by Laura Crum
We went on a lovely trail ride a little while ago. That is, until the unexpected happened. We survived it just fine, but it made me think about what the bottom line of trail riding really is. And it reminded me of why I ride a solid horse.
The thing about trail riding is the thing you don’t expect. You can ride a particular trail hundreds of times and know it like a book, and then one day something totally unexpected happens and you have a wreck. This can happen in an arena, too, particularly if you’re working cattle, which is what I have spent my life doing. But in my experience, you are much more likely to meet the unexpected drama “outside”.
This is the reason so many folks are scared of trail riding. It sounds good, until they are actually outside the safe confines of an arena and are suddenly aware that anything could be around the next corner. Bicycles, barking dogs, wild animals, hikers with flapping ponchos and scary backpacks, tipped over trees blocking the trail in a tricky spot…you name it. A whole lot of people don’t like the uncertainty of the trail.
The flip side of this coin is that trail riding is endlessly interesting. I will admit that at this stage of my riding career I find the arena boring. I do know there are various “interesting” things I could do there, but to be frank, I’ve done most of them in the past and I’m just not engaged by them any more. Working cattle is the only thing I find interesting in an arena; cattle are just as fascinating and unpredictable as the trail.
Anyway, despite the fact that I find trail riding fascinating and delightful, I am not unaware of the dangers. When I chose to take my young son out on the trails (he was seven then), I bought two solid, bombproof trail horses for us to ride. And we’ve covered many, many miles on the trails since then—without being hurt, or even seriously alarmed (knocking on wood—quite literally). But still, stuff happens. And even though my son and I have done many rides with just the two of us, I have to admit that I’m more comfortable when our friend/boarder, Wally, comes along. It’s just a little more support/security. And I was REALLY glad that Wally was with us the other day.
We’d headed out on our little local trail loop, which we can ride to from my front gate. I’ve written about these trails quite extensively in my last two books (“Going, Gone” and “Barnstorming”), so if you’ve read these books, you can probably picture the trails accurately. In any case, we hadn’t been on these trails in a couple of months, due to riding mostly on the beach and at the local park, as well as working cattle up at my uncle’s place. No one maintains the local trails other than other equestrians and hikers—solely at their own discretion-- so when I haven’t been up there in awhile, I’m never sure what I will meet. Anyway, I was glad that Wally wanted to come with us.
We rode out our front gate on a lovely, sunny, 70 degree morning, and, of course, the first thing we had to do was get safely across the busy country road I live on, where the traffic zips along at 50 miles an hour. I hate crossing this road. We do it in a very safe way, but I still hate it. I would absolutely not be willing to ride along the shoulder of the road, as I see other horsemen do. But we make a straight crossing, and I can handle that. Barely.
Anyway, we ride across my neighbor’s field until we are on the shoulder of the road. There’s lots of open field behind us, so if anything should spook the horses, there’s somewhere safe to go. But we must stand right on the shoulder, in order to see, while the traffic whizzes by not three feet from our horses’ noses. Whoosh, there goes a bus. Logging trucks are very big and noisy at 50 miles an hour. I particularly hate trucks with flapping tarps. And bicycles make an odd hissing noise going fast. A guy on a Harley revs his engine as he passes the horses. Very funny.
Our horses stand rock solid through all of this, not moving at all. They always do. They wait patiently (and it can take several minutes) for us to find an opening in the traffic. When no cars are visible in either direction, we cross. To my son’s annoyance, I still insist that he be on the pony rope for this road crossing. Its just one extra bit of security. If a horse spooked into the traffic, it would be lethal. I do everything I can to keep us safe.
Once across the road I heave a sigh of relief and we take the narrow single track trail into the woods. We always go in the same order. I lead, on Sunny, next my son, on Henry, and finally Wally, on Twister. Twister is every bit as good a lead horse as Sunny, and we have done it that way, but he walks too fast in the lead and the other two horses can’t keep up. We found that Twister doesn’t at all mind walking slow in the rear, and Sunny is a solid leader and sets a nice medium pace. We like to keep my son in the middle, as that is the safest place. So this is our order.
