Ride Story: Jingle Bell Trot 50 2021

Starting the 2022 ride season off right!
photo by Susan Kordish

It’s been a full year since Liberty and I hit the competition trail in earnest with finishing the LD at Jingle Bell Trot in 2020, and we celebrated that “ride anniversary” with a 50-mile finish at Jingle Bell Trot this year.

2021 was a ride season full of ups and downs as we worked through the learning curve of figuring out the particular combination of boxes to tick in order to happily do 50-milers. We ran through the whole gamut: saddle fit, electrolytes, feet, diet. And while I know we are never really “done” with figuring out what works and what doesn’t for each individual horse, I feel like this fall has gotten us on the right track and moving in the right direction. With a solid 50-mile finish at McDowell in November, that was the first major hurdle crossed — to finally get that official 50-mile completion. From there, Jingle Bell Trot would be a true test — it’s a very rocky course, and I consider it a pretty challenging ride. It’s not a high elevation mountain ride with massive amounts of climbing, but it’s a trail that does a lot of small up and down, and is fairly “non-stop relentless” in that it’s either rocky, or up/down, or if it’s nice footing, you’re really moving out to make some time, so there’s not a ton of “downtime” for either horse or rider along the way.

One of the fun things about this ride for me is that it’s a fairly “new” ride — its first two years were run as the “Dashing Through the Trails” ride, under ride manager Effee Conner, and then last year and this year, the “Jingle Bell Trot” with ride manager Debi Sanger. There have been some trail changes here and there, but for all intents and purposes, it’s remained essentially the “same” ride…and it’s one of the few rides I’ve ridden every year. And even better, I’ve finished every year! 2018 — the 55-mile with Flash; 2019 — the 25-mile with Atti; 2020 — the 25-mile with Liberty; and now 2021 — the 50-mile with Liberty.

Estrella through the years. Clockwise from far left: Flash (2018), Liberty (2020), Liberty (2021), Atti (2019)

Pre-Ride: Thurs & Fri

I had plans to once again glue Liberty’s hind boots on, but by the time Thursday rolled around and I got down to the barn, I seriously couldn’t muster up the energy. I’ve been juggling a lot of irons in the fire lately leading up to the ride, and I didn’t feel like dealing with the mental stress of gluing and “getting it right.” I’ll save my gluing experimentation for training rides at this point. So Liberty got a bath (one perk of it still being 80* out), I packed up the truck/trailer with the stuff I store at the barn, then headed back home to finish packing, with a grocery store stop along the way.

My packing has gotten pretty streamlined — I store all of my ride gear in various bins and totes, so it’s a pretty quick matter of adding my tack, cleaning and doing inventory on my boot stash, and tossing everything into the truck.

Last month at McDowell, I arrived in camp around mid-morning, a little earlier than what I had typically been arriving at rides, and I really liked having the extra time for a more relaxing set-up before check-in and vetting, so I planned for a repeat of that this time around. This is another “local” Valley ride to me — about an hour and half from the barn, since I end up traversing from the east side of the Valley across to the west side — but it’s a pretty easy drive (Phoenix traffic not withstanding, ugh) and I was pulling into camp just a little after 10am.

My friend MJ had once again saved me a parking spot, and she and I were planning to ride together the following day, as she would be riding Liberty’s “favorite” boyfriend Dreamer and the two horses pair and pace really well together.

I got Liberty settled with hay/water, got the rest of camp set up, wandered over to the registration area and got checked in, socialized with some friends along the way, sat down and had lunch, and then as soon as vetting opened, grabbed Libby and hustled over to the vet line.

Interestingly, all year, she’s been vetting in consistently with a pulse of 44 (without going back and pulling all of our old vet cards from the 2013-16 rides, memory makes me want to say this was what she usually vetted in at then, too). This time, she was vetting in at 40. Not sure whether to attribute that to really settling in tot he vetting routine, or if her fitness level has bumped up a notch after McDowell last month. Either way, it’ll be interesting to track.

After vetting, MJ, Lucian and I saddled up and headed out for a leisurely pre-ride. Just an easy meander around some of the competitive track trails right around camp, enough to stretch their legs and make sure brains were still firmly between ears.

Heading out on a pre-ride. That’s the Phoenix International Raceway grandstands in the background. The access road to the Estrella Mtn Park Competitive Track where we park cuts right through the PIR parking lot.
photo by Susan Kordish

Back in camp, I had time for more socializing (including some long-time endurance friends from California who were some of my original endurance mentors and the first ones to introduce me to catch riding, so it was wonderful to see them again and spend some time catching up) before it was time for the potluck dinner. I had whipped up a pot of spaghetti and meat sauce, which has consistently been a ride dinner staple in my camp over the years, and always garners favorable reviews. Contributing it to the potluck was no exception, and there was only a couple small spoonfuls left in the pot at the end. The potluck had a great turnout and some delicious offerings, and it seems like it is quickly becoming a popular tradition.

The ride meeting wrapped up with some curiosity and excitement as a long chain of lights passed overhead in the night sky. Obligatory “look, it’s Santa!” comments were made…and some research once I got back home netted the fact that it was a chain of SpaceX Starlink satellites passing overhead. So, a bit disappointing that it wasn’t Santa out doing practice runs…but still cool.

I got Liberty settled for the night with plenty of hay and water, and her dinner, then I tucked myself into my cozy nest that is the back of the Suburban. A foam mattress has made all the difference for comfort level and staying warm over an air mattress, and with the addition of some string lights and mini lanterns inside, I’ve got lots of light without ever needing to turn on the interior dome lights and potentially drain the battery down. I did a bit of mental winding down with a book for a while, and then turned in for the night, drifting off to the sounds of my mare munching her hay.

