Sometimes, I think my (endurance) life plays out as one continuous episode of “man plans, God laughs.” I mean, I know I’m not unique in that regard — spend any time talking to any endurance rider behind the scenes, and the actual reality of what is going on often times only bears marginal resemblance to the social media reality that is presented to the public at large. (I get it, I do the same thing…my social media posts try to be positive and low-drama, with a healthy dose of “don’t make my problems and dirty laundry other people’s problem.”) But endurance is definitely a sport filled with mountain highs and valley lows (and I’m not just talking about the trails), and it takes a certain level of mental fortitude and tenacity to not just finish rides, but to stick with the sport through the ups and downs, and the inevitable disappointments as well as the successes.
That was a bit of foreshadowing that Tonto Twist, and subsequently, Project Ridgecrest, did not exactly go according to plan when Atti and I finished all 50 miles at Tonto Twist…and then got pulled at the finish for lameness. Pulls are never fun, especially the finish line ones, and this one just really stings because I felt like I did everything so right. The whole ride, and the training and lead-up to it, was so well executed…hit all the checkboxes of strategic, targeted training and coaching, smooth planning and prep, nailed my ride-day pacing, electrolyting, and ride plan…and it still went sideways in the end. After a while, it’s hard to not feel a bit discouraged and disheartened.
So with all that as a preface…onward to the actual ride story. I absolutely adore the Tonto Twist ride, which is saying something since I am currently 0/2 in finishing it. I love that it’s in my favorite mountains in the state — the Superstitions — so it is super-scenic, and I know the trails and area really well. It’s also impeccably managed, with ride manager Lancette Koerner doing her all to put on a total frills ride, with all kinds of creature comfort (for both the two-legged and four-legged participants), including plenty of checkpoints and water stops with hay, and people snacks/water. The trails are a fun mix of some technical stuff, some jeep roads, some beautiful single-track, and overall really good footing, more than enough to make up for the couple of slower-going sections. It’s also well-marked, and in addition to traditional ribbon markings, she employs the Ride With GPS app (think, “vehicle navigation system, but for trails”) as an additional navigation option (this is a heavily-trafficked area and we share the trails with Jeeps, ATVs, hikers, runners, mountain bikers, and casual trail riders, so the possibility of ribbon removal, be it accidental or less well-intentioned, is very real).
It’s pretty much a “backyard” ride for me — base camp is about 30 minutes from my house, and about 25 minutes from the boarding stable. So it makes for super-convenient travel, as well as not having to have a ton of prep done days ahead of time. Which is just as well, after the weather turned cold, cloudy, and windy on Thursday ahead of the ride, which is when I had planned to bathe and clip Atti. Those plans got fast-forwarded to Friday morning, and I showed up at the barn in the horse clipping equivalent of hazmat gear, in an attempt to avoid having to dig horse hair out of my bra for the next several days. (It actually worked, and after a quick change of clothes, I was horsehair-free for the rest of the weekend, without having to worry about heading back home to shower/change.)
In relatively short order I had Atti’s neck/chest clipped, gave him a quick spray-down, tossed the last of his feed and hay into the trailer, filled the water tank, did the aforementioned clothing change, and we hit the road, for a just-after-noon arrival into base camp at the Apache Junction Rodeo Grounds.
Camp set-up was quick — hang hay bags, fill water bucket, swing out high-tie and attach pony…done. Ride packets and all of the maps via Ride With GPS had been emailed to us days prior, so I just had to quickly head over to check-in to get my vet card, then gather up Atti and go vet in.
Part of what I’ve worked on with him during “winter training camp” has been trot-outs. Atti’s general outlook on trot-outs at rides is, “Why bother?” so I wanted to sharpen that up and see if we couldn’t improve his attitude and impulsion scores on his vet cards. After every ride, and pretty much every time I would handle him in-hand, we would work on a trot-out — especially at the end of a ride, when he was ready to be done.
It definitely worked, because through the whole ride, he did some very nice trot-outs — matching his shoulder with mine, good forward impulsion, not dragging behind and looking like he’d rather be anywhere but there at that moment.
