Ride Story: Man Against Horse 50 2019

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photo by John Kordish

Man Against Horse will always hold a special place in my heart. It was my first AERC ride, the LD back in 2005. It’s also a tough, challenging ride, especially the 50-miler. Historically, I’ve gone up against the 50 three times…and finished once. Perversely, I still love this ride, and the challenge makes me all the more determined to conquer it.

So I was pleased to be offered a ride for the 50-miler this year when Cristina reached out to me to see if I was available and interested in riding Atti. I did the 75 at McDowell on him two years ago and had a great ride — he’s a safe, fun, go-getter little guy, and as a bonus, trains regularly on many of the Man Against Horse trails, so this would be his home turf.

Friday late morning saw me chucking my gear and some food into my truck, then zipping up the highway a couple hours north to Prescott Valley to pick up Cristina’s trailer and Atti. Now, I haven’t had a trailer since 2011, and prior to that, we had the big truck, so my suburban hasn’t had to do any trailer hauling duty for probably at least a decade, so there were more than a few muttered “please let me make it to camp” prayers after I hitched up and headed down the road. (Pleased that I have lost none of my vehicle aligning/trailer hitching skills, even if it was a comedy of errors to get the right hitch dialed in.) I only had a 20-minute, mostly flat and easy drive in which to contemplate brewing an ulcer though, and we made it into camp with no issues.

Troy and Claire had saved me a parking spot in camp, so I didn’t have to do the typical avoidance run of “don’t park in the middle of a rock pile or cactus patch” that someones comes with the territory of camping in the middle of a cow pasture. This was probably the most “on my own” I’ve been at a ride since retiring Mimi, and selling the truck and trailer, but I quickly fell back into doing my thing.

One thing catch riding has definitely done has been to knock off a lot of my uptight, control freak rough edges, and I feel like I’ve actually gotten pretty laid back and settled about the whole production, especially Friday afternoons before the ride. I used to be ridiculously neurotic about “OMG EVERYTHING HAS TO GET DONE AND THIS HAS TO HAPPEN AND…AND…AND…” and if I wasn’t right on top of things, or I didn’t check in right away or didn’t vet as soon as vetting started, it was grounds for a nervous meltdown. I recognize a lot of that for the nerves and inexperience that it was, but with catch riding, and operating more off of so many other people’s schedules, it’s really taught me some valuable flexibility, going with the flow, and that the world doesn’t end if things don’t fall 100% in accordance with The Schedule of Ashley.

So I got Atti settled and my little camp set up, socialized and blew off some mental steam (I love my endurance family, just putting that out there), checked in, socialized a bit more, got Atti’s saddle all set up, vetted in with no drama (all As, and a smart little trot-out), then tacked up and headed out for a short pre-ride. Had to fuss with the stirrup length at one point, but other than that, we were ready to roll the next morning. Back at camp, I tucked Atti in front of his dinner, then rounded up my homemade blueberry crisp and headed over to a potluck dinner gathering before ride briefing.

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afternoon pre-ride

I’ve done this ride half a dozen times prior…3 years of the LD, 3 years of the 50. The trail doesn’t change, vet checks are the same, pink ribbons on your right. 6:30am start for the 50, 30 minute hold at vet check 1, 45 minute hold at vet check 2, pulse-n-go at vet check 3. Pulse parameters of 60 all day. One thing I should mention for anyone not familiar with this ride — it’s called Man Against Horse for a reason — riders and their horses are sharing the trail and competing with runners. Just like the ride, there is a 12/25/50 mile run distance offered. It’s a super-unique thing, with only a couple of rides in the world offering it that I’m aware of (the Vermont 100/Moonlight in Vermont on the east coast, and a Man Against Horse in the UK). Because of my handful of years of dabbling in trail running, I have friends both riding and running, so it’s a fun merging of two of my worlds.

Post-briefing, I checked Atti, settled him in with a warmer blanket and more hay, packed the last few things in my crew bag — all I needed to add was my food/lunch in the morning — then retired to the comfy sofa bed Claire had offered. (My endurance family spoils me.)

As typical for pre-ride nights, sleep was a little bit elusive, and I felt like I drifted in and out all night, but at some point, I must have fallen asleep, because I was rudely awoken by my 4am “get up and feed Atti” alarm. Crawled out of bed, loaded him up with some more hay and a dose of electrolytes, put my riding clothes on…and then crawled back into bed for another hour. By 5:15, I was fully up, mainlining my precious cup of coffee (ride mornings, I reluctantly limit my caffeine-addicted self to one cup) and stuffing in some breakfast before doing my final crew bag last-minute packing and hauling it over to the truck that would take it to the vet checks. This ride is one of the few remaining “single loop” courses, so all the vet checks are out  along the trail and you don’t come back to camp until the finish.

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ride map

Atti was saddled, and my butt was in the saddle a good 20 minutes before the start, checking in with ride management, and giving Atti some warm-up time. He was really “up” for him — this ride is very high energy at the start, with an en masse shotgun start of horses and runners all taking off, in and out of a rocky wash and then up a wide, gentle uphill grade. “Wild” is often the kindest way to describe the annual start line antics, and it can set off even the best-behaved horses. So it wasn’t exactly a surprise to see Atti transform into a bit of a “I’m Superman, let me fly” attitude.

