Ride Story: Strawberry Fields Ride 2018

With the countdown at less than 10 days til T-Day, and less than a week until D-for-T (Departure-for-Tevis) Day, I figured I’d better get a move on and get this story out before too much time goes by.

The Strawberry Field Forever ride has been on my bucket list since I started distance riding. Back in 2002, when I had been doing about half a season of NATRC, I went to Mimi’s and my last POA show…the POA Worlds, up in Spanish Fork, UT. It was an almost week-long gig, with only so much for someone who is not showing (aka, “one’s show parents”) to do…so my dad took a couple of days to go up to the Strawberry NATRC ride. Originally his plan was to hang out and visit, but he got drafted as ride photographer. Long story short, he fell in love with the area and the amazing scenery, and we talked for years about how we needed to get up there again and do the ride.

So imagine my delight when I found out there was also an endurance ride up there. Ir’s been on my ride radar for forever, so I was quite ecstatic when Troy contacted me to see if I would be interested in riding Flash for a couple of days at Strawberry this year.

Let’s see…ride I’m dying to do? On a horse I love to ride? Yeeesssssssssssss!!!

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I love this smoochable mug

It’s a two-day drive up to Strawberry from the Phoenix area, so we headed out of the Valley Tuesday afternoon, overnighted at the Mt Carmel basecamp, then drove the rest of the way to camp on Wednesday, arriving in the early afternoon with plenty of time to set up camp and take the boys out for a pre-ride.

Flash is a horse who does best on pretty much daily exercise in some form or another, either on the exerciser or being ridden. He’d just been cooped up in the trailer for the past two days, and was happy to express his opinion about that. That opinion amounted to a couple of half-hearted crowhops and some attempts at jigging, but overall, more of a source of eyerolling and bemused chuckles than anything. Opinions…he’s got ’em.

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Just one pre-ride was enough to make me fall in love with the area.

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Riding through aspen groves…I felt like I was in the middle of a fantasy setting.

Friend Dayna was the absolute best Queen Bee and camp mom for the weekend. She had food, drinks, and more food made for us riders whenever we possibly needed it, made dinner every night, and was a lot of fun to hang out with for the weekend. I’ve long-admired her as a rider, her ability to be competitive, but always with her horses’ best interest at the forefront. I got to pick her brain during some of the weekend downtimes, and got some great riding tips and advice, plus other relatable life stories.

The plan on Thursday was to get another pre-ride in…7-8 miles this time, just to take that final edge off. 15 miles later…the edge was sufficiently off. We were on ribbons the whole time, but just had no frame of reference for exactly where said ribbons went, and ended up going a lot further than intended. Oops?

So, yeah, that was fun…the worst part of it was I had anticipated about a 1-1/2-hour ride, not 3+ hours, so was a little short in the water and especially the food department. But a good free object lesson in being more prepared than you think you need to be, even for a “quick little ride.”

The Strawberry Fields ride is part of the XP Rides, aka the “Duck” rides, put on by Dave “The Duck” Nicholson and his wife Annie. They’re all multi-day rides, with many of them taking place on or near locations that were a part of the original Pony Express route. They tend to be more casual, laid-back type of rides, with a certain degree of self-sufficiency. There’s often only one vet check (which isn’t an uncommon thing for rides here in the SW region anyway), and the trails usually go into more remote areas. More info on their website: XP Rides.

This was actually my first XP ride, and I loved it. I also love the frills rides, though, too. I guess rides are still enough of a novelty to me, even after 14 years, that it takes a lot for me to not enjoy a ride. Check-in and vet-in was super quick, and ride meeting was brief. The only snag was a fire in the close vicinity had closed access to some of the usual trails, so they had to do some last-minute scrambling to pull the trails together.

