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:

December

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.

January

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.

February

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.

March

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.

April

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.

May

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.

June-Sept

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.

October

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.

November

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

2021 Endurance Rider Gift Guide

My biennial blog tradition of posting a gift guide of suggestions for endurance riders, now in its 4th incarnation (2015, 2017, 2019). I probably should have posted this back in…oh, say, September, given the state of supply chain shenanigans and transit delays…and the fact that the big Black Friday sales just passed…but oh well. If things are late, hand wave it away as “extended Christmas.”

Also possibly not helpful is that half the stuff I’ve loving right now comes out of Australia, which isn’t exactly “Amazon Prime level of shipping speed.” So maybe just use this guide, or parts of it, for 2022.

My previous guides are still mostly-relevant — there are a few items that are outdated or companies that have since closed, but for the most part, links should still be good and the ideas still applicable.

So what am I loving this year?

I love these flexible tubs/buckets. Formerly called TubTrugs, they are now marketed under RedGorillaUSA but they’re still the same product. I have everything from the small feed pans up to the XL jumbo size tub and have slowly been replacing my accumulation of metal-handled, hard plastic buckets with these. I love that they are virtually indestructible, and there’s almost no way for a horse to injure themselves on one.

I’m still loving my PK Saddle! I’ve got the first one to ever hit US soil…so far…but I’m slowly and surely introducing people to it wherever we go. I’m not a rep, or dealer…rather, think of me as an “ambassador” for them. So far we’ve done a 25 and 50, and I love the ability to adjust the cushions on the underside as Liberty changes shape. It’s been the best saddle to date for me to ride in as far as my own position, and while it is primarily designed to be used as an endurance saddle, I’ve done some slower, walk-only trail rides in it too and still stayed comfortable. It’s also ridiculously lightweight…I think fully mounted with straps and stirrups it weighs under 7 pounds. I’m really impressed with the quality of it as well, and it’s an excellent value for the money. They currently run $1800AUD, and the exchange rate between here and Australia is in our favor at the moment, so it comes out to just under $1300 USD.

On another saddle-related note…True Grit Endurance Packs! These are the best packs I’ve used, and I never thought I would find something better than my beloved SnugPax. The maker of them, Marcelle Hughes, is a friend of mine, and she does beautiful, innovative work. She’s come up with some very clever ways to attach packs to ensure they don’t bounce, and even on my super-minimalist saddle, she was able to come up with a way to keep everything really secure and stable. She’s got pommel packs, cantle packs, and boot bags currently, with different pocket configurations available on the pommel and cantle bags. I also love supporting a small, Made in the USA business.

This one might seem silly on the surface, but bear with me. BruMate travel mugs are the best. Especially their ‘Muv’ collection that has a special leak-proof lid…and I can vouch for its leak-proofness. I have more insulated travel mugs than you can count (seriously, I could outfit an entire travel caravan, probably), and regularly put them to the test in my determination to make as few trips between the house and the truck as possible (yes, as a matter of fact, I can carry a saddle, my gear bag, a small cooler, a water bottle, and my travel mug all at the same time). I also don’t really have a proper drink holder in my truck that the above-style mug fits into, so it sits on my center console, and on more than one occasion, has merrily gone flying off the console…and as long as I’ve flipped the lid back in place, I haven’t had a single drop spill. So this has become my go-to to-go mug, for everything from morning coffee to ridecamp beverages. I’ve dropped it on the sidewalk, tossed it around in my camping gear, had Liberty knock it off the trailer fender, and it’s still going strong. They also come in a huge array of funky colors and designs, and would be an excellent addition to one’s trailer and/or camping gear.

Gas cards. Getting to endurance rides means traveling, and that means gas. And with pump prices currently looking like a bad repeat nightmare of a decade ago, this is the kind of present that will definitely endear you to your favorite endurance rider.

Ride entry (or clinic, or lesson). When you can’t think of “stuff” to get your favorite endurance rider, this is a solid go-to option. Eventually most of us reach the point where we don’t necessarily need more gear (whhuuuuutttt?!?) but we usually have rides planned on our schedules, and having an entry covered would be an excellent gift.

Bombers Bits are my most recent bit obsession. I’ve gone through quite a few bits trying to find one Liberty likes, and through plenty of trial and error, testing, and feedback from Bombers, I think I’m on the right track with finding something that is working. I love that every single one of these bits are handmade. They have an excellent design philosophy regarding pressure/resistance, and trying to create something that works with the least amount of pressure while still affording effective communication. They have dozens of different mouthpiece designs and cheekpiece options, and different mouthpiece materials (sweet iron, titanium, and even some composite/synthetic offerings), so between all of that, as well as huge array of different sizes, and mouthpiece thicknesses, you can basically order a bespoke bit. Prices are also really reasonable for all of that, and I have had phenomenal experiences in working with their customer service. They are super knowledgeable, and can give advice on good starting points, as well as “where to go from here based on the horse’s feedback of option a, b, c, etc.” They are based in South Africa, and it usually does take anywhere from 2-6 weeks to receive an order (shorter time period if they happen to have it in stock, longer time period if it has to be made). But I feel like they are well worth it, for the craftsmanship, quality, and service. They’re also one of the few that offer titanium, which I’ve narrowed down as Liberty’s material of choice.

