It is with a heavy heart that I announce the passing of Bella, our canine member of the Nevada Discovery Ride team. I am beyond grateful to have had 11 years with her. Bella was the best trail dog, an unrepentant scavenger, and a princess. She lived a life of adventure up until the end. Bella crossed deserts, climbed mountains, swam in the ocean, and slept on the bed. I can't even fathom exploring Nevada without her. The trail certainly won't be the same without her.
Just a week ago, Bella, Sage, and I traveled up near the Oregon border for a late fall camping trip. Nighttime temperatures dropped to 19 degrees and Bella and I cuddled in the sleeping bag together to stay warm in the tent. She rode 10 miles with me on one day, investigating the sagebrush to roust lizards and rabbits as always. It makes me so happy to know that she was happily adventuring with me to the very end.
A good trail dog is worth the world. Bella was with us on both our Nevada Discovery Ride journeys. She racked up thousands of miles and saw more of Nevada than most others ever will. I can't imagine having done those rides without her. It feels like the end of an era for the Nevada Discovery Ride team. We were "one woman, one horse, and one dog" and Bella was that dog. There are no words to describe how much she will be missed.
Friends, we've been quiet on the website for awhile but that doesn't mean things aren't happening! Life is carrying on as it always does and we're all staying busy. I wanted to share a few updates:
So all is well here! I thank you all for your continued support of the NDR project and wild horses. Stay tuned for our next adventure :)
One of my biggest historical long riding inspirations is the relatively unknown saga of the Overland Westerners - four young men who rode 20,000 miles to each state capitol in the lower 48 from 1912-1915. Their journey was fraught with challenges, but after three long years of riding they accomplished their goal, arriving at the Panama-Pacific International Exposition in San Francisco. However, their odyssey was quickly forgotten and the Overland Westerners faded into obscurity. I've always loved the tragedy of their success and have spent several years studying their adventure. I'm honored that the Long Riders' Guild has published my research! If you would like to be inspired by the story of the Overland Westerners and learn about why they might have failed to achieve lasting fame, check out my paper here: http://www.thelongridersguild.com/stories/stories1.htm. It's the third link on the page. This is just the beginning - there is more research to be done on the Overland Westerners and I hope to publish more findings in the future.
This winter has been brutal. After years of light winters in Nevada (thanks to an ongoing drought), we've had record precipitation the last few months. If it's not dumping snow, it's pouring rain. Either way, it's made riding pretty much impossible with the ground so saturated. I'd be going stir crazy, but I'm keeping busy talking to people about our NDR adventures, long distance riding, and wild horses.
Last month, the University of Nevada, Reno opened a small exhibition on the Nevada Discovery Ride. I loaned gear and objects from my ride for the display, including my saddle bags, camp stove, tracking device, gloves, Bella's boots, Sage's hoof boots, things that I found on the trail, and more. I also allowed them to display something very special, that no one has even seen - my journal from the ride. The exhibit coordinator printed excerpts from the journal and they appear throughout the exhibit.
I am very pleased with how the "Saddle Tramp: The Nevada Discovery Ride" exhibit turned out, and honored that the University's Shared History Department asked to host it. It will be on display through May 10 in historic Lincoln Hall on the University of Nevada, Reno campus. It is free to see, so if you have some time and you're in the area, please stop by to check it out!
Last week I hit the road and headed east to Tennessee, where I was invited to be a presenter at the Southern Equine Expo. This horse expo is only a few years old, but it's growing fast and is one of the only expos in that region. I gave 5 presentations during the three-day show and had a booth, where I displayed information about the Nevada Discovery Ride project. Going in I wasn't sure what to expect, as I am not familiar with the equestrian community in that part of the country nor are they familiar with me! But, all my talks were well attended and I personally spoke with hundreds of people who stopped by my booth. People were absolutely fascinated by our long riding adventures and they were incredibly positive about wild horses. In fact, there was a lot of talk about wanting more options in that area to adopt! I was also happy to share "Nevada" with people who weren't familiar with it. I think I may have sold Nevada too well - I'm getting emails now from people asking to come to Nevada so I can guide them on rides! Perhaps I have found my new calling!
Next week I'm headed to Bishop, California for the Backcountry Horsemen of California annual Rendezvous. This is a free event entirely focused on backcountry riding so if that's something that interests you, come on out! There are some fabulous speakers and clinics on the schedule. I'll be giving three talks during the Rendezvous, and am again looking forward to getting to know a new equestrian community.