Basecamp was at ~8000′ elevation, so the weather was decidedly cooler than back down in Phoenix. Friday morning was a bit chilly, and I scuttled around in three layers, finally (reluctantly) shedding my puffy jacket just before mounting up. Flash is such an interesting horse at ride starts. He’s really business-like, so no funny games or shenanigans, but he is so eager to get going that he literally quivers in anticipation any time you stop.

We headed out on the same trail we had pre-ridden the past two days, the single-track trail helping to space out the pack, and we were soon in a small bubble of four or five riders, just easily motoring along. There was a definitely a technical element to some of the trails — rocks, or downed aspen “cavaletti” to step over — so it kept both horse and rider paying attention.

It didn’t take too long before we started climbing. Eventually we would top out at 10,000′, but in the meantime, there was still plenty of trail along the way. Up single-track, along forest roads through a campsite, up more single-track, through some boggy stuff, up more single-track, and finally out to the road that would take us up to 10,000′.

For two mostly flatland horses from Yuma, those boys tackled the climb with good humor, and Flash kept offering to show me just how he could trot all the way to the top. (I declined his offer, numerous times.)

We dropped back down off the top of the peak, wound around on some more forest road, through some more single-track, and back up to another 10,000′ point.

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Can’t argue with those views

We had a couple moments at this point where the trail markings got a bit…sketchy…and we made a couple of overshoots/alternate routes before finally getting on the right track.

This first loop was every bit of 30 miles, so we took time along the way to let the boys stop and graze, and there was enough grass along the way that they both got pretty good at the grab-n-go maneuver.

Flash was on fire the entire loop…he just wanted to go, and we had quite a few discussions about keeping the pace to a dull roar. I knew he was strong — at Bumble Bee, it took until about halfway through the first loop for him to really settled into an agreeable pace — but this was 30 miles in and he was still cranking along like a freight train.

The way in and out of camp, at least for this loop, crossed a creek, which made for a nice place to stop and sponge them before walking in to the vet check. Rather unusually, it took several minutes for Flash to pulse down, even after more sponging and eventually pulling tack, but he did get there.

At the Duck rides, he doesn’t want to see you vet in immediately — you’re asked to wait for at least 30 minutes before vetting, the rationale behind it being that adrenaline from just coming off a loop can mask any potential issues, both lameness or metabolic. Although I’ve always preferred to vet right away and have the rest of the hold uninterrupted, I can understand this particular practice.

I got all of my stuff squared away with what I would need for loop 2 — refill my hydration pack and snacks — and settled in for some delicious lunch offerings from Dayna. (Iced cranberry juice is super refreshing. Need to file that one away for future reference.) Taking care of the boys and grabbing lunch pretty much took up the 30 minutes, so we gathered the boys up and went over to vet.

Flash vetted through well initially…appropriately low pulse, good gut sounds and hydration parameters, trotted great…but after we trotted, the vet looked him over again and said he was thumping. Sure enough, you could see the telltale fluttering back on his flank. So that was our day done, though I left the vet with instructions to give him some electrolytes, extra alfalfa and extra calcium (Tums were suggested as a good source), and bring him back in a few hours — if all was cleared up, we could still ride the next day.

So that was a new one for me…I’ve never directly dealt with thumps before, but after dealing with it, I can say that if I have to deal with any sort of metabolic incident, thumps would be the preferable one, because it’s straightforward enough, fairly easy to clear up, and as long as it’s corrected, doesn’t leave any lingering issues. Basically, it’s caused by an electrolyte imbalance that leads to an irregular spasming of the diaphragm. He’d been on a more minimalist electrolyte protocol, but he’s one of those horses who really benefits from a more aggressive electrolyte regimen.

So Troy and Rymoni went out on loop two, and Flash and I got to play battle of the syringes. But I haven’t battled with the pony on this very same issues for years for nothing, and eventually I got a couple doses of crushed Tums down his gullet. It took maybe an hour and half to totally clear up (by which time Flash was thoroughly sick of me hovering, and giving me the disgusted stink-eye “bug off, lady, and leave me alone” look), so after Troy finished, we gathered up both the boys to go over to the vet. Rymoni was good to go, both for his day’s completion as well as to start the next day, and Flash was thoroughly checked over and declared good to go for day two.

