Sunday, September 30, 2007

Owyhee Canyonlands - Hart Creek Day Five

Saturday September 9 2007


Day 5 of the Owyhee Canyonlands ride was a day of laughs and cheers and tears - all good.

The morning started out blustery and cold - hard to get out of that warm bed in the morning - but beautiful and sunny. No rain last night down here in the canyon, but a very light powder-dusting of snow on the Owyhee Front Range mountains, with remains of a few storm clouds hanging over.

56 riders, 38 on the 50 and 18 on the 30, braved the cold winds - which lasted throughout the day and could threaten to blow you off your horse on the ridges - bundled in layers of clothing, some of the horses wearing butt blankets, warming up well before the starts.

Connie rode Cap'n again, and I rode Rushcreek Mac again, on the LD. The first loop took us up out of Pickett Creek onto the eastern plateau, along the beautiful Rim Trail overlooking Hart Creek. We hadn't gone more than 5 miles when Mac went ouchie on some rocks, more than once, so I abandoned the trail, turned off and took a shortcut home with him. Being a Nebraska ranch horse all his life, he's been barefoot till he came here - apparently Nebraska does not have rocks. I was bummed to miss the rest of the trail, down along Hart Creek, back up a steep, narrow ridge, and another rim loop trail for loop 2, but I've been lucky enough to see these trails already. Besides, it was just as well for Connie and Cap'n, because Cap'n (aka Deckhand), who always wants to be the boss, was having FITS because Mac, the lowest horse on the totem pole, was allowed to go in FRONT of him for a while. Connie reported later that as soon as we parted ways, Cap'n was the perfect gentleman to ride.

Mac and I had a nice stroll back to camp. He stopped to take in the view a couple of times, one of which was Steph on the 4-wheeler far below on Bates Creek Road, leading a rider-less horse back to camp. Uh-oh. Apparently rider and horse had parted ways up on the rim to the west, and the horse had taken off east a few miles, perhaps thinking he'd head back to his barn in Elko, Nevada. Both horse and rider were unscathed.

13 riders completed the 30, including Connie, and Gretchen Montgomery who accompanied her friend Debbie on her first endurance ride ever, and Bruce Worman, riding Steph's big old great gelding Nature's Khruschev. Krusty is a former international competitor, now semi-retired and a riding horse for Bruce's daughter.

53 riders finished the 50, 9 of them having gone all 5 days. It's quite the accomplishment to ride one horse 4 or 5 days in a row, the horse looking as fit to continue at the finish of the last day as he did at the beginning of the first.

Many people had left ridecamp for home, so they missed out on another good home-cooked meal by the Blue Moon Caterers Deborah and Al, but those people remaining still had a lively time and enjoyable evening.

One of the finishers, Vicki Archer, was especially proud to have completed all 5 days. 5 years ago, she was diagnosed with breast cancer. Two weeks after finishing up with chemo and radiation, she was here for an Owyhee endurance ride, her husband Jim helping her on and off her horse. Today, getting on and off her horse without help (but with Jim crewing, or riding with her) she celebrated her 5th anniversary of being cancer free, completing one day of an Owyhee ride for every year.

As usual, there were plenty of awards handed out, all finishers getting awards and a hand, and there was Best Condition in the 30's and 50's, highest vet scores, and fastest overall time for the 5-day riders. But there was also a special Vet's Choice award given by Dr Michael Peterson.

He was impressed with all the riders and horses that completed the feat of all 5 days, "but there was one horse and rider that just stood out. If it were ever necessary to grab a horse from someone to escape from the law, I know which one I'd take, and that would be Tom Noll and Frank."

A terrific cheer went up for one of the coolest endurance horses in the Northwest, and one of the most deserving riders to ever put foot in an endurance stirrup. Tom wasn't the only one with tears in his eyes this evening - I expect everybody knows how proud Tom is of his little bay horse. Tom was speechless with the honor and recognition, and we were all just as pleased for the both of them, who do all us endurance riders proud with their ever-optimistic attitudes and admirable accomplishments. Way to go, Frank and Tom.

It Just Don't Get No Better Than This. : )

Saturday, September 29, 2007

Owyhee Canyonlands - Wild Horse Butte Day Four

Friday September 8 2007

DAY 4 - Wild Horse Butte

I like a good thunderstorm... when I'm safe inside somewhere. Today we had a 40% chance of thunderstorms moving in after noon, with 20 mph winds gusting to 30, and a 70% chance of rain overnight. I think I was the only one of 56 riders on the Wild Horse Butte ride who even noticed the cloud patterns and the development throughout the day. Steph knows how afraid I am of lightning, and she said, "Don't worry, you won't be up high." Well - not up high in the mountains, but up high on the wide-open flat, exposed plateau where every horse and rider is taller than all the sagebrush! But I tried not to think too hard about it during the day as the clouds developed.

