink, dismount, and unbridle before walking into the check. He was at 44 when we arrived and got our pulse.

Once we were pulsed, I got him settled with a buffet of feed and hay, and took management up on their offer of a sandwich…that egg salad was absolutely delicious.

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Vet check buffet. Getting the signature “eat $h!* and die” look from Atti because I had the nerve to put food in front of him. And I hadn’t even electrolyted him yet.

The vet likes to wait about 30 minutes into our hold time before seeing the horses, to give them a “come down” from any on-trail adrenaline, as well as the chance for any issues that might be lurking to crop up. He vetted through with all A’s, and after that, I had enough time to wrap everything up, swap to his hackamore, and be mounted up and waiting for my out-time.

We scampered out of the check as soon as we were released (and a brief moment of confusion again for Atti when we had to pass by other riders who were coming into the check…he thought we should follow them versus venturing out into the desert by ourselves to get eaten) but he quickly locked back onto the trail and started motoring along…merrily side-eyeing every downed/dead cactus along the way.

A few miles out from camp, we were caught by my friend Jen, and we ended up riding in together, spending some time catching up with each other’s lives. The last couple miles out, she went in front of us and Atti turned into a fire-breathing dragon…he knows and has trained with Jen’s horse up in Prescott, and he was not amused with being left behind. I had also grabbed my s-hackamore that has a flat curb strap on it versus the curb chain, knowing that in the past, he’s always been easy to rate and could probably be ridden in a halter.

Uhhhh…flat curb strap privileges revoked, as we went back into “negotiations” mode after he thought blasting down the side of the hill at an extended trot was actually a good idea. We made our way back down at my pace, caught up with Jen at the water trough at the bottom, Atti drank, and then we walked the last mile along the road into camp.

Atti was down right away, and once we pulsed in, it turned out we ended up finishing in 6th place, in a ride time of 3:39. We also stood for BC, even though the early finishers had some time on us…it’s a really good learning experience, especially for a horse who doesn’t particularly see the point of in-hand trot-outs.

It took me a bit to get everything wrapped up and packed up again, so Atti had several hours of recovery before loading up and heading back to the barn later that afternoon.

I was really pleased with how the ride went. My major goal going in to the ride was to work on a steady, consistent pace, and ride the horse and the course to the best of our abilities — use the good footing to the best of our abilities, and be conservative on the sketchy areas. Don’t waste time, ride smart. I have struggled for years to learn how to pace well at rides, and it’s pretty much been the last year or two that I’ve felt like I’m finally getting a better sense for it, and I was really proud of how that came together at this ride.

Gear rundown:

Frank Baines endurance-dressage saddle
Archer Equine saddle pad
Mohair girth
Zilco Halter-Bridle and Breastcollar
Fager bit, model ‘John‘ (I am in love with these bits)
Flex-Ride stirrups (need to switch back to the EZ Rides, my feet were going numb)
Bare Equestrian tights

I’ve started using drench syringes (30cc for in the saddle, 50cc for in camp) and mixing my own e’lytes again. It worked really well to use a soft flask to carry the mix in my saddle pack, and for longer rides, I can refill the flask at checks as needed between loops. Atti is a brat to e’lyte (he’s not the only one…starting with my own pony…) and the drench syringes are so much easier to work with than trying to wrangle with the large, bulky syringes, especially with his smaller mouth. He also readily spits out more of the solid e’lytes, so mixing them in a more runny consistency made it harder for him to spit out a gooey blob.

My ankle didn’t bother me (wasn’t any more sore after we finished than when we started) but I also didn’t get off and run at all.

I feel like we’ve got a solid base to work with, and the ride helped get some little detailed dialed in, so it’s still onward and upward, moving forward with our plans and training.

A huge thank you to Effee Conner and her family for putting this ride on again! The trails were a great mix of technical and fun, ride dinner Friday night was yummy, the Ride With GPS app in conjunction with trail marking was spot-on, and i had an absolutely delightful day out there! So glad to have more and more local rides on the calendar to support!

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Susan Kordish photo

 

Ride Story: Wickenburg’s Land of the Sun 25 2016

I apologize for the complete lack of brevity in the regaling of this tale. It truly turned into one of those Milestone Rides for us, and I’m trying to capture every moment of it.

Getting the Wickenburg ride to come back has been an event several years in the making — the last time it was held was the last time I rode it, back in 2010. It came back under new management, and a new ridecamp location (the fabulous Boyd Ranch, which is totally worth the 8-mile drive on rutted dirt roads to get back to it)…but like all new, or essentially new, ride, there tend to be some kinks to work out, and you know going in to a first-time ride that you as the rider are going to be something of a guinea pig.

At this particular ride, it was the trail itself that would prove to be the greatest challenge and need the most ironing out — very technical, with a lot of rocks, climbing, and deep sand, with not enough areas to safely move out to balance it out and be able to make up time. Ultimately, we came in overtime, but the fact that we unexpectedly ended up going it alone for most of the ride — the first time Liberty has done that — I was really happy with the outcome, and it was the absolute best learning and training experience I could have hoped for.

Wickenburg is a “local” ride for me — only about 2 hours away, including the last 8 miles of really rough, washboard dirt road that can take about 30 minutes alone if you’re hauling a trailer. (The road should have served as a preview of the terrain that was to come…)

Kirt and Gina were only about 10 minutes behind me, so I secured a good spot in camp (on the outskirts, but we had room to spread out and set up the electric pens). They had brought the usual suspects of my Liberty, Yankee for Gina, and Wicked (the big grey mare who is Liberty’s pasture-mate…it’s good for her to get the trailering and camping exposure…and good “oh, yes, you will leave your BFF” training for Liberty…)

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ponies in pens…Liberty, Wicked, Yankee

While Kirt set up the pens, Gina and I went and checked in and grabbed our ride packets, then pulled horses out and gave them a thorough brushing before heading over to vet in. (Shedding season…I scraped quite a bit of hair off Libby.)

