Wednesday, February 9, 2011

Adventure in the Woods

by Laura Crum

I love the two photos above, even though they are a little blurry. Its like those puzzle pictures. Can you find the two horses (complete with riders) in these photos? If you look you will spot palomino Sunny and sorrel Henry with myself and my son aboard, winding up the shady hill on a little singletrack trail in the first photo. The second photo is even trickier, but there we are—and it gives a good idea of the tangled, brushy hillside this trail traverses. We rode this route a few days ago, along with our friend Wally, and had a small adventure, so I thought I’d tell about it.

First off, all our trail adventures are pretty “mini”, thank goodness. I am striving for drama free rides for myself and my son, and try not to tackle anything too ambitious. But the trails are unpredictable, as I’m sure all of you know, and adventures do come along, like it or not.

So on this day we were riding through the woods on the narrow little singletrack trail in the photos, which snakes its way along the side of a ridge, dodging between tree trunks and requiring us to duck for very solid low hanging branches. Its not the easiest trail to ride, but we’re familiar with it and ride it often. However we had not been on this trail recently, due to all the storms in December. Usually I try to hike a trail before I ride it, under these circumstances, but on this day we just headed out on the horses.

All went according to plan to begin with. Lovely day, temps in the low 70’s, the footing was good, the horses seemed happy to be out in the hills. And then, just where this narrow little trail is making its way across a steep sidehill, clothed with tangled brush and vines and scrubby little trees, we came to a freshly downed tree trunk right across the trail. Too big to step over, too low to ride under. I stopped, wondering what to do. I wasn’t sure we could safely get around the tree; I wasn’t sure we could safely turn around. So I just sat there, studying the situation.

Sunny stood perfectly still—he’s very good at this. As Kate has pointed out in her blog, this is a great skill for a horse to have. It comes in quite handy when faced with just this sort of situation. The trail was narrow, the hillside was steep, the brush was thick….and the way was quite effectively blocked. So I sat still, on my patient little yellow mule, trying to make a good decision. Behind me, my son’s horse, Henry, waited equally patiently, as did our friend’s horse, Twister, behind Henry.

It took a few minutes, but eventually I decided there might be a way around the tree on the uphill side, but some brush and branches would have to be cleared and the proposed route checked out on foot. We decided that Wally would clear the trail, and my kid would hold Wally’s horse, so all three horses could remain in their single file positions on the narrow path. My job was to remain calm and still in the lead, so the horses would continue to wait patiently.

So Wally climbed off Twister, handed the reins to my son, slithered past Henry and Sunny, and begin to break branches and throw them off the bank. All horses continued to stand quietly, and I gave grateful thanks for this.

Sunny has his faults, all horses do, but he is a master of calm and confidence outside, especially when its needed. I’m not sure how he knows, but when the chips are down, he always acts right. His minor misbehaving is reserved for times when its no big deal. In this case, any dancing or prancing or impatience would quite likely have resulted in a step off the bank, with possible results that I don’t like to think of. Let alone how any anxious behavior might affect the other horses. No, it doesn’t bear thinking of. I can picture the wreck all too easily.

In any case, it took Wally maybe fifteen minutes to clear a route around the tree and feel pretty sure it was doable for the horses. We would still be pushing through brush, but there was nothing big and solid in our way and the ground seemed OK.

Now for the next test. I explained to my ten year old son the route we would be taking and that he needed to follow right in Sunny’s footsteps. If he allowed Henry to turn too soon, he would end up getting brushed off by the overhanging tree branches. Then, once Wally was mounted again, I gave Sunny the signal to go.

And here is where, once more, I must sing Sunny’s praises. Because many a horse, after waiting so long at an obvious obstacle, would express some hesitation when finally asked to head up a steep hill, off the trail, pushing through thick brush and vines. I know enough to do a version of what jumpers do—“throw your heart over the fence”—when I say let’s go, there is no doubt or hesitation in me, I mean to go through. Perhaps Sunny reads this, but more, I think, it is own steady, confident nature that carries us. He has had to push through brush before and he knows how to do it. Steep doesn’t bother him. At my signal, he put his head down and trudged straight up the hill, pushing gamely through the brush and downed branches, stepping exactly where I pointed him. We made our way around the crown of the tree without a hitch. The other horses followed calmly. And in a minute we were back down on the trail.

