In all fairness to mares, I’ve actually had to have “that” pre-ride chat with more geldings over the years. Granted, the proportion of mares to geldings is significantly smaller, but I don’t feel like I’ve been handed as many shenanigans by the mares. But then I am ardently biased towards Team Mare, so take it for what you will.
That said, last weekend involved full-blown Arabian Raptor Snorts after Liberty decided that large rocks were her mortal enemy. It was probably the spookiest she’s ever been, but even then, I can’t complain when the worst she does is stop and stare and snort, or maybe veer sideways a couple feet if the trail is wide enough. And what I really love is that she doesn’t overreact. Once she’s past something, it’s over and forgotten about, and she doesn’t hold onto worry or angst or keeping ramping up. I’ve said it before that she’s a very “thinky” horse and appreciates some time and no pressure to work something through in her brain. She is bold and brave but she’s also sensitive, and too much pressure will get her back up and make her start to resist.
It’s been a learning curve to go from stock-breed Mimi, who is pretty mentally stoic, to life with an Arabian. Mimi is hotter and more sensitive and reactive than her breed typically is, so in that sense it’s not been nearly as challenging of a transition as it could have been. And catch riding so many Arabians over the years was also a really good experience and exposure to the breed (as well as boarding at a barn that’s always had a least a few Arabs on the premises).
But catch riding is a bit like I imagine having visiting grandkids would be — at the end of the day, you get to send them home to their parents.
In the case of endurance and catch-riding other people’s horses, you generally don’t experience as much of the behind-the-scenes, daily living aspects. In many cases, you show up at the ride, ride the pony, hope you have a good ride (and if you didn’t, you don’t have to see them again), and walk away at the end of the day. Some of my catch rides, I did ride more behind-the-scenes and put some training and conditioning rides on them, but even that’s not the same as having your own horse, and all the little intricacies that come with that.
But daily (or “however many days out of the week I make it down to the barn” boarding life) interaction and engagement is where that true partnership foundation is laid. And Liberty and I are learning together. She’s a very “snorty” horse, period. Not necessarily in the snort-n-fire show ring sense, but as we’re going along the trail, especially at a trot, she likes to do these rhythmic little snorts in time with her movement. At first that was a bit unnerving for me, because I wasn’t sure if that was a precursor to her ramping up, but the more time I spend with her, the more I’m learning that’s just her.
She also tries to be very communicative with me. I’m finding she is a very honest horse — to steal an Australian turn of phrase, “she doesn’t have any dirt in her.” Which is probably one of my new favorite descriptors. Even when she’s feeling super-sassy and up, she’s not the kind to spook at a blowing leaf. If she alerts on something, it’s legitimate. (She was totally chill with bobbing Mylar balloons caught in a bush last weekend.) If she’s acting concerned or anxious, it’s for a reason, not just “being naughty.”
Last weekend was our final “big” training ride two weeks out from our scheduled LD ride at McDowell. We did the second loop of the Tonto Twist ride, which features a nice mix of single-track, double-track, some climbs, a bit of technical, and some sand. It was pretty much a full-body workout, and although she was salt-crusted by the time we got back to the trailer, I believe that was largely due to the fact it was warm (upper 80s/low 90s) and she has a fairly impressive fluffy winter coat happening. Not long, but definitely soft and fluffy. Hugging her neck right now feels a bit like hugging a favorite teddy bear, which is super comfortable but not all that great for physical work when summer still insists on hanging on through November. So we’ll be removing some of that hair before the McDowell ride. And even with the heat and the hair, her pulse was at 58 as soon as we got back to the trailer after 14 miles. I’m very happy with how she’s come along in her conditioning to date, both physically and mentally, and I feel like I’ve been able to accomplish quite a bit in the slightly over 3 months that it’s been.
(I also need to do a proper Virtual Tevis update — the original finish date has been extended out to the end of the year, due to all of the wildfires and bad air conditions that a large part of the western US was dealing with for the better part of the late summer/early fall, but I believe that we should end up finishing our miles pretty much concurrent with the McDowell ride. We’re currently sitting at 64 miles, the Chicken Hawk vet check.)