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pre-start…he’s the cutest little guy

My friend Taylor and I had made plans to at least start together for some moral support and “don’t let me die” safety in numbers. We ended up going out a couple minutes after everyone else, dealt with some shenanigans for the first half-mile or so, and then it was smooth sailing, and by the time we hit a few miles in, both boys were cruising along.

The first 9 miles is a pretty smooth cruise — a few miles of sand wash, some gentle rolling hills, mostly double-track road through grassy plains. At mile 9, the trail changes to single-track, and more of the climbing starts. “The Grapevine” dips in and out of a sandy/rocky streambed at the bottom of a canyon, and it’s one of my favorite sections of trail, especially on a handy little mountain goat. We traded off leading for a bit, then put Atti in the lead, and he scampered through this section. He’s surefooted and nimble, and flies over narrow single-track without batting an eye. After a few miles, the trail turns out of the streambed and starts climbing, up through stands of manzanita and scrub oak, and opens up to views out towards Prescott Valley and Prescott beyond.

On the way up to the vet check, we saw photographers Susan and John Kordish, who got fantastic pics as always.

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photo by Susan Kordish

In to vet check 1 right about 9, which was absolutely perfect and right on track with my rough internal timeclock I had in mind for ride times/goals. Atti took a big drink when we got in, and was pulsed down by the time he finished drinking. I had an absolutely lovely surprise coming into the check — Claire was waiting to crew for me! Troy had already come in to the check, and left just before I came in, and Claire stayed to give me a hand. Like I said, I’m so spoiled, and very thankful…I was not expecting crew at all, and it was delightful to have an extra set of hands, or to be able to hand his reins over and briefly sit down and take care of myself for a few minutes.

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super-flattering mid-shake…which he also likes to do under saddle

Atti’s vet scores were good — a couple of Bs on hydration parameters, but everything else As, and he’d been drinking well so far. Before heading out, I switched him over to his hackamore, electrolyted him, mounted up and we were out of there right on time. The next section of the ride is a lot of forest roads. A couple miles of some interesting quasi-cross-country  and some zippy little single-track bits, but for the most part, lots of lots of dirt road. The longest stretch is about a 9-mile section. It’s very rocky, tends to be slow-going, and a very good section of trail to share with a buddy. Atti and Taylor’s gelding Mouss were still pacing well together, so our plan was to stick together as long as the boys were happy, and it really took the potential doldrums out of this section. Sure, we whined about the rocks, but did a lot of laughing, and I’m pretty sure we chatted non-stop for a solid 48 out of 50 miles.

The “highlight” of the 50 is the climb up Mingus Mountain to vet check 2 — a roughly 1800′ elevation gain in about 3 miles, on single-rack that can have some steep, technical, or steep and technical sections. Before starting the climb, we paused for a few minutes at the checkpoint and water stop strategically placed just before it. There was some fresh green mountain grass growing, enough for some good grazing time and fortification before tackling the climb.

It starts innocuous enough. Narrow singletrack, but a gradual grade. And then it turns interesting real quick, with some sharp turns and steep step-ups. I hopped off Atti on a couple of sections to give him a break — at 13.3, he’s not a big guy, and I’m about 20 pounds more than what he’s used to carrying, so I was doing everything I could to make it easier for him. We were also at about 6000′ elevation at that point, so that’s always super-fun for this flatlander desert rat to try to breathe and hike up a climb at the same time.

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before the tough climbing started

Fortunately the climb levels out partway through, so there’s a chance for some easy walking recovery before the second part of the climb, and a ton of grass growing along the trail, so Atti worked diligently on perfecting his grab-n-go grazing skills. The second part of the climb also has some interesting “rock stairstep” sections that are a little technical, so I hopped off again, lead through a couple of them, then let Atti go ahead and tailed off of him for some of the steeper uphill climbing portions. Finally, after a few more switchbacks, we reached the top of the mountain. It was about a mile of easy forest road into the check, and after walking/climbing that much, it felt really good to let him out and easy trot down the road.

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about halfway there — we’re heading to the top where all the trees are. this is my favorite photo spot because the leaves are always starting to change.

Coming into the check, I hopped off and walked the last little bit in, let him drink (and drink, and drink) and by the time he was done, he was pulsed down. We were in a little before 1, so still right within the time frame I had expected, especially given how rocky the trail was this year. Claire and Taylor’s mom Luci had set up our crew bags for us in a nice spot, and after getting Atti settled in front of his hay and pan of grain, I just plopped myself right down on the ground next to him and proceeded to tuck into my own lunch.

There had been a line for the vet when we first came in and pulsed down, so I gave Atti some time to eat first, and once the vet line cleared up, headed over for our check. Again, some Bs on hydration parameters, but all As everywhere else and vet said he looked great. We still had a bit of time before our out-time, so back in front of the food for both of us for a few more minutes before wrapping up the crew bag, electrolyting, and mounting up.

