by Cari Johnson
January 17 2022
All summer, my friend Cathy and I had been eagerly talking about our next endurance ride. We were getting "the itch", but since Covid hit we hadn't done an endurance ride since Sesenta Anos in 2019.
We'd been averaging about 20 miles a week training rides in the mountains, with myself on Sierra, and her on Gallant, so we figured why not give Fire Mountain a shot! The horses aren't as conditioned as I would like, but we planned on just going for fun and completion, we had planned on "turtling" or coming in last place, settling on a nice easy slow pace for the horses as to not over stress them. Well, as Murphy would have it, the weekend before the ride we were on our last conditioning ride in Cuyamaca and suddenly 5 miles in Gallant comes up dead lame on his right front foot. This is a leg he's never had any problems with before, so after walking back, cold hosing, and pondering a bit, we decided he must have clipped it with his back leg. Well poop! We decided to rest him the rest of the week, and then decide Friday morning if he was sound enough to go. He wasn't, so we decided last minute to take Ares instead. We had planned on taking him just to camp, and experience everything, as it would be his first overnight trip ever. Cathy was bummed she couldn't ride, since Gallant was out, but she had prepared herself mentally all week for volunteering instead.
The entire drive up I was pondering if Ares could possibly be ready? Could he do it? Was he ready? Is he fit enough? Was I asking too much? How would he be camping? Would he be a good listener, or would he lose his mind around all these other horses? I decided that I would determine once we got to camp, and I could see how he was behaving.
We arrived early Friday with plenty of time to pick a spot, get camp set up, and get the horses settled in. We did just that, and as the afternoon wore on I debated back and forth with myself... should I enter the ride on Ares and let Cathy ride Sierra? Or is he not ready? I watched and scrutinized his every move. He was slightly nervous being in a new situation, but really taking everything in stride so well. He was eating and drinking like a champ, and had no qualms about peeing or standing tied to the trailer for so long. I finally decided, based off his demeanor and behavior, to enter on him.
I talked to Cathy and let her know that our plans had changed yet again. I could tell she was ecstatic! I was nervous but figured if we went slow and calmly, that Ares could handle it. I was happy with my decision, but nervous. How was he going to act in the morning with all the horses leaving at the start!? We also found out while we were registering that it was 30 miles, not 25! It had been listed as a 25, and that's why we had planned on riding Saturday. We were nervous about the extra distance since the horses aren't as conditioned as I like. (We found out after the ride that it was actually 33 miles!)
After a long night, the morning of our ride was finally here. Ares camped incredibly well, standing tied at the trailer all night and consuming all of his alfalfa, mash, and most of his Teff. A moment to interject here that Sierra must have camped at some point in her past life, as she was cool as a cucumber, and I couldn't have asked her to be any more perfect! Not one ounce of nervousness to be seen. She was the best camping companion for Ares possible! She is an incredible mare.
We woke up, ate breakfast, and got ready for the ride, our LD start time was 8:00am, which was nice that it wasn't too early. Ares was slightly nervous, but no more so than at home, or in the mountains, or anywhere else. After tacking up, I did some ground work with him to see where his brain was and he was perfect! Attentive and listening to me well!
We started the ride with Rebecca, whom I have ridden with before, and was glad to have her company and her sweet mustang mare Josie. Josie and Sierra were calm as could be and were such a great influence on Ares. I hand walked about a quarter of a mile then got on. Ares stood quietly for me, and although at first he was just a little prancy, he was listening to me perfectly. We all walked calmly for about a mile or two then slowly picked up the pace to a nice slow comfortable trot. Ares was doing great and listening to me so well. We slowed to walk often, and especially over rocks, the deep sand, and when the incline increased. Ares is 8, so he's physically mature, but he isn't conditioned for fast riding yet, so I wanted to take the utmost care with him. In a bit Rebecca continued on a little faster, and we were content to pace and ride by ourselves.
Both horses were strong and happy. We went up into the mountains, over dirt roads, through some pretty steep inclines and declines, and through some beautiful terrain. Truth be told, I hadn't trotted on Ares this much, so I really practiced on keeping him straight and remembering to switch my diagonals often. Also, truth be told, this was the first time I had ever cantered on Ares outside of an arena. He was so incredibly smooth and was listening so well. He's an absolute dream to ride.
