After-Action Report: Jingle Bell Trot

A week post-ride, and Liberty is looking and feeling fantastic. Something I am being cognizant about with her being older is the critical importance of recovery time. I know in humans, recovery takes longer as we age, and while I don’t know if that rings exactly true in horses, it does make sense that it may. The Estrella terrain is also very rugged, and there’s just no getting around the fact it’s one of those rides that tends to beat horses up a bit with the footing. Given all that, I’m giving her some extra down-time post-ride — all part of that foundation laying and forming solid building blocks of conditioning.

I was very happy with how she looked this weekend — legs are tight (actually looking even better than when I brought her home), body is overall good (some cursory bodywork showed some tightness in the loins and SI, but that’s not surprising given that we’re still building that topline), and attitude is fantastic. She is super playful, especially for a mare, and she kept grabbing my hoof stand and waving it around like it was a traffic cone or something yesterday. (Fortunately it’s a plastic base type of stand, especially when she decided to fling it across the aisle at one point. I think someone will be getting a proper horse toy for Christmas. Or a traffic cone.)

photo by John Kordish

I’m really thrilled with how the ride went overall. My main goals were finish in time with a sound horse. So to finish with a comfortable time buffer, still having to rate back Miss Enthusiastic, with all A’s across the board the entire time of movement, makes me absolutely thrilled.

There were just a couple of minor things I need to address or could have done better on.

  • The biggest was hind end interfering. She never interfered in the past that I could see, so I’m not sure what has changed. I left her slightly long on her trim, with the intention being to prove a little extra hoof material there for protection against the rocks, or if she pitched a boot off. However, it might have ended up being a little too long, since she was interfering on the sides of her boots, as well as up on her fetlocks. It may also have been we’re going at a faster pace than what we’ve done in the past, and it may be part of the building condition process, that she’s going to knock herself a bit as that topline is getting better built up and she carries herself even better.
  • To that end, I’m still going to start running her with hind interference ankle boots for added protection.
  • She’s still not great at being syringed. Better than before, but my elyte mix was salty enough that after one squirt of it, she was no longer doing her “grab for the syringe” trick. So, work in progress.
  • More proactive cooling. She’s one of the larger, bigger-bodied horses I’ve ridden, not to mention a dark color. Her pulse hung at the finish for a couple minutes, and I didn’t do much aside from taking her over to the troughs to drink. I probably could have pulled tack and sponged her, but I’m always reluctant to dump my saddle in the dirt. Hindsight being what it was, since we had to go by the trailer to get to the finish anyway, I could have swung in and dropped the saddle on the saddle rack first. Ah, well, something to remember for the future.
  • Along that same line, I didn’t bother to bring my folding cart, because it was an away check, so I figured I didn’t need the cart to haul stuff around the trailer. Wrong. That would have definitely come in handy for hauling water, and the manure bucket. Something to explore in the future is, provided there is room at the finish in an out-of-the-way area, setting up my own mini self-crewing area with my cart, so I can comfortably pull tack and have a spot to put it.
  • I don’t think she likes orchard grass pellets as much as her previous oat/alfalfa blend. She loves wet beet pulp but wasn’t as crazy about wet pellet mush.
  • Personally…I need to get back on some kind of gym/fitness track. This isn’t a year-end/new year’s resolution…it’s just an actual fact. The pounds started slowly creeping up on me again, and I could stand to lose a few more of them. Riding more helps, but I definitely benefit from doing some kind of work-out activity/routine. Just because I’m riding a larger horse who can carry the weight isn’t a free excuse for me to not try to keep my weight category as light as possible. We’re not going fast enough at this point to worry about standing for BC, either, so extra pounds aren’t any benefit.
photo by Susan Kordish

Gear Rundown:

  • Zilco Endurance Bridle (Add-On Headstall style)
  • Fager Bit, ‘Nils’ model with baby fulmer cheekpieces
  • Wild West Endurance mohair reins
  • Zilco Ultra-Light Endurance Breastcollar
  • Frank Baines ‘Reflex’ monoflap dressage saddle
  • Archer Equine saddle pad
  • Total Saddle Fit Slim Stability Stirrup Leathers
  • Total Saddle Fit synthetic waffle girth with sheepskin cover
  • True Grit Endurance Outfitters pommel bag
  • Renegade Hoof Boots
  • PerformaRide tights
  • LAS helmet
  • Roeckl ‘Miami’ gloves
  • Ariat Terrain boots/half chaps

No complaints in any of the gear department, aside from the aforementioned “need to figure out why she’s interfering” since that took a toll on her hind boots (and her fetlocks). She’s been super-tricky to find a bit for, but I think I’ve found a couple of different models from Fager Bits that she’s very responsive to, and these are definitely my new favorite go-to for bits.