And Connie received a great blow early on in her endurance career: she lost her scheduled mount. This was on Rhett, the horse that everybody loves most. She'd been looking forward to it all week, but that's what happens sometimes - the mount you thought you were going to ride isn't available, or, you travel all the way from British Columbia to Idaho to do a 5-day ride, and your horse goes lame. When Connie heard that had happened to Barbara Holmes, and that it was also Barbara's 64th birthday today, well, it was pretty easy to give up a mount for that. Besides, Connie got to ride Jose instead, and everybody loves to ride Jose almost as much as Rhett.

Connie and I teamed up with Gretchen Montgomery for the 50; I rode Gretchen's extra horse Raffiq, another horse buddy of mine who I've ridden some 700 miles over the years. Gretchen rode her mare Spice. We rode along at the back of the pack again, because Jose - although he knows a lot of new tricks now - isn't quite fit enough to go too fast.

On another beautiful and chilly morning, we headed out up onto the flats and north toward the Snake River. We girls had a great time, whooping and Yee Hawing along our trail, and the horses appeared to be having their own good time. Raffiq - who got his 4000 miles yesterday with Gretchen - cruised along at his steady Raffiq Shuffle. I swear he knows how to follow ribbons now, and not just heading for home. The only bad thing that could be complained about were the bugs that swarmed us when we slowed to a walk. They were tolerable to us humans, but they were really torturing the horses - ear bugs that kept them all shaking their heads. We were wishing for at least a Bug Breeze - say, an 8 mph wind - that would blow the bugs away, but instead, we kept up a steady slow trot to keep them at bay.

We were riding in the Snake River Birds of Prey National Conservation Area, where 24 species of raptors migrate through or nest. We only saw a red-tailed hawk all day, but thirty yards away, loping beside us for a bit was a coyote. Three years ago not far from here I saw a black wolf, and two years ago I came across wolf tracks. Also two years ago, same area, two riders (including Tom Noll on Frank) were following cougar tracks on a morning loop.

After 19 miles we came into the first vet check, where the horses dove into their grain and hay for the 40 minute hold. I noticed the first inkling of clouds over the Owyhee Front Range, but I didn't say anything - yet.

From there we had a 20-mile loop out and around Wild Horse Butte, a gentler decline that led us right down to and alongside the wide Snake River. The bugs were still bad down by the River, but we'd smeared bug juice in our horses' ears, so they were happily not tortured by them any more. It was quite warm there too - we'd overdressed a bit just in case the rain and wind started before we got back to the second vet check. Instead, when we stopped for water where the trail turned back up onto the flats, Gretchen fetched the water bucket that had been left there for us (it was a bit too swampy for the horses to safely get to the River's edge), and doused all the horses (Jose's first time!), and herself, thoroughly. Connie and I about had to tether her to her horse so she didn't go swimming in the Snake.

On our way back to the vet check at the same spot, we spent some time travelling along the Oregon Trail. I always think about the pioneers who made these trails, and how this area must have looked 100 years ago with only a handful of people living here (not that there are so many now!).

The entire sky had clouded over by the time we got back to the vet check, and the wind had kicked up a bit, blowing clouds of sand through the camp. So far, and I know by being out in far too many lightning storms, we were just looking at rain. Except for this one spot of dark blue clouds that looked a bit like a cow's udder. And we were headed that way.

Out for our last 11 miles home, back south, across the highway, with heavy, dark blue rainstorm clouds dumping along the Snake River where we'd been, and heavy blue and purple and gray questionable rain clouds ahead of us... and we were up on the flats now for our final stretch home. We had a good drink at a water stop about 5 miles from home, then I put Raffiq in front, and kept up a good steady trot, whether Spice and Jose wanted to follow us or not. The wind picked up strongly, and we could see a rain storm blowing through Pickett Creek and base camp far ahead and below us to our left, and, straight ahead of us, darker clouds. The rain drops finally hit us, and I stopped to put my jacket on, then urged Raffiq onwards. I wanted to get OFF this exposed mesa, just in case. I wasn't scared... yet... Connie and Gretchen swore they hadn't heard any thunder yet, but with the wind now blasting us 20 mph in the face, we wouldn't have heard it if a bolt had hit beside us.

The rain shower in Pickett Creek dissipated quickly, and just as quickly, the rain drops pelting us blew onward, and we were actually now headed into a bit of sunshine. We dropped off the high plain into Bates Creek Canyon, and made our way through the washes and down the road into camp. There had been only 2 riders behind us all day, and on our last loop in, we passed 2 more people. Connie was pretty excited that she wouldn't get the Turtle Award today, but we told her that if for some reason those 4 riders got pulled at the finish, she could once again be the Turtle. Just in case, Gretchen and I made sure she crossed the finish line in front of us.