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hydrating before vetting

I’ll be the first to say it: Liberty was a brat for vetting. She was fussy about letting the vet look at her mouth (although she did stand nicely for getting her temperature taken), her pulse was a little high (44) since she was excited over leaving Wicked back at the trailer, and then she had to trod on my foot during our trot-out (trail running and endurance riding: Toenails Optional), which earned her an impromptu schooling session (and a second trot-out). Still needs some more work in the Manners Department.

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The predicted forecast was going to be warm: 83°, and while I wished for clippers, I settled for mane braiding on both Liberty and Yankee. Their hooves needed a bit of attention, so they each got a trim, I checked boot fit and did some adjusting (even with a trim, I wasn’t loving how the Classic shells fit her…keep this in mind for later…), and then gathered tack together for the morning.

I haven’t been happy with how the Duett has worked, or rather, not worked, on her, since she’s been sore in the loins every time, even with three different saddle pads. Irony: All of the horses I’ve catch-ridden, she’s been the only one it hasn’t worked on. Fortunately, Gina had a spare saddle I could try: a Frank Baines Reflex dressage saddle, fully kitted out with all the necessary rings and such for endurance. I put it on the saddle stand, sat my own butt in it and determined it felt good enough to at least start the ride in (could always switch at lunch if need be), and then checked the fit on Liberty. I liked how it sat on her, and there’s a little more rock in the tree than the Duett, which is where I think I was running into problems. Also: She’s a tank. The tree is the 4W, which is the widest tree they offer in that particular model. It’s also a monoflap, and substantially lighter than my ridiculously-heavy Duett.

I also electrolyted Liberty and Yankee at this point, knowing the next day was going to be warm. Liberty hates syringes and electrolytes (oh, yay, another one…) so there was Drama and head flinging and electrolytes splattered everywhere…but we eventually got it done…and Yankee was a good boy and took his without complaint.

One of the perks offered at this ride was dinner on both Friday and Saturday night, so around 5ish, we wandered down to the pavilion where management and volunteers had an appetizer spread ready while the dinner of beans, several kinds of pulled pork, coleslaw, and tortillas were being set out.

Ride meeting was really brief — pretty sure there were still people trickling in as the meeting was wrapping up — although it covered the salient points: “Follow these color ribbons on these loops, watch for the chalk arrows/lines/numbers on the ground, when in doubt read your maps with trail descriptions, hold times and pulse parameters are ‘x’ and ‘x’.” (I’m not a fan of long ride meetings, so I appreciated the brevity.)

It was nice to have had enough time in the afternoon to get everything I needed to done, so the evening was relaxing, and I even managed to get to bed in decent time, aided by my new BFF, a tab of melatonin, which helps with my “first-night-in-new-place-plus-pre-ride-jitters” restlessness. I give myself plenty of time (2+ hours before the start) on ride mornings to slowly wake up, dress, make coffee, force myself to nibble on something (green juice smoothie, poptart, banana), then boot/tack up.

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tacked up and almost ready to go…just need bridles

We were tacked up and ready to go by the time the 50s started, but both Yankee and Liberty were fairly “up” so I took a few minutes to have Liberty walk/slow trot some circles around me and get her brain re-focused before I mounted. She had some moments of wanting to twirl around and head back to the trailer while we were walking over to the start, so I did a lot of walking, and circles, and making her pay attention to me, before we headed over to check in at the start line.

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antsy-pants displaying her favorite indiscretion: pawing

I made one mistake, and I realized it as soon as we started: I had swapped the solid curb strap back to the one with the chain (why???) and I knew immediately it was too much for her, as she tucked her head extremely behind the vertical and got very fussy. *sigh* Too late to change now…but it meant I had to be extremely conscious of how much contact I was using (not as much as I prefer, especially at a ride start). Fortunately, she was much better behaved this time, only hopping a couple of times over the whole passing/being passed thing and then really settling in after the first mile or so (versus the first 6 miles at Bumble Bee). She really does get better and more mature with every ride.

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walking over to the start…so excellently matchy-matchy

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heading out at the start…oh, look, it’s part giraffe.

We were sitting about middle of the pack for the first couple of miles, but then the trail quickly turned into deep, uphill sand wash…which neither Yankee or Liberty are legged up for doing much by way of speed work in. So we walked. And people passed us. And we walked some more. We hit some nicer sections of double-track road where we were able to move out…but neither Liberty nor Yankee were feeling particularly like being the Brave Leader, so did a lot of yo-yoing back and forth where one would surge ahead, then the other…it was like riding equine bumper cars.

It was during one of these trotting sections in a not-as-deep sand wash that Liberty started doing a mild-but-consistent head bob on her left front. (Remember, it was her RH she was off on at Bumble Bee.) Uggghhhh. Gina noticed that her boots had accumulated quite a bit of sand, even some small rocks jammed down in the front toe flap, pushing the shell forward and creating the same effect on the captivator as over-tightening the cables would do — pressure on the bulbs and somewhat limiting the movement of the captivator. Apparently I’ve got two horses that are “particular” about their preferred model of boot/captivator.

I pulled the offending boot off, climbed back on…and she trotted off sound. Riiiiggggghhhhtttt…memo to self: “Viper shells and captivators only on this horse from now on.”