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photo by Susan Kordish

Heading out from the check, the first couple miles of trail is lovely — single track, weaving through the pine trees. I even ended up flushing a flock of wild hen turkeys out — came around a corner and started up a climb and saw about half a dozen of them on the trail ahead of me. As soon as they saw us, they headed up the hill further, and wow, can they move fast. But that was super cool, as it was my first time seeing turkeys in the wild here in AZ.

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turkeys! I promise, they’re there (circled in pink)

Shortly thereafter, the trail kind of degenerated into a bit of a singletrack rock pile. What used to be this smooth-flowing, slightly downhill trail that you could just fly down has gotten super-rocky, to where it’s impossible to really make time on. At that point, I hopped off and started hiking, with Atti trucking along cheerfully behind me. (Cristina runs and hike with him all the time, so on singletrack trails, you can clip your reins to the saddle and take off in the lead, and he’ll follow right along behind.) I know it was probably only a couple of miles, but it felt longer, and it was a major relief to pop back out to one of the checkpoints we had gone through earlier, back out onto forest road. It may be road, but we could finally move out again! Both boys were more than happy to make up some time here and kicked into a trot, then canter. We were able to make pretty short work of the several miles of road between checkpoints before hopping onto another singletrack trail. Fortunately, this one was in better shape, and aside from slowing for a few sections of rocks early on, we were able to make much better time.

That singletrack spit us back out onto another forest road, right before the last vet check — a pulse and go style of check. We brought them in nice and easy, let them drink, both pulsed down and trotted out for the vet, and then they sent us on our way — only 7 miles to the finish, and literally all downhill from here. Another rocky section of trail put from the check, and then we were on one of my favorite trail sections. It’s smooth singletrack, and it switchbacks down the side of a canyon, all the way down to the bottom. It’s really trottable, and super fun on a nimble horse. Atti knows this trail really well, and he flew down it. By the time we reached the bottom, both boys were firmly in “going home” mode, and it took absolutely no encouragement to keep them moving. There’s another bit of road section, and then the last two miles from camp heads across open pasture, into a wash, and then back into open pasture, following cow paths right back into camp.  I’m pretty sure Atti would have galloped in if I let him, but I kept him to a smart trot the whole way in, and we crossed the finish line right at 5:15 pm.

After he tanked up at the finish line water trough, we vetted through right away, my heart in my throat the whole time after my finish line pull at this ride in 2017. But no worries this time — Atti trotted out beautifully, good scores, and we were officially finished! Took him back to the trailer and got him untacked, wrapped legs, tucked into a fleecy cooler, and settled him in front of a huge pile of hay.

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Finished! Sound, happy pone and tired, happy rider.

I had perfect timing — once Atti was all taken care of, it was just in time for ride dinner and awards. For all 50-mile finishers, they hand out beautiful buckles. I earned my first buckle at this ride in 2009 on Mimi, and now my second one a decade later.

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By the time awards wrapped up, it was getting late enough I decided to stay in camp for the night rather than tackle the 2-hour drive home…and I had the sofa bed and a hot shower on offer again, so I spent the rest of the evening talking horses, ride strategy, AERC politics, and more horses with Troy and Claire.

Atti was bright-eyed and still talking to me the following morning, and looked good when I took him for a leg stretch first thing. He was also quite happy to be clean-up crew for the extra grain as I worked on cleaning out my crew bag and getting camp packed up. It didn’t take too long to get everything in order, load up, say good-byes, and head down the road. Dropped off Atti and the trailer, got him settled, then headed back down to the Valley.

This year has been light on the ride happenings for me, with a lot of ups and downs in regards to plans and horses, so it felt really good to get this one on the books and have it be so successful, and I’m grateful to Cristina for once again entrusting me with her special pony.

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photo by John Kordish

Riding Log Corral

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It’s not very often I get a chance to ride mid-week — a self-imposed reality, since if I’m not working, I’m not making $. But when Stephanie asked if I might be available to come ride her horse Ash on a training ride at the Log Corral trail, I didn’t have to think about that very long. I’ve been taking on some extra work of late (by choice) in the form of some weekend jobs with my dad in his carpet cleaning business, and then working on my Masterson Method fieldwork and subsequent session write-ups “homework.” And my mental state was telling me I really needed to take a day, or at least part of a day.

The Log Corral trail is also one I’ve been wanting to ride for a really long time now — it’s a popular training spot for a number of people I know, and for good reason. It’s an 18-mile round trip, an out-and-back that starts at a trailhead/parking area just off a highway, and follows a 4×4 road all the way to the east side of Bartlett Lake…a gradual 5 mile climb to the high point, and then a 4-mile descent down to the lake…then turn around and reverse that. The first mile or so out from the trailhead is a bit rocky, as it winds through a creek bed, but once on the actual Log Corral Trail, it’s lovely, decomposed granite footing the whole way to the lake. So the chance to finally ride that trail (and get the all-important GPS tracks of it for future reference) was something I really didn’t want to pass up.