After all the horses had come in, and as we were all sitting down to another delicious dinner catered by Deborah and Al Linder of Blue Moon Catering, the cold front blew in with those 30 mph gusts of wind. All riders, bundled up in layers of thick jackets and hats, gathered around the 'stage' very closely for the ride awards - Steph doesn't have a megaphone - and to listen to head veterinarian Dr Michael Peterson as he gave another little talk. Again he held everybody mesmerized with his knowledgeable and passionate talk on the importance of feeding roughage (a little bit often is better than a lot once or twice a day), fat instead of carbohydrates (won't make a horse 'hot,' and won't heat the horse up and therefore possibly contribute to metabolic problems), and the importance of Omega-3 Fatty Acids, and the link between them and help for arthritis. You could have heard a pin drop (if the wind hadn't been blowing a gale) for everybody listening to and hanging on every word he spoke.

39 of the 40 starters finished the 50, and 15 of the 16 starters finished the 30 mile ride. 10 horse and rider teams on the 50's are still going strong for all 4 days.

With one more day to go, Nance Worman is still in contention for the Owyhee Tough Sucker Award - all eight days of 50-mile Owyhee Endurance Rides - and Tom Noll is up for the Owyhee Really Tough Sucker Award, which is all 8 of those rides plus a 100-mile ride. Tom's rides were all on Frank, so that would make Frank, what - Idaho Super Tough Sucker Horse of the Year?

Friday, September 28, 2007

Owyhee Canyonlands - Sinker Creek Day Three

Thursday September 27 20078

DAY 3 - Sinker Creek

Today's ride took 29 50-milers and 15 30-milers down to and through Sinker Creek Canyon, a rich, biodiverse, flowing creek framed by rugged red cliffs and lined with willows and cottonwoods. Our limited distance trail took us up onto the plateau above Bates Creek, and cross-country to Sinker Creek. The 50-milers did this loop and another loop up on the plateau toward the north.

I was riding Rushcreek Mac, Steph's newish horse from the Rushcreek Ranch, on his first LD ride; Connie was riding Cap'n, John's big black brute on his first LD, and Carol joined us on her horse August on his first LD. We were drag riders again, assigned to close gates behind the last riders, although it ended up that everybody had to open and shut gates, since cows and semi-wild ranch horses were out and about.

We three aimed to start out only a half hour behind everybody, but that turned into 45 minutes because Connie and I just couldn't seem to get organized this morning - our crew bag disappeared, bridle angst, etc. We'd warned Carol that she might have a 'special' experience riding with us today, but she insisted she wanted to.

It was another beautiful fall day in the high desert, temperatures mild in the 70's, and blue skies and sunshine. We met some of the 50-milers coming back into their vet check off their first loop, some of them having been victims of Trail Gremlins, which caused a few of them to miss a few turns. Try as hard as we could, Connie and Carol and I were unable to get lost, but that was probably because we were going so slow.

In the canyon, we wound back and forth through the rocky creek, winding through the willows and ducking under some real low branches. I couldn't help but think of tall Max Merlich on his tall mule Junior as I threw myself flat over Mac's neck a few times to avoid getting scraped off my horse. Or, was it Mac trying to scrape me off on purpose? He did seem to like walking straight through some of the lowest branches of willows. He also liked eating them - he plucked up a whole willow tree and carried it along for a while until I stopped to pull it out of his mouth. On the trail we met some real Idaho cowboys and cowgirls and cowdogs looking for stray cattle.

Rushcreek Mac has been here since the spring, but he hasn't quite fit in with Steph's horse herd - he's a bit of a loner. I think he misses Nebraska, and the cows he worked with for 6 or 7 years. Every time we go out for a training ride, he's probably thinking we're finally going out to round up the cows... but we never see any. I did see one lone calf above the creek, hiding out from the ranchers, up a side canyon, behind a rock outcropping. Mac didn't see him, or he might've taken cow matters into his own hands.

Mac was a dream to ride, and so was August for Carol. Carol was actually sad she rode him, because now she likes him too much to sell him. Cap'n, however, was not a dream to ride. He likes to be the boss, everywhere, and in everything. Connie did well with him, and he did pretty well for his first endurance ride, but we demoted him from Cap'n to Deckhand till he is taken down a few notches and relinquishes his desire to be the boss.

Nevertheless, we all had a great ride. We decided, as we raced home the last 100 yards for the finish (at a trot), who was going to be the Turtle. Carol really wanted it, so we let her come in last (we saw a coyote right behind Carol as we made the last turn for home). But, Carol's horse pulsed down first, so, it was a race between Connie and me for Turtle! But Connie didn't want to be the Turtle again! The pulse taker went between Mac and Deckhand, and Mac was down first - Connie was again the Turtle! (And she got a cool award again for it.)

27 50-milers completed, and all 15 starters on the LD completed.

Thursday, September 27, 2007

Owyhee Canyonlands - Petroglyphs Day Two

Day Two

Wednesday September 26 2007

The way for an endurance rider to really see what goes on in an endurance ride is to ride one and to work one. Today Connie and I worked the ride. Day Two was a 60 mile out-and-back loop to the Snake River and the Petroglyphs. Perfect day for it, chilly in the morning again and 70's in the afternoon - though it felt a lot warmer down in the canyon.