Shortly after this point, we pulled off the trail to let a couple of people pass us, and as the last horse passed by, she kicked out and nailed Yankee right in the chest! Seriously?!? What next?!?

Fortunately, Yankee seemed fine, but we took our time, just to make sure — because of course right after this we would be leaving the wash and heading up some very rocky, technical climbs. After climbing out of the wash, there was a water stop/number check. Neither horse drank here, although Liberty drank a little bit at the first water stop (~3 miles in).

Heading out from the water stop, I managed to get Liberty to stay in front for more than twenty feet of trotting…and then all of a sudden she bobbled and started three-legged hopping, kicking out with her right hind leg. I immediately jumped off, and as far as we could tell, it looked like Yankee had crowded her from behind and possibly stepped on her hind boot. Again, this was her “off at Bumble Bee” leg, so I don’t know if it could have been something to do with the weird split that had developed between her frog and bulb (best we could tell at BB, a rock got under her captivator), or what was going on.

So now her hind boots got removed, and I was going to take her totally barefoot. (At the speeds we were going, that was hardly my biggest concern. She also has amazing, rock-crushing hooves from growing up in the desert and running on acreage her entire life.) I hand-walked her for a bit, probably about half a mile, just to make sure she was okay, before climbing back on.

Just when you think, “okay, we’re in the clear, right?”…Gina and Yankee are leading, heading up another technical, very rocky and steep climb that involves cutting a sharp right and then left to stay on the trail and out of the worst of the rocks. Only Yankee doesn’t cut right, but tries to just go left, over-corrects, does a “four legs in eight directions” flail, gathers himself up enough to get back on the trail…and then does it again. Liberty isn’t fazed by any of this, but when we get to the top of the hill, Yankee is off on one of his front legs. Nothing obvious, but he’s ouchy.

So we get off and start hand-walking again. Yankee isn’t improving, so Gina tells me “get back on and keep going, you don’t need to stay with me.”

Easier said than done, since Liberty has had very little solo training time, and never at a ride. Well, what’s a ride other than on-the-job training, right?

I got Liberty trotting away, but every time we would get out of eyesight of Yankee, she would slam to a stop and wait until she could see him again, then get moving. Needless to say, we were not making great progress until we hit a spot of shared trail with the 50s, and I was able to catch a tow from a couple of friends, enough to get us moving and for Liberty to realize “not alone out here. Maybe not going to die.” (Thanks, Cathy and Elaine, for letting me tag along!)

The shared trail split off at that point, but we had gotten far enough ahead of Yankee that Liberty was rolling along nicely…and the internal compass was pointed “due camp.” Photographers John and Sue Kordish were set up along this loop, and for the first time, Libby didn’t even pause to stare at them…so I got some nice trotting action photos of us!

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photo: Susan Kordish/Cowgirl Photography 

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photo: Susan Kordish/Cowgirl Photography 

Shortly after passing Sue, the trail opened up to this fairly smooth, wide, level dirt road…and I got to do something I’ve been dying to do…canter Liberty. In the past, I’ve been tempted, but have held back, not wanting her to learn too early on that canter was an acceptable option, especially during the start and early-on ride excitement. I am also not brave when it comes to cantering new/strange horses…it is the gait where I feel the least secure and comfortable, like I can be all-too-easily off-loaded if they spook or buck…but now, the timing felt right.

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photo: Susan Kordish/Cowgirl Photography

Fortunately, she has apparently been trained in the standard canter cue (sit, kiss, little bit of rein, use one heel to cue) and moved right into this lovely, rolling canter.

*cue heavenly choir of angels singing*

She has one of the most wonderful canters I’ve ridden. Smooth, powerful, efficient…and perfectly controllable. And completely business-like — it was like she just locked onto the trail and had no interest in anything other than steadily moving forward. I have a feeling I will be working her up to this and utilizing it to great effect in the future.

We cantered for probably less than a quarter mile, then I broke her down to a trot to navigate through some rough areas, and then when the trail spit us onto the big dirt road leading to camp, I got one more canter in. (Super pleased with how responsive she was…and it didn’t make her rushy or at all race-brained to be allowed to move out…she came right back to a trot and walk as soon as I asked.)

So I basically power-trotted and cantered the last mile into camp, and hopped off right at the gate and hand-walked in the last 100′ or so to the in-timer. (Y’know…”how to bring a horse in nice-n-easy for pulsing down…”) I let her drink while I sponged her, and then she insisted on being allowed to munch on some of the alfalfa and bran mash that was sitting right there…so by the time I got her sponged and she got her initial munchies fulfilled, it took 5 minutes to pulse. I had the volunteer check her right when we came in and she was up at 80, then dropped to 70, hung there for a minute…and then when she checked her again a minute later, she had dropped to 52. (Criteria was 60, I believe. Or 64. Maybe 64 was the finish?)

She vetted out with all As — and was better behaved this time, although she still didn’t like the vet messing with her mouth. Her trot-out was excellent and she stayed right with me and didn’t use my feet for target practice.

Back at the trailer, I was surprised to see the corral was empty, and figured Kirt was maybe taking Wicked out for a walk around camp to keep her from missing her buddies. Well, I was partially right…he ended up saddling her up and taking her out on the fun ride! (Which was the same trail as loop 1 of the LD.) So Liberty had to stand at the trailer, all by herself, and alternate between drinking, eating, pawing, and screaming for her lost BFF. (And the learning experiences just keep on coming.)

