Tuesday, February 06, 2007

20 Mule Team: Girl You've Got it Bad

by Aaron Turnage

My 20-Mule Team ride started on December 23rd, the Saturday before Christmas. We were down at my parent’s house and I decided it would be fun to take my son roller skating, something I had not done in about 15 years. We went to the roller rink with my mom, my son, and my sister and less than an hour later my mom was driving me to the ER since I had fallen and hurt my arm. As we were driving in the car, with my arm propped up on my jacket and a bag of ice on the top I looked at my mom and said, “You know what this means don’t you? You’re going to have to saddle Sinatra for me at 20-Mule Team.” =) She looked over at me and shaking her had laughingly said, “Girl, you’ve got it bad.” Yes, I do.

Fast forward about 5 weeks and we are entered and getting ready to go. The arm ended up being a minor fracture of my radius. I called and rescheduled my cast removal for the Thursday before the ride rather than the originally planned Tuesday after. I lied and told the scheduler I had a wedding to go to and didn’t want a cast for in the pictures. =) I had to thank my aunt for that excuse, it worked perfectly. I had been able to saddle and ride with my cast just fine, but couldn’t wear a glove so that was of concern to me. After removal and x-ray the doctor pronounced me totally healed and able to go do what ever I wanted to with that arm. He kind of blinked at me funny when I said “Oh good. I’m doing a 100-mile ride on my horse on Saturday.” He wished me well and I went back to work testing my shortened range of motion in my wrist.

I met a very nice lady through a mutual friend from the Reno-area who was also planning on going down to 20-Mule Team. Jean and I made plans to meet after work on Thursday and drive down to Bishop and overnight at the fairgrounds there. It was to be Jean and her horse Chi’s first 100 and Sinatra and my third (finished Sunriver, overtime at Tevis). The week getting ready to go was just crazy, work was hectic, I was busier than normal with my husband’s business, and then just all the checking, cleaning, packing, organizing that goes into going to a ride, compounded because this was our first ride of the season and I hadn’t been through everything since our last rides in October. The drive down on Thursday went smoothly. I would highly recommend staying at the Bishop fairgrounds. They gave us two box stalls and had the water turned on for us. Very pleasant and easy to deal with, although not quite so easy to find our stalls in the dark but we managed.

Woke up and got a fairly early start and arrived in Ridgecrest around 10:30 or so Friday morning. My mom was coming down to help crew and ride the 35 mile LD with her TWH and she pulled in a scant 5 minutes after we did. Got the horses out, walked and settled and then the buzzing of clippers filled the air as I redid the trace clip my boy had been give in October but had since grown out about an inch or more. I just clipped the underside of his neck, entire chest, and outer flank areas. I then hosed him off to help wash off some of the dirt, hair, and such. It’s been so cold in Reno (highs in 40’s) that I hadn’t been able to bathe him at all for several months at home. He was a fuzzy looking new man by that afternoon.

We got all checked in and vetted. I know I’m not at home when I get asked by every third person what kind of horse Sinatra is. People in Reno have gotten used to seeing him over the last 4 years but he is certainly noticeable and does stand out from the rest. Unfortunately I don’t know his breeding nor have the slightest clue. He’s a very red chestnut sabino with a big blaze, four high white stockings and two blue eyes. I was able to meet a couple of people from some of the online endurance lists when they recognized my description of my horse and came over to say hi. =) It’s always nice to put a face to the name. A short ride, packing of crew bags (I would be on my own for most of the ride so had two different bags for the two main away checks), and the ride meeting then it was time for bed. I was exhausted from the last week and the long drive and went to bed around 9 pm and slept VERY well.

I woke up just before 5 am to get ready for the 6 am start. It was a fast and easy process to get into the clothes I had laid out and drink something for breakfast. I had made oatmeal with good intentions but I just can’t do solid food before a ride so had a chocolate Ensure and some water. Sinatra had laid down and slept the night before and looked ready to go but wasn’t too excited, which was perfect. There was a controlled start at 6 am and Jean and I rode over about 5 minutes later and walked out of camp on a loose rein, the dust from the horses in front of us visible on the horizon. I knew my boy was fit and ready for a 50 or 65 but since I was unsure of how conditioned and ready we were for a 100 our plan was to take it slow and steady and just see how things went. I was planning on about a 5 mph average, which isn’t a whole lot slower than the ~6.5 mph we normally ride but would be a good pace to get us through the day and our first ride of the season.