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Ash, meet Ash. That sure simplifies things when you and the horse share a name.

It’s a fabulous trail, a hidden gem and oasis in the desert, with the bonus of having the lake as the turnaround point. Apparently that part of the lake is also swimmable, so word on the street is “bring swimwear” next time.

Ash was a lovely ride — super experienced, and very well trained (dressage background), so it was really fun to figure out all the buttons he has installed. (Methinks dressage lessons will be in the cards with any future ponies, because I am loving riding these horses that have previous dressage training. Leg yields and half halts all day long.)

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Skeptical of the lake. It was breezy, and creating tiny little waves coming at us, which he wasn’t wild about. Not exactly uncommon when it comes to horses vs waves.

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Go on, tell me my desert is dry, brown, and boring. Oh, and that “Arizona doesn’t have trees.”

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Desert Oasis. There were a couple of stream crossings, plus the lake, so lots of opportunities for the horses to drink.

I was really glad I broke my usual routine and took advantage of the offered opportunity. Great ride with good friends on a good horse…that was exactly the mental health day I needed this past week.

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2018 Year-In-Review

This year, I don’t think I did quite as much blogging about the “in-between” elements of life. Covered the big events, and managed to maintain my “at least one post a month” streak I’ve had going since August 2011. But I think a lot more of the day-to-day stuff ended up on Facebook or Instagram, so some of life’s happenings might briefly get covered for the first time here in my year-in-review.

2018 ended up being a pretty epic year, riding-wise.

  • Number of rides: 7 (technically one falls into the 2019 ride season, but the 2018 calendar year)
  • Number of completions: 4 (215 miles)
  • Number of horses ridden: 4
  • One mileage milestone patch attained (750 endurance miles)

January

Looking back, I have to chuckle at what I said in my first post of the year:

“I’m inclined to do the same approach this year — take things as they come, say “yes” to as many opportunities as is feasible, and stay flexible.

I’m just planning one ride at a time and we’ll see what the season has in store.”

Even after I said that, I never could have predicted that the rest of the season would bring, and the opportunities that would present themselves.

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I managed to do stuff with all three of my girls — two pups, one pony — and spent quite a bit of trail time hiking and trail running this month.

Later in the month, Junior and I attempted the inaugural Tonto Twist 50 ride. We were pulled for a subtle but consistent lameness after the first 30-mile loop, but in spite of that (and getting rained on), I still loved the ride, the scenery, and the trails. It was one of the few times I’ve done a ride on my own, which was kind of a fun and different change of pace and perspective. That said, a big part of endurance for me is the “togetherness” aspect of doing rides either with Dad, or with endurance friends, because this is my major social network.

I wrapped up the month with more trail outings, including taking Rocco out again for an evening training ride. I’ve also had the chance to expand on some more local endurance friendships in my own age group after figuring out that Taylor lives not too far away from me, so that’s been fun to build a closer-in network.

February

I played with other people’s ponies, spent several days up at the Scottsdale Arabian Horse Show, and finally, traveled down to Florida to the FITS ride at the end of the month for work, where I managed to sneak in a little training ride and experience the Florida trails.

And I can’t let the month go by without recognizing Arizona’s statehood day (Feb 14th) and doing a bit of state love. (That said, I should probably stop doing such a good job of promoting my state and start talking more about the 115* summers. Maybe that will get people to stop moving here.)

March

I had way too much fun at the AERC Convention, with the highlight, of course, of winning the Tevis entry raffle drawing. I love Convention, especially when it’s in Reno, and consider it one of the highlights of my year, and probably my favorite thing for work.

The end of the month also featured running the Renegade booth again at The Mane Event — semi-local, only half an hour away in Scottsdale. I was able to get Dad to help me out again for that, and it also gave me a chance to see some preliminary Masterson Method intro seminars (and go down and participate in one at the very end of the last expo day).

April

The standout highlight for this month was meeting Flash and doing the Bumble Bee ride on him. Remember back in January when I said that my plan was to say “yes” to as many opportunities as possible? Well, saying yes to that initial catch ride offer was one of my better life decisions, and it lead to multiple opportunities over the entire year — and still continues to do so.

I was happy with just breaking my Bumble Bee “curse” and finishing the ride — 3rd place and High Vet Score was an unexpected bonus, as was just how well I got along with Flash, and how much he had stolen my heart by the end of the weekend.

On the canine front, Artemis had to go in for tooth extraction surgery — she had cracked it the previous year, and we had put a temporary patch on it, but that didn’t last and eventually she started having some issues with a localized swelling on her face indicating an abscess was likely forming. (Lower right-hand photo is a post-surgery, still-slightly-stoned puppy.) Sofie also had way too much fun enjoying the spring weather, and rolling in the dead baby birds that would end up in the yard after falling out of their nests. #FarmdogLife

I also counted up and celebrated all of the numbers of ears that I’ve viewed the trail through over the years. (I’ve competed on over a dozen different horses just in endurance alone, and ridden over 80 different ones in my lifetime.)