If the weather clears next month, I'm planning to head down to southern Nevada to scout trails. I'll let you in on a little secret -- I've been working on plans for a ride down in Lincoln County. Not a long ride, but a nice 150-ish mile ride that would link several Nevada State Parks. I'm hoping to have an update for you on that project after I scout the trails in April.
Everyone is doing well. Sage is considering reverting back to the wild after so much time off. Bella is happy to never leave her dog bed. Ryan is finishing his PhD this spring so he's buried in Nevada history right now. And I'm always looking at maps thinking of the next adventure! Hopefully this winter weather wraps up soon so we can hit the trail soon.
Today, NDR team member Bella celebrates her 10th birthday! This little lady has spent most of her life trekking around Nevada exploring the trails, including our nearly 500 mile ride in 2013 and our 1,100 mile ride in 2016. A good dog is so important for a trail rider and Bella is the best. She is the first to the door when it's time to go for a ride. She always keeps up on the trail. She's indifferent to all other animals from cows to coyotes and wild horses to snakes - but she's still scared of house cats. There's no better lizard hunter in the state, and she does alright with the occasional bunny too. She has a knack for finding dead things, refuses to go outside in the rain, and loves to fence fight. Now that she's reached double digits, Bella is semi-retired (limited to rides under 200 miles). Happy Birthday Bella!
We were headed west, 31 days into our long ride around Nevada. We reached the ghost town of Cobre, where only an old stone building remains standing. Cobre enjoyed a brief moment as a railroad town in the early twentieth century, but now the land has been reclaimed by sagebrush. This part of northeastern Nevada is arid, remote, and desolate. There is a stillness to the land, interrupted only by the occasional rumbling of a Union Pacific train on the tracks. Yes, the town of Cobre may be gone, but the railroad lives on.
In Cobre, Sage and I found ourselves traveling alongside the Union Pacific tracks. I wasn't particularly excited about this, but according to the map, it was the only way to get us where we needed to go. And besides, we only needed to ride alongside the tracks for a few miles. As we set out I rhetorically asked myself, What are the odds that a train would go by at the exact moment we're riding the tracks today anyway?
We strolled alongside the tracks in the afternoon heat, where the smell of gravel and iron mingled with the smell of sage and rabbitbrush. Not a cloud could be seen in the bright blue sky. There were no sounds at all, except the light clop of Sage's hooves in the dirt trail. Occasionally a jackrabbit skittered out from under a brush as we approached. Otherwise, Sage and I seemed to be the only living creatures moving through the desert.
Suddenly, I saw a glimmer on the horizon. A Union Pacific train was coming down the tracks. Sage had seen a few trains in his life, but not so close. Somewhat nervously, I began to move him away from the tracks. We stopped on a rocky outcrop as the train neared. Sage and I stood to watch as it reached us and began to rumble past in a blur. Freight car after freight car flew by in a roar. I scanned them all, trying to make out the different company names marking the cargo containers. The train seemed to stretch out endlessly. Suddenly my eyes caught something in the blur. In a flash, I made out three figures in between the freight cars. Rail tramps! I followed them quicky with my eyes as the train sped by, and they saw me too in that instant. The trio began to wave at me excitedly and I threw my arms up to wave back in response. I let out a little whooo!, though of course I knew they couldn't hear it. And just like that they were gone.
It was only the briefest of moments, but it made me immensely happy. Rail tramps and a saddle tramp - we had connected, if only for a second, in the midst of our unusual journeys. Strangers, but not strangers. The end of the train finally came and went and Sage and I were plunged once again into the emptiness of the desert. I thought about the rail tramps as we continued down the trail. Where were they going? Where were they coming from? Did they wonder the same things about me? I smiled to myself at the thought of them retelling the story of their spotting someone on horseback, waving at them from the middle of the desert. I hope we were a bright spot in the otherwise monotonous view from the train. I hope they got where they were going.