The vet check was set up out on a bluff above the Snake River 20 miles out, and the same one was used on the way back. The morning began with a cup or two of coffee, which resulted in mad scrambling to get the trucks and trailers loaded in time to get on the road to meet the first riders coming into the first vet check. Well, the vets were on time, but the rest of us lingered a little too long over our coffees.

The riders were off at 7:30 AM, or 7:45 AM - not too many people are in a hot-shoe hurry - and we were off in our vehicles more or less at 8 AM. Steph and I and Girlie the Cowdog, in the truck pulling the horse trailer, were leading Connie in her truck, who was leading Paul and the portapotties... and we lost Paul.

Since only Steph really knew where the vet check was, we pulled over and waited for Paul, and waited. Finally, having visions of overturned portapotties on Bates Creek Road, Steph sent Connie back to look for him, saying we'd flag the road turns with ribbons for her.

We drove on, hearing some kind of loud Bang off the back of the truck and seeing a big puff of dust, which we stopped to look for something that had fallen off the truck, then saw the portapotties cutting cross-country on a dirt road, which meant that Connie wouldn't have found them at all. (She drove all the way back to the house, and not finding them, just had another cup of coffee, then found her way out to the vet check). Later in the day, we lost Zico's dog bed off the back of Connie's truck. We were sure all of this had something to do with the lingering effects of the full moon.

A couple of riders got pulled at the 20-mile check, and a few more at the return 40-mile check. It's a long climb down to the Snake River, and a long climb back out on a hard and rocky road. Lameness and a few metabolic incidents took their tolls on a few horses.

Nevertheless, I heard no complaints about the weather or the fantastic scenery or the trail. Happiest horse of the day appeared to be Frank, Tom Noll's horse. I asked Tom at dinner (parmesan chicken and a special potato dish!) how Frank was doing. Tom shook his head. "Ya know? He's just a monster. He got a chiropractic adjustment, and he's gotten two adequan shots, (Frank is 19 now) and it's added 5 years to his life. I don't know if that's a good thing or a bad thing!"

24 horses and riders finished Day Two, with Nance Worman and Tom Noll still in the running for the Owyhee Totally Tough Sucker award.

Wednesday, September 26, 2007

Owyhee Canyonlands - Moonshine Day One

Owyhee Canyonlands - Moonshine Day One

Tuesday September 25 2007

It was a day of firsts - namely, Connie's first 50 mile ride. We had the Very Important Job of being drag riders - gate-closers. Here in the West, the general rule of thumb is, leave the gates how you found them. Some of the gates were left open for a few hours today for the convenience of the riders, but we had to follow and close some of them to keep cows in or out.

It was a chilly morning - a little bit of ice down on Pickett Creek - and 41 horses were puffing steam for the 7:30 AM start. I hiked up the steep badlands hill just before the start to catch the horses scrambling up to the ridge. Then I hiked back down to the yard, where Connie and I saddled our horses, Jose and Rhett, and we headed off onto the trail at 8:30. We wanted to give the last riders plenty of time to get ahead of us and through the gates, so we could cruise right along, and I really didn't want Rhett to get a glimpse of the horses ahead of us, because he's one horse that knows how to pull.

We didn't have to worry about catching anybody, because Jose (aka Chunky Monkey), was a little out of shape. And it was only his second 50, so we used this ride as a training ride - for Rhett, (learning to relax and go at a slower pace, be patient for closing gates, and be patient for Kodak moments), for me (learning how to ride better from Connie's instructions), and for Jose (learning to be patient for Kodak moments and closing gates, and a variety of other things that you'll see).

After 2 hours we'd only gone 12 miles, and Connie was getting a little concerned about making it another 16 miles to the lunch vet check, where her bag of goodies was waiting. But the breathtaking high desert scenery, the wide open spaces, the canyons and plateaus, and the amazing quality of the Arabians that so easily (even if they are out of shape) carry us to remote places on the planet, took her mind off her lunch (as did the chocolate expresso beans in my butt pack). By the time we poked into the vet check, there were a few workers left - Regina the timer, Bruce the shoer, Paul the pulse-taker and portapotty driver (who threatened to drive off with me in the facilities), and Owen Balch the vet, waiting patiently on us and the 4 horses still there finishing up their hour hold time. Jose and Rhett dove into their oat soup, Connie got her treaties, and I was very happy to open up the Starbucks coffee drink I'd stashed for us.

Our horses took it easy on the 22-mile loop back, trotting when it was easy, walking when they needed to (Rhett being the judge). We 2 girls worked hard, closing many gates, many of which took the two of us and a bit of good old fashioned cowboy cussing to close without ripping skin on tightly strung barbed wire. On this day of firsts, Connie also broke Jose to pulling a wagon, chased a rattlesnake (we cantered past a rattling one, and we stopped, and I held the horses while Connie ran back with the camera to try to find it and take a picture), and broke Jose to handstands by his rider (on the ground in front of him, holding his reins).