May

Mimi’s birthday month! She turned 25, and I spent some time musing on random factoids about her. She also got to get out and be a demo pony at another local expo — my live model for hoof trimming and boot fitting.

June

I got Mimi out and around the neighborhood to explore, I completed the first seminar towards certification in the Masterson Method equine massage, my truck’s transmission had to get rebuilt (but 224k miles on the original, so I really can’t complain), and I finalized my Tevis plans and sent in my entry.

I wrapped up the month by doing two days at the Strawberry Fields Forever ride with Flash. This ride has been on my bucket list for years now, and it did not disappoint. Day one brought some good learning experiences when Flash thumped at lunch and we were pulled, thus verifying that Flash really does need a fairly aggressive electrolyte protocol, but he was good to go for day 2, and we finished that 55 miles in fine style.

July

I’m pretty sure things happened this month, but my brain was all about one thing: Tevis.

I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t disappointed to pull at Robinson Flat — in spite of all my “realistic” outlook, there was a tiny part of me that dreamed we might be able to pull off something unexpected. But I was still really glad for the experience, and glad I was at least able to finally start the ride I’ve dreamed of for so many years. And I’m grateful to Lucy sharing Roo with me and making sure I could get to the start line and make use of that raffle entry.

August

No rest for the wicked — I came home from Tevis and kept on rolling, getting in more saddle time on both Mimi as well as friends’ horses. I also had an article I wrote on catch riding appear in this month’s issue of Endurance News, which was pretty awesome. I’ve had a couple of things get put into the online quarterly newsletter, but to have it in the hard copy print main magazine is extra-special.

At the end of the month, I headed up to the Grand Canyon XP ride to ride the first day. “Nene” was a fun ride and I was proud to take her through her very first ride and have her finish so well.

September

Artemis turned 5, and I actually spent a lot of time playing with Mimi this month. I also got convinced to throw my hat into the ring for the AERC Director-At-Large elections that would be taking place in the fall. (Spoiler alert for December: I didn’t get elected…THIS time. But I’m not going away. And next DAL elections will be in 2020.)

October

October is a busy month for me, animals-wise. It’s Sofie’s birthday (she turned 7), Sofie’s Gotcha Day (3 years with me), and Mimi’s Gotcha Day (22 years). We got quite a bit of delayed monsoon activity showing up this month, so it made for some spectacular sunrises/sunsets, and some arena water obstacles for the unamused pony.

I also went to Reno for the Pacific Hoofcare Practitioner’s Conference, which was an excellent networking and learning experience.

I reached a mileage milestone of a combined 1000 miles with the ride completion at Grand Canyon, so did a bit of musing about the journey to get to that point. I also attempted to narrow down my favorite rides.

November

Early in the month, I volunteered at the McDowell ride. It’s been a couple of years since I’ve done any volunteering stints, and I enjoy being able to give back to the sport. It was a really fun way to spend time in camp and actually get to hang out with some of my endurance family, which doesn’t happen as much when I’m out on the trail all day.

It was Artemis’s Gotcha Day (5 years!), time for annual AERC membership renewal, and a hilarious moment of Mimi being absolutely fascinated with watching the water filling up one of the irrigation canals by the barn.

I mused on 100-milers, and how even though I haven’t completed the two I’ve attempted, I’m still hooked on the idea of them. I don’t know when the next chance at one will be, but maybe third time’s a charm?

I spent Thanksgiving weekend up in Utah with my best friend, and we had a really fun girl’s weekend of cooking, seeing Christmas lights, and doing a “Middle Earth marathon” of The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings films. It also snowed while I was up there, so I got my annual fix of the fluffy white stuff.

December

I started the month off in the best way I know how — with a ride! I was able to ride Flash in the inaugural Dashing Through the Trails ride at Estrella Mountain Park, and since it is technically the 2019 ride season, our finish there kicked off the new ride season in fine fashion.

Finally, I started off what I’m calling the “four-day Christmas weekend” with a wonderful gift — taking Mimi out on the trails. This year, I did a pretty dismal job of getting her out aside from arena work or around the barn, so it was a special treat for both of us to hit our old familiar San Tan Park stomping grounds. I will forever love her, not because she’s perfect — because she’s definitely not — but rather because of how perfect she’s been for me. She made me laugh so much during the ride because even at 25 years old, she still thinks jigging is a legitimate response…and riding her in a snaffle on trail is still a dumb idea. But in spite of her shenanigans, I still have that invaluable feeling of safety and security on her back. And settling into her saddle is always like coming home.

With that, I’m calling it a wrap on 2018 — Merry Christmas and Happy New Year to everyone! This has been an incredible year, and I can’t issue enough thank yous to all of the friends and endurance family that made this ride season happen for me.

Ride Story: Dashing Through the Trails 55

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photo: Cowgirl Photography, Susan Kordish

I can’t think of a better way to start off a new ride season than with a ride planned right away. Dashing Through the Trails is a brand-new ride for Arizona and the Southwest Region, held at the Estrella Mountain Regional Park in Phoenix, managed by Effee Conner and her family.

