September is still months away, but already Jam and I are fixated on our first 100. Every ride between now and then will be a shakedown cruise — testing and adjusting everything from nutrition to hoof boots to training to tack. Nagging physical and mental issues (horse or human) cannot be ignored. And, there is conditioning to do.
Covering 100 miles in 2 days struck me as the most logical stepping stone between single-day 50′s and a 100-miler. That’s exactly what I had in mind for last weekend’s Owyhee Fandango Pioneer.
Fandango is a popular ride in the Northwest Region, attracting riders from a number of western states and sometimes Canada as well. I was surprised, last Thursday afternoon, to pull into ridecamp around 4pm and find a lot of open space still available in the lower camp. Lucky me! I selected a level spot with an easy pull-out, knowing I’d be leaving Sunday morning while a lot of trailers remained for the final day. I set out some buckets to save a spot for Jodie and her mustang Sonny, who rode with us at Tough Sucker and planned to do the same on Fandango Day 1.
Camp setup, registration, vet in, cold beer, ride meeting…you know the drill. I left Jam booted but unblanketed and settled in for a desert night with lows around 50 degrees, and proceeded to sleep with frequent interruptions by the pawing of a neighboring horse. Come morning, Jodie and I saddled up and hung back from the start. She wanted to work on curbing Sonny’s raciness, and I certainly wasn’t eager for a repeat of the Tough Sucker bucking incident with Jam.
As it transpired, all the bending and quieting trail work I’d done with Jam between rides seemed to pay off. Both horses started pleasantly, walking and jogging to the first creek crossing and remaining calm even when the young mare ahead of us took on the water with a spectacularly hilarious, flying leap-and-bolt maneuver. A steep climb up to the ridge set us on our way.
Desert, desert, desert. We trotted as much as we could along the cow trails and 4×4 roads, grateful for our hoof boots but still keeping down the speed thanks to a generous scattering of loose rock. Many of the trails here used to feature pretty decent footing, but the last couple winters have choked up a lot of obstacles, making them tougher on hooves and demanding that we walk stretches we would otherwise have covered at a brisk clip.
Not that we were in a hurry. Our goal for the day was to spend at least 7.5 hours on the 50-mile trail, focusing on bringing the horses’ speed down toward an average speed of about 7mph. Good thing, since the route to the vet check took us through Sinker Canyon.
Sinker Canyon is a lovely little spot featuring repeated stream crossings, low-hanging branches, multiple gates, and a whole lot of rock. If you care about your horse, you’re pretty much destined to walk the entire five miles. It’s scenic down there, but I’ll be honest: Sinker Canyon isn’t my favorite. Too slow. Too slow for me, and definitely too slow for Jam. It can be hard to pass in the narrow places, and horses tend to get bunched up as they stop to drink or open gates. Jam’s fast walk complicates matters; he really doesn’t like being smashed up in a group, especially early in a ride for which he’s more than fit.
So, Sinker was a bit stressful to begin with. There was no need to throw in a rattlesnake.
Jodie and I rode around a corner about halfway through the canyon, feeling good about managing to stay in a small bubble between other riders, to find a crowd gathering on a narrow bit of trail leading down to yet another creek crossing. Word floated back from those at the front: Rattlesnake! Right there, trapped against the cliff and rattling away. He had nowhere to go, so urging him with long branches and tossed pebbles was useless. Passing on the trail was obviously unwise — and even if we did, how would we warn riders to come after? Hmm.
We were contemplating dropping off the trail’s edge and sloshing down a deep stretch of creek to bypass the snake when a rider in the back of the scrum dismounted and pushed his way forward. Before anyone knew what he was planning, he chucked a basketball-sized rock at the snake. Bam! Smash! Rattle rattle rattle. The snake was trapped beneath the rock, doomed but still rattling. Some cheered, others frowned. I just worked to manage my horse (who was doing well, but starting to lose it) in the increasingly restless crowd.
Now, the riders coming behind us would be safe, but our present group still had to get around the very angry rattler. We decided to risk the deep water rather than squeezing through the narrow spot where the snake — a good-sized one about 2 inches in diameter — still rattled away.
Jam hesitated at the edge of creek. Leaned over the dropoff. Lowered his head. Snorted. Plunged down. We sloshed into the belly-deep water and I felt him gather as if to run, or buck, or possibly tuck his hind feet beneath himself and roll. Oh no! None of that, Buddy Boy! I clapped him with my heels and we surged out the other side. Whew.
To my relief, we finally made it through the canyon and were able to trot some on the climb up to the vet check. Sonny took a few, extra minutes to come down to criteria. (Not being an Arab, this is typical for him.) Meanwhile, the vet took a look at Jam and asked “When are you going to start using him?” It’s nice to have a lily-fresh horse 25 miles along a hot, rocky trail.
