Reluctant Cowgirl


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Owyhee River Challenge

I took my horse to an endurance ride, and I did not cry.

Did I neglect to put that on my list of goals for this event? Yup. But really it was the one that mattered most. I wanted to have a positive experience, which means no crying. (I’m a 38-year-old woman, and I am a hell of a crier.)

We arrived Friday early afternoon and unloaded the dogs to pee while we scouted the area we’d chosen to park in and contemplated the setup of Henry’s pen. He waited in the trailer looking out at the growing ride camp. Once we’d decided on a spot, I unloaded the horse while RCowboy started pounding in stakes. Ride camp was an ugly, weedy mess with little to no edible forage, but Henry still marched around shoving nasty dry dead weeds in his mouth. He seemed fairly relaxed about everything, until he realized we had parked near the hill where folks that were doing the CTR (competitive trail ride) that afternoon descended to come into camp for their vet checks.

There were horses all around us. He has no issues with horses a few hundred feet away. But horses on the horizon or in the distance are terrifying. I can only imagine it has something to do with his wild days, when spotting brethren in the distance could mean rival stallions or sassy mares that wanted to run him out of dodge. The riders and horses sent him into a bit of a fire-breathing dragon episode. I clung to his lead and tried to regain his attention. I asked for circles and he gave me a grand, prancing trot with his tail held high, neck arched, nostrils flared. I asked to change direction and I got head tossing and blowing snorts. I was scared. But I took some deep breaths and stuck to what I knew and I talked us both down. I looked for focus and tiny bits of relaxation and gradually they increased until he was once again less dragon than horse.

It was very windy with some rain that afternoon, so we were both getting wet during this episode, and when he came down from his stallion throwback he took a couple rolls in the nasty weedy dirt, coming up with a caked, dusty coat and mane and tail full of sticks and debris that made me very thankful we weren’t going into any competitions that required looking pretty.

The rest of the time at camp was without incident. He respected the fence. He ate, drank, slept. I never saw him lie down, but he was obviously relaxed. He nickered to horses a few times, but it was a very low, calm greeting, not the panicky screams of the buddy sour Arabs all around us.

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Not a big deal.

He continued to watch the horses and riders coming down off the hill with interest, but there was no more snorting or running about. The wind and rain did not let up all afternoon or evening so I elected not to ride that day. I went to the ride meeting in the evening and then walked the dogs and we cooked a hot meal in the trailer after getting cots set up for sleeping. It was so rainy and windy and the foster dog barked at every noise he heard so no one slept a wink that night. The riders were off by the time I got up Saturday morning; the 55 started at 6:30 and the 25 at 7:30. I’d been worried that Henry would get very worked up seeing everyone heading out, but he continued to not care about much of anything.

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This is all fine.

I volunteered to pulse and scribe during the vet checks that day and the action came in spurts. I’m terrible at math under pressure and was terrified I was pulsing animals down wrong, but I’m pretty sure I didn’t cost anyone a placing. My favorite riders were a group of young girls on grumpy mules who were winning the 25 miler. God, to be a young, fearless rider again.

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These ridiculous mules are rolling at the vet check. They DNGAF.

Once things slowed down at the vet check I worked up the courage to saddle up and pick a trail to ride. I cheated and brought my comfort boyfriend and dog along. We did about 7 miles and I definitely got off a couple times in the beginning when I got nervous. But we worked through it. We trotted and cantered some but nowhere near enough to be considered endurance riders. It was leisurely. The sun came out. I smiled a lot. We did not get eaten by the ride photographer, who was a Very Scary Being Parked in the Creek Maybe to Eat Us.

That night was awards and a potluck. I won a TTouch session and a package of Mrs. Pastures cookies in the raffle, the latter of which Henry lost his mind over because I only ever buy him low-calorie health food treats and Mrs. Pastures are basically horse Ho-Ho’s. The weather was much improved and we were treated to a gorgeous sunset.

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My new buddy, Bravo, resting up after coming in second in the 55.

