The plane bucked and twisted as I clutched the arm rests, refusing to look out the window at the canyons below. My skin was pale and sticky as I tried my best not to hurl up the Mexican fiesta I’d downed at the Salt Lake City airport. I was on a 20-seater plane headed to Moab and regretting my decision to not just take the few hours to drive myself to the middle of Utah’s desert region.
The ginger-bearded guy next to me smirked. I glanced at the inked sleeves – roses, checkered flags, skulls – that danced across his weathered forearms. He was wearing a faded Jack Daniels tee and I caught a whiff of stale liquor. I clenched the arm rests tighter and tried harder not to hurl.
“Doesn’t look like you’re headed to Moab for the Jeep festival,” he said, eyeing me up and down.
“I’m going to ride horses,” I said.
It sounds weird, but I hate explaining what I do to people who don’t ‘get’ horses. If I say I’m going to ride a horse they think I’m a jockey, or a cowgirl. It’s even more complicated now if people pry and I have to try to explain to them I’m training to race 1,000 kilometres across Mongolia.
“My ex wife rides horses,” he said, with a hint of disgust. “She loved them horses more than she loved me.”
Thankfully the ghost of his ex-wife dead-ended our conversation and I could focus back on avoiding barfing.
When the plane finally bounced onto the tarmac 20 minutes later, I was the first one down the stairs and on solid ground. Stepping outside the one-room Moab airport was like climbing into one of those hot air hand dryers. The wind was strong and the sun baked cracks in the red earth. A tumbleweed skittered by. In the distance snow capped mountain peaks rose up above the red rock and desolate flatlands littered with sagebrush. The nausea was receding and it was my turn to smirk. In that second, I knew I’d found my training grounds for Mongolia.
For the next five days I’d stay with Christoph Schork and Dian Woodward at Global Endurance Training Center. Schork and Woodward raise and train Arabian and half Arabian horses for endurance races across the U.S. southwest. They’ve racked thousands of race miles between them. They’ve also been to Mongolia numerous times and Schork has ridden over 100 Mongolian horses. He’s full of tidbits like “the Mongol don’t train their horses on the right, so if you approach them on that side they’ll freak out,” and “you might want to consider packing gifts to use as bribes for the best horses.”
Woodward is the master of knot tying, gear, and avoiding the chafe. Her tips include “pack hemorrhoid cream, you’ll need it after bouncing on those horses for hours.”
To avoid being too wordy, here’s a brief synopsis of my five-day clinic and what I learned:
Christoph throws me up on a little chestnut Arabian named Saffie who’s around 14 hands. I note he must prefer riding in a longer stirrup as he drops mine to a dressage length I haven’t employed in years. We head to the round pen where he tells me to keep my heels down. I want to say “I’ll do that if you let me crank my stirrups up a few holes,” but I keep my mouth shut.
Saffie doesn’t like to canter in the round pen. I don’t have a crop. “This is good. There’s a lot of Mongolian horses that are like this. They’ll exhaust you. You should think about bringing a crop,” says Christoph as I pant and struggle and finally reach back and give Saffie a smack to get motoring. Saffie swings his head and lets out a petulant pony buck as he flings off into the canter. Success.
Next, Christoph and his intern Carla get tacked up and we’re off on our first 20-kilometre loop behind the farm. The views are stunning, Saffie is flying and I’m grinning. “He just doesn’t like the round pen,” informs Christoph.
I return with a massive bruise forming on my inner right thigh. Tomorrow I raise my stirrups.
I also realize I haven’t eaten. Neither has anyone else. Do people eat around here, I wonder? I sneak off and horf down two Skinny Cow ice cream sandwiches I was smart enough to
buy when I was at the grocery store in town.
Today we trailer to a park. We load up a palomino mare named Honey for me, but not before she runs around the paddock for 20 minutes, avoiding being caught. Eventually she acquiesces. As I tack her up she trembles – she’s one of those sensitive horses who’s a bundle of nerves before a big ride. But when I hop up she’s all business, raring to go. We bomb up and down sand paths for 40 kilometres, pausing at ponds for the horses to drink and graze and enjoying some canyon views. Today thanks to my shortened stirrups the bruising is fine, but another problem has emerged – my calves, due to not being used to being in a constant state of contraction, have crunched into muscle spasms. When I finally hop off four hours later, I can barely walk.
Despite this, Christoph asks if I’d like to go for a run with him. My pride kicks in and I don’t want to look weak. I’m supposed to be some warrior heading off to Mongolia to ride 1,000 kilometres. I can’t let 40 km of riding fell me. I grit my teeth and agree to a short 5 km run.
“Are you serious?” Dian, the voice of reason asks me, eyebrows raised. “How good are you at running hills?”
“What kind of hills?”
I follow her eyes and look up at the steep red rock wall that hugs the edge of their property. You gotta be f—ing kidding me.
Christoph trots off ahead, four dogs in tow. I stagger behind him and so begins the most grueling 5 kilometres I’ve ever run. He bounces from boulder to sand dune, flying up the incline, along paths not visible to me. I get that tinny taste in my mouth and start heaving. At one point, at a very steep portion of our run, I begin crawling. When I crest this portion of the climb, Christoph comes into view. He’s waiting for me, crushing out a dozen pushups. It continues along this way for more than half an hour. Christoph bolts ahead, incorporating some cross fitness exercise, until I drag myself to catch up. We finally head back down the hill. My calves and now my quads feel like someone is drawing a knife slowly through the muscles.
My pride and body are now both shattered as I hobble back to the farm. A 62 year old man has pummeled me into the ground with his superior fitness.
