Ride Story: Old Pueblo 50

photo by Susan Kordish

“Some days you win, some days you learn.”

We set out to do Liberty’s first 50 on one of the days of the Old Pueblo ride in Sonoita, AZ. While we ultimately didn’t finish (our day ended at 42 miles after a CRI exam showed an erratic heart rate and indicated she wasn’t recovering as well as she should), it was under extremely challenging conditions, and I am so incredibly proud of this mare and how she handled everything that was thrown at her, and how much we learned together.

Come along with me for a ride story of epic proportions, a bit of insanity, and plenty of things learned.

The Old Pueblo ride is an Arizona institution and icon of a ride, having been around in some form or fashion since at least the 1980’s (possibly earlier, but AERC records only go back to 1985) and since 2008, has been run as a 3-day Pioneer ride. It’s a ride I’ve done only a handful of times over the years, usually due to schedule conflicts, but the times I’ve been down there I’ve enjoyed the beautiful scenery (base camp is 4200′ elevation, in the rolling grassland foothills of the Santa Rita Mountains, just north of the town of Sonoita in southern AZ) and the fun mix of trails. Camp is located within the Las Cienegas National Conservation Area, and the camp itself is the old airstrip from the historic Empire Ranch.

The ride is a 3-day Pioneer ride on Friday, Saturday, and Sunday, offering distances of 55/30, 50/25, and 50/25, plus intro rides each day. After consulting with one of the ride managers, I had opted to ride the 50 on Saturday, as it was one of the days that involved riding out under the highway and to the Arizona Trail, and is some of the prettiest scenery (and would be slightly easier, and 5 miles shorter, than Friday’s ride). I did drive down early, though, as I wanted the “safety in numbers” travel caravan, and all of my potential travel buddies were heading down Thursday. It ended up being very relaxing to have the extra day in camp, especially because I brought the dogs with me, so that gave me some extra time to make sure they were settled and set for the weekend.

It’s not a long drive — maybe two and a half hours from the barn — and I pulled into camp just shortly before noon, finding a nice open spot close by to a water trough and not far from the check in and vetting area. I spent the rest of the afternoon getting camp set up, transforming the trailer into my kitchen, tack room, and dog hang-out area, and the back of the Suburban into sleeping quarters.

This was my first time juggling the three-ring circus — taking my own horse and my dogs to a ride together. I’ve taken Liberty to a ride, and I’ve taken the dogs to a ride I was volunteering at, and I’ve taken them all camping together, but taking them to a ride while I was going to be riding would be a first. (Although it was old hat for Sofie, who spent the years before I got her on the road with other endurance riders, so she knew the routine and seemed to be happy to be back in ride camp.) Having that extra set-up and downtime day made all the difference though and made for a much more settled time and not feeling rushed. And Liberty was happy to chill out, tied to the trailer, munching her way through her hay manger and going for walks around camp.

Friday morning was chilly, and the breeze just kept increasing, eventually reaching about 25mph steady winds with 35mph gusts. The pups and I chilled out and watched riders out of day one coming in and out of camp, and I got stuff ready to go for the next day, then finally gathered up Liberty and headed over to vet in. She had been totally chill and zen this whole time, until we went to vet in, and then she woke up and seemed to realize we were at an endurance ride. No problem with movement and impulsion scores for her trot-out. (I may have mentioned, “F for attitude” to the vet, after I had to remind Liberty that she does have ground manners and does have to follow them.)

From there, we headed out for a short pre-ride with a friend. She was pretty wound up, especially when we turned around to head back to camp, and wanted to jig the whole way. That’s a habit I really don’t want her to learn, so we did a lot of circling, and weaving around little bushes, and working on keeping the marbles between the ears. Not awesome, but given she is fit, fresh, and it was really, really windy out, I can’t say a whole lot, and while she was sassy and snorty, she was never stupid.

All day long, I had been watching Saturday’s weather report, which was calling for temperatures to drop further, and for snow flurries to move in overnight and into the morning. Maybe I should have pulled my stuff together better Thursday and ridden Friday’s ride after all…but a little late for that now. I’ve ridden in all kinds of wet, crappy conditions before, and a few snow flurries might actually be better than some of the rain-drenched rides I’ve done. (Little did I know…as everyone from actual snow climates laughs.)