I have very fond memories of Estrella — while it’s not close enough to really be considered my “home” trails, I’ve done several NATRC rides there, and have used it for training grounds over the years, enough to at least have a familiarity with the trails.

I was able to partner up once again with Flash, which is always the icing on the ride cake whenever I get to ride him. He’s one of my favorite catch rides, I adore his opinionated self, and he’s given me the greatest gift of all — the return of my confidence and competence in the saddle. For that alone, he will forever have a place in my heart, and I am so grateful to Troy and Claire Eckard for sharing him with me on a regular basis.

Because Estrella is only an hour away from me, I was able to delay my packing until Friday morning (much to the happiness of the dogs, who pout and sulk whenever the bags come out and the stacks of ride clothes start forming), and not have to leave the house until late morning for a noon-time arrival.

The weather was supposed to be clear for the weekend, but it was raining when I woke up Friday morning, and continued with on and off clouds and then clearing for the remainder of the morning. Driving over to Estrella, all I could see were the mountains barely visible through the layers of clouds that kept persistently gathering around them. The ominous-looking storm cell just west of where I was heading wasn’t exactly an encouraging sight, either. I just kept reminding myself that ride day was supposed to be clear, and I had packed extra clothes and extra jackets just in case. (Advantage of a local ride I can drive to and use my truck as extra storage — don’t have to try to “pack light.”)

Fortunately, the only rain that materialized was about a dozen drops, and then the clouds cleared up for the rest of the afternoon. Troy arrived with the boys early afternoon, and it was quick work of getting camp set up and checking in.

Vetting in, on the other hand? That didn’t exactly go according to plan…

There was a window of opportunity where there was virtually no one in the vet line, so we quickly scuttled the boys over to go vet in. Flash was feeling kind of full of himself, since we hadn’t pre-ridden yet, and when we went to trot-out, he got distracted, temporarily forgot how many legs he had, and did some kind of fancy stumble-catch-flail moment. The vet didn’t love how he trotted out after that display — there was something “funky” in how he was moving — so she held our card and wanted to re-check us a bit later to see if we would be able to start.

Well, crap.

Back at the trailer, we found the culprit — clipped heel bulb. We washed it off, then just gave him some time to chill while waiting for the vet line to go get a bit less busy.

On the second go-round,  I kept his enthusiasm well under wraps (I’ve ridden a number of horses you have to really pump up to have them show well in hand…he is the exact opposite and needs no extra encouragement, and I have to remember that I do not need to all-out sprint with this guy), and we were given the all clear to start.

Whew, crisis averted. As a precaution, we cushioned and vet-wrapped the area, and put a bell boot on to help secure the wrap as well as provide an extra layer of protection from any rocks that might hit the area and make it sore.

After that, we were able to tack up and go out for a pre-ride for an hour or so. Flash gave me a few of his “I had a day off, so I’m going to be a dork” shenanigans, mostly in the form of “porpoise leaping” the “up” part of some down-and-up gulleys, but he’s so smooth and easy to stay with, it honestly just makes me laugh as I nudge him forward and remind him that forward, not up, is the ride plan. But this is why we pre-ride…so ride day itself will involve a limited number of antics.

Once we got back to camp, it was quick work to pack up a crew bag with everything we would need for the out vet check — a one-hour hold at 23 miles, and then a pulse-and-go at 40 miles — before the ride dinner and meeting. Hot spaghetti-n-meatballs tasted delicious as the sun went down, the wind picked up, and the temperatures dropped. (Granted, winter in the Valley means dropped “into the 40’s,” but for this solar-powered desert rat, that’s cold.)

Post-briefing, there was time for a bit of evening socializing before crawling off to bed to be up early for a 6:30 start (which means starting in the dark this time of year). I was actually even sleeping pretty well (for me, the night before a ride) until Flash made one last “do I really hafta go ride in the morning?” self-sabotage attempt that resulted in him managing to break his Hi-Tie line. No clue what he did, if he got caught or tangled on something, or what…but all body parts were intact, no blood, no scuffs, and appeared fully sound and functional…so he still wasn’t getting out of work that easy. Ah, well…it seems like there has to be at least one “bail out of bed in the middle of the night because of suspicious noises” wake-up call every year, and I was due for one. Good reminder, too, that I need to start bringing “fast to slip on” shoes/boots for nighttime, since fumbling around with shoelaces took way too much time.

I was kind of shocked I was able to go back to sleep after that, but I did, and clocked a few more hours before the alarm went off at 4:30. Early, yes, but I’ve found I do much better with being able to ease into the morning than being short on time and stressing. (I can actually eat breakfast when I have a solid 15 minutes to sit, uninterrupted, and slowly work my way through a cup of oatmeal, versus trying to gobble food on the go.)

One thing I’ve gotten much, much faster about in the last couple years is my morning tacking up routine. I used to be pretty slow, but somewhere along the way, I learned the art of the fast morning tack-up. Definitely helps to have everything ready to go the evening before — bottles filled and in the saddle, snacked packed, etc — so that it’s an easy enough thing to pull blankets, toss pad + saddle in place, fasten breastcollar, take a few minutes to convince Flash he does have to wear a bridle, then mount up and go. It also helps that this was my fourth ride with Flash, so I’ve been able to develop a bit of a routine with him and know generally what to expect and how much time to allot.

