Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Golden Days

I don't do takeout often, but today, I can't resist.

My friend wrote this.

I wish I had.

Photo by East End Portrait Photography

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Sunday, October 18, 2009

The Making of a Monster: Owyhee Canyonlands 2009, Day 5

All right, all right -- I'll write, I'll write! You guys crack me up with your comments.

But I'm warning you, it's like I told Ironman shortly after dismounting on Day 5: I have no story to tell. No one kicked or bucked or ran away or fell off or won or got lost or came up lame. It was just a plain, old, marvelous, enchanting, exhilarating ride.

... ... ...

Why are you all still here?

Oh yes. The question of the 50. Well.

"What are you doing today," Ironman asked for the benefit of his video camera, aiming the viewfinder at me and Consolation as we strolled toward the starting line.

"We're doing the fifty." I said. "At least, we're going to try. You never know what will happen."

Consolation certainly thought she knew. Milling among the other horses, she quivered with controlled excitement. When the trail opened and we all took off like a herd of turtles, walking along the gravel road and the steep hill we'd climbed at the beginning of Day 1, she pranced along at the back of the pack. It's only 30 miles, Mom. Let's go!

You don't know what you're in for, little lady.

She listened (mostly) to the repeated "no" of seat and reins, and I didn't have to work too hard to hold her in. All the same, we were both delighted to reach the top of the ridge and take off trotting under an expanse of iron-clouded sky. The endless wind swirled her mane around my hands dust rolled away in clouds from the line of horses strung like beads along the trail ahead. It filled her nostrils with fuss and snort, but she responded willingly enough when I planted her behind another horse to help moderate her speed.

Still, the first seven or eight miles flashed by. I felt we'd scarcely begun when we found ourselves already at the first water stop. Horses clustered around a pair of large tanks set a few yards off the trail. Among them was a lovely, chestnut sabino I recognized as Amanda Washington's new mare, Replika.

"How's it going?" asked Amanda, whose response when I'd told her the evening before that we planned to try the 50 was, "About time!" (Incidentally, Karen Bumgarner said exactly the same thing minutes later, then proceeded to reassure me that what I'd heard time and again is true -- it's not the miles that beat up young horses, it's excessive speed. I must say, their confidence in us was inspiring.)

"She's fine," I replied. "Doing great." (I did say that I have no story, remember?)

Indeed, Consolation looked happily around, ignoring the water. Cool day, early in the ride, no cause for concern. We headed back down the trail, now alone in a gap between riders. Within minutes, however, Amanda and Replika caught up to us. The mares paced each other nicely, Consolation drawing on Replika's speed, and Replika on Consolation's calm. Amanda and I chatted our way on into the vet check, where Consolation vetted through with all A's.

I threw a fleece blanket over her hindquarters to stave off the chilly, moist breeze that had the volunteers shivering. She ate samplings of various hays and wild grasses while I consumed a handful of nuts from my saddlebag, but she showed no interest in her beet pulp or water. Ah, well. Still early, still cool, and I've learned that she generally doesn't drink until we're at least 15 miles in.

"Ready?" Amanda called, appearing nearby with Replika in hand. I offered Consolation one, last chance at the trough -- no go -- before stuffing her blanket back into its plastic bag, in case of rain, and mounting up.

The second loop took us down the sandy wash we'd ridden on Day 1, then all the way out to the Snake River. On windier days, I'm told, the river flashes with whitecaps, but today its waves sloshed more gently toward shore. All the same, Consolation wasn't interested in drinking along the muddy, buggy beach.

By the time we reached a second river access point, this one with a bucket waiting for horses that prefer not to drink from natural sources (not that such is typically a problem for Consolation), I was really ready to see her take in some water. Alas, she was far more interested in ridding her ears of the riverside gnats while chewing mouthfuls of grass than in drinking. All the same, her attitude and energy level remained normal, the weather chilly, and our pace very reasonable. I figured she'd drink when she was good and ready.

Boy, was I right! About five miles from the vet check, I felt her flagging a bit and commented to Amanda that she finally felt like she needed water. Sure enough, the moment the pulse timer declared us "down" at the vet check, she spotted the trough and dragged me there so fast that I accidentally bumped into another rider who was peaceably watering her horse at the crowded tank.

Finally, and to my great pleasure, Consolation drank so much I thought she might drown. (Perhaps she learned a lesson, eh?) She earned all A's from the vet again, then steadily munched hay right up until it was time to leave again. Her ribcage felt discernibly wider between my knees as we walked the first half-mile, warming up slowly under a sky darkened by increasing threat of rain.

