Turning Pink: 2008 Pink Flamingo Classic, Day One
I need another endurance horse!
No, not a different endurance horse — another endurance horse. So I can ride more. Because I am obsessed.
I can safely say this following the 2008 Pink Flamingo Classic despite the fact that my performance at the Saturday LD was, shall we say, less than stellar. All afternoon on Sunday, people kept saying things like, “Looks like you had a better ride today!”
My reply was always the same: “I had a great ride yesterday! It just happened to be on the wrong trail.”
But we’ll get to that. Let’s begin on Friday afternoon as Travis and I pulled off the highway onto a gravel road near Cascade, Idaho. Horse trailer in tow, we wound through a vast meadow surrounded by forested mountains, through two gates announcing that we were now in a house of horrors — er, a cattle ranch — and past a sign advising, “Prepare to Release Your Inner Flamingo.”
As ride camp came into view, we braked to wait for a line of trailers to inch across a creek through the middle of ride camp. Apparently, someone at the front of the line doubted the wisdom of such a crossing. The wait allowed us ample opportunity to scan the expanse of trailers bedecked with pink boas and plastic flamingos, surrounded by portable corrals and high tie systems, dogs and horses, riders and crew.
This creek was to be a source of much amusement throughout the weekend. As the crossing lay between most of ride camp and the vetting area, riders were forever taking horses back and forth through the water. As endurance mounts, few horses objected to the creek itself — some downright loved it — but things got interesting as some horses attempted to follow their handlers across the narrow footbridge!
After driving across the creek, we backed into a nice spot next to a mother-daughter pair with the most astonishing array of wooden flamingos grazing in front of their truck. I took Aaruba for a walk while Travis set up Command Central. You may recall that at the Owyhee Fandango in May, Aaruba illustrated his displeasure at the idea of spending two days tied to the horse trailer. So, instead of ordering a Hi-Tie as I had planned, we carried four Powder River panels on the side of the trailer and set up a sturdy pen.
Good thing, too. Not an hour had passed before the resident herd of cattle lumbered past on their way to the creek. Aaruba’s eyes bulged and he scampered around in his pen like a hunted rabbit. He spent the entire evening in such a state of anxiety that, after the ride meeting, I had to take him for a calming walk and allow his sweaty flanks to dry before putting his sheet on for the night.
Temperatures were in the low 40’s when the horn blew at 5:00 a.m. on Saturday. Our alarm was set for 5:30, but there was no sleeping through the cacophony of a hundred-odd excitable horses being fed and tacked. Travis fired up the old Coleman to make coffee while I encouraged Aaruba to down a breakfast of beet pulp and hay. He doesn’t get any grain or oil on ride mornings, as the former causes carbohydrate spikes and the latter is too satiating at a time when it’s critically important that he consume as much forage as possible.
At 6:40, we strapped on Aaruba’s Easyboots and tack, and at 7:30, we were off! Aaruba and I hung back from the front runners and took off at a brisk trot about two minutes after the trail opened. As this was only our second race, we had no ambitions of winning, and I’m all for avoiding a chaotic stampede of hoofed mammals whenever possible.
Trotting along at a furious pace, dodging other riders and keeping a tight rein on Aaruba’s enthusiasm, I tried to scan the branches for the pink and purple ribbons that marked our first loop. While following ribbons is not exactly difficult, it is also not as easy as it sounds when you’re on one of the main routes to and from ride camp and the trail is bedecked with ribbons of myriad colors, the morning sun is playing tricks on your eyes, adrenaline is running high, and you have many demands on your attention. And that’s where things went wrong.
Have you ever done something that, in hindsight, makes no sense at all, even though it seemed perfectly logical at the time? Have you ever tried, and failed, to explain why you made the choices you made? That’s what it’s like trying to explain how I ended up riding the pink loop, but I’ll give it a shot.
Zooming along the trail, I recalled the ride manager’s warning that the pink and purple ribbons might look like pink and white, and sure enough, some did. In fact, many of them did! I hadn’t gone far enough to wonder about this when I caught up with another rider on a gray foxtrotter called Bear. Darla had paused at a fork to determine the appropriate direction, and we agreed that the thing to do was veer right. I can’t recall now what color the ribbons there were…probably pink and white. Really pink and white, not pink and purple-masquerading-as-white. I had no inkling that we had already missed our turn.
Several minutes of trotting and conversation later, we followed the ribbons off the wilderness road and up a steep, crude trail littered with fallen branches. The horses’ hooves sank into powdery soil as we descended the other side, scrambling around decaying stumps on our way down to a logging road where a painted line blocked travel to the left. We turned right…and saw only orange ribbons. A quarter mile down the track, we still had only orange. My companion turned around to re-inspect the last turn while I rode ahead in search of pink and purple. I found none. We met back in the middle and my companion announced that we were going the right way according the marks on the ground. We carried on.
Ah, hindsight. Had I been riding alone, I would not have settled for orange ribbons in lieu of pink and purple. I would have gone back further, searched harder. I don’t understand why we failed to do so, nor why we were relieved just minutes later to find pink ribbons leading us on. What did we think was so wonderful about pink, when there was no purple hanging with it?
