Thursday, April 5, 2012

Mort, Me and the Upper Rio Grande 50 Miler

The handy-dandy techniques Jenny had shared to slow Mort down had really helped. All the way up to the second he realized we were headed for home. Then all bets were off.

Home may be where the heart is, but for Mort, the horse trailer and some chow would do just fine. He was tired. He was definitely tired of me. Now that he had sensed where we were, he was taking me home and he didn't particularly care what I thought about it.

He began to jig. His bone jarring, 'I'm pissed and tired and you need to LET GO!' jig. How he could keep this up mile after mile when we were both so fried was beyond me.

As his irritation grew, so did his energy. Mort could toss his head with a rapid-fire fury that would break my nose, blacken my eyes or split my lip if he made contact. I knew all this as fact, through unfortunate experience, and had developed the habit of hanging on to my reins with grim concentration, riding slightly off center, my weight mostly in one stirrup, and my head safely to the side and out of range.

He responded to the uncomfortable shift in my weight by performing a gorgeous half-pass, one I could only wish to achieve on purpose, and threw in lots of tail snapping and growling for dramatic effect. he could keep at it for miles.

"That's some noise coming out of your gelding," Jenny said.

"It can get worse," was all I had to offer.

The horrible sound emitting from my horse was more like a roar than a growl. It came up through his chest and could terrify the horses I rode with, dogs, coyotes, small children, old ladies and to a certain extent, me. It was usually accompanied with bared teeth and incredible amounts of thick, ropey slobber, slung in a good sized circle with every angry shake of his head.

Mort saved his growl for when he had had just about all he could take of me. It was savage and made me very glad I was on his back rather than the ground. I had no doubt in my mind he would eat me alive and spit out my bones, neatly whittled into toothpicks by his gnashing teeth.

Jenny had nothing to offer, she pulled her horse off a ways and watched the show. I tried to hang tough, not lose my temper and just stay with him until we covered the last ten miles of our ride.

I had plenty to keep me occupied. The inside of my knees were killing me. Dark red smears had started appearing on the fenders of my saddle a few hours ago, as they dried they were layered with more blood soaking through my corduroys. It had built up to a thick, greasy black stain I didn't know if I would ever get out of the leather.

At our last vet check, I left Mort in the care of a volunteer and hobbled into the outhouse to check the damage. My thighs were red and covered with angry looking welts along the seam line, which were turning into blisters the closer I got to my knees. But I didn't get a chance to see the mess that had to be covering the tender skin. My cords were welded firmly to the worst of the damage with dried blood. Even the gentlest tug at the fabric sent waves of paining shooting through me. I gave up and pulled my pants back on, gritting my teeth at the scrape of fabric against my mutilated skin.

What was I going to do now? If I showed this mess to anybody I would surely be yanked from the ride. We were almost done, I couldn't bear the thought of Mort not finishing because of my own stupidity. I could see the judgement in peoples eyes, my parents would never let me try again, Karen would hear only weak excuses and I would have failed at yet another attempt to succeed with my horse.

By the time I had collected Mort again I had made up my mind. I wouldn't say a word. I had made it this far and would make it to the end. My cords were navy blue, as long as I stayed in the saddle, nobody would see what was going on. By the time we crossed the finish line I might have figured out how the hell I was going to peel my pants off and doctor my legs.

He realized we had about completed our circle and were close to camp as I pulled myself into the saddle. The next ten miles made the previous forty feel like a day at a 4H play day.

I could smell the blood through the salty sweat that began pouring out of Mort as he ramped up. I knew he was exhausted by the feel of it, thick and slimy between my fingers, but it only made his behavior worse. He was like a six-year-old child after a slumber party, so tired he was becoming hysterical. Every bump and jar of his nonsense shot through my legs, through my neck and made stars of pain explode behind my eyes.

"Janet, are you OK?" Jenny asked.

"Yep, I'm fine, I just wish he'd settle."