We had been warned that this ride can be harder than it seems and riders may have a tendency to try to go to fast. The course had a few hills but a LOT of long gradual climbs and descents. Plus it was fairly sandy and could be deep in places. Luckily we have the benefit of being about to train in the sand, hills, and rocks at home but listened well and rode according to our horses. Jean had planned on trying to stay with Sinatra and me although Chi would have preferred to go much faster. =) We cruised along through the morning, getting off trail once and having some riders yell at us so we could turn around and go back. We had the opportunity to repay the favor just a few miles down the trail. She later caught up to us and thanked us, her horse was ready to go and she had to pay a lot of attention to him. We came into the first check at 15 miles and after a quick drink I took Sinatra over where he was a 12 (48) for P&R. The guy complemented me, said that was the third he’d had all morning and my horse was in really good shape. The Duck vetted us at the check and we were OK good to go.

The 15 minute hold went quickly, Pamela Burton with Chronicle of the Horse took some pictures of us and soon we mounting up to go. Sarah Martin, also from around the Reno-area decided to slow up a little and joined us as we left. It was uphill for the first 5 miles or so out of the check. We rode briefly with Bruce from Utah till the first water stop on this check. Then it was a BEAUTIFUL ride downhill through a long sandy canyon to the next check and hour hold at 31 miles. There were some sections of big sandy-type boulders on this section that the horses had to be careful on. Sinatra is so great with tricky footing, he would put his head down to check it out then cruise right over. We got to the 31-mile check around 11 am, about 5 hours after we had started. I found my crew box and Sinatra happily ate his mash and the hay that was provided. He vetted out great again, I think got a B on guts but I wasn’t concerned since he was eating well and gut sounds can be so subjective. CRI was 12/11, I’ll take it. =) He promptly rolled in the powdery dirt after having his check (tack was off), something I was expecting (he LOVES to roll) and prepared for. I brushed him off, ate my own lunch and enjoyed watching the front running 65-milers coming in.

The hour hold was appreciated by horses and riders but soon it was time to hit the trail again. The three of us (Sarah, Jean, and I) set off from the check for a few fairly flat and fast miles. The front running 65’s caught up with us shortly and started to pass. Sinatra didn’t mind but Jean’s horse Chi was getting pretty upset. He’s off the track and is very competitive. I suggested that maybe she let him go a little faster like he wanted to and just wait for us at the next check. It was taking a lot of energy out of him and her to fight each other like that. Sarah’s mare Sierra would kind of get going too so they took turns using Sinatra (in his rope halter and loose rein) as a road block. I had a lot of “I love this horse” moments on this ride. =)

Soon we began a long steady climb up and over the ridge of mountains. We trotted some short stretches but walked the large majority. Jean went ahead and let Chi go on a little and we soon lost sight of her. After cresting the ridge Sarah and I got off and walked, down, down, down. We’d say hi or chat briefly with the 65’s that passed us on this section. I remember one guy telling us what a good job we were doing as 100’s to get off and give the horses a break. Heck, my knees needed the break at least as much as Sinatra did! Back down onto the flat and we remounted and trotted the 6-8 miles or so to the railroad tressel and a water stop. Sinatra had a little bit of a low spot at this point, I think when his little internal odometer rolled past 50 and he wasn’t back in camp. =) A bit of a break with some hay, water and some grain I had been packing with me helped to improve things. It was a short 4 miles or so to the next vetcheck, which a group of us tried to make slightly longer by missing a turn. Maybe some ribbons were vandalized but we eventually found the trail again.

Into the vet check at 57 miles and Sinatra wanted to eat, eat, eat. I put a little water on his neck and he pulsed down and vetted out well. The same vet that saw him at 31 mile check saw him again at this point. She still gave him a B on guts and this time a B on gait, he wasn’t overly motivated to trot out (only wanted to eat) so may have been dogging it. I found my crew bag and gave him another mash and ate a little something. I had packed glowbars for out here just in case it was late, I didn’t want to have to be coming into camp in the dark since the moon wouldn’t be up yet. I taped a couple on my breastcollar during our 15-minute hold. Sarah’s mare looked a little funny on the right hind so she took her over and massaged her before getting cleared at her recheck. The last 100-miler, Gail Hought with Hought Tack, caught up with us and we rode the 8 miles into camp together. The sun set as we headed in and by the time we were in the neighborhood before reaching the fairgrounds it was dark. I leaned over Sinatra’s neck at the walked and cracked the glowbars. It helped to light the way and more importantly allowed any approaching vehicles to see us coming. I trotted on ahead, knowing Gail and Sarah were going to walk in and I could use the extra time for Sinatra to eat.

