Sunday, April 4, 2010

We Are: Tough Owyhee Riding Suckers

Saturday April 3 2010


1 AM: wind

2 AM: gusts

3 AM: gales
you gotta be kidding me

4 AM: hurricane

5:50 AM: we are not REALLY going to do a 50 mile endurance ride in this windstorm, are we? I'll back out if Steph backs out (but I won't suggest it first).

6 AM: We are riding: I put on 14 layers of clothes and plunge into the dark, cold, blustery, howling morning.


Steph and I saddle up Rhett and Jose at home in the morning - and throw heavy blankets back on them - and haul to Regina's place down the road where the Owyhee Tough Sucker - the first endurance ride for most of us this season - is being held this year.

The 50 mile ride starts at 8 AM. It's a good turnout despite the dire weather predictions (and actualities). Some ridecampers felt the wind was going to blow their trailers over during the night.

Some 50 milers start at 8 AM. Others start... whenever they get going. Not many people are in a big hurry. We pull into ridecamp around 8 AM, vet in our horses with the bundled up, already-cold vets Robert Washington and Ellie Burnett (37 days till graduating from vet school!), and try to decide how many layers to start out wearing. The wind has died to a manageable level (strong, with gusts) - but it's quite cold.

Rhett and Steph have done 400 endurance ride miles in Arizona this winter, but it's Jose's first 50 of the season, and he's not in particularly good shape yet. Neither am I. Steph says, "Jose's a bit round!"

We start off down the road at a sensible trot on the first of 3 loops, of 18 1/2 miles, which takes us across Henderson Flat (sight of the Utter Disaster massacre in 1860) toward the Snake River. It's not terribly cold (through my 4 sturdy layers), though the wind is strong and cold enough to squeeze tears out of my eyes. We meet Lee Pearce and Naomi Preston, coming off their first loop of the 75 miler (they're the only ones doing the 75), and we pass Tom Noll and 19-something-year-old, near-5000-mile Frank who, as usual, thinks Tom is dictating an ENTIRELY too-slow pace.

We head for Wild Horse Butte and the Snake River. No matter how many times I ride this trail, I'm always fascinated by the scenery. So is Jose.

Jose: he is such a special soul. I am absolutely positive he enjoys the scenery. He'll stop to look at things, not for a few seconds, but he'll stand for a full minute - while his companion goes on - and look in all directions. I can hear the cogs turning in his head. There's an intelligent horse in there, absorbing, appreciating, analyzing.

The Snake River is a "cold blue," Steph says, sprinkled with white caps from the wind. This week's rain/sleet/snow/freezing temperatures has left the trail in perfect condition - no dust, firm dirt, sand washes not too deep. The rocks are minimal (I still say, if you do a ride in Nevada, you will never again notice the 'rocks' on the trail here), and there is only one place that is slick and muddy on the whole 50 miles, which we walk through for 50 yards. Not to mention it is too cold for biting gnats (!!!) which can be awful along the Snake.

We encounter Dick Root and Rocky (one of my favorite Pacific Northwest endurance horses) on the Oregon Trail. They are having some discussions. Rocky is huge and strong and opinionated. He's part mustang, part mutt (some draft in there), and mentally part mule. Just like you can't out-muscle a mule, you can't out-muscle Rocky. He's too strong. Dick is very insistent, but very patient. He has to be. When Rocky is behaving and doing what Dick asks him to do, he can fly like a rocket, one stride of his huge trot devouring three of your horse's, but today we leave them behind, still deliberating things. "He knows what I want," Dick said later. "He's very intelligent. It's just a matter of convincing him to do it."

We keep up our steady trot - a little bit of cantering, a little bit of walking, but mostly the strong consistent trot. The trail is flat and easy. The wind is still cold, but it's comfortable. In fact when we get in a sheltered spot from the wind, it gets a bit warm. I'm continually zipping and unzipping my four layers to adjust.

Rhett would rather continue on toward home at a junction, and Steph has to convince him that turning left is the correct way; Jose is happy to go wherever. He's strong beneath me, enjoying being on the trail with his buddy Rhett. We're not going too fast for his first outing. He'll be tired at the end of the day, and so will I - but it will be a good tired.

On the flats we have a great view of the snow-covered Boise Mountains to the north and the bright white Owyhee Mountains to the south. The Owyhees have snow showers moving around and through them. You can almost see the wind that we are feeling down here.

We cross the flats, circle buttes, follow a canal, (Jose notices everything), and turn back toward basecamp.

On one little hill (he loves to do this best on hills), Jose stops and lets Rhett go on, and stares at Castle Butte. Our last ride together was in November on this same trail. I know he knows that.

We cruise into camp for our first vet check and hold (which is an odd 44 minutes!). As I jump off Jose to lead him up the driveway, he is staring at the pens by the barn. Last time he was here, there was a resident herd of mustangs. They are gone now. Jose notices.

Jose's pulse is 60 (criteria), about what I expect for this first ride. It's quite windy, and therefore cold, in camp, and we throw heavy blankets on Rhett and Jose as they eat their grain and hay during their break. Rhett gets two blankets.

Loop 2 is the same as loop 1, only backwards. As we leave basecamp, Jose stops and stares at the fields across from basecamp - last year they were tumbleweeds. Now they are all plowed, awaiting planting. Jose notices this.

