Before heading back to Scotland for my third year at Uni I wanted to do one more endurance ride, and the Ribleys invited me to ride the Saturday 50 of the Kristina Chesterman Memorial Ride. This is a relatively new ride (this was the second year it was put on) held in Magalia, CA in mid September. The ride is put on in memory of Kristina Chesterman, a 21 year old nursing student who was tragically killed in a hit and run by a drunk driver. Her parents thought of using an endurance ride, as Kristina was a rider, to raise money to fund a clinic in Nigeria, because one of the things she wanted to do once she graduated college was to work in Africa with Doctors Without Borders. A woman named JayaMae managed the ride, and she and Kristina's parents are both truly amazing and positive people. I met Kristina's parents, and the way have dealt with the loss of their daughter was honestly astonishing. Endurance rides bring people together, unite people around a common interest, a sport they love, and nearly everyone I have met at rides so far has been giving, helpful, and kind. To bring such people together to celebrate their daughter is a truly amazing thing to do following such a loss.
On the Friday before the ride, I helped the Ribleys load up their trailer and we set out in the morning, stopping on the way at a really nice fruit stand - I'm not sure what it is called, but it was at the end of a driveway bordered by orchards right off the freeway, and had the most delicious looking selection of peaches, tomatoes, melons, apples, etc. Once we got to camp we unloaded the horses and tacked up to check saddle fits and make sure all the tack was adjusted to the right length so that the morning tack up would be quick and easy, and then we waited to vet in. While we waited, we explored the ride camp. The camp, in Meadowbrook Ranch, was really beautiful. A little ways past where our trailer was parked there was a pond, or a small lake maybe, surrounded by gnarled old apple trees. There were geese and ducks in the pond and HUGE, bright, bright blue dragonflies flying everywhere. I could see for the first time why they are called dragon flies - the sheer brightness of their color seems otherworldly and mythical. Beyond the pond, trees rose out of the forest and I could see the tops of the surrounding mountains in the far distance.
My parents were planning to drive up to Magalia that night after work to meet us and crew for us at the ride the following day, but once darkness fell we realized that they were unlikely to find our trailer - there were three or four sections where people could park their trailers, and even if my parents found the right section, they'd have to look at every trailer in the dark to find ours. I got a blanket and curled up in the backseat of the Ribleys truck, planning to sleep there, but at around 9pm there was a tap on the window and what do you know, it was my dad. They had managed to find me. So I spent the night in the Desert Wolf, my dad's VW bus, and walked to the trailer at 5am the next day to tack up the horse I was riding, Regret. Regret is a tall chestnut gelding. He is very pretty, and very fast. I had ridden him once before this ride, when I was about 15, and vaguely remembered him jigging down the trail like Sacajawea, another of the Ribley's horses, likes to do. Sure enough, that's what he did as soon as we started down the trail at 6:30am.
The trail was, for the most part, very nice. We started off riding along a thin dirt trail along the edge of a water canal and from there came out onto a twisty dirt trail through some trees and around another small pond, which had the sunrise and tree tops reflected into it, still as a mirror. An enticing start to the ride! From there we moved onto some hard pack. The hard pack wasn't so nice because it's hard on the horses' hooves and legs, and we walked the majority of that. We continued on, over better terrain and a little more hard pack, and then up through a small town with gravel roads which led into the first vet check. Some little girls, maybe 3-5 years old, had brought teeny folding chairs out to the side of these roads and stood up to wave and cheer as we passed, their mothers standing by holding coffee cups and smiling. I waved back, grinning - the adorable fan club was enough to make me feel like a celebrity. At the vet check, my parents had set up the Desert Wolf and after we had vetted out we got to sit down while they asked us what we wanted - a drink, food, etc. A few girls offered to hold our horses for us while they ate hay and grain, which was very nice! We set out again after an hour for the next loop.
Images of the vet check:
That second loop was my favorite - it was a fun loop. We started out on pavement and soon came back onto dirt, then crossed a couple bridges and turned onto a dirt fire trail with some nice footing. There was a trail off to one side with a sign saying "swimming hole" (we had been told at the ride meeting that here was a swimming hole with a rope swing we could go off in the middle of the ride) and we turned down that trail to water the horses. The swimming hole was a deep section in the middle of a small river. The water was deep, ice blue at the bottom and, in the shallower upper section, a bright aqua. There were trees and leafy green bushes bordering the fresh running water, and the entire image resembled one of those magical Renaissance paintings. I half expected there to a creamy skinned blonde woman in robes perched on one of the rocks, strumming a lute and looking dreamily into the distance. After our horses waded in for a drink, we walked back up the trail and climbed the big hill of the ride, a steep one mile climb where I had my first proper tailing experience.
Tailing is a way trail and endurance riders move quickly up steep hills while also giving their horses a break. The rider dismounts, moves to the back of the horse, and, with the reins or lead rope in one hand, grabs onto the tail with the other. When the horse walks or trots up the hill (probably faster than the rider would walk or trot up a hill) the rider leaps along behind, clinging to the tail hairs. I had practiced tailing a little before, but mostly with Pearl, my former mare, who didn't know how to tail. These episodes generally consisted of me moving to her tail and loosely holding on for a few steps while encouraging her to keep moving until she stopped and turned to look at me questioningly (probably asking, "what in the world are you doing back there?!). Regret not only knew how to tail, he was also highly motivated to get up the hill. He took big powerful strides upwards while I bounded along behind him, feeling like a jackrabbit with springs on my feet. This was probably actually my favorite part of the ride, even though it was hot and very dusty behind Regret and the three horses in front of him. At the top of the hill, we had instruction to collect a card from a deck of cards taped to a tree. ("These might be worth something later," we had been told). Cards in hand, we turned and led the horses back down the hill. By now we were all pretty hot, so when we passed by the swimming hole a second time, we couldn't help but get off the horses and test it out. Melissa went first while I (barefoot) kept a hold of our four horses (four because the others were either wading or, in Robert's case, climbing the nearby tree to reach the rope). To get to the water, we had to climb onto a rock, grab the bottom of the rope, and then swing out and, at the farthest point over the water, drop. The swing over the water seemed like slow motion, and once I let go and splashed into the water, the cold hit like a physical blow. The water was freezing! We all came out gasping, a little shocked by how cold it was, but also smiling. It was really fun and refreshing, especially after 30 hot, dusty miles. I went in twice. After that rejuvenating dip, we continued on until we came to the next vet check.
The third loop seemed like the longest. There was a lot of hard pack, which we had to walk. The very end of the ride was a loop around the pond at the camp, and then back out a little and through an orchard, Regret leading the way at a strong trot. It was around 5pm and the sun was low, the birds were quietly chirping, there was long summer grass brushing the horses' legs as we trotted the grassy path between the apple trees... it was altogether a very peaceful, serene finish to the ride. At the final vet check, the horses all trotted out sound and passed with flying colors. It was a another great ride.
It turns out that my playing card, a joker, was worth something: at the award ceremony I had a winning card, and won a very nice boot bag. That wasn't the only award I received that night. After giving out some of the other awards, Kristina's parents stepped up, saying they wanted to recognize two people who reminded them most of their daughter. The Chesterman's had spoken quite a bit with my parents while I was riding, and had formed a bond of sorts with them. After giving out the first award, Dave Chesterman called me up, saying that my deep ties to and love for my family reminded him of his own daughter. When I walked up to Dave to receive that award, I was speechless, feeling a wide range of emotions; I was sad for them and, in a way, felt some loss myself, but at the same time so honored and grateful, both for the recognition and, more, for my family, my friends, the chance to ride such beautiful trails on such great horses, and all the gifts I have in life.