Sunday, April 22, 2012

Mustang Shuffle

“An interesting note on mustang movement: All the ones I have encountered have a gait I call the mustang shuffle. It is a very slow jog that seems to require almost no energy and that they can keep up all day long. I strongly suspect it is their natural gait for getting from place to place in the wild, and since it has almost no bounce even though it is a true diagonal trot, it is also very comfortable for the rider.” —Donna Snyder Smith, The Complete Guide to Endurance Riding and Competition
Let us all take a moment to marvel at the efficiency of the mustang shuffle. Without it, I would never have finished the Grizzly Mountain ride this weekend.
As so often happens with stories about rides, it is hard to express in this one what it really feels like to go to a ride, try to keep up, hit a wall of exhaustion, push through it and then finish with something left to spare.
I got up a little after 8 a.m. on Friday to take an intensive shower. I say “intensive” because, as before every ride, I knew this would be the cleanest I would be until I got back home again. So I shampooed and shaved and scrubbed until I had a baseline of total cleanliness.
And then I got all sweaty loading my camping gear into the truck. No one ever said I was a good planner.
When I got up to Silverton to pick up Blue, it was drizzling but warm. I finished loading up as quick as I could so that he wouldn’t be wet for the trip over. I had never driven Santiam pass before. I didn’t know how fast or high it would climb or how cold it would be at the top. Mostly I wanted to be sure Blue was dry and comfortable. Because, if nothing else, I knew that when we finally got over to the other side we’d be in a whole different climate. (Really it is almost like entering another country.)
Santiam pass turned out to be absurdly beautiful. Far better than Snoqualmie. Even better than White. I don’t know the names of the mountains down here yet, but they were spread out in front of me like… what? Like pimples and pockmarks on the face of the earth. I wish I could think of something more beautiful to compare them to, because they are surely magnificent. It is hard to think of them as cinder cones and volcanoes because they are so lovely. They don’t seem threatening. And yet there they are, smoldering away.

Speaking of smoldering, it was 70 degrees when we got down to the other side.  The area around Sisters, just on the other side of the pass at the foot of Black Butte is some of the most perfect country I’ve ever seen, and I hope I get the chance to drive through it again often. I love the gently sloping ground and the high ponderosas with sunshine filtering through.
On the way to camp, we passed the ranch where I got Otto. They had told me that they were used to seeing endurance riders but I didn’t realize at the time that they essentially sit between the Prineville and Grizzly ridecamps. It’s a small world.
Since the land is wide open, it wasn’t hard to spot the convergence of trailers. We pulled in and found a great spot right next to a water trough and a porta potty—the two most important camp landmarks as far as I’m concerned. We were also right on the trail that everyone took out of camp in the morning. This wasn’t great planning on my part, but we survived it. Next year we’ll know better.

The corral gets its first real test.

Blue considers the scenery.

The eponymous Grizzly Mountain in the background.

A little extra insurance for the new corral—tent stakes on the corners.

We were number 11 this time...

...but we'll be Pirates every time.
I am terrible with names, but I will remember the faces and horses of my neighbors. I have to say that this might well have been the friendliest camp I’ve ever visited. Or maybe it is just that I’ve finally been doing this long enough that people recognize me. Anyway, I had hugs and conversation and offers of help at the vet checks. It was really great! Like Linda said at the ride meeting that evening: when you really need help, your endurance family is there for you.
At the ride meeting I also found out that we would be doing 32 miles… not just the 22 that was listed on the sheet. We would do a 22-mile lollipop out on the flats, come back for a vet check and a 45-minute hold, and then do 10 miles of scrub pine hills before the finish. I kind of thought this sounded cruel, to start with the flat, easy part and finish with the hills. As it turned out, it was a brilliant tactic to keep us awake in the saddle.
Sunrise over Grizzly Mountain
I was up at 6 a.m. to feed Blue and watch the 75-milers go out. There were only a few—five, maybe?—so they didn’t really stir Blue up too much. It was the 50-milers, about an hour later, that turned him into a whirling, bucking, rearing dervish in his little pen. There were at least 40 horses that went by in various states of control or noncontrol. Fortunately, Blue didn’t actually challenge the panels during this little episode. He got mad in a very contained way.
I had been talking to Carlene a little the night before, asking for advice to get my horse to start quietly. She suggested “hiding” on the other side of camp and waiting for the others to leave. Of course, I heard many other LDers conspiring to leave camp last. We all joked that the Turtle award would be hotly contested at this ride.
Anyway, I took Carlene’s advice. At 7:55, I walked Blue over to the other side of camp to graze. I watched Cassandra go blasting off with Ernie’s horse, Spot, in the lead. It’s still fun to see the Walla Walla crowd out and about. She was followed by the requisite gray arabs and whatnot. Once they were all gone, I walked over to Anna—ride secretary, in-timer, out-timer, organizational whiz—and gave her my number. Still on foot, I walked Blue back over to the trailer, put his bridle on him, mounted up, and rode out of camp at a flat-footed walk on a loose rein. How about that?
It didn’t last, of course. Once Blue saw a horse in front of him (fellow Pirates Monica and Danny), he asked to go faster. I allowed a trot, and got an aggressive catch-up trot. But as soon as he reached Danny, he calmed right down… until he saw more horses in front of him. So we caught up with Sunny and Dancer, and toodled along with them at a walk until he caught sight of two more horses.
Roughly 5 miles into the first loop.

