Best! Ride! Ever! (Again!) on Hillbillie Willie the Standardbred!
I spent two hours in the middle of the night before Day 1’s 25-miler at City of Rocks*, when I should have been sleeping, worrying about the start. We’d be starting on a single track for a hundred yards - not ideal with a crowded field of 20 or 30 horses. Was Willie going to be a firecracker or would he be calm? I want calm starts. Would other riders be running up his butt? I don’t like that and it’s not safe. Would he be trying to run up the butt of the horse in front of him? I don’t allow him to do that because it’s not safe, but sometimes it takes a lot of conversation and effort with Willie to give the horse in front of him space, and sometimes miles for him to calm down.
And what about that gnarly awkward 4-strand barbed wire gate right by a nasty cattle guard, which was just another hundred yards up the single track trail? I could see all kinds of pileups and accidents there if nobody was manning the gate. (Every other year at City of Rocks, we could leave that gate open. This year, some renegade cows on the wrong side of the fence deemed the gate had to stay shut.)
And, Willie’s bestest bud DWA Barack would also be doing the 25-mile ride*, and Willie can get a little squirrely when he knows Barack is on the trail and not right with him. And so I worried, while my prime sleeping hours ticked away.
Really. I just wanted a good safe fun ride. That’s it.
It turned out that I could have slept those extra two hours instead of worrying. Every. Single. Thing. fell into place on our ride, and we had The. Best. Ride. Ever!!!!!!!! (Again!)
The start set the tone for the whole day: after I saddled up Willie (I tied him to a different trailer from Barack, and he wasn’t bothered), I mounted up and Willie walked around camp calmly, warming up and waiting for the start. When “Trail’s Open!” call came, we just turned and walked toward the single track trail heading out of camp. We ended up falling in behind a line of 10 riders, who thankfully started out on a sensible trot, and Willie and I had a glorious big Bubble behind us. Love the Bubble! In fact, we carried this Magic Bubble with us 99% of the ride.
And, luckily Byron’s mom manned the gnarly gate, leaving it open and keeping the cows away, so all the starters could get safely through.
The first mile on the single track Equestrian Trail winds through a juniper forest, so Willie and I couldn’t see the string of horses in front of us. We passed two riders right before starting this trail, and ended up behind Kevin and his Rushcreek horse, trotting along at a smooth and steady pace, with Willie kindly agreeing to give them plenty of space. He wasn’t pulling or yanking on me so I knew then that our ride day was going to be a good one. Little did I know yet how good it would be!
It got even better right away when, coming to the first trail junction not a mile up the Equestrian Trail, the other seven riders in front of us took the wrong turn. We didn’t see it happen, but suddenly there were no hoof prints ahead of us. “I think this is wrong,” Kevin said, “nobody else went this way.”
“No,” I said, “I’m sure this is correct.” The new ride managers of this year’s City of Rocks ride had a new system of trail marking, but I know the trails, and I’d memorized the map, and I knew we were going the right direction. Kevin pulled out his GPS: “No, my GPS says we’re going the wrong way.” Impossible! But he checked again, “It says we should be on the other trail branch.”
I followed him as he turned around, if only to go back and check the last sign, at which point we met two more riders coming our way and confirming we’d been correct and were on the right trail. So I turned Willie back around, and there we were in front, going the right direction, with no other horse in front of us, and from there we trotted onward into heaven.
We didn’t race; I let Willie set his own pace. He absolutely loves the twisting California Trail through the sagebrush (which parallels the park road), and he wove back and forth, zipping along with his ears forward, sometimes trotting, sometimes shifting to a pace or canter, working his way gradually uphill. He never took a breather; he wasn’t racing and he wasn’t anxious. He was happy.
I kept thinking horses would catch us, but onward and upward we trotted, having the entire City of Rocks National Reserve trails to ourselves, up to Elephant Rock (where our timing was great, and some 50 milers coming the other direction held the gate open for us), on uphill to Tea Kettle past a snow drift we’d never seen in that spot before; and yet more gradual uphill to Bread Loaves, on another winding trail through an aspen forest (through a gate we did on horseback) that Willie loves.
We popped out at Bread Loaves, with still no other riders in sight, where we crossed the park road onto a two-track road we’d never ridden before. I opened that gate on horseback too, and Willie plunged back into his steady ground-eating trot, up and still more up, to the high point of the Circle Creek trail at about 7000 feet.
While climbing we met two of the off-trail riders coming towards us; they’d just kept on going the wrong way to follow the loop backwards (they would later have to make up a few miles they’d cut off in this direction, and they’d get a completion only; we soon met another pair of riders who had done the same backwards loop).