We got into camp just after 7 pm and Melissa Ribley vetted Sinatra. He had mostly A’s with a few B’s, I think maybe impulsion but he was going well with a 60/60 CRI right off the trail. I took him back to the trailer, pulled tack and let him eat. I looked in at Jean’s rig but it was all dark inside and Chi was resting comfortably with his blanket on. I was tempted to see if she wanted to go back out but didn’t want to wake her if she was asleep. I decided from the looks of things that she was done for the night and felt a little sad for her. My mom grabbed me some of the dinner they were serving (tri-tip YUM) and I devoured most of it. At this point, as I was saying I wanted to get a few things together for her to take out to the 92-mile check (same one as the 57-mile check) she kind of looked at me and said “WHAT?!?” and I knew I had lost my crew. =) Luckily Sarah’s husband was going so I threw a few things in a bucket for him to take out. I already had a little crew bag out there and my mom’s from her 35-mile ride was out there as well so I should be set. We refilled all my water bottles (4) and I restocked my pommel pouch with 2 lbs of carrots.

Sarah stopped by when she was ready to go and we headed out together. Unfortunately Gail had been pulled so Sarah and I were bringing up the rear. Hey, someone’s got to do it and I’ve done it enough times to hold the title well. =) The full moon had come up by then and was shining so brightly that the glowbars were pretty much unnecessary. We had both layered up as riders and put rump rugs on the horses, preparing for the cold and dark to come. Both horses left camp willingly, no balking, no trying to turn, just right on out. Good ponies. I knew where the turn off for the start of the 35-mile loop was and we trotted most of the first 8 miles or so out of camp. Soon we started heading up a gradual climb, mostly trotting but walking every now and then. Suddenly I saw these weird lights in front of me, green and then flickers of red flashing on and off and kind of moving. A UFO? A 100-mile hallucination? Nope, just another rider heading back towards camp. He was entered in the 100 as well but his horse was out of gas so he was calling it a night. We offered for him to come along with us, nice and slow and he thanked us but declined. We continued on and made it to the top of the climb and I spotted the water troughs lurking in the dark, concealing their precious fluids from those not quite so wary. Both horses drank well and we had a really nice ride along the hillside running kind of parallel to the town of Ridgecrest down below. I bragged that MY ride, the Nevada Moonshine, had prettier albeit much shorter city views and we talked off and on about night time trail markings, Sarah having ridden my ride last June. =)

We eventually turned left and started heading through the hills (mostly down) to the highway crossing below. We could see the occasional car passing by in the night, helping to guide us how much further we had to go to reach our first destination on this loop, the highway crossing and radio checkpoint at 17 miles. We got off and walked the long downhill towards the checkpoint, Sinatra would occasionally go off trail and walk over the top of some of the brush on the side of the trail in an attempt to scratch his belly and between his legs, which were getting quite itchy. Again, normal behavior for him and something that is both funny and exasperating when he does it. When things started to level out I encouraged Sarah to get back on, her mare was getting more tired, and we trotted into the check. We chatted with the radio operator while the horses drank and ate some hay, thanked him for being out there and confirmed we were the last two riders. Seems one was unaccounted for but they got everything worked out while we were there, I think it was maybe the guy that had returned to camp or maybe one of the RO pulls. Sinatra was getting quite hungry at this point, it was about 10:30 pm, we made very good time on that section.