I got her a bucket of water and flake of alfalfa, sponged a little more of the sweat off of her, and left her to her own devices for a little bit while I refilled my water pack, used the bathroom, and grabbed some lunch for myself. I took a couple of minutes of downtime to send a quick text update to friends/family, then got back to work: swapping out the curb strap on the hackamore, fishing my riding crop out (I knew we would need the  extra encouragement if we were going to do the second loop all by ourselves), and re-booting her with Vipers on her fronts.

Gina got back with Yankee partway through my hold — the vet had taken a look and hadn’t found anything on his leg that would indicate tendon or ligament involvement, so it was likely that he probably tweaked something in his fetlock area. Gina said the vet had pulled a large, inch-long thorn out of Yankee’s leg as well (probably from a crucifixion thorn bush, fairly common to the area, with thorns that are larger/sturdier than cactus spines).

Liberty was good about walking away from camp — we had about 3 minutes to wait at the out-timer, and she did some circling and calling at that point, but with a little “hand on the halter and point in the right direction” assist from Gina, we got out on the trail — trotted out of camp, woohoo!! Which lasted all of 100 yards before we saw 50s coming in from one of their loops, and she had to stop, scream, and try to go with them. A couple of solid whacks with the crop got her persuaded that listening to me was the better idea, and he headed out on Loop 2A. There were more parts in this loop where we were able to move out — nice single-track running atop ridgelines — and then more technical climbs in and out of some big washes.

Towards the end of this loop, we encountered Kirt and Wicked on a section of shared trail. What are the odds, right? Of course, neither mare wanted to separate from the other, so we both ended up jumping off and walking our recalcitrant mares away from each other down our respective trails. I ended up having to hand-walk Liberty for about half a mile before she stopped her screaming and twirling (with several “discussions” along the way about respecting personal space) and I was able to get back on and keep jamming down the trail.

To pick up the second part of the loop (Loop 2B) we had to cross in front of the ranch — more fun convincing the big mare that we were *not* going down the same in-trail we had earlier. Once I got her un-stuck and past that point, we swung by the water trough that was out and she drank well — impressive for her still being mentally keyed up and wanting to join her buddies — and then started into the second part of the loop.

We passed photographer Sue again, and then almost immediately, a cluster of 50s come up on us. Very good news for us: It was Stephanie DuRoss and her group, and they didn’t have any problem with me falling in with them and catching a tow for the next several miles of shared trail. (Thank you, Taylor, Steph, and Kecia!) Another excellent learning experience: Liberty had to be the caboose in a train of strange horses that she didn’t know, and had to choose to either act like a grown up and follow them, or end up on her own again (remember her “omg, stange horses, I must bounce up and down and act like I don’t know what another horse is” antics from Bumble Bee?). She decided that New Friends were a very good thing indeed and it was a sad time when our shared trails parted ways and we had to go forth on our own yet again.

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photo Susan Kordish/Cowgirl Photography 

We did some pretty good climbing, basically cross-country, and I’d coax a bit of a trot out of her on smooth sections here and there, but basically we walked. At about 2.8-3mph. Speed demons, us. ;) I also started singing at this point as a way to keep both of our spirits up…it’s a good thing we were alone, since I’m not exactly musically gifted.

Eventually the single-track spit us down and around into a large wash, but shallower and running slightly downhill, so we were able to get into a pretty good trot rhythm. I have pretty good navigational and “point of reckoning” skills, and I knew camp was basically on the other side of the hills we were winding our way through…so when we came upon one of the number checkers, I asked how far we were from camp…”oh, probably another 45 minutes to an hour.”

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so much sand wash

Oh. So much for the hope that the ride would “measure short” and we were just around the corner from being done.

We had about 20 minutes left on the clock as this point, so I knew we weren’t going to make it, time-wise…which totally took the pressure off. Sure, we weren’t going to finish in time, but we were going to stay out there and finish the course.

Once out of the washes, we went through a really pretty section of single-track that wound through some trees and grass before spitting us out into a big open flat field with the single-track cutting straight through it, leading to the next water stop. It was here that Liberty had her one big spook of the whole ride…at a century plant next to the trail. She did a pretty impressive sideways spook with about a quarter of a spin…enough to just slightly unseat me, but a handful of mane braids (and the fact she stopped) kept me in place, she got a boot in the side for her troubles, and we proceeded onward to the water tank.

It was a Super Scary water stop, with a windmill and shed and lots of stuff right around the trough, but she stopped and really tanked up. There’s a rough formula of ~30 swallows = 1 gallon (give or take, depending on horse size and gulp capacity), so just for fun, I counted her swallows…ended up being right around 50 swallows, so she had almost 2 gallons in one go! Gooooooood mare! (She is really good at EDPP on trail…very self-preserving and takes care of herself and her rider. That right there is solid gold.)

We had to “tiptoe” past the old building and wooden corrals, and then I let her walk for a few minutes after her large drink. Finally, finally, the trail turned back towards camp, and we got some more forward motivation…that lasted until we encountered the Dead Barrel Cactus of Doom laying right next to the trail. Since we were surrounded by cholla, and there was no good “go around” option, we stood there quietly until she inched her way past it, step by step. After that, we kind of hit our wall, as the trail was very twisty and turny, rocky, and lined with enough cholla that trotting didn’t seem like an  inviting option.

So we walked. And we walked. And we walked some more. I worked my way through a pack of Clif energy ShotBlocks and drained the rest of my water pack. A few short trot bursts through sand and some flatter stuff, but more up and down cross-country rocky stuff, now heading away from camp…and then crossing a bit of trail from the morning…and more up-down-rocks…and then back on shared trail from loop 2A. Shared trail + directly heading towards camp = motivated trot, and we trotted the last mile or so back in to camp.