He vetted in great, so after that it was time to head out for a bit of a leg stretch and pre-ride. All 3 loops come back into camp essentially the same way — identical on loops 1 and 2 for the last mile and half between the last checkpoint and camp, but then the third loop tacked on an extra mile that took you off the common trail and back into camp a more circuitous route. He was quite lit up and rather spooky out there — uncharacteristic of him, normally, but I had been finding more and more layers to this horse the more I worked with him, and he definitely had no qualms with testing me and challenging me along the way. But we all survived, and I clung to my old theater superstition that “a bad dress rehearsal meant a great performance.”
I had also been waffling back and forth on which headgear to use. I had been mostly running him in a bit with a running martingale, to encourage him to use his body better and not emulate a giraffe…but he is also prone to a bit rub on the corner of his mouth, despite me slathering him in every single no-rub concoction out there. Our last training ride, I had taken him out in his s-hackamore, to see if he had earned his hack privileges back again, and he was very well-behaved, so the hack got added back to the rotation. And then the pre-ride happened, and I was having serious misgivings about starting the ride in just the hack. But I also wasn’t sure about the bit. My favorite approach is to start a ride in a bit, and then switch to the hack as soon as I possibly can, usually at the first vet check, but in this case, the first loop was 30 miles before we would be back to camp.
Ultimately, I shelved the decision for the afternoon, and would make up my mind in the morning, and got down to the serious business of Mad Scientist Endurance Chemistry, aka mixing electrolytes, before the potluck dinner and ride meeting.
The potluck dinner spread was plentiful and yummy, and because a lot of the information had been sent out ahead of time, the ride meeting was able to be kept fairly short and sweet. Critical info for the next day included: 3 loops of 30, 13.5, and 6.5 miles, respectively; ride start time (7am); ribbon colors for each loop (pink; orange/white; lime green); hold times (1 hour after loop 1; a gate-and-go pulse down and trot-by between loops 2/3); and vet criteria (60 all day). I had done the inaugural Tonto Twist ride two years ago, volunteered it last year, and as mentioned, it’s practically in my backyard, so I have been riding various bits and pieces of the ride trails for years now. Which meant I was pretty comfortable with the flow of the trails, and had a pretty good idea of how it would pace out — which is huge for me, because I have struggled with learning to consistently pace endurance rides for years.
After a bit of post-briefing socializing, I headed off to bed in my cozy nest in the back of the Suburban. Toss an air mattress down, and my warm sleeping bag, couple fleecy blankets, and I was warm and comfortable all night long. I actually managed to sleep pretty well for a pre-ride night, and before I knew it, my alarm was going off at 4:30 to crawl out and give Atti breakfast. For me, once I’m awake, I’m awake for good, so there’s no sense in trying to go back to bed — but it means I have time to slowly get ready, make and sip my coffee, nibble on my own breakfast, and not feel rushed.
Ultimately I decided to start him with his bit, slather his mouth with anti-rub cream, and carry the little tub of cream with me and slather his mouth at every stop. Best I could do, and I really wanted the extra fine-tuned communication I got from him with the bit.
(Was I glad I did this? Ultimately, yes. He did come off the first loop with a nice little rub on the corner of his mouth, but there were a couple times early on that he tried a head flipping/tossing trick that probably would have otherwise given me dental work or a nose job if he hadn’t hit the end of the running martingale first. He is small, compact, and with that shorter neck, his head is right there at my face, so there is not a lot of margin of error for shenanigans. )
He was nice and calm, both for getting ready as well as warming up before the start — none of the antics from the Estrella ride last month carried forward, thankfully. But as soon as the ride started, he was ready to move. We headed out pretty much in the middle of the pack, with the sun just starting to lighten the horizon, and create enough ambient light to not have to worry about headlamps or glowsticks, and with the handy little Ride With GPS voice yapping its directions at me, there were no issues with navigating the early miles even in low light.
The first few miles is pretty easy-going, with a few gentle rolling ups and down, and mostly really good footing. It was also trail we had ridden just a couple weeks prior, so Atti knew exactly where we were and what the trail was like, so I spent quite a bit of the time persuading him to slow his roll and hold to a steady trot. Fortunately, about 5 miles or so in, the trail hits the much more technical sections, with one climb in there that will definitely curb their enthusiasm. (Check out my ride story from 2018 for the ride photos that are taken partway up this climb if you want an idea of what it looks like, and also for more pictures of this first loop…because I actually had my hands way more full this year and got way fewer pictures.)