As I always say, when you travel at 3mph you see EVERYTHING. Equestrian travel is a great way to develop perspective for the land and to notice the little nuances that might otherwise be missed in a vehicle. Over the course of our 74 day ride this year I began to see many small differences in the terrain of northern Nevada. In some places I saw the grasshoppers were black with red inside their wings. In other places they were bright green with yellow wings. Some valleys boasted tall, lush, healthy sagebrush. Others were sparsely scattered with scrubby-looking sage and other bunchgrasses. Some ranges seemed overflowing with creeks, springs, and other water sources. While others seemed much more parched. It's tiny differences like these that help us to truly understand a place.
Northern Nevada is very diverse, but sometimes that isn't always obvious. For 1,100+ miles we traveled through dense forests, playa deserts, meadows, and everything in between. I was always amazed at how Nevada could change from one basin and range to the next. But, over time I did notice something ubiquitous about Nevada. Something that never changed no matter where we traveled. In every range, in every valley, in the seemingly most remote places, and through eight Nevada counties - it was always there. Once I noticed this constant presence, I couldn't not see it. I even began to seek it out. And I spent a lot of time pondering it.
I'm talking of course about Bud Light cans littered along the side of roads and trails.
I noticed them almost as soon as we began our journey. Initially I dismissed them as merely the litter of a careless traveler who had gone before me. That's rude, I thought to myself as I returned to analyzing the scenic panorama around me. But a few miles later, there they were again. And then another. And another. I didn't believe it at first. I thought it must be a fluke of the place were happened to be in. But they never stopped appearing. Mile after mile, Bud Light can after Bud Light can. Sure, there was the occasional Natural Ice can or Pabst Blue Ribbon can. Once I even saw a Rolling Rock bottle. But, without a doubt, the number one beer of choice in the Nevada backcountry is Bud Light.
They began to appear as a cairn of sorts, guiding me along the trail, marking the path of travel. Sometimes it was like a game - When will I see the next one? Ah, there it is! Always the same, casually tossed just along the side of the road. Often they were obscured by some brush, but the bright blue can with the bold white lettering was always visible - a stark contrast against the subdued colors of the arid Nevada landscape. Sometimes I'd think "I'm so remote, surely no one else has ever been here!" But then, as if the Bud Light gods were listening, a can would appear to remind me that there are no blank spots on the map anymore.
I began to notice the nuances of the litter itself. Mostly there were cans. But sometimes there were bottles. Amber bottles. Aluminum bottles. Occasionally I spotted the discarded case boxes. Oh look, a patriotic themed can with stars! Perhaps leftover from the 4th of July weekend I hypothesized. The designs changed frequently, and I wondered about the graphics team who works hard to keep the cans looking fresh and exciting. Sometimes the cans were crumpled and faded, some obviously old, but most were pristine - as if they had just been tossed out the window that morning.
Early on I naively considered picking up the cans as I rode, but I quickly realized the effort would take considerable time and I wouldn't be able to carry them all in my saddle bags. Over time the omnipresent Bud Light cans became a conversation point between Ryan and I at the end of the day. "I saw a lot of cans today," or "Only two cans on the trail today!," I'd faithfully report to Ryan along with my sightings of animals or interesting terrain. I was surprised to discover that he didn't notice them at all from the truck.
Why Bud Light?, I eventually wondered. What is it about this particular beer that makes it so popular among the type of person who would discard it along the trail? What's the correlation? As I rode I found myself looking for clues that might explain the pervasive presence. Sadly, there were no discernible patterns. Bud Light was simply everywhere, from one county to the next, on the highest mountain peaks, on the toughest trails - the only constant on a journey full of uncertainties.
All lightheartedness aside, please don't throw your empty beer cans out the window. In fact, just don't litter period. It really ruins it for those of us who head out into nature to experience nature. Eventually Bud Light sightings became as much a part of the ride as seeing antelope or wild horses. I even found myself compelled to document them in photos as I did with everything else I saw. It bummed me out and it made me a little embarrased for Nevada. Our public lands are too pretty and to precious to be marred by such thoughtlessness.
I am excited to announce that I have accepted an invitation to be an official advisor for the Love Road Wild Horse Sanctuary and Adoption Center. This project is just getting off the ground, but is poised to do a lot of good. I signed on because their mission is as simple as mine - to decrease the number of horses in holding facilities by increasing adoption rates. I believe they have a feasible and well thought out plan. I look forward to working with this group of knowledgeable and passionate advocates to make a difference for wild horses.
You can learn more about this project by visiting http://www.loveroadsanctuary.org/.
Stay tuned for updates!
