Sunday, January 21, 2007

Curse Lifted...?

Sunday January 21 2007

I took all the precautions I possibly could to humanly help ensure a successful completion in the Fire Mountain ride on Raffiq. (The rest would be up to the Horse Gods.)

Day 3 and 4 of Death Valley, Raffiq’s butt end cramped up at the beginning of the ride, because it was quite cold (he worked out of it Day 3, but ended up turning around on day 4 and not riding), and at Friday night’s pre-ride meeting, the head vet reinforced my concern by warning against cramping rear end muscles on a cold morning. So I rigged Raffiq’s saddle with a butt blanket for the Fire Mountain, and I’d make sure to get him moving around a lot and loosened up before the start of the ride.

Last year, Gretchen said she hadn’t been riding with anybody in particular – Raffiq can ride by himself, but he prefers company – so maybe that contributed to his being unsettled, and to his bolting. So, I hooked up with Jackie and Stan and Bev and Pam at the start. Raffiq really likes Odyssey and especially Fadrika, so he’d be riding with his good buddies, and hopefully be more relaxed. I’d also start with a bridle on, instead of his sidepull, for a little more control.

And, I’d pay attention. When you ride a horse a lot, just like when you’re with a human a lot, you get to know him very well, what he’s thinking, how he’ll adversely react in certain situations. You recognize when these situations might surface and you can be prepared for them. But then, often, because you know him so well, and things have been progressing smoothly, you tend to doze at the wheel. I’ve ridden Raffiq about 700 endurance ride miles, and countless training miles, (I wonder the proportion of those that I’ve zoned out…), so I know him quite well, and so I’d try to stay alert the whole ride.

About 55 riders started the 50-mile ride just before a cold sunrise over the Mojave desert. After a controlled start led by Gloria in her SUV, a group of about 20 fast riders cruised on up the wash, while the rest of the herd took their time strolling out. Raffiq was a little wound up, but I was prepared for the worst he might do at this point (bolt) and with everybody else around us walking or slowly trotting, he quickly calmed down and quit pulling on me. I was a little concerned with him cramping up behind, but with the butt blanket, and with our slow and easy start, I didn’t worry about it any more after 15 minutes.

I really really hate getting up early, but, if I have to be up, there are few things in life better than being part of a herd of horses and riders starting out on a 50-mile ride, trotting along a trail as the sun is coming up. (Especially when you are on a calm horse and the weather is perfect, i.e., no wind!) The riders ahead kicked up fine dust that rose from the desert earth, enveloping silhouetted horses and riders in front of the rising golden sun.

We’d cruised along smoothly for an hour, Raffiq comfortably and happily following along (he often has to lead, so he likes following when he can), when, at a right hand turn on the trail, Odyssey, in the lead, spooked at a can, (a little can!) and parted company with Jackie. Jackie wasn’t hurt, because she landed in sand (and no cactus!), but oh man, it’s just hard to come off a horse. Jackie’s butt pack broke, and while she gathered her belongings and horse and wits back together, humans and horses all took advantage of the break, for a pitstop, scratching itchy horse heads on human shoulders, shedding layers, and tightening cinches.

Regrouped, remounted and back to cruising down the trail, winding around creosote bushes and prickly pear, a few just starting to show some pink spring color, circled by ravens (I think they fly along to check on my raven that rides with me), the carefree miles rolled under our feet till we approached the water stop – the infamous water stop where Raffiq had last year’s notorious bolting episode. In fact I had just finished saying something to Stan about it, when something goosed Raffiq in the butt, and he bolted off the trail! And of course, here I was, riding along blithely, with both hands not firmly on the steering wheel.

I yelped, “Whoa!” and fumbled wildly for the reins; I got a hold of the left one and cranked back, which turned his head left while he was still climbing and leaping forward. My right hand found the right rein and I hauled him back to a stop, thankful, now that we were off the trail, that Raffiq hadn’t found a cholla to fuse with again.

We stopped for water and to snack on the hay hauled up by volunteers, then we got back on the trail. The photographer was there again, and Gretchen had wondered if the photographer had contributed to his spooking last year… here again Raffiq was amped up, trying to run on the heels of the horse in front of him, bolting forward as if something was goosing him in the butt. I hung onto him, and once we cleared that hill, he settled down.

Hmmm, maybe Raffiq coincidentally got a bug up his butt at the same place, or maybe it is something on this particular hilltop that’s got something on his equine psyche.

The trail continued on, winding through the sandy hills, up and down and around Nature’s artfully placed boulders of all shapes and sizes, the horses and riders leaning first one way then the other as the horses zipped left and right. Back down a soft gentle grade to the desert floor, our group sailing along effortlessly at a smooth trot, I was paying attention, with both my hands firmly on the reins, being aware and prepared for the unexpected, when Raffiq suddenly stumbled and all four feet collapsed.

There was a split second there, as Raffiq floundered, where my instincts thought, Are we going down? and I was prepared to bail, (I knew I was leaping off to the right) but before I could get the words “Oh S***!” out, Raffiq had recovered, and we continued trotting along. I don’t know if I’d helped pull him up or not, but he didn’t go down, and I didn’t lose my death grip on the reins.

Loop 1 was 14 miles, loop 2 was 16 miles, another fun trail, much of it cross-country through the desert on trails I hadn’t been before, and back into camp for an hour lunch break.
Raffiq ate for the whole hour, and we headed back out for the third and final 20 mile loop. Bev’s horse had an “inconsistent lameness” at the vet check, and she opted not to continue. Pam had left us, but Connie Hughes had joined us the last loop, so the four of us went out together. Raffiq led the way energetically out of camp… for a block. At that right turn, he was looking at his paddock and his pasture mates, who were standing there looking at him. Raffiq had thought he was going home. I had to wait for my riding partners to make the right turn, and I had to convince Raffiq to follow, told him he’d get to come back home here after we did another 20 mile loop.

A nice slight cool breeze had come up, keeping our horses with their thick winter coats just cool enough to be very comfortable. We took turns leading the way (Jackie stayed on another big spook of Odyssey’s, from a Horse-Eating Boulder lurking behind a creosote bush). When Raffiq took over, I had to hold him back (and I’d switched to the sidepull), because he knew he was headed to the out vet-check near the Trona road, where there was water and hay waiting for him. There was plenty of water along the trail, and hay for snacking at each stop. Plenty of volunteers, radio-check people and water and hay haulers, and one stop with a mounting block for grateful riders with tall horses! (And horses tend to get taller as the ride goes on).
The pace picked up a little heading home for the last time – I had to tuck Raffiq behind the others because he was getting a little too enthusiastic.

We finished the ride at about 4:30, when the sun was hovering above the hills to the west, and the clouds were gathering for a picturesque sunset. Perfect day, perfect weather, and, a successful completion for Raffiq in the Fire Mountain ride!

Of the 55 starters, about 17 were pulled, half of those as a rider option. Tammy Robinson won Best Condition with her horse TR Charutu.

For Raffiq and Gretchen, the Fire Mountain curse probably wasn’t a curse, it was just one of those things. Either way, Gretchen said, “From now on, you can ride Raffiq in the Fire Mountain and I’ll ride another horse!”

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