Ride Day: Saturday

Ride start for the 50 wasn’t until 7am — when we would have a little bit of daylight — which meant wasn’t until about 5. My morning routine has gotten pretty quick — dress, climb out of bed and throw Libby some hay, get coffee and breakfast going, put boots on the horse, drink coffee, eat, tack up, debate how many clothing layers to keep on because I’m a solar-powered cold-weather wimp that relies on the sunshine to stay warm. Liberty, for her part, has turned into a total professional. If she is tied to the trailer, she is either eating or sleeping. No messing about, no pawing, no wasting energy.

She’s also catching on to the super-handy “pick me up” trick of sidling up to things like trailer fenders when I step up on them, which makes mounting so much easier. One last sip of coffee, and one cozy puffy jacket layer sadly peeled off, I hopped up on the fender, Libby stepped right up, and I was mounted and ready. We had time to do a good warm-up around camp with MJ and Dreamer, check-in, and then once the trail was open, we made our way out after the first half-dozen or so people headed out.

The first part of the ride was a 10-mile loop on one of the competitive track trails. It’s one of the rockier sections, so we took it easy, walking the rough stuff and trotting when it was decent.

It was really pretty single track, and gorgeous morning light on the mountains. The trail twists and turns a lot, sometimes a bit annoyingly so as it doubles back on itself or twiddles around a space that could have otherwise been a straight line…but it’s part of the competitive track that’s used by a lot of mountain bikers, so I understand the “make it interesting/challenging” rationale behind it. The nice thing about this little loop is that it feel like “free miles” in that you end up back in camp before heading out to the main part of the park, so once you’re in the main park, you have this realization that, “oh, we already have 10 miles down.”

Almost back to camp from the competitive track loop.
photo by Susan Kordish

The top photo on this post is also in that same spot on the competitive track. I absolutely love Liberty’s expression. She is so happy and so eager…I think she truly loves her job and loves this sport. I put a lot of stock in their expressions and what their eyes look like, and my ride photos this fall/winter are showing me a bold, eager, happy mare. She’s usually had that to some degree in the past, but I’m now seeing a whole new level that’s emerging with this horse as she gets more fit and more seasoned.

Since we had to pass right through camp and right by the trailers to get to the out trail to the main park, MJ and I opted to swing by our trailers momentarily for a potty break, dump jackets/change shirts, and electrolyte the horses. All told, it took less than 5 minutes to do all that and was well worth the “mini break.”

We passed by our favorite photographers again as we roughly paralleled the trail we had taken back in to camp, and made our way out to the main part of the park. There’s a bit of a climb up heading out of camp — the left-side photo above gives a rough idea, with the PIR parking lot in the background and camp is just above the parking lot — and a subsequent drop down the other side in a series of switchbacks and Libby was once again rather fascinated with the whole “switchback concept” (here, as well as earlier in the ride on the competitive track we had another set of switchbacks, and her brain had to once again wrap around the concept of “horse below me, how’d they get there…and now they’re above me, what’re they doing up there?”) and I could also see her little brain cells spinning as she worked through the notion.

Thus far, we’d kept Liberty in the lead — Dreamer is still a “work in progress” when it comes to leading sometimes, so we were waiting until a more opportune section of the trail to swap out and put him in front. Once on the flatter, more open part of the trail, we did so, and mostly cruised along, with a few “spook-n-balk” moments from Dreamer here and there, but all minor stuff. At least until the perfectly innocent-looking bush that obviously housed Dreamer-eating gremlins, at which point he pulled a very fast drop and spin maneuver that had MJ on the ground. Fortunately she said she was fine, and was on her feet and back in the saddle in moments. We did put Liberty in the front again after that, though.

Heading out to the far water stop is one of my favorite parts of the trail, because there’s a whole section of the trail that is perfect for cantering — super shallow sand on a straight line double-track trail. Our timing was such that we hit it during “two way traffic” time — most of the LD riders had finished this section of the trail and were on their way to the vet check — so we were doing quite a bit of head-on passing…usually right about the time we’d get a good canter rhythm going. Ah, well. Good training.

The furthest section of trail is a lollipop loop — out to the water stop, do a small loop out from the water, come back to the water, and then return back on the same lovely sand trail. The first time in to the water, Libby took a few sips, but was more interested in munching on the hay provided. We only took a couple minutes here, since neither horse was super-interested in water, and started on the lollipop loop part of the trail.

Liberty had been “peeking” at a few things here and there — her typical minor “looking” — but not even a mile into the lollipop, trotting along, and all of a sudden she spooked hard and I found myself on the ground before I even knew what was happening. I wasn’t even able to complete my “oh, shi–“ thought before I was hitting the dirt. Lucky for me, we were in a fairly sandy, reasonably soft area, and I landed mostly on my adequately-padded derriere first, then my side and upper arm. I was so completely shocked and taken off guard that I really didn’t even have time to dwell on what happened. Literally took about 2 seconds to internally assess, “nope, didn’t hit my head, everything moves, I’m fine” and jump back up and go after Liberty, who was starting to wander down the trail. Fortunately she didn’t take off running, and she stopped as soon as I caught up to her and grabbed her reins, but I know that’s the first time anyone has ever come off of her, so she was definitely a bit surprised.