Taking turns in the lead, Consolation and Replika carried us back across the desert, across the highway, across the ridge where the storm pulled their tails horizontal and wrinkled their noses with displeasure at a spattering of icy drops. We dropped off the ridge, trotted along the road, then bounced back up and across the bluff behind ridecamp. Consolation swept toward the finish on a wave of energy, snorting playfully at clumps of sagebrush and the tiny creek where Ironman waited with his camera.

"Looks like you have an endurance horse," Amanda said as we dismounted and led our ponies in for 24rd and 25th place out of 32 starters and 30 finishers. She's right, I realized, feeling a grin creep across my face. I do have an endurance horse again. At last.

We received our completion from the Headless Horseman....

...and huddled on the porch that evening to listen to the final day's results.

"I'm not sure this is right," the ride manager said as she came across our names. "Did you ride the fifty?"

"Sure did," I said, as Karen Bumgarner called out, "Amanda and I forced her into it. I think we may have created a monster."

Yes, ma'am. I think you just might have. Perhaps there's a story in my little gray mare, after all. Ride on!


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Friday, October 16, 2009

Riding Aside

While Consolation rested on Day 4 of the Owyhee Canyonlands Pioneer, Ironman and I compiled this directory of Things to Do When You're Not Riding:

1. The dishes.

2. Climb a big hill...

3. ...and do Zorro impressions.

4. Or, visit a ghost town...

5. ...with a white church...
(a very photogenic white church)

6. ...and an old outhouse. Sorry -- tours by appointment only.

7. Start your Christmas shopping.

8. Or play in an old loading chute.

9. Back at camp, pour a bit of whiskey. Play cribbage. And ponder the familiar question: Should we ride the 50 tomorrow? It's our last chance! Shall we try it? Ponder...

10. ...and, finally, reach a decision.
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Saturday, October 10, 2009

Down the Rabbit Hole: Owyhee Canyonlands 2009, Day 3

My boots had scarcely touched the ground after Consolation's Day 1 3rd place LD finish before Ironman and I began speculating. The horse looked really good. She'd handled the race well both physically and mentally. What if she could do a 50, after all?

What if? What if? We pondered the question throughout her rest on Day 2 of the ride, and by evening had decided to run the idea past the vets when checking in for the next day's race. Two vets were on hand to ponder the matter, and both approved the idea...but one pointed out that the Day 3 50 was actually a 55 and included a rocky 25-mile loop with little water.

Hmm. Back at the trailer, over steaming bowls of marinara with ground beef and veggies, Ironman and I decided to stick with the original plan. We would settle for the LD again on Day 3 and leave our options open for Days 4 and 5.

Come morning, the 50's started under a sapphire sky. A brisk but light breeze played around camp as I made leisurely preparations for Consolation's 10:00 a.m. start time. Due to the logistics of ensuring that vets were present both at the out vet check and back in camp for the finish, we LD's had quite a lie-in.

[Warning: Digression Ahead]

Which reminds me: At the ride meeting that night, I overhead someone refer to Limited Distance as "Luxury Distance." I must admit that I took some offense to the joke -- not because I disagree that 25 or 30 miles is quite an easy distance to cover in a day for any reasonably fit rider and horse, nor because I feel its risks and challenges are on a par with 50+ mile endurance races. (The data is clear that endurance is a whole other animal than LD when it comes to equine metabolic health.)

Rather, I was a bit miffed by the jester's apparent assumption (and yes, I'm making an assumption of my own, here) that all us LD riders chose the LD precisely because it was easy, fast, fun, and a way to win prizes for less work. Perhaps that is true of some riders. However, the majority with whom I chatted on the trail were there for other reasons. Most were on young, green, partially-conditionined horses, mounts coming back from injuries, or old endurance horses that still love the sport but aren't quite up to long distances anymore. Many, including me, longed for the day their horses would be ready to graduate to 50's and were simply using the LD as a stepping-stone to train and condition while still enjoying a formal event.

Here's my point: Go easy on the assumptions, please. And I'll try to do the same.

[End of Digression.]

By 9:45, Consolation and I were in the warm-up paddock with 16 other teams. Catching sight of the chestnut gelding, Drifter, whom Consolation had tried to kick on Day 1, I circled around to let his rider -- Carol, whose husband Craig had ridden Drifter on Day 1 -- know that my horse seemed to have something against hers. She called back that we'd soon find out whether it was Drifter or Craig that Consolation disliked!