This is where I should have slowed him down and let them get away. Instead, I tried to stay with them, and paid for it later with two massive fits of bucking.
I knew from our arena work at home that Blue had trouble with cantering. We aren’t balanced together, and he can’t maintain it for very long.  This didn’t really worry me because I didn’t plan on going that fast on a long, hot ride with a hairy horse. Unfortunately, in his desire to keep up with these two horses, he had to break into a canter. (Their strategy was to alternate fast riding with walking, so they were averaging the same speed as me, just not steady.) Trying to keep up during the fast part, Blue was rough and counter-cantering and crossfiring. And then, after a few strides of that, trying desperately to keep up but also uncomfortable, he’d start bucking in frustration. We went through that twice before I figured out that the problem wasn’t going to go away. So, after the second time I came off, once I caught my horse, I let the two riders leave me. I let them get all the way out of sight before remounting and asking for an easy trot. There, isolated in a bubble between groups, he went along beautifully.
Later I tried him at the canter experimentally without anyone to catch, and found that he’d only give me one or two awkward strides before breaking back down into a trot. Clearly, we need to work on his canter at home before I ask him for it again out in the real world.
Anyway, back to the ride. The second half of the 22-mile loop included a grueling stretch under the power lines, where the ground was extremely rocky, the view was flat desert glittering with heat, and I was seriously considering skipping the second loop and calling it a day. It was only a couple of miles, but they had me considering quitting this whole endurance thing. What was I doing out here in the desert? It was hot. I was tired. My horse bucked me off and screwed up my thumbnail. Camp was a million miles away. I'd never make it. I was just going to die out here on this trail.
Clearly it was time to eat something. (Remember that, kids. When you start to feel suicidal on the trail it is probably just low blood sugar.) A protein bar brought me back into the real world, where I no longer felt the hot breath of mortality on my neck. 
All through that awful, hopeless stretch I was still with the two riders I mentioned above in my little rant on cantering. Really we’d been leapfrogging for quite a while.
Blue and I were a little ahead of them when we got to the only water crossing of the ride. A couple of feet deep, the creek gurgled gently through a gap in the hills and was a very welcome break after the awfulness of the powerline road. After that, it wasn’t far back to the “stick” of the lollipop, and from there to camp. I stopped at the trailer on the way back into camp and pulled Blue’s tack before heading to the in-timer and the vets.
We vetted through just fine. All A’s except gut sounds and skin tenting, which were a B. That was far better than I expected. Honestly, after that exhausting first loop, I was sure that Blue would be sore and shut down in his guts. Instead he was bright-eyed and willing. And I'm pretty sure the skin tenting is just the way he is. He has lots of natural skin wrinkles on his neck anyway, and I think the loose skin tends to tent on its own. Really my only concern at that point was that he hadn’t peed yet. We’d been out for four hours, and he had taken a drink at every water stop. But still no pee. I was concerned that he was going to have a metabolic episode, but the vet assured me that she could hear plenty of movement, and as long as he was drinking and pooping I had nothing to worry about.
Regardless of her opinion, I was still seriously considering taking a rider option (pulling from the ride). A normal LD ride has a time limit of 6 hours. Taking out time for the hold and pulsing down at the end, we’d only have an hour to do the entire 10-mile loop. I just didn’t see that happening.
And then Monica set me straight as she came back into camp. Because this was a 32-mile ride, I actually had 7 hours and 15 minutes to finish. In that case, I thought, we could probably get it done! Two hours should be enough.
By then I was desperate for a pee myself, so I dumped Blue back in the pen for a quick beet pulp mash and ran for the porta potty. Forty-five minutes FLEW by. I drank my vitamin water and another protein shake. Sat in the shade for a moment or two. But I decided not to hurry back to make my out time, because the two riders I had been leapfrogging (and with whom I had been dumped twice at the canter) were heading out just before me. I wanted to give them lots of time to get well ahead of me before we went out.
This strategy went OK. The hard part was convincing Blue to leave camp a second time. He would walk well enough, but as soon as I asked for a trot, MUTINY! Luckily, a 50-mile rider passed me at that point doing a reasonable jog, so we let her tow us out of camp.
I was thrilled when she started pulling away from us and Blue didn’t try to follow. He just settled into the Mustang Shuffle. Finally (finally!) I experienced this WONDERFUL, AMAZING, RELAXING gait. We swung along at roughly 6-7mph. Blue was actually happier with that than with walking.
Minimum ear-skepticism on the second loop. Happy horse = happy rider.
We were passed by another 50-miler, blazing along at a hard canter. Again, Blue made zero effort to follow. We resumed the Shuffle, crossed the highway (the first of three highway crossings on this loop!) and briefly stopped when I saw a pair of riders I know pretty well stopped off the side of the trail. Later I heard that one of them had heat stroke, but when I stopped she was just resting in the shade with some Gatorade. They told me it was OK to move on, so I did.
After that little pause, we settled into the Shuffle again. We went downhill and up, around tight corners, through berms and sand and across another highway relaxed and swinging. We saw jackrabbits and meadowlarks, and we took our sweet time at the water stops. We went several miles without seeing another horse. I can’t express what a great way this is to travel. My tired muscles appreciated the smooth ride. My jangled nerves appreciated the relaxed attitude. But, as happens when you travel steadily, we caught up to those same two riders we'd been leapfrogging all day. I saw them up ahead and decided to let Blue spend extra time at a water stop to let them get away. It was no use. They were clearly into the “death march” phase of the ride. I caught up to them easily, passed them, and basically towed them back into camp.
Blue's mustang heritage was on full display on Saturday. He knew exactly where camp was at all times, and he would have been happy to take me back there cross-country.
Blue took several minutes to pulse down at the finish. I wasn’t surprised since this was literally the farthest he had ever been ridden since I’d known him… and probably as far as he’d been ridden EVER. He vetted through with flying colors. A, A-, B+ all the way down the card. He looked great. They called us 13th place when we crossed the line, but I found out at awards that we ended up being 11th because of pulls.
Not too shabby for an extra-long, spur-of-the-moment ride under the hot sun.
I meant what I said before I left. No rain, no pink lemonade. Success!
Still on his feet after 32 miles. Personally, I spent the rest of the day in various sprawled-out-on-the-air-mattress poses.