Yes, I really like socks. The household joke is “Adulting is when you intentionally put socks on your Christmas list.” In this case, Pacas are my new favorite. Made from an alpaca wool blend, they are ridiculously soft, warm, and so comfortable.

Long, flowing Arabian manes are beautiful…but the behind-the-scenes is how much work it is to maintain those long, flowing locks. The Knotty Horse line of products has been fabulous for managing Liberty’s mane and tail. It smells absolutely delicious, doesn’t seem to attract dirt, isn’t sticky, but also is fast-absorbing so doesn’t leave behind a greasy oil slick.

Tailing lines! These little numbers are so handy on the trail. Light enough to clip to the halter and back to your saddle — although I usually just stuff it in my pack and pull it out when needed — less stuff dangling or attached to the horse. Great if you need to tie your horse along the way, or at an out vet check. I’ve also taken to using one to vet in (on a well-mannered horse) because they are so lightweight, there’s no heavy snap or heavy knot bouncing against the horse’s chin. You can even make your own — simple enough to do out of yacht rope or climbing rope (9-10′ of rope, usually 1/4″ or 5/16″ thickness) and a scissor snap or carabiner.

Sponge bag/sponge. I like some kind of meshy sponge bag and a natural sea sponge. The sea sponges absorb water faster without having to be pre-soaked, and the bag helps hold the whole thing together, protects it from thorny/spiky desert vegetation, and gives a little extra scrubbing power for getting sweat/dirt off. My personal favorites (pictured above, that are no longer made) came from Trail-Rite and were made of the same mesh fabric as their hay mangers. I still have (and use!) the original sponge bag I got in the mid-2000s, which I used for years with Mimi. I’ve replaced the inner sponge a couple of times but the mesh bag is still going strong. But there are plenty of other places that have some kind of sponge-in-a-bag set-up, too — most of the distance gear suppliers will carry them.

Bestest ponies deserve cookies! Hygain is my feed of choice for the mares and they both gobble up the Smoochies cookies.

Some kind of reading material for Christmas is pretty traditional around here, and I can’t think of a better offering for a horse-crazy audience of any age. Gallant: The Call of the Trail is the first book in the series, and you can check out my review here for even more details.

I have a bit of a reputation for being the Queen of Gear/Stuff, so I hope my experimentation and testing of different things ends up being useful, or you netted one or two good ideas out of this list!

Winterlight and Dressage Lessons

“Winterlight” is the title of a fiction novel I’m currently reading — the most recent in the ‘Green Rider’ book series, and well worth a read for anyone who likes horses and fantasy (and books that are thick enough to double as doorstops). But as it turns out, I absolutely love the phrase “winter light” as a descriptor. It’s perfect for this time of year here. In the summer, everything is bleached out, and the light is harsh and glaring. But in the fall and as we move into winter? The light is softer, more colors can be seen, and we have some truly spectacular sunrises and sunsets.

The Superstitions in particular tend to look rather spectacular this time of year, and I end up taking so many photos to try to capture the interesting light. (Thank goodness for digital pictures and cloud storage.) I’ve spent the last couple of weekends playing out in the Superstitions, so I’m getting my fill of beautiful mountain scenery.

Two weekends ago saw Liberty and I taking our first actual formal riding lesson together. I was given the chance to take a lesson with Tessa Nicolet of Cohesive Horsemanship, and I am so glad I jumped on the opportunity. Tessa blends natural horsemanship principles with principles of Classical French dressage, building a relationship with your horse based on trust, confidence, and mutual respect. She has a teaching style that resonates well with me, and I was surprised at how much ground we covered in a one-hour session. I think this will be really helpful in cross-training, and building a more solid framework for Liberty in how to most effectively use her body. It’s also really valuable insight and know-to for me, teaching me the actual mechanics and how-to’s behind ideas and principles that I’ve grasped in theory but didn’t know how to go about putting into practice.

Sorry, for the “pics or it didn’t happen” crowd, I don’t happen to have any media of our lesson. Maybe not a bad thing while the Hot Mess Express is still coming together. I will definitely be signing up for future lessons to keep successfully building on this foundation. The “eyes on the ground” formal lessons are also super-helpful for me — not just for the immediate feedback and instruction element, but because I have gotten so out of the habit of doing arena stuff, and so bored/undisciplined about it when I do. (This is so ironic. I used to never want to leave the arena.) It also helps to have another set of eyes to work on my position, which has also greatly suffered from the lack of formal schooling in the last number of years.

I hadn’t realized how much I had actually missed taking some kind of formal lesson, and it makes me really excited for future lessons and unearthing a whole bunch of new things to keep learning.