by Laura Crum
Trail rides have the inevitable potential for drama. The “outside” world is full of unexpected surprises. I always hope to be spared any excitement; I make the best choices I can to guide us on pleasant strolls through the hills and woods. And-the truth is we’ve had some very peaceful, uneventful trail rides lately. That’s what I shoot for—adventureless trail rides. I love riding through the autumn woods—unworried and relaxed, enjoying the sights and sounds and the smile on my child’s face. But I have to admit, recounting these rides doesn’t make for a very exciting post, as opposed to telling of adventures, disasters and tragedies.
(My son on Henry—sorry for the blurry photo—I have a hard time taking clear pictures from the back of my own horse.)
This last weekend we went on a lovely ride through the hills, and had lunch at the top of the ridge. Every step of the way our horses were perfect gentlemen, despite having had at least a week off. Their calm, relaxed frame of mind kept them from cracking much of a sweat, though the day was warm and they are getting their winter coats. Just a little damp behind the ears after our two hour ride up the ridge. Another wonderful expedition on our good horses, for which I am so grateful. Memorable only for how very nice it all was. No drama. Lousy blog post.
(Here we are on a peaceful autumn trail ride—this photo was taken by my husband, who was hiking along with our dogs.)
Am I the only one who scans those lists of recently posted blogs that some folks kindly provide and look for a title that suggests something dramatic? I’ll bet not. As much as we may wish others well, it appears (by the number of comments on dramatic/tragic posts) that we are all riveted by disaster.
I’ve thought about this a lot. Its a common device used by novelists. Just describe some graphic, horrible scene and you can be absolutely sure to hook your audience. It’s the premise behind all horror books/films. It’s what’s responsible for the popularity of “thrillers”. It’s the same thing that virtually forces us to crane for a glance of a traffic accident. Some sort of primal need that rivets us to tragedy, even as we may feel/grieve for the participants. Somewhere inside we are acknowledging our own mortality and the relief that at least this isn’t me…this time.
I responded to a comment on my last blog post that referenced the book, “The Horse Whisperer”, by saying I hated that book. Which I did—for a variety of reasons. But one of them was the use of gripping horror in the first scene to hook the audience. I’m not saying it didn’t work. Folks, that trick ALWAYS works. But it leaves a really bad taste in my mouth.
I don’t want to be riveted to the edge of my seat by either book or movie due to the horror factor. I totally acknowledge what a basic human emotion it is, and yet I never feel good about myself when I allow myself to be led by it, in either writing or life. And I am just as human as the next person. You put up a blog post titled “Tragedy”—well, I’m gonna read that first. What can I say?
But…I wince when I catch myself peering at traffic accidents, and I would never consider following a fire truck, or stopping at the scene of a disaster out of nosy curiosity. There is something in our human curiosity about horror that actively repulses me, even as I am drawn in just like the next guy. So every time I am gripped by some horrifying scene in book or movie (or blog), I find myself feeling slightly sick afterward. My main emotion is: I wish I hadn’t read/seen that.
As an author, I actively avoid this device in my books, even though I am well aware how powerful it is. Unlike many bestselling novels, you will not find graphic descriptions of violent tragedies in my stories. Yes, I know they are mysteries, so someone has to die (I once tried to write one without a corpse and was sharply rebuked by the editor—“There’s no body; there should be a body by chapter three at the latest.”), but I don’t focus on careful descriptions of blood and gore. Same for graphic descriptions of sex—that other guaranteed seller. I simply refuse to write that stuff. And no, its not to my monetary advantage.
But what about real life? I know that I am gripped with both horror and sympathy when I read about others and their trail ride dramas. I have a strong “need to know”, which I tend to justify under the label of learning what I can from the incident so I don’t make the same mistake, whatever that mistake was. (A lot of the time no real mistake was made—bad luck just happens.)
Ok, then, what have I learned from other’s trail ride dramas? And perhaps from my own lack of drama, while riding outside. Here’s my list—perhaps it will/may help someone else in pursuit of relaxing trail rides.
1) Ride a steady, seasoned, trail horse in the double digits. This is huge. I’ve talked about it before, many times, so won’t belabor this point, and those of you who are younger, better riders and/or want to do ambitious/competitive rides, well, you know this advice isn’t for you. Those of you who, like me, want quiet, peaceful rides sans “excitement” would do well to heed this point.
2) Hike your proposed ride before you ride it. This may not always be possible, but if it is, it helps immensely. With no risk to yourself and your horse (other than you get tired) you can determine just what sort of trail and trail obstacles you’re likely to meet and make a good decision about the proposed ride.