Saturday morning rolled around even chillier, with some wind and cloud cover, with more clouds trying to move in. All that meant I actually left my outer layer windbreaker on, since we would be climbing up to 10,000′ again fairly early on, and it was bound to be even chillier at the top.

The plan was to take it really easy on this day — ease Flash into the day, make sure all systems were go, and regularly electrolyte him. He was strong from the start, but much more biddable than day one when it came to requests to ease off or not incessantly tailgate Rymoni. Fortunate, because I definitely had a few protesting muscles, and it took me several miles to settle in. It’s been almost 5 years since I last did back-to-back days, and I was feeling it for a little bit there.

The trail took us through some of the sagebrush flats (watch out for badger holes!) before starting to climb. Up, up, up, into the aspens, making time and trotting where we could, walking all the climbs.

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We were working around and behind those red cliffs

This was our “climb to 10,000′” part of the day, and the views from the top were beyond breathtaking.

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cameras just can’t even come close to doing it justice

I was glad for the jacket — it was definitely chilly as we made our way across the ridgeline for a bit before dropping down into the bowl on the backside and cross-countrying our way down to the drainage/trail.

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we came from up there where those trees are

The next section was about 4 miles of pretty much downhill, hardpack, rocky road. We took it easy and walked a lot of it, with intermittent jog-jog sections when it was decent enough footing for the first couple miles, then in smoothed and leveled out enough to pick up the pace again. We eventually made one big loop, and came out on the sage brush from earlier in the morning.

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more sage brush, more badger holes to avoid

This morning’s loop wasn’t as long as day one — I think it was about 25 miles by the time we got back in to camp. Both boys were down right away (yay! That hanging pulse of Flash’s on day one had been the first red flag), so we repeated the same routine — give them food, sit down and eat our own lunches, go vet. Vet check was an all clear this time, so we headed back to the trailer to wrap up the last few vet-check niceties (bathroom, last bit of food, bridle, and go…).

We were out on loop two right on our out time, and Flash cheerfully took up leading, heading out one more time on the familiar creek-crossing trail in/out of camp. And I had my favorite version of Flash — relaxed and happy, easy trotting in the lead on a loose rein.

On this loop, we would follow part of the first loop from day one, so we were on super-familiar turf. Along the way, we picked up Miriam, who had gotten a bit turned around, and she ended up hanging out with us for the rest of the ride. She was super fun to ride with, and I always enjoy meeting and befriending another person in the sport within my own age bracket.

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up in the “Norwegian Forest” on loop two; one of my favorite sections with singletrack trail looping through the aspens

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Troy & Rymoni; Miriam & Mighty

The “Norwegian Forest” section of this loop basically cut off the whole “climb to 10,000′” part of the previous day, and connected over to the same last 7 or 8 miles in to camp from day one/loop one. As soon as the trail connected, Flash knew exactly where we were, and his homing pigeon radar kicked in. He was more than keen to go, but we just kept to the same strategy we’d been doing all day of a nice steady pace. Plus, there was so much grass along the way, and all three boys were more than happy to stop and graze their way into the finish.

Of course, we couldn’t end the ride without a bit of humor and hilarity. We stopped in the larger creek crossing just a mile or so out from camp for one last sponging…and I managed to lose my hold on the sponge string and send it straight into the water. Water that was over knee-deep on Flash. I’m 5’4″. Flash is 15.3. There was no way I was going to manage the “lean over and retrieve an object” trick, so I was resigned to hopping off into the creek for sponge retrieval. Fortunately Miriam came to my rescue — she’s tall, and adorable Mighty is a tiny little power pony, so she was able to lean over and snag the errant sponge for me. Crisis averted! (And I didn’t have to get my feet wet.)

