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  • Tosha Duncan

Ride Recap: Twenty Mule Team 100

Updated: Mar 31


Twenty Mule Team 100-mile attempt, 2024.


At the beginning of March one of my best friends and endurance teammate, Rachel, and I set off for Ridgecrest, CA on the edge of the Mojave Desert. It was our second trip to this location in about as many months. Our first ride of the year, Fire Mountain, had been incredible! Both horses finished back-to-back 50-mile rides feeling fantastic. We were cautiously and optimistically signed up for the 100-mile distance at Twenty Mule Team.


We arrived to ride camp Thursday by noon, wanting to give the horses a full day and half to rest and stretch their legs after the trailer ride. It was windy but much warmer compared to Fire Mountain. In hindsight this might have given us some false hope!

 

All smiles upon arrival!


For those who haven’t officially met the endurance horse team yet, on this trip we had Sonora and Goose. MM Sonora is an appaloosa mustang mare owned by Rachel and obsessively loved by both of us! Rachel has been incredibly generous to let me partner with Sonora since 2023. The first time I rode Sonora my jaw dropped and I told Rachel she might be one of the most talented horses I’d ridden. Sonora hasn’t been an easy mare to figure out for many reasons, and she will likely get her own blog one day to tell her story! For now, I will just say that Sonora is where she is due to Rachel dedicating the time and care into figuring her out. Many owners would have likely deemed her difficult and passed her along, but like I did on that first ride, Rachel also felt greatness in this stoic spotted mare and knew she was worth it.  


Me and Sonora the night before the race.

 

Goose (Stars the Limite), hardly needs an introduction. With over 4,000 competitive AERC miles and a championship to his name, this tall grey Arabian gelding is an absolute professional and legend. Goose is one in a million; the kind of horse you could throw anyone on and he’d take care of them over 100 miles of rugged terrain, but also the horse an experienced rider can get on and race. He knows his job and is FUN!


Rachel and Goose before the ride.


Back to the ride recap! On Friday we kept waiting for the wind to die down before going on our pre-ride. We finally accepted that wasn’t going to happen, and headed out on very fresh ponies to let them stretch for a few miles. The day before the ride chugged along like clockwork between vetting in, setting up crew bags, walking the horses, and ride meeting.


Custom outfit to block the wind!


A bonus on this ride was our CREW! My husband Andy, Rachel’s fiancé Dusty, and Rachel’s dad Mike all made the drive down together on Friday to help get us through these 100 miles. Mike is a seasoned endurance rider and was the brains of the operation, while Andy and Dusty got to learn from him and provided the muscle and transport!


The boys scouting routes and vet holds.

 

The wind got worse. It never stopped. We tried everything to protect the horses from it, even setting up high ties and corrals on both sides of the trailer in case one was more sheltered (both sides were equally bad), and we tried parking trucks in front of the horses as a wind block. Nothing worked.

 

Saturday, ride morning. These early hours always feel a bit different, charged with excitement and determination. For some reason I have never been nervous for an endurance ride. I’ve participated in many horse sports and have gotten the “butterflies” for some like cross-country or maybe a stadium jumping round. I have only ever felt excitement for an endurance ride. Sometimes if I’m on a fresh horse I will have the mindset that I need to survive the first few miles, but besides that and a healthy respect for the course and terrain, no nerves.


Ride morning.


Rachel and I have been competing together for over a year, so getting ready for the ride we were like a well-oiled machine. The wind was absolutely whipping at this point, a constant 20 mph with gusts of 40 mph. We tacked up as a team so that one could hold the blanket on the horse while the other threw on the saddle, trying to keep them warm as long as possible. We also hand walk and warm up extensively so the horses aren’t cold at the start. Camp at this point was alive with preparation and motion, riders and horses becoming visible in the dawn light.

 

Woop, woop - ready to roll and not see camp again for 60 miles!


The only thought on everyone’s mind and all that was talked about was THE WIND. Some riders had already dropped down in distance and others had dropped out entirely. It was that bad. I’m not sure what the “right” call would have been, but when they opened trail and the race started, we rode out.

 

Rachel and I were not there to race, we were there to finish. We usually begin a ride very conservatively, often choosing to start in the back of the pack (again, the obsession with thoroughly warming up). The horses felt good, but not their normal fire-breathing-dragon-race-start selves. We were immediately headed straight into a punishing wind, and beginning to realize that the horses likely didn’t get any sleep the night before from it. Not even a mile in, a small cactus or spikey plant blew directly into Goose’s back legs, necessitating a quick dismount from Rachel! No damage done, but we both looked at each and laughed one of “those” laughs; the “it’s about to be a LONG day” laugh.

 

No matter which direction we turned on the trail, the wind found a new way push us. It was slamming into our sides so hard that the horses and us had to lean and fight through. Rachel was riding in snowboarding goggles and I was in my heavy-duty full shield safety glasses. Trying to hold a conversation was pretty much impossible without shouting, so we tucked our heads down and rode on.


Rachel sporting her goggles - the only way we survived this ride with eyeballs in tact.

 

Our first vet hold was after nearly 24 miles, and was an “out” hold (away from base camp, for my non-endurance friends). We’d been skirting some rainfall all day, and it was catching up quickly. Our crew was on point, even bringing us hot Starbucks (the most spoiled, I know). I’ve done most of my rides without Andy there, but I have to admit, knowing he was waiting at the holds really gave me something to look forward to! Like clockwork, Rachel and I vetted the horses through with great scores, got them chowing down, managed a snack for ourselves, and all too quickly our hold was up and we were off again!

Core memory made, best crew ever


At the first vet hold with Andy!