Chuckling, I turned my attention back to Consolation's warmup. The arch in her neck and flare of her nostrils told me, quite clearly, that she had figured this game out. It was time to play!

Moments later, the trail opened. None of the milling riders headed for the trail. I shrugged and leaned forward in the saddle. If no one else was going... Consolation bounded up the rise and set off at a strong, working trot. She suffered a moment's hesitation as we passed along the road above our trailer, but a nudge in the ribs reminded her that we were off for a day's adventure. By the time we'd crossed the creekbed and started into the desert, I found myself actually working a bit to hold her in. A miracle!

Even better, this was no wrestling match such as Aaruba and I endured many times at the beginning of races. Rather, it was a discussion of enthusiasm versus restraint, and within a couple miles we'd agreed upon a steady trot punctuated by some walking down steep hills and over occasional gullies.

To my great surprise, the only other team in sight was Carol and Drifter. We leapfrogged along, alternately exchanging Consolation's calming effect for Drifter's "pull" up the trail. Only a few minutes seemed to pass before we encountered photographer Steve Bradley's familiar sign: Photo Ahead -- Space Out.

Consolation and I happened to be in the lead. We trotted happily along, ears up and smile in place, while Steve snapped our photo. Then, just as I called "Good morning," something on the other side of the trail caught Consolation's eye. A prey animal through and through, Consolation tends to leap first and asks questions later...and boy, did she leap. I was on the ground before I saw it coming, reins still in one hand, scrambling up with one dirty hip but no appreciable pain.

I mounted from the off side and was on the trail again within ten seconds, calling back reassurances to Carol's concern. I'm not sure Consolation ever quite figured out what happened, and I never did see what spooked her. Probaby one of those equinivorous sagebrush.

Eminently grateful not to have landed on a rock, I chatted with Carol as we followed the ribbons along more dirt trail, then up a long stretch of gravel road before cutting off again for a long climb up a rutted and beautiful trail that led to the top of a ridge. From our new vantage point, we looked back and were startled to see neither hide nor hair of another rider. We exchanged a look of mild concern. Where was everyone? Surely we couldn't be that far ahead! We'd hardly rushed; in fact, we'd walked nearly all of that last climb. Could we be off trail?

But no, there were our ribbons, leading away across the ridge. There weren't many extras, but "comfort ribbons" were hardly necessary as the trail was clear and no turnoffs presented themselves. We trotted on, wind rushing in our ears, glancing back on occasion with the full expectation that other riders would soon appear.

They never did. Eventually, the vet check materialized before us and we dismounted to walk in. Consolation was at criteria immediately upon arrival. She helped herself to a long drink, then vetted through with all A's. Restless and determined to spend most of her time staring across the plain for incoming horses (the next LD riders proved to be about 10 minutes behind Carol and myself), Consolation nonetheless consumed a reasonable quantity of hay before the end of our hold.

Carol and I set off again together. Our horses trotted side by side, each slipping occasionally in and out of the lead. We amused ourselves with commentary about how it must be Craig -- not Drifter -- to whom Consolation took exception, after all!

Buzzing back along the same trail we'd ridden into the vet check, we passed our fellow LD riders with smiles and waves. Eventually, they'd all gone by in the opposite direction, and we once more had the ridge to ourselves. Drifter took the front position, and Consolation pounded after him, her brisk trot peppered with occasional canters and one joyous buck that resulted in my trot-only edict for the next few miles!

This was easy to enforce, for we soon encountered a left turnoff that led down the canyon and into a stand of trees. The trail wound like coiled rope among the cottonwoods, whose branches all but closed over our heads. Consolation and I chased the disappearing flashes of Drifter's tail down and around, leaves brushing my helmet and knees.

"I feel like Alice in Wonderland!" I called ahead to Carol, whose face was radiant when we caught up to her in the creekbed at the end of the rabbithole. "What a fantastic trail!"

Still grinning, we plowed through a rough-and-tumble, cross-country section where bright ribbons wound us between sagebrush and rocks, occasionally pulling up sharply to navigate steep washes or tricky tangles of brush. Whipping along with Consolation's face light in my hands, her body balanced between steady reins and guiding knees, my Alice in Wonderland fantasies evaporated in favor of old Westerns. We were stagecoach bandits fleeing across the desert, spurred by adrenaline and flush with success!