We crossed the highway and headed off to go up and over the next set of hills. Sarah had ridden all 4 days of DVE on her mare in December so knew where we were. Unfortunately what passes quickly during the day on a fresh horse takes longer in the dark of night on a more tired one. We headed up the next mountain, trotting on the flat and walking up the hills. Sarah got off and started to lead her mare again and I took a break and walked Sinatra as well. Eventually we crested the ridge and headed down a long sandy road running back toward the railroad tressel. We were around 80-85 miles at this point, maybe a little more.
About halfway down the canyon, I’m off leading with the reins looped over my elbow and my hands in my pockets. I feel the slack slip through and hear a soft grunt behind me. I turn around and Sinatra has laid down in the middle of the trail to roll. He’s on his left side and wiggles around scratching. I tell him, “Get up!” and tug on the reins but he kicks and rolls all the way over instead! Fully tacked! At this point I yell at him to “Get the F*#$ UP!” and he does but starts to stagger around to the right. His eyes are rolling in his head all weird, I’m holding his halter right by his chin and have his head steady in my arms. He staggers nearly a half circle to the right, legs crossing and uncrossing then just stands there looking down the trail a little weird. Sarah and I are both very concerned at this point. What is wrong with him? Is he just dizzy? A blood rush from going down, rolling completely over and then getting up so quickly, especially with his head pointing downhill the entire time? Something more serious? Did flipping over with the saddle injure his back? I check is heart rate (62) and put my ear to his flanks and hear guts sounds. I offer him a carrot which is quickly eats and looks for another. At this point, we decide the only thing to do is continue walking him to the railroad tressel. I keep a close eye on him and he seems fine. Walking straight and true and willingly, I’m not having to pull or encourage him along. His ears are perked forward and he appears just normal. After about 15 minutes or so I decide to get back on and see how he feels. I mount carefully, watching for any signs of back soreness but he doesn’t more, flinch or even flick an ear. I discover that he popped the lid off one of my bottles and drained ½ of another, so parts of my saddle are wet. I ask him to trot and it’s just like normal, soft and easy down the trail, ears perked forward or slightly back on occasion to check in with me. He seems totally fine.

Sarah continues to lead her mare the rest of the way to the tressel and we stop for some water and hay for the horses. I take the last of my grain out and pour it on the leftover hay for two thankful mouths to devour. Sarah calls her husband to let them know where we are and that we will be there shortly. After a quick 5 minutes we pull the up and head towards the vet check. Sarah gets back on and we alternate walking and trotting this section. Sinatra is feeling just wonderful and is quite perky now that he is certain of where we are and where we are going. I’m having to rate him back and slow him down more at this point than when we started the ride in the morning. Sierra is happy to follow along behind at this point but seems to be doing well. She is stiffening in the rear end so the goal is to keep her moving gently forward. We come into the check and vet the horses through. The Duck looks them over and pronounces them okay to go on. We’re told that we can leave when we like, we don’t have to stay the entire 15 minutes but it works out that way since we let both horses eat. I look for my crew bag(s) but they have already been packed, the check is ready to go as soon as we are. Thankful for having put some items in Sarah’s husband’s care I feed Sinatra some more grain, let him eat hay and have a little something myself. I get something more to drink from one of the volunteers and then Sarah is remounted and ready to go. I mount up and we head out for the last 8 miles.

We walk the first little hill out of the check and then trot off and on, the highway crossing comes very quickly and we scoot across after waiting for a car to pass. They had slowed down when they saw us on the side of the road and I can only imagine what they thought of two horses and riders standing on the side of 395 at 2:30 in the morning. =) We trot the next flat section along the highway and then make the left hand turn into the last set of hills to go over before we arrive back at camp. After a little while, we realize we are off trail and can’t see any glowbars. I turn on my headlamp and there are only tire tracks on this road, no hoofprints. We have a very good idea of where we are, about where the trail should be and know where to head so we continue to follow the road. It has more hills and rocks than the correct trail would, but it’s going the right direction so we continue on. We’re up higher on the hill more, riding along the ridge top as opposed to down at the bottom where the right trail should be. We keep our eyes peeled for glowbars but still don’t see any. Several intersections come and go, we check most and debate about heading down towards town and trying to ride in from there or to continue on our present route. We decided to do our best to follow where the trail “should be” and keep riding forward. Pretty soon Sarah sees a glowbar and we meet up with the correct route coming up the hill to join the road we were on. Relieved, we make the turn and follow the right trail as it starts to head down through the hills toward town.

Sarah gets off to lead down the hill. We’re both getting tired and quiet as the night goes on. No longer laughing, joking and telling stories. Each lost in our own ride and our own thoughts. I’m enjoying how beautiful Sinatra looks in the moonlight. His coat is dark and glowing back at me while his white markings seem to shine with an inner light of their own. He is still forward and willing to move out. Just a gentle squeeze and a kiss will get him moving. I feel the night air and find it interesting how we will ride into cooler and warmer patches depending upon how the currents flow through the hills and valleys. It was a beautiful day for a ride, warm and sunny without a cloud all day or night and not windy nor too cold as these desert nights can be. Last year the riders were in the dark and snow, tonight it is a clear shining sky with a full moon to light our way. I’m starting to get sleepy and a little sour in my stomach, just ready to be done and I know Sinatra must be to.

