November 8 2022
I lean forward, as still as possible in the saddle, talking to my horse as he flies along, telling him what a Good Boy he is, how strong and powerful and phenomenal he is, how lucky I am to have him, how lucky I am that he willingly and happily carries me so swiftly over these trails. One of his ears flicks back to listen to me, then flicks back forward as he rockets forward, devouring the trail, focused on his mission of flying through the desert.
A preface to this story: Hillbillie Willie looooooooooooves DWA Barack, his pasture mate. Barack likes Willie - maybe a little love returned, but Willie loooooooves Barack. They can easily go to rides without each other, but when they go to rides together, things can get complicated if/when they don’t ride together.
I wasn’t sure what Hillbillie Willie and I were going to do at the 3-day Owyhee Halloween ride, the last one of the season. A 50 and some LDs (25 milers)? All LDs? At this ride last year, after Willie finished his 50, he gas colicked and was on IVs till midnight. It scared the bejeezus out of me and I have been forever since paranoid. Over his 5-year endurance career, he’s completed 26 50-mile rides for 1065 miles and never had a metabolic problem until last Halloween, but now I always ride him with a heart monitor and watch him like a hawk from the start to the end of the rides. And always worry.
I got the 50-mile monkey off my back in April, where we completed a 50 in the Owyhee Tough Sucker ride with no problems. We’ve done LDs the rest of this season, and our last ones, 3 days at Old Selam, were some of the funnest rides I’ve ever had on Willie. There we met and rode with Jo and Jake the Tennessee Walker, and with LDs I had many less hours of worry about Willie than if I’d done three 50s.
So at this 3-day Owyhee Halloween ride, when I saw Willie’s pals Jo and Jake pull into Ridecamp, I knew what we were doing. We’d ride 3 days of LDs with Jo and Jake!
That was my plan anyway. Apparently Willie had other plans cooking.
Willie and I met Jake and Jo at the starting line of the 25-mile ride. Barack wasn’t going out today, so we would see him at the end of the day, since our vet check was out of camp.
Willie is so much more relaxed at the start of endurance rides now (thank goodness!). We walked around to warm up in the chilly below-freezing morning, and when it was starting time, off we went beside Jake and Jo, calmly and at a sane brisk pace, into the Owyhee desert, with the snow-covered (already!) Owyhee mountains ahead of us.
The first loop zipped by quickly, into and around Oreana, past the bee hives (that are no longer there), along the AK-47 trail to Dudley’s cut-off and up Dead Cow wash, down to Fossil Creek, the two pals Willie and Jake pacing well together, trading the lead, going side by side. Willie has this thing where it’s important to him to be the boss of other horses. At home he is #3 of 4 horses…. he might even be #4 of 4. He bosses Barack around, but it may be that Barack just lets Willie boss him. But at this ride, Willie and Jake would be cruising side by side, and Willie tried pinning his ears and turned his head to Jake, I could be the boss of you if I wanted.
Jake just kept cruising steadily along, not a nod, not an ear flick of acknowledgement, nothing.
Willie, ears pinned and head shaking: I really could be the boss of you.
Nothing from Jake, not a flicker of notice.
Willie gave up and zipped alongside his friend. After the vet check and a lovely loop home, we ended up crossing the finish line in third and fourth, but the first place horse didn’t get a completion, so Willie and I ended up in second, and Jake and Jo in third. We’d walked in the last mile, so Willie’s pulse for the 10-minute CRI was an awesome 44-40 (!), despite the brisk pace we’d maintained all day. Icing on Day 1’s cake is that - shocker! - Willie got Best Condition! Which really is almost impossible, with me being such a featherweight, and weight being figured into the calculations. It was a good day!
Willie and I and Jake and Jo planned to ride together again on the LD. A possible complication was that Connie was also saddling Barack for the LD. Willie stood right next to him and knew his best pal would also be out on trail today.
And so Willie and Jake hit the trail together again, but today Willie was on fire and he had his own agenda for the day. I had to fight with him at times to Slow Down! At times he’d cruise along with Jake, and when he pulled away, he’d eventually consent to letting Jake catch up. But foremost on Willie’s mind today was that somewhere out here, his best bro Barack was also out on trail. I could have told Willie that Barack was behind us, but Willie was hot to trot (or pace) and he turned his attention away from Jake, and toward that cute gray Shagya mare SS Chevelle, ridden by Julie Bittick, up ahead of us.
About halfway to the vet check, I just had to let Willie go catch up with Chevelle, as fighting him was doing neither of us any good. He practically flew along (I kept an eye on his heart rate monitor) and caught up with them just before the vet check, Willie’s pal Jake long forgotten. Normally, at the slower pace I usually ride Willie, he’s already pulsed down below 60 by the time I dismount at the vet check. We came in much faster today, and his pulse was 77 when I got off, but it only took him a minute to pulse down. Not bad, and within what he can handle.
And after he vetted through, I got him set up with food, and he started to nibble, then suddenly realized - Wait - where is everybody? Where is Jake? Where is my best pal Barack???? The gray mare he’d arrived with that was eating near him no longer interested him.