For now, the Frank Baines saddle is working. I really like it as a saddle — gorgeous leather, and the deep seat and big knee rolls make it nice for extra security. But it’s also nice enough I almost feel bad about using it as an endurance saddle sometimes (hence my reluctance to pull tack and dump such a nice saddle in the dirt). Eventually, I may consider looking at different saddle options (at 14 pounds, this one is the lightest saddles I own, but I would kind of like something even lighter, and some of the minimalist options intrigue me), but for now, I’ll stick to what I’ve got unless it becomes a problem.

For here, we’ll be aiming our sights on a 50. I wanted to do the LD for my own confidence, to know that we could do it after our string of early struggles. To have her finish so strongly gives me the confidence that it was a good stepping stone and that we’re on the right path.

Virtual Tevis Finish

Partway through the Jingle Bell Trot ride, Liberty and I racked up enough miles to finish the Virtual Tevis this year.

May it be a precursor of the real thing to come one day.

I didn’t do a very good job reporting miles here on the blog as we went along, or detailing out the rest of the individual milestones and checkpoints. On the real thing, the only section I haven’t seen is the section out of Robinson Flat, through the first canyon and to Devil’s Thumb (just before Deadwood). From Devil’s Thumb to the finish, I’ve seen the entire rest of the way, and the first 36 miles, so there’s a chunk of 16 or so miles that I’m missing.

This was such a good project for Liberty and myself to get started with, and lay a good conditioning foundation. I’m so glad the WSTF came up with this alternative for this year, and from what I’ve seen online, it sounds like it was really well-received and popular.

Climbing at Groom Creek a few years ago.
Cougar Rock practice?

Ride Story: Jingle Bell Trot 25 2020

Her rolling canter swept us over the sandy terrain, wind whispering past my ears, the only sounds her rhythmic snorts in time with her hoofbeats skimming over the ground. Worries, anxieties, politics, drama, the mess that most of 2020 has been…all seemed a world away as I thought of nothing but being in that moment, totally in tune with my magnificent, brave war mare...

photo by John Kordish, AZ Cowgirl Photography

I first met Liberty in April of 2013. She belonged to my bosses at Renegade Hoof Boots, Kirt and Gina Lander. She had been specifically bred by them to be an endurance horse (her Shagya Arabian sire Janos was a 100-mile endurance horse in the USA before being exported to Japan and her dam is a racebred [SW Dawid and Kontiki], track-proven Arabian), and at the time, was a coming 7-yr-old. Gina brought her to the Prescott Chaparral ride for me to catch-ride in the LD alongside her and her Kiger Mustang. We took it slow and steady, but finished the ride with about 15 minutes to spare, and had a fabulous day. My first time climbing on her back was about 10 minutes before the ride start, and from the second my butt hit the saddle, I knew.

I experienced the same click with her that I had with Mimi, so many years ago. I’d ridden a lot of horses between those times, and she was the first horse since Mimi to have that same kind of instant connection. Despite her inexperience, I trusted her immediately, and she went on to prove that trust wasn’t misplaced that day. She showed me then that she was brave, smart, self-preserving, and had heart. As we were making our way back to camp to finish the ride, we were leading through a large sand wash. We were in the lead, her strides comfortably carrying us a distance out in front of her short-striding mustang buddy, and in that moment, I never felt so connected, so one, with a horse. She effortlessly skimmed across the sand in the most gloriously smooth trot I had ever felt, mane blowing back in my face, locked on the trail and moving forward but still in tune with me on her back. To this day, that moment still gives me chills, knowing how connected we were.

At the end of the weekend, we went our separate ways, Liberty back to the Kingman ranch and myself back to suburbia, but with plans for Gina to bring the horses to as many of the AZ rides as we could manage in the foreseeable future.

Before this goes much further, I have to interrupt with a bit of relevant backstory. Just because I connected so well with Mimi right away didn’t mean it was all rainbow-farting unicorns from thereon out. The complete opposite, in fact. We had a delightful first show together, garnering several blue ribbons…and then it went straight downhill from there, with an opportunistic young pony trying to figure out just how much advantage she could take of her young, small, not-very-brave rider, and it took us a couple of years to fully pull ourselves together and once again present a unified front to the world.

Well, history repeats itself. The next several outing with Liberty were rather unspectacular failures. The Bumble Bee ride in 2014 saw us coming in overtime, a combination of “rider (me) couldn’t get her crap together in the morning and so left out of camp late,” some young horse brain training moments (quite a few of those — she didn’t want to follow her riding buddy without crow-hopping, but she also wasn’t feeling brave enough to lead), and some equipment malfunctions of the boot variety with Gina’s horse. I added up all the lost time, and it came up to pretty much the amount of time we were over. Ah, well. Chalk that up to a learning experience, and a good training ride.