When I look at the calendar and realize it’s only been 3 months, I’m a bit surprised. I feel like it’s been a lot longer. Granted, I’ve known Liberty for over 7 years — I first catch-rode her in 2013 — but all of those interactions were brief, weekend forays rather than the day-to-day type of steady relationship building that we’re doing now. I fell in love with her the second my butt hit the saddle 7 years ago, and I got the same immediate ‘click’ with her as I had gotten with Mimi, but I couldn’t have predicted just how strongly I would connect with her and how incredibly happy she makes my heart and my soul.
While part of why I waited for so long to get a second horse was financially-based (boarding two horses is a pocketbook commitment), I’ve come to recognize that was just a part of it, and the “easier” reason to give. The other part…I think I was afraid. Sure, I’ve ridden a lot of horses over the years, but I’ve only owned one. What if I wasn’t good enough of a horseman to take on another horse? Mimi’s carried the water for me a lot and let me get away with a lot, and she’s my heart pony. What if I never got along with another horse as well as I have Mimi? Would I constantly be comparing a new horse to Mimi? Would that create an unfair expectation or comparison on a new horse because they weren’t Mimi?
What I’ve learned, though…for the right horse (and pony), there’s more than enough heart-space for both. The two mares have their similarities, and their differences. Mimi poured her heart into being the best endurance pony she could be, and what she accomplished was remarkable given that she was never bred for or intended to be an endurance horse. I will always be in awe of her drive, work ethic, and enthusiasm, and she is probably the most well-rounded, versatile equine I will ever be fortunate enough to know. She’s certainly not perfect, loathe as I am to admit that, but I couldn’t imagine a better pony or horse to have as my first one.
Liberty was purpose-bred to be an endurance horse. Quite literally…the Landers specifically picked out a 100-mile proven Shagya Arabian stallion to breed their race-bred Arabian mare to with the intent of producing a heavyweight-capable endurance offspring. I don’t know if she’s HW-capable or not, but she’s certainly more than substantial enough to tote me around. And the difference in size and physical capability is quite astounding. I’ve found myself truly relaxing and enjoying training rides and saddle time.
For years now, I’ve admittedly coddled and bubble-wrapped Mimi, afraid that what I was asking her was going to be too much, or that I would hurt her. Probably a bit unfair to her and not giving her enough credit, but she’s my baby, and I always worried about her. Catch riding some very capable horses at rides got me much more relaxed and enjoying the whole process, and this past weekend, I had probably one of the best training rides I can remember.
Even though Liberty was spookier than usual (it was windy, a touch chilly, she’s getting very fit, and she hadn’t been ridden for a week), I was relaxed, I wasn’t concerned with her spooks, and we just felt so together. At one point, we veered off the wider double-track we had been on to detour onto a more technical single-track. She had been in “forward endurance horse” mode, and almost immediately she dropped into “back-country wilderness mode,” picking her way carefully and sensibly through the technical rocks and climbs. Once back on the main track, she was eagerly offering to pick it back up again, only to easily come back down when we hit another technical rock wash that she carefully navigated through.
This has actually a major point of contention between Mimi and myself over the years, especially when riding in a group and she isn’t leading — she doesn’t always sensibly take care through really technical areas, and more than once I found myself muttering at her to “pay attention before you wipe us both out.” In fact, one of the standout times that Flash really impressed me was up in Strawberry, when we were bushwhacking through some downed aspens. He had been a bouncing fireball up to that point, just wanting to go, but when we got to those downed aspens that formed a spaghetti-tangle of cavaletti-like step-throughs, he navigated through them like an equine version of the board game ‘Operation.’
I had that same feeling from Liberty this weekend. Calm, sensible, controlled, and trail-versatile. She might not have a lot of love for the arena, but I didn’t bring her home to be a show horse, I brought her home to be an endurance horse and trail horse. I can’t wait to hit the competition trail with her again, but I’m also enjoying the training rides so much. The routes I’ve been riding with her are all trails I’ve ridden before over the years and know, and I’m amazed at how easily the miles go by on her. Not only does she cover ground well (I’m having to learn to re-calibrate my internal odometer), she’s both physically and mentally comfortable for me to ride. Bringing her home has definitely been a learning process, with some ups and downs along the way, but I’m feeling really good about where we’re both at, and where we go from here.