I still had plenty of adrenaline going, so I channeled that into jumping right back in the saddle and continuing down the trail before my rational brain caught up to me and I had a chance to think and get scared. I was also a little bit pissed. The more reactive spooking is something new — she almost offloaded me at McDowell when she spooked at a dead log — and this time, we did part ways. So I’m not sure what exactly is going on with that and how to troubleshoot it, because one of the things I’ve always highly valued about this mare is she’s not super reactive or spooky, so I’m thrilled with newly-discovered quirk. :/

It’s also been over a dozen years since I last came off a horse. Even with the plethora of catch ride horses (although there were a few times I quickly jumped off before I could be offloaded), the last equine who was able to make me hit the dirt was Mimi, in one of her infamous pony spooks. So I guess I was probably long overdue, and there’s probably something to the notion that if you ride a horse long enough, you will part company at some point. And with 17 months in of owning her, I’ve got more saddle time with Liberty now than any other horse other than Mimi.

Dead cactus along the lollipop loop. Definitely equinivorous.

The back part of the lollipop is no one’s favorite. It’s heading away from camp, in another long straightaway that looks like it leads into the endless desert. And all of the surface sand that had washed away from the other parts of the park to reveal all the rocks underfoot had apparently decided to settle into this portion of the trail, and it was deep enough neither of us felt particularly comfortable trying to make time through this section. So we got a bit of “sand slogging” in, with both horses trudging through and not really finding the motivation button. Until we got to the intersection where we turned off the endless sand slog and onto the trail that took us back to the water and they were miraculously recovered and had all sorts of forward motivation again. Liberty was also peeking and looking at everything that might have been lurking on the side of the trail, and I shamelessly started taking advantage of taking a hold of that lovely hoop pommel on my saddle.

Back at the water, Liberty suddenly realized she was quite thirsty, and dove into the trough with her “going to put a frat boy to shame” ability to chug. She drank, and drank, and drank some more, and when she finally came up for air, I hopped off and gave her some electrolytes. Even after that, she decided to drink some more, then settle herself down in front of the hay and spend a few minutes munching. There wasn’t much by way of even dry vegetation along this portion of the trail, so it was worth the extra time to get some vittles into their systems.

Drink up, mare. Elytes await.

From the water, we backtracked along the same lovely section we had come in on, this time getting to let the horses stretch out into a really good canter…I think that helped all four of us blow off some steam. There was one more water stop about a mile before the vet check — Libby chugged again — and then we headed down the wide gravel road into the check that waited for us, 30 mile in to the ride.

Not too far out from the vet check.

The vet check is in the large gravel trailhead parking lot of the main park. There’s a little climb up out of the wash below the parking lot, so I rode up almost to the parking lot then hopped off and walked in. By the time Libby finished drinking, she was pulsed down to parameters. There were a couple horses in front of us to vet, so we waited for a bit, then vetted through — all A’s — then headed over to where MJ had set up our crew bags. I got Libby settled with some hay and feed — she doesn’t really love super sloppy mashes, so a cup of her Hygain TruGain feed seems to make her happy and fulfill the “I got something other than hay” need.

Libby & Dreamer sharing lunch

With an hour-long hold, there was plenty of time to take care of all of the typical vet-hold business, and in fact both MJ and I were ready and waiting several minutes ahead of our out time. 30 miles down, just another 20 left. From the check, we would be heading out on a different trail, through a section that was several miles long of rocks, and more rocks, and connecting to the lovely sand track out to the water stop again. Fortunately, we wouldn’t have to do the lollipop loop this time.

A couple miles out from lunch, we had been trotting along and all of a sudden I felt Libby start hip-hopping on her hind end. Quick glance down and I saw one of her boots around her pastern. Hopped off and turns out she had broken a cable. Quick swap out of pulling my spare boot out of the pack, slapping it on, stuffing the broken one back in the pack, and less than two minutes later, we were continuing on our way. As it turns out, that’s only the second cable I’ve ever broken in 15 years of using the boots, so I really can’t complain.

Did I happen to mention the rocks? The new nickname for this ride is “Jingle Bell Rocks.”

This section was slower-going, mostly due to it being more technical and so rocky. It was also warming up a bit in the afternoon sun, and parts of the trail didn’t have much by way of a breeze reaching them. Fortunately, we had another rider a little bit in front of us at this point — her gaited horse made much better time in the rocks than we did, so we weren’t trying to keep up with her but Dreamer liked her mare, and that was sufficient enough incentive for him be able to go in the front for a while and give Libby and myself a break.

Once we reached the trail to the water stop, both horses threw in a bit of a mutiny. They knew where we were, they knew camp was in the opposite direction, and didn’t have much desire to go repeat this same trail they already knew. It took a bit of coaxing and pedaling but I got Liberty out in front again and moving…not overly enthusiastically, but it was forward movement and we were covering ground, which was all I wanted.

Back at the water stop, I hopped off and Liberty drank and drank and drank, then settled herself in front of the hay to eat. We took several minutes here this time to let them drink and eat, then gathered ourselves up and headed out again. With the internal compass pointed “due trailer,” they had all kinds of cheer and forward enthusiasm now. Libby was still peeking and spooking at random things, so I once again employed my shameless, “just hold on and go forward” tactic and it worked to get us through the beautiful sand section one more time.

Working on draining the trough.

