Wednesday, December 2, 2009

Hiking Versus Riding

By Laura Crum

I think I’ve posted before about my resolve to hike the trails near my home as often as I ride them. The primary reason for this is that I am getting stout, and need the exercise far more than my horse does. But there are other reasons.

My husband is not a horseman and prefers to hike, and though he will hike with us when my son and I ride, we are not, in that instance, much of a group, as the horses outdistance the hiker, especially on the uphill climbs. Of course, when we hike, my husband, son, and dog all outdistance me, particularly on the uphill climbs. But, in general, we are together as a family unit far more when we hike than when we ride.

Another reason I hike is that I feel it is good for my young son to get the exercise, and another (and very different) experience of being in the woods. Yet another reason is that the trails are muddy after a rain and can be slippery, also it isn’t nice (in my opinion) to tear them up with our horse’s hooves when they are wet—makes them unpleasant for both hikers and horses for a long time.

A final reason that I hike as often as I ride is that some days I just don’t feel like dealing with the horses—to be quite honest. My trail horses are very reliable, as I’ve posted before, but I have to cross a very busy road (upon which the cars dash by at 50 miles an hour) to get to the trails as well as skirt my neighbor’s properties, and though this is generally not a problem, there are days (when my neighbor is running a weedwhacker, or the nearby church is having a party, or the wind is just blowing really hard, or something doesn’t feel right) when it seems too stressful/risky to me to put my kid on his horse and push our way through the unpredictable outside world to get on the trails. Some days are just like that. So we hike. Other days it seems easy and doable to go with our horses, so we ride.

I think I have mostly adhered to my goal of hiking as much as I ride. I hike more in the winter and ride more in the summer, but it balances out. And its interesting, hiking the same trails that I ride. It gives me two very uniquely different perspectives on the same ground. This last weekend I had the (to me) fascinating experience of doing the exact same route twice in a row. On Saturday we hiked it and on Sunday we rode it. Both days were glorious—bright, sunny weather, the trails dry and lovely—no dust, no mud. (This is one of the reasons I live on the California coast—we get many, many such winter days.) Because I had been thinking about this subject, I tried to pay careful attention to the differences in the way I saw the trails and the landscape. I had a lot of fun with this and thought I’d share my thoughts and ask if any of you have insights to contribute on this subject.

So, first off, the easy one. Hiking is much harder than riding. Many times during our hike, I had the impulse to wish I’d brought my horse, particularly as I was gasping for air on some steep climb. I can’t recall ever once wishing on my ride that I had gone on foot. That tells you something.

This particular route (about two miles) takes me an hour and fifteen minutes on horseback and two hours on foot. There is a lot of elevation change. We mostly walk the horses, though will occasionally trot or lope. When I am done hiking it, my leg muscles are worn out (OK—I’m not in very good shape). I can ride it without any effort to speak of at all.

But there are things about hiking that I like, besides the obvious benefit to my health. I see so many more details when I hike. I examine tiny mushrooms, new flowers, banana slugs and salamanders…I could go on and on. I rarely notice these things on horseback. Even at the walk, on a horse, the landscape just seems to flow gliding by, sort of like an Impressionist painting. Beautiful, filled with light and shadow, shape and color, but not much detail. When I hike I see the details. I stop and peer at things, special views I hadn’t noticed before, a particular tree lit up with light…etc. When I ride I tend to keep moving.

Besides seeing, there is hearing. I don’t hear much when I ride. The noise of the horse’s footfalls and the squeak of the saddle drowns out other noises. I need to shout a bit to be heard by my companions. If I want to listen for something, I often have to pull my horse up. Being cut off from the tiny sounds of the woods is a bit of a disconnect.

Riding is a great deal about connecting with the horse. I am always aware of what my horse is feeling—the landscape is more of a background. On foot the landscape (and my own reactions) assume the primary focus.

On horseback I feel empowered in a way I don’t on foot. I am perfectly happy to ride the trails alone, or take my son out for a ride. On foot I prefer to go with my husband…I just feel much more vulnerable on foot…to predators with two legs or four. (And yes, there are lots of mountain lions in these hills, and I have met some very odd seeming people on these little used trails.)