As mentioned, I didn’t take a ton of pics in this section. After the rains we had this past summer and earlier this winter, the rocks have been breeding and multiplying, and there were a number of sections that were very technical, that involved clambering over large chunks of slick, exposed rock…with a pony who did not want to “slow his roll” or have much semblance of self-preservation. We were riding by ourselves, and I think that just taps his competitive juices. Riding with a buddy, he’s pretty content to stick with them, but on his own, he just wants to fly down the open trail…and he just can’t do that. I mean, he theoretically could, but the point of this whole exercise is for me to be the brains of the operation and stick to a responsible, reasonable pace and try to explain to him why dancing on rocks is a Really. Bad. Idea.
Of course, right about the time I was slowing up our pace to navigate through the trickiest areas was when some faster riders who had started behind us caught up to us, and then the debate over pacing and sticking to our own space bubble was really on. I had more than one “Jesus, take the wheel” moment as I listened to Atti’s shoes clatter and scramble through and over the exposed rock sections, trying to just keep myself balanced and stay out of his way.
It was actually a relief to get out of the technical wash and onto the 5 miles of hard-packed, rocky road that runs through the mountains and connects over to Bulldog Canyon (or, as ride manager Lancette puts it in the Ride With GPS directions, “Be grateful, this road is what allows this ride to happen.”).
Finally, the road connected down to Bulldog Wash, which was in the best shape I’ve seen in years. Washes can go one of two ways in AZ when it rains…they either lose some of their sand, or they gain more of it. In this case, I think Bulldog lost some of its sand, and between the rain and the jeep/ATV traffic, there were some nice, packed-down lines of travel through the sand that were absolutely perfect footing. We trotted, then bumped up to a couple of brief canter sections, enough for both of us to blow off a bit of the frustration we were feeling at each other after the last few miles.
Coming into the first water stop and checkpoint at mile 12, I jumped off, Atti drank, I electrolyted him, hopped back on, and continued on our way. The nice thing about the water stop was we got our space bubble back, and the next 4 miles were delightful. The direction we were traveling Bulldog Canyon was a long, gradual uphill, but with really good footing…so tempting to just let them move out, but this was one time it was really advantageous to know the trail and know how deceiving of a section it would be for difficult, so I really reeled Atti’s pace back in again and made sure to enforce some walking breaks along the way.
The next checkpoint was at 16 miles, with more water, hay, carrots, and people water and snacks. I handed Atti off to a volunteer, ducked behind a bush to recycle the morning coffee, then while he drank and ate, I refilled my water bottles, ate a granola bar, then electrolyted him again and headed out. The trail took us up into Usery Mountain Park, and lots of beautiful single-track.
Usery is a pretty and well-used park, so we did the usual “sharing the trails with hikers, runners, and mountain bikers” routine. Old hat for both Atti and myself, and there were all kinds of signs and notifications posted in and around the park about the “endurance horse event” that would be taking place on the trails that day. I didn’t have any issues with any of the trail users…everyone was really courteous and stepped off to the side, and I made a point to slow down, not run them over, greet them, and thank them. Not difficult to be a good ambassador for both the sport and equine trail users.
Partway through the park, we had another checkpoint, but before that…ride photographers! Sue and John Kordish were both out, cameras at the ready, and I’m pretty pleased with how my ride photos turned out. Especially since we were still in the middle of pace negotiations, and I was grumbling under my breath about overnight pony-brain-eating zombie apocalypses. The photo at the top of this post is from Sue, and the one below is from John. They always get really good photos, and I’m so happy they cover so many of our AZ rides.
Another checkpoint and water stop at 20 miles…Atti drank like a fish, snacked on some alfalfa, another bit of electrolytes, and away we go again. The next section, I was totally alone again, and it was a blast. The trail is smooth single-track with great footing and flow, with the biggest obstacle being the cholla cactus forests you wind around and through.
Eventually the trail lead us out of the park, where we then picked up the road/trail that lead up across a couple of roads and into the 28-mile checkpoint at Prospector Park. Another good drink for Atti, and a couple minutes to much some hay. We were only a couple miles out from camp, so it was worth taking the extra time to get some food into him to ensure good gut sounds by the time we hit camp. Leaving Prospector, we picked up the trail we had pre-ridden the day prior, and Atti was all business cruising back into camp. Once ride camp was in sight, I hopped off and jogged him the rest of the way in, loosening his girth, pulling his bit, and starting to unclip tack as we went.
