by Laura Crum
The other day we went for a trail ride and had an interesting experience. I thought it was interesting on many levels and wanted to talk about it here and see if anyone had any thoughts. Because at times I think I’m learning to be smarter and other times I think I’m just becoming a huge chicken.
So we’re riding down a trail that we haven’t ridden since the big winter storms-- myself, my son, and our friend Wally, all on our very reliable trail horses. There are muddy places, which we cross no problem, and downed trees, which we are able to get around. We’re doing fine. Neither horses nor people are the least bit worried. It’s a pretty, sunny day—we’re having a blast.
And then we come to another downed tree. This one is big—a redwood tree. I’m in the lead and I approach the tree at its lowest point, where the trunk is about two and a half feet in diameter. On one side of this spot is a steep bank going downhill. On the other side of the trail is an equally steep bank going uphill. We will not be able to detour around this tree. Its climb over it here, or turn back.
I study the tree. Its not undoable. All of our horses could step/scramble over or pop over it like a small jump. I have done such things with Sunny before and he’s fine with it (the only thing Sunny has ever balked at on the trail is small, weird looking bridges). He doesn’t mind popping over downed trees. But the times I’ve done this in the past, the trunk was smooth and it was clear horses went over it regularly. This trunk is not smooth. There are several short, sticking up branches right where we must cross. Its unclear to me if any horse has ever been over this. I see no hoofprints, just hiker’s bootprints.
Sunny stares at the tree trunk calmly; I’m pretty sure he’ll try it if I ask him to. But I’m not sure if I should ask. I don’t like the look of the short, sharp, upward thrusting branch stubs, which seem pretty solid. I ask Wally to come have a look and say what he thinks.
I get out of the way and Wally rides up and surveys the tree. We can get over it, he tells me. Twister is brave; he’ll do it.
I still feel doubtful, but I tell Wally to go ahead and try it if he wants.
Twister is looking at the tree calmly, just like Sunny did. Wally clucks to him and asks him to go forward. Twister continues to be calm; he looks more closely at the tree, but he does not go forward. Wally asks again, same result.
Wally looks at me. “He doesn’t want to,” he says in a surprised tone.
I know why Wally is surprised. Twister IS a brave horse. If ever Sunny balks, like at the small, weird bridges, Twister will unhesitatingly give a lead. Both Sunny and Twister will cross mud, deep water, breaking surf, busy roads, steep spots…etc without a flinch. They are both willing to jump over things. They are not drama queens. They are smart, steady, reliable trail horses.
I have the sense that Twister will go over the tree if its demanded of him. But he doesn’t want to.
I look back at Wally. “Maybe we ought to let his decision stand,” I say. “It wouldn’t be worth it if any of us got hurt.”
And to my surprise, Wally agrees. “You’re right,” he says. And turns Twister back from the tree.
We retrace our steps, take another trail, and have a pleasant ride, though shorter than the one we intended. And I wonder if we have become wiser in our old age, or just more chicken hearted.
Before I took a ten year break to have and raise a child, I was a pretty intrepid rider. I would have sent my horse right over that tree. Wally has been all his life one of the boldest riders I know. He never turned back from anything. I insist on leading on trail rides because I have so often had the experience of Wally leading me into some steep, tricky spot where I don’t at all want to be as he calls back to me happily, “Come on, its fine.”
And yet neither one of us were willing to try the tree.
Perhaps we are just realistic. Wally is 77 years old. The last two times he came off he got pretty badly hurt. I am stout and middle-aged, not the good rider I used to be. My son is confident, with a good seat, but he is a gentle, sensitive kid, and not an aggressive rider. He could easily be intimidated for life if he had a bad wreck. Our little horses are steady and reliable but they are all middle aged or older. We value them highly and would be very sad if we had to lay them up due to injury. It truly isn’t worth it to us as a group to take unnecessary risks.
And is part of the equation the fact that we have learned to trust our horses more? As I said, they are not drama queens. They are good horses. Neither Twister nor Sunny danced around or made a fuss about the downed tree. They did not back away from it. They just quietly indicated that they didn’t want to try to clamber over it. In my youth I would have been sure I knew more than the horse. I would have insisted that he listen to me and do what I told him. Now I am more willing to respect my solid horse’s judgment. I am willing to listen to him.
And yet…I look at Francesca on her prancing black stallion, and I read the accounts of more ambitious/adventurous others in the comments and on your blogs, and I sometimes wonder at myself. I used to be a pretty good rider and trainer. And here I am, meandering down the trail on my gentle horse, afraid to pop over a downed tree.
I’m having fun, I love my horses and my life with them, I don’t feel the need to do more. I really, really don’t want to get hurt or get my kid hurt. Or get any of our horses hurt. But in a way I’m kind of embarrassed.
And then I read a blog post by someone who has been badly hurt and/or scared in a horsewreck, and I see how deeply this impacts their whole life and how it takes away the joy, not only in horses, but everywhere—because they are in both physical and emotional pain. Not only can they not ride—they sometimes are having a hard time walking and doing the basic stuff of everyday life. And when I read this I not only feel deeply sad for the person, I feel incredibly grateful that I am not in their shoes. And I tell myself I’m making the right choices. And that my number one priority is not to get any of us hurt or scared—horses or people.
Do others of you struggle with this conundrum? I do my best not to get sucked into guilt or envy, as I’ve written about before, but there are moments when I question my own choice to have become such a sedate rider—as I said, I’m having fun meandering down the trail on my gentle horse. And that about covers it. Sometimes I think I’m really getting older and wiser, and sometimes I think I’ve just become a big chicken. Any insights on this?
PS—I wrote this post last week. Over the weekend we took another trail ride. Its been raining a lot here and the ground is much wetter than it usually is this time of year. The trail we chose has a steep climb halfway along and when we got there it was much muddier than I expected—and very slippery. We started up the lower slope and all three horses were slipping and sliding. I pulled Sunny up and said, “I don’t want to do this.”
This time Wally pushed a little to keep going, but I held firm. “Its not worth it if one of them slips and goes down.” And, in fact, Twister had already scrambled enough to have stepped on a front shoe and bent it.
So we went back, and once again had a shorter ride, and I got teased about being overly cautious.
And then yesterday it was raining again, and I was sitting at my desk supposedly working on my copy-edited manuscript, but in reality taking plenty of breaks to read horse blogs. And I stumbled upon two photos—a woman more or less my age and a little girl more or less my son’s age—both had been very recently killed in horse wrecks. The photos were beautiful—two happy smiling faces, posing with their obviously much loved horses. The two stories were completely unrelated, and there was little information, but both seemed to have been competent horse people who simply had misfortune. The woman was riding a new horse, the little girl was on her way from the barn to the arena at a rodeo when her horse slipped and fell with her, landing on her in just the wrong way.
I thought of those people and the people who loved them and my heart just ached. I woke up in the middle of the night thinking about them. I thanked God I had been scared to ride up the slick hill. I thought of how my husband, who doesn’t care much for horses, would feel if my son or I were badly hurt or killed in a horse wreck. I thought how I would feel if something happened to my son. Am I just being selfish, pursuing this obviously very dangerous activity with my kid?
So there you have the flip side of the coin. One moment I think I’m not doing enough and I’ve become a big chicken, the next moment I’m wondering if we ought to ride at all. These horse blogs make feel connected to so many people, and their triumphs and tragedies, for better or worse.
It’s a tangle. Any thoughts?