I think I am officially at the, “If at first you don’t succeed, try, try (try-try-try-try-try) again” point. The short version: we went all 50 miles…and got pulled at the finish when she was off on the left front.
At the time, the working theory, after talking with one of the vets later in the afternoon and him assessing her, was she was footsore — she looked worse trotting out without her boots on, and I had made a potentially major user error and trimmed her only two days before the ride. I also didn’t do a great job of taking down her bars enough on one side, so that may have been a contributing factor.
Needless to say, with two pulls in a row, my anxiety is rather high once again. Our next ride is next weekend up in Flagstaff, and right now, I’m questioning everything. The part of me that hates failure is kind of ready to throw in the towel on the whole thing rather than risk another pull. And then the other part of my brain has no patience for that kind of thinking. I don’t know whether to believe “third time’s a charm” or “three strikes, you’re out.” My brain feels like a pinball machine cranked up to 12. The last couple of weeks have also been a stress-y, so that’s not helping.
In the meantime, while I suss out my endurance existential meltdown, I should probably talk about the previous ride from last month…which was pretty fantastic, right up until the moment it wasn’t, and I keep trying to remind myself that horses don’t know or care about things like records or official finishes…all the mare knows is that she went 50 miles, and that I was and am super proud of and pleased with her.
Arizona’s spring weather can best be described as “mercurial” (or via the meme of “You can’t fit all four seasons in one week.” ARIZONA: “Hold my beer and watch this.”) and while it was a month between rides, rather than a week, we went from the 27* and blizzarding of Old Pueblo to a predicted high of 87* and sunny for Bumble Bee. Well, both my mare and I are native-born Arizonans, so we should be able to cope with heat better than the cold…
I hit the road bright and early Friday morning to beat the heat, the worst of the Phoenix traffic, and to have plenty of time to relax and enjoy being in camp. My friend Cathy (my Tevis 2019 crewing rider) had saved me a spot in camp, and we had made plans ahead of time to ride together, or at least start together to give Liberty a steady, consistent-pacing friend to model herself after, versus constantly trying to hook onto and speed off with some of the faster-traveling horses like she kept trying to do at Old Pueblo.
That “rough road” sign was no joke. The dirt road into Bumble Bee was as bad as I’ve ever seen in, with the washboard worn down to the “can’t be graded smooth anymore” bare rock, largely due in part to the offroad vehicles discovering that area. I crawled along at 5mph in 4WD Low in some areas, and it still didn’t help avoid the massive vibrations and rattling. A week or so after the ride, I ended up needing to take the truck in for some major “hind end work” — that road was the last straw on the u-joints and one of the axles.
I had plenty of time to leisurely set up camp and visit with friends before heading over to check in, and then shortly thereafter, vet in. Liberty was really well-behaved for vetting, and she seemed to enjoy wandering around camp, sampling water troughs and socializing. It got pretty warm in the afternoon, so I opted to hang out in the shade with friends until the temperature dropped a little before before heading out for a short pre-ride ahead of dinner and ride briefing.
I slept pretty well for a pre-ride night, and was up early enough to go through my ride morning routine without feeling rushed. I’ve gotten away from doing any kind of morning feeds or concentrates for Liberty, so she got half a flake of grass hay and a small handful of alfalfa, just so she felt like she got “something” for breakfast.
I had plenty of time ahead of the start to walk Liberty around and get her warmed up, and Cathy and I headed out just about mid-pack at the start. I was so impressed with how much Liberty has matured over the years. This ride start was the one that, seven years ago, it took us almost 20 minutes to creep through the barnyard and all of its scary tools and machinery, and past the pen of equinivorous goats. (The goats have since passed on, but there are still some dogs in the pen.) This time, she sauntered right past everything, focused only on “get out to the trail.” This was also the same ride start location that she had crow-hopping fits on a couple of occasions, necessitating a lot of brain schooling and slow starts.
Well, it was worth taking the time way back when to address some of those issues, because I saw the payoff of that happen this weekend. Between the inherent age that comes with maturity, and her having positive learning experiences previously, she was straight to business on this morning, striding out at a working trot and only focused on moving out down the trail. Of course, we have now entered the stage of “pace negotiations,” where she thinks she is a lot fitter and can go a lot faster than she needs to at this point.
