Photo by Tamara Baysinger. Quote by Louis L’Amour (who knew?)
Owyhee Fandango was my first ride. It was 2008. I rode Aaruba. We finished the LD in the top 10. We looked happy.
On this eve of Fangango 2012, I’ve been flicking through photos from that ride. So much has changed.
Back then, I had a battered, old stock trailer and was grateful for it. I was afraid to tow a horse and was grateful that Travis agreed to drive. We slept in a tent. Late the evening before, we had to put Aaruba in a site-provided pen because he couldn’t handle standing tied to the trailer, and we had no portable corral. I rode in cotton stretch pants because I couldn’t afford breeches. My horse wore Easyboot Bares that I needed help putting on. I had a habit of arching my back terribly in the saddle. I didn’t know where to park or check in or find a grease crayon or where to hang out during the hold. Many people ignored us, but some helped, and I was grateful.
Mostly, I was grateful to finally, finally, finally participate in the sport I’d read about and strived toward for years. Endurance is one of those things you can usually make happen, using what you have, if you want it enough to keep trying. And I did.
I still do.
This morning, I will leave for Fandango again. I’ll drive myself, but Aaruba will stay behind. I’ll have two mares in an upgraded trailer, with fence panels and a camper for lodging. I’ll shoot for three 50’s instead of one LD. I will wear breeches. I will not arch my back. I will know where to go and the names of a few friends. I will still keep my fingers crossed because no matter how many miles I accumulate, every ride is another adventure.
For every chance I’ve taken and every chance I have left, I am grateful.
Sometimes, on Fridays, I dredge up old favorites for new readers. This one was originally published on December 18, 2010. It snowed that day. This December is sunny and dry, but the cold still whips up ponies and memories and cocoa with cream. Enjoy.
Winter has come to town. Her hostess gift is a coverlet of snow cast unevenly over the remains of our Thanksgiving storm, disguising ankle-twisting craters of ice. She is borne on the east wind, which here is cruel and clawed.
She woke me with a clatter of hail and scratch of snow on the skylights. She stopped the hounds, solid as a brick wall to their faces, when I opened the door for them to race outside.
I leaned into her stinging darkness, muffled in a rabbit-skin cap, hustling through morning chores. The barn cats padded resolutely after, their delicate tracks obliterated like ghosts beneath the swirling snow.
And the horses! Oh, they pretended to hate the wind that wound their tails like vines about their hocks. They pinned their ears and thrust their muzzles at the sky. They chased her about their paddocks like an impertinent filly.
Secretly, whimsically, I wished to take them all back to my living room. They could curl beneath the Christmas tree, a bizarre nativity, and I would serve them gingerbread and cider and sing them carols.
Instead, I threw them extra hay. Even the cats talked me out of extra breakfast. Now, I am back beneath the domed roof of my farmhouse, sipping coffee, surrounded by sleeping dogs, and daydreaming, childlike, of horses in the snow.
Ironman and I woke to a frantic clatter. It came from the horse paddocks: the unmistakable sound of an equine and a fence panel in the midst of an undesirable encounter.
We were out of bed and into our clothes in twenty seconds. Like firefighters, we didn’t need to say a word. Just leap into coats and boots and hustle calmly out into the chill gray of first light.
The clanging had stopped. My gaze fell first on Consolation, then Sandstorm, then Ripple and Acey. All okay. We topped the hill and opened the gate…and found Aaruba. The sight of him was at once astonishing and terrifying.
He seemed to have attempted a double-barrel kick through a 12-gauge fence panel. Both hind legs were caught up in the third and fourth rungs, so that he stood on trembling forelegs with his hindquarters “sitting” on the upright panel. His legs tangled between the rungs such that both stifles and hocks were fully flexed.
He couldn’t move. Thankfully, he didn’t try. He merely looked at us with big, beseeching eyes. Help me? Of course…but how?
Ironman managed to get behind Aaruba and tilt one cannon enough that the fetlock and hoof were no longer looped over the third rung, but Aaruba’s hock was still jammed between rungs three and four. He didn’t know the foot was free.
We got on his opposite side and threw all our strength against his butt, shoving him toward the freed leg until he stepped down at last. This eased the strain on his forehand, but also wrenched the other hind leg, still trapped, even higher. Now what??
It seemed Aaruba’s hind end would need to lift up in order for his weight on the panel to slacken enough that we could guide him free. But “up” wasn’t a possiblity, at least without the help of heavy machinery that I do not own.