It was near 5 PM when we made the last dogleg into camp. The last 1/8 of a mile was one mighty Horse Race. The night before at the ride meeting, John had said to work it out if you're going to race in, for the safety of the horses. Well, Connie and I worked it out right then and there who was going to be the slowest to poke in. I enticed Connie to be last by bribing her with the coveted Turtle Award that I knew Steph gave out to the last finisher of the day. She fell for it, and a few people cheered for us as we galloped (rather, trotted) for the finish line, and I kicked Rhett in front of her right at the last corner. I don't think anybody noticed us crossing the finish line, since we were a good hour and ten minutes behind the last finishers, and the vets had all but gone to the Blue Moon Cafe for dinner.

Dinner and the Awards Ceremony, always a big deal at the Owyhee rides with great food and lively prize-giving, ranked up there with the best of them. I'd heard of the partying South Africans at last month's Championship Ride, but they couldn't have outdone the Canadians and Pacific Northwesterners (and a few Californians) at the Owyhee Canyonlands Multiday Day One. All 41 riders and horses finished, setting off a great cheer from all in attendance. Everything set us off laughing, from someone filming someone's rear end (she meant his horse!), and how many Canadians were here (Victoria said, "We can spray for them!"), the Turtle Award and special cheer for Connie and her first 50-mile endurance ride, and special hugs for special riders... and then there was Michael Peterson the head veterinarian.

A quiet man of few unnecessary words, he spoke passionately about the horses' welfare. This evening he explained why hay in the water troughs was not a good thing (dry hay stimulates a horse's salivary glands, which is necessary for the balance of acidity and alkalinity in different parts of the horse's stomach, especially for stressful long distance horse activities). He held everybody spellbound, and then launched smoothly into an extraordinary Moonshine Cowboy Poem. People were in stitches, hooting and hollering, howling at the full moon that had just risen over the ridge to the east, and cheering the artiste hidden in the quiet veterinarian from British Columbia.

It Don't Get No Better Than This

IT DON'T GET NO BETTER THAN THIS - Sunday September 23 2007

Said head veterinarian Dr Michael Peterson at the ride meeting for tomorrow's Day One 50-mile 2007 Owyhee Canyonlands - 260 miles, 5 days in the desert.

Most people here would agree. This is one of the best places to ride on the planet, and you get 5 days of it. Riders from Washington, Oregon, Idaho, California, and a bunch of invaders from Canada are here to hit the trails, with 42 riders starting tomorrow.

The weather is great, 30's in the morning and low 60's for the day, with pure Idaho sunshine to light the way. Trails are perfect after Sunday night's rain.

Former owners of the Blue Canoe restaurant are here catering their terrific after-ride meals (breakfast and lunch too, if you like). Local celebrity Frank is here, along with his owner Tom Noll. 3 people are in contention for the Owyhee Totally Tough Sucker award - which is an Owyhee 100-miler plus all the 50's.

Connie and I will be riding drag tomorrow - closing gates after the last rider. It will be Connie's first endurance ride (she did a limited distance a few years ago). She's already addicted to Owyhee County, so we'll see how her first 50 mile ride corrupts her.

Monday, September 24, 2007

Homeless Sweet Homeless

Sunday September 23 2007


Or, 'Home' Sweet 'Home'?

Either way, it's great to be back in the US, in southern Idaho, the beautiful high desert of Owyhee County.

I'm not sure what exactly was the best part of getting back: emptying the suitcase (!), or wearing different clothes (!), or getting back in the saddle (!!). My first day back I grabbed Steph's awesome horse Rhett, who took me for a splendid ride along the Rim Trail over Hart Creek. This is mine and Rhett's favorite trail. He knows where we're going, and I let him decide what he wants to do. He was into it as much as I was - it was a Welcome Back ride. We trotted along the winding trails, cantered up the hills, galloped up roads and along the grassy flats, strolled along the rim admiring the view, ripped along cow trails through sagebrush, stopped to watch a jeep of hunters drive down a road, galloped along the Pickett Creek Rim and cantered back home. Rhett is the coolest horse. Everybody who gets on him says the same thing. Neighbor Carol calls him her "10 horse. He's the horse I compare every other horse to."

I haven't quite gotten around to putting away the clothes I unpacked from the suitcase yet, and I haven't quite pulled out the fresh clothes I'd stashed away while I was on the road. Haven't had time because I've been riding every day - getting myself back into riding shape, and the Teeters have a 5-day ride coming up starting Tuesday - and a riding friend from Seattle, Connie, showed up to ride and enjoy the great outdoors here.

The weather turned blessedly cool the day I landed in Boise, and got colder over the weekend, imposing blue storm clouds over the Owyhee Front Range to the west, dropping a night's worth of rain (first good rainfall since spring), and a covering of snow in the mountains.

I'd write a bit more, but, it's time to go ride again...