We went around the college, down the long back side and then happened upon the ride photographer! Woohoo! My favorite part! But wait, what's that!?! Oh no! There's 3 hikers in bright clothes with lots of gear and walking sticks! They're going to ruin our pictures! We each ended up retrying the approach to the photographer about 3 times, as our horses kept shying and going wayyyy around the group of people that were now standing right at the photography station. ￼ We called it good, then headed on. At first I was mad, but then Cathy mentioned, "hey they might actually be BETTER because the horses were a little amped up". LOL! I conceded, and didn't let it bother me after that.
We were pacing well, not pushing the horses at all, and watching our clocks to make sure we would arrive at the vet check on time, which was at mile 15. We were making perfect timing, not too fast, not too slow. The horses were strong, happy, and moving extremely well. Ares "looked" a lot at all the hikers, bike riders, motorcycles, and other horses that we'd come upon or pass, or that would pass us, but never did he falter.
We finally came to the road crossing, which was about 5 miles from the vet check, (10 miles in), and I got off and walked, as I didn't know how he'd be with the ground changes. We waited until there were no cars at all, then safely crossed. No issues! He was amazing! I remounted on the opposite side of the road, and we continued on our way.
HOWEVER, mayday at mile 11.5! We had just been walking and decided to trot again, I was on the first or second step of Ares going into a trot, and on the upswing of my post, when my right stirrup completely snapped in half! It happened so quickly, and because I was on the up tick, not the down swing into the saddle, it completely caught me off guard, and off balance! I tipped to the right and felt myself going off his right side. We were on a hard packed dirt road at the trot. As I was falling, in the air, about half way down, he got spooked, of course, and kicked out and caught my leg with his back hoof. Good aim! ￼ I hit the ground HARD, but quickly stood back up, and as I watched my horse trotting off into the desert, I desperately called to him... he did a big loop around the three of us standing there, (myself, Cathy and Sierra), and then came trotting right back up to me. I'm sure I hugged and kissed him. I asked Cathy to hold him a minute so I could sit down for a second to regroup and stop shaking. I was pretty sure nothing was broken, just sore, so after a couple minutes I decided we needed to keep moving if we were to keep our finishing pace. However, I quickly realized I wasn't going to be able to walk fast enough to get to the vet check and be on time, so we took stock of the broken stirrup and thought about what we had on us that could fix it. Eventually I decided nothing would hold the weight of my leg, but figured out I could at least get my toes into the cage that was left dangling, so we could make it to the vet check. That was all that was on my mind, just make it to the vet check. We found out from a passing rider that we were still about 3.5 miles away. Well that's nothing (quick) if you're trotting, but everytime we started even a tiny little trot, I would get shooting pain in my ribs. Not to mention my foot was barely in on the right side. So we ended up walking the entire distance in.
After a little bit, I decided we weren't going to be able to keep up our pace to make it in to the vet check on time. What should I do? Should I try and call someone and have them bring another stirrup? Even if I did get another one, would we be able to finish on time to complete? Another slow mile goes by and I've decided I'm going to RO. I'm in too much pain, even with a new stirrup, to trot 15 miles back home. ANOTHER slow mile goes by, what about Cathy? What should she do? Should she go ahead without me? No, both horses would freak out if separated. What about once we're at the vet check? Should she try and make it back in time? We're finally getting close to the vet check and look at the time, the last 4 miles, plus the 30 minute vet hold, will have robbed us of almost 2 hours. That means after we vetted in we'd only have an additional 2.5 hours to go 15 miles to get alllll the way back to camp. The horses aren't as conditioned as I'd like. I don't want to push them. I don't want to compromise Sierra. I tell Cathy, and she agrees. We decide to RO and pull. Both horses vetted completely sound and happy and were vacuuming up all the hay and water at the vet check. Everyone there is astounded at the way my stirrup snapped. They are less than a year old! And the left side is cracked at the rivets! I'll be contacting the company for sure.
We are happy with our decision, and even though I'm in pain, I'm happy the horses are happy and healthy, that's what matters to me. The people at the vet check were amazing. One remarked how well behaved Ares was and what a nice horse he is. They all regaled us with amazing historic ride adventures and prior life experiences. I wish I could remember each and every one of their names, but I can't. But I'm thankful for them taking care of us and the the horses and for staying with us until the truck and trailer came.
#firemountain was an incredible ride. Everything was amazingly done and put together, and even though it didn't turn out as planned we couldn't have asked for a better experience. Thank you to Gretchen Montgomery ride manager, the vets, and all the volunteers, for the wonderful weekend!
And most especially thank you to my incredible Ares, for being such an amazing horse, with an incredible bond, and for doing so well, and for doing so much that I ask of you, even though you're so super green. And thank you for taking care of us (and yourself!) and for not running away in the middle of the desert. I love you.