Ride briefing was quick, going over the day one finishers, and a short overview of the next day’s trails. There would be three loops of 26, 14, and 10 miles, with two 45-minute holds in-between.

Ride map. Camp is the “BC VC” label between Loop #3 an Loop #2.

It was definitely cold again overnight, and I was having a hard time staying warm in my sleep set-up in the suburban, even with my furry furnaces tucked in with me. I had the great idea of setting up an air mattress in the back for more cushion…unfortunately in that kind of weather, it turns into sleeping on a cushion of freezing air, so I had a hard time getting warm no matter how many top layers of blankets I piled on (had a couple of bedsheets and blanket between me and the mattress but that apparently wasn’t enough). So I’ll be investigating the solid foam type of cushion/mattresses as the next option for sleeping arrangements…although the air mattress will still work for any time it’s not below-freezing temperatures.

Saturday morning, I did the “wake up and crank the engine on and blast the heater for a few minutes” routine before poking my head outside, only to be greeted with the sight of white, fluffy stuff accumulating on the ground. Ohhh-kay. Guess the weather report was actually accurate. I was grateful for the fact I had thrown a couple pairs of winter tights in my bag — not because I planned to ride in them, since normally they’re overkill for riding, but more as an option for around camp and after the ride. However, my wardrobe plans for the day rapidly changed, and I ended up in a pair of Bare Equestrian winter tights (they were the surprising standout hit of the weekend, because although they’re thin, the lining is dense and my legs stayed very comfortable), and multiple thin top layers, alternating between wool and polyester options (wool tank, l/s poly long underwear top, wool l/s quarter-zip, puffy synthetic down vest, all topped with a softshell jacket). Fortunately, I had also tossed in a pair of winter riding gloves (again, for around camp in the evening), a thin ear muff headband, and multiple Buff-style neck tubes. All of these would get put into play.

That is the face of a mare unimpressed by the weather’s shenanigans.

It really was just light flurries at this point, so I figured the weather would be right — a few hours of this and then it would clear off. I tossed Libby some more grass hay for her to work on while I put her boots on, then got my own coffee going and breakfast for the dogs and myself before taking the pups out. They were more than happy to take care of business and then jump back in the (comparably) warmer truck. Did my own coffee/breakfast thing, got Liberty saddled (debated about a rump rug, initially put it on, then took it off after contemplating the formula of wind + cold + snow + fresh, fit Arab who has never worn a rump rug before may not be the best recipe for a successful start…), took the dogs out one more time, then got them settled in for the morning. Got Liberty bridled, walked over to check-in for the start, let her bounce around me in a few lunge circles, eventually hopped on her via a handy mounting block, and walked around the start area. She didn’t want to walk nicely — doing sideways movements, bit of bouncing, but I kept her moving around, telling her off a few times for acting like a child, and in general was fairly impressed with myself and how unreactive I was to her antics. Fortuantely there was only a few minutes of that before the controlled start and we walked out of camp. Well, sort of walked, sort of slow-trotted.

Heading out at the start. Bit of a Mare Face over the fact I wanted her to act like a mature adult.
photo by Susan Kordish

We started pretty much middle of the pack and cruised along in a group for the first several miles. The snow was starting to fall a little heavier now, and it was a bit surreal trotting along through the snow, watching it land on Libby’s black mane, or trying to brush it off the front of my saddle as it started to accumulate. My thoughts at this point were mostly, “I hope it doesn’t accumulate too much and then all melt, because then I’ll be soggy the rest of the loop.”

Something to know about the Old Pueblo ride is there are a lot of gates on the trails. A lot. Some are ranch-style barbed wire, others are trail-type designed to be potentially able to be opened on horseback. (Mimi spoiled me in the past at this ride. I could fly through this section on her because all of the gates, I could open and close from her back. Liberty isn’t quite gate-trained yet and doesn’t understand exactly what I want her to do, so that’s something we will be working on. I ended up being fortunate enough to be with someone through a number of the crossings, but still ended up dismounting a good half a dozen times.) Just on the first 26-mile loop, I think there were at least a dozen gates, possibly a few more. The gates start within a few miles out of camp, and it quickly ends up spreading the field out. About five and half miles out of camp, the trail crosses under the highway via a concrete tunnel. Large enough to take a horse through, but it’s highly recommended to get off and walk the horse through, because the ceiling of it is low. No idea if Liberty had ever been through a tunnel before, but she followed the horse in front of us right through with no fuss.