Friday, September 14, 2007

Portugal European Endurance Championship and Open 2007

Portugal Endurance Championship 2007

Saturday September 8 2007

We made the decision the night before to skip the 6:30 AM start of the ride at Companhia das Lezírias and instead head straight to Barroca D'Alva, about 20 km away, where Vet Gates 2, 3, 4, and 5 would take place – avoiding what must have been a mad dash in heavy traffic of crews and officials making the move.

Near 7:30 AM we arrived at Barroca D'Alva, the eye of the hurricane, where all had been quietly and calmly prepared for the first of the onslaughts that would arrive within the next two hours off Loop 1. Tents of the sponsors, the Westin CampoReal hotel, the Qatar Foundation, and the big (exclusive!) tents of the Princes from Saudi Arabia and the UAE, surrounded the crewing and resting areas for the horses. Buckets were laid out in neat rows and groups, strategically placed by each team where they thought the best advantage for getting them to the In Vet Gate would be. A few crew members (who weren't out driving the first 34.5 km loop) were putting last minute touches on filling water buckets with precise levels of water and ice, and arranging their spots, positioning sponges and scrapers for easy access. The fog was heavy and the temperature quite moderate and pleasant (so far).

I staked a spot a short way out on the common trail in and out of the venue for the first riders coming in. It was right at a clearly marked turn in... which a few riders missed. Perhaps it was my camera that distracted some, or maybe the two dogs who'd been allowed to run loose at the venue (or perhaps they'd escaped their owners). The first riders were the team of Maktoum princes from the UAE, riding in a tight fast formation. The rest of the 88 riders all come in, steadily, within a half hour of each other. I shot pictures of my Dutch friends Janet Lam and Jeanne Linneweever, then turned to catch the next riders coming down the trail, when I sensed a commotion behind me. There was one of the dogs, looking quite innocent, one rider-less horse, and one little explosion of dust on the ground – Ricki's Macho Man had ejected Jeanne from the saddle. She bounced right back up and lost no time hopping back on Macho – she's used to this, he's done it a few times before throughout their partnership – and they continued on in. Perhaps sensing their culpability in the minor wreck, the dogs finally left the scene, happily wagging their tails.

Seven riders dropped out after the first loop (two for metabolics), including 2 of the 4 Russians, who had travelled such a long way to get here. Four riders were eliminated after the second loop.

The hold times between each loop were quite short – 30 minutes for the first two, and 40 minutes for the last 3, some with a represent before going back out – not much time for the horses to rest and eat. Pulse criteria was 64, minimum weight to carry was 75 kg (165 lb).

The fog had lifted by the time all riders were out on 27-km Loop 3, and it gradually got warmer and muggier. End of Loop 3, for the American team, Cheryl Van Deusen was the foremost in 55th place, with Heather Reynolds and Jan Worthington moving along steadily together in 66th and 67th place, and Darolyn Butler in 73rd place. It was a surprise to see Heather's horse Cal Flaming Emit pulled after gate 3, because the vets didn't like his CRI. Cheryl Van Deusen is clearly smitten with her horse DA Al Capone, calling him “Alvin” and “Handsome” in the vet gates. Two-thirds of Cheryl's lifetime AERC miles are on this horse, and all but 30 miles of Alvin's 2465 miles over 7 seasons have been with Cheryl in the saddle. Alvin looked the strongest of the US horses throughout the loops.

Eight other horses were eliminated after Loop 3, including one more Russian, and the lone participant from Georgia, Anna Gugunava.

Whereas yesterday's atmostphere seemed to me to be somewhat relaxed for what I expected a European Championship to be, today it was intense, especially in the crewing area. Coming into the vet gates, it was like Indy 500 pitstops. Immediately as the horse crossed the line to stop the timer, people swarmed the horse to each do their specific job: one to grab the horse and remove the bridle, two – one on each side - to remove the saddle, one to throw water between the legs, two on each side to sponge the neck, two more on each side to pour buckets of water on the the horse, one to take the pulse, the whole crew and horse moving as one multi-legged organism toward the set-up water buckets for that horse, or moving toward the vet in gate.

With Steph following the ride and posting written updates, that left me free – and plenty busy – just taking pictures and running back and forth to upload them. One can easily go all day (and sometimes you just have to) without eating or drinking, but running low on fuel, in the growing heat, I had to run for expressos and a quick meal and fabulous dessert a few times, from the busy Westin CampoReal tent, where they had a great selection of buffet food and freely flowing wine, beer, and expressos. The tent got more crowded as the day went on, with more spectators - for the horses, or the wine and social scene? It didn't matter, it was good to see so many people, some in fancy dress, out enjoying the ambience.

As the hot day went on, more people crowded the vet lanes to watch the trot outs, more people lined the lanes coming in and going out onto the course. Two of the Dutch riders dropped out: Janet Lam and her Akhal-teke mare Bugainvillia pulled after Vet Gate 4 on metabolics – Janet said she had just gotten too tired. Jeanne's horse Ricki's Macho Man was out on lameness. Macho didn't think anything was wrong, as he was dragging Jeanne all over the place. “He doesn't understand why he can't go back out! He knows the ride is not finished.”