Thankfully, Aaruba solved the problem. He pivoted gently toward the trapped leg, which enabled his hip to flex upward and sideways, giving me the slack I needed to lift his hoof over the rung and free.
He took a couple tentative steps, then walked the length of the paddock and back. Sound as a dollar.
Of course, he was still jacked up on aldrenaline. We gave him some hay to help him settle, wondering how much the legs would swell and stiffen. They looked pretty battered, but all the cuts proved superficial — mostly just swaths of hide scraped off.
After a good hose-down and disinfecting session, he trotted gaily around the round corral like the invincible beast he thinks he is. Still sound, very little swelling, not a flinch after the first touch of cold water. All the same, I’m sure he’ll he’s bruised and sore enough to deserve some extra handgrazing time. Poor guy.
I rode Aaruba today, for the first time in a year. He has wanted to go for so long, but I haven’t let him, for fear of his pain. But boredom is its own brand of anguish, and on unsettled days like this one his ire rises. And so we went.
I used my old Stonewall, the one in which I trained him. It felt right, somehow. Like it belonged between us. We walked along the irrigation canal above fields of hay and canola, into a thunderstorm whose lightning slashed a brooding sky. Beside us flowed the water, dark as memory, overhung by windswept grass.
He grazed a bit, so tall I had to lean forward to keep hold of the rein. Twitched when the first drops fell cold upon our shoulders. Pushed into the wind, drew himself full of its energy like a sail. There he was, the Aaruba I remember.
We went only a mile, then turned for home. He asked to hurry. Ah, this battle. We were working through it, back before he nearly died. But this was no day to fight. I let him go, and curse the pain. If he hurt, it was nothing to the joy of racing free again, to release that huge and bounding trot that carried us so many miles together.
He’s still in there, my Aaruba who loves motion more than life itself. I felt him in the coiled spring of pastern, hock, and loin. I felt him and I thought, perhaps this is how it is, to lose someone to Alzheimer’s. Missing things you never noticed properly. Grasping what you’ll never hold again.
We took the last hill at a canter. Reckless pleasure, worth the risk! We slid to stop on our gravel drive, hooves and hair and reins askew. I dismounted, breathless, looked up into his face. His forehead pressed against the clouds. His nostrils filled with wind, with life! And rain slid down my cheeks like tears.
~ Spartacus Jones
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This morning, I am sipping coffee from my favorite mug — the black and coral one that was my completion award for last year’s finish on Aaruba at Owhyee Canyonlands. I didn’t know it then, but that was to be Aaruba’s last race.
This year, I’m feeling both reflective and excited as I prepare to do more miles at Canyonlands than I did last year, though in smaller increments. Consolation isn’t quite ready for her first 50, but we’re going to try for 3 LD’s, with a day off between each. The first two days are 30’s and the last is a 25, so with luck, we’ll make it an 85 mile week.
I frequently hear from other riders with Barbs, Spanish Mustangs, and similar types that while their horses may not be the speediest in the bunch, they do tend to show the same kind of self-possession and persistence that Consolation demonstrated last month during her first LD at Old Selam. This, they say, makes for excellent multi-day and long-distance mounts. A theory worth testing, if ever I heard one.
So, I’ll spend today packing camp chairs and clothing, breeches and blankets, tack and toiletries, bales and beet pulp. I have saddle pads to wash, tubs of water to freeze for the ice chest (it lasts longer than the compressed-chip ice blocks you can buy at the Stinker Station), meals to prepare, and whiskey to sample. (It’s a rough job, but…)
I’ll take a quick ride on Consolation, just to be sure she’s strong and loose and set to go with her new Easyboot Gloves. I’ll run through safety checks on trailer and tack. And come nightfall, I’ll sail to sleep on a wave of anticipation.
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Life is strange, sometimes. Three years ago, I never would have guessed that my wild-eyed, emotional, live-wire Aaruba would be retired from endurance and giving riding lessons.
Who’d have thought that such a sensitive and high-strung animal would carry a beginner more quietly than he carries me? So quietly, in fact, that we had to wake him up a bit to achieve a decent clip down the trail.
Maybe that’s why I like them so much.
Even if there were shortcuts, we would be unwise to take them.
…maybe that’s why…
“The tree of liberty must be refreshed from time to time
with the blood of patriots and tyrants.”
Smart guy, that Thomas Jefferson.
“When men yield up the privilege of thinking,
the last shadow of liberty quits the horizon.”
Here’s something worth thinking about today.
Observe. Conclude. Act.
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