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out trudging on our own…

We were so overtime (by about an hour) but I still treated our finish like we were still in the game: come in, let her drink and eat while I pulled her saddle and sponged her down, and got her pulse (pulsed down to 60 in just a couple of minutes, impressive with it being as warm as it was, and her being a dark, still-fluffy, large-bodied horse), and then took her over to vet out.

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photo Susan Kordish/Cowgirl Photography

She finished with all As (still didn’t like the vet handling her mouth, *sigh*) and a lovely trot-out, and then she got to chow down on the lovely bran mash + carrots provided by the ride for a few minutes while I sponged her off a little more (and then flopped the saddle back on her, since we were parked a ways away and it’s still not *that* light) and then we headed back to the trailer.

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vet card: lunch check and finish

She got to rejoin her BFF in their corral, I committed the grave crime of electrolyting her again, and then afterwards, I flopped down on a lounge chair with a water bottle in one hand, cold beer in the other, and plenty of snacks, and regaled Kirt and  Gina with our Tales of Being On Our Own and Not Dying. After the beer ran out and I’d put a dent in the food supply, I headed over to the ranch bathrooms where they have lovely permanent showers. (Living quarters are really nice, but the perk of permanent bathrooms at a facility is you don’t have to worry about draining the water tank or running out of hot water, so if they’re there, I will use them.) I washed a ton of trail dust and sweat off, changed into fresh, clean clothes, and headed back to the trailer for a bit before ride dinner.

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post-ride consumption of the food and water

I really have to give a nod to ride management at this ride. They provided some excellent perks, including dinner both nights, the volunteers were friendly and helpful, the trail markings were fabulous…it was just the trail itself that wasn’t entirely practical for endurance competition purposes, and management has already expressed a desire to take into account any constructive feedback and use that for the betterment of the trails for next year. (And kudos to the ride attendees: Everyone I have talked to or have seen feedback from has remained polite, courteous, and provided appropriate constructive criticism, versus just complaining and bitching. So good job, all around.)

That grilled hamburger dinner tasted delicious (and I really liked not having to cook), and it looked like a decent number of people stayed around for dinner/awards. We had planned from the beginning to stay Saturday night, so we had time to socialize and catch up with people before retiring back to the trailer for hot chocolate and cookies, and eventually bed.

I crashed hard until about 7, when sunrise and quiet horse murmurings pulled me out of the sleeping bag. I appeased the starving herd, then fortified myself with coffee. Liberty looked great — legs cool and tight, no back soreness (!!! and there hadn’t been any when we finished), bright-eyed, and most important: still talking to me. Yankee was back to normal — while I was out on the second loop, Gina had taken a closer look and found another thorn pretty deeply embedded in his fetlock, and once she removed that, he immediately started moving better and was completely fine by morning.

We did some hoof/boot consultations (Kirt have me one of those “show me what you’ve learned” tests by having me evaluate the hoof and what I would adjust on the trim…I passed with flying colors, which is always nice to hear since I tend to second-guess and doubt my abilities and skills when it comes to hooves and trimming) and slowly started to pack things up. Gina and I took the horses for a walk around camp, then loaded up and hit the road.

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nomming camp leftovers with Wicked

I swear, the road going out was almost worse than coming in, but I had good music on the radio, and a happy sense of success and fulfillment after a dynamite weekend, so the drive home went fast, and I was back by early afternoon to be greeted by my very excited Terrier Greeting Committee.

I am so, SO proud of this mare, I could just burst. She has not done very much training solo, and never at a ride. This is only my fourth time riding her, so she really doesn’t know me that well…and this was only the third time I would take a horse through a ride by myself. (The first was Mimi’s and my first 25, the second time was when I took Beamer on an LD at McDowell — both times on horses I knew very well and had spent a lot of time around.)

I felt so safe and comfortable on her. She’s sensible, not over-reactive, and keeps her head even when fairly stressed (such as leaving or meeting-and-leaving buddies). She never blew up, and she wasn’t even what I would consider particularly spooky. She’s got a stubborn streak that definitely shows up, particularly when she needs a mental break, and a walk that’s slower than a sloth dripped in peanut butter crawling over a glacier…but those are things that will be improved on with time. (And her trot and canter make up for her walk…and in-hand, she walks out quite nicely, so she can learn to do it.)

I don’t think of myself as particularly brave, but in this case, there wasn’t any second thoughts about heading out by ourselves. This horse and I feed off each other — she gives me confidence, she challenges me in all the right ways, and she makes me want to be the best version of the horsewoman I can be.

That was the longest 25 I’ve ever done, but it was worth taking whatever time we needed to make sure we both had a good experience. Liberty will for sure have a long, slow distance base on her, and all of her rides thus far (with the exception of the Bumble Bee pull) have had her on the trail for 6 or so hours, so she’s never learned the “race fast and you’re done in two hours” mentality…to her, you’re always on the trail for 6+ hours, so while moving up in distance will be a change, the longer time out on the trail won’t be as much of an adjustment. (It’s unconventional as a training method but maybe it’ll work?)

So, a Gold Star weekend for both of us, and one more building block layer in Creating a Distance Horse.

Ride Story: Lead-Follow at Bumble Bee 25 2016

Well, that didn’t go according to plan. Up to this point in my endurance career, I’ve been very fortunate: my only pulls have been rider option or overtime.