Ten other horses dropped out at gate 4, including one of the favorites, Fausto Fiorucci and his horse Jaifar, who won last year's pre-ride. Second in that same race was Jean Phillippe Frances, riding Hanaba du Bois, who was moving strongly along forwardly placed. Third last year was British Christine Yeoman on her tough little gelding Farouk De Lozelle; today they were also moving up steadily, from around 35th place to 25th.

Running back and forth with my camera between the trail and the crewing areas and the media tent (okay... and the expresso tent), I ran into several 'old' friends from my past travels. Australian Peter Toft was present, holding a camera instead of reins today, since horse sports in Australia are somewhat paralyzed with the equine flu epidemic. Peter appeared to be enjoying the scene, especially after he met The Raven II (who was along observing his first European Championship), since he'd heard so much about The (first) Raven in Australia. Other acquaintances were present, including Meg Wade; Assissi Ride participant South African Peter Chantler, who was crewing today; and photographer Heidi Bernsdorf, who'd taken me under her wings and given me a ride all over the course at Kreuth, Germany.

Steph and I caught most of the riders coming in off Loop 5, and 4 of the UAE boys going out on Loop 6 – still looking strong and running fast in front – before we packed up and joined in the mad dash back to Companhia das Lezírias for the finish. The mad dash turned into a massive traffic jam, where our long line of cars was literally parked on the highway. At first we heard distant sirens and figured it was a very inopportune wreck, and then I saw some endurance horses crossing the highway. But after the horses crossed, our cars never moved, and the sirens kept coming. We were sure it must also be a wreck, and we were resigned to the fact that we were going to miss the winners crossing the finish line at Companhia das Lezírias.

Then the police, with their blazing lights and wailing sirens passed, followed not by ambulances, but by... a line of black Mercedes cars and SUVs! “It's the Shaikh escort!” Steph said, as we watched them whiz past us poor souls stranded on the parking lot of the highway. “If Cidinha were driving, she'd follow them!” Steph mused. It only took her 1 ½ seconds to say, “I'm going to follow them!” as she deftly swung out of our parked string, and slipped neatly between a couple of black Mercedes in our little putt putt rent-a-car, cleverly disguised with our emergency flashers on.

In so doing, we passed the parked line of cars (both directions), whizzing down the narrow highway with our personal police escort at 120 km/hr. We made it to Companhia das Lezírias with enough time to run down to the finish line and stake our spots. The finish was down near a field, with a long straightaway for the close finish that was likely, and that had been brewing between the UAE riders all day. They'd looked good going out on the last loop – wouldn't that be something if they all came racing in together! A good crowd had gathered, filling the bar, and lining the fence above the finish, and crowding right at – and on – the finish line.

It wasn't dust from horses' hooves that heralded the approach of the first finishers, but the press helicopter that hovered above them, following their progress. The buzz of the crowd picked up as the helicopter got closer, and we could finally see the big group of riders coming along the last lane before the turn for home...

Only it was not the close group of 4 UAE riders, but only two of them, Sultan Bin Sulayem and Mubarak Khalifa Al Shafya. They didn't sprint for the finish either; they cantered in, with Bin Sulayem loping across the line an easy length ahead. Minutes later, it looked to be a horserace between the next three riders, but the horses had varying amounts of gas left, and there were a few lengths between them over the line: France's Jean Phillippe Frances, followed by Spain's Jaume Punti Dachs, and his wife, Maria Alvarez Ponton.

Next came Prince Hamdam Bin Mohamed Al Maktoum, wrapped in the UAE flag, followed several minutes later by Spain's Jordi Arboix, then the happy French team members Philippe Benoit and Virginia Atger on her tough and terrific horse Kangoo D'aurabelle, cantering in together.

More finishers trickled in steadily, including the only Belgian to finish, ecstatic Kristel Van Den Abeele on Epson De La Bruskaie (they finished 5th in Compiegne in June), and, what looked to be the sprint-in of the day, between Spain's Eloina Fernandez Vega and the UAE's Prince Ahmed. Vega was riding Rayito, a horse that stood out at the vet-in on Friday, and all during today's ride - not because he was a big beautiful Anglo-Arab type that always grabs my eye, or something like an eye-turning dark dappled bay coat. No, this was a little, round, roan horse that resembled a miniature quarter horse. He was pitted against the Shaikh's big, tall, handsome, rangy chestnut Jazyk – the type that does catch my eye.

Turning the corner for home, Vega and Prince Ahmed kicked into a sprint – but the race was over as soon as it started. The Prince's horse stumbled right away and he fell out of the race-in. However, I think Shaikh Ahmed's horse faked a stumble on purpose so he wouldn't have to race this little Rayito, because he knew there was going to be no catching him.