We finally come out down into the neighborhood and I encourage Sarah to get back on so we can trot the flat sandy roads back to the fairgrounds. She finds a rock and mounts and only goes about 10 feet before Sierra hunches her back and starts to drag her right hind leg. Very concerned Sarah jumps off and we both are worried about Sierra. Sarah continues to walk her and she doesn’t appear to be too sore while being led. She is a little short strided behind but not overly bad. We reach Fire Mt. Arabians and the horses are happy to discover Jackie has left a trough of water out. Both drink thankfully and then we head off to camp. It’s about 4 am and I tell Sarah that I really need to finish and get off, I don’t know how much longer I can walk along in the night. She tells me it is okay to go, that she’s just going to walk in, I check with her again, feeling a little guilty but she assures me it’s alright. Sinatra trots off willingly but slows when he realizes we’re leaving his new buddy behind. I encourage him on. Suddenly he’s not so brave by himself, pausing to study each glowbar suspiciously and eye the dark bushes with caution. I hear Sarah call her husband and let him know where she is and what is going on. For the last time we turn and head down the last road to camp, it having grown longer and longer throughout the day and into the night. Sinatra walks out quickly and willingly but finds reason to spook and balk when I ask him to trot for any length of time. I think he can hear Sarah and Sierra behind us (I think I can on occasion) and doesn’t want to leave them too far behind. It wasn’t that he didn’t want to move out, but he didn’t want to keep going and I think was finding excuses to pause and hope they would catch up.

At 4:42 we came upon the finish line which was now vacant and just a soft white line glowing on the ground. Sinatra took a quick sip of water and then walked the rest of the way into camp. I remember from crewing Tevis seeing the horses come in with a strong forward walk and a determined and focused look in their eyes. I was pleased and somewhat awed to see that same expression on my horse’s face now. I hopped off right before the paved road and led him into the quiet sleeping camp. I found a volunteer who woke up Melissa and she emerged to vet us through. Sinatra did very well and I received a complement on how well he looked. I was appreciative and took him back to our trailer, Sinatra pausing to nibble any bits and pieces of hay that crossed his path. He was ravenous, I’ve never seen him that hungry. I fixed him a mash and he pounded that down while I pulled tack and rubbed his few sweaty areas with a towel and curried him a little. While bending over to take off his Easyboots which he had on over shoes I started to retch and dry heave. My body was done and letting me know it didn’t appreciate the further abuse of squatting down and hunching over. I politiced his legs (without wraps), checked that he had plenty of hay and water and staggered into my mom’s RV. It had been a very long day and night and I was grateful to fall into bed and eventually my mind allowed my body to sleep.

I woke up after only about 2-3 hours of rest. I laid in bed and tried to will myself back to sleep but it would not come for some elusive reason. I got up and took Sinatra for a walk, letting him roll and roll as he so wanted to. He didn’t exhibit any of the weird stumbling from the prior night, which I was grateful for. We went to awards at 9 am and found out that 24 out of 40 had completed the 100. I was VERY HAPPY to hear that Sarah and Sierra had received a completion as well, their first 100. Sarah had worked very hard to ensure her mare would make it through the end and had probably walked 15 of the last 35 miles on foot. Sierra had been tight but after some massage trotted out well enough to pass. They actually only finished about 10 minutes behind me. Sarah can walk quickly and Sierra was motivated to keep going once Sinatra had disappeared into the night. After awards my mom and I had some breakfast and then cleaned up camp. I debated about trying to take a nap before driving home but just could not sleep when I tried. I decided to just drive as far as I could and then would pull over and sleep for a while when necessary. I don’t really have camping accommodations with me (normally sleep in a tent at rides) so would have to just rest in the truck. I took a shower in my mom’s RV and then we left together. I was kind of dreading the 330 mile drive home, but thanks to a great audiobook a friend lent me the time went fairly quickly. I stopped every couple of hours to get Sinatra out and walk around. In fact the Hall’s and I both pulled into Bridgeport at the same time and got the horses out. I made it home in only 6.5 hours and didn’t have to stop to sleep at all, but was thankful I didn’t have to drive even 30 minutes more. Sinatra ate and drank well the entire trip home, preferring his orchard grass hay to his alfalfa, definitely not the norm but I was happy to oblige him. He got out and I couldn’t get the halter off fast enough before he went over and rolled and rolled and wiggled and scratched in the DG to his delight. He looks great, my little 100-mile horse.

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