2015 was a wash for me when my truck went down for the count, so 2016 was the next time we paired off, once again at Bumble Bee. This time, still cognizant of our overtime pull, we left camp right with the pack and hit the trail right on time, and she wasn’t nearly as inclined to do happy feet antics that required stopping to sort out the brain. Not wanting to get caught on time, I set a smart pace, and was really impressed with how she responded. For her size, she is very agile and athletic, and can accordion herself up and zip through some very technical terrain almost as well as the go-kart pony, so we covered ground and made some good time on the Black Canyon Trail singletrack portion of the course. Unfortunately, I think the pace was probably a little more than what she was conditioned for, though, because as we were coming into camp off the loop, she was startled and spooked from behind, popping up and landing pretty hard, and then was subsequently off on the hind when vetting. Whatever it was turned out to be minor, since she was totally sound the next day, and I still don’t know the exact cause, whether she did the equine equivalent of stepping off the curb and rolling her ankle, or a cramp in already-tired muscles from the sudden jolting movement.

We took a shot at redemption the following month at the newly-resurrected Wickenburg Land of the Sun ride, and right from the get-go, the weekend was a bit of a comedy of errors, starting with her stepping on me during our trot-out and moving on to equipment challenges (boots and headgear), mystery lamenesses (she started head bobbing at the trot and it turned out her front boots had gotten filled with sand and the captivators were super-tight and making her uncomfortable, so pulled them off, only to have Yankee crowd her and step on one of her hinds, leaving her hopping and leg flailing for several strides, so off the hind boots went, leaving her totally barefoot but sound), then Yankee fell over on a rock pile and got some thorns in his knee and fetlock, so Gina decided to walk him in and send us ahead…which was its own comedy routine right there, in which I could get Liberty to trot few hundred feet before she realized, “I’m leaving my buddy…not!” and slam on the brakes until he came in sight again, then would trot off again. Lather, rinse, repeat, until we finally were able to catch a tow from some friends on the 50, and then from there I was able to keep her rolling. But all of that added up, once again, to a ton of lost time, and although she put in a valiant effort on the second loop to make up the time, and I was really overall impressed with how brave she was by herself, we were never able to make up the time, especially given the trail wasn’t particularly conducive to productive moving out.

After that, I was feeling pretty discouraged with endurance in general, and specifically with Liberty. She might have been bred for endurance, but maybe she didn’t get the memo. I felt like a failure, like I had no business doing endurance, and the next couple of years yielded a few ups and quite a few more downs with ride finishes and attempts. It wasn’t until riding Flash at Bumble Bee in 2018 that I started to get my confidence back, and the ultimately four rides I ended up doing with him did more for me than any other horse I’ve ridden in endurance. He gave me courage and confidence, and taught me so much in a short period of time. What I didn’t realize at the time was how much what he was teaching me would end up carrying forward.

Because as it turns out, Flash and Liberty are a lot alike. They are both strong, dominant, proud, opinionated horses who want a partnership with their rider, with respect given to their input and opinions, and who want their rider to trust them. Liberty is the epitome of “discuss it with a mare,” and Flash is definitely not one of those gelding whom you “tell” anything. The time I spent riding Flash taught me a different way to approach horses — to not micromanage so much, and to let go and trust them more. I was definitely guilty of micromanaging Liberty (and most of the horses I’ve ridden) in the past. Some of that, to some degree, was necessary due to young horse brain needing guidance, but I got away with it because I interacted with her for such short time periods. When she became mine, that interaction changed to a lot more frequency, and her independent and strong mind isn’t happy under that kind of micro-managing pressure. But the more time I’ve spent with Liberty, the more readily apparent the similarities in personalities and dispositions became, and it really made me shift my approach with her, and I think we’ve both been overall the better for it.

With that sort of long history and a bit of baggage still hanging on, it’s probably understandable that I approached the weekend with some trepidation. While I had surmised that some of our past failures were due to the fact Liberty really hadn’t been in that fantastic of a shape other than “pasture shape,” and I had diligently been putting in both the conditioning miles and arena schooling on her since July, and she was coming off training rides feeling good…it remained to be seen just how things would come together and shake out at an actual ride again.

Given that it was (and is still) 2020, I was also holding my breath on even getting to the ride, since none of my ride plans this season had gone according to plan. Even up through Wednesday before the ride, I was fairly blase about the whole thing, and then Thursday morning I finally kicked it into gear and started pulling all my stuff together and packing.

What can I say? At this point, it’s become kind of tradition/habit to wash my tack in the bathtub.

With ridecamp only an hour and fifteen minutes away from the barn, it meant I didn’t have to roll out the door at o’dark-thirty in the morning, and instead could wait for the worst of the morning traffic to clear before hitting the road. A new portion of freeway made for much smoother and faster travel, shaving a solid 30 minutes off the typical trip out to Estrella Mountain Park, and I pulled into camp shortly after noon. I found a nice parking spot pretty centrally located to everything and across from a friend’s rig I recognized, got Liberty unloaded, started walking around camp, and had to pinch myself.

It had been over ten years since I had been to an endurance ride with my own rig, and my own horse. I retired Mimi in early spring of 2010, and since then, all of my endurance rides had been catch rides. It seemed surreal, and I had to keep reminding myself, “Yep, that’s my little trailer. Yep, this is my mare that is loudly bellowing her way through camp and announcing her presence to the world.” :) I was the one in the driver’s seat, the responsibility was on my shoulders now. And I couldn’t wait.