It was a pleasant surprise to find out when we crossed the finish line we were in 5th/6th/7th…we had really taken it easy through the whole day, and rode the ride that the boys needed, and just stayed consistent. Completion awards for the day were really cool insulated stainless steel water bottles — I can never have too many water bottles.

Sunday morning, we wrapped up camp and hit the road…back down to Mt Carmel for the night again, and then home again Monday. Dad volunteered to drive up to Troy and Claire’s place outside of Prescott to pick me up, so that was fun for him to get to meet Flash in person (since I’ve been talking about this horse since April), and I had someone to rehash the weekend to on the drive back home.

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Flash enjoying one last roll at Mt Carmel before hitting the road again

So, Flash and I both go to Tevis in a little over a week…although not together. Flash will be taking a rider from Australia through, and I will be riding my favorite “summer camp pony,” Roo, who has shown up on this blog numerous times (I’ve crewed for him and Lucy at Tevis twice, ridden him in the Tahoe Rim 50, and pre-ridden parts of the Tevis trail on half a dozen occasions).

I would definitely keep the Strawberry ride on my “must do rides” list…the scenery is amazing, and it’s a good, challenging, true endurance ride. Great pre-Tevis prep, and a great ride to teach a horse to take care of themselves.

And after Tevis? Who knows. The thing about catch riding is I rarely have plans set in stone. I’ve learned to be very flexible, and take opportunities as they come up. But I know I’ll happily ride Flash again any time he’s offered!

Ride Story: Lead-Follow @ McDowell 75

Now that is how to wrap up a ride season. In the words of one of my high school ROTC teachers, “Finish strong.” In a season that was all over the place with changes of plans, lots of unexpected happenings, and numerous highs and lows, it felt good to wrap up the year on a high note.

The cliffnotes version: Cristina asked me to ride Atti in the 75 at McDowell. It was his first 75 (mine, too) and we finished with a strong horse who was still pulling on me at the end, in 5th place with a ride time of 12:49, and a finish CRI of 52/48. He was a blast to ride, and was a total rockstar all day long.

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photo: Sue Kordish/Cowgirl Photography

The full-length novel version: Where do I even begin? After Virginia City, the plan was to go for the 75 at McDowell with Beeba — after all, we did 76 miles at VC, so McDowell should be doable, right? The pull at man Against Horse put the kibosh on that plan, and future endurance endeavors for her, and I went back to the drawing board. Not for very long, though, because the Monday after MAH, Cristina texted me to find out my availability for McDowell and if I wanted to take the younger horse she’s training, Cosmo, in the LD, while she took Atti, her more experienced horse, on their first 75.

Since I had nothing set in stone, she claimed first dibs on me, and I was happy to have offered what would likely be a fun, easy ride.

And then a couple weeks out from the ride, she asked if I might consider riding Atti in the 75 instead. Some of her personal plans had changed, and it worked better for her schedule to ride the LD…but she really wanted Atti to do the longer distance, especially given that 75s and 100s are in  short supply around here, so we have to take advantage of them when they’re offered.

Just to establish the significance of this offer: Atti is to Cristina what Mimi is to me. Super-special heart horses that we’ve poured our hearts and souls into. The level of trust and confidence she had in me to make that offer…I have a hard time putting into words just how much that meant to me.

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This adorable face was still perky and earnest 24+ hours later.

Friday afternoon, I stuffed the back of my suburban full of food, clothes, and camping gear, and made the quick, 45-minute drive up to McDowell. It’s currently my most local ride, and it’s really convenient. I got my little camp set up, and a space saved for Cristina to arrive with her rig and the ponies later that afternoon, then wandered around camp and socialized for the rest of the afternoon.

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Nasty little hitchhiker that was hanging out in my rolled up air mattress. Welcome to Arizona desert life.

Once Cristina arrived, we whisked the ponies off the trailer and immediately over to vet in  while it was still light and before dinner started.