A couple miles along, we came to a creek crossing. The horses didn’t drink so we carried on, somehow believing we’d found our trail again. (See, I told you it wouldn’t make sense, but I swear it seemed to at the time!) After a while, Aaruba and I moved out ahead of Darla and Bear. They’d been pleasurable company, but we were up for a faster pace than they had chosen.
The pink ribbons led me up a deserted logging road, higher and higher up the forested slope. We trotted for some time, then slowed so Aaruba could snatch mouthfuls of the tall grass growing along the trail. As we came around one curve, something large crashed up the hillside nearby. I studied the underbrush for a deer…and something growled. Time to trot again!
By now, I had grown quite uncertain about our choice of trails. There were no purple ribbons among the pink, no sign of manure or hoof prints though I knew we weren’t leading the pack, no riders coming up from behind or flashing out of sight ahead. Darla and Bear must be well behind us by now; possibly they’d even turned around. No point waiting for them.
Finally, a grouping of three pink ribbons in a single bush signaled an upcoming turn. They led me to the left, off the logging road and straight down the mountain. I settled deep in the saddle and Aaruba sunk onto his haunches as we weaved among trees and through thickets, connecting the dots ribbon to ribbon with no trail in sight. Down, down, down we went, both focused completely on our treacherous route. I dismounted to lead him down the most vertical section of all, sidestepping along in an avalanche of pine needles and crumbling earth.
Glancing up, I saw a flash of white between the trees. A camp trailer. Ride camp? Thank heavens! We clambered down the rest of the hill and broke out onto a treeless creek bed. Water at last…but no ride camp. These were just campers out for a weekend of fishing an four-wheeling. Aaruba drank while I questioned the campers. No, they hadn’t seen any riders come by. So that’s what all the ribbons are for. What a pretty horse!
If I had any doubts left, they were vanquished by that brief conversation. No way were we on the right loop, and no way were we turning around now! We must have come eight miles or more, so going back to our intended loop would cost us sixteen miles on top of the original 30. I wasn’t about to try that, especially since we intended to race again the next day.
So, off we went, up the other side of the valley, climbing a dirt track rutted by heavy rain. Up, up, up we went. Somewhere on that hill, I checked Aaruba’s hooves and discovered he’d lost a hind Easyboot. I hated to leave the boot behind, but it could be anywhere and we had an unknown number of miles yet to travel. We’d been out for two hours; surely everyone else would be trickling into the vet hold. Travis would be waiting, wondering, worrying. The footing was good. We abandoned the boot.
That trail went on forever, up and up through the loveliest views of forest and the meadow valley below. I rode conservatively, knowing that if Aaruba encountered metabolic problems, I’d be hard pressed to get help on this lonely loop. The minutes ticked by. We walked the steepest sections and trotted the rest. I sang to Aaruba, told him stories. Occasionally, I got off to walk or to let Aaruba graze. The sun had grown hot and there was no water, so we settled for what moisture grass could provide. I tried sending Travis a mental telegraph: We’re fine <stop> Off course <stop> Having fun anyway <stop>.
Alas, my telepathic abilities won’t win me any prizes. When Aaruba and I finally found our way off the mountain and back to ride camp, grinning sheepishly and flashing a thumbs-up, Travis hurried from his anxious post to meet us at the water trough. I gave him a quick version of the tale, and bless him, he understood.
Aaruba pulsed down almost immediately and vetted through with all A’s while someone tracked down the ride manager so I could discuss my options. Really, there weren’t any. To earn a completion, she explained most kindly, we’d have to do the whole 17 mile pink-purple loop, plus the 12 mile loop. I thought how far we’d already gone in our 3 hours, 48 minutes on the trail, and knew it was no good. We pulled.
Back at the trailer, I cared for Aaruba and fought back disappointment. Of course I had wanted to complete. I hate to fail, I hate to screw up, I hate to do something stupid. Why in the name of Adam’s left eyeball didn’t I backtrack until I found pink and purple ribbons? How did it make sense to settle for pink instead?
Alas, it is impossible to make sense of something nonsensical. It’s better to learn from it and go on. Besides, as Travis pointed out, I’d had a great ride. My young, inexperienced horse had done me proud on some very technical trail the likes of which he’d never seen before. He’d come through it healthy and strong. Really, compared to the rider who’d had to withdraw before the race even began because her horse colicked and was given banned substances during treatment, I had nothing to complain about.
Near as I can figure from looking at maps and talking with Darla (who had also elected to finish the pink loop, then pull), the ride manager, the vets, and others, Aaruba and I traveled between 20 and 25 miles on our own, private LD. I’m pretty sure it was at least 23 miles, which is the number I entered in Aaruba’s conditioning log. During the award ceremony that evening, I didn’t get a completion. However, I was delighted to receive the “Bad Day” award — a set of magenta leg wraps that will look very manly indeed with Aaruba’s gray and pink blanket.
So ended Day 1 of the Pink Flamingo Classic. You know Day 2 can only be better!
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