Chilling in camp. I was SO proud of how she did. Historically, she has excavated holes to China when tied at the trailer. This weekend, the ground was left as pristine as when we arrived. She was quiet, polite, and didn’t get into anything.

I had arrived with plenty of time to get camp all set up and get Liberty settled by the time the vets started to arrive, and I quickly got myself checked in, visited with some friends, and got Liberty brushed and booted for vetting in. She still doesn’t love having her mouth handled, but she was much better than in the past, and her trot-out was picture perfect, even earning a “beautiful trot-out” comment from the vet. (I’ve worked with her on this every single time I ride. We end every session, whether it’s a conditioning ride or arena school, with an in-hand trot-out, and consequently, she is learning beautiful manners and consistency.)

I debated on pre-riding that afternoon but ultimately decided it would probably be a good idea to saddle up (she was already booted anyway) and go out for a stretch and make sure all of our tack was in order and that the marbles were still firmly tucked inside her skull…especially since she hadn’t been ridden for about a week and half. She was a little bit squirmy for mounting, but once I was aboard she was pretty settled, only tossing in a few prancey-jiggy steps as we headed out of camp, but once on the trail she got right down to business. We warmed up for a few minutes, then I let her start slow trotting where it was appropriate, slowly bleeding off some of her energy, but mostly we walked, enjoying each other’s company and the peace and quiet of the Sonoran Desert in the late afternoon.

This was also the first time I’d taken her out by herself since I brought her home. Theoretically I knew she could do it — Gina had ridden her frequently by herself, and we did a good part of the Wickenburg ride by ourselves — but I hadn’t let myself be brave enough to try it until at the ride. And she blew me away. She was brave, curious, confident, settled, and I myself was totally comfortable and felt completely safe. I felt like we had been riding together for years, rather than a few months and a handful of prior moments. And the fact she can sit for a week and half and still be totally sane and not a fire-breathing dragon speaks volumes for her good brain.

She earned that golden halo glow on our pre-ride. It was at this point I think I finally let myself start to get more happy-excited than nervous.

Back at camp, I spent some more time visiting and catching up with friends I hadn’t seen for quite a while, then got Liberty tucked in for the night and fed. The inside of the trailer was set up as my nifty little feed and storage room — tack in one area, horse feed on one wall, human food & “kitchen” set-up on the other. It worked quite well and was a very efficient and convenient little set-up to work out of. Liberty quickly learned from whence food was dispensed, and proceeded to watch me through the trailer slats every time I went in there, in the hopes of procuring more goodies for herself.

The nosy hungry hippo hoping for more snacks.

With the bottomless pit of a mare taken care of for the evening, I made my own dinner, spent some more time visiting with friends and socializing, then finally tucked myself into my cozy nest made in the back of the suburban. An air mattress, sleeping bag, and fleece blankets make for a comfortable set-up that is out of the elements and pretty quiet, and the only downside is I can’t stand up to put my pants on in the morning…but that’s really the only con, and it definitely beats dealing with a tent.

Sleep actually came pretty easily for me for a pre-ride night, and I was up on my own a few minutes before my alarm went off at 5. Start time for the LD wasn’t until 8am, but I really don’t like being rushed in the morning, and this allowed me plenty of time to get up, get Liberty her breakfast and clean up after her, get my own coffee, then retreat back to the suburban and crank the heater on and get dressed once it was nice and toasty inside.

Historically, Liberty has been well-behaved for things like tacking up. Right from the get-go she impressed me with not being a squirmy young wiggle worm, and that good behavior has continued ever since, and improved in the department of booting and hind hoof handling the more I’ve done with her. The 50-milers started to gather, and then leave camp, but while she was curious about what was happening, she still stayed very calm and continued to munch her way through her breakfast hay while I started to tack her up. I had left myself plenty of time, so wasn’t rushed at all, and finally, with about 20 minutes to go before our own ride start, I started hand-walking her around camp to warm up. She was starting to get a bit more ‘up’ at this point — I think she knew it was our turn to head out – but she remained polite on the ground while we walked and visited with some people. It took a few minutes to get her settled enough to mount, but a very cross words had her standing quietly enough by the trailer fender for me to climb aboard, and to her credit, once I was in the saddle she was calm and polite…just wanted to move her feet.

The first part of the ride start is a controlled start down a paved road, which gave us a built-in warm-up, so I didn’t spend too much time in camp with a rigorous warm-up program. Doing too many circles around where everyone was starting to gather was making her brain a little bit fizzy, and she was calmer just by standing and watching.

Waiting for the ride start.