This was my first real vet pull — lameness. Liberty and I got through the first 16-mile loop…and got pulled for “something” in the right hind. The good news is there’s no heat or swelling, and she didn’t seem sensitive or touchy, so I’m hoping it’s something minor. And was perfectly sound again Sunday morning, and went blasting around the arena at Bumble Bee Ranch to prove it. (Thinking muscle, since she was stiff walking away from the trailer after standing for a few hours in the afternoon, but walked out of it after a dozen strides, or maybe a lack of electrolytes?)

It was a rocky, technical trail, with a few “not watching my feet” stumbles, coupled with the fact that in-between the rocky areas, we had to do some moving out…probably a little more than she was ideally ready for.

But that aside, I was really, really happy with the rest of the day and how well Liberty did.

I procured a rental car Friday morning, stuffed it with half the contents of my garage, and headed out about noon. Bumble Bee is only about an hour and half from my house — ended up a little closer to two hours with some of the Phoenix traffic.

I love the Bumble Bee Ranch basecamp. Total luxury with bathrooms, showers, permanent corrals you can rent, and a nice, flat, wide open field for basecamp. Once there, I got myself checked in for the ride, as well as settling up with the ranch for corrals and the overnight camping fees. (Super reasonable — $10 for the first corral, $5 for the second, and $10 for dry camping, all per night.)

I spent part of the afternoon socializing and getting caught up with people while waiting for Kirt and Gina to arrive with horses. They made good time out of Kingman and were there with plenty of time for us to unload the horses and walk them around camp before vetting in.

The last time I saw Liberty was this ride two years ago, but it was like hardly any time had gone by. Maybe I’m just anthropomorphizing here, but I like to think Big Mare likes me…and she totally brings out my inner 8-year-old child that likes to squeal with delight and festoon the pony with glitter and neon colors.

Liberty’s a bit of a “work in progress” when it comes to her ground manners – she likes to shove at you with her nose, and fling her head around, so she got a fingernail poke to her muzzle (several times) for her troubles. She was really good for the vet, though – stood politely, didn’t fuss about having her legs handled, and didn’t mind having her mouth opened and examined. And she actually trotted through the trot-out versus her impressive cantering in-hand last time.

She vetted in with all As, although her 44 pulse was higher from what it has been in the past…probably in response to her “best friends” being in different places…but that’s how she learns and eventually settles.

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All A’s…good start

Because someone (Liberty…) has been known to dig holes to China when tied to the trailer, we opted to rent corral spaces from the ranch, and stashed the horses (Liberty, Gina’s horse Yankee, and Liberty’s pasturemate Wicked) in there overnight. As much as I like having them at the trailer, there’s a part of me that doesn’t miss listening to boinging hi-ties and clattering buckets all night long.

Liberty got to ground-tie via the “grass to graze on” method while I worked on detangling her mane (long, thick, silky, and forms the most impressive witchy-knots ever), then once she was all beautiful and tangle-free, they got stashed in the corrals, and we headed over for dinner and the ride meeting.

Bumble Bee Ranch puts out a good spread of spaghetti and meatballs, garlic bread, and Caesar salad, plus brownies and ice cream for dessert. I stuffed my face, in-between socializing and catching up with people, and then the ride meeting started.

The trail was the same as two years ago (two loops, first was 16 miles and the second 9 miles, with an hour hold in-between), pulse criteria was 64 at the hold, 60 at the finish. Pink ribbons to mark the trail, orange ribbons to mark the turns, don’t cross the flour lines.

I had pretty much packed and organized my saddle before leaving home – just had to stick my vet card and map in there, and then debate over which saddle pad to use after an interesting discussion with Kirt over the pros and cons of the various pad inserts.

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Liberty’s boots ready for the morning — being a materials and color testing guinea pig meant looking like a bit of a mismatch

The last time I did this ride, we started late, and I was determined not to make that mistake again, so set the alarm for 5:30 to give myself 2 hours before the start. Friday night sleep before a ride is a pretty elusive thing for me, and this time was no exception…lots of “drift off, wake up” on and off throughout the night, but eventually the alarm went off and I crawled out of bed, dressed, then headed over to the pavilion where they had coffee available all night long. (And heated bathrooms. Like I said, luxury.)

Breakfast was a quick affair – coffee, a cranberry cereal bar, and a string cheese, and then we brought the horses back over to the trailer to tack up. Working for a boot company (and riding their horse) means being an in-field guinea pig test subject…and we had the mis-matched boots to prove it. Yes, we’re testing some new colors.

Liberty is so nice and calm for things like tacking up…just stands still and quiet and doesn’t fuss or fidget. (And no pawing!) She was also really good about having her hind legs handled/booted (she’s been “quick” about that in the past where she snatches her leg up really fast and isn’t patient about holding it up). I had to do some major fiddling with her headstall to get the s-hackamore to fit well – I’m actually running into the same problem with her as I do with Mimi, and that is too short of head length to fit the hackamore and halter both on and still have chinstrap clearance/functionality but not have the noseband too low. Ah, well…something to mess with in the future, and maybe look at something that is custom sized for her particular dimensions.

Even with all of my fiddling, we still had a buffer of about 10 minutes, so mounted up and started making our way over to the start line. Liberty had one “Uh, I don’t know about this moment” in which she very gracefully turned around and tried for a swift exit back to the trailer – very smooth and barely even broke into a trot – so I just laughed, took lots of deep breaths, and walked her back towards the starting area. Once we started moving she really settled, then stood quietly at the start area while we checked in and gave our numbers.