Ride dinner was done Friday night before briefing…I’ve waffled back and forth on how I feel about this, since I do like a good ride awards dinner afterwards, and not having to cook after I’ve just been riding. But in this case, it was kind of nice to not have to meal plan, since dinner was provided Friday, and I would be riding through the dinner hour and living on a steady diet of pre-made sandwiches on Saturday.

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Ride day food: a selection of turkey/cheese, pb&j, and tuna. A wide variety for whatever my taste buds wanted at the time.

I’ve ridden the McDowell trails for so long (one of my home training grounds), and done the ride multiple times, so knowing the trails was a major strength for me going into the ride. The park itself has all of the trails marked/signed incredibly well, and the ride maps/directions are very thorough. Not only a makred map, but written turn-by-turn directions, plus ribbons, laminated signs, chalk lines, and glow sticks out on the trails.

After briefing I did some last minute tack fiddling, switching out stirrups and adding a mini cantle pack to be able to carry electrolytes and carrots, and mixing up a bottle of said electrolytes.

Sleep didn’t come easy for me Friday night. As always, first night camping/staying anywhere is always more restless, and the back of the suburban is surprisingly not particularly soundproof, so I was hearing every noise and sound. Plus, being surrounded by windows makes it way too easy to always be looking out to see if the horse is still attached to the trailer, etc. I know I got some sleep, but woke up before my alarm was set to go ff, so used the time to just slowly start getting dressed and nibbling on some breakfast. My camp stove also picked this trip to stop working, so I had to suffer through the indignity of cold coffee to start my morning. (Which, funny enough, actually sat better than hot coffee does sometimes…)

This was probably the least nervous I’ve been at a ride start in a really long time. Atti reminds me so much of riding Mimi that I had the same comfort level with him as I do with her, and the same level of trust that a laundry list of shenanigans would not be forthcoming. He has the same kind of complete non-explosiveness/non-reactivity that Mimi does and I felt really relaxed and settled with him.

There were 12 starters in the 75, and since it was still dark for our 6AM start, we got a controlled start through the first couple of miles. There was a group of 5 of us that were sort of starting out together, but ended up spread out within the first few miles, and Atti and I found ourselves a nice little space bubble with Andrea and Lilly.

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Just before sunrise.

The first loop has the rockiest parts of the whole trail, but overall the course is practically a groomed racetrack, especially compared to the last two rides. Andrea also did Virginia City and Man Against Horse, so we were laughing at the “rocky” sections this time, and reveling in the luxury of being able to “walk the rocks.”

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A beautiful desert sunrise.

Part of the first loop trail is an out-and-back with a water stop and checkpoint about 10 miles in. We took a very quick break here — drink, electrolyte, duck behind a bush to offload coffee (and discover Atti believes in the tandem peeing phenomenon). The front-runnign 50s and caught us during this stretch, and heading back to the main trail is a lot of two-way traffic was people are heading to the water, and back out. It’s a fun section because you do get to see people behind you, and it’s always fun to say hi to friends along the way.

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Obligatory, “oh, look, rocks!” photo.

Aside from being passed by the first half-dozen 50 milers, we had the most perfect space bubble for most of this loop, and we made really good time, taking advantage of the cooler weather while we had it.

The next water stop was at the maintenance shed, 21 miles in. It’s a great stop because volunteers can drive right up to it, so they are able to bring hay, plenty of water buckets and sponge buckets, and have a hose hooked up and available to spray the horses off. It was quite congested when we got to the stop, a conglomeration of all of the distances meeting at one place. We let the horses drink, grab some hay, electrolyted, and I gave Atti a quick sponging before hopping back on and scuttling out of there, trying to keep our space bubble.

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Just after leaving the maintenance shed. Photo: John Kordish/Cowgirl Photography

I love this section of trail after the maintenance shed. It’s smooth single-track, just slightly down hill, and it’s a really fun ride. Atti and I were leading through here, and he just cruised through on light contact, effortlessly ticking off between an 8-9mph trot.