Fortunately, riding with Cathy was giving us a good “steadiness anchor” and we alternated back and forth with leading and following. The trail for the first 10 miles or so of this ride can be pretty fast, and it would have been all too easy to let her get swept up in zipping along at a faster pace and burn herself out too soon, when my goal was “finish with some gas in the tank.”
My favorite part of the course is along the Black Canyon Trail — it’s single track and winds along the foothills, twisting in and out and up and down. It’s super-fun, and I’ve always had a blast with Liberty in this section. She is super handy and absolutely loves single-track trail herself…I just sit back and let her do her thing.
The BCT section is about 7 miles long, and spits you out into this fun little wash/creek that runs alongside Bumble Bee Ranch. There is typically at least some water in there, which makes for a really fun and novel experience of splashing through the water.
Liberty had started drinking back around mile 10 at one of the cow troughs along the way, but when we hit the troughs set up outside of camp, she parked herself at them and spent several minutes tanking up. I lost track of how much she was drinking, but it was enough to necessitate a few minutes of walking after she was done, lest she start sloshing her way down the trail. I wasn’t sure what to expect at this point — previously, we had done the LD at the ride a couple of times, and the loop one trail veered into camp at the troughs. This time, the 50-milers loop one continued on and came into camp the longer, back way around…and I wouldn’t have been surprised to get a bit of a “but camp is that way” mutiny on my hands.
Color me pleasantly shocked when I pointed her up the wash and she kept cheerfully trucking, barely even sparing a glance back at camp. Although we had quite a few discussions along the way of this first loop, negotiating with her to keep the pace reasonable, and that she would not be tailgating on Cathy’s mare whenever we were following, I was rather thrilled with her cheerful, forward attitude. Having had numerous “pedal” moments at some of our early rides, I much prefer this version of her.
The vet check and hold was back in camp in-between loops, and I was fortunate enough to have Cristina offer to come by for part of the day and crew for me during the hold. I’m getting really spoiled by having crew at the last couple of rides! She met us as we came into camp, and because it was getting warm, we did strip tack (it was optional at this ride, but I’ve already played the “large, dark horse in the sun” game and knew it would probably be beneficial to pull her saddle off…especially if I had a crew to help schlep it around.
In the couple minutes that it took to pull the saddle, let her drink, and slosh some water on her, Liberty’s pulse was down, so we headed over to P&R, and from there, vetting. I forgot to take a picture of the vet card, but I want to say her pulse was something like 52, and all As from what I remember. Tons of energy still, and a very nice trot-out.
Cristina got Liberty all settled with a sloppy mash, and even sponged her all clean, while I got my own lunch, and changed into a short-sleeve shirt for the warmer afternoon. I even had time to do a quick tack change of swapping out bits, ditching the (hated) running martingale, and pulling out a clean saddle pad. I have to say, I do love the convenience aspect of in-camp checks, having everything right there, and not having to pack a crew bag.
The hour hold flew by pretty quick, and then Cathy and I were on our way on loop 2. The first part of the loop is definitely slow-going. Called the “Miner Bob Loop” for the miner who holds one of the mining claims partway through the loop, the trail spends part of the loop winding in and out of another wash/stream, with a lot of rocks and rough footing. There are also a couple of sizable climbs along the way. It’s not a place you can ever make time, so the ride strategy is to trot whenever you have a clear area; otherwise, walk the rocks.
Fortunately, the Miner Bob loop is only a portion of the whole second loop (about 9 miles), and with the number of water crossings we had, the horses stayed well-hydrated. With only a couple miles to go on the loop, Cathy ended up slowing down and sending me on ahead — she was concerned about the toll the rocks were taking on her mare, who was starting to feel footsore, so she was going to wait at the next accessible point along the trail for her husband to bring her a pair of boots with pads in them. But in the meantime, she didn’t want me slowed up, so she waved me on and insisted that I keep going.
With only minor encouragement, Libby left her trail buddy behind, and we forged onward by ourselves. I really enjoyed riding with Cathy — we get along well, and always have a ton to talk about — but I also cherish my solo time with my mare. I’ve had some of the best moments with her when we’ve been by ourselves on the trail, and this ride was no exception. We caught up to and ended up passing one small group of horses, and from that point on, all the way into the finish, we had the trail to ourselves.