Shortly after the tunnel, I wasn’t thrilled with the pace — Liberty was rather hooked in to the horses in front of and behind us and wanting to go at a speed faster than I wanted, so I worked on getting her to back off and get our own space bubble. What ensued was several miles of negotiations, with me wanting her to do her easy, comfortable trot, and her wanting to rush ahead at Mach 10 through the twisting, turning, up and down single track of the Arizona Trail we were currently on. After a few miles of asking politely, and her pretending she had no idea what I was talking about, I finally had to look for a more open wash area that was large enough to pull her off the trail, where we did a few overly dramatic spins that gradually softened down to circles before she settled and the marbles came back between the ears. From there, I made her walk until I could feel her attention come back to me and not what was on the trail in front of us. (And to think, I was originally concerned that she might not have the “go” or desire to be a good endurance horse.)

The next half a dozen miles or so, we were by ourselves. It was still snowing, and while it was annoying/frustrating to have the snow blown into my eyes when we went through windy areas (I didn’t know I needed to add ski goggles to my packing list), when we were in sheltered areas, the snow was falling softly, and it was so quiet and magical out there. Now, obviously, being a native Arizona desert rat, my experience with snow is very limited. Especially when it comes to riding. As in, “well, this is a first.” Liberty grew up in and came from the northwest part of the state, which is considered high desert and occasionally gets a mild dusting of snow that blows through, but nothing that would likely give her true experience for riding in the stuff.

One of the trickier aspects was that there was enough snow sticking that it was covering the rocks that I knew were underfoot. It had been eight years since I’d done this ride, and the snow was making everything look different, but I had a general idea of where we were and that it was an area with some rocks. (This is Arizona. There isn’t a single ride here that doesn’t involve some level of rocks.) To that end, we navigated carefully. Liberty picked her way down the hills, and seemed to be trying to follow the hoofprints of those in front of us, which had cleared off enough of the snow to provide a bit of a visible path in many areas. The snow was wet, heavy, and coming down in large flakes, so it was doing a good job caking to my jacket, helmet, saddle…the whole thing felt surreal. Surprisingly, I overall wasn’t too cold. My multiple layers were doing a good job keeping me mostly dry, and my core was nice and toasty, and we just kept moving forward, not giving either of us a chance to stop and get chilled.

We came into the checkpoint and water stop at Rosemont Junction at about 13 miles, paused just long enough to let her drink, and kept moving. The trail at this point was really nice double-track service road, the footing was good, and nothing felt like it was slick or icy. One of my main concerns was just not knowing how the boots would do in the snow, and if they would end up being really slick or not. I had friends who live in actually snowy places send me photo evidence of riding in the snow and ice in their Renegades, so I knew it had been done…but it’s one thing to hear about someone else doing it and another to be the one experiencing it myself. But so far, so good.

This was just a little ways before we reached Rosemont

We had a few more miles of winding along the service road at the base of the canyon, and staying relatively sheltered from the worst of the wind, but eventually the trail turned out of the canyon and started heading up into rolling hills. The wind increased, the soft snow turned into much harder ice/snow mix, and conditions rapidly deteriorated. Around this time, I could feel Liberty start questioning my sanity, especially since we hadn’t seen any other signs of life out there, aside from a random lone cow alongside the road a couple miles back. Fortunately for both of us, within a few minutes, a couple of other riders caught up with us and we were able to tuck in with them as a small group. I knew both riders, and both hailed from areas that actually knew how to better deal with the weather conditions and what to watch out for when it came to potentially tricky footing areas, and had no problem with me tagging along behind.

The ears were a bit skeptical at times, but she was so game and kept trucking on.