The first thing I notice is the trail is REALLY overgrown. It doesn’t look like very many folks have been through here during the couple of months we were absent. If you didn’t know where the trail was, you’d have a hard time finding it. And a lot of the luxuriant growth that masks the trail and drapes itself from the tree branches is poison oak. Lovely.
Its not that I didn’t know that there was plenty of poison oak here. Of course I did. And none of the three of us is very prone to getting the rash. But today we are literally pushing our way through it. Not the best.
The first part of this narrow trail is pretty technical at the best of times. It runs along a little sidehill (fairly steep) and winds between trees. There are places where you can easily whack your knee caps, and there are low, very solid branches that must be ducked under. I barely make it on 14.3 Sunny. Wally must hang off the side of 15.2 Twister. When you add in the fact that we are pushing through the tangle of overgrown vines—well, its not the easiest ride in the world. I never have any photos of this part—I’m too busy to take pictures.
But we push through the poison oak and scramble up and down the steep bits, and duck under the head bonker tree and weave our way between the leaning trunks like some very solid (and crooked) pole bending course and eventually we get over the ridge and onto some trails that are a little more used. Again, I sigh in relief. This part is usually easy.
I take a photo as we start down the easy trail.
Soon enough we are going uphill and the trail gets very overgrown again. Its pretty, in a jungle-y way, so I take another photo.
And just around the next bend from where I took that photo, the hill gets much steeper and the way is blocked by a recently tipped over tree. I check Sunny, or rather, Sunny and I check together, as we both look at the tree, which is just the “wrong” height. Wither high—too low to go under, too high to go over. I had been discussing wither high snags with Funder just that morning, and what a problem they were—now I wished I’d never mentioned the subject. I seem to have jinxed myself.
The undergrowth is so thick, that Wally, in the rear, can’t even see why I’ve stopped. “What’s the matter?” he yells.
“There’s a tree. And I don’t think we can get by it.” I’m looking as I talk. The hill is steep and brushy on both sides of the trail, very hard to get around. The trunk is about eight inches thick—not huge, but too heavy to shift, or so I think. Wally hollers that he’s coming up to see.
We’ve done this routine before, for similar reasons, so we know the drill. Wally climbs off Twister and hands the reins to my son. My son and I hold perfectly still on the narrow trail as Wally slithers past our horses to take a look at the tree. He tries to move it, and it’s obvious that won’t work. But the tree does shift a little.
Wally, ever creative, begins bouncing up and down on the tree and gradually beats it down so that at the low (and branchless) end, it is now only knee high rather than wither high. Our three horses stand quietly while Wally wrestles with the tree, despite the wildly waving, snapping, crashing branches in the brush beside them, though Henry does take the opportunity to snatch at the nearby and abundant vegetation (his worst vice). When Wally has beaten the tree down as far as he is able he gives it a long look. “We can get over that,” he says.
Yep, we can. And it will be much easier than trying to turn around here. We wait until Wally has climbed back on Twister and then we all pop over the tree and get on with our ride. We meet another (big) downed tree a little further on, but fortunately we can easily detour around it. In a little while we’re at the Lookout.
The fog is in over the bay so the view isn’t much, but here I am in my riding helmet, thanks to all you horse bloggers who encouraged me to buy and wear one.
The ride home is uneventful, though full of brushy tangles to push through. Here is a photo my husband took of this stretch of the trail when he hiked with us last year at about this time. It looks just about the same this year, and as you can see, it is pretty jungle-like.
As I ride along I think to myself how glad I am that my son and I didn’t attempt this ride without Wally. I probably never would have thought of jumping up and down on the tipped over tree; it would have been hard to do while I was holding Sunny. And I would have been very worried that I wasn’t able to keep my focus on my son and his safety, while trying to clear the tree. And it would have been a real problem to try and turn around there.
So this is the downside of trail riding—especially with a young child that you must protect. Our horses are great and do anything we ask, but there are limits to what they can do for us. If I had been solo and met that tree, I probably would have backed Sunny up until I found a wide spot in the trail and then turned him around and gone another way. What would you do?