Just as we crested the high point and started downhill, Laura and her cute bay Arab finally caught us, she’d been one who’d taken the wrong junction at the start, and eventually turned around to retrace her steps and get back on the right trail. We stopped at a water trough together, then they headed nimbly downhill while Willie and I slowed down. He’s like a big barge on switchbacks, and while he’s pretty sure-footed, I was grateful he didn’t feel the need to keep up with them or race downhill.
We had our big Magic Bubble back as we walked and trotted down, down, down to Circle Creek, back onto the two-track road that Willie picked up a fast canter/pace on, down the steep Lathe trail to the park road, which we turned on to take back to camp. It’s a gradual downhill, and Willie shifted into some kind of miraculous trot I hadn’t experienced before. Hard to describe but it was like he set himself down and hit the Glide Trot switch. I literally felt like I was on a flying carpet, smooth as silk, not posting, not two-pointing, but literally gliding in the saddle as he glided downhill, maybe 15 or 16 or more miles an hour, fast and effortless. Willie saw two horses on the 50 ahead of us, but he wasn’t trying to catch them, he was just in a rapturous glide zone that zipped him back to camp, where his pulse was below 60 as soon as I dismounted.
What a ride! And we had one more loop to go!
Heading out on Loop 2, Laura and her Arab were just a minute ahead of us. But Willie and I weren’t out to catch anybody. We yakked with a friend before heading out, then Willie picked a water trough in camp to dunk his head in and drink deeply (yay!) before we headed out of camp at a stroll.
I’d lucked out on the gate timing so far in the ride, so I paid it back at the gnarly barbed wire gate by the cattle guard heading to the Equestrian trail. A gal trail riding a wound-up green horse was approaching the gate, so I was able to hop off and open the gate for me and Willie and for her. She waited for me to mount up while I got back on, and off Willie and I went.
He cruised the Equestrian Trail again, and this time we took the right fork in the trail, and headed up the Lathe trail to Circle Creek overlook. Halfway up the steep climb Willie slowed to a walk (fine with me!), but once we gained the top at the parking lot, Willie picked up a big trot till our next gate. I opened and closed it on him (he’s such a good cow horse!), and he flew up the two track road to the turnoff to the Boxtop trail. He was willing to trot up the log steps, but I told him it was OK to walk. I opened and closed the next gate on Willie, and at our next gate we opened it for a pair of climbers, and they closed it for us.
The long steep climb to the top of Boxtop came next and when we emerged near Elephant Rock, Willie dunked his head in the water trough there and drank deeply again.
Aiming back toward camp on the California Trail, we met and pulled over for the Law gang of about 6 horses, Dave Rabe and Tami, and several more groups of riders. Still in our glorious Magic Bubble, I let Willie pick his pace, turbo-ing down the wiggling trail, shifting from a fast trot to a pace around the corners and a canter here and there. Slightly downhill, it was fluent and glorious and fun!
We popped out onto the road at the Stone House for our last few miles home - downhill again on the soft side of the park road where he shifted into that Magic Carpet trot. By now I could see Laura and her Arab far ahead of us, but we weren’t out to catch anybody - we were just doing our own thing. I even slowed Willie down, but his long gliding stride caught up to them by the time we made the final turn toward camp. We let the boys trot on in together, slowing to walk the last half mile.
Willie was already pulsed down as soon as I hopped off him at the finish - meaning he won the ride - !!!!! We hadn’t set out to do that, and we hadn’t changed our plans anywhere in the ride to do that; everything just worked out that it happened. All I wanted was a quiet start and a smooth fun ride (and it was all on a loose rein!!!!) and it turned into The. Best. Ride. Ever!!!!! (Again!) on Willie, and it would have been the same if we’d finished first or last or in the middle. He had fun, we had the Magic Bubble, and we both just clicked as a team. The win was icing on the cake.
And sprinkles on the icing on the cake was that with his 48-48 CRI and vet scores, he ended up getting Best Condition!
What a ride, what a horse! #StandardbredsRock !!!
Willie and I basking in the aura of Hall of Famer Dave Rabe (2009 AERC Hall of Fame and like a billion miles**) and his Perfect Ten horse Cocamoe Joe (10,000 miles, 10 Best Condition awards, 10 wins and more than 10 years of riding)
Connie Holloway photo!
*the 25-miler was re-sanctioned as a 30 after it turned out the mileage was long
**actually over 77,000!
Look at that loose rein I had all day!!!
Steve Bradley photo!