3) Ride with one or two equally seasoned horses bearing riders you know well and trust. If they are inexperienced horsemen, they must be the sort who will listen to you and do what you say. If they are experienced, their standards for acceptable risk must be similar to yours. If you take a rider on a green horse, put that horse behind a steady horse. If you have a beginning rider, put that rider in the middle with an experienced rider ahead and behind him/her. Solo rides are lovely, but they aren’t the safest or the most relaxing way to go. I like to ride solo, but I am aware that I am much more alert, as is my horse. I don’t like to ride in a big group (more than four). I find it creates a more difficult dynamic, and almost inevitably the horses are not as relaxed.
4) OK—helmets are good. I still don’t wear one (you can scold me if you want), but my son does. I know it’s a good idea—I couldn’t find one—I did try—that fit me and was comfortable. (I actually tried on every “large” helmet at the biggest tack store in our area—not one fit my larger-than-large head The tack store owner, who really wanted to sell me a helmet, told me that none of them fit correctly and I shouldn’t buy any of them. And they were all totally uncomfortable. I really do believe that I should get and wear a helmet, but it is proving even more difficult than I had supposed. Not only do hats of any sort give me a headache, but helmets do not appear to exist in a size that fits me. I plan to keep trying to find one, though, because I owe it to my husband and son.) I will still stand on my belief that riding a solid horse and making good choices is more important for safety—but I think I ought to get a helmet.
5) Riding good trails (not slippery, not too much exposure, not too steep, not too many obstacles) goes a long way to staying safe.
6) Riding at a relaxed pace goes a long way towards staying safe. We mostly walk, trot a little, occasionally lope when we’re all in the mood. We do not gallop madly along. Yes, its fun, and when I was younger I loped and galloped a lot more often. And the last time I was bucked off on the trail I was galloping up a long grade (many years ago). You really do see the countryside much more when you walk. I know, it sounds boring, and maybe to some it is. For me its peaceful and enjoyable.
7) I bring a cell phone. When my husband hikes with us, he brings a pistol. I do not carry a pistol on my horse because I don’t think I could fire it off my horse safely. I also think that a mounted rider can dominate most situations—with either people or animals—if they are thinking. Our only potentially threatening animals here are cougars, and I don’t believe I have ever heard of one jumping a mounted horseman. Most people who don’t know horses are easily intimidated—swing the horse’s butt at them, yelling, “Watch out, he kicks!” I HAVE had someone pull a gun on me when I was out riding—this was many years ago, and I had unknowingly ridden into an area where this someone was growing pot (I figured this out later). I was able to retreat reasonably gracefully—no harm done, and I realized then that it would have done me zero good to have been “carrying” myself. Galloping away is going to be your best defense.
8) I try to keep my rides well within the capacity of both horses and riders. Tired horses and people leads to trouble. For me, this means shorter rides (three/four hours is a long ride for us) and for me, that’s OK. My knees get sore if the ride is too long. In the same sense, riding a sore horse leads to stumbling and potential trouble. All horses on the ride should be sound enough and fit enough that they are comfortable—not miserable. A horse that has a noticeable head bob while trotting in a straight line is not sound enough for a trail ride—there can be exceptions to this, but it’s a good rule of thumb.
9) Pay attention. Even while you enjoy your relaxed stroll through the woods, you MUST pay attention. If your horse tosses his head at a bug, your alert recognition that it is a wasp, and that, whoa, there are several more right here, could save your life. This happened to me many years ago, riding a green three-year-old I didn’t know at all solo through the mountains (I was younger and tougher back then). I had disturbed a ground wasp nest and the wasps were attacking. Fortunately I noticed the very first pass by the buzzing critter and realized what was happening. The young horse was stung once and leaped forward, I regained control and kicked him up to a brisk trot. We were able to get out of range before he was stung again and we did fine. Contrast this to a friend of mine who failed to note what was happening until his steady Eddy horse had been stung several times and proceeded to buck him off, whereupon the poor guy was stung repeatedly after he hit the ground. Not fun. So pay attention. If your horse looks at something, you look to see what it is. If his foot slips, you look down and check the footing. Just pay attention. Don’t assume anything.
10) Listen to your intuition. This sounds silly, maybe, but for me it works. If I feel too apprehensive about something, I don’t do it. I do not allow a bolder companion to talk me into something that feels “wrong” to me on a trail ride. At the beginning of every ride, I “feel” into myself, asking if this will be fine. Usually, I “get,” yep, this will be just fine. If I don’t, I think hard about what choice I want to make. This doesn’t mean I don’t sometimes push past my nerves, it just means that I try to pay attention to whatever inner wisdom I have.
OK—there’s some ideas. Any other good trail ride tips? I’m all for avoiding drama.