She was looking me over with a critical eye, like a buyer at the Calhan livestock auction. I must be showing signs of wear and tear. I took a deep breath, settled in my saddle so I could ease my knees and sucked it up.

"I might be getting a little tired, he's hard on my arms when he's like this."

"Well hang in there, we've got less than an hour."

I let my mind take me away, imagined being back at the barn talking about the beauty of this Southwestern Colorado mountain range. I would have a cool buckle for completing the ride that nobody else would have. Mort and I would have finally done something right. I could smell the trees again, mingled with sharp sour sweat and saddle oil. A breeze cooled the back of my neck and I could hear the steady rhythm of Mort's feet, he was finally walking. I relaxed the death grip on his reins and realized the smile on my dirty face was genuine as we splashed through the last creek crossing and into the line of congratulatory cheers at the finish line with a solid time, right in the middle of the pack. Jenny gave me a high five and Cindy was there, with a big smile and a loud, "Whoo Hoo!"

After we passed our final vet check I took Mort down to the creek and sponged him clean. He snorted at the sharp smell of the peppermint liniment as I rubbed him down, but stood quiet, enjoying it's soothing warmth. I was jealous, I'd use it myself if it wouldn't have burned into my poor legs like a match to gasoline.

Once he was creekside with his nose buried in the grass I eased myself up to my waist in the creek. The icy water ran across my legs and stung when it soaked through my cords. I settled in, welcoming the numbing cold and began to gingerly peel the stiff fabric away from my skin. Next year I would be able to ride alone. Next year I planned on finally having Mort's jigging under control. Next year we were going to place.

Mort snorted at the no-see-ums and I watched him for awhile. He was still looking a little hound gutted, but the gloss was coming up in his coat as he dried and he was relaxed and happy. He had come through in good form.

Next year I wasn't wearing cords.


  1. I do love your stories Mugs. Good job!

  2. OUCH! I could just feel you peeling those cold wet cords off of your legs. You were (and probably still are) one tough cookie.

  3. Ohhh, god, you poor thing. My legs hurt just thinking about it.

  4. been there peeling the cords off . . can i get an Amen?

    glad i'm not that age anymore . . .

  5. Yep, been there. I have finished rides where any sensible person would have quit and gotten help. Broken nose (horse head), split and bleeding lip (briers), blistered and bleeding legs (new stirrup leathers).

    But you just hate to quit a ride...

  6. I always love your stories, I feel like I just rode along with you!

  7. I love the way you write.

  8. OMG, did you end up in the hospital?

  9. redhorse- nah..just scabby and sore.

  10. Thanks for the virtual ride.
    We need some Mort pictures!

  11. Fifty miles in cords? I can't even imagine.

    Reading the end of your story, when your mind went elsewhere and Mort calmed down- I couldn't help but think about your Sonita story and how she chilled out when you felt so sick. Was that on purpose?

  12. Ow.



    But good on you for finishing!

  13. Baasha had that growl whenever I held him back. It amazed other riders. I sure miss it.

    I've been pondering your strategy with Mort - just letting him go, and then waiting, over and over - I wonder how this worked out over the long run.

    I said I'd never wear spandex or use padded stirrups, but then I started riding 50s and that changed everything.

  14. I don't think that I have experienced riding in cords...but thankfully now I never will. :)

    Thanks for the great story. Looking foward to more.

  15. We grew up in the same era and I'm sure I wore cords...but I didn't do an endurance ride...that must have left permanent callouses!! Always love the Mort stories~

  16. gtyyup - I think it was getting them wet that did me in - I rode in cords all the time. Maybe not on endurance rides, but I put on a lot of miles.

  17. Live and learn. Man, reading that was painful. I went to a greenhorn girl scout adventure for two weeks in Wyoming that had one day at a mountain creek. We stripped down as much as each of our modesty could bear and splashed around. Later I would deeply regret bathing in my panties. But my saddle sores were mild compared to what you describe here. Holy moly, mama. What youth can live through, huh?

  18. Oh the lessons we learn...thanks for sharing.

    The only time I attempted anything close to that, at about the same age, I blew out the anterior muscle compartment in my lower leg, took years for that nerve damage to resolve. Never rode like that again.

