By Laura Crum
My son and I took a long trail ride yesterday afternoon. Well, a three hour trail ride. That’s a long trail ride for me these days. About halfway through, my son exclaimed blithely, “I could go on exploring forever. I love long rides.” Now, I, who knew we had the whole way home to cover, was a little less enthusiastic. I thought we’d better start back.
We were exploring, riding along the ridge on an old dirt road that I haven’t ridden in fifteen years. Neither my son or our two trail horses had ever been this way. When I last rode here I was on Gunner, who has been retired for the past ten years. Some of what I saw I vaguely remembered; some of it had changed—there was no gate where there used to be one, there was, however, a house where no house had previously been. So I was exploring, too.
My little boy was bright-eyed and happy, glad to be seeing new territory. His horse, Henry, trooped along reliably, as usual. Sunny, my little bombproof trail horse, was just as calm. The wind blew in gusts, causing lots of bright gold leaves to whirl around us, sparkling in the long slant of the sunlight in a very fall-like way. We came to a large tarped pile of firewood by the side of the old roadbed. Both horses eyed it cautiously but marched steadily on. Just as we were passing it, a flock of quail erupted from behind it, wings drumming in that loud whir so typical of ground birds taking off. I grabbed for the saddle horn automatically as the little feathered bombs flew around us, fully expecting my horse to spook. Heck, I had spooked. Why wouldn’t he? At the same time my eyes shot to my son, checking to see that he stayed aboard.
To my surprise, though both horses looked at the quail, ears sharply forward, neither spooked. They didn’t even flinch, let alone untrack their feet. My son was unperturbed. All three of my companions seemed quite relaxed. Just quail, their respective demeanors indicated. We’ve seen quail before. Sheepishly I relinquished my grip on the horn. Clearly I was the only spooky one in this crowd.
In my own defense, Gunner, my previous mount on this route, would have felt obliged to produce a good ten feet sideways sudden leap at the quail, even if he wasn’t really scared. He would then have regarded them with wide eyes and marched calmly on when I kicked him. Gunner was very predictable. My horn-grabbing reflex became deeply ingrained during the ten years in which Gunner was my main mount. And Sunny is not above spooking, he just doesn’t do it very often. As I’ve described before, I bought Sunny because he is such a reliable trail horse.
So on we rode, exploring new territory, all of us having a good time. As always, Sunny and Henry walked with their ears up, looking at everything. I remain mildly surprised by this. As alert as these horses are, I tend to expect them to be more jumpy. Unlike a “pluggy” horse, who plods with his ears at half mast, both Sunny and Henry march along, ears forward, bright-eyed, taking everything in. But as the quail behind the tarp incident demonstrated, Henry and Sunny’s alertness does not lead to spooking. This was/is a lesson for me.
Eventually we headed back. The road was level and I asked my son if he wanted to trot or lope. As my kid loves nothing better than loping in the arena, I fully expected him to say yes. But instead he shrugged. “We can if you want,” he said. So we trotted awhile.
“This is fun,” he said, “but I’d rather walk.”
“Really,” I said, pulling up. “How come?”
“You can see more,” he answered.
This surprised me. It’s the reason I walk on the trail mostly. I’m not above loping up a gentle hill. It is fun. But I love to look at things, and you don’t see much at the lope. Still, the answer surprised me, coming from a nine-year-old.
So we walked, looking at things large and small. The huge burned out stumps of first growth redwoods, a tiny garter snake crossing the road in front of us. Some deer in the sun dappled woods beside the trail. We talked about the local geography, and what paved road reached the top of the ridge we had just ridden to, and where the creek in the gully flowed to. We observed the “horsetail plant”, which has been growing since the time of the dinosaurs. And so the way home passed quickly. Though by the time we were back I was pretty stiff. My kid was just fine.
And I realized that I am exploring in more than one way. I’m exploring what I want to do with horses now. I’m no longer competing or training (not to speak of—I don’t count occasional rides on five-year-old Smoky, who is a very gentle, easy-going young horse). I’m mostly enjoying the local trails and helping my kid to enjoy riding his horse. As someone wrote to me (I think it was Kate), we have different stages in our horse lives, and I’m now in a very different place than I was fifteen years ago when I rode Gunner down this old roadbed. Then I was competing at team roping every weekend, and practicing roping two days a week. My trail rides were just to give my horse a break from all that work. Now trail riding is my main event. At times I feel very sedate and middle-aged; at other times I look at my son’s smiling face and think that this is the best horse event of all. I sometimes feel guilty that I’m only riding a couple of days a week on average. But the horses don’t seem to mind and we’re all having fun. What more can you ask?
I often ponder where I’m at with the horses now, in part because I’m the type to ponder things and in part because reading various horse blogs over the past year has made me think a lot about the different places other people are at with their horses. I’ve tried to cut back on reading blogs—my computer is old and slow, and perusing blogs was taking an inordinate amount of my time. But I still can’t resist sometimes. Its a big equine world out there with all sorts of people in it. I’m always interested in what others are doing and where they’re at with their horses.
Fanny wrote me recently sending me photos of herself and her horse on trail rides through the Canadian Rockies, where she lives. They were beautiful photos and I felt nostalgic for the days when I took many pack trips through the Sierra Nevada Mountains of California every summer (the basis for my fifth book, Slickrock). But those trips are over ten years behind me. Last summer I took my son on a short pack trip to the lake where I lived for three months with my dog when I was twenty-two. It was quite a journey down memory lane, though only a two hour ride down the trail.
So, does anyone else have any thoughts you want to share on how your horse pursuits have changed and whether this is working for you? I’d enjoy hearing your insights.