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[RC] my Lost Padres ride story - long - Laney Humphrey

I always go to a ride filled with worries and concerns: is my horse sound, is my horse ready, am I ready/able, did I bring everything I'll need and on and on and on. And, right on schedule, two nights before I left, I had the "oh no, I forgot to load the horse in the trailer" dream. But the ride gods were on my side this time! Dino, my horse, and I had a wonderful time at the Lost Padres ride, part of the Sunrise Ranch series of rides put on by Dave Nicholson, May 20-21.
The ride was held on the Santa Margarita Ranch, between Paso Robles and San Luis Obispo, California. The ranch dates back to Spanish times and is still privately owned. It is rarely open to non ranch related events.
Nicholson had made it very clear that, contrary to most rides, riding our horses safely and appropriately was not our primary job. Following instructions and not bothering or irritating ranch management and ranch owners was our first job, in the hopes that we would be asked back next year. The ranch manager, and his wife, visited Ridecamp on Friday evening and described the ranch and its long history to us. Friends had pestered me into actually renting the video "Tapadero" which is about the history of the ranch and the vaquero tradition. Having watched it, I was even more excited about doing the ride. And even more appreciative than I would have been of the efforts the ranch managers and owners are putting into preserving this large part of early California history. If you're a fan of Ian Tyson, Mike Beck, Dave Stamey or the Sons of the San Joaquin, the Santa Margarita Ranch is THE setting for the vaqueros they sing about.
Nicolson told friends and me on Monday morning that his early weather worries had been about heat since it had been over 100 degrees earlier in the week. Then has he listened to later weather forecasts, he thought we'd have perfect weather. But then "perfect" turned into very good, at least not blazing hot and a few showers would be ok. But, by Friday, the forecasts were saying high probabilities of RAIN! Actually, the weather on Saturday was perfect. The site is fairly close to the coast but there was no fog which can turn a ridecamp very cold. So, the horses were comfortable overnight and so were the riders.
The ranch is 16,000+ acres of coastal mountains and rolling oak covered hills. An earlier owner put in large vineyards which are still being maintained but the primary focus of the ranch is to produce high quality beef which is sold to Harris Ranch. During his talk, Friday evening, the ranch manager told us that they practice intensive range management. That means that they keep the cattle in fairly small areas but for only brief periods of time. This means lots of work for the ranch crew (3 people) because they have to move the cattle very frequently. However, the cattle are not only tasty but smart. They figure out very quickly that gates are their friends because they lead to new pasture. All the ranch crew has to do is whistle and the cows come to the gate for moving! Great for moving cattle, but, as Nicholson made very clear, it leaves no room for idiot endurance racers to mess up about closing a gate!!! And there were a few (hah!) gates!!! The only time we went off the ranch was a very brief stretch through land populated by a herd of tame longhorns who also know that gates lead to new and interesting pastures. Again, if you find the gate closed, close it after you!!!
The first day started with some pretty steep climbs. Maybe not the perfect way to start a ride, but those hills were a very good reminder that this was a ride, not a race. The first loop went up and through spectacular hills with views out over the lower valley covered in vineyards. We never got quite high enough to see the ocean to the west but it wasn't far away. We rode past ruins of old farm buildings as well as a "historic California site" which is actually a very modern reconstruction that's used for events. The longhorns added to the sense of history too. The morning's second loop sent us out into the valley through the vineyards and then out into lower grazing areas. The cattle all looked very contented and mildly amused by all the horses trotting by. We came into camp for lunch after loop 2. Annie Nicholson had made her delicious sandwiches. Loop 3 again sent us through the vineyards and then even further out into grazing country. We headed to the far north end of the ranch. We climbed into some low hills from which we could look down onto the town of Santa Margarita and also see the ranch headquarters, including the large red roofed barn. It is wood on the outside now but the wood siding actually covers the rock walls of the original Spanish building and has helped preserve it. We crossed highway 58 and went further into grazing country before turning back. We crossed what I'm pretty sure is the Salinas river not far from its source. The trail then went along side a large wetlands which was really pretty.