We headed out in about the middle of the pack at the start, and aside from a couple of attempted little jigging steps that were quickly dissuaded with some light rein taps, she was content to stride out at a nice walk the entire controlled start. Once we reached the actual trail, people started slowly spreading out, but almost immediately, the trail starts climbing, gaining several hundred feet in elevation in under half a mile, so a great way to chill out a horse who might be a bit overenthusiastic.

Photographers Sue and John Kordish were set up at the top of the climb, waiting for riders to start coming by.

photo by John Kordish

What goes up must come down, so as soon as we rounded the high point of the climb, we started down the other side, back to the valley floor and onward to the main part of the park trails. I have no clue if Liberty has ever been on true switchbacks before. She was very curious and a bit befuddled about the fact there were horses below her, traveling in the opposite direction, with no readily visible way to explain how they got down there. However, as soon as we turned the corner and started down the lower switchback, she seemed to make the connection. A couple glances up at the horses still above us satisfied the rest of her curiosity, and from that point on, I think she “got” switchbacks.

She was strong and forward, but rateable. There were plenty of horses in front of us, but she listened to my requests to keep the speed down and not do the big trot she seemed so eager to show off. We got passed by some of the front-running 50s, and I was so pleased with how she handled calmly moving off the trail and letting them zip by us. Again, she would have happily followed on their heels if I had let her, but she listened to my requests and kept trucking along at a steady, ground-covering trot.

At previous rides, I have called her a soft and easy ride. She didn’t pull, and sort of just strolled along at an easy trot. Not particularly fast, but a soft little dib-dib-dib that was easy to sit and could be ridden all day. Well, I’m inclined to think the “softness” was due in large part to her overall body softness and lack of fitness, because this time around, I felt like I had a ton more horse under me, with a lot more power and strength than I had previously felt. She wasn’t being obnoxious about it, and was very responsive to half-halts and would sensibly slow her pace for rough sections, but there was a level of keenness and enthusiasm there that tickled me to no end. She also seemed very relaxed out there by ourselves. Competitive, and very aware there were other horses in front of her, but no anxiety or nerves, and very mentally solid.

There’s a certain section of one of the trails that is probably one of my favorites to ride. Not because it’s super-scenic, or an amazing piece of trailwork, but because it is one of the best cantering trails I’ve ever seen. Totally flat, straight, slightly sandy footing. Two years ago, when Flash and I cantered through this section, I felt like I had been transported to another world. It was another one of those moments of feeling perfectly connected with a horse, and a memory I’ll hold onto for life.

I haven’t done a ton of cantering with Liberty. Pretty much none in the arena, because she’s not exactly polished at it yet and I feel like I need a little more elbow space to work with her on it than what the barn arena gives. The last couple of rides out, I’ve started incorporating some small stretches of canter work in good footing. I know she loves it — the canter is her preferred gait around the pasture, and she seems to naturally and comfortably pick it up.

Now seemed as good of a time as any to see what I had to work with, given that she was mentally engaged and very relaxed and settled. I settled myself in the saddle, shoved away the mental uncertainties that always try to pop up whenever I go to pick up the speed, kissed and cued, and after a couple of faster trot strides, she rolled right over into a beautiful canter. She is, hands down, the easiest horse I have ever cantered. She is smooth, and although she’s strong, she collects up beautifully, where I can actually sit down in the saddle, ride with contact, put leg on her, and drive her forward and up into the bridle. Most horses, I have a hard time riding a relaxed canter. They’re either rough enough that it’s not very comfortable, or fast enough that it’s just easier to two-point. Gets you somewhere quickly, but not particularly relaxing, and I always feel way more vulnerable at a canter to either shenanigans or not being able to stay with a sudden shy at speed. In this case, the fact I was able to sit and keep such a strong leg on her meant I felt super secure and stable, even moreso than when she moves into a faster trot. She is also the kind of horse who locks onto the trail and gets even more focused the faster you go, so things that she had been peeking at when we were trotting along (barrel cactus, dead ocotillo, large rocks) didn’t even warrant a side glance at the canter.

Her rolling canter swept us over the sandy terrain, wind whispering past my ears, the only sounds her rhythmic snorts in time with her hoofbeats skimming over the ground. Worries, anxieties, politics, drama, the mess that most of 2020 has been…all seemed a world away as I thought of nothing but being in that moment, totally in tune with my magnificent, brave war mare. All too soon, my internal odometer pinged at me to dial it back down again and to not exceed what she had been conditioned for, but it didn’t matter. Once again, I had forged one of those amazing connection moments, that no matter how the rest of the day went, we had experienced a few moments of perfect partnership.

Liberty continued to impress me with her brain — even adding canter to the repertoire, she still maintained her eager but pleasant forwardness, happy to come back to a trot when asked. We interspersed a few more brief canter stretches until we reached the first checkpoint and water stop at 8 miles. There, she drank, and ate some hay, while I shed my first outer layer.

My friend Jess was working the checkpoint, and got this photo of us as we came through the first time.