Toward the end of September, our journey around Nevada took us through the Owyhee Desert in Elko County, just south of the Idaho and Oregon borders. While most of our route went through remote areas, this felt the most remote. The Owyhee is the type of desert environment where an ocean of sagebrush extends out to the distant horizon, broken up by rolling hills, buttes, and mesas. The vegetation here is mostly sagebrush and bunchgrasses. This arid country is largely uninhabited by humans, with no towns in or around it. A few scattered ranches operate around the edges, but access into the interior of the Owyhee is difficult. The old roads are not well maintained, but they are good enough for horse travel!
After the rigours of the mountainous Jarbidge area, I was excited to drop down in elevation and do some desert riding. They Owyhee did not disappoint. It appears at first to be flat and desolate, but when you ride through you notice the little nuances of the land. There are lots of interesting rock formations, dramatic canyons, and old ruins scattered throughout. Not surprisingly, we didn't see any people out here. If you are looking for solitude, the Owyhee would be a good place to go!
The Owyhee is home to several Herd Management Areas for wild horses, and we saw plenty as we traveled through. One evening from our campsite we watched nearly a hundred horses come over a hill and head down their well-worn horse trails to a water source. They were a very colorful herd; we saw everything from roans and greys to buckskins and paints. They all looked healthy. We enjoyed watching them make their evening commute to the water hole.
Sage watched the horses coming over the hill too. All was peaceful, until Sage had the audacity to whinny at them. Almost immediately, a magnificent red roan stallion responded to Sage with a terrifying roar. Not a whinny, not a nicker, not a squeal - a roar. Suddenly, the whole herd came charging toward us, closing in on us from several sides. The red roan stallion led the charge, aiming straight for Sage. I ran to defend Sage, who was inside his electric corral. The red roan stallion stopped a few hundred feet away, and began to snort and stomp his hooves. Sage became enraged! He roared back at the stallion, and began tearing around his electric corral, rearing, bucking, and striking out. His whole demeanor changed; Sage seemed to be twice his normal size. I could do nothing to calm him down. The red roan galloped back and forth, screaming and snorting. The rest of his herd anxiously ran along the fringe, but they hung back. Clearly this fight was between the red roan stallion and Sage.
I can honestly say this was one of the scariest moments during our entire ride. We have been charged by stallions and small bands countless times, but nothing matched the ferocity of this particular stallion. I absolutely believe that if Sage had been able to get out of his corral, this would have been a fight to the death. I could only hope that he didn't run through the electric fence. Scared, but with no other option, I stood my ground between Sage and the red roan, armed only with a plastic bag. I made a flew bluff charges toward the red roan stallion, and to my relief he begrudgingly began to retreat. The rest of his herd withdrew over the hill. The red roan was the last to disappear, but he stopped periodically to face Sage and roar.
The whole confrontation probably only lasted a few minutes, but it felt like an eternity. In the chaos, Ryan snapped these incredible photos. Bella, unfazed, took advantage of the distraction and ate our dinner. It took Sage some time to calm down, but he remained on high alert for the rest of the evening. This was not the last encounter we had with wild horses in the Owyhee, but it was certainly the most intense. It was a stark reminder of how territorial and aggressive wild horses can be, especially wild horses who live in such remote areas.
The Bureau of Land Management is currently in the midst of a wild horse gather in the Owhyee Desert. (You can read their reports HERE.) The horses they have permanently removed are now at the National Palomino Valley Wild Horse and Burro Adoption Center where they are available for adoption. So far they haven't captured the red roan stallion.
I'm doing a twofer in this installment, because I think it's difficult to talk about the saddle without the pad and vice-versa. Obviously both are crucial on a long ride because of the sheer amount of time spent in the saddle. An ill-fitting saddle or a poor quality pad will end a long ride quicker than anything else, and long riders should ensure their horse(s) comfort comes first from the moment they hit the trail until the moment they reach the end of the trail. It's important to know though -- there is no such thing as the perfect saddle or the perfect pad, especially on a long ride. They will all have their shortcomings eventually. Your goal is to find the right product for you and your horse that minimizes the problems of long distance riding.
Our saddle is a Cheyenne Frontier Trail Saddle from Tucker Saddlery. I chose this saddle, in part, because it is the same saddle used by Bernice Ende, the famous Lady Long Rider who has racked up more than 20,000 miles in her saddle. I cannot think of better proof of a saddle's quality than that! And indeed, on our journey of more than 1,100 miles, this saddle proved to be worth every penny.