Cristina, who came down for the day to crew along with her friend Victoria (the idea being to treat this as a “dry run” test crewing prior to 20 Mule Team), met us at the in-timer and we quickly yanked his tack and checked his pulse. He was down, so I immediately headed over to pulse, and then vet in. My goal for this first loop had been to do it in 5 hours…our pulse time? 11:59, which meant a time of 4:59 for the first loop. Guess I’m figuring out this pacing thing. :))
He vetted through brilliantly, with all As, good gut sounds, a very nice trot-out, and a CRI of 52/48, and then my lovely crew (such a novelty to have crew…I could get used to this!) trundled him and the tack back to the trailer while I swung over to grab my ride-provided lunch, which was another really nice perk to this ride — between the Friday potluck dinner, provided lunch on Saturday, and chance to buy dinner at the Saturday evening awards, I hardly had to do any meal prep or cooking this time.
The luxury of crew meant I got to sit and eat my lunch and enjoy a few minutes of downtime while they fussed over and pampered Atti, providing him with a buffet of food options to tempt his picky palate, cool wrapping his legs, and cleaning up with worst of the sweat and grubbiness that had been accrued over the past 30 miles. My saddle pack got replenished with fresh waters, snacks, and electrolytes, the saddle went back on, he got his electrolytes, and I decided he could have his hackamore privileges back. We were at the out-timer a couple of minutes ahead of my out-time, so Atti stuffed in a few more last-minute bites of alfalfa, and then we were on our way for loop two.
The first several miles followed the same out trail as loop one, then veered eastward to head in the opposite direction of the morning loop. This loop wouldn’t take us quite as deep into the Goldfields, but we still did a bit of climbing before dropping back down and starting to circle back towards camp. This portion of the trail also overlooked and ran right by the Goldfield Ghost Town, which is a good chunk of Arizona mining history right there.
We had pre-ridden all but the last few miles of this loop a couple weeks prior, so Atti knew exactly where he was, and was more than happy to cruise through this loop, still going through negotiations as to speed, and his desire for more of it.
We reached the water stop and checkpoint about 9 miles into this loop and he dove into the water, drank really well, and when he showed interest in the hay piles, I gave him a few minutes to stuff his face before electrolyting him and continuing back down the trail. Another few miles brought us back around and into the Prospector Park checkpoint again and another quick stop for a drink and more hay, and then onto the repeat trail back into camp.
This time, we didn’t have any kind of hold back in camp — just a gate and go check of a pulse down and trot-by. Once camp was in site, I hopped off, loosened his girth, and jogged him in, pausing briefly at the trough outside of camp for him to tank up. Cristina and Victoria met me again, checked his pulse, said he was down, so we went over to the pulse-takers. They confirmed he was down, we went over to the vet for a quick check and trot-out, was pronounced “looking good and good to go.” I gave him a couple more minutes to eat some more hay and mash, electrolyted him, checked in with the out-timers, and hopped back on. I fully expected him to reluctantly stroll out of camp…after all, this was the third loop, and we were following the same trail out again. So imagine my surprise when, on his own volition, he picked up a canter as soon as we were clear of the timers, and merrily cantered his way out to the trail…and then chucked in a little crowhop of protest when I had the nerve to hold him back and not let him go racing off down the now-familiar out-trail.
This final loop was a little over 6 miles, and stuck to the fairly flat and easygoing desert floor. The first 2 miles were the same as the first two loops, then the trail veered off and took us directly over to Prospector Park. We had most of this loop all to ourselves, and he was really relaxed and settled, easily trotting along, walking through any of the downhill or rocky stuff. One last stop in Prospector Park, another drink, and he was so ravenous that I let him stay for a few more minutes to munch hay before heading out to the last few miles of trail.
On this third loop, it does a bit of a cruel mind-twist. The mile or so past Prospector is the same, but right about when camp is in sight, the trail turns off and angles you out away from camp for an extra mile or so. Atti was not amused by this turn of events, and I basically had to ride my left rein and right leg for the next half mile or so to keep him from cutting his own shortcut through the desert back to camp. There was a circuitous meander around the perimeter of the overflow parking lot of the rodeo grounds, and then we were at the finish line. My goal for a ride time had been 9 hours (not counting hold times), and I believe we came in just a little ahead of that.
Cristina and Victoria jumped into action, pulling his tack as he ravenously plowed through a pile of alfalfa. His pulse was still a bit above parameters since I had trotted in (and he was fighting me to go faster the whole way), so we gave him a couple of minutes to eat and pulse down, then we headed over to vet.