We had made really good time for that first 8 miles, taking advantage of the fact that it was overall some of the better footing for the day. I was pretty shocked, actually — I had been anticipating our usual “back of the pack shuffle” from previous rides, so operating well within a very comfortable time margin was a very pleasant surprise.

“I see dead things.” (Barrel cactus, ocotillo, some other variety of dead cactus, or large rocks. Take your pick.)

The next 6 miles looped out from the checkpoint in a clockwise loop, first heading in a direction that was vaguely towards camp, and then at the apex of the loop heading directly away. It was hard to make consistent time through this section — there were smooth sections, followed by rough, rocky patches, so we did quite a bit of “trot-trot-trot” followed by “and walk this.” Smart mare started catching on pretty quick, especially after a few “discussion” moments when she thought we might trot through some of the crappy sections, and caught a toe for her troubles. A few cross words later to enforce the idea that we would not be face-planting, and she started slowing down in the rough stuff on her own.

Which was great until it started working a little too well. The bottom of the loop goes along a very flat, very boring, somewhat deep sandy double-track road. It’s deep enough that I was navigating it fairly carefully — we’ve been slowly adding sand conditioning into the repertoire, but a little bit at a time, and not enough to go blasting through the deep stuff for any kind of sustained distance or speed. And it was at this point Liberty had to put her two cents in, hitting the brakes as soon as we came upon a slightly rocky section. She did this a couple of times before I figured out that maybe this was some mental mutiny on her part. We were going further away from camp with every step, and based on how she kept diving for the crispy shrubbery on the side of the trail, she thought she was starving, despite the few minutes of snacking at the check point.

But if there’s something I have learned in recent years, it’s “pick your battles.” And don’t micromanage. She’s a strong-minded, opinionated horse who is very much into seeing things be a partnership versus dictatorship. Which horse taught me about that previously? Oh, yes, that would be Flash. Whom she was reminding me of more and more by the minute as the weekend progressed.

With that in mind, and not wanting to mentally sour her, I opted to turn this section of the course into “mental downtime.” She got to pick the pace. For a few minutes, that meant walking, snatching at some of the dry bushes on the side of the trail, and giving the stink eye to some dead cactus. After a few minutes, she offered to trot, so I let her trot a bit,then asked her to walk again before she stopped. We continued down the couple of miles of road this way, and then when the trail abruptly turned off the road to head back to the checkpoint, she miraculously perked back up again and we were back to negotiating to keep to a not-mach-12 trot.

I suspect this may be where some of her inexperience is showing through, in terms of hitting mental walls — she was probably convinced I had taken her out to the desert all by herself and all of her new friends had abandoned her, since we had done such a good job of finding a space bubble for ourselves that we didn’t run into anyone else out there on that loop aside from riding out for the first few minutes from the check with one of the front-running 50’s, who had then gone on to step up to a much faster pace than what we were going.

But that’s how she learns is by doing and by being out there. We reached the checkpoint once again (14 miles in now), and she drank really well, then settled in to munch on some day. She is so very food motivated, so I figured spending a few minutes letting her eat now would do wonders for her mental outlook. We also had a couple other horses come into the checkpoint while we were there, so she got the mental reassurance that we weren’t, in fact, all alone out there. It took a little bit of persuading to get her to leave the other horses (or maybe it was the food?) but we were only 5 miles away from the vet check and 45-minute hold where she could eat her way through the entire time is she so desired.

Back out on trail, we were following the same tracks we had originally come into the checkpoint on, and she needed no extra encouragement to motor along. We did a few more short canter segments through the beautiful flat straightaway section, had a brief exchange of opinions when the trail to the vet check turned off the trail from the morning (and therefore away from the direction of camp), but her protests were half-hearted, and more for form than anything. This section was probably the roughest of the whole day, and we did quite a bit of walking through the rough rocks.

This is what a rock breeding ground looks like.

About a mile out from the check, management had set out a big trough, and Liberty tanked up really well there. Right about when she was done and couple of other riders caught up to us, and we waited for their horses to finish drinking, then ending up riding the last mile into the check with them.

I hopped off and hand-walked the last little bit into the check and she was below parameters as soon as we arrived — pulsed in at 56 (parameter was 60). Since there wasn’t a line, I went over to vet her through right away, and notice at that point she had busted one of the captivators on a hind boot, and the pastern strap was merrily flopping around back there. Ah, that was the strange flapping noise I had heard a few miles back, but when I glanced at her hooves, nothing had seemed amiss. No matter, I had a spare boot in my vet check bag, as well as on my saddle.

Proof that, especially in dry conditions, on a well-fitted boot, the pastern strap is very much secondary, and almost unnecessary. This stayed on for what I figured was at least 4 miles of trotting and cantering and a ton of picking through rocks.