We set a pretty smart pace heading back. The first loop ends up being a lollipop loop that follows the same 6-ish miles from the morning back into camp. Liberty is a homing pigeon extraordinaire, even on trails she’s never been on, and as soon as the internal compass pointed even vaguely back towards “due trailer” so was full of all kinds of enthusiasm again. At this point, there were four of us riding together and I learned that she doesn’t necessarily love being in the middle of a pack with certain horses behind her. Doesn’t happen all the time, but every so often, especially if there’s a horse in front of her, certain horses behind her will get her trying to spurt or rush forward. That was happening a little bit here and there at this point, so I alternated moving her to the back of the group, or riding side by side, and I was pleasantly surprised by how settled she was even at the back of the pack. Mimi has always hated being anywhere other than in the lead, and riding her in a group was always a nightmare for me. So having this one be perfectly happy to maintain an appropriate space bubble and not tailgate the other horses was sooo nice.

The snow had started to taper off by this point, and the sky was lightening up a bit as the sun made a valiant effort to try to start peeking through. Back through the highway tunnel, the snow continuing to taper, and the ground quickly turning from white back to brown as things started to melt. The last few miles into camp were a ton of fun. I alternated letting Liberty trot and canter, because her canter is only a touch faster than her trot, and she does it so naturally and comfortably, and stays on a loose rein. I’d just as soon she not do a big trot, although a few times she did sneak up the speed and show she has the capability…but a rolling, collected canter seems a lot easier than the big, booming trot, as well as being very aerobically efficient. It’s also a really nice break for me, because her canter is so comfortable. I can easily sit it, and she naturally self-rates on a loose rein (my mind is blown, I didn’t actually think such a unicorn existed), and I am just so dang excited over the whole idea because I’ve never really ridden a horse like this.

We cruised back into camp, walking the last bit in, and I hopped off right at the edge of camp at the water trough and loosened her girth and removed her bit while she drank. She was pulsed down as soon as we went over to the pulse-taker, and as I was getting ready to get in the vet line, my Camp Angel (aka Marcelle Hughes, maker of the best True Grit Endurance Outfitters saddle packs, and my camp neighbor for the weekend) came swooping in, grabbed my bridle, and offered up her and her husband Bill’s help for anything I might need. I got Liberty vetted through (B on guts, not surprising after 26 miles with not much out there to munch on, but all As everywhere else and a 52/52 CRI) and back at the trailer, Bill and Marcelle got her bundled into some blankets and installed in front of her food, then took the dogs out while I sorted out a change of dry clothes, then Marcelle whisked me (and the dogs) off to their warm trailer, where a hot lunch and hot beverages of choice awaited.

That was the absolute lifesaver of the entire weekend. It was only a 45-minute hold, and there is no way I would have been able to do everything I needed to do in that time period. Being able to sit and change into dry clothes in a warm trailer, and down a hot bowl of delicious homemade venison stew and hot coffee made all the difference in the world, and I was feeling comfortably warm and toasty. Marcelle also came to my rescue with a dry rump rug (after the one I left in camp that morning had gotten soaked from sitting under the open slats of the trailer), more electrolytes after I discovered the premade tubes I was carrying on the saddle had practically frozen and were nearly impossible to dose Liberty with (and thus enabled her to spit out what I could get into her), and making a last-second fix to one of the sides of my packs after the velcro I was using to attach it decided to fail. All my years of crewing came back to repay me in the best way possible this weekend, and I am so, so grateful for it.

We headed out on loop two (14 miles) and immediately out of camp were joined by my friend Jen. (She was one of the riders I had joined up with on loop one to get through the snow, and have known her going back a number of years in endurance, as she used to live near me and we would occasionally ride together. Then she moved a few hours away and I don’t get to see her as often, so it was really fun to get the chance to ride together and catch up.) Her gelding and Liberty paced well together, and company made this loop, which featured a lot more rocky, double-track road, a lot more interesting. The snow had totally cleared off by this point, and the sun was out (so was the wind), and all the snow had melted, leaving behind perfect footing — enough to tamp down the dust, but not enough to create mud.

Heading out on loop two, photo from Marcelle.

We leapfrogged leading through this loop, with a lot of areas of road to be able to let them move out (more short sections of centering here and there for Liberty, which I loved). At this point, I think she realized she was out on the trail for further than she had ever been, because although she had done a decent job of drinking on the first loop (especially given the conditions, but not as good as I know she is capable of), she went into hyperactive self-care mode on this loop, drinking like a fish from every water stop or water source we came across, and grabbing as much dry grass as she could whenever it was available.