Vet parameters were all looking good…slightly quiet on guts, but the way he was stuffing the food in on the third loop and when we came in, I didn’t think they would stay that way for long, and As on everything else. Pulse was low — 44 by the time the vet checked it. And then we trotted out. And as soon as I saw him drop back and his head bob, my heart shattered into a thousand pieces. I think at that very moment I knew we were done, but I still trotted him all the way up, and back, hoping he might have just taken an off step and would work out of it, but I knew before we even got back to the vet. Unfortunately, he was mildly but consistently off on every stride, which is an automatic pull — not “fit to continue” at the finish.
The vet did take the time to look him over, but she couldn’t feel anything or elicit any particular reaction from him at the time. She was pretty sure it was left front, which, unfortunately, had been the leg of concern after comments of “something intermittent” at a ride last year.
Since the barn was so close, it made way more sense to wrap up and head home later that evening, versus camping overnight, so we got Atti’s legs iced, poulticed, and wrapped and got camp packed up, then he got to hang out and work on re-hydrating and replenishing his food stores while we all went to the awards dinner (delicious Indian fry bread tacos). After dinner wrapped up, I dropped him and the trailer off at the barn, then headed home for my own bed.
The Follow-Up: Since this was now a recurring issue, Cristina opted to bring the vet out for a lameness evaluation and imaging. Long story short, Atti has an injury to the upper suspensory, and it has likely been something that’s been somewhat ongoing. When I asked the vet if we could have done anything different, or what might have caused it, his response was, “bad luck.” Cristina said I rode a perfect ride, and read me the riot act when I started second-guessing myself and feeling guilty. But that’s what I do. I second-guess. I look back and wonder what I could have done different, and kick myself for another pull on someone else’s horse on my watch.
The frustrating part is I really feel like I actually did everything so right, and the ride itself was so well-executed. It involved a lot of managing on my part in terms of keeping his enthusiasm contained and not letting him just blow through the whole thing. We came in solidly middle of the pack, with vet scores and pulse rates that indicated he still had plenty in the tank, drinking like a fish and finally discovering a good appetite. I feel like all the boxes got checked, pacing was probably the most spot-on I’ve ever been, felt like I was so contentious about getting it right…and it still didn’t work.
A friend made a comment to me Saturday night at the dinner, that I “just have the worst luck ever.” Gee, thanks. I try not to feed negative self-fulfilling prophecies, but at this point, I’m not sure what else to think. Right now, I just feel disheartened. Endurance is the biggest yo-yo for me…right about the time I get into a rhythm, something bobbles and it smacks me in the face. As is oft-repeated in the household…”Horses are not for the faint of heart.” And I think that goes doubly-so for endurance.
A Quick Gear Rundown
I love my Frank Baines Reflex saddle. Technically it is a monoflap dressage saddle, but it’s got all the extra d-rings and attachments to make it a very useful dressage saddle. It, combined with a couple of coaching sessions courtesy of my friend Tammy Gagnon, made all the difference in the world in my position and effectiveness, and I didn’t feel like I was constantly fighting to not be hunched over and braced for the entire 50 miles. I have a fleece seat cover on it right now, but the jury is still out on whether or not that’s actually needed.
The D-Lua Park Pure Wool Saddlecloth was a Christmas present and it just may be my new favorite piece of tack in my life. It is soft, fluffy, super-pliable, and doesn’t clump or get frizzy when it’s washed. (I’m looking at you, Woolback pads.)
The Total Saddle Fit SLIM Leathers really do make a difference in leg stability, and really make a difference in the pressure across my shins. Finally, I could ride in English leathers without ending up with massive bruises across my shins.
Plain black Zilco tack set is part of my tack rotation. Because I love my colors, but sometimes, plain black is the ticket for the day. Especially when you’re riding a “cute” gelding that people have a tendency to mistakenly call “she.” (Breastcollar, Halter–Bridle, Grip Reins, Martingale)
Fager bit for the first loop, a-hackamore for the second and third loops.
Bare Equestrian tights. Love. Super comfortable, slight compression. Sticky bum and knees that came in handy a few times. They do come in non-sticky varieties as well…I have a couple pairs of both the sticky and non-stick, and tend to wear the non-stick ones even for non-horse-related daily wear.