I yanked the offending strap off the rest of the way before heading over to the vet — nothing like loose, flapping pieces of things to make a vet take a second look. She vetted really well — stood politely, looked around for where her new buddies had disappeared to but didn’t holler or get upset, let the vet look at her mouth, and then did a lovely trot-out — and we were pronounced good to go. The hold was 45 minutes, and with vetting right away and not having to wait at all, I now had about 40 minutes of uninterrupted rest time for the mare. I fetched my crew bag, Liberty trailing along behind me, attempting to snatch hay out of the bag on the go, then found a spot to set up. The vet check was in the middle of the main equestrian parking lot at Estrella Mountain Park — a large gravel lot — so it was pretty much a matter of “find your own personal patch of gravel and settle in.”

She started browsing on her hay while I made her a quick sloppy mash, then went to work on that while I did some quick boot swapping. On closer inspection, the pastern strap on the opposite boot was nearly worn through, so I replaced that with the still-good strap from the broken captivator, then replaced that boot with a new one from my crew bag. Taking a look, I could see she had been doing some side-to-side interfering, and had also nicked her inside fetlock. So it’ll be interference boots on the hinds for sure on her, and time to do some investigating via bodywork and trimming as to why she’s interfering. I had run her a little long on her trim, because it was so rocky, in the hopes it would give her a little extra protection, but I wonder if that wasn’t enough to tip her over into interference territory.

Once the mare was all squared away, I took a few minutes to sit down and enjoy my own PB&J sandwich and iced coffee. I had been pretty actively riding for much of the past 19 miles, and the only downtime I really took to eat and drink along the way was at the checkpoint stops, so it felt good to take a bit of time to refuel and rehydrate.

The time went by pretty quickly, and before I knew it, I was down to the last few vet check tasks before heading to the out-timer — wrap up her fleece cooler, pack up feed, give her a dose of electrolytes, bridle her, and make it over to the out-timer with a minute still left on our hold time, just enough time to mount up and be waiting to go exactly on time. Perfect, just the way I like it.

Liberty happily walked out of the check by herself, even with other horses coming in from the opposite direction. I gave her a few minutes of warm-up, then it was back to picking up the pace, which she was more than happy to do. The ladies that we came into the check with were just a couple minutes behind me, and they caught up and passed me probably a mile or so out of the check. They were travelling just a little faster than we were, so I let them go ahead of us, and Liberty again got some really good practice in “riding our own ride.” I was super proud of how she did, and she maintained the pace I asked for, even when she clearly wanted to keep stealthily increasing the speed. But at this point, we had plenty of time to finish, so now my focus was on the latter goal of “finish sound” and really didn’t want an errant misstep to wreck that goal now.

Listening ears. She did such good work, alternating between keying in on me, and paying attention to the trail.

The last 4 or so miles are coming in on the same trail that we went out on in the morning, so the internal compass was fully calibrated to “due camp.” Which also meant going up the same switchback trail we came down. Shortly before climbing the hill, we were passed by a couple more riders, which meant there were several horses above us, and Liberty was very curious again.

“We’re going up there? Okay, got it.”

As the last big climb/effort of the day, I suggest she might want to walk the climb…? “No, thank you,” she declined, and proceeded to easily trot up the gentle inclines, slowing to a sensible walk around the switchback corners, then picking it up again on the straightaways. This was definitely the most cliffy dropoff trail I’ve taken her on to date and I was totally comfortable trotting along right on the singletrack. She was making me more and more proud of her with each passing moment of the ride.

Photographers John and Sue were still in their respective spots as we came back through, and got some amazing photos again. The photo at the very top of this post is one of them from as we were coming back, and probably my newest favorite ride photo. To date, every ride I’ve done with Liberty, the Kordishes have been the photographers, and every ride, I’ve come back with at least one amazing new favorite photo, and this ride was no exception. I had a really hard time narrowing down which ones to get.

photo by John Kordish
photo by Sue Kordish

From there, it was just a couple miles back to camp, going down the long climb we had done in the morning — and it rides much nicer going up than going down. It’s too steep to comfortably trot, mounted, but a little too rough and rubbly for me to want to get off and try to jog down without begging for a twisted ankle. There were a couple times I had to tell Liberty we weren’t going to jig down the hill, but for the most part she gave me a really nice walk and covered some good ground. There were water troughs at the bottom of the hill, and she drank really well again there.

At the top of the hill, looking down on camp in the foreground, and the Phoenix International Raceway track in the background.

On the paved road into camp, I let her do a little bit of trotting, basically a last-second “soundness check” to make sure she still felt good, which she did, and then we moseyed into camp. While I hopped off as soon as we got to camp and hand-walked her in, in hindsight, since we had to go past the trailer to get to the finish area, I could have quickly stripped off her tack and dumped it there. But I didn’t think of it at the time, and just headed straight to the finish.

Glancing over at the roaring engines over at PIR.