Fun area through old-growth mesquite. Also, gorgeous footing.

Coming in off loop two, she took a little bit longer to pulse down than off loop one, but was at 60 within a few minutes, and we headed over to vet. She got all A’s, but the vet wasn’t happy with her CRI — 60/68, and she said her heart rate on the return sounded a little erratic. Her assessment was likely an electrolyte imbalance, so recommended I get some electrolytes into her, let her go through our hold time, and then do a re-check before going out on loop three.

photo by Susan Kordish

No problem, I can do that. I really hadn’t gotten much by way of e’lytes into her (basically, one dose at this point, and the stuff I use [EquiLytes] is a fairly mild formula), both due to the weather, and the fact I’m still very much figuring out my e’lyte protocols with Liberty. I’ve not used them very much in the past with Mimi, always erring on the side of caution over giving too many, but in catch riding, found that at least a few of the horses I rode needed a more aggressive protocol, so that introduced me to that whole side of the equation. And I suspect that’s the side Liberty is going to end up coming down on from what I’ve seen so far.

Marcelle, Bill, and my friend Cathy were all around when I came in, and jumped in at various points to help crew (and electrolyte the beast…time to do more molasses-syringe work, because she was horrible to syringe this weekend). I was still warm and dry after this loop, so didn’t need to change, but while the crew got Liberty settled and electrolyted and fed, I took the dogs out, then sat down with the lunch Marcelle put together for me. With a few minutes left on the hold, I got the dogs settled again, got Liberty all ready to go, then we headed over to the vet. Right away, the vet wasn’t thrileld Liberty was still at 60, even after the recovery and down time of the hold, and her CRI was slightly worse on re-check, so after a brief discussion, we decided to pull her.

Back at the trailer, I pulled tack and bundled her into a dry fleece and her heavy blanket, then worked on cleaning her up, one section at a time, so I never had to fully remove her blankets. She got a big pile of fresh hay to work on, and got her first poultice wraps. I monitored her heart rate and it bounced up and down for a little while longer, then gradually settled (after talking with a friend, I’ve subsequently realized some of her hanging/erratic pulse also correlated to her being damn cold and shivering, trying to warm up, because once she got warmer (salt/dirt removed from her coat, fully dried off, another fresh fleece) and stopped shivering, her heart rate went back down to normal.

Initially I was bummed, but after enough reflection and feedback, I was able to realize just what a difficult day it had been with the weather, and how hard it is on their systems to deal with the sudden weather shift like that, the extra exertion of moving through the snow and slippery footing, and the extra demands of even trying to stay warm. Not to mention, I’m still figuring her out and going through the learning curve. She’s only my second endurance horse. Catch riding taught me a lot, but most of the time, I was also relying on a lot of owner feedback for individual management needs and quirks for any given horse. Now, it’s on me to be the one to figure out what this horse needs, and sometimes, working through that might not always mean instant success. I also have no idea how lingering the effects of the cough/snotty nose crud she had last month may have been, either. She didn’t cough at all, and nose was totally clear, but she may not have been fully 100% from that quite yet, either. Who knows? I could drive myself crazy and chase my tail in circles all day long, second-guessing everything…or I could recognize this as the fantastic learning experience that it is, figure out the takeaways from it (namely, more electrolytes — smaller, frequent doses, methinks), and move forward from here.

So in the end, I’m super proud of that mare, and what we accomplished that day. She shows me more and more heart every time I ask her for something, and the connection I feel with her is both immense and humbling, and hard to even adequately put into words. She handled the tricky footing and bad weather with no fuss, got her (as far as I know) first introduction to attempts at opening/closing gates from horseback (needs work, but it’s something to build on), went through the highway tunnel (twice!), wore a rump rug for the first time and didn’t care about it flapping or the string under her tail, let me take my jacket on and off at a trot on a loose rein, went the furthest she’s ever gone and was mentally ready to go out for more, and looked fantastic again the next day. She never quit, never faltered, and I didn’t have to wear spurs to dissuade her from her balking routine. She handled being in camp ahead of time amazingly well, hoovered her hay all day and night long, drank well, and acted like the endurance horse she was bred to be.