6:30, the trail was open, and since we had pre-ridden the start the day before and knew that it had some rocky sections, we just took our time and moseyed (as much as two fit, forward endurance horses will ever mosey) our way out.

Cresting the first rise out of camp, it was the most incredible sight. The rain the day before had created enough lingering moisture in the desert to produce an incredible overnight mist/fog layer that was blanketing the entire Valley, and creeping up into the mountains. From the ride, looking out towards the trail we would be traversing, the sun was just starting to lighten the horizon, everything was blanketed in a soft fog layer, early morning sunrise colors were starting to appear…

It was one of the most magical moments I’ve ever experienced on trail. I wish I could have captured it on camera, because it looked like something out of a fantasy epic (for any of my fellow Lord of the Rings fans out there, think Middle Earth, but with saguaros)…but at the same time, no quick iPhone photo snapped on the back of a dancing horse could possibly do justice to that sight. So it remains embedded in my brain, another beautiful, amazing, personal moment on the endurance trail.

The first 9 miles were a loop on one of the competitive track loops. We had been warned ahead of time that it was probably the overall rockiest section of the whole day, so we took our time and took it really easy over any of the rocky sections.

Towards the end of the loop, ride photographers Sue and John Kordish were waiting, and got some amazing ride photos.

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Flash is so photogenic, and he totally shows off for the camera. The “all four off the floor” moment above was after Troy told me, “put him in the lead and let him move out a bit.” Pretty sure that’s the point on my GPS where the speed pegged at 11mph. And the other photos? I love how soft and engaged he is. Collected, listening to me, and posing for the camera at the same time. And me? Well, I didn’t have to fake that smile.

Coming off the “mini loop” of the competitive track, we passed right through camp on the way to the next trail, so I took advantage of swinging by the rig to go to the bathroom, drop a jacket off, and grab a quick drink/snack on-the-go while the boys grabbed a few bites of hay at the trailer before we continued on.

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Exiting the ridecamp parking area to head to the next trail, which was up ahead in the big dirt lot. Some of the morning fog is still visible in the distance.

As promised, the trail after the competitive track was much smoother, and we were able to start picking up the pace and maintain it more consistently.

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Looking back at camp, and the fog layer that was still hanging around.

This section of the trail was totally new to me — a connector trail that made it possible to go between the competitive track area and the rest of the park. It was about 3 miles of mostly single-track, with a few ins-and-outs through small gullies and ditches, but it flowed really well and was a really fun section.

The trails at Estrella are a very “active” ride — they twist and turn, go up and down, have rocks, cactus to avoid — not much “down” time where you can just sit back and easily cruise, because on the smooth sections, you’re taking advantage of them and picking up the pace. But I also find those kinds of trails to be very interesting and engaging, and it definitely keeps my attention.

Continuing through the main park, we had all of the above…paying attention to where we could move out, dialing it back when we couldn’t. Going through one longer, smooth section of wide single track, I was able to do my first extended canter with Flash, and it was marvelous. He’s like riding a war horse — strong, collected, powerful canter that you’re pretty sure is some kind of throwback to a battle charge way back in his distant ancestry.

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Taking in the scenery before coming to another smooth section.

Our 1-hour vet hold was at 23 miles, and the boys were pulsed down as soon we arrived. There was a short line for the vet at that point, so it was easier to settled them in with some food first for a bit, and then take them over to vet (36/40 CRI, we’ll take it).

Although the boys try to use each other as itching posts, neither of them really tries too hard to wander away, so I could actually sit down during an away check without running constant vigilance on a constantly-trying-to-sneak-away-pony.

Sometimes holds go by really fast, and other times, I’m twiddling my thumbs…in this case, it was well-timed in that I got everything done, had time to eat, sit down for a bit, and still be at the out timer with a minute to spare.

Out onto loop 2, which was 17 miles and would bring us right back into the vet check area for a pulse-n-go check. There was definitely some rocky, slow-going sections, especially early on in the loop, but it was countered by a several mile section of a long, straightaway, not-too-deep, sandy wash. The kind of trail that just begs for a canter…so we did.

Chalk that one up to another Perfect Endurance Moment.

Historically, I am not brave, especially when it comes to cantering. It’s the gait I feel the least secure in, that if the horse decides to shy, or start bucking, I’ve got a greater chance of coming off. But Flash’s forwardness, bravery, and business-like attitude makes me brave. He’s not looking for things to shy at, or reasons/excuses to spook. He just wants to go forward and get down the trail…and that kind of boldness directly feeds back to me and allows me to do something like fearlessly canter a couple of miles across the desert, with the only thoughts in my head being the rhythmic sound of his hooves pounding the sand, the wind whistling past my ears, his steady snorting in sync with his hoofbeats. I can count on one hand the number of times I’ve been that in tune with a horse on the trail, and they’re moments I won’t ever forget.