Jam ate very well and Sonny moderately. Both drank a lot and looked great, so Jodie and I let them speed up a bit on the second loop, grateful for better footing. We were about 10 miles from camp when Sonny hopped sideways in surprise. The cable on one of his Renegades had snapped. Drat. Jodie pulled both boots off him (he was already bare in back), and thanks to lots of barefoot conditioning and those tough mustang tootsies, we made it back to camp just fine.
We cruised in at 7 hours on the nose — faster than we’d intended, but feeling as though we hadn’t rushed the horses or let them get away with pulling us down the trail unrated. It had been a comfortably (even easily) paced day, so we were quite surprised to find ourselves in the top 10. Sonny was a bit sore on his left hind and we knew the first place horse was well ahead of us (58 minutes, to be precise), so neither of us chose to show for BC. Instead, we headed back to our trailers to clean up the horses, slather their legs with poultice, and ply them with feed before indulging ourselves with shorts, camp chairs, and beer.
Dusk brought a windstorm that drove up dust and hurried us into our campers, leaving our horses covered with light sheets and well supplied with hay. Gusts swayed the camper all night, disrupting sleep, but morning dawned even warmer than the previous day. I stripped to a single layer before mounting up.
Jam and I fell in at the back of the pack, well behind the starting horses, alongside Lynn and her Arab-Appaloosa boy Roger, who was out for his first 50. We both wanted a slow ride — about 8 hours — and decided to see if our horses would fall in well together. As it turned out, they got along fine, but Roger wasn’t up to Jam’s fitness level and we were soon having to slow up and wait for them at frequent intervals. This was good training for Jam, who had some racy moments but overall rated quite well on the relatively-easy first loop, but I think he was glad to leave Roger behind at a water stop where Lynn decided to give her horse some extra time to rest and eat. (She suspected a mild tie-up, but he turned out to be fine.)
Jam and I made decent time on the first loop, knowing that the second would be slower due to terrain. Sure enough, Loop 2 featured some technical work including numerous crossings of steep-sided washes that involved easing down 8+ foot drops, then immediately lurching up the opposite sides. It pays to have a level-headed horse for that kind of work.
We’d passed 6 or 8 horses during the first loop, and the riders closest behind me must have been a bit late out of the hold, because I was delighted to find Jam and myself alone in a nice, big bubble. Once in a while, we spied other riders a mile or two ahead or behind, but for all intents and purposes, we had the trail to ourselves. I even pulled out my phone to play some music (out loud, not through earbuds, as I like to be aware of my environment and my horse’s footfalls).
Gradually, we caught and passed the closest pair of riders, leaving them behind as we reached Hart Creek and crossed it to get to a lollipop section of trail featuring an endless sand wash. I used the wash as an opportunity to drop my stirrups and stretch my legs. Trotting there is a bad idea; the sand is too deep and bowed tendons are a real possibility. So, we walked our way to firmer ground…which turned out to be not just firm, but rocky.
Good lord, was the rest of that loop rocky! We trotted where we could, but it was rough going. Hot. Steep. Windy. Rocky. Really hot. Really steep. Really windy. Really rocky. By the time we clambered up the knife ridge — one of my favorite parts of the Oreana rides, where the desert spills away on all sides, littered with boulders and sage, crinkled into an endless series of plateaus and ravines — even Jam was asking to stop. Rough going, indeed. I dismounted and walked beside him for a while. We reached the final water stop, where he drank while I sponged his forequarters and belly.
Refreshed, Jam bounced back to his usual self for the remaining miles. He trotted into camp with pricked ears, bright eyes, and plenty of compliments from the volunteers at the timing table. To my immense surprise, I learned we had top-tenned again! This time, the first-place horse had been slightly off (not enough for non-completion), so it was worth our trouble to stand for BC.
As it turned out, Jam was completely sound on his initial trot-out but displayed some shifting soreness (muscle stiffness, or, more likely, foot-weariness from all those rocks) during the BC exam, so that took BC off the table. I wasn’t fussed. Jam was happy, healthy, eating and drinking well, and seemed to have enjoyed his first multi-day ride. And despite our completion time of 7:56, we’d maintained his all-top-10 record.
Even better, we successfully knocked down a few hurdles on our road to 100:
- Jam ate his electrolytes in a mash of wheat bran and dry cob. No syringe dosing!
- I kept myself hydrated. The key was wearing a 40-oz Camelbak so it’s easy to take sips even with my hands are busy controlling an energetic horse.
- My legs remained almost pain-free, with compartment syndrome symptoms under control. Prescription orthotics, preemptive ultrasound, anti-inflammatories, calf stretching, and a slower pace all played a role here.
I have an eyeball on riding 2-3 days at Strawberry Fields Forever. It’s a 7+ hour haul down past Salt Lake, but the ride has an excellent reputation and the timing (mid-late June) is ideal. And, I’m told there aren’t many rocks.