My first consideration was weight. Some traditional western saddles can weigh 40 pounds or more! But, when you are light-packing and riding on one horse, every pound counts. My preference for maximum weight limit on a long ride is 200 pounds -- that includes the rider, saddle, and gear. This saddle weighs about 29 pounds, which is more than the saddle I used on my first ride, but still within the acceptable range to keep everything under 200 pounds.
The saddle fit Sage well, at least initially. About 500 miles into the ride, Sage's body shape began to change and the saddle began to fit differently. This isn't the fault of the saddle, but merely the inevitable result of such a dramatic increase in physical activity. As Sage became more toned, his topline narrowed and saddle became too wide. I inspected Sage twice daily for any signs of saddle sores, but we never had any problems, even with the changes in body shape. Long riders need to pay attention for changes in saddle fit and make adjustments as necessary. What I particularly liked about this saddle, was the freedom of movement it allowed Sage's shoulders. Too many people use saddles that restrict the movement of their horse's shoulder blades. (That can also just be a result of putting the saddle on too far forward.) I also like the deep gullet of this saddle, which meant there was never any direct pressure on Sage's withers or spine - even when he changed shape.
This saddle was also extremely comfortable for me to ride in. A lot of people we met on the trail jokingly asked if my butt hurt after riding for so many miles, but honestly, it never did! Tucker's patented Gel-Cush seat is shock-absorbing and kept my butt comfy for 6-10 hours of riding a day. I also never once had knee pain. I have degenerative joint disease in both knees, which in the past with other saddles, has caused pain after only a few hours of riding. I was very glad that I opted for the Ergo-Balance Trail Glide stirrups when I ordered this saddle. This saddle also has plenty of saddle strings and rings for attaching saddle bags, bed rolls, or other gear.
Tucker Saddles are fairly customizable; you choose the color, tooling, rigging, skirt, hardware, fenders, and stirrups. Before I purchased the saddle, I sent tracings and measurements of Sage's back to the company and they suggested the proper tree width. One more note -- I have been very happy with Tucker's customer service. When I initially received my saddle the horn leather was slightly damaged. Tucker immediately offered to take the saddle back after our ride and make repairs at no cost to me.
What goes under your saddle is also very important. We used a pad from 5 Star Equine Products, specifically the All Around 30" x 30" in a 1 inch thickness. These pads are 100% virgin wool, which is excellent for absorption of moisture. The tensile strength of wool also prevents compression.
Overall I was very happy with this pad during the ride. It fit the saddle well, has a nice contoured shape, and held up to rigorous daily use. Even in the most strenuous trail conditions it was breathable. However, when Sage's body shape began to change we did experience some slippage with the pad. Eventually I had to rig a strap through the wither hole and tighten it to the saddle horn to keep the pad with the saddle. Again, this wasn't necessarily the fault of the pad, but the changing fit of the saddle over time. The saddle pad was easy to clean each week in camp. It comes with a little sponge-like cleaning thing, but a curry comb worked too.
Toward the end of the ride, I did notice something strange. The pad itself began to develop creases or kinks in the wool - which caused creasing in Sage's hair, almost like a finger wave hairstyle. The creasing has not come out, despite regular brushing. I do not know what caused the creasing in the pad -- perhaps it was too much use, too much movement when the saddle starting fitting differently, or perhaps I did not clean it well enough. I reached out to 5 Star for their opinion and they recommended a new pad. My concern would be that over time the friction from the creases would cause rub marks. I was happy that our ride ended before I could find out.
Long riding is unlike any other kind of riding. It takes a toll on everything, including tack, so you have to be willing to accept some imperfections and adapt as needed. The most important thing, however, is that you aren't developing saddle sores, rub marks, galling, or any unseen damage to your horse's spine.
Last week I had our equine chiropractor come do a post-ride assessment and adjustment on Sage. After 1,100+ consecutive miles I was sure he probably needed it. But other than a few tweaks for flexibility, Sage didn't need much. In particular, the chiropractor said his back was showing no signs of ill-effects from such a long ride. I absolutely credit that to our choice in saddle and pad.
The latest updates from Samantha on the Nevada Discovery Ride.