Her pulse was still a little high for finish parameters, and it took her a few minutes to come down. I got her another drink, but I didn’t really think about pulling tack or sponging, which probably would have helped. We ended up giving up a couple placings at the finish due to her taking a few minutes to come down (but once she did, she dropped like a rock), so I’ll probably need to work on some more aggressive cooling strategies, given that she’s a dark-coated, larger-bodied horse. Anyway, live and learn, but I think we came in somewhere around middle-ish of the pack, and a very respectable 4:36 finish time. We vetted for completion as soon as she was pulsed down, and she finished with all A’s on her card. Even sweeter was two of the vets who were vetting us this weekend knew us from the past and have had the misfortune of pulling us, or seeing our inglorious overtime finishes, so I got some really good kudos from them this weekend on how good Liberty looked, and of course, the best affirmation of all of good vet scores and passing the vet checks with flying colors and an official finish.

Talk about floating on cloud nine. I was so proud of that mare, I could have just burst. The whole ride went even better than I had dared hope. I was after “finish in time, sound, and not have to pedal the horse.” Well, we finished in plenty of time, with a very sound and still very forward horse who was still talking to me at the end. Couldn’t have asked for better, and a much-needed confidence booster after the struggles we’d had at previous rides. I feel like we might have been a slow start, but maybe now is when we hit our stride, and the possibilities start to open up for us.

We headed home later that evening, after giving her a few hours of recovery time (and for me to pack up camp and grab dinner). She looked great coming out of the trailer — it had been warm enough in the afternoon I was able to sponge her down, so she wasn’t a sweaty, gross mess — and dove into her food as soon as she got into the barn. And the next day, I went down to take her compression socks off and she came right up to me in the pasture, looking totally fresh and ready for more. Her back was great, and when the socks came off, her legs looked good, too.

With that solid of a finish, I don’t feel the need to further pursue more LDs with her at this point — we’ll get the mileage via training rides, but I would rather she not get too into the competition mindset of “done after 25.” Long distances are my main goal with her, so I’d like to build the distance on her first, rather than doing more “shorter and faster” competitions. We’ll be setting out sights on a 50 this spring — not sure quite yet which one, we’ll see how winter conditioning progresses.

In the meantime, I’m going to continue to bask in just how absolutely thrilled I am with this mare, and that I finally feel validated for all the years I continued to believe in her, despite the speed bumps along the way.

2020 Ride Season Wrap-Up

Alternate title: “What ride season?”

An accurate visual representation of 2020 on the whole.

To be fair, it’s better than some of the years I didn’t get to any rides at all…but even then, there were usually plenty of volunteer opportunities, crewing shenanigans, and overall good spirits to counter the “not according to plan” outcomes along the way.

She wasn’t according to plan, either, but has been an amazing bright spot.

The new AERC ride season starts Dec 1 (I still don’t know the rationale behind a season that runs Dec 1-Nov 30)…but the calendar year is still 2020, so my approach is a decidedly low bar of expectations, starting with “just getting to the ride,” since the latter half of the season, my plans to get Liberty to a ride got derailed on multiple occasions.

The season started well, with a super-fun LD on Atti at Dashing Through the Trails. And then the wheels promptly fell off the bus at the Tonto Twist 50 where we were pulled for lameness at the finish with what turned out to be the culmination of an ongoing, off-and-on suspensory issue. And thus my spring ride plans went the way of the dodo.

The pups and I volunteered at the Wickenburg ride at the end of the month, doing everything from timing to P&Ring to vet scribing. The AERC Convention managed to happen right on the cusp of the entire world collectively imploding, and then from that point on, the wheels fell off the 2020 bus entirely and there was no more ride season to be had until late fall, when things have slowly, albeit restrictively, started to happen again.

Bringing Liberty home over the summer was a definite highlight of the year, and even though she tosses some challenges my way here and there, bringing her up to condition and working on her training has given me a lot more purpose and motivation in my riding, and having the aspects of “still needs some training” gives me something to focus on and work on even when the competition goals may be a nebulous and ever-moving goalpost, depending on what is actually able to happen or not.

With Mimi, there’s not a lot of training to be done anymore. She knows her job, and really prefers for me to not micromanage her, thankyouverymuch. So arena work isn’t her idea of fun, at all, anymore. Trails or bust.

Fortunately, I was able to grant the princess’s wishes a few times this fall and she is still so happy to get out on the trail.

But I don’t always have time to hitch up and haul out to trails (and the state land by the barn I used to be able to ride just sold off to a homebuilder, so goodbye riding space and hello even more traffic and an endless sea of tile roofs), so sometimes arena riding has to be a thing still, and fortunately, Liberty is in a phase where she benefits from arena work just as much as trail conditioning.

All that said, today is officially the start of a new ride season, and I’m doing a lot of breath holding and finger crossing that it ends up being fun, productive, and above all, sane and normal. Here’s hoping, at least.

Learning Arabian

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.

She does “noble and majestic war mare” really well.

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.

This is so us right now, especially in the arena. Liberty actually does better work out on trail than in the ring.

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 pretty much every picture I have of me riding this mare, I have this same perma-grin plastered across my face.

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.’

You had to remove the different pieces without the metal tweezers touching the metal edges. Fine motor skills and good hand-eye coordination were helpful.

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.