I was able to keep Willie nibbling until - oh $hit oh dear, I could see Barack approaching in the distance. And once Barack whinnied a half mile down the road, Willie’s world abruptly turned upside down. He lost his bananas. Pulse shot up from 50 to 137. Frantic whinny, whinny, whinny, walked all over his food, Whinny, whinny, cry, beller, holler, whinny whinny. In fact, Barb McGann, who was taking pulses in the vet check, walked over to see who the unruly two-year-old-never-been-to-a-ride-acting horse was. “It’s Willie,” I said miserably.
Nothing could console Willie or shut him up until Barack had pulsed down, completed his vet check, and walked over to stand beside Willie. I don’t think Barack whinnied back once except for that one time approaching the vet check.
Willie was so happy to have his best bro back beside him, though he would not eat unless I held his food dish for him, because, you know, food tastes better when mama holds the food dish and hand feeds him.
Our out-time was the same as Julie and Chevelle, and I quickly bridled Willie and shot out of the vet check with her, so he could forget about his beloved bro he was leaving behind. And Willie was happy enough again with his cute company on the loop back to camp and the finish.
Julie and I traded stories, while Willie tried his bossy-face on the mare. He sidled up beside her on the two-track trails, pinning his ears and tossing his head at her, I could be the boss of you if I wanted.
Chevelle pinned her ears and tossed her head at Willie, Bugger off and behave!
Willie quickly dropped back, Yes ma’am, and behaved, all the way back home, wondering why his macho charms did not work on this mare. Chevelle set a nice comfortable pace and Willie was happy to chill with her. We finished second again, and I looked forward to seeing what Willie’s 10-minute CRI would be today -
At 10 minutes, when vet Jessica was ready to take Willie’s first CRI pulse, I could see Barack and Connie down the trail, approaching the finish line! OH NO! If Willie saw Barack, his pulse would shoot up to 130, and blow any chance at High Vet Score or Best Condition!
I turned Willie away from facing the finish line, held my hands up around his eyes like blinkers so he couldn’t see Barack coming behind him, and held my breath, praying that Barack wouldn’t whinny. Jessica took Wilie’s first pulse, which was 44, we trotted out and back with Willie still not seeing Barack who was coming in closer and closer, Jessica waited the requisite one minute to take Willie’s pulse again, a minute that seemed to stretch out FOR EVER, and she took his second pulse, 40! And then Willie saw Barack and whinnied and thank goodness Jessica didn’t have to take his pulse again because it probably shot up to 130!
Willie showed for Best Condition again, and Connie and Barack showed, and Connie’s few extra 15 pounds (although I tried to cheat and I called out her weight like 50 pounds lighter than she was but nobody bought it) put Barack up by one point or so over Willie for the BC award! I should have filled my water bottles and not peed before I weighed in!
I planned to just let Willie pick his own pace today; he could ride with another horse or he could roll today, and cruise as fast as he wanted to go (within reason), while I kept a constant eye on his heart rate monitor.
It was Halloween costume day and boy were there some fabulous costumes on the desert! Debbie Grose and Red sported a wild dragon and elf costume. David and Melissa Laws were wild bandits that first raced around Ridecamp whooping and hollering (Willie calmly watched and wondered who these banditos were), and the trail was open! Mari Smultea, riding Christoph Schork’s horse GE Atticus Golden Sun, took off at a fast clip in first, David and Melissa whooped out next, and Willie settled in behind them. I could only stare at David Laws’ mesmerizing bandito butt crack and laugh, until they pulled over at the first water trough and I let Willie fly on by.
Mari and Atticus were far enough ahead that Willie didn’t try to chase after; I just let my big horse roll along as fast as he wanted, and we went fast.
I don’t know how to describe it other than it was absolutely magical: My 17-hand* Standardbred ex-racehorse and I flying alone through the Owyhee desert, loose rein, not chasing, not racing, but Willie working hard and fast because he enjoyed it and he wanted to, our steaming breaths trailing behind us, antelope herd in the distance, mist rising along the Snake River, following a new trail along a winding canal, eager to see what’s around the next bend, trotting fast, switching smoothly to a canter when he wanted and a smooth flying pace when he felt like it, eating up the miles in an exhilarating rush.
The vet check back in camp was relaxing, since his best buddy Barack was in camp next to him, (and I monitored Willie’s pulse, which stayed in the 40s), and the final 6-mile loop was over too soon. We finished second again, with a final 44-48 CRI, and I was shocked again when Willie got Best Condition again - that after flying 25 miles over the desert in a ride time of 2:21.
Best Ride Ever! (Again!)
I’m soooo grateful to have this fun, dorky, lovable Standardbred in my life.
*I have measured Hillbillie Willie at 16.2 hands, but I swear he is 17 hands, which he for sure is at the end of a 50-mile ride and I have to get off and on one more time to get another gate
**Steve Bradley trail photos, Deb's photo taken by somebody, and on her FB page!