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?”
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?
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