Wednesday, August 11, 2010

On The Trail Again

by Laura Crum

My son and I took our first trail ride since our month long vacation exactly one week after we returned home. We rode our two horses, Henry and Sunny, three or four times at home and at the local roping arena to be sure they were going good, and then set out one foggy morning to ride a one and a half hour loop near our place. I have to admit that these cool (60 degrees), gray, foggy days we get quite often here in coastal California in the summer, are not my favorite weather. But it is excellent weather from a trail horse’s point of view. Henry and Sunny executed the whole ride (including several steep climbs) without even cracking a sweat, despite their thirty days of layoff.

As we left through our front gate, I was visited with the sort of anxious nerves I often feel when I set out on a ride with my son. Because when we ride from home the first thing we have to do is cross a busy road upon which the cars zip by at fifty miles an hour. And I hate this part of the trip.

Our horses are not afraid of the traffic—this is one of the reasons I chose the two of them. Both will stand by the road perfectly still, solid as rocks, as the traffic goes whizzing by and I wait and wait for a gap in which to cross. This can take five minutes (literally). Doesn’t matter if busses, logging trucks, motorcycles or bicycles swish by, just a mere couple of feet from their muzzles. Henry and Sunny are unperturbed. They stand, calmly waiting. My son chatters happily. I, on the other hand, am an emotional wreck.

Oh, I try to hide it, but inside my nerves are seething. I hate, hate, hate, having to stand in such proximity to the deadly traffic….with my young son. When I do this solo, I am much calmer. But my son loves to ride and I believe (I think I believe) that I can keep the risk within reason.

But still…what if a bee stung a horse, what if the neighbor’s goat leaps out of the brush with a loud “baaa”. The horses are not afraid of the traffic—that’s one of the reasons they stand so quietly. And, conversely, they would never comprehend how deadly spooking into the road would be. Me, I comprehend it. The cars are going too fast to stop easily. So, I worry.

But (knocking on wood), we wait patiently for a gap and cross safely—neither horse turns a hair—as it has always been. We scoot through the back parking lot of a neighborhood church and strike the ridge trail, which ascends steeply, with many big step ups. Both horses handle it well, and my son and I gaze out to the west, where vistas of the Monterey Bay open up, strung with grey wraiths of fog, this particular August morning.

The ridge trail follows the spine of the ridgeline—it’s a very pretty trail, with wooded slopes and views of the mountains on both sides. We follow it for a mile or so and take a branch trail to the Lookout—a bluff that overlooks the whole Monterey Bay. There we let the horses rest and just take in the sights. Sunny and Henry cock a leg and practically go to sleep; they’re that relaxed. Both seem mighty comfortable at being returned to their job as trail horses.

The rest of the ride is equally uneventful—in the best kind of way. Both horses are calm and willing—they seem happy to be there. Ears up, walking out steadily. Sunny and I get along well, as we have for quite awhile now. Henry is his usual self—the ultimate trooper. My son whistles and sings little snatches of songs—we comment on the small local landmarks as we ride by certain tree snags and windy meadows. We are able to enjoy the scenery and each other because we are not having to “cope” with our horses. Our horses are taking care of themselves.

When we near home we make one more successful crossing of the road and head back up the hill to our front gate. I pat Sunny’s neck and tell him what a good horse he is and my heart is full of gratitude. I feel this way every ride. I am so grateful to these two horses, that some would call plugs, for their steady, reliable ways on the trail that have given my son and I so many hours of unworried pleasure (the road is my only worried moment on most of these rides). I would not swap these horses for any high powered critters of any sort, no matter what their talents. Nothing (horsewise) is a greater pleasure to me than cruising down the trails enjoying the natural world, my son, and our horses in such a peaceful, relaxed way. I promise the horses silently (and I mean it) that I will take care of them until their end—that I will give back to them for what they have given to me.

And then we are home, the front gate shut behind us, horses unsaddled and grazing on the “horse lawn” (grass I water to keep it green in the dry California summer—so the horses have a patch to graze on). My son is happy, swinging in his swing that hangs from a liveoak in the barnyard. I am happy, watching the horses graze. The horses look very happy, too. I think we all (horses included) are basking in the feeling of another pleasant ride accomplished.

I think idly about how much I wish I did not have to cross the road in order to ride our local trails, but I can think of no logical solution. That road looms in my mind sometimes like a huge river, and there are days when the emotional effort of crossing it is just too much for me, and I elect to ride at home in my riding ring instead. Since I would infinitely rather trail ride than ride in a ring (so would my horse) you can see that the road really is a big issue in my mind.

So that’s my story/topic for today. Do some of you have similar issues that bug you when it comes to trail riding? Or pursuing any horse event you love? That road torments me—I admit it. I cross it a lot, and I will do so again, but it is a real thorn in my side. Anybody have any thoughts?