At the road crossing and water troughs just a couple miles from camp, we caught up with Cristina on Cosmo, coming in off her first loop on the LD, so we ended up riding back in with her, which made for perfect timing as Atti and Cosmo could spend their hold time together.

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Wagon train heading back in to camp from loop one.

I took a few minutes puttering around at the water buckets (trying to find one that didn’t have bees in it, always a challenge at this ride…), but Atti had taken a huge drink just a couple miles before camp, so wasn’t particularly interested in drinking again so soon.

He was at 56 as soon as his pulse as taken (criteria was 64), and I took him right over to vet. Mostly As, and even a fairly cheerful trot-out, which he normally doesn’t really see the point in doing. We headed back to the trailer and I set him up with a buffet offering of different foods to appease his somewhat picky appetite.

Cristina helped crew me and Atti — gave him a sponge-down and wrapped his legs while I sat down and browsed through my food cooler. Got my hydration pack re-filled with water and snacks, tacked up, met back up with Andrea, and was at the out-timer 10 seconds before my out-time.

Both Lilly and Atti headed out of camp doing a bit of “drunken sailor” weaving down the trailer…trotting, but in such a manner that suggested they would be perfectly happy to turn around and go back to camp now, thankyouverymuch. It was about 11AM at this point, and starting to warm up. This second loop is always the warmest, with most of the trail being very exposed, and some sections with very little breeze or air movement.

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The Scenic Trail trudge. That’s okay, Atti, no one likes this climb.

Shortly after leaving camp, the trail climbs to the top of a ridgeline on the appropriately-named Scenic Trail. It is very scenic, and you can see for miles around in all directions. It’s also exposed, has some rocky sections, and tends to be rather warm. So it can be a bit of a trudge-climb, but Atti handled it with really good humor and just kept marching along.

There’s a tendency to think of McDowell as a “flat” ride, because there appear to be very few visible climbs of any significance. But the GPS stats after the fact tell a different story.

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While they aren’t huge elevation gains, there are several long, sustained, constant uphills that are 5-8 miles of steady climbing up. It doesn’t look that way from the ground — it looks really flat and very speed-friendly, and there aren’t many obvious spots to go “oh, great time for a walk break.” So we  utilized a “trot for x number of minutes, then walk for x number of minutes” strategy, combined with bit of a “trot to the next ribbon” approach. It worked, and we ended up with a pretty consistent pace and minimal sulking from the ponies.

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“Granite Tank” water stop. This is the furthest point away from camp on this loop, and the horses are usually so sulky/pouty by this point. And then you make a turn and are directly pointed towards camp and they magically recover and get all perky again.

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Classy dude. Decorations left over from the last couple weeks of trail races that had been held at the park.

Both Atti and Lilly drank really well here. I hopped off and electrolyted them both, as well as sponged their necks. The next section of trail was a really fun, slightly downhill single-track they just begs to be trotted, and would take us right back to the maintenance shed checkpoint again.

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Trotting through a section of staghorn cholla “forest”

This section of trail used to be this long slog through a deep sand wash, but McDowell put in several new trails a couple years ago — beautiful, rolling singletrack that paralleled some of the old washes. These new trails make for so much better going and greatly enhanced my outlook on this particular ride.

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Eating, drinking, and getting hosed off at the maintenance shed.

Back at the maintenance shed, we had a space bubble of just the two of us, and the volunteers that were running the check were friends of ours, so we stayed for several minutes letting the horses eat and taking some time to  hose them off and let them cool down a bit.

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Leaving the maintenance shed on the second loop. photo: Sue Kordish/Cowgirl Photography

On this loop, instead of getting to go directly back to camp from the maintenance shed, you have to turn around and go back out in the opposite direction away from camp, go a ways down the trail, then pick up another trail that takes you back to camp. Most horses consider this cruel and unusual punishment. Not sure how much the riders love it, either.

