I stepped out of my tent in the pre-dawn, just as ridecamp began to stir. Occasional flashlights bobbed among the trailers, but most signs of life reached me as sounds instead of sights. Sleepy bumpings-about in trailers' living quarters. The stir of supplements into buckets of soaked beet pulp. Wickers of horses demanding hay.
I added my own, small sounds to the mix: crunching footfalls on the way to the outhouse, crinkle of a Larabar wrapper, soft words to Consolation as I tied on her halter. My significant other (who is not an endurance rider...yet...but can outrun, out-cycle, and out-swim me any day of the week, and shall henceforth be known as Ironman), applied himself to the noble mission of heating water for coffee while I secured a pair of Easyboot Bares on Consolation's forehooves. Her hind boots, stiff in the morning chill, would have none of it. I gave up on them in short order. Almost all Consolation's conditioning has been done barefoot on gravel, anyway, and the footing at Old Selam is generally good. We'd risk it.
Come 7:45, Consolation had finished her beet pulp and I my chilled Hay Day Hash. Her Stonewall rested comfortably on her back, water bottles full and ride card secured alongside riding gloves and a snack in crimson pommel bags. She stood calmly as I tightened the cinch.
The mild nervousness that had pricked my spine for days (How is she going to handle her first ride? Will my powerful, once-wild horse remember to follow my lead?) eased substantially. It faded further as we made for the starting line. Independent Consolation, whose lead-mare tendencies have so often conflicted with my own, carried me peaceably through the crowd as though she'd been racing for years.
No prance. No dance. No paw and snort. Excitable horses swirled around us, but Consolation only watched, in an attitude of polite curiosity, as the trail opened and the herd swarmed out of camp.
We gave the others a few minutes to get out of sight, then waved to Ironman and followed at a walk. Our goal was simply to finish, preferably without exceeding our daily adventure quota.
"You're going for Turtle, aren't you?" the ride manager called as we strolled by. I think Consolation may have been sleeping.
The moment we turned out of camp and up the forested trail, however, her blood pressure surged. Trees! Underbrush! And...omigod, what's THAT??? A slab of granite flung her around in a 180-degree spook-and-whirl, eyes bulging and haunches atremble.
Good grief. I righted myself in the saddle and turned Consolation back up the trail, easing past the equinivorous rock and attempting to maintain a trot (but achieving more of a lurching, trot-freeze-trot pattern) past a half-mile's worth of bugaboos before a small group of other riders came into view on the switchback ahead.
The other horses distracted Consolation sufficiently that she soon forgot she'd never been in a forest before. I guided her through a few, touchy miles as she dealt with another new concept -- travelling among other horses. We passed and were passed, dealt with a brief episode of restraint-induced pre-bucking head shakes (No, you may not race the other horses!), and finally settled into a comfortable pace with another first-time LD pair, Jackie and her chestnut Tennessee Walker, Nancy.
Despite being an experienced mountain horse, Nancy kept Jackie busy with a series of impatient behaviors involving a lot of sidepassing and a few crowhops. Consolation largely ignored these antics, and I was pleased by my relatively simple task of guiding her up the trail at her customary, slow -- if a bit elevated -- trot. We passed a few other horses on the long, uphill stretch, including an adorable Spanish Mustang mare and some gaited mounts.
I'd just settled in for what was shaping up to be an easy day when we arrived at the first water stop. Set to the side of the single-track at Mile 6, the troughs offered plenty of room for Consolation, Nancy, Jackie, and me to join the small cluster of competitors variously engaged in drinking and sponging. I dismounted and offered Consolation water, which she didn't drink, and from which she was soon distracted by Jackie's sharp cry. Her mare had managed to slip out of her headstall, step on it, and break one of the cheek pieces.
Jackie pondered the snapped leather while I carried on encouraging Consolation to drink. The riders ahead of us continued down the trail, setting Nancy to dancing while Consolation snoozed and another group joined us from behind. One of their riders leaned beside Jackie over the broken headstall...and Nancy made a break for it. In the midst of a scuffle and shout, the chestnut mare pulled free of Jackie's hold and galloped full-tilt up the trail and out of sight.
Consolation still hadn't drunk, but we'd waited ten minutes by now, the morning was cool, and I was ready to go. I rode ahead with a promise to tie Nancy along the trail if I had the good fortune to catch her. Alone now, Consolation took the trail with confidence, if not speed. We'd trotted less than a mile when Nancy came cantering and blowing back toward us. Consolation scarcely flicked an ear.
I hopped off and Nancy came right to me. I gave her a hasty pat, tied her to a nearby pine, mounted up on my own, stock-still horse, and was impressed when she again moved off without protest. So much for my worries that Consolation would focus on the other horses and become unmanageable!
Alone in the woods, I let my thoughts wander as Consolation thudded steadily up the hill. This, I marvelled, is the mare I sometimes feared might never trust me, never offer more than grudging respect. And yet, last night in camp, she whinned after me every time I left her alone at the trailer -- and here we are, together on the trail, trotting boldly into the great unknown.
Several miles later, we trotted by him again.
...Wait a minute. Again?
Fortunately, we'd missed our turn less than a mile back, so it didn't take long for us to recover the appropriate trail and carry on with Consolation in the lead. She handled the trail with remarkable grace for a new, green mount. All I could have wished for was additional speed -- we were averaging a mere 5 miles per hour, including delays -- but I didn't wish too much even for that, considering that the trail involved a good deal more elevation gain than that to which Consolation is accustomed.
All the same, I was glad when ridecamp finally came into view, and even more glad when Consolation pulsed down almost immediately. We proceeded to the vet check and flew through with mostly A's. Our only B+ was on hydration -- a state of affairs that Consolation remedied with a long drink shortly before taking off for our second loop.
Jackie and Nancy, who had been outfitted with a fresh headstall, were leaving at the same time. We agreed that both horses could handle a faster pace, so we put Nancy in front to see if she would tow Consolation along. It worked. We zoomed through most of the second, 14-mile loop at a flying trot that gained us enough places to finish 17th and 18th out of 26 starts (minus 2 pulls).
At the finish, Consolation again pulsed down in plenty of time and vetted through with all A's, but for one B on gut sounds. That's what she gets for being a bit distractable during the hold, rather than settling into her hay! I'm not terribly worried about this being a problem in the future; as calmly as Consolation handled this initial ride, she's likely to be even more relaxed in the future.
Walking back to camp, where Ironman sat plucking away at his guitar and not expecting us for another forty minutes at least, I paused to rub Consolation's forehead. To finish is to win, they say, and I suppose that's true.
But it wasn't Consolation's first LD completion that left me brimming with deep and quiet satisfaction. Those 30 miles of unfamiliar trail, ridden together in an attitude of mutual trust, marked the end of a much longer journey -- a journey from untouchable horse and inexperienced trainer, through balk and bolt, over a mountain of conflicting wills, to the partnership I never quite stopped believing lay on the other side.
To finish is to win? Indeed -- and it is also to begin. We'll take our second loop faster.
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