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Derby Ditch Ride
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- Subject: Derby Ditch Ride
- From: Gardner <firstname.lastname@example.org>
- Date: Sun, 04 Apr 1999 12:07:11 -0700
Derby Ditch 1999
Phil and I had planned to go to the Derby Ditch as our first ride of the
season “come rain or come shine”. Phil’s horse, Karahta, was to have
her first ride ever and mine, Gort, my Tevis horse, would be the
Thursday I packed up and heard a weather forecast that seemed to hint at
a possible snowstorm on Saturday. Jason (our son and faithful crew
leader) and I made a few jokes about riding in the snow and continued to
organize. On Friday morning, I looked on an Internet weather page to
see what Saturday would bring. Snow was still predicted, although the
day was turning out to be sunny and breezy in Auburn. We headed over
the hill, to Fernley Nevada.
Fernley was not much different than Auburn. It was very breezy and
there were some scattered clouds but it seemed pleasant enough. We
watched the sky and hoped for the best.
The check-in went well for Karahta, the new girl. Gort was a total
JERK. Maybe it was the cold breeze, who knew? Our trot down and back
went well, although he was dancing on air on the return trip. Once in
front of the vet, he danced sideways, blew a few times and pawed the
ground with both front feet. When the vet put the stethoscope on him,
he blew up and reared high, pawing the air (his not-so-cute baby
trick). After that, he reared a few more times, pawed the ground hard
and blew more. The vet proclaimed him definitely healthy enough to go.
Meanwhile, at the other vet station, Katahta was given a clean bill of
health as well. Putting a number on Gort was a bit of a challenge but
it was accomplished and we were all set.
That night, the ride camp continued to fill up and the wind died down
for the evening. A beautiful nearly full moon rose in the dark desert
sky and we sat around a campfire enjoying the warmth and friendship.
I went to bed feeling pretty nervous about the start with Gort but with
Phil’s assurance that we would start behind the crowd until Gort could
Dawn came soon enough and the wind was light, a good sign. A big black
cloud passed over the camp bringing cold air with it at about 6:00 but
by the start at 7:00 the weather was fine again. A reported 109 horses
headed out. Phil and I held back for the start and by the time we’d
walked up the streets to the starting line the horses were calmed down
just enough for us to trot across and move briskly down the trail. Soon
we caught up with our friend, Laura, on her little horse Rabba and we
all settled into nice working trots enjoying the beautiful morning
sky. By the time we got to the 10-mile check we all agreed that it was
a fine morning to be out.
At the 10-mile check, the wind was gusting again and had a bit of a cold
snap to it. The mountains to the west seemed to be getting a white
dusting on them. Blankets were blowing off of horses and everyone was
trying to keep warm. The big black clouds were back again and off in
the distance you could see that a storm was coming our way. Everyone
was hurrying around keeping horses warm, put on more warm clothes and
catching all the stuff blowing around. As we started to re-mount
snowflakes hit us. We headed out the trail, sideways snow making the
air a pretty white contrast against the black clouds. The horses never
For the first hour or so the snow was beautiful. It was definitely
horizontal snow, so soon the horses had one white side, and one frozen
ear, and our legs were white on one side. It was a light snow though
and we joked about how neat it was to be riding in this. The wind was
picking up too. One time we heard a loud roar and Laura wondered aloud
what it could be. The wind gusting through the power lines above
sounded like a freight train. Another time a gust almost knocked Gort
over and scared him a little. In general, though, we moved on trotting
and cantering at a good pace, just slightly cold and white with snow.
In one stretch of the trail, we rode through a big tumbleweed pasture.
It was here that we had a little trouble. When the first tumbleweed
flew across the trail in front of Rabba he shied but Laura kept him
under her and on we went. We kept a lookout after that and reined in
slightly each time one blew across the trail. After we passed through
the main tumbleweed area we relaxed and went back to our usual extended
trots and gallops. Then, we were trotting alongside a railroad track
that was up on a burm above us. Suddenly, a big tumbleweed blew over
the track and shot out in front of us. Gort flew sideways and spun,
flew sideways and spun again. Off I went and as soon as I hit the
ground I heard another thud, Laura got dumped too. Gort and Rabba took
off galloping across the desert with Phil and Karahta close behind.