On the second loop, the worst of the weather caught us. We were facing 26 miles of desert with no cover, relentless increasing winds, rain, and hail. This loop was slow, wet, and an effort to energize the horses since they knew we were headed even farther from base camp. We took it for what it was, plugged along, and laughed. What else can you do? We were still in good spirits and felt fine about letting our horses have a slow loop considering the conditions. We reached the next vet stop; a quick presentation where the horses again looked great. We gave them extra time to eat and drink before heading out on the third loop, which was a quick 10.5 miles back to base camp.


Heading straight into the storm.

 

We were out of the rain (but not the wind, the wind was a part of us now), headed back to camp, and the horses KNEW IT! Sonora was on FIRE and leading the charge. This mare is a powerhouse, a spotted seek and destroy missile, and being on her back is such a privilege. Again, Rachel and I were cruising down the trail laughing, always laughing. If you’ve been at a ride with us, you’ll know that you can likely hear us before you see us. We were approaching mile 60 and the horses felt the strongest they had nearly all day.


Feeling good a few miles from camp.

 

Once we got close to camp, we walked in and began the process of vetting in for our hour hold. Sonora truly believed her day was done, having gone what felt like a full ride distance, her tack was stripped, and she was back at camp. She deflated, perhaps for the first time all day showing how much the wind had taken out of her. Goose was also uncharacteristically tired. Rachel and I exchanged a loaded look in the vet line, both knowing without words what was to come next.

 

Goose vetted through, but Sonora was re-presented. After further examination by several vets, Rachel, and myself, it was decided in the best interest of Sonora to call it a day. Though it was difficult to pinpoint what was going on, it was clear she wasn’t herself. She gave an incredible 60 miles in the worst weather I’ve ever ridden in, and asking her for 40 more was not right. The pull ended up being for lameness, a very slight (almost unnoticeable) hitch behind. It was a fantastic catch on the part of the head vet and we are grateful to him for it. She also began to have a slightly upset tummy back at camp, the first sign of that all day. Simply put, not our day to continue.

 

It was decided to pull Goose as well, since he was also a bit wind-battered and it would have been stressful for Sonora to be left in camp without him. On that note our perfect ponies believed they had placed in the top ten of the 60-mile ride like the champions they are, and they happily dove into their mashes and huge hay nets the rest of the day.

 

Was there disappointment? I’d be lying if I said no. I’m competitive, and more than anything I like to accomplish what I set out to do. I believe in Sonora fiercely and want nothing more than for her to show the world what she’s capable of. But I care for her as a partner first and an athlete second. If she never raced again I’d still love her and think she’s one of the greatest horses of all time.


Nothing but love for the strawberry freight train, no matter what!

 

So, what do you do at a ride when you’re pulled? Take care of your horse, take a brief moment to lick your wounds, and cheer on/support your fellow riders! Rachel and I had created a team on the 100-mile ride with the incredible John Perry and Scott Lucas, sporting a team name that cannot be repeated here! Our pride took a minor hit that we had to let the boys carry the team, but carry they did!! Both finished, John in 4th place and Scott in 11th. A massive feat in general on a 100-mile ride, but especially in those conditions. I don’t think anyone was particularly looking forward to that final loop, as wind gusts were increasing up to 70 mph! Our crew was gutted for us that we didn’t get to finish, but I don’t think they were too sad about ending early and getting hot showers and a real dinner.

The brief moment our team was together on course. John and Scott leading the way!


We shared part of the first loop with John, then he was off like a rocket to a fantastic finish!

His mare looked incredible the next day too.


Sunday morning the boys took off early while Rachel and I tried to pack up camp without getting blown over. When I tell you by this point we were completely over the wind, I mean COMPLETELY over it. We were both knocked down more than once, slammed into by trailer doors caught by the wind, sand was in our eyes, ears, and mouths. At one point a fellow rider’s panels were lifted by the wind and carried halfway across camp!

 

The drive home was filled with Rachel and I analyzing every moment leading up to the ride and during the ride. We began researching, listening to podcasts, and as always, trying to learn. When things don’t go your way, sometimes it's a blessing in disguise. These moments can become catalysts for change, introspection, growing and becoming better. It’s only a loss if you let it be.

 

The sport of endurance is about more than the physical ability to endure the elements, the terrain, and the distances, though that alone is enough to push you to the limit. Endurance riding is equally a mental battle, and some would even say it tests the very fiber of your being, your spirit. Who are you when no one else is around? When it’s just you and your horse navigating a backcountry trail. When you’re exhausted, sore, questioning your sanity, wanting to be done, and on the edge of breaking, who are you then? How do you treat fellow riders, who are for all purposes your direct competition? I believe that for better or worse, you become the truest version of yourself out there. This sport gives you the chance to see what you’re made of, and if you don’t like what you find, it gives you the opportunity to become better. But you have to earn it. Through blood, sweat, tears, and miles. It’s why we all love it, and why we keep coming back.

 

Sonora pushing through the wind on course.


Since Twenty Mule Team we’ve been regrouping, investing in making the horses the healthiest and happiest versions of themselves. We’re glad we went. We got to take part in one of the windiest rides in history! We cheered for some amazing friends and riders who were successful. We were gifted 60 miles of beautiful desert from the backs of amazing horses.


The crazy conditions granted us a near-constant rainbow to ride under all day,

with brief pockets of sunshine.

 

As always, a huge thank you to ride management for putting on such a wonderful race. The weather presented some unique challenges, and they were constantly keeping horse and rider safety in mind.


At some point soon, Rachel and I will sit down and look at the ride calendar to figure out what’s next. I’m sure we'll be cackling our way down the trail before you know it!



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