The same seven-mile stretch of the BCT that we came down in the morning, we now were heading up. It’s a deceptive uphill grade, and a lot of the trail is pretty easy to move out on and forget you’re constantly going uphill. But being by ourselves, I was able to get a feel for where she was at physically and mentally, and I was blown away by her good life choices. She knew exactly when to dial it back, and when to pick up, when to give herself a break, and when to keep cruising. I barely touched my reins through this section, and still felt so in tune with her.
It was definitely still warm out, although fortunately we had a really nice breeze, and that was a major help in the evaporative cooling angle. Several times I reached down to touch her neck or shoulder and was surprised by how she felt — with her dark coat and larger size, I fully expected her to retain a lot of heat but between the breeze and her own pace regulating, she was doing a great job of shedding heat and keeping herself comfortable.
She continued to drink like a fish through this entire loop, and got quite indignant when I made her bypass one trough on the way back to camp because it had a dozen cows surrounding it. (There was another trough only a mile down the trail, but she was quite miffed at the bovine blockade.)
I was so pleased with her attitude the whole way back to camp. She was still cheerful and happy to move out, and I was letting her set the pace — walk breaks when she wanted, pick up again when she was ready. Something that I found absolutely fascinating was my own mental state when I was out there — I never hit a wall myself. I never found myself thinking, “Ugh, I just want to be done. Ugh, how much further do we have?”
Now, I know some of that was a conscious choice to keep my own spirits up — she is such a sensitive, intuitive horse who is so tuned in to me, that I knew if I let myself start thinking that way, it would likely lead to her doing the same thing. This would be the furthest she had ever gone (although, 42 miles at Old Pueblo, so this wouldn’t be too much longer…) and I wasn’t sure if at some point she would decide, “What the heck are we doing out here still…” so I wanted to make sure I wasn’t going to I wasn’t inadvertently contributing to that.
The other thing was, I was genuinely enjoying myself. I love riding this horse so much. I was relishing the time out there by ourselves, I knew we still had plenty of time left on the clock and didn’t have to rush in, and I was in no hurry to end our day. (I fully admit there have been some horses and some rides that I could not wait for it to be over.) Honestly, that sort of thing hasn’t happened to me very much at rides. There’s typically at least some point along the way that I feel totally over it, and if some magic ride fairy wanted to snap her fingers and teleport me and my horse back to the trailer, I would be quite okay with it. But this time…not the case. Mentally, I was feeling good; physically, I was feeling good.
We made our way back in to camp, finishing somewhere around 4:15 after a 6am start. Minus the one hour hold, that put us at a ride time of 9:15, which I was very happy with for the goal of “finish the 50 with gas in the tank and don’t run the clock down.”
By the time I hopped off, loosened the girth, and sponged her neck while she tanked up, her pulse was down, and we headed over to vet. Parameters were all great…until it came to the trot-out. Never mind she had trotted into camp feeling totally even…some time in that maybe ten minutes between coming in to camp and vetting, she was now off on the left front.
Further consulting with one of the other vets later that afternoon netted the strong possibility that what we were seeing was foot soreness/stone bruise since she was worse without her boots on. And here’s the part where I admit I screwed up: like I mentioned at the start of this tale, I trimmed her on Thursday before the ride. I got overambitious and took off probably more than I should in an attempt to correct some wayward hoof balance issues…and also got sloppy in not taking off enough bar on…guess where? That left front. I mean, I know better…my rule has always been no trimming any closer than the weekend before a ride. (Which means I do some minor touch-ups this weekend and then the rasp gets buried out of sight.)
At the time, I was bummed by not officially completing, but overwhelmingly pleased with how well she had done all day. I was blown away by how mentally strong she was, and she had taken excellent care of herself all day long with eating and drinking. I did a good job of holding up my end of the deal in terms of being an active participant — I got off and walked down some of the rocky downhill spots, I got off and electrolyted her along the way multiple times, I took care of myself, and had so much fun.
The few things that didn’t work:
– Her leg wraps (the hinds were down around her pasterns like little bracelets versus protecting her fetlocks — first time using them and I didn’t get them snug enough, so had to correct that partway through the first loop; and the front splint boots rubbed the backs of her fetlocks — not raw or sore, but took the hair off in a couple of spots).
– My own feet were sore afterwards and it took about a week to get full feeling back in a couple of little toes (this is the second time this has happened and I’m wondering if it’s my own boots, which are heavier and have a narrower toe box than the other Terrains I’ve worn previously).