Luckily Gort came back to Karahta and Rabba came too when Laura whistled
for him. Soon we were on again, slightly banged up but not seriously
It was getting windier and colder by the time we were out about an hour
and a half. The snow was coming down harder and we were riding into it
now. It wasn’t as much fun now. I had trouble seeing the trail because
the snow was blowing into my eyes. I put on my glasses but they kept
icing up. It was better though than taking the snow directly into the
eyeball. Dust came with the snow and got to my eyes despite the
glasses, and soon my eyes felt like sandpaper was rubbing on them. As
the snow got deeper and deeper we moved faster. You couldn’t look up at
all. I rode with my eyes closed for awhile. Occasionally you’d feel a
big snow-mud ball slam into you as the horse ahead threw it out of its
shoe. When I was able to look up, I discovered that the ribbons were
disappearing, as were the hoofprints before us. I worried that we’d be
lost. The snow was blowing so hard that you couldn’t see more than 10
feet in front of you. It was icy now too. The horses trotted along,
willingly. How we were going to find our way to the lunch stop I didn’t
know. All I knew was to keep moving and trying to find ribbons. Every
once in a while we’d find one pink ribbon and know we weren't lost.
The feeling was so comforting.
We came upon some other riders who had a junior rider with them. They
seemed as alarmed as I felt. How far was it to the check?, they wanted
to know. We had no idea how far, or where it was. We all kept
together. After that, two more riders came in from a side trail.
They’d been looking for the way. We might have had more riders with us
as well. I couldn’t turn my head, see very well or hear anything. Gort
and I blazed on with the crowd. Karahta, the young girl on her first
ride was a willing as ever. I was so proud of all the horses.
After what seemed like forever, there was a power plant in sight. Phil
thought that we should go down by it because he remembered being there
before. The snow had obliterated the ribbons by now so we just went
cross-country. We headed toward the plant and then in the distance
there was a gas station. We decided to go there, get out of the wind,
and ask someone where the check was. Once at the gas station, we found
out that the camp was across the street. We couldn’t see that far, but
headed over there. Sure enough, other horses and people were there. By
this time our faces were frozen with ice, and our gloves were solid as
well. We looked for our crews but couldn’t find them. Horses were
huddled with blankets, 20 or 30 in a group. Everyone looked cold and
wet. We found a place next to a building where we could get the horses
out of the wind. Phil found some hay. Minutes seemed like hours as we
wondered where our crews could possibly be. Finally, Phil spotted one of
our people and it turned out that they were just on the other side of
the building all along and couldn’t see us either. We finally had
blankets for the horses. Everyone started organizing. How to get the
rigs. More blankets and hot drinks.
I called Cal Trans from the casino and found that I80 over Donner Pass
was closed due to wrecks and to white-out conditions. How we’d get
home, we had no idea. We continued to organize, the rigs arrived, we
ate, broke camp. Everyone was still cold and the wind sent chills
through us. The horses seemed fine though which we all agreed was the
most important thing. We never saw a ride official to tell them we were
leaving. Someone said that the ride was canceled. We’d assumed that.
Someone else said that one horse actually made it to the finish line. We
headed west, calling Cal Trans once in awhile and finally they said that
the pass was open, with no chain requirements. We headed home and made
it just fine. The horses settled in their pastures seemed undaunted by
the whole thing. Home had never looked so good.
This was the 29th Derby Ditch ride. I had ridden the first one, and
many Nevada rides since so I had thought that I had seen every kind of
Nevada weather before. This was not the first time that I had ridden in
an unexpected Nevada snowstorm, but I have never encountered anything
like this before. At first it was fun to be ridding in the storm. The
tumble weeds were a challenge, and after finding that no one was
injured, it was a riot to see both of your riding partners getting
dumped simultaneously. As the force of the storm increased there are
three things that are difficult to convey. One was the force of the
wind. It is difficult to estimate, but I would say that we are talking
about winds of at least 60 mph, driving heavy snow. When we topped a
ridge, the horses had difficulty standing up against its force. The
sound of it in the power lines was awesome. The second was the stinging
of the snow on exposed skin. I have a full beard, and still experienced
extreme discomfort in the small amount of exposed skin on my face, and
wondered what it must feel like to those who didn't have a beard. I
also wondered what it must feel like to the horses eyes as they had no
protection at all. Their eye lashes were encrusted with ice. The third
was the willingness of the horses to go into the storm. Usually a horse
will turn tail to a storm and refuse to go into it. All horses in our
group willingly trotted into the full force of the storm. It seemed as
if they understood the urgancy of getting into the camp as soon as
possilbe. Every time we came to a turn, the ribbons turned us more into
the full force of the wind. Needless to say it was difficult going for
the horses. I was riding along thinking how much it would hurt to fall
when I was this cold. All of my clothes were starteing to freeze and I
was beginning to worry about frostbite. Just then, the horse ahead of
me slipped on snow and fell. The rider lay there for an agonizingly
long time before starting to move. I caught her horse and she remounted
and we went on. Then I really realized that this had turned from a fun
adventure of ridding in a storm to a potently life threating situation.
I carried a GPS unit and we rode 33.7 miles. We rode near the back of
the pack and we averaged 7.2 MPH.
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