And then, we arrived at The Hill. John Teeter had mentioned during the ride meeting that he'd trained one of his horses to tail on this this particular section of trail. I could see why! Pulling up at the bottom, Carol and I stared up the long, steep track.

"We supposed to go up that thing?"

"I think so... Yes, see the ribbon?"

"Here goes..."

It was a tough, glorious climb that left the horses puffing with effort and pride, and Carol and me laughing giddily at Drifter's frequent attempts to meander off trail in search of an easier route. We paused at the top to give the horses a breather and snap a few photos.

From there, the ride back to camp was a breeze. We flew along, our horses full of air and sprite, and arrived at the finish almost side by side. Consolation once again pulsed down right away to secure the 1st place slot (shock! surprise!), while Drifter called to his buddy but still came down in plenty of time to take 2nd place 26 minutes ahead of the 3rd place team.

I led Consolation through her BC exam in a state of quiet exhilaration. Yes, I was excited to have won (Who'd have thought? We didn't even try to hurry!), but mostly I was high on sheer love of the sport. Carol and Drifter had been fantastic company, the trail beautiful, the weather fair, and my horse -- my horse! -- she was the best of all.

After all those months of wondering whether Consolation would ever find her spark, ever truly enjoy our miles on the trail, all my doubts were finally washed away. Not only does she love the game, but she's good at it, too. She listens. She thinks. She makes suggestions. She learns. She eats and drinks and rests and, when the time is right, she applies herself heart and soul to the job at hand.

I carried a beautiful poncho from Argentina back from the ride meeting that night, Consolation's 1st place award...and I also carried a familiar question: What if? What if she really could do a 50 this week?

What if?

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Wednesday, October 7, 2009

Desert Storm: Owyhee Canyonlands 2009, Day 1

There's nowhere on earth like the Owyhee canyonlands. Roughly fifty miles south of Boise, Idaho, the high desert stretches over a vast canvas of plateaus, ravines, and washes. Its surface is littered with rock, deep sand, and pillows of beige "moon dust" that billows up from trotting horses' feet, coating lungs and tack and obscuring the vision of all downwind. When the weather changes, gusts roar over the ridges like invisible water. They cut through clothing and stagger unwary hikers, turn horses to devils, chill hands and whip bits of desert debris to stinging dust.

When Ironman, Consolation, and I pulled into ridecamp on Monday, change was in the air. After a week of summer highs, temperatures had begun a twenty-four hour plunge to freezing nights and blustery days. By evening, ridecamp huddled, shivering, in the arms of autumn, and Tuesday was birthed on a gust of desert wind.

The air smelled of sage, of clouds and dust, as I slipped on Consolation's new Easyboot Gloves and saddled up.

She shied and snorted as I led her about camp amid snapping flags and dogs, excitable horses, and roaring generators. By the time I mounted, however, she was restored to her usual calm. Fifteen Limited Distance riders, including myself, were set to to at 9:30. We gathered at the start to await the familiar call, "The trail is open!"

When it came, Consolation and I left with the frontrunners -- or frontwalkers, if truth be told. Looking ahead to five days of races, no one was in a rush to wear out his mount on the first loop. Janet on Ladybug (in purple), Craig on Drifter (the chestnut), and a few others joined us for a mile's walk that escalated into a jog, then finally a trot as we climbed the first, steep hill and rode away into the canyonlands.

Atop the ridge, Consolation surged beneath me. Slapped broadside by the wind and memories of her first race at Old Selam, surrounded by other horses whose hooves pounded the double-track dirt trail, her emotions escalated to a state of excitement that culminated with a double-barrel kick at poor Drifter. Nineteen years old and a Tevis veteran, Drifter took her failed attempt at domination in stride. I, however, spent the rest of the week training my mare to mind her manners!

That kick was about the most exciting event of the day. Consolation settled quickly into a brisk trot that carried us across the highway and along a trail whose dust, nearly a foot deep in places, swelled in windborne clouds. Some riders pulled bandanas over their faces; others, like myself, put extra space between ourselves and surrounding teams, allowing the air to clear before we had to breathe it.

Eventually, the fine dust gave way to sand, and I pulled Consolation down to a walk to protect her ligaments, as we haven't conditioned much in deep footing. Several other riders did the same, and we leapfrogged each other for a bit until we broke out on firmer track leading into the vet check.