The trail “back” to camp is a circuitous route, one that goes over some of the trail from earlier in the ride, before peeling off and taking you back towards the location of the vet check. Along the way, we encountered a hiker who was flying a drone. No big deal, initially…he had it overhead but seemed like it wasn’t too close in…we went by him, continued trotting up the trail, then heard the buzzing getting louder. Glanced back and it looked like the drone was following us. Kicked it in to a bit of a canter since the trail was clear and got ahead of it , only to go through a gully and have it hovering behind us as we came out of the gully. Again, neither horse was bothered…but I happen to know plenty of them who would be, and trailing after horses with the drone really isn’t cool behavior. So as we kept going up the trail, I lifted my hand and I gave it the ol’ one-fingered salute. Message must have been received since the drone backed off and I didn’t hear it any more.

(Additionally, I just looked it up and learned that drone use isn’t allowed within the Maricopa County Regional Parks. Good to know.)

Drone drama aside, this was a really pleasant section to ride. Still rocky in parts (but that’s just Estrella, period) but a pretty area, with interesting single-track trail that kept things a very active ride. Liberty was in good spirits, still very forward and happy to move out, necessitating a few negotiations about what was considered acceptably trottable or not. Eventually the trail took us to the same water stop and gravel road that led to the vet check. Another drink and e’lyte dose, then back down the gravel road again. This time we didn’t go all the way to the vet check, but rather turned off and started heading back to camp — only 7 miles to go.

This section always seems like it should be shorter than it is. A lot of it looks visually similar, too, so it feels like you’re repeating some of the same ground that you just covered five minutes ago. It’s also the section we had gone out on in the morning, so the horses know it really well.

But eventually, we were back at the switchback hill — climbing up the same switchbacks we had gone down in the morning.

Rounding the final switchback

From the top of the hill, we took a tiny little connector trail piece that popped us over to the competitive track again, and the last mile or so into camp was the same as coming off the competitive track in the morning. The homing pigeon horses were in full “let’s get back to camp mode,” while I was in full “do not lame yourselves 200′ out from camp by falling on a rock” mode. But the last bit of trail was all clear, and we trotted into camp with happy horses, just a little under 10 hours after we had started that morning (for a ride time of just under 9 hours).

Liberty once again partook of the water troughs at the finish line, then I headed over to do her completion vetting. Her pulse was just a little high still, so I pulled my saddle and almost immediately she was down to the required 60bpm. She finished with a very good vet card (a couple of B’s on cap/jug refill, but she drank like a fish all day long so I’m not sure what else I could do to affect that…?), and a very high compliment from the vet acknowledging the amount of work I’ve put into this mare between the spring and now and how it way paying off. Those kinds of comments mean the world to me, and I love that our vets are watching us and paying that kind of attention to us.

Furthermore, finishing this tough ride makes me feel encouraged that we’re on the right track now with diet, electrolytes, feet, everything. Because I wasn’t sure. My biggest takeaway in this sport has been, “Never take any finish for granted.” That’s been one of the pluses about so many pulls learning opportunities. I’ve managed horses through rides that weren’t the most suitable candidates for the sport…and I’ve been pulled on experienced, “this should be old hat” campaigners. So it’s never a guarantee or foregone conclusion, and every single finish is meaningful.

As always, my main goal is a finish. The secondary goal for this ride had been “finish in daylight,” and I’m happy to say we accomplished that as well. Back at the trailer, she was starving and buried her head in the hay manger while I gave her a good rubdown and got the worst of the dried sweat off, then got her tucked in to her blanket as the temperatures started dropping.

Ride awards dinner was a really tasty BBQ, and I dove into my food with as much enthusiasm as my mare. Granted, she did the majority of the work, but still…Estrella is a very active ride — there’s not a lot of trail where you can really sit back and relax, so I was definitely feeling more tired than last month’s ride at McDowell.

I opted to stay overnight Saturday night, since it takes me a bit to pack up camp…I’d be much faster in the morning. Plus, staying overnight, I get to keep an eye on Libby and have her right there with me, which makes monitoring post-ride recovery really easy.

Looking bright-eyed Sunday morning, watching the 30-milers leave and wondering why we weren’t going out again?

This ride was a great way to start the 2022 ride season, and marks one full year of competition for Liberty and myself. It’s been a great year, and I can’t wait to see what the future might hold for us as we head down the trail…

2021 Ride Season Recap

Since the AERC season runs from Dec 1-Nov 30, the 2021 season is over and the 2022 season has started. While I brought Liberty home in 2020, we didn’t actually get to our first ride until Dec of 2020, so the 2021 season, making it our first full ride season that we did together.

So, how did it go? To put it mildly…”not according to plan.” But we finished the season on a strong note, and learned a ton along the way. It’s also been the most prolific season I’ve had with my own horse, making it to 5 rides. I had planned on more, but between schedule conflicts, horse colds, and mystery lamenesses, that nixed at least 3 of the rides I had planned. Ah, well. I’m thrilled with what we were able to do, and am trying to embrace learning to take things as they come and roll with whatever changes get chucked in our path.

Let’s recap:


Jingle Bell Trot 25. After a rough fall of having conditioning and ride plans curtailed by horrific air quality from wildfires, and personal life priorities, we finally hit the competition trail and started our season off with a solid finish on the LD. It was the confidence boost I needed, and I started to get my first glimpses of what Liberty could do when she was fit and conditioned.


Schedule conflict month; the Tonto Twist ride fell on the same weekend as the Mark Rashid-Jim Masterson clinic, and ultimately, I decided that the clinic would probably be the better long-term investment in myself and my horse. I was right, and it ended up being a very learning-full weekend.


We were all set to go with Wickenburg, and Libby came up with a cold: snotty nose, cough, and temperature. Obviously that cancelled our ride plans, and it took a couple weeks for her to be back to her sparkly-eyed normal.