Taking a moment during pulsing.
photo by Susan Kordish

Tack/Gear Rundown

Nothing like a bit of snow, ice, and wind to put stuff to the test…

The Horse
– Zilco Add-On Halter-Bridle
– Zilco Endurance Breastcollar
– Hought roo-laced beta reins
– Archer Equine wool saddle pad
– Frank Baines Reflex monoflap dressage saddle
– Wintec girth + JMS sheepskin girth cover
– True Grit pommel pack
– Renegade Viper hoof boots
– Professional’s Choice rear ankle boots

No issues with anything. I put her boots on in the morning, and didn’t touch them until after we were done for the day. I admit it was a pain doing up the straps at 6 o’clock in the morning in the barely-dawn light, with freezing fingers, trying not to let the velcro shred my skin, and to stuff the ends through the little rubber keepers (a hoofpick helps in this endeavor), but once they were on, I glanced at them during the holds, but they always looked good and I never had to mess with anything. They gave really good traction in the snow (and the mud when everything started melting), and loop two even involved a muddy creek crossing. She was also interfering on the hinds way less at this ride, which I attribute to her getting more fit.

The Rider
– Alternating wool/polyester layers on top: wool tank, poly l/s long underwear shirt, wool/poly l/s zip neck, synthetic down vest, all topped with a softshell jacket (loop one); changed into a l/s poly shirt, l/s wool zip neck, softshell jacket, and light Goretex shell (that I constantly removed and put back on) (loop two). All of this stuff is miscellaneous gear gathered over the years, and mostly a lot of running/outdoor type of gear.
– Bare Equestrian winter tights (loop one); Ariat winter tights (loop two). The BE were the surprise hit of the weekend. They are thin, but surprisingly dense and warm and slightly compressive. The Ariat tights, not so much. Not very windproof and I was glad it stopped snowing by the time I was wearing them. (Good “normal” AZ winter tights.)
– Wool socks
– Ariat Terrains (zip-up, waterproof model)
– Ariat Terrain Half-Chaps
– LAS helmet
– Kerrits winter riding gloves (loop one, surprisingly effective); random pair of Roeckl gloves on loop two
– various and sundry Buff-style neck tubes

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.

Ride Story: Tonto Twist 50 2020

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.

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photo by Susan Kordish

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).

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Scenes from the trail: this is the view partway through loop 2.
The Superstition Mountains.

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.

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Clipped, braided, and only looking slightly-grubby…good enough, for a grey horse in the wintertime. Saddle area is clean, at least.

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.

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Shout-out to Flik Equestrian for the fabulous polo shirt. I’ve been wearing these shirts at rides since last year, and always get comments on them. So if you guys like them…grab them while you can. Designs are all limited editions, typically released quarterly, or thereabouts.

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.

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Ok, still a little bit sleepy. Can’t totally eliminate the self-preservation factor. But much improved, and very self-contained and controllable — didn’t have to worry about “flying an Arabian kite in-hand.”

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.

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Part of the Mad Scientist’s lab. Not pictured are the mixing/buffering agents of applesauce and Gastro-Ade. I used the soft flasks from one of my running vests to carry them in my saddle pack and it worked perfectly. And those drenching syringes are the best thing ever for dosing fussy ponies. I was already pretty good at dosing reluctant syringe-takers, but these make the job super easy.

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.

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The maps/tracks from all three loops.

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.

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Almost all dressed and ready to go, just need to bridle him and pull his sheet I had tossed back on over the saddle.

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.)

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Up on a ridgeline, looking down on part of the Valley and the early morning sunrise colors.

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.”).

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It might be slower-going in sections on this road, but the views are incredible.

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.

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Elevation is still high enough to be above the Valley at this point.

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.

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Photo by John Kordish

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.

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Fortunately, the cholla had been cleared away enough so that it was easy to avoid them.

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.

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Some easy cruising miles on forest service roads early on in 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.

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Up on more ridgelines, heading into the Goldfields before circling back around towards camp.

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.

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I don’t mind repeat trail when it has views like this.

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.

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Last turn towards camp…or not…

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.

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Still powering along at the finish. Photo by Sue Kordish.

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

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We look like a walking gear advertisement, in a good way.
photo by Bonnie Miller

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, HalterBridle, 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.

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: 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