The next morning rain was definitely happening but just showers as we started out Only one of our group was actually wearing rain gear. The rest of us wore rain jackets. Being good Californians we steadfastly refused to believe that it might actually really RAIN! After all, it was the 3rd weekend in May and the rain season officially ended at the end of April! It rained!!! The forecast predicted up to 4 inches; judging from the rain accumulated in buckets at camp, we probably got at least 2 inches. The ride plan for the day was: loop one backwards, loop 2 same as day one, and loop three backwards. Loops one and two, for us at least, were wet but definitely doable. The rain really hadn't soaked into the trails enough to cause problems although the soil is definitely clay and looked like it could turn into either muck or slick. Loop one earned the 4 of us, as well as a few others a new name: the Lost Riders of the Lost Padres. We were doing great until a spot quite close to camp. Never believe that horses don't know where they are if they're going "backwards!" We were whizzing along, everyone having a good time, including the horses. All of our group are plant and animal admirers so we spent lots of time pointing out interesting sights along the trail. I was had just pointed out a tree that had fallen, splitting open almost like a flower, with branches spread out on the ground all around the trunk. Everyone was looking left at the tree instead of right at the many pink ribbons signaling a turn! We whizzed by them, got as far as the gate that the horses knew led to camp and just a bit further. Someone's sense of direction buzzed and we came to a screeching halt. Soggy maps were retrieved, and raindrops wiped off glasses in the hopes of actually being able to read the wet maps. We turned around, having decided where we must have missed the turn. The horses were surprisingly happy to get going “out” again.
Thanks in part to my horse and thanks to the darned tree that we all had to look at once more, we rushed right past the turn again!!! One person was a ways behind the rest of us and saw the ribbons. She started yelling at us to stop. The turn took us up the mountain that was at the beginning of the ride the day before. We went through the longhorn pasture, slid down the hills we'd climbed up on Saturday, by the fort and back into camp. In reality we hadn't gone more than a mile out of our way. Strangely enough, we finished loop one only 10 minutes later than we had the day before. Again the horses were all fine and we all enjoyed a good lunch and break.
It wasn't raining hard enough at that point to encourage any of us to change into more heavy duty rain gear. In fact, it wasn't raining at all! So, we set off for loop 3. Then it started to rain. And rain, and rain and, did I say, rain?! Oh well, once you're wet, you're wet. The horses were good sports. Heat was not at all an issue; the trail footing was still quite good so we made good time. It wasn't until we got to the outermost point that the rain really started to come down. By this time, the horses knew we were headed home which gave them heart. With about 5 miles to go though, the rain was starting to feel cold, the wind was picking up and the horses were beginning to get a little discouraged. No worries about high headed horses, they all had their heads down and kept turning them from side to side trying to keep rain and drips out of their ears and eyes. I can't believe they could really see where they were going. We were lucky to hit the hills before the trails turned slick. We had to go slow and the horses did really have to work to get up some places because the mud was balling in their hooves. The last part of the trail, through the vineyards and down the road into camp was flat and easy. Lots of folks were leaving which meant our gate-getter didn't have to dismount for every single gate if we got to one when a rig was going through.
We were really lucky in our timing because we got through before the trails got too bad. We finished 1/2 hour earlier than we did the day before. But the poor folks behind us really got hit with heavier, cold rain and muddy trails.
There was water streaming through camp but the rain wasn't cold and neither was the wind. I put a fleece cooler on under Dino's regular blanket and he was happy. After warm showers, some cocoa and a chance to dry out, we (people) ate chicken tacos then tumbled into bed. It did continue to rain during the night but by morning, the sun was shining and camp had pretty much dried out.
After a delicious big breakfast, since we only had a short drive home, our group raked the entire camp to make sure there would be no criticisms of how endurance folk leave their camp. Actually, most people had done great cleaning jobs.
The Nicholsons seemed pleased with how the ride went – the camp was clean and all the cattle were where they were supposed to be. So, hopefully, the ride will happen again next year. I hope so!


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