We meet Lee and Naomi on the trail again. We meet Bruce, riding Nature's Krushchev on the 25 miler. Krusty is Steph's old horse. Krusty's is semi-retired, and has been living with Bruce and Nance, teaching Bruce's daughter to ride, and accompanying Nance's horses when they need a calm steady escort. Krusty and Rhett put their noses together, sniffing, recognizing each other.

The scenery is different doing the loop this direction. Different - and just as beautiful. We follow part of the Oregon Trail again. Jose stops at places and looks around. Maybe he's seeing horse ghosts from the past, hearing their hoofbeats, carrying immigrants over this same trail.

The Snake River is a 'warm blue' now. Jose notices. He stops at the most scenic spot to look back and appreciate it. I watch his eye when he's gazing at things. There's something going on in there. Jose somehow (naturally) notices a horse way behind us. Carrie and her horse catch up with us and ride with us for a while along the river; then they go on.

Jose hasn't drunk any water yet. That's also normal for him, but you do wish they'd drink more. When he is finally ready to drink at one of the troughs we come to, he has to do it his way.

First, he looks around, takes in the scenery. Then when he's ready, he puts his head to the water - and takes a few sips. Lifts his head back up to gaze while holding the last swallow in his mouth. Maybe half a minute he looks. Then lets go the water he's holding, and bends to sip more water. Then lifts his head to look around again, holding water in his mouth. He drinks water like I sip my coffee - we like to make it last. Rhett doesn't want water; Rhett wants to go on down the trail, but Jose is sipping... and looking. Finally Jose has had his fill of water and scenery, and we go on.

I'd taken off one layer of clothing and I was just as comfortable - cool in the strong wind, warm out of it. The wind is still strong, and the Owyhees still have the wind and snow clouds dancing about them.

A few miles from camp we take a slightly different route to hit the common trail in. It's a new trail for me, and it's a new one for Jose. He notices. His ears are pricked forward, and his head turning and his eyes taking things in as we trot along. And when we hit the common trail again, I have an Ah-Ha! moment, recognizing where we are. I am certain Jose does the same thing.

We get back to basecamp for our second vet check, doing loop two in almost exactly the same time we did loop 1. Jose's pulse is 56 this time. He dives into his food as we cover both horses with blankets, and collapse ourselves on the ground. Steph and I are feeling rather tired and would rather like to lay down and take a nap in the warm sun out of the wind. I have an excuse for being tired, but she doesn't - she's been doing endurance rides! But then Steph's not used to the cold wind and I am, so I don't really have an excuse either.

The wind has relented a little now, and I change one heavy layer for a lighter one for our last 13-mile loop.

Part of the trail on Loop 3 is familiar, taking us first up on the flats in the Snake River Birds of Prey National Conservation Area, then down to the highway. Jose enjoys leading through a wash, bending back and forth with the curves, not knowing what is around the next corner. It's a slight uphill in the sand, so we slow to walk some of it. On top Jose lets Rhett take the lead and go on - it's a great view from up here and he stops a couple of times to take it in. He slams on his brakes for a drink out of a muddy puddle (yay!). He notices all the rabbit trails that intersect our road as we trot along.

After we cross the highway, our trail heads for the little town of Oreana. Jose has never been on this, and as we crest the hill with Oreana spread out below us, he is fascinated: houses, farms, cows, a farm truck putting along. Rhett gets a long way ahead of us while Jose stops to watch everything. Down in 'town,' where our trail meets the Oreana Loop Road, we come to a water trough. Jose is thirsty, but it takes him a long time to drink his fill, because he has to sip and look, sip and look, at everything.

It's several miles of dirt road past farms, with Jose's head swiveling to one side then the other, taking in the houses, cows, horses, farm equipment. And always beneath me, the strong steady trot, the willingness to move forward at this steady pace. It never fails to amaze me, these Arabians.

We cross the highway - nothing in sight on this Idaho highway - and have a few miles left to basecamp and the finish of the ride.

Our trail skirts the property of some Wintercamp Ranch... or somesuch name. It's a very odd place. Irrigation to a recently planted assortment of things - Christmas trees, grape vines, and already-dead things - from ...empty water tanks. A collapsed shelter. A living shelter made of logs and tarps. A truck camper shored up by straw bales. (Steph said, "That's SO Idaho!)(Tom Noll later said, "I wondered if that was for insulation, or a fort!" and "I wonder what their Summer Camp is like!"). A large ground tarp covering a large... lump. Lots of piles of... things. And funny noises coming from the shelters.

The 'ranch' is irresistible. Jose stops and turns to stare. Rhett would get a hundred yards ahead of us, and we'd canter to catch up, then stop and stare at this Wintercamp Ranch from a different angle. We both are intrigued, and a little apprehensive about this place.

We follow a wash up till we hit our common trail from another angle (another 'Ah-ha!' moment for Jose and me), and stop to pose near the Raven nest we'd passed 6 times today. Both Ravens briefly leave the nest. Instead of flying away from us, one of them circles close, before they both land on nearby poles and watch us.

We meet Nance on Barbi, pretty in pink on Barbi's first 50 ("we had some issues... but we got through them") and Joni riding Nance's horse Quinn (my Tevis partner : ). It's Joni's first 50 after a bad horse accident last year. They are all enjoying the great day too.

We arrive at basecamp to finish. Jose's pulse is 54, and he trots out as he always does, agreeably and soundly.

We are tired, but it's a good tired.


Weather was great, scenery was fantastic, trails were awesome, it was the best ride ever.

And Jose? Jose is the best! He's a very special horse.

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