Old Pueblo 50: Otherwise known as “Snowmaggedon 2021.” We made it 42 miles on our first 50, doing the first 26 mile loop in a blizzard. The cold weather made her not want to drink very well, and she got a bit out of whack on her electrolytes, and had an erratic, hanging pulse at the end of the second vet hold, so after talking to the vet, we decided to Rider Option. Lesson Learned: Don’t ride in a snow storm. Seriously, though, I was so impressed with how she handled the snow. She stayed sensible, never slipped once, and was totally game all day, albeit a bit of a fire-breathing dragon for the first 5 or 6 miles.


Bumble Bee 50: Our 2nd 50-mile attempt. We made the full distance this time…and got pulled at the finish for lameness. (Most likely hoof soreness, most likely cause by yours truly being an idiot and trimming too close to the ride.) That one I feel bad about because it was likely caused by my own error, and the big mare didn’t deserve that. She did amazingly well all day long. We went from the cold of Sonoita to unseasonably hot at Bumble Bee, and she wasn’t phased at all by the heat. Drank like a fish all day long, and was super cheerful and always happy to go — I never had to ask her twice.


The plan was to head up to Flagstaff for the Cinders Trot, but a couple days out from the ride, I still wasn’t happy with how she was moving, and pulled our entry. That was also the unofficial “end” to the first part of the AZ ride season until the fall, and with our questionable spring, I definitely wasn’t going to make any out-of-state plans and associated expenses until I was sure we had our ducks in a row.


My goal for the summer was to just keep her tuned up as much as possible. It wasn’t easy, with the heat, and there were quite a few 3am wakeups but I was able to consistently put some good mileage on and head into the fall season in good shape.


Man Against Horse 25: While we stayed fit over the summer, I wasn’t confident that it was “conquer Mingus Mountain” level of fit, and again, after our spring, I really wanted to stack the deck in our favor and set ourselves up for success, so opted to go for the 25 instead of the 50. I don’t regret that decision at all. She was strong and fit all day, had fantastic vet scores, and a solid finish.


Lead-Follow @ McDowell 50: Third time’s a charm, and we finally got that 50-mile finish. She had no problem going the distance, had awesome vet scores and P&Rs all day, and she had so much gas still left in the tank at the finish. This was probably one of the best finishes I’ve had in my endurance career in terms of having a fresh, spunky horse who truly could have gone out for another loop, and on that alone, makes it one of my rides I’m really thrilled with and proud of how both my horse and I did.

With that, the ride season ends…and we roll right into 2022. While most of the country is on their winter break, Arizona is in the thick of our winter season, and there’s a ride on the calendar every month from now through May.

All ride photos are courtesy of AZ Cowgirl Photography; Susan and John Kordish

Ride Story: Lead-Follow @ McDowell 50 2021

❤️ My 50-mile endurance mare ❤️
photo by Susan Kordish

The spoiler-alert, short version: Third time was a charm for getting Liberty’s first 50-mile completion, and after our learning curve this spring, and re-grouping over the summer, everything came together and we achieved that goal at the Lead-Follow @ McDowell ride. Even with the temperatures soaring up to 90*, we had a textbook ride, and I couldn’t be happier with how our weekend went.

Drama, crises, and problem-solving along the way tend to make the most interesting ride stories, so this one probably won’t be super-interesting on that level, because <knock on wood> this was the smoothest sailing I’ve had at a ride for a bit. To start with, my truck did not need any last-minute mechanic visits, so already things were off to a less-fraught start than last month’s Man Against Horse (although that came together so perfectly, I really have no complaints).

I did decide to do some Renegade Pro-Comp Glue-Ons on Liberty for this ride, on her hinds. She will sometimes interfere and catch herself on her hinds, so I wanted to experiment with the super-streamlined profile of the glue-on shell to see if that made a difference, as well as work on dialing in my gluing technique (for working for a boot company, I’ve done very little gluing over the years) and starting to test some different adhesives. That was probably the most stressful part of the whole weekend, because gluing is rarely a stress-free endeavor. I’m confident in my hoof-prep, but the glue itself can be the unpredictable element, especially since the one I was trying was something totally new, so I didn’t know what to expect.

The whole gluing process went fairly smoothly, although I was less happy with the left hind than the right, since Liberty decided to be squirmy and set that hind hoof down and wiggle around before it was 100% set. So I went in with low expectations, and plans to carry spare strap boots on the saddle. The temperatures also decided to start rising again the week of the ride, after a couple weeks of very pleasant, cooling-off temps…right about the time the ponies all decided to start sprouting true winter coats, so I busted out the clippers again and re-did Liberty’s trace clip I had done a couple weeks prior.

Freshly glued and (re)clipped

I’ve got a pretty good system of various tubs and totes for packing purposes, and most of them stay packed with all my ride gear, so generally all I have to add is my tack, and pack food and clothing for me, then throw everything into the back of the suburban. I’m not a minimalist, so I’ve got everything about as streamlined as it gets while still feeling like I’ve got all the essentials covered. And with half a dozen rides or overnight trips I’ve done with my little rig setup now, I’m feeling like I’ve got everything sorted out and a pretty good system in place.