When they both took off, Rayito immediately left Jazyk in the dust. Rayito KNEW that Jazyk stumbled, and he was already far ahead, but even so, he grabbed the bit and sprinted to the finish, Eloina along for the wild ride whether she wanted it or not. She hollered Whoa, she pulled on the reins and sat far back in the saddle with her legs forward as brakes, but Rayito didn't slow down till he'd crossed the finish line and scattered the spectators! And that's because Rayito knows he's a champion: 2005 in the Spanish championships he won the bronze, 2006 he won the silver, and this year he was the Spanish gold medal champion. I heard a rumor he was not on the Spanish team because he didn't look the part of a champion. He certainly doesn't have royal breeding: his father is an Arabian, but his mother was half Percheron (hence his shape) and half Anglo Arab, and a 'lowly' plow horse. Rayito is doing his parents proud, as Spanish champion, and by finishing 15th in the Open and in the European division. Go son-of-a-plow-horse!

Meanwhile, a Celebrity arived, and some intrigue developed on course. Shaikh Mohammed Al Maktoum of Dubai arrived at the finish line to watch his sons come in. I didn't know who it was at first – just saw a large collection of blue shirts moving down toward the finish line, and a double-thick line of photographers preceding the procession. Then I caught a glimpse of the familiar face of the Shaikh, but I didn't join the line of photographers, because I figured the world had enough pictures of Shaikh Mohammed standing on the ground and surrounded by people. Truth was, I was too short and had too small a camera to squeeze my way in there to take a picture!

And shortly after this, I noticed a little truck out on the course, about a half-mile or more from the finish. I didn't think vehicles were allowed out there, but I figured the truck and the 4 or 5 people I could see through my telephoto lens were out there to crew for somebody, hand off the last minute water bottles for the sprint to the finish.

Eventully more people noticed this truck, and then 2 or 3 people started to wander out that direction. Then, another truck raced out there. Then Shaikh Mohammed and several others started running out there on foot, followed by more people, followed by a speeding truck and trailer, followed by a host of Bahrainis on foot. I never did see any horse – just people, and more people. What was going on? Later we heard that a horse had tripped and fallen down; and still later we heard that it was Shaikh Majid from the UAE whose horse fell down, and that Shaikh Nasser from Bahrain had stopped to see if he needed help.

And this is where some things became a little unclear. Shaikh Majid had gone out on Loop 5, but the finish results show him as having vetted out lame after Loop 5. I eventually heard that the horse of Sultan Bin Sulayem who came first across the finish line, Nashmi, did not come down to the 64 pulse criteria in time, though the results list the horse as lame. Same with the 7th across the finish line, Jordi Arboix on Jour D'ainoa.

With the vet ring and results being a distance away up the hill, it was't till later I heard all of this. I remained at the finish line waiting for the Americans – and as I kept waiting, and the sun dropped lower in the sky, at least one American – to finish before dark, but I finally had to give up. And later I found out all 3 of the remaining US riders had been eliminated at gate 5. We'd missed those results because we had to race back to Companhia das Lezírias for the finish. I also missed the last two riders to successfully cross the finish line, the Dutch sisters, Marjolein Vos-Sturrus and Anita Lamsma.

In total, 36 of 88 starters completed, a 40.9% completion rate. With the first across the line, Sultan Bin Sulayem, being eliminated, that left the UAE's Mubarak Khalifa Al Shafya winner of the Open Qatar Challenge, and the Jean Phillippe Frances (of France) and Hanaba du Bois as European Champions. Continuing their usual strong showing, the indomitable French team won Gold in both the Open and European Teams competition – Vive la France!

Spain's Jaume Punti and Maria Alvarez Ponton won European silver and bronze; and Jean Phillipe Frances silver in the Open and Punti bronze in the Open.

The Bahraini team won silver in the Open teams. Their coach said this was a great achievement for Bahrain; they are quite proud of their horses and their endurance program. The Bahrainis train part time, they don't ride every day, they “are not complete professionals,” - they have jobs and can't concentrate on endurance full time, unlike countries such as France. The Bahrainis came to Portugal early and studied the course, and expected a hard ride. And it was a hard ride, according to many riders: it was very rocky, very dusty, and always up and down, never flat, and the weather was hot in the middle of the day, and very humid.

Then there's the Swiss – always there, always consistent in the past World and European championships. With many of the same riders and horses, the Swiss team took the bronze medal in the 2005 Compiegne European Championships and silver in the 2006 World Championships in Aachen, and here the European bronze.

Jean Phillipe Frances' great mare Hanaba du Bois took Best Conditioned honors the next morning.

And so the curtain fell on another year of top horses and riders around the world, coming together this year in Portugal to compete over 160 kilometers, to test their skills and abilities over a demanding course in demanding weather conditions. There were plenty of unexpected disappointments, and some great accomplishments, deserving accolades for all who finished, the individuals and the team members. The success of the French continues year after year, supported by their strong endurance breeding program, and their successful schooling of young riders. “The French Rock!” (as at least one observer commented), could be the theme of this year's Portugal European Endurance Championship and Open Qatar Challenge.