Ah, Old Pueblo. It’s a ride that’s considered a bit of an Arizona institution, having been around in some form since the 1990s. Despite that, it’s a ride I’ve been to only a handful of times, and a ride I’ve had questionable luck at. It was my very first attempt at a 50-miler, catch riding a friend’s horse, and my day ended with an inglorious Rider Option partway through after the constant torquing of an out-of-position stirrup fender left my ankle sprained and unable to bear any weight. So, yeah, that was fun…
I did a couple of really fun LDs with Mimi, in which my little spitfire pony actually Top Tenned (there are a ton of gates along the trail at this ride, and some of them can be gotten from horseback, if you have a gate-savvy horse…Mimi is the savviest of gate-savvy horses [literally, she will push the gate open if you unlatch it for her] and we were able to save so much time and [comparatively] fly through the courses), and then for the next number of years, consistently ran into schedule glitches and conflicts when it came to attending this ride.
2013 saw me doing my first back-to-back 50s (on Rocco and Frenchy), and then I didn’t make it down to OP again until last year, and the infamous Snowmaggedon day (aka, “Liberty’s first 50-mile attempt that involved 26 miles in a blizzard and a pull at 42 miles because apparently someone needs electrolytes even when it’s snowing”).
This year, I had redemption on my mind. When I get pulled at a ride, I have a hard time letting it rest until I go back and “get it right.” Fortunately, this year’s forecast wasn’t calling for any precipitation whatsoever, at least not on the day(s) I was planning to ride. I also had in the back of my mind to maybe try back-to-back 50s with Liberty, depending on how the first day went. Although, full disclosure: I’m personally not a huge fan of multi-days. I’d rather do a 75, or a 1-day 100, versus multi-days.
I headed out Thursday, meeting up at a convenient truck stop partway down with both MJ and Susie, and caravaning the three rigs the rest of the way together. MJ and I planned to ride Liberty and Dreamer together on the first day, with Susie possibly joining us as well, so traveling down together made for subsequently easier parking together in camp. It was a super-smooth trip down, and even the rough road into basecamp (that cost me some vehicle front end work last year) had been graded out and repaired.
In camp, we set up a “circle the wagons” arrangement with the trailers, parking in a square with horses on the inside of the rigs, and a space saved for Lancette, as the tentative plan was for me to sponsor Hailey on day 2 if all went well for everyone on day 1.
I got camp set up quite fast (getting everything pretty well streamlined and developing a good system for packing and unpacking), took Sofie for a stroll around camp, then took advantage of being one of the fairly early arrivals in camp and hustled over to get checked in and quickly vetted Liberty through. Once MJ & Susie vetted in, we all tacked up and headed out for an easy leg-stretch pre-ride.
The weather was downright pleasant for Sonoita — breezy, but nowhere near the gale-force gusts I’ve experienced, and almost a little warm when standing in the sun and out of any breeze, which meant that with the breeze, it was perfect riding weather. Spent the last bit of the afternoon getting stuff for the next day finished off — electrolytes mixed and packed in the saddle, and spare boots added to the saddle (I was running with glue-ons this time, both with the thought in mind of riding multiple days and not wanting to deal with boots, and to keep on working with a new glue we’re testing at work…but I have more faith in my strap boots than I do glue-ons, so plenty of spare strap boots were on hand).
For some reason, ride turnout wasn’t huge this year. It’s always been a popular ride, but attendance was definitely lower than in the past, and I’m not sure exactly what to attribute that to…although I’m sure the current gas prices aren’t helping anything.
Regardless of attendance numbers, it was a cheerful crowd gathered for ride briefing, with much appreciation for new ride manager Debi Sanger taking over the management of this long-time ride and ensuring that it keeps going. There were a few questions to get sorted out on the Ride With GPS app that so many of our AZ rides have started adopting as an accompaniment to traditional trailer marking. (I’ve mentioned it before, but think “car GPS, but for trails” in that it will talk to you, and make obnoxious noises at you if you go off-course. Awesome for areas where markers have been known to get removed or moved, as well as a “proof of life” GPS track for your route and where you were at on the trail.) We got our trail overview basics — 17-mile loop, back into camp for a trot-by, 7-mile loop, into camp for vet check and 45-minute hold, 12.5-mile loop, back to camp for another vet check and 45-minute hold, and then one last 12.5-mile loop.
Ride start was 7am, which meant a 5am wakeup for me. As usual, it was a fairly restless night for me, especially heightened by the full moon shining into the truck window like a beacon, so it felt like I got my sleep in fits and starts. It was a bit chillier than predicted when I got up in the morning, which had me scrambling for more layers before reluctantly crawling outside. Sofie, for her part, knows the routine…go out, quick walk around, go potty, then scuttle back to the truck and jump back in bed. As she smugly curled back up in her nest of fleece blankets (and part of my sleeping bag), I had a brief moment of wanting to join her…
But Libby was nickering for breakfast, and so ended that thought. She, too, has gotten our morning routine down and knows exactly what is up. All it took was using the inside of the trailer to mix feed for her one time, and now she thinks every time I duck inside and start making noise, it must mean there’s something for her. Even if it’s just making my coffee.
