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