  1. Wow! Great job! Isn't the Mustang Shuffle great? I know the 'gait', but didn't realize it had a term. I read somewhere that 75% of mustangs are 'gaited', like what you talk about. We have a weird mix: Jesse can keep up with most bred gaited horses in her shuffle and thinks she's pretty cool. Ranger does that, but not when mounted. I think that his being almost 10 yo before carrying a rider properly, it's been hard for him to adjust. Washoe tends toward his Arab/cross side and had to be taught to 'collect' under saddle, but now does a great job with a normal trot - no sign of the mustang shuffle.

    Sorry about the bucking episodes; they can certainly give you their opinion of things. Jesse doesn't particularly like cantering, either. Do you suppose it has to do with the comfort of their shuffle? They DON't believe in wasting energy - and that is a waste if you aren't being chased by a predator.
    Bionic Cowgirl

  2. Wait. I'm confused. 32 miles? I thought it was either 25 or 50... did I miss something?

    Reading up on everyone discussing the bucking and freaking out of horses trying to leap frog each other has me worried about this sport! Not worried enough not to do it... but still... worried :P

  3. I love reading the rider's perspective, and I think I remember you worried about your horse not peeing. I was scribing, primarily for the head vet, Cassie, at the vet check area from the start of the 32-mile ride, until around 4:00 p.m. :-)

    I'm glad you find our neck of the woods so scenic, too. I sure love it here!

  4. I hope this doesn't come out wrong, but I love hearing about other riders hitting the "die alone in the desert" point of an endurance ride. Dixie and I hit it at every ride for the first two years (and will probably "die alone" again sometime this year), and it's so reassuring to know that it's not just me!

    I strongly suspect the shuffle is a foxtrot. Dixie does it, and for a long time I thought it was just a no-suspension slow trot, until I saw some video and trot-outs of her. For Dixie, it sounds two-beat but the back hoof is actually setting down just before the front diagonal, so it's a foxtrot. Whatever it is, it's a lifesaver!

    1. I am going to pay closer attention next time. He does a lot of interesting things, movement-wise, and I wouldn't be at all shocked if you're right about it being a slow foxtrot.

  5. Also CONGRATS! on a nice long completion!

  6. @Becky: So, like, OFFICIALLY it is 25, 50, 75, 100. But in reality, trails aren't always exactly the right length. I don't have the AERC rules in front of me, but I'm pretty sure LD can be anything between 25 and 35.

    And the leapfrogging was hella annoying. I mean, the ladies were super nice and fun to talk to, but a big part of endurance is being able to "ride your own ride" as you see fit. Being in a group makes that hard! The people who are doing this with points and competition on the brain try to ride alone (or at least that's what the books say).

    Don't worry about bucking. That's me and my horse. Most people get through these things without so much excitement!

  7. Yay Ruth! Glad to read the story :) So how many entries in the LD? Since you ended up 11th, who got the turtle and what was that placement?

  8. I just noticed you were #11 and you placed 11th...

    1. Shana: I guess by that logic next time I should ask to be #1. :)

      Luckily I just got the results to put in the newsletter, so I can answer your question. And the answer is interesting!

      There were 24 starters in the LD. There were 11 noncompletions! I don't have the breakdown of RO vs. vet pulls vs. overtime, but I think that rate of pulls speaks to how hot it was and how long those 32 miles felt. :)

      The turtle came in 13th, and it was Jackie Brunken. I didn't see her at any point during the day, so she must have been behind us the whole time(?)

  9. Hooray, Hooray, HOORAY FOR YOU!!!!! (and for Blue also, obviously)