by Laura Crum
My son and I explored a new trail while out riding yesterday. Maybe this doesn’t sound like a big deal to you, but it was very exciting for us. We have ridden the network of trails near our house for many years and thought we knew them all. Then, a few nights ago, we “googled” the area that we ride and low and behold, saw what looked like a trail we hadn’t been on. So yesterday, when we rode up to the Lookout, we peered at the spot where we’d seen the trail on the computer screen, and there it was. Diving off into the brush, with the marks of hoofprints written clearly in the dust.
My kid was thrilled. “Lets go, Mama,” he said. He has been getting bored of our regular rides. Yesterday he asked to go on a longer one, but I didn’t have that much time. So now I hesitated. I, too, was curious about the new trail, but I have done a lot of exploring new trails in my life, and I know what kind of pickles can result. And I am always extra cautious riding with my child.
Still, horses went this way—that was plain. And I knew from looking at it and from what we’d seen on Google that it probably led towards home. “OK,” I said, “as long as you promise that if I say we’re going back you’ll go back without arguing.”
My son promised with alacrity and we started down the trail. Sunny led with his usual alert caution. Sunny is not a spooky horse (not remotely), but he walks with his ears sharply forward at all times and approaches new sections of trail very carefully. Henry followed with his usual calm, willing demeanor. We descended quite of bit of pleasant single track winding downhill through the brush and in and out of big redwood groves. So far so good. Lots of hoofprints, lots of horse manure. The trail was well used by horses.
However, the descents were getting steeper. We reached one long downhill chute and I hesitated again. This section was really quite steep, in loose dirt. The horses slither down such bits on our usual trails, but this was much longer. Sunny and Henry waited calmly for my choice, my son urged me on.
“Come on, Mama, we can do it. Lots of horses have been this way.”
Well, this was true. But I had no idea what sort of riders used this trail. Perhaps they were all undaunted trail riders mounted on agile Arabs who rode the Tevis Cup in their spare time. We, on the other hand, were a sedate middle aged woman and a nine year old kid riding two retired team roping horses that, though reliable and steady, could not be described as nimble.
But the trail didn’t look dangerous, as long as the horses stayed calm and focused—and these two horses are the epitomy of calm and focused. So I instructed my son to keep Henry right behind Sunny and stay straight to the hill and go slow. And down we went.
Sunny is the master of the slow descent. He creeps down a steep hill, taking tiny steps in front and shuffling his back feet. If he has to slide a little he is unflustered. My son kept Henry behind and we had no problems. We traversed another half mile of pretty, winding trail, ducking under low tree limbs and dodging crooked trunks that leaned into our path. And then…
I pulled Sunny up as I looked at the section of trail in front of us. A right angle turn to the left went straight up for fifty feet and made a hard right turn around a big tree trunk—with a two foot step up over a solid log right in the middle of it. This was tough stuff. If a horse slipped or floundered here, there was a distinct possibility he’d go down.
I know well enough that if a horse goes down, even to his knees, all bets are off. A rider might stay on, might come off—it’s a crap shoot. I’ve had horses go down with me before—you’re not in charge of what happens. You can’t control it. Having a horse go down is my single greatest fear.
Henry and Sunny are not going to dump us on purpose. But, like all horses, they could go down. Neither one has ever come any closer to this than very minor stumbles, and these are rare. This doesn’t mean it couldn’t happen. I looked at that steep, tricky bit of trail and wondered if we weren’t courting disaster.
My son, predictably, urged me on. But this carried no weight. My son has never had a true horseback disaster (he has come off only once) and this is precisely why he is not fearful. I want to keep it that way. Nonetheless, his point that we would have to go up some steep bits if we went back had weight.
“And there’s nowhere to turn around,” he said.
Uhmm, yeah. We were on a stretch of narrow sidehill singletrack with a steep slope beneath us. I dithered. Outwardly I sat calmly on my horse, who stood with complete calm patience on the trail—Henry standing equally relaxed behind him. I reminded my son that if I said we were going back he wasn’t to argue. Inwardly, I went over the situation somewhat frantically. What was best to do here?
While I dithered, my eyes scanned the terrain and I noticed something that had not been immediately apparent. The vines were trampled to the left of the trail, showing where several horsemen had elected a different route up the hill. A much simpler line, less steep, and minus the sharp turn and big step up. I studied this line. It looked doable. There was no trail, but the trampling gave every indication the footing would be OK.
“All right,” I told my son. “We’re going this way.” And I showed him the line. “Keep Henry right behind Sunny.”
And I clucked to Sunny, pointed his nose to the left, up the hill, through the vines and brambles, and said, “Come on, let’s go.”
Sunny, intrepid little critter that he is, sighed and thrust up the hill, never faltering, never scrambling. Henry followed steadily. There is a certain calm, confident poise that is worth even more in a trail horse than athletic ability (though there is nothing wrong with athletic ability) and Sunny and Henry have that self confidence in spades. They are also willing and obedient—we have never over matched them or abused them. And they are both strong, sound little horses. They topped that rise no problem, and we popped out on an old road bed.
Aha. I knew exactly where we were now. I turned right on the roadbed and we marched along toward home. The sun sparkled on the trees, my son was as happy as a lark.
“What a great ride, Mama,” he said. “This is just great.” He whistled small snatches of the William Tell Overture—I had to admit it fit our mood perfectly.
I, too, felt happy and triumphant. We’d explored a new trail and done well. It felt like a grand adventure. As we marched the rest of the way home, stepping over fallen logs, following a route we hadn’t ridden in awhile and seeing the small changes, making a safe crossing of the busy road and heading up our driveway to our front gate, my son and I chattered happily. The horses were their usual calm, alert selves.
When I unsaddled them, the truth of the saying “Didn’t turn a hair,” was obvious. Their hair coats were smooth and unruffled, only slightly damp under the saddle and the cinch, after our two hour ride, complete with plenty of hills. The horses are in reasonable shape, but it is their calm demeanor that allows them to execute the ride with so little stress.
I let them graze for awhile before I put them away, and then rubbed each one fondly. What good horses they are and how much I appreciate them. I was happy we’d all had a successful adventure together.
And yet? Despite these good feelings there is a part of me that wonders if I made the right choice. I truly didn’t know if that trail was doable for us when I started down it. My usual habit is to hike a trail first before I ride it with my son. These trails are not in a park; there is no authority that pronounces them safe. Most of us horse people just follow the ones where other horses have clearly trod. But, of course, those other horse people could have been much more competent trail riders. I had no way of knowing.
Did I make a foolish decision? Have you been faced with such a choice? What do you think I should have done?