Funder said...

Why not dismount and walk them across the road?

The second trail ride I had on my beloved Champ - about the fifth ride I ever had on a horse - we ended up stuck in the median and he almost backed into the highway, in front of a semi. I have never, before or since, been so close to death. (For the record, it was, of course, rider error.) I spent 6 months hand walking him across the much less busy road at the barn entrance, and I have never been really comfortable crossing roads since.

I can only imagine how much more terrifying it is to be responsible for your son too. You're so careful and so brave, and one day your son will look back and realize this.

Shanster said...

Oh man, my stomach is practically up-chucking reading that. I would really, really, really, really hate that. (and I can't put enough really's in that sentence)

I don't think I have anything other than my own nerves to conquer when I get up on my horses. That seems to be my biggest obstacle! My own brain bugs.... damn them!

lopinon4 said...

I'm assuming, as well, that there must be a reason to not walk them across and mount again on the other side.

Looking back to when I got my first horse at age 12, and how much road-riding I did with no helmet, no saddle, no REAL control of my horse...I'm lucky to be alive. The other thing I really had none of, was FEAR. I wasn't afraid because I didn't recognize the possible danger. I didn't want to ride around the barn, so we rode down the road. Back then, in my area, a good broke horse was a traffic safe horse. Everyone did it. I rode on little roads, small highways, busy large highways, EVERY where a road would take me. Not one small accident. Not even a close call. I never thought to thank my childhood naughty pony cross for taking such great care of me. I regret that to this day.

Now that I'm middle aged, I get off and walk them across, and it's to get to a trail. You won't find me on the road.

Laura Crum said...

Funder and lopinon4--This may sound odd, but I feel safer on the horses than leading them. For one thing, I have my son on the pony rope when we cross the road (every single time), and given our two horses' personalities, and how comfortable my son is in the saddle, I feel more in control of the situation than I would if I was having to control both horses from the ground. My son is not particularly effectively in control when it comes to leading Henry, he is much more in charge on his back. There is no question, however, that if we were leading the horses and one spooked out into traffic, then we would not be on them. Of course, my goal is to keep us all, horses included, safe. So, yeah, I feel more in charge of the situation on the horses than I would on the ground. Including if a bee stung them or they spooked. I am going to have a better chance of keeping things together from their backs.

I have to admit, this is just my MO in general. I have read blogs in which some experienced riders bail off to lead when their horse gets scared or when crossing a creek or some such thing. I virtually never do this. I ride them past what they are scared of, across the muddy creek, whatever. I always feel more in charge when I'm on the horse than trying to control him from the ground. I can only think of one single time in my life that I ever got off and led, and it was for a very specific reason--I felt the horse needed me to show him a lead over an extremely high and spooky bridge that he had never crossed (neither had any horse in the group, and we were the lead animal--leading worked in that situation--all four horses walked across the bridge behind me). In every other situation I have ever faced on the trail, I rode the horse through it, and again, its not some sort of a pride thing, I just feel like I can do a better job of staying in charge that way. On one ride, climbing a steep, tricky bit of rock, I rode and another guy got off and led his horse. By riding, I was able to keep my horse right in the crack where he needed to be and we did fine. The led horse drifted out of the crack and slipped and fell, badly damaging himself. And yeah, the guy was fine as he wasn't on the horse. So I guess you can look at it both ways.

Anyway, I get your point that leading would in some ways be safer.

lopinon4--I don't ride along this road at all. That would be too dangerous in my book. I approach it from an open field and cross it in a direct line. I am never on the shoulder except when I'm waiting to cross and if something did happen to scare the horses, I hope/expect that I will be able to direct them back into the field (which I probably could do--God willing and the creek don't rise). This is why I consider it an acceptable risk. Given that the horses are completely calm about traffic, which they are. I would not consider it an acceptable risk to ride along the shoulder of the road--that's a very good point. So, no, I wouldn't ride down the road.

As I stated in the post, part of the reason I bought Henry and Sunny is because they are so solid and reliable about the many things (including the road) that trail riding involves. I made the decision that I could not use my horse Plumber for this partly because He would not stand perfectly still as we waited to cross, but danced anxiously. It didn't seem like an acceptable risk to me.

And Shanster--I can scare myself, too--the road seems to be the particular bogey I'm using right now.