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Eastern side of the McDowells — I call it the “rock giants’ playground”

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Snack break along the way

This ride only has two vet holds, so as a rider, it was really on me to take the time along the trail to stop and let Atti get some recovery breaks along the way, especially to eat. It’s really easy to get caught up in the nice trail and just cruise through the loops, so I was trying to be really conscious of looking for good areas to pause for a “grazing opportunity,” such as it was, since the whole desert is dry, brown, and crunchy right now.

Once we turned back for camp, it was a “all downhill from here” kind of trail, so we made some good time, although it was really getting warm out there. (Apparently parts of the trail hit 95°.) The horses drank well again at the road crossing water troughs, then boogied the last two miles into camp.

A significant milestone for me: this ride put me over my 500 endurance miles. That only took 12 years. Hopefully the next 500 don’t take that long. I feel like everything finally “came together” for me as a rider at this ride. In the past, I think I’ve been apt to not give myself enough credit, or just follow the lead of a more experienced rider. But this time, it was really on me to make sure I was making smart pacing decisions, really listening to the horse, and using my own judgment. It was a huge confidence boost to have everything go well and to finish so well, and while McDowell is a great “step-up” ride, it’s not an “easy” ride.

Atti was down at 52 for his pulse, and a couple more Bs on his vet card — apparently all completely within his “normal.” I repeated the same process as the first check: yank tack back at the trailer, set him in front of his buffet of goodies, wrap his legs, then sit down for a few minutes to eat/drink. Refill water pack, tack up, administer BCAAs.

I made a slight strategy error here. I was supposed to electrolyte him, but I was rushing to tack up and make my out-time, and my brain interpreted the syringing of his BCAAs as me having given electrolytes.

When I swung by Andrea’s trailer on the way to the out-timer, she told me to go ahead — she wasn’t feeling great after the heat on the second loop, so was going to stay back a little bit longer to recover.

Every ride, you have to go in with the mentality of being prepared to ride your own ride — riding partners get pulled, horses don’t pace well together, etc. Atti is used to training by himself, so I wasn’t concerned about that part. But given the drunken sailor routine at leaving on the second loop, I wasn’t sure what I was going to end up with when we went out a third time.

I opted to try for the “forward” strategy. I asked him for a nice trot up to the out-timer, and since we were right on our out-time, we got waved through and out onto the trail. Atti quite cheerfully trotted out of camp onto the trail, and not 100′ from camp, willing broke into a canter on his own and cantered the next 1/4-mile out of camp before slowing to his relaxed, 8 mph trot.

Okay, then. Guess he’s happy to be going out.

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Out on loop three by ourselves.

Being out there by ourselves, I finally let myself get a little bit emotional/happy teary. He reminds me so much of riding Mimi that this felt almost like I was out there again with her. I thought it might make me kind of sad and remind me of all the ride goals I had for her that we never go to do before her retirement, but instead it was a reminder of how much fun I’ve had with her along the way, how much I’ve learned from her, and how much we were able to accomplish. I’m just glad she doesn’t have Facebook or the ability to read a blog, since she would be very jealous about all of my catch riding and “cheating” on her.

Atti maintained his good cheer for probably the first third of the loop. Then we hit one of those long, slow, uphill slogs away from camp, and some of the enthusiasm deflated. Cristina had told me he is a very honest horse, and that when he wants to walk, it’s because he needs it. So we walked a good part of the uphill trail section. I hopped off and did part of the trail on foot as well, a mix of running and hiking. I had done some of the second loop on foot, and it felt really good to get out of the saddle and stretch.

Once we hit the next trail section that was vaguely in the “homeward” direction, Atti perked right back up again and gave me his lovely, loose-rein trot.

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Making it through the “trail hazards” section before dark.