I’ve actually gotten away from feeding much by way of traditional “breakfast” before ride start — she gets her supplements and feed the evening before, and goes to bed with unlimited grass hay and a bit of alfalfa, and in the morning, I “refresh” her grass hay, and give her a few bites of alfalfa, so she thinks she’s gotten “something” but I’m not overloading her system with a heavy morning feed.
Quick coffee and breakfast for me, then get the mare tacked up, take Sofie out again, then get her settled in the trailer with water, kibble, and blankets, then time to mount up and start warming up. Libby was a little up, but being polite enough…unless we started walking away from the start area, then she started getting a bit opinionated. Fortunately, there was quite a bit of open space that made a good warm-up area, large enough to start schooling some trot circles and figure-eights and get her more focused on me, rather than the trail. It worked, because at the start, she moseyed out of camp on a loose rein. That’s much more like it.
We started a small field that morning — 9 riders in the 50 — and having to deal with 3 gates to open/close in rapid succession pretty much right out of camp kept most of us pretty bunched up together through all the gates. Once through the third gate, the next couple miles were dirt road, and the group naturally started to separate out, and MJ and I got our own space bubble pretty much in the middle of the pack.
As I mentioned earlier…one thing about this ride…there are a lot of gates. Something like 23 gates just on the first 17-mile loop. Some of them can be gotten from horseback, especially if you have a horse who knows what they are doing (Of course I’ve been *meaning* to work on Liberty’s gate-maneuvering abilities, since I discovered last year at this ride she has no clue about what I’m doing or asking for when it comes to opening/closing gates…but have I actually done anything? Eh, not so much by way of actual gate work, but she’s learning things like sidepassing, pivoting, and some of the more finely-tuned precision cues, so I figured we would at least give it a try at appropriate gates.) but other gates are either barbed-wire cowboy gates, or ones that were just awkwardly designed and not intended to be gotten from horseback.
Fortunately, the next few gates had been opened for us, so we were able to cruise through and get a nice, steady pace going for a bit until we heading into the section of unending gates. Just within a several-mile section, there had to be at least half a dozen gates.
There’s a “mini loop” that’s part of this loop that has been known as the “Ag Loop” over the years. I don’t know why, other than if you look at the satellite view of the area, it’s a road that loops around what looks like used to be some sort of farming/planting field…can see the shadow of old planting rows still on the overview. It adds about 2 miles onto the loop…but it’s flat and really good footing most of the way. We kicked it up into a canter and zipped around that loop, going by photographers Susan and John Kordish along the way.
I absolutely love how these photos turned out…we were both having fun as we went through that section.
From there, it was just a few miles back to camp. Maybe a mile or so out from camp, MJ commented that it looked like Libby might have lost one of her rear glue-ons, but it was hard to tell because we were on on a section of the trail that was basically bushwhacking through tall grass. But once we got to a clear spot…yep, sure enough, she had pitched a boot somewhere in the last couple miles. The trail right into camp was really good footing, though, so we kept on trucking, and when we stopped at the water trough at the edge of camp, I jumped off and slapped one of my spare strap boots on her before hopping back on and heading through camp for the trot-by. Both horses got cleared to continue, and since the next loop was a quick little 7-mile jaunt, we elected to not bother to stop at the trailers or anything, and get the next loop done.
This loop did a little climbing up to one of the ridgelines, which meant we got some beautiful scenic vistas of all the surrounding mountain ranges.
The last mile or so into camp was the same trail for all of the loops, so as soon as we hit that section, the horses were quite happy to hustle into camp. Both were pulsed down immediately, and got them vetted through right away, then back over to the trailers for the rest of the 45-minute hold.
Sofie did her usual song-and-dance routine for me when I let her out, then took her for a quick stretch, got Libby settled with some food, and sat down and ate a quick lunch for myself. (I still have some aspects of my tastebuds that are akin to that of an elementary school kid, since I grabbed a couple Lunchables when I was at the grocery store, and that really hit the spot this weekend for lunch.) Water bottles refilled, Libby switched from bit to hackamore, Sofie settled back in the trailer, and then it was time to head over to the out-timer. We had a couple minutes to wait, then time to head out on loop 3.
We headed out the same way as loop 1 for the first several miles, then cut across a different section of trail that cut several miles off the southern-most section of loop 1. We had quite a few more gates to wrangle along the way, including a few rather dismal cowboy gates that were little more than a heap of barbed wire and sticks.
It also included a shallow creek crossing that both horses were wildly unimpressed with…we spent a good 5 minutes trying to convince them to cross before MJ finally jumped off and marched across the water, dragging Dreamer behind her…and Libby reluctantly followed behind him. No idea what gremlins were whispering in their ears over that, since Libby happily went through that same crossing last year.