  19. Smaz- I think that once she started daydreaming to get her mind off her own pain, Mort then relaxed. I don't know if she realized it then?

  20. Hi Barrelracingmom- yes, that's exactly what I meant. I was wondering if Mugs was subtly alluding to that other post to remind us to not obsess over our horse's state of mind.

  21. I totally know that feeling of having to prove that you and your horse can do something right.

    And that realization that the crazy beast has settled down.

    I remember feeling triumphant that my little red A-rab was standing calmly at the rail in the middle of all the other horses and riders, watching the barrel racing. It seemed like such a dumb thing to be proud of but the work it took to get him there... He was like Mort in the way that he couldn't be worn down, he'd just get more powered up.

    That horse was such an embarrassment the first couple years I showed him. He turned into a solid citizen eventually ... So he was worth the death grip on the reins and the disdainful glances and the perplexed judges...

  22. I suspect one you recovered you were ready to race again, right?

  23. PICS! We need pics to go with these stories. :)

  24. My good old boy hated to be held back too.. not a growler, but man could he sigh with the best of them as he would jig side to side and toss his head. I swaer he would sigh so loud everyone would turn to look.

  25. smaz - you give me way too much credit...the way I learn is by having things thump me on the head over and over until one day I say, "Oh! I get it?" So I think the same thing happens in my stories.

  26. Michelle - I wish I had pics for all these stories. I put them in if I find some, but this was way before camera phones and I wasn't one to take many photos.

  27. Sigh, I have never heard a horse growl. Am jealous.
    But not of the cord burned legs.

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  29. This is in no way a criticism as I look back on some of my own efforts with my horse and shake my head, but the more I read about you and Mort the sorrier I am for both of you and the needless frustration you both suffered.

    Did you ever get to a good relationship with him, and if so what made the difference?

  30. I love how tough young girls can be when allowed independence with horses. We were tougher than many men are today, and we were breaking all of the stereo types that were supposed to apply to us.

    For the record, your situation allowed you to become tougher than I ever needed to be. I was allowed to be gone all day on my pony/horse until just before dark, but I only rode with my friends, I never hooked up with any endurance riders!

  31. Clancy - I think I had a spectacular relationship with Mort.

  32. Sorry, perhaps I am misunderstanding. You so often describe what sounds like disagreement and frustration to me, such as the part of this post where you said he had had about as much as he could take of you and he was growling and jigging and tossing his head and you were sitting in a way that you didn't get whacked in the face. And previous stories of him bolting or wanting to go way faster than you did.

    There was clearly something that got you through all of that, and kept you from selling him and him from dumping you, but the relationship as described sounds fraught to me. My relationship with my own gelding was challenging for a while (still is sometimes but getting better) although never as much as what you have described. I kept with him because of a promise I'd made him, and he was gentler and more tolerant with me than with others, and eventually I began to realise where I was going wrong and as I changed how I was with him our relationship greatly improved, we understand each other much better and we rarely disagree now and when we do it doesn't escalate like it used to. I thought you were describing a similar process.

  33. Heh...I needed to read this today. I had a rough weekend. Tax did a lot of growling at me. I took him out to school on cross coutry for the first time. Between his trailering issues, the cows in the pasture next door to the place and all the horses galloping paces on the outside track his brain leaked out his ears and he went into full shut down mode. The good news is when I got him working over fences he was very good. The rest of the time...well, let's just say I hung on.

  34. Clancy - I was a dumb kid with minimal help on a whole lotta horse. Our problems never ever made me love him one iota less.
    I always assumed our problems came from my lack of understanding, but it never occurred Mort could like me "more."
    This was a horse I trusted enough to take his bridle off while riding bareback and go through our city park at a dead run.

  35. Mugs, now I understand, thanks.

  36. You managed it! Yohooo!!
    I guess it was worth two skinless knees, but I wonder how long time you had to keep out of the saddle afterwards?