The McDowell Mountain Park ride camp is local for me, only an hour away from the barn, so I didn’t have to roll out ridiculously early. I do like having plenty of time to relax and set up camp, though, so I was out the barn driveway by 9 and pulling in to camp right around 10. My friend MJ (Liberty’s bestest boyfriend Dreamer’s mom) had saved us a parking spot, so I was able to easily pull in and get ourselves settled and make short work of setting up camp (hay manger filled/hung, water bucket filled, horse tied off). Less than an hour after setting up, though, I started having some concerns. Liberty was in the full sun, and just standing there eating, she was already starting to sweat. After some back-and-forthing in my own head (and I didn’t want to turn the whole rig around and re-park since I had everything all set up already, and it would have faced me downhill for sleeping), I finally decided to move her to the other side of the trailer, which was nicely shaded, as well as being the inside part of the “box” that we had formed with three trailers. It would also mean she would have company other the two other horses on their respective trailers. I don’t have that side of the trailer set up for tying — the spare tire is on that side, for one, and that’s also the side that has the escape door and handle, and I still have a mental carryover from my NATRC days of “look for all the hazards the horse could possibly hang a halter/lead rope on” so I’ve avoided using that side. But my concerns over my dark horse standing and baking herself in the sun all day before the ride, as well as then standing and baking during our vet hold, finally won out (that, and making sure I had a few breakaway points on her tie rope set-up).

Just arrived in camp, checking out one of the water troughs.
Photo by John Kordish

It ended up being a really good decision. She ties so politely and quietly these days, she didn’t even come close to getting into anything, and I was much less worried with her having basically full shade from the trailer during the hottest parts of the day. She also liked having the other horses so close by, and having the trailers surrounding the horses also gave an element of protection and hopefully be a deterrent from any loose horses coming through camp. (Which, to my knowledge, didn’t happen this weekend.)

All settled now. She had a little bit of sun at certain times but was nowhere near her previous baking exposure as she had been on the other side.

I’m not typically used to getting into camp quite so early, so it was a bit of a treat to be able to have things all set up, and be able to sit down and chat and enjoy and relaxed lunch with friends before wandering up to check in and get our vet card. Vetting started a little after 2, and we were in line shortly thereafter, with only a short wait. We vetted in with Dr. Mark Anderson, who is one of our long-time ride vets, and he’s vetted us at a number of our rides…for better or worse, as he’s also been one to pull us a couple of times…but the nice thing about that is he knows us and knows some of our history, so it was a good confidence boost to have him vet us in and be very happy with how Liberty was looking and moving.

She vetted in fabulously, with a really nice, polite trot-out (a rope halter did wonders for reminding her she does have ground manners, and to mind them). We got our butt number and hung around and chatted with some friends for a few minutes, then headed back to the trailer to saddle up for a short pre-ride with friends MJ and Lucian.

We headed out for a couple of miles along the trail we would be starting on in the morning — I wasn’t sure how much daylight there would be at the 6:30am start on the 50, so wanted to get a look at the footing and pre-scout any trail hazards. (As it turned out, we had some nice early dawn light.) Liberty was full of energy and wanted to zoom her way through, especially when we turned around to head back, but she stayed very controllable, and it didn’t take much to get her settled back down to an animated walk. Love her brain, so much. Even when she’s excited, she tries so hard to be good and be responsive.

Ride dinner was held Friday night, just before ride briefing — yummy BBQ, and I could have lived on just the mac-n-cheese alone, it was so delicious. Ride briefing was the usual, and although I haven’t done the 50 at this ride since 2009 (!!! I couldn’t believe it’s been that long, but yep…Nov 2009 with Mimi…) the only real trail changes were some newer single-track trails that the park had installed in the last several years that ran parallel to some of the former sand wash trails, and made for a much nicer ride. I’ve also been conditioning at McDowell a number of times over the summer, so Liberty was familiar with a number of the trails we would be on. Pulse parameter was set at 60, due to the forecast heat, and we would have a one hour vet hold between loops 1 & 2 for the 50.

There was time for a bit of a social hour back at the trailers, one last check on Liberty to top off her hay and water for the night, and then bedtime beckoned. This was the maiden voyage for my new foam mattress, and it passed with flying colors (and hopefully won’t get as cold as the air mattress when the temps drop). As much as I wasn’t looking forward to the heat during the day, the nighttime temperatures were perfectly pleasant, and it was nice to wake up and not have to crank the vehicle heat on, or shiver my way through dressing for the day.

I’ve also gotten my morning ride routine down — crawl out of the truck, start water boiling for coffee, toss Libby some grass hay and a few bites of alfalfa so she thinks she getting “something” for breakfast, clean up her poop, make coffee, crawl back into truck to dress in ride clothes, find something that has some sort of vague appeal for breakfast, work on breakfast in-between getting Libby booted and tacked up, finish breakfast, pack any last-minute saddle snacks, and then mount up ideally with enough time for a 15-20 minute warm-up before the start.

I was really please with how well-behaved Liberty was before the start. She walked around very calmly, only tossing her head and prancing a bit when we would turn away from the starting trail, and settled with just a few light finger taps on the reins. With 19 riders int he 50, there wasn’t a mad-cap rush at the start…the trail is single-track right out of camp, so everyone was very polite and orderly about making their way out onto the course, and after the first 8 or 9 riders headed out, I found a nice little bubble for myself and we were on our way. Liberty picked up a nice working trot, and within a 100 yards out of camp, had settled into her business-like, “let’s do this thing” manner. We passed a couple people, had a space bubble for a couple miles, got passed by a few people, and all the while, kept at her steady, working trot, trying to take advantage of the early miles of smooth, good footing while we could.

About 7 miles in, the trail starts getting rocky and doing a little bit of climbing, so we slowed down and took our time in the rocks. Our goal for the day was “finish with a sound, happy horse” and if that meant walking over every rock out there, so be it.

