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New mexico horseback summer escape endurance races & escapades

Article and Photos by Michele Petty ©2011 This past Summer I

decided to flee the Texas heat and humidity and haul a couple of horses to New Mexico, where I had been told “no air conditioning was needed.” My first stop was Valles Caldera, an 89,000-acre national preserve in the Jemez Mountains. I felt like I was riding the Ponderosa set from the Bonanza TV series, only it just kept going and going: A true taste of wide open space -- a rolling grassland surrounded by forested mountains, topped by bright blue skies.

I took a logging trail up into

the forest which after a steep as- cent came to a shimmering green Aspen grove. About a mile beyond the Aspens we were attacked by monster deer flies. My horse started kicking trying to fight off those fearsome flies. The child- hood verse from Jimmie Crack Corn came to mind, “the massa died, victim of the blue tail fly...” Rather than brave more bites we did an about face and double timed it down the descending trail. Sud- denly my saddle slipped up on the

atop him. Fearing he wouldn’t stand still long enough for me to get back on if got down to try to fix it, I grabbed the loose strap and held it tight because we had al- ready come down from the steep- est part of the trail. Meanwhile my clunky camera was bouncing around on my chest, but I didn’t have a free hand to put it away. The altitude must have impaired my judgment, but I was afraid we would be disqualified for going over time. We lost the trail two more times before finishing the race with me clutching the loose britchen strap and my camera flopping about. We had managed to tie for 7th/8th out of 16 horses, which was my highest finish to that date.

The next morning

was similarly freezing and I was scheduled to ride my 4-year-old who had raced only once before. I was leery of my youngster getting too frisky at the start so instead of an endurance saddle, I cinched him up in my barrel saddle. The one with the 4 inch horn I could


flowing mane and tail. He was 20 years old and loved to run. The other was a bay Half Arab Quarter Horse carrying a very tall man. They soon disappeared. My horse no longer wanted to try and keep up. The other horse couldn’t keep up with them either, and although I tried to keep her in sight, my youngster and I were soon by ourselves on the trail. And it was a relief. We could go at a pleasing pace, cantering comfortably and then walking leisurely while my eyes feasted on the forest scenes so foreign to my part of Texas. I found that if I kept my horse at a slow lope he had less time to look around and find things to be afraid of, although he still found some. I held onto the horn even in a walk in case we came upon a massive elk, or who knew what? Lions and Tigers and Bears...Oh My. I surely didn’t want to get dumped six miles from camp. We finally came out of

the forest and rounded a hill and there before us was the vast valley of rolling meadows. There were three or four miles and a couple of closed gates and an icy cold creek between me and the camp vet check and the completion of 18 miles. You would think my horse would be utterly exhausted and quiet, but he was neighing shrilly to my other horse and it took more than five minutes to get his heart rate down because wanted to go see his buddy. He passed the vet check easily once he calmed down. I wolfed down some cold canned Chef Boy Ardee ravioli and then stretched out in my hammock to relax for about 30 minutes.

My body resisted mov-

horse’s neck and off to the side just as the horse cow-kicked at a flying phantom which flipped me off to land flat on my back. Gasping for air, I took inventory: all parts were still in place and workable. While I was catching my breath, I noticed my horse was no longer in my immediate vicinity. Tempted by some luscious grass, he had trotted off. I begged the horse to please come back to me, and for once in his life he did.

I celebrated my

survival with a cold Tecate back at camp

We were scheduled to

ride in a 25-mile endurance race the next morning. Thirty degree temperatures and ice in the horse water greeted us. I was shiver- ing and so were my horses. The morning I left Texas I had taken a cold shower at 6am and by 7am sweat was dripping off my face. It was hot, humid and sticky, and it didn’t occur to me to bring my horses’ winter blankets. I was desperate to

avoid another saddle debacle so I hitched up my “mule britchen” to keep the saddle from sliding up his neck. My cold fingers fumbled with all the rigging, but I got it put together and checked in with about two minutes to spare. Horses and riders can

get nervous at the start of the race. Occasionally the contestants get treated to a little rodeo action. One horse took to bucking about 30 seconds before the start of the race. The rider lasted an impres- sive 8 seconds before hitting the dirt. She popped back up but was too rattled to do more than watch while her horse tore through camp.

The race trail climbed

steadily for almost ten miles bringing us to 9700 foot eleva- tion. The views were stunning, that is what I could see of them. Concerned about sun exposure at high altitude, I had slathered on “sweatproof” sunscreen. Sweat- proof it was not. it sweated right into my eyes. Blurry vision, yeah, but the worst part was the burning; however, I did manage to blindly snap a few pictures. We were supposed to

follow the yellow ribbons, but when we got to a crossroads in the high country, there weren’t any. It turned out that the elk loved yel- low and overnight had removed them. Most of us took the high road, which was the wrong road resulting in scenic 4 mile detour, but we did eventually find the high country vet check and our manda- tory hold.

Resuming the race, my

britchen came loose after about a mile. My horse trotted in place while other racers passed us by making it impossible to fix from

I just held on figuring that sooner or later he would wear himself out and then I could relax and enjoy the ride.

Most endurance riders

do a lot of trotting. I am 50ish, and more than 60 lbs overweight, with bad knees--both of them. Not your typical endurance rider. Now the problem with riding in a barrel saddle for 35 miles is that the stirrups are set forward, which is fine if you are cantering or gal- loping, but not so fine for a trot. The barrel saddle is pretty much sheer misery for a choppy fast trot, which my excitable youngster treated me to for more miles than I ever want to experience again. I congratulated myself for at least having the sense to leave the cam- era in the horse trailer. About 2/3 into the first

loop there was a four horse pack leading by several minutes and I was in it. They had started lop- ing about a third of the way into the race and my four year old was still eager. As for me, after getting jounced for the first six miles, I needed a respite from trotting and getting to lope versus fighting my horse to make him walk was a clear choice. At about mile twelve, the two riders who had been trading the lead decided to quit holding their horses back. One of the lead horses was an elegant white Arabian with a

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places riding lead and braving the spooks our horses executed. We even began to wonder if they were showing off for each other as to who could shy at the most unseen things, or who could perform the most spectacular leap sideways. We had fun chatting over the next seventeen miles. She cheerfully volunteered to open all the gates as she didn’t have any problems hopping on and off her horse. We never saw any other riders. We came in walking side by side to the ride timer, but her horse pulsed down more quickly while my youngster danced around listening and responding to my other horse’s excited whinnies. I was glad that I didn’t have to pass the vet check because I was about done in.

My youngster had

come in 4th out of 16 starters, and we won a Valles Caldera Coffee Mug decorated with a forest scene of a big bull elk. It is now my favorite mug.

hang onto for dear life, just in case he mistakenly thought he was trying out for a bronc riding contest. I mounted up and keep- ing a death grip around the horn, tried to steer him clear of other horses, the row of portapotties, the timer and vet tables, as well as various bystanders. He did a couple of small rearing hops, and then the race started and off we went. He wanted to keep up with the faster horses, and I didn’t feel like trying to do battle with him to slow him down as I was beat up and worn out from the day before. He wasn’t going to pass them, so

ing, but I forced myself to get back on the horse and get to the out timer table about five minutes early. The rider in front of me was late for her departure and then her horse who was as green as mine didn’t want to leave camp. He was serious about it and although he wasn’t pitching a fit, he was resolutely refusing to budge. She was still negotiat- ing with her horse, when I was given permission to resume the race. Mine wasn’t too sure about leaving camp by himself either so I persuaded my horse over in her direction, and our horses seemed to reassure each other. We traded

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