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I am still the 8-year-old little girl that hugs her pony. photo by Susan Kordish/Cowgirl Photography

There wasn’t a controlled start for the 25s, so we let the first half a dozen people light out of their with their butts on fire, and then no one else seemed to be in a major rush, so we made our way our down the lane around camp and through the ranch barnyard. This was a major sticking point two years ago for us – 15 minutes to get by all the tractors, equipment, and GOATS. This year, she eyeballed everything, and sort of danced her way by the goat pen, but she didn’t balk and we made it through at a nice walk, even a bit of trotting.

I wanted to get her out and get her moving down the trail, which we did for about the first mile, and then I backed her off and Gina put Yankee out front. Last time, Liberty had Issues with being behind Wicked, and would start crowhopping and bucking when she was behind…but she also didn’t necessarily want to be brave and go in front, and it was only with extreme pedaling that I got her going. This time, I wanted to see what she would do…and then deal with it as necessary.

She did have some “happy feet” moments, mostly related to Yankee out-trotting her, especially on more of a downhill, but she was totally controllable, and it was more sheer enthusiasm than any kind of dirty tricks, maliciousness, fear, or rodeo-bronc impressions. In short: very rideable. (Especially with a nice handful of that thick mane.) She also gives pretty good warning, so I was able to catch her usually on the first hop, and have her head popped up and heel dug into her side, so she never got to stop, nor did she get to go faster or get ahead.

It took probably about 5 or 6 miles for her to settle in, but unlike last time, we were in the thick of the pack of 25s, as well as 50s re-joining shared trail. We were so far behind last time, we really didn’t have to deal with anyone passing us or needing to pass. This time, we did. This has been a questionable area for us in the past – Liberty has something of a “happy feet” reputation and I’ve been super-diligent about never giving her the opportunity to try any kicking or naughtiness.

Gina describes her as “unsocialized” with other horses, since she usually rides her alone, or with maybe one other person, so all of these new horses had Liberty more amped up, especially coming into communal areas like water troughs…but she stayed perfectly controllable. She had a couple of moments where, when passing someone, she tried to get in one of her crowhops, but I never felt like she was targeting the other horse or actively kicking out. Definitely progress. At one point, Yankee even rear-ended her while we were on a single-track trail, and all she did was pin her ears. Good girl.

The first half of loop one is a mix of sand wash and double-track dirt road – a good place to make time. The second half is the fun part – about 7 or so miles of single-track on the Black Canyon Trail. Lots of twists, turns, bits of rock and some technical stuff…and one of my favorite trails. This was the part I had been saving Liberty’s mental energy for, and Gina and I traded spots for Liberty and I to move up to the front.

She was just a little hesitant at first, and then she spied some horses gradually approaching behind us, and she locked onto the trail and kicked it into gear. This was the best. time. ever. and probably one of my favorite moments thus far of riding this mare.

I didn’t even pull out my camera this time – too “in the zone” to want to mess with it, I guess.

She did some really smart footwork, no spook, no hesitation, just locked on and solid. There were a few moments in some of the rocky areas that we had to have some “discussions” about slowing down and paying attention to one’s feet. (But her toes were also a little long, too.) I had changed out the standard curb chain on her s-hack to a solid beta one, as she just seemed a little fussy and sensitive to the “bite” of the chain. That did the trick in that she didn’t do any head tossing or slinging under saddle this time, and while I had to be a little stronger with her at times, I was able to have more contact with her face without her dropping off the contact or going behind the vertical to get away from the chain. Again, headgear will be something interesting to play with in the future, as she needs some work on bending, giving, unlocking her shoulders, and *using* that wonderful rear end for things like turns and pivots. (Thinking some “back to basics” snaffle work, and then maybe into a Myler Combination bit.)

The last section of trail into camp is super-fun – a large sand wash with an actively running (ok, trickling) stream. Last time, Liberty only went into the water after her pasture-mate did…this time, Yankee was the one eyeing the water and Liberty was the one who bravely splashed through.

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dropping down into the wash back to camp. photo by Susan Kordish/Cowgirl Photography

Photographer Susan Kordish and her husband John usually set up around this area and get some amazing photos – it is such a pretty spot that I’ve never heard anyone say anything negative about “photos that look the same.” (Which, if you think about it, can be sort of asinine – photos taken in certain spots at certain rides become “iconic” versus “the same” – how many people complain about “oh, another Cougar Rock photo”? People start to know the Bumble Bee photos because of the uniqueness of that much water in the middle of the desert, versus “just another landscape of cactus and rocks.” Ok, soapbox moment over.)

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down in the wash (water wimps are taking advantage of the grassy bank). photo by Susan Kordish/Cowgirl Photography

This year was no exception, and I came  away with yet another photo I’m calling “my favorite ride photo.” I don’t know what her secret is, but Susan is 3/3 now in producing at least one stunner of a photo from every ride Liberty and I have done together.

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I love this photo. So much. Just makes me smile to see it. photo by Susan Kordish/Cowgirl Photography

This section was another area where Liberty demonstrated she had really grown up in the course of two years – there’s a large section of the wash that is dry sand, topped with dry, crunchy, rustling leaves. Liberty is super-sensitive to rustling types of noises (high reactive to the possibility of snakes, as she comes out of a snake-infested area) and two years ago, we tiptoed through this area, as anything more than that threated to set her off. This year, she trotted through the wash, spraying sand on the leaves and not giving even an ear flick.

She also paused in the middle of the wash to relieve herself with a nice big pee in the soft, fluffy sand. Yay for peeing under saddle.

Right when we were entering the ranch again after exiting the wash, Liberty gave me her one true spook of the entire ride – we had just tiptoed past a cattle guard, giving it a healthy side-eye, and she was now fixated on the large metal horse sculptures next to the road when a pickup truck popped up behind us and she did a hard spook about five feet to the side and really slammed her feet into the ground.