Being out at dusk is an interesting time. I’ve noticed horses tend to be on higher alert as the sun goes down, since it’s often the predator dinner hour. Atti was definitely paying attention to things — he has a tendency to “peek” at dead logs and barrel cactus — but he was still forward and never spooked at anything.  It was also cooling down as the sun went down, and it was just breathtakingly beautiful to be out there that time of evening.

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I love my desert.

We went to the maintenance shed one final time, and I ended up staying here for probably a good 15 minutes because Atti wasn’t eating/drinking the way I wanted to see. I don’t know if he was getting physically tired or more mentally tired/pouty because he was out there by himself and it was the longest he’d ever been, distance-wise. So I walked him from bucket to bucket, waiting for him to find one that met his approval, and hand-fed him bits of hay. After about 5 minutes of this, he finally decided to take a good drink, and started more actively munching at hay, so I spent another 10 minutes hanging out letting him eat.

It was full dark by this point, and once he indicated he was done with eating, we headed back out — another “head in the opposite direction of camp” trail, the same one we had come in to the maintenance shed on during loop two. Not two minutes out from the stop, we ended up crossing paths with Andrea, riding with Jill and Stephanie, on their way in to the minatenance shed. I didn’t feel like backtracking, so I told them I was going to keep on moving along, albeit probably slowly, and they would likely catch up with me.

So we trucked on through the dark. The qucik rest stop had perked Atti right up again, especially when I realized “duh, he drank, better electrolyte” and hopped off and quickly stuffed a syringe in his mouth. We alternated walking and trotting along — it was another long uphill grade, so we just took it easy. I also knew that once his buddies caught up, he would probably perk right up from the herd mentality, so I wanted to give him a couple more miles of letting him pick whatever pace he wanted.

It was so dark out there, and I gave up trying to determine what exactly was trail and what was just reflective glowing desert ground. Atti knew, though, and he never strayed off the path. So I sat back and let him do his thing. We actually made it the couple miles up to the Granite Tank water stop and were diving into the water there before the other three caught up with us. Atti had been drinking fine when we got there, but once he buddies showed up, he dove back into the water buckets with renewed enthusiasm. So there as definitely a bit of “all by myself out here, so I’m going to pout/sulk” mental stuff going on. Which, eh…for a first go at a longer distance, I think that was the only “wall” he really hit.

From there, it was only about 8 miles to the finish, so I joined up with the merry band of ladies, much to Atti’s happiness, and Stephanie and Hadji lead us home. I love riding at night…who needs Disneyland and Mr Toad’s Wild Ride? It’s seriously a fun rush, and so exhilarating. I hadn’t bothered with glowsticks, and had a headlamp as backup but didn’t ever turn it on.

The closer we got to camp, the stronger Atti got, until he was pulling on me as much in the last 5 miles has he was in the first 5. We all walked the last quarter mile or so in, and crossed the finish line in a ride time of 12:49. I think we ended up 5th out of 12? We were in 5th at the maintenance shed, then there was a finish line pull ahead of us, but Stephanie came in ahead of us at the finish. So I think 5th? Will have to confirm that when results come out, but either 5th or 6th. Pulsed down and vetted through immediately, with a finish CRI of 52/48. He thought trotting out was dumb, but he was still perky and talking to me even at the end, and he dove into his food when I took him back to the trailer.

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Cristina’s parents had come to help pack up camp, and then take the horses to overnight at their place where they would have grass pasture turnout, so I wrapped Atti’s legs while they packed things up, and once he was settled and had some recovery time, loaded him and Cosmo up and they headed out. I retrieved my completion award (a fun color-changing clock) and top ten award (collapsible bucket), then headed home myself — my own bed was so worth the 45-minute drive versus staying in camp overnight.

That’s about the best way I can think to wrap up what’s been a very interesting 2017 ride season. This completion finally put me over 500 endurance miles…that only took 12 years. Hopefully it doesn’t take another 12 to get the next 500. Guess we’ll see what 2018 brings.