Note the unamused mare ears

By this time, the sun was up and bathing the desert in beautiful morning sunlight. I absolutely love the desert in the morning and the evening, when the light is still soft enough that the desert colors really show up (versus the mid-day, sun-baked and bleached effect). There was a little bit of a breeze, and the temperature hadn’t started heating up yet, and I was enjoying the morning, sharing the trail with friends and my amazing mare.

The first water stop is about 11 miles in, at the end of a double-track dirt service road. There are some rocky spots of slow down through, but overall, it’s a welcome change to have some trail to move out on again after the last few miles of rocky, slower-going single track, and Liberty was more than happy to use said moving out opportunity. She drank a little bit at the water, I electrolyted her, she grabbed a few bites of hay, and then we were back on our way, heading back on the same road we had just come in on, and partway along some of the rocky single-track.

By about 16 miles in, the trail gets out of the rocky foothills and back out onto the smoother, flatter desert floor, and we were again able to pick up a more consistent pace. There were some lovely stretches of really smooth single track, and some opportunities to let Libby stretch out and pick up a canter. She has a really, really nice canter, but I’ve been working on getting her develop more gears and trot speeds, so haven’t been letting her canter quite as much, but this is a really good ride to strategically use some cantering to make things more interesting and mix it up a bit.

At the maintenance shed checkpoint and water stop, she dove into one of the troughs and about put a frat boy to shame with her drinking. It was starting to warm up, so I also took the opportunity to hose her down, and electrolyte her again. She also got a couple carrots as a snack, and there were a few piles of grass hay and alfalfa for her to munch on. That questionable left hind boot also took this opportunity to detach itself from her hoof, although I was surprised it had hung on this long. But her spinning and pivoting her butt end around to watch another horse leave the check and head down the trail was the final straw and I watched the boot go sailing through the air and land several feet away. Ah, well. As good of a place as any to lose it, and she never had to travel on any rocks with an unprotected hoof. So I handed her reins off to one of the lovely volunteers, wrangled one of my spare boots off the saddle, slapped it on, left the now-defunct glue-on in the care of another volunteer to take back to camp with her, mounted up and headed down the trail.

Photographer Susan Kordish was down the trail just a little ways out from the checkpoint, and got a whole bunch of lovely pics of us coming down the trail. (Seriously, between her and her husband John, they got over a couple dozen photos of me and Liberty. I love having a photogenic horse that photographers love, because I am a shameless sucker for ride photos.) There was another water stop a couple miles out from camp, and Libby tanked up yet again, and then maybe a mile or so out from camp, John Kordish was set up to get photos of us coming through at that spot.

I hopped off just outside of camp, and by the time I got in, got my time slip, let Libby drink and sprayed her off with the hose, her pulse was down, and at 44 by the time the P&R person took her pulse. Waited in line for a few minutes for vetting, and she vetted through with all A’s. Got an excellent compliment from the vet on her trot-out — said that “it was absolutely beautiful and one of the best trot-outs she had seen.” This is something I work on a lot with this mare, so it was really gratifying to hear that kind of feedback and know the work is paying off.

With vetting out of the way, we now had a solid 50+ minutes of our hold left to go back to the trailer and let her eat, uninterrupted. I got her set up with some more hay and a small pan of mash, took care of my “camp chores” of refilling my waters and restocking snacks in my saddle packs, and adding another spare boot to the saddle, then settled in with my own lunch. I enjoyed a good 15+ minutes of down time, then got Libby’s headgear swapped out for her s-hackamore, mounted back up and was at the out timer with a couple extra minutes to spare.

I’ve never had a problem with her leaving camp on a second loop on LDs, but the two previous 50s, we ended up having a buddy with us when we left, so this would be the first time leaving camp after 25+ miles, all by ourselves, with plenty of other horses still behind us at the vet area. Wasn’t sure what to expect, but she happily trotted right out of camp when I pointed her at the out trail, and cheerfully made her way up the same trail we had headed out on in the morning.

We followed the morning trail for about a mile or so, then turned off to what is probably every horse’s least favorite section of trail. It’s a rocky single-track that climbs up to the top of a ridgeline. Once on top, it’s a pretty view, and there’s generally some breeze, but getting there is a slow trudge, uphill, usually in the heat of the day. Gold stars to Libby, she was probably the least trudgy and most cheerful of the horses I’ve taken through this section, but it was still slower-going, between the rock and the multitudes of trail traffic. (There was so. much. trail traffic on ride day. Especially bikes. I swear the park sent out a memo to the effect of, “we have a horse event with over 100 horses on that trails…so everyone else also needs to come out and use the trails.” Thank goodness my horse doesn’t give two craps about bikes and sharing the trail…but that was a major annoyance to have to deal with so much traffic along the way.)

The obligatory spooking spot at the top of the ridge. Mimi has usually taken offense at the bench on the left. Libby decided the rock pile was much more concerning.

Once down from the ridgeline, it was once again on smooth trail, and it was trail that Libby knew well from our summer conditioning, so she was quite happy to pick up the pace again. She tanked up at the next water stop, munched on some hay for a couple minutes, then continued on. The next section of trail is a long, slow uphill grade. Very deceiving, because it doesn’t look like it, but it’s one of those trails that can easily tap a horse out, and because so much of the footing is so good through this area, there aren’t large sections of rock to enforce walk breaks. So I adopted sort of a trot-walk interval, making sure to give her walk breaks along the way.