We vetted through with all A's. Consolation didn't drink, but we were only 16 miles into the ride, the day was cool, and she ate well, so I saw no reason to worry. I mounted up shortly after Craig and Janet left on Drifter and Ladybug and left the vet check immediately upon the end of my 40-minute hold.

Consolation and I set out alone this time, she spooking at the blowing ribbons that led us through a left turn only a few hundred yards from the vet check. As we trotted along, I glanced up the hill to see both Craig and Janet riding back down. They seemed to have missed the turn.

Interesting. It occurred to me that I was now certainly somewhere in the top ten -- always a nice place to be, though I had no intention of racing. Limited Distance is, in my mind, primarly a training and conditioning event, not a contest.

Though Consolation was moving out fairly quickly, she's certainly faster in the presence of another horse. I was glad, therefore, when Janet and Ladybug caught up to us -- and even more pleased for the chance to chat with Janet for the rest of the ride. She was pleasant company indeed, and our mares paced each other well.

As we climbed the last hill toward ridecamp, Craig and Drifter caught up to us as well. Joking about Consolation's apparent dislike of Drifter, who seemed to have fallen in love with her, we cantered some along the ridge, then dropped to a walk down the other side. The horses had plenty of sprite left in them, so we amused ourselves with a "race" toward the finish, cantering and trotting intermittently up the road and into camp.

Craig and I arrived at the in-timer together. Glancing at the clipboard, I was shocked to see that we'd arrived third and fourth! Pulse-down determined the placing, and Consolation came down first to secure the third place slot.

Ironman was equally surprised to find us in so soon. I'd predicted a ride time much longer than 3:34! Fortunately, he was ready for us with a clean, straw-bedded pen, full water bucket, fresh hay, and extra hands to help me juggle tack, horse, and vet card -- because we weren't going to pass up our chance for BC!

Meanwhile, Consolation took a nap.

Come evening, well-bundled but comfortable in the relative shelter of the yard, we accepted not only a completion award and third place, but Best Condition and High Vet Score as well. Never mind that the BC was a mistake -- the following evening, it was re-awarded to BehKhan instead -- we still got HVS, and I couldn't have been prouder of my girl.

Even better, I realized as darkness fell over ridecamp and Ironman poured celebratory measures of whiskey, the Owyhee Canyonlands Pioneer had just begun.

Related Posts
Fit to Continue
Bring Me That Horizon: Fifty-five Miles at Owyhee Canyonlands

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Tuesday, October 6, 2009


There is a backhoe parked in my driveway tonight. A sable mound of earth, freshly turned, is just visible from the north deck. It is Goldie's grave.

Goldie wasn't my horse. She belonged to a friend who needed a quiet place to bury her. Somewhere she could settle into dust, and in some other century blow across this hill in the autumn wind that only yesterday filled her crescent nostrils and billowed her flaxen mane.

I didn't know her well, never rode her, never stroked her. When she arrived at In the Night Farm, she was already gone. She died in her own pasture a few miles away -- familiar, safe, in the company of her chestnut companion.

I didn't know her well, but I admired her fine, straight legs that protruded from the bucket of the backhoe. Her bones and tendons stood out lovely and artistic, striking, intricate perfection. Sheen still lay like sunlight on her coat. Neatly rasped hooves, all black, wore fringes of coronet hair grown long for the winter she'll never have to face.

I didn't know her well, but I felt the whisper of her passing. Someone had covered her face with a blanket for the journey between farms. I couldn't see her eyes, to know for sure her soul had gone, but I wondered if she could see me.

Horses can, you know. They see us better than we see ourselves.

I didn't know her well, but she was a good one -- a lucky one, too, to die at home with the family that loved her most of her life. She was twenty-eight.

Farewell, sweet Goldie. Happy trails.

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Sunday, October 4, 2009

Fit to Continue

We're baaaaack!

Many thanks to all who sent their well wishes to me and Consolation for our week at Owyhee Canyonlands. Those of you who follow us on Twitter (and bothered with the math) may already suspect that things didn't go precisely as planned.

They went better. Much better.

I'm too wrung out to tell the story now, but stay tuned for full details...after I get some sleep!


Don't miss the ride stories...

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Thursday, October 1, 2009

Shot in the Dark: Renewal

Rest when you're weary.
Refresh and renew yourself, your body, your mind, your spirit.
Then get back to work.

~ Ralph Marston

Photo by Michael Ensch

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