– Running martingale — I used it on the first loop because I didn’t want a repeat of Old Pueblo, where she emulated an inverted llama…but she hates it. Much fussing and protest, even with it rigged very loose. I took it off on loop 2 and she was much better. I don’t know whether that’s because she had 25-ish miles under her girth, or she was happy without the martingale, but I think I’m going to give it a try going without again at Flagstaff…or maybe start with it and drop it as soon as I can out on the trail versus waiting to get back to camp.
– Itchy/rubbing. She wants to rub and itch on everything, so that’s a work in progress. Especially things like water troughs, buckets, or me when I’m standing there trying to get her pulsed down or vetted through.
– The previously-discussed trimming/soreness
– Not actually getting a completion. Honestly…finish line pulls suck, there is just no other way around it.
Immediately after the ride, I was riding the high of how well she had done…but of course, after a month of having too much time to dwell on my own thoughts, I start second-guessing myself and doubting myself. I know everyone has failures, and pulls, and plenty of steep learning curves along the way, and I’m not unique in this regard. I obviously really love this crazy sport, though, because I can’t think of too many other things I would persistently pursue with this level of relentless whack-a-mole tendencies, regardless of some of the less-than-stellar outcomes. And that, my friends, is the magic of endurance.
Anyway, keep fingers and hooves crossed for us that next weekend at Flagstaff will be “third time’s a charm.”
A bit of a placeholder while I work on my Bumble Bee write-up, which is extensive as usual. April marks my anniversary month with Liberty as far as “the first time I rode her” goes. It was at the Prescott Chaparral ride in 2013, and you can read that particular story here.
It’s hard to believe it’s been eight years since I first met her, and that much time has gone by…but at the same time, I also feel like I’ve know her for a lifetime with how comfortable and connected I am with her. Which is kind of remarkable given that it’s not even been a full year since I brought her home, and prior to that, I only rode her on 5 different occasions over the course of three separate years.
The differences of then and now crack me up — she was balking at the photographer, and “forward” was very much not in her vernacular, instead being perfectly content to casually mosey through our rides. (The plus side of this was she never learned a race brain.) Now…she has learned to show off and put her best hoof forward, loves seeing the photographers on trail, and 25 miles into the 50-miler at Bumble Bee, we were still having some negotiations as to speed and that we were not going to go as fast as she was offering to go.
I love that she had such a low-key, easy upbringing, because it’s resulted in a horse that has a phenomenal brain, has handled everything I’ve thrown at her without batting an eye, and has no significant “baggage” that has to be undone. There are still things she’s learning but she’s a blank enough slate and such a quick study that it takes almost no time for her to catch on and figure out a concept.
The other funny thing is the only thing that has remained consistent between the two photos is her boot color. Everything — from tack color and setup to saddle and saddle pad, my own gear, even my hair color — has changed over that period of time. She’s gone from soft and fluffy to sleek and fit. And as for myself…in the first photo, I see an impatient, insecure control freak of a rider who opted for the “pony club kick” methodology of communication…versus someone whose main goal now is softness and effective communication. While I’ve always looked to improve myself and my horsemanship over the years, this horse has done more, in the shortest amount of time, to make me grow as a horsewoman, and I feel like our partnership only keeps improving as we forge ahead together.
“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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Nothing like a bit of snow, ice, and wind to put stuff to the test…
– 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.
– 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
When I go back to some of my previous years’ posts, or some of my social media posts from February’s past, I can only conclude that many times, it really isn’t my month as far as what I plan and what actually happens and that things tend to go off the rails more often than not.
We were supposed to have been at the Wickenburg ride this weekend. Except a week and half ago, Liberty came up with a very snotty nose and cough, and bloodwork suggested a likely minor viral thing. No idea how she picked it up, as the last time she was in a public setting with numerous strange horses was a solid month and half ago.
I think we’re on the tail end of that, and still hopefully looking ahead to the Old Pueblo ride in Sonoita in a couple of weeks.
I’m bummed out over missing the ride — our season is definitely off to a slow start compared to what I had planned. We had a conflict with the Tonto Twist ride in January, but it was for riding in the Mark Rashid/Jim Masterson collaborative clinic, which was amazing experience and definitely worth missing a ride for, so I don’t feel bad about that. But no one likes a sick pony, so that’s not a fun reason to have to cancel ride plans.
Can we just have gotten all of the crap out of the way early on in the season? Too much to hope for?