Loop 3 re-joined the loop 1 trail just a few miles before the Ag Loop section…but for loop 3, we didn’t have to do the Ag Loop. Just a stop at the trough, and then continue on up the road, only a few miles away from camp. A little ways up the road, I got a major “heart in throat, oh crap” moment when Libby all of a sudden started head bobbing, on what felt like a front leg. I thought my ride was over right there…and then glanced down and realized she had lost a front glue-ons. Hop off, install strap boot, hop back on…continue on totally sound. Okay, minor crisis averted, and only a couple miles left until camp.
And then the other front glue-on came off, less than a mile later. And I was out of spare boots on my saddle. Oh, well…nothing to do but press on, walking the rougher sections and trotting when the footing was good. The last half-mile or so, I hopped off to jog into camp, doing everything I could to ensure she didn’t get too ouchy.
In camp, she pulsed right away, and I got one of the volunteers to hold her for a moment while I dashed over to the trailer to grab another spare boot before we vetted through. Boot installed, we vetted through great…and I noticed that she had pitched her other hind glue-on as well, sometime in the last couple miles into camp. Uggghhhhh.
Back over to the trailer, same routine as before…only this time, add in “make sure all strap boots are squared away.” I was definitely feeling a little “over it” by this point. Libby was being really spooky, but Dreamer wouldn’t lead, so it was on us to lead pretty much the entire way, doing her best “Arabian pinball” impression along the way, spooking at every dead log, clump of strange brush, and large rock along the way. I have thrown in the towel on retaining any semblance of dignified rider, and was shameless using the pommel hoop on my saddle as an “anchor” point. Dealing with the glue-ons also had shredded whatever specks of patience I had left, so when a couple of friends stopped by to see how it was going, I know my response was probably slightly colorful, punctuated by a few tears (because apparently I was still also riding the emotional rollercoaster of the first couple months of 2022, so honestly, it hasn’t taken much for the waterworks to surface).
I swear, I do this for fun.
But, for better or worse…this is the reality of endurance riding. Not everything is going to be smooth sailing and glitter-farting unicorns. There’s ups and downs, troubleshooting along the way, and some rides that are just better than others.
Out on loop 4…the same way we went for loop 2, but keep going further out before turning back towards camp. The further we went, the less “wildly motivated” Libby was. See, we had done this portion of the trail last year, and as far as she knew, we were going all the way out across the highway and onto the Arizona Trail section. I knew we weren’t going out that far, and cutting back towards camp before we reached the highway, but she didn’t. And while it never reached levels of having to pedal her, I did have to do some extra encouraging here and there for “enthusiastic forward motion.” (Okay, fine, mare, it doesn’t have to be enthusiastic, but I would like it to be more than 6.5mph.)
Riding a horse who is pretty sensitive and intuitive also means I have to guard my own mindset…if I’m looking at the GPS going, “How many more miles do we have? What do you mean we’ve only gone a mile since I last looked?”, she’s going to pick up on that, so it’s hardly fair to ask her to be the enthusiastic party for both of us. Once we hit the far point of the loop and started heading back around towards camp, we both perked up more, though. And we were up on some ridgelines again, so lots of beautiful scenery to admire.
Pictures don’t do this area justice. The grasslands and foothills running right up into the wild, rugged mountain ranges…the fact that so much of it is still wild and untouched, that there are still places left that I can escape from the urban sprawl and sea of tile roofs…it’s not hard to imagine the days of Tombstone and the old west alive and well. (The Empire Ranch is just about 45 miles west of Tombstone, for the geography and history segment out there.)
The last several miles of loop 4 connected up to the in-trail from loop 2, so it was cruising in on familiar turf from that point on, and all of us were in “get ‘er done” mode. (No problem with motivation now.) My lovely forward rhythm was rudely interrupted when Libby blew one of her hind boots just outside of camp (literally, camp was in sight, and we had just started cantering in on the smooth road that lead into camp). Fortunately, MJ noticed it, and stopped and waited for me to jump off, slap it back on (she had ripped the pastern strap and then stepped on it, yanking the boot off), make myself crawl back on my increasingly-taller horse, and resume our lovely canter in.
We ended up coming in 5th and 6th, in a ride time of 8:16. Libby vetted through nicely, although she was pretty reactive on one side in front of her girth — at first glance it looked like some sort of scrape or gall. I took her back to the trailer and got her cleaned up, and she definitely had something there that had broken the skin — it looked more long and skinny than a typical gall, though, so I wonder if a stick caught and jabbed in when we were doing some of the bushwhacking sections? Whatever the case, she wasn’t happy about it, so between that, and my own general sense of being done, I opted out of going for day 2.
When Saturday morning rolled around, Libby was bright-eyed and perky…but still sore on that side, so I was satisfied with my decision. Hung around camp and socialized a bit, then got packed up and headed home, getting back to the barn early afternoon with a mare who was still full of beans enough to go running out to the pasture when I turned her out.
And so the ride season rolls on. We’ve got something on the books every month through June, and then will pick back up again in September. Fun rides ahead, and plenty of club activities and training to keep me busy for a while…(and a desperate need to practice my gluing techniques, apparently…)