Needless to say we all slept well on night two. Unfortunately we woke to more rain and fog and I thought, this has been good enough, let’s pack up. I don’t need to ride again. But as we had a leisurely breakfast and started to pack the weather improved and I threw on a saddle and headed out alone. We did an out-and-back on the trail we’d done the day before in the reverse direction. Again, I got off a few times. But we crossed paths with several of those frisky mules and their kids and a few other horses and nobody got too upset and we made it back to camp unscathed. Victory.

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Good boy.

So there you have it. My first endurance ride and campout with the mustang was a positive experience and I’m eager to try more. The thing I’m finding out about endurance though is that most of the people are specialists who become consumed by the thing and do it so much it becomes their entire life. Me and Henry, we’re generalists. I definitely want to give LDs (“limited distance”; rides less than 50 miles) a try and see how that goes, but I don’t know if I have the desire to aim for Tevis. There’s a lot of badasses in this sport, and I’m continually floored by their efforts, especially the women of a certain age who are pounding out 8-18 hours in the saddle through wicked weather and terrain while taking good care of their partners. It’s a heck of a thing. But for now we’ll take it slow and easy and see where the trails (and dressage lessons) take us.


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Trail Lesson and First Ride Camp Prep

We leave for the Owyhee Endurance Challenge in a couple days. We are just trail riding, volunteering, and getting exposure, so I’m not stressed about Henry’s conditioning or finishing our first LD, but there’s plenty else to be anxious about.

Last weekend’s lesson I asked to concentrate on trail type work, so trainer pulled out all the obstacles and we worked on them in the indoor. (I would have preferred to be outside for even more distraction potential, but they hadn’t watered down the outdoor.)

Having been a Makeover horse, H was desensitized to the max. His freestyle involved a huge bouncy ball and jumping into the back of a pickup truck while a cap gun was fired over his head. My current trainer seems to think he was over-desensitized. But give him a few years and no exposure to those crazy things and he’s gotten a bit reactive again. He wasn’t particularly fond of the “car wash” at our lesson but after a few turns and slow approaches he let it go and went through. Trainer cracked whips and flapped flags and he danced around a bit, but I didn’t freak out and we worked through that too. He also threw a couple big head tossing fits about backing up, which is new and pretty annoying. But trainer said something about just looking through that behavior and on to the next thing (“that’s not even happening”) which really hit a note for me. I tend to dwell/focus on the misbehavior/scary moments so letting go and looking for the next moment beyond that garbage is a new and promising method. Also we keep finding that I hold tension in my arms and chest when I’m nervous, so I need to keep my elbows heavy and relax. It was strange but fun to have a whole lesson on obstacles, and I’m glad we had another positive experience.

Our property borders BLM ground and last week they put a bunch of cows on it (your public lands, ladies and gentlemen), so last night I took the opportunity to ride over there and see how H did in close proximity to the fat black creatures, since we will likely encounter them in the Owyhee. I took old Rube as an emotional support horse.

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Cow patrol.

The cows were not a big deal. We also walked right by the formerly terrifying cow lick bucket by looking through the obstacle and not dwelling on it (I can learn!), and I did a lot of turning from home, etc. to induce head tossing and working through it. We were out for at least 1.5 hours and it felt good to have that time go positively again. Yesterday I freaked myself out by reading about “race brain” and all the crazy stuff that can go on at endurance rides when competitive horses want to GO GO GO, so doing a longer ride where we went where I wanted to go at the speed I wanted to achieve felt good.

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Last night’s project was untangling that tail. Mane is next.

Now it’s time to pack and prep. We are bringing three dogs (our two and the current foster, a bouncy black lab) and sleeping on cots in the trailer. H will be in a small electric corral. My goals for the weekend are:

  1. Keep my horse calm and contained at camp, eating and drinking normally.
  2. Ride at least twice. There are 10-15 mile loops available, I believe. If I can do each of those I’d be very happy, and a third ride would be a bonus. If stuff is really not going well a shorter out-and-back to start would become the best option.
  3. Attempt to ride through obstacles including bad behavior, staying calm and relaxing my upper body. If stuff goes sideways (bucking, bolting, rearing), get off and walk or jog the beast. Breathe.
  4. Volunteer with the vets and or to help out the competitive riders. Soak up some knowledge.
  5. Meet some decent people.

Wish us luck.