And on horseback I feel empowered in another way…it’s hard to explain but I think all horse people know what I mean. Somehow being a horseman is magically elevating (literally elevating, too). I won’t say that one feels “better” than pedestrians, but there is some element of this. I know this feeling from both sides as I often meet riders when I hike and hikers when I ride. I am always concious of the subtle distinction. As my husband says, he feels he should shout, “make way for the horse people.” He’s joking, but I know what he means. Somewhere, deep in our DNA, is the clear conciousness that horses make us superior, give us power.

And then there is just the simple thrill of being carried by the horse. The pleasure of rocking along on his back, the elemental fun of riding. This is always present.

Finally, the interaction with the horse is both the chief delight of riding and (sometimes) a pain in the butt. My trail horse, Sunny, is reliable and mostly cooperative and for the greater part of the ride I simply enjoy his steady, willing power that takes me through the hills effortlessly. But near the end of the ride, when Sunny sometimes gets cranky and prepares to give me his signature crowhop (see my last month’s post titled “A Quirk”), I am annoyed at his (albeit minor) show of attitude. On Sunday’s ride I talked him out of his little acting out issue, but I was aware that I was slightly ticked that I had to bother with this. So, again, interacting with the horse is both the chief pleasure and also the main nuisance of riding versus hiking.

All this considered, I find I am back to my original premise. Which is that I need to both hike and ride. Both for my health, and this odd assortment of reasons. I’d love to hear anybody else’s thoughts on this subject. Cheers--Laura


Anonymous said...

Nice comparisons - I like both too but you're right that the experience is very different.

Mel said...

I don't consider myself a hiker, but I will admit that after a particularly stressful event (such as preparing to do the 100 mile Tevis race) my only consulation and stress-dealing tactic was to promise myself an overnight backpacking trip after everything was done. I love being with my horse, but there are sometimes that I just need to get away from it all - including her.

I'm a little nervous about being by myslef and overnight backpacking. Hiking is fine, but I wish my family members/boyfriend wanted to or were able to go on my overnight trips.

Laura Crum said...

Thanks Kate and Mel--I'm glad the post resonated for you.

Mel--I once spent three months by myself (with my young dog) in a tent by a lake in the mountains, five miles from the nearest trail (I was imitating Thoreau). And yes, for sure fear was an issue. I ended up sleeping with a pistol under my pillow--not that I ever needed it. So I hear you on that one.

I also hear you on needing a break from the horse. Sometimes I hike just so I don't have to worry about the darn horse. And when we horsepacked in the mountains for many years, though I loved it, I found that I worried about my horses a lot and it was stressful. Finally I took to having the pack station "drop" us at a lake (using their horses). Then I would have days and days to hike and read and swim with no critters to worry about.

Horses can and do create anxiety--we worry about them and try to keep them from getting hurt--at the same time we worry about them hurting us. And also at the same time, interacting with my horse on a lovely peaceful ride is a great stress reliever. What a paradox. But then, truth resides in paradox--or so I think.

EcoLicious Equestrian said...

as much as I love hacking, I hear you about wanting to take a break from riding and enjoy a good hike...and I absolutely agree with you that horse hoof beats (again as much as I love them) do block the sounds of when I hike I get to play fetch and romp around with my dogs, they sure enjoy the exclusive attention...

Laura Crum said...

Petra--yes, I always come back to the truth that I need to do both. I can't take the dog when I ride as I have to cross the busy street and she does not heel reliably enough to do this off leash--and I have never mastered a leashed dog from a horse--though I've seen others do this (!)

Linda - The Mane Point said...

It is intriguing to consider how many folks think trail riding is the tamest of equestrian disciplines.

Having participated in horse shows, jumping and even schooling young horses ... I can recount that my biggest surprises on horseback have occurred on the trail.

For example, there was this snake on the path . . .

Linda Benson said...

Hi Laura - I've been meaning to comment on this post. I love to hike and to ride, and often do it both on the same trails. You've done a great job of pointing out the beauties and enjoyments of each. I like to take my horse along on walks, too. It's a great bonding tool, and a way for both of us to stretch our legs. My horse thinks it's fun, too, because he gets to see a little scenery without working too hard, and I truly think he enjoys just spending time with me. And I'm not adverse, on long rides, to getting off and walking for awhile, so we both get a break.
But there are definitely days, such as when the trilliums are blooming, when walking gets you closer to the ground and more able to notice such things. I'm happy to enjoy being outside whenever I can, with and without my horse. Thanks for this post.