By Laura Crum
As those of you who read this blog know, my son’s horse, Henry, has been slowly recovering from colic surgery. He’s back to being a riding horse again, and my son can walk, trot, lope him in the arena. But I’m going to wait a few more weeks before I ask him to climb any steep hills. So this means that when I go out on a trail ride these days, I go solo.
Fortunately, my trail horse, Sunny, goes as well by himself as with other horses, and I feel confident on him. So I don’t mind being up in the hills by myself. Yes, I occasionally remember that several pastured horses have been jumped by cougars very near here, and I get a funny feeling when I meet a stout guy carrying a machete, but overall, I’m fine. But then there are those days...
Like Saturday. It had rained most of last week, and then we had a couple of days of sun. I was keen to go for a ride, but wondered if the trails would be dry enough. Some parts can be pretty slippery when its wet, and I am not a fan of slithering down steep hills. OK, I’m a chicken. I thought I’d go for a trail ride anyway; I just planned to take the ridge trail, which though steep, is sandy and never slippery.
I saddle Sunny, who hasn’t been ridden in a week (just the way my life is going these days), and head on out. In order to get to the trails, I have to cross a very busy road, upon which the traffic zooms by at 55 miles an hour. Sunny is good about standing absolutely still on the shoulder with vehicles zipping past his nose, while I peer at the nearby blind corner, waiting for a break in the traffic. However, to get to the ridge trail, I have to cross this street and enter a narrow bridge that leads to a church parking lot. To my chagrin, the church appeared to be having some sort of event. The parking lot was full of cars, and worse yet, the bridge was ornamented with a bunch of balloons that were blowing wildly in the stiff breeze. Just great.
I contemplated the ballons. If Sunny chose to spook at them, he would be spooking right out into the traffic, which could be lethal. I decided it wasn’t worth the risk. I rode Sunny back across the field, crossed the road, and took a narrow trail through the forest. It was damp under the trees, and I wasn’t sure how slippery the trail would be. I paused at the foot of the first steep climb, surveying the ground. Shoot, I thought. Do I really want to do this? Maybe its not such a good idea.
Sunny felt my hesitation, and when I asked him to step forward he balked. Not such a good idea, boss, I could hear him saying. Why don’t we go home.
That did it. I kicked him firmly and we scrambled up the steep hill. To my relief, it wasn’t slippery. The forest trail was overgrown and full of trees that had fallen in the recent storms. We picked our way through it all successfully, but I will admit, I wasn’t having fun. My idea of fun is a pleasant stroll on an easy trail in the sunshine. Not bushwhacking through brambles and downed timber in the drippy shade.
But OK, we make it over the first ridge and are strolling along sandy trails in the sunshine. Now I’m having fun. Sunny packs me along, reliably calm and confident, not needing me to babysit him, steady in himself. I direct him; he does the rest. This is why I own him, I remember. He’s a clunky mover and not very well broke, but he has that invaluable attribute of being “solid-minded” (I’m quoting Janet here—she gave me that phrase in an email).
I go up a nice trail, and then decide to avoid a hillside I know will be slippery. I choose a route that leads toward home and is an easy trail. As I go along I notice that there are no fresh horse footprints on this trail. Not one. This gives me pause. But I continue along, figuring I will just see what’s what. I am nearly home when I find out what’s what. There is much tree fall on this trail, too. I can step over or go around most of it. But eventually I come to a tree that bridges the trail just above chest high. Too high to go over (for us) too low to go under. The way around is blocked by fallen timber on both sides. Hmmm…This just isn’t my day, I think. I retrace my steps to the top of the ridge (takes half an hour) and start down the ridge trail, my original choice. I figure that the parking lot should be empty by now. I’ve been gone two hours.
Wrong. I come down the ridge trail quite successfully, but as I make my way through the small woods behind the church, not only do I see that the parking lot is still full of cars, but my way is directly blocked by a large bouncy house full of screaming kids. I stop. Well, drat.
At this point I’m really sure that this isn’t my day. But I also figure I can get Sunny by both the bouncy house, the crowd, and the balloons on the bridge, partly because of who Sunny is and partly because all these things are between us and home. Sunny is not barn sour and walks calmly on the way back, however, like all horses, he’s quite aware of home and has a much brisker pace coming back than going out. If he spooks at the balloons, I think, well, he’ll be spooking back towards the parking lot rather than out into the street, and I can handle that.
OK, then. I put my gaze straight ahead, on the trail, and I send Sunny forward. He marches along, glad to be headed home. We stride right past the bouncy house. Neither of us gives it a glance. The kids inside are so absorbed in bouncing, they don’t even notice that a yellow horse has passed by. We cross the crowded parking lot, ignoring all and sundry. We approach the bridge and Sunny sees the ballons, still blowing wildly in the breeze. He gives them a look.
They’re just balloons, I tell him. I’m sure you’ve seen balloons before. That’s the way home.
Sunny doesn’t understand my words, of course, but he gets the message. He walks steadily up to the balloons, though he keeps watching them closely. Now for the tricky part. I have to park him right next to the bouncing, leaping balloons and wait for a break in the traffic. I need to be right next to them in order to see.
Crossing my fingers that an unexpected gust doesn’t send the balloons right into Sunny’s face, I wait. And wait. At least three times I start to send Sunny forward, only to see a car appear around the blind corner. I stop him and back him up. Sunny remains calm. He does not prance. He backs up over and over again, as I need him to, and stands quietly, right next to the balloons as the traffic whizzes by. I am feeling a little frazzled at this point, but Sunny is fine.
Eventually I get a spot to cross. I trot Sunny across the road (if you walk across this road, a car will be upon you before you get to the other side). Sunny marches happily up the short culdesac that leads to my front gate. I am relaxed. We have made it through a ride with some adversity and done well. I am not paying attention much, and when Sunny spooks it catches me off guard. I am used to spooks, however, and am not rattled. What does rattle me is the fact that Sunny is spooking at my neighbor’s car, which is pulling out around the corner of her driveway at a brisk clip, headed right for me.
The neighbor is paying no more attention than I was. She doesn’t see me. I kick Sunny in the direction he was spooking in and we go sideways fast. The neighbor sees me and screeches to a stop. We both apologize for not paying attention.
All right. That’s it, I think. The next time I start out on a trail ride and get the heebie jeebies, I’m staying home. I pat Sunny’s neck as we walk up our driveway. Thanks, I tell him.
And I know why Sunny is my horse. For all his faults, he is the thing I need. A solid-minded horse.