Tuesday, August 17, 2010

New Trails

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?


Beth said...

What a grand adventure! Honestly I could feel how you must have felt on that trail. I have had it so many times before on a horse, shoud I do this or not?

Riding is always a chance and sometimes it works out, but I have been in other situations that I thought, "well this was stupid!" Luckily none of those situations ended in injury to me or my horse.

It is hard to decide.

Laura Crum said...

Beth--I, too, have definitely had the "well, this was stupid," experience. This is one of the reasons I felt apprehensive at the thought of trying a new trail. It worked out fine when all was said and done, but it might not have. Thus my second thoughts.

But as you say, riding is always a chance. We just got back from riding our horses up at the roping arena, and though my son had a blast gathering the cattle and loping the slower steers down the pen and it all felt very safe and protected and familiar, with a gang of our friends around, it is still true that Henry could have stumbled and fallen there, just as well as walking down the trail.

I guess we just go along doing the best we can in the moment. If faced with the choice of trying a new trail again, I'm not sure what I'll do.

Anonymous said...

Sounds to me like an adventure that worked out well - and it was lots of fun - I wouldn't second-guess too much and what made it better was that your horses were so cooperative. I've done a lot of bush-whacking (in younger days) and the horse usually made all the difference to the outcome.

Laura Crum said...

Kate--I so agree with that statement. The horse does make all the difference. I am only confident (well, reasonably confident) about the trail riding I do with my son because the horses are so calm and trustworthy about it. I am so grateful I was able to buy the two of them three years ago--they have made all the difference to how much fun we are able to have on the trail.

Linda Benson said...

Laura - sounds like you have some wonderful horses. I've been in this situation many times, because for me, half the fun of being horseback is exploring, but it's true, you never know what you might encounter. And especially when in steep terrain, it can get hairy pretty darn fast. Probably the thing that made it more so, for you, was the responsibility you felt for your son. Glad it all turned out okay. He's developing so much confidence on horseback (which will transfer over to other areas of his life, as well) and you have two "Keepers" for horses, as I'm sure you well know.

Joy said...

there are two areas here to think about. The first is the horses. You have horses you can trust. The other (and the biggie) is your son. I completely understand the trepidation in going on the trail with him.

No one can tell you what you should do as far as leading your son in life. That's the ucky scary part. I think you do fine.

You will struggle with this feeling for a long time. But you are smart and honest with yourself. You know yours, your son's and your horses limits.

It sounds like a great ride and I'm glad you had fun and no problems.

For me trail blazing is what trail riding is all about. But I've got a non-horsey son, so it's not really comparable.

Again, just trust your gut. It's an extra sense all of us mom's get to have....

Susan said...

I can remember being in that sort of predicament so many times, minus the small child. When I was young I usually pressed on. Sometimes I even had to get off and lead my horse. It always worked out. Of course my horse didn't let on what he thought about the situations I got him into. The only exploring he liked was when lush grass was involved.

joycemocha said...

I think you made the right choice. Yes, your son is still young, but you have reliable, experienced trail horses, you have experience, and just how else is your son going to develop an eye for what he can and can't do? Better to try it out with Mom at a young age when you're around to help him. I did all sorts of stupid stuff with my pony when my parents weren't around to see. Once that even resulted in me getting whacked in the face with his cannon bone because we--uh--got a wee bit over the top in our play (all on the ground, all on the ground. Windy reared up, not striking at me, and I was standing right next to him as he went up. We were playing chase with each other. I got a nasty bloody nose from that one, and I was around ten years old at the time. We also jumped all sorts of brush obstacles which was something my folks strongly disapproved of me doing. Would have been better to find me some jumping lessons somewhere...

I'm working up to cantering Mocha bareback, and I think in the process I'll also achieve those rollbacks in English tack. Not even dreaming of doing them bareback. Stupid? Possibly. But I'm sitting that slick bareback pad (to protect my butt) pretty tight now at a big English trot. I just need to rig up a solid neck rope the first few times I do it.

Best to let a few adventures happen with your son--less temptation for him to seek them out on his own. That day may not be happening now, but it's coming...

Alison said...

I am so jealous that you have accessible trails nearby! You are really lucky (or you picked your property with horses in mind.)

Laura Crum said...

Linda, Joy, Susan and Joycemocha--Thanks for the support. Yes, the horses are keepers--they are the reason we do what we do. I love and appreciate them and they are very pleasant, relaxing horses to live with, so when their riding days are done, they have a permanent home here.

And I do hope that these experiences we are having with our horses will help my son in life. Even if he does not grow up to be a horseman, I believe that he will learn a lot about perseverance, empathy and be able to appreciate the beauty of the natural world, partly due to our trail rides. And maybe learn a little bit about making good decisions, too. (I hope.)

Alison--I did not buy this property because I knew about the trails. I discovered the trails after I wished longingly that I had some trails to ride. And hey presto, I found them. Sometimes Life gives you what you ask for. If you read my previous post, you know that I have to cross a very busy road to get to the trails, so its not all a piece of cake. But I am very very grateful the trails are there--they are created and used mostly by the horse people at two nearby boarding stables.

Anonymous said...

Laura I understand completely your hesitation in taking a new trail with your son, and I was cheered when you did. Something I struggle with a lot is how not to pass my fears on to my children. So I greatly appreciate reading about how other moms work out making the right choices for their kids. It seemed to me that you were as informed as you could be, that you knew your horses were solid and trustworthy and you took the time to observe your surroundings and your options. You didn't panic you just sat still and thought about the best choice for that moment. And you and your son found a new trail that will no doubt give you hours of enjoyment.
We all try to make the best decisions we can for our kids and even despite our best efforts things can get messy, with or without horses involved. I took my kids to the local stream that looked quite benign from the roadway. We had to struggle through tall grasses to get there but once in we had fun looking at the minnows and various shells. Then Mom got the bright idea to walk further down the creek bed to the next rocky outcrop, the water got a lot deeper and the bottom was trying desperately to rid of us all our footware!!! I think everyone of us lost a shoe at some point and I probably spent the better part of an hour trying to find them in the murky water of the creek bed!!! By this time we were getting cold and really tired of standing in muddy water.

So even when we have the best of intentions and all things look great, goofy stuff can still happen. But the kids laugh about it now and I bet they will be a lot more cautious when they approach another creek, especially if mom suggests walking through it!!!

Laura Crum said...

Lynn--Yes, now that the ride is behind us, I'm pretty happy we rode the new trail, too. It makes a great memory--for both me and my son. I'm not sure how often we'll go that way, though. Those hills were really steep. It is good to have an adventure once in awhile--just like you and your kids and the stream. And its especially good if everybody comes through unscathed (!)

Shanster said...

Geez Crum... you tryin to give me heart failure? grin. I guess you write too well cuz I get all tense and on the edge of my seat when you describe these scenarios and I don't even have a child!!

Sounds like you did the right thing. And I think like everyone else - we never really know what we'll come up against each time we wake up in the morning.

Glad you had a good ride on such steady horses. They are most definately worth their weight in gold.

Laura Crum said...

Shanster--I was on the edge of my seat, too, when I was on that trail, or perhaps I should say saddle. I'm not really that brave a rider any more, and I am even more of a chicken when I ride with my son. But it did turn out well and left us both with a good feeling.

We just got back from chasing an escaped steer through the redwood forest--in some ways it was just as exciting as our trail blazing. I'll have to do a post on that adventure next.