I limp and whine around the barns until Dian slips me a handful of Aleve and some capsules I later dub ‘miracle pills.’ They’re a concoction of magnesium, sodium, potassium and a bunch of other stuff that wipes muscle cramps out within an hour of taking them. I can walk again! I buy an entire bottle of these pills and they stay on my person for the rest of the week as I become an electrolyte and Aleve junkie. Never again will I let my legs feel this way. How foolish I was.
Possibly because of my whining, possibly because Christoph is afraid he might kill me, we have an ‘easier’ day today. We do two separate rides, each 20 kilometres. The first one I’m given a little chestnut quarter horse mare named Ellie or Dunny, depending on if you ask Christoph or Dian. Ellie/Dunny knows her job and it’s not standing. I nearly shatter my iPhone in a creek as Ellie/Dunny refuses to stand for one minute while I snap pictures of the mountains.
“You can’t be a tourist on her,” chuckles Dian.
We bolt up a mile-long hill, all the horses racing each other. Half a mile up I sit back and relax, waiting for that moment when Ellie/Dunny runs out of gas. She just tanks harder and bolts faster. By the top of the hill I’m puffing too. We all hop off and walk the horses back down the hill. My calves have started cramping again and I wash a few more miracle pills down and get tugged down the hill by Ellie/Dunny who still hasn’t run out of steam. At the bottom, I struggle to lift my lead legs up into the stirrup while Ellie/Dunny spins in circles. I’m finally on and we’re off, back to the farm.
After inhaling a giant plate of spaghetti and two more ice cream sandwiches, I’m back in the saddle. I still marvel at the small amount of food Christoph seems to exist on.
This time I’m on a lovely grey mare Arabian mare named Hannah. Hannah is willowy and inquisitive and if a film needed a unicorn stand-in, she’d be your girl. Christoph promises she’s a smooth ride, a nice horse to help my failing legs. He’s right. She’s entirely uncomplicated and I sit there as she cruises in autopilot through the 20-kilometre loop. I stuff a few more miracle pills and Aleve in my mouth and I return to the farm feeling alright, except for a disconcerting tingling that’s running down the outside of my right calf. I begin to suspect riding through this pain is causing nerve damage, but I push the thought aside.
Christoph warns me to get some rest. Tomorrow we ride nearly 80 kilometres and leave by 7 a.m. in the trailer to Canyonlands National Park.
I wake up and pack as much food into my body as possible. I eat two bagels with peanut butter, drink two cups of coffee, spoon a massive yogurt down my throat and finish it all off with an ice cream sandwich. It’s now 6:55 a.m. and I muse this is the earliest I’ve ever eaten dessert.
We load the horses in the trailer and rumble off to Canyonlands. I’m riding Hannah again and I thank the gods I have such a sweet mare to cart me through this epic ride. The tingling has gotten worse in my right calf, so much so that in the middle of the night I woke up in excruciating pain and tried to roll it out with the rolling pin in the kitchen. It made matters worse.
An hour later I’m gazing across a vast expanse of desert. Red arches and cliffs rise in the distance. This is Moab, this is why I’m here. I swing my leg over Hannah and we’re off through sparse grazing allotments. The cattle that hear us crashing through the sand paths bolt and moo as we pass. The kilometers and hours tick by. Every time we pause for pictures, or the horses to drink, I take my legs out of the stirrups and try to massage blood back into them. I feel nothing now. My legs are logs thumping against Hannah’s sides as she gamely carts me over desert and rock, across streams and through sagebrush.
We stop and dismount to look at glyphs left by the Pueblos over one thousand years ago. We take pictures of a cave dwelling and Christoph tells us how the people used rope ladders to get into their little lofts high above the ground.
Now that I no longer feel my legs, I’m able to focus on the chafing on my right butt cheek. Perhaps ill-advisedly I tried riding commando today, worried that underwear just creates another chafe layer. I was wrong. There is nothing but a thin layer of lycra tight to protect the skin on my baby soft ass. I suspect at this point I’ve lost three to four layers of epidermis and while Hannah canters on I attempt (unsuccessfully) to stand in my stirrups to avoid the pain in my ass. I alternate between shocks of nerve pain from trying to activate my legs to the burning dissolution of more layers of skin on my ass. At one point I prop myself on the pommel of my saddle and hold myself up with my arms. Hannah canters on and I try not to cry.
When we reach the trailer around 5:00 p.m. I put on a stiff upper lip and announce this has been “one of the best days of my life,” but make note to secretly ask Dian what potions she has for my ass.
I’m promised an easy day today, and I get it, sort of. Christoph says I can ride his stallion Express. I think he thinks he’s doing me a great honour – and he is – except my legs still won’t work, my back is starting to give out and I have no skin left on my butt. Despite this, I say I’m excited to ride Express. We bring him in from the field and I begin to saddle him. He’s posturing, nickering to a flirty mare in a paddock 50 metres away. When I swing my leg over he lets out a little squeal and my heart beats a little faster – as it always does when I get on a horse I don’t know who seems a little hot.
We must walk past a paddock of mares. It is spring. They’re nickering and peeing. I swallow my fear. Express squeals and snorts and arches his neck but I pretend it doesn’t phase me. We get by without incident. Out on the trail, he hides his hormones and he’s off, powering and chugging through the 20-kilometre loop. We have a nice forward canter going a lot of the time. But the last five kilometers I finally give up. I announce my legs cannot do any more. I fear the numbness and tingling means I’ve done irreparable damage.
Christoph seems satisfied. My clinic is done. I tell him it’s the best thing I could have done to prepare me for Mongolia and I’m not lying.
I’m even planning on coming back. He’s agreed to take me on as an intern in June for two months, so I can train more intensively for Mongolia.
I guess my whining didn’t phase him.
Check out this video I made of my time in Utah – “Moab, Utah Through the Ears of Four Horses.”