All too soon, we ran out of beautiful trail, and it was back to the strategically-walk-and-trot approach…although as the ride continued on, we found our definition of what was “acceptable for trotting” to be a little less stringent than it had been earlier in the day, if we wanted to be able to make time and meet our goal of “finish in daylight.”

Looping back around, the last mile into the vet check was a large gravel road, perfect for moving out…and we made a bit of a strategic error. We trotted the whole way into the check, and kind of forgot it was a pulse down, not just a trot-by, so the boys came in a little high, and it took a few minutes to drop to parameters before we were cleared to go. Ah, well, it gave them a few minutes to eat some hay while we were waiting, and for me to fill bottles and grab a quick snack, so as soon as they were pulsed down, we were on our way again.

Loop 3 was basically a repeat of loop 2, with some sections cut off and replaced with alternate trails, and we would then head back into camp on the same connector trail we had taken into the park in the morning.

Flash was a complete angel for this third loop, especially when one of my ankles started pitching a screaming fit about 5 or 6 miles from the finish whenever we trotted (something about how the stirrup fender was torquing my leg and overly stretching the outside part of my ankle…but I have some ideas for how to address that the next time). That horse…oh, man. So many gold stars to him. He completely tolerated the fact I was somewhat off-balance, riding with more weight on my “good” side, and the vibe I got from him was “just hang on up there, I’ll get you home.” The worst was trying to trot down any slight downhill, since I had to brace more and put more weight on my ankles/feet to do that, and those last few miles, he seemed to be doing whatever he could to make sure he wasn’t pulling on me, or doing anything that made me have to brace any harder.

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Such a good boy. Reveling in the late afternoon setting sun, only a couple miles from finishing.

The last couple miles from camp, we just walked them in. It was so quiet out there — no riders behind us, no one close in front — it was like we had the desert all to ourselves. And despite wanting to cut my ankle off (although it was fine when we were walking, and I could just drop my foot out of the stirrup), there was a part of me that didn’t want such a magical, amazing ride to end.

We strolled the boys into camp, with Flash outwalking Rymoni by a head to come in 6th and 7th. I think our ride time is somewhere around 9:40ish…haven’t seen the official AERC results published yet, but that’s what I have on my GPS, and I turned it off a couple minutes after we were in.

That was a challenging, butt-kicker of a ride, and ponies and riders were all pretty whipped at the end. But we got it done, it was a heck of a way to start the season, and Troy reported that the boys looked great the following day. Can’t ask for more than that.

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Tired after finishing, but successful. I love this horse.

And that ride also put me at the milestone for my next mileage patch — 750 endurance miles.  Seems like an excellent way to start the season!

Dashing Through the Trails was a ton of fun — very well-managed, true mileage, and a definite “endurance” test. I don’t do this sport because it’s easy…I do it because it’s a challenge, because success isn’t guaranteed, because it’s always a learning experience, and because, for me, it is an incredible ground for creating an undefinable bond between horse and rider.

Finally, I have to thank Troy and Claire again — for sharing Flash and for mentoring me both on the trail and in the sport. You guys are a part of my endurance family, and I’m so grateful our paths crossed.

2019 Ride Season

AERC ride season starts Dec 1 and runs through Nov 30 of the following year. Which means that as of this past Saturday, 12/1, the 2019 AERC ride season was on!

Only once in the 13 years I’ve been doing endurance have I done a December ride…they just historically haven’t happened very frequently in AZ, which is a shame because the weather in early December is just about perfect. I’m guessing that timing between holidays probably makes it more difficult.

But we’re fortunate this year in that we’ve got a brand-new ride coming up on Saturday, 12/8 — the Dashing Through the Trails ride, held at Estrella Mountain Park. I’m really excited about this ride — it’s “local” to me, being only an hour away, and it’s the site of my very first competitive trail ride I did, back in 2001, so there’s some major nostalgia and memories involved.

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entry sent in last week

I’m fortunate enough to be riding my favorite catch-ride darling Flash again, and I can’t think of a better way to start off the season!

shamelessly taking every opportunity to spam my audience with Flash photos #sorrynotsorry

My last ride that I actually rode was back in August, so on the agenda this week is taking care of all my ride season prep and making sure I can actually find the things I need for the weekend.

My half chaps were capable of fully standing upright on their own, as they haven’t been washed since before Tevis, so they’re currently sitting in a bucket, soaking away their layers of grime. (This is when I hope they’re not held together by horse hair and trail dust.)

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Free-standing half chaps…even Artemis is worried

It’s also winter (“winter lite” since it is AZ), which means things I wore for rides in the summer might not be quite toasty enough, so it’s time to dive into my stack of jackets and vests to figure out the most appropriate apparel without bringing half my closet along.

Like I said before, this is a great way to start off the 2019 season…a ride right off the bat, and on my favorite catch-ride. At this point, I have no clue what the season will hold…I know what I would wish/dream/like to happen, but endurance is pretty much an exercise in creative thinking and flexible planning, so I guess we’ll see what ends up actually happening along the way…

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any view, through these ears, would be great with me…