We proceeded to make our way around camp and back to the same lane we had gone out on, and in an effort to save some time and avoid a “Horses Who Stare At Goats” incident, I hopped off and started leading her on foot through the yard and down the lane. At one point, I had her in a slow jog, and out of the corner of my eye, saw her head dip a time or two…but she was also jostling with Yankee for a spot on the road, and looking at all the ridecamp activity, and we were in a crowd of other people and horses, so I didn’t think much of it.

Her under-saddle walk might be slow, but we made some time on foot, even passing a few people coming into the check. She got a quick drink while I loosened her girth and got my in-time card (in at 10:09AM), and by the time that was done and we went to get her pulsed in, she was already down to 60. Total time: two minutes.

There was only one other person ahead of us in the vet line, so we went over to vet right away. Again, she vetted really well – one B on skin tenting, the rest As, and good gut sounds…but when we went to trot off, she didn’t want to immediately trot…took me until about ¾ of the way down the trot lane to get her to trot. So when we got back to the vet, he asked to see her trot again. She trotted that time, but when we got back, the vet didn’t look particularly thrilled…said she was knuckling over weird on her right hind fetlock.

Kirt pulled Liberty’s boots off, in case there was anything in there, I swapped her reins to her halter instead of her s-hack for less head interference, the vet got one of the other vets to watch, and we trotted a third time. Apparently still something there, although she was still trying to enthusiastically run over me on the way back. (More things to work on: in-hand trotting manners.) They held my vet card for a re-check at the end of the hour hold, although one of the vets said that if she looked the same at the end of the hour, he wasn’t going to let me go back out, because she was borderline between grade 1 and 2.

I did a really good job holding it together until after we got back to the trailer and I had Liberty settled in front of a hay bag, bridle off, and fleece blanket on her butt. I started poking and prodding, massaging her rump muscles, feeling for any tight spots or sensitive areas. I eventually worked my way down to her lower legs…and completely freaked out when I felt a warm spot on the inside of her leg above the fetlock. Lost it, right then and there…absolute flood of waterworks, since I assumed the worst and figured I had broken her. Not even my horse yet, and I had already managed to break her.

Sane and rational Gina came over, felt the area, reached over to the other leg and felt the corresponding area, and gently pointed out that the sides of her legs that were facing the full sun were both equally warm.

Oh.

Dark horse + sun exposure = warm hair.

Kirt and Gina shooed me away to go take care of myself and get food/hydration while Kirt worked on giving Liberty a full hind-end massage and stretch. So I grabbed string cheese and grumble-texted my core group of endurance buddies about our current state. I did kind of a poor job of eating – I think I’m regressing in my self-care abilities, or I was just too distracted/worried to think properly – but I managed a string cheese, an energy bar thing, an applesauce, and the rest of my green juice from the morning.

Ten minutes before our out time, Kirt put Liberty’s front boots back on, I put her s-hack on, and we walked over to the vet area. One more trot-out , and the vets concurred with their earlier assessment – subtle, but “something” off on the right hind, enough that they didn’t feel comfortable letting us go out for that second, very rocky and technical, loop.

And just like that, I got my first actual vet pull at an endurance ride. (Overtime or rider option in the past.)

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Really great…up until the lameness pull

Gina and Yankee went back out for the second loop (she apologized for leaving me, I told her don’t even think about not going back out there) and Liberty and I headed back to the trailer. Liberty was a little confused, and she hollered a few times for Yankee, but she was very well-behaved – no pacing, twirling, fidgeting, or pawing. I gave her a pellet mash and a hay bag, and let her munch while I untacked her and set to work giving her a sponge bath. (Yay, desert in January and a high of 70* means you get the sponge off the sweaty, dirty, endurance horse.)

Gina and Yankee made it back in from their second loop in time (with about a minute to spare…) and passed the vet check with flying colors. We got him all taken care of and cleaned up, then the horses got to go back over to their corrals and relax for the rest of the afternoon and evening.

Bumble Bee Ranch is such a nice place to relax and hang out that we had decided ahead of time to stay over Saturday night, and maybe ride again Sunday morning. Obviously, I wasn’t going to ride Liberty the day after a lameness pull…however, we did turn them out in the big arena and they proceeded to run around like lunatics…and Liberty was 100% sound.

Oh, well…at least whatever the vets saw turned out to be minor.

So Sunday morning turned into some nice relaxation and quiet time, basking in the sunshine and 60-something-degree weather, before eventually packing up camp, loading the horses, and heading for our respective homes.

The pups were ecstatic to see me (you’d think they’d been neglected all weekend long…never mind that my parents absolutely dote on them), stuff got flung from the car back to where it (mostly) belongs, stinky laundry sorted, and sore muscles got treated to a hot shower.

So: obviously, a somewhat disappointing weekend what with getting pulled/thinking I broke the horse. I probably didn’t, but I’m part Russian: I’m honor-bound to feel guilty. However, there were also some really good moments, like: realizing how much Liberty has matured mentally in two years, and what an absolute rockstar she was; her little happy feet crowhopping moments don’t scare me, and I can ride them out instead of turning into a helpless, clinging, limpet-monkey; I got to spend time with her and discover she has quite the personality on her – very affectionate, has a major sense of humor, and is even downright silly at times, especially for a mare.

Hoping I get to do another upcoming ride with her, but as always, I’m pretty much playing my schedule by ear and seeing what happens…

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One last selfie before I gotta say goodbye…

Up next: The analysis of what worked/what didn’t/gear.