Laura Crum said...

funder and lopinon4--I kept thinking about your comments and wondering why in the world I don't feel we'd be safer on the ground. The reasons I gave are quite true, but I still wondered why my first reaction was "oh no, that would be twice as scary." So I imagined how I'd feel if I were standing on the shoulder with the two horses on leadropes waiting to cross. Other than the already mentioned fact that I wouldn't be in as much control of the situation, the other two things that came up are that I couldn't see as well down the road--and that is crucial to a safe crossing--and we always cross at the trot, because if you cross at the walk traffic is likely to be bearing down on you by the time you reach the center line. And crossing at the trot would be much harder on foot. Anyhow, certainly you have a good and logical point. Most people would probably feel safer on foot. It kind of reminds me of a well known horse blogger who commented that she always jumped off the horse when she felt the least bit nervous. My first reaction was "not me--I'd feel even more nervous trying to cope with a scared horse while I was on foot." I guess it all depends on your background and the horse you ride.

Funder said...

If staying mounted is your comfort level, stick with it! For most hairy situations, I'd rather ride it out as well. My not very broke horse is hard to remount once she gets spazzed out about something, so I ride out a lot of spooky behavior. You have good reasons to stay on, reasons that make you calmer and more comfortable than getting off.

Joy said...

I can sooo relate to this. The day my son was born, I looked into his eyes and I realized that here was my kryptonite. There is nothing, no one thing, I would not do to keep him safe. Unspeakable things I would do for him.

This feeling was not easy for me. I don't like to be needed. I am probably not a natural mother, even though I ached to be with my son when I couldn't be.

Now, 20 years later (almost 21), I'm horribly sorry to tell you that it does not get any easier. It's not just, "let them go, out of the nest they fly". It's more difficult because here is this "adult" with some really strange thought processes. and Oh wow, does it suck.

I think you've gone over all the options. You've chosen your mounts carefully and wisely. You wait at the street crossing carefully and you do your best as a mama (bear) and you go forward.

Keep being alert. Watch for those cars. Keep him on the lead rope and trust your gut at all times. My gut literally saved my son's life when he was five. The story would raise the hair on your neck and arms.

I think god (or whatever) must take some pity on us. Maybe it's Mary, but whatever. I think sometimes we get an extra sense of .... things. An extra eye. And I always trust this "feeling" (but it's not a feeling, ya know?)

Kids. They are the ones that bring us tough and wise women to our knees, and easily.

Just be careful. Listen to that little voice (I call them my people. They talk to me from my right shoulder. I swear I'm not crazy.)

Hugs, white light and many oxoxox's to you and yours.

Laura Crum said...

Funder and Joy--Thanks for the support. It helps.

And Joy, I hear you. I don't expect it to get easier. I feel exactly as you do. It doesn't help at all that a little boy we knew and loved was killed in a freak accident almost two years ago. He was the only son of an older mom and a magical kid. My vigilance (always high) got ratcheted up about one thousand per cent. And yet I don't want to be the person who gives up horseback riding with my son, when we've had so many magical experiences. What will be next? I refuse to drive down the highway with him because we might get into a wreck? I, too, hear those voices and I pay attention (not so much voices but guides, anyway). I listen to my gut. If I don't feel like riding on a given day, we don't ride. It still isn't easy. I feel for you with the issues that must come with an adult son. Even at nine years I am getting a taste of how much he is becoming his own person. It is exciting and nervewracking. I do not get to choose who he will be--though I guess I can hope that the choices I've made might have some influence. Thanks again for your comment. I always enjoy hearing your insights.

Susan said...

I hear you, cars and horses don't mix. There was a time when the only place I could ride for any length of time was along a road and I had more than one scary experience.

I think you're doing everything right, but maybe visualizing crossing the road safely and affirming it to yourself could help your peace of mind. There's no reason you can't cross the road safely each and every time.

Laura Crum said...

Thank you, Susan. That is a wonderful point. As soon as I read it I realized how true it was/is. I will keeep the visualization of a safe, peaceful crossing in my mind and realize that it CAN happen every time. Thanks again.

Francesca Prescott said...

Laura: I know EXACTLY how you feel. I also understand why you don't dismount as I also usually feel more in control on a horse than off. Although it seriously depends which horse I'm on!

I recognise that gut twisting feeling because I still get it occasionally when my daughter goes off on a hack, even though she's 18 years old and a great rider, and doesn't need to cross a busy road. It's just our maternal instincts kicking in.

All will be well. We just need to believe :)

Laura Crum said...

Francesca--Just got back from a pleasant peaceful ride with my son. Sometimes my nerves are fine, ya know? And then other times I go into that worry space. Who knows how it all works...not me, that's for sure. But I find it very reassuring to trade insights with other "horse moms". Thanks for the comment.

kippen64 said...

I can understand you fear. My fear would also be of vehicles diverting off the road and into the horses. My personal fear of traffic is so great that I could never do what you do. Being hit by a car hurts.

Laura Crum said...

kippen64--You know, I never thought about a car coming off the road toward the horses, but its clearly possible. Yikes! Something new to worry about (!)