About partway through this section, my friend Troy (Flash’s owner) caught up to us. The horse he was riding and Liberty paced well together, and Troy is the one who taught me how to really consistently pace a ride, so we ended up riding the rest of the way together. I think Liberty and I were both ready for some company, and it was a lot of fun to ride with Troy again. I always pick up some good advice and feedback from him, and having a second set of eyes telling me my horse looked really good was a big confidence boost.

This felt a bit like old times, when I was catch-riding Flash for Troy and Claire.

It was also getting really warm out at this point, so having someone to talk with was a good distraction from otherwise descending into “sufferfest” mode. If I stay cheerful, Libby stays cheerful. And she stayed in good spirits all day long. Even in the last couple of miles in, she was still peeking at and spooking at dead logs, suspicious cactus, etc, feeling very sassy and full of herself. I was super-paranoid the last 5 miles or so…she was feeling so good, and I didn’t want to do anything that would risk another finish line pull, so if there was even one or two rocks in the trail, we were walking. The last mile or so, we just walked in nice and easy. She had figured out that she wasn’t going to get to trot, so she settled into a really nice, ground-covering walk, and we easily cruised into the finish, already at pulse parameters. I hopped off, let her drink, gave her a quick hose-down, then immediately pulsed through and took her over to vet.

Her final scores netted a couple of B’s on gut sounds, but given that we were pausing along the whole last 10 miles in to let the horses munch on dry grass along the way — Libby perfected the “horsey drive-through takeout” of grabbing a couple of bites of grass and going — and she had eaten and drank her way through the whole ride, I really wasn’t concerned by that. Her recoveries were excellent, gait/movement perfect…so, third time was a charm, and we officially completed her first 50!

Back at the trailer, she was ravenous — she dove into her hay bag, and only lifted her head to move to her water bucket and drink. She was bright-eyed, still full of energy — in short, a perfect example of “fit to continue.” She absolutely could have gone out for another loop with plenty of gas in the tank if we had to, and I think that was probably one of the best finishes I’ve experienced on 50+ miles to date in terms of having a horse with that many reserves still left, and feeling that perky and cheerful. I truly think she was having fun out there, and it makes me feel so good to know that I was still holding her back the last few miles in, and I never had to pedal her once all day.

This face melts my heart. Bright-eyed, cheerful, and engaged after finishing. She knows she did good, and was so proud of herself.

We finished with a ride time of 8:19, and while we were originally 10th across the line, a couple of finish line pulls ahead of us put us ultimately finishing in 8th, which totally floored me. All I wanted out of this ride was that first 50-mile finish for her. I rode conservatively, taking care over the rocks, and tried to maintain a consistent of a pace as I could, and made sure I didn’t dawdle at water stops, etc. It’s been over 10 years since I did the 50 here, and I was reminded as I went through it that it isn’t as easy of a ride as it might appear on the surface, so I am super-proud of how strong she finished.

Saturday evening, the AZERC (Arizona Endurance Riders Club) hosted a potluck dinner, and it was super well-received. We had a great turnout — probably a good 35-40 people showed up, there was a delicious spread of food available, and it was a great chance to wind down and socialize. So many people tend to quickly pack up and go home after the ride because there usually isn’t any kind of formal dinner or anything planned for Saturday night, so the thought behind coordinating and offering the potluck was to try to encourage people to stay, and I think it did just that. I think more people stayed overnight than have in the past (social proofing? “Oh, if I know my friends are going to stay overnight I think I’ll stay as well” versus “well, everyone else always packs up and goes home so I’ll be the only one in camp, so I may as well pack up and go, too.”) and I know I really enjoyed the chance to socialize and visit with folks after the ride, when the stresses of the ride are done and past.

Sunday morning, Libby was bright-eyed and perky and demanding breakfast the second I woke up. (From where she’s tied, she can see into the back window of the suburban, so she can see me as soon as I wake up and sit up. As soon as I sat up, I heard her start up the nickering chorus line and start doing her impatient head bobbing/tossing. Never mind she still had some grass hay left, since I left her with a small mountain of hay overnight.) She was happy to go for a walk around camp, and sample some of the hay piles left in the vetting area. She was still bright-eyed, and super cuddly and affectionate, and looked like she hadn’t done anything.

It didn’t take me too long to get packed up and back on the road home — my packing system has definitely streamlined the whole process. Back at the barn, she promptly dropped down in the sand arena and rolled as soon as I turned her out, and then moseyed her way out to the pasture and settled in to grazing.

I couldn’t have asked for a better ride, and it was the perfect way to end the 2021 ride season. It’s been an up and down year with a lot of learning curves, but I keep reminding myself to be kind to myself — she’s only the second endurance horse I’ve started in this sport. For all the catch riding I did, most of that was on horses who were already sorted out, so I didn’t have to do much in terms of “figuring them out.” With this one, we’ve started from scratch, and it’s only been a year and four months. Even our pulls now feel more like “constructive learning experiences” than “major fail moments.” (It also took me a lot of thinking over the summer to get my brain to that perspective…) I hope this is the start of “it all coming together,” but at the end of the day, the one thing that has never changed, whatever the ride outcome has been, is how much I enjoy this mare and how much fun I have with her.

McDowell was the last ride of the season here in AZ (ride season ends Nov 30), but the season rolls right over into 2022, with the next ride up being the Jingle Bell Trot at Estrella in December, and there’s an AZ ride on the calendar every month from now through next May. I’ll keep playing every ride by ear as always, and just see how everything keeps going, but I’m sure enjoying having a potential calendar full of rides coming up.

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.