I have to admit, I heaved a big sigh of relief. There was nothing so terribly dangerous in what we did, but I am very protective of my son’s safety, and even minor adversity has me picturing all the potential downside. But nothing happened. We bushwhacked our way around the fallen tree and rode on. The rest of the ride was delightful—warm sunshine, good footing, lovely views. In the next photo you can see Sunny (and me) gazing out over the Monterey Bay, from the spot we call the Lookout. Is that pretty or what? Our warm winter days are probably our loveliest weather of the whole year. (My apologies to those of you who are snowed in--again--I don't mean to torture you.)

The funny thing? We had a peaceful, pleasant ride home, including detouring around the fallen tree for the second time. Sunny was a real champ. But then, and this is typical of him, on the last little downhill (which is the hill you see us climbing in the first photo), he began attempting his pogo stick hop, and when I wouldn’t allow it he jigged. So he jigs (well, its really more “almost jigging”—a bouncy walk) for maybe fifty feet, and then we reach the busy road we have to cross. And prancing around here could be seriously fatal. Does Sunny jig here? Of course not. Here he stands, solid as a rock, while we wait and wait for the road to be clear. Just as if he hadn’t been annoyingly on the muscle for the last stretch leading to the road. He is, as always, flawless as he waits next to cars which zip by at fifty miles an hour.

Go figure. Does Sunny understand that its truly important to be quiet and calm by the road, and when faced with difficult obstacles on the trail, and that it doesn’t much matter if he prances on an easy bit of trail? That doesn’t seem likely. And yet I can provide no explanation for his behavior, which is entirely characteristic of this horse. He frequently acts “bratty” on that last little downhill, after being obedient and cooperative throughout the ride (which includes plenty of downhill stretches), and then he always waits quietly when we must then cross the road. Once across the road he marches briskly, but calmly and on a loose rein, up the last hill to home. I once suggested his mildly rebellious behavior at the end of a ride was a version of giving me the finger. You know, “I did what you asked, but I’m nobody’s sweet little pet.” Sunny is a funny horse.

What do you guys make of this? Anybody have a theory why he acts this way? Or a trail horse adventure to share?


Anonymous said...

No theories - but he's allowed some leeway since he's obviously a great horse. In fact, they all sound like great horses.

Laura Crum said...

Kate--That's exactly how I look at it. And yeah, they are all really nice trail horses, especially when you consider that our little group is composed of myself (middle-aged--wants no drama), my ten year old kid, and our friend Wally, who is 77 (has been riding all his life but is getting a little stiff and creaky). I am so grateful we have horses that will pack us up to the Lookout, and around the occasional unexpected obstacle in such a reliable way.

Francesca Prescott said...

Laura: I want to go to the Lookout! Can I come?! I love your part of the world, and would love to be able to come back and ride over there again. My sister keeps pestering me to come with her to California this summer, and I'd love to, not just to go riding (we used to ride together in Alum Rock Park, above San Jose. A Long Time Ago!), but to soak up some of that unique vibe, and maybe build a story around it. money money...

Anyway, your latest ride sounds like a ride to remember :). And I guess he just jigs to tease you a little, keep you on your toes! He's just kidding :)

Laura Crum said...

Francesca--For sure if you come to California let me know. Me, I'd like to get back to Europe where I had the best vacation of my life--twelve or so years ago. I like your theory about Sunny. I never thought of that, but in a way it makes sense. Sunny definitely has a sense of humor.

Anonymous said...

I wonder if her picks up all your emotions and vibes. We all know horses are very sensitive to body language and emotion, either from their fellow horses or the people around them. Maybe he knows, after all this time riding with you on his back and by "reading" you that there are certain times when it's okay to act up, cause my person is relaxed in the saddle and there are certain times when he'd better just behave because your emotions tell him so. I imagine in the wild that they have to be tuned into their leader at all times to avoid getting you know, eaten! You are his alpha so he trusts you to keep him safe and he does his little bit to keep himself and the herd safe. But I'm sure like a lot of horses he does have a sense of humor and can for lack of a better term "bust a move" because he feels good, the ride was good, food's waiting, the boss is pleased. I know when I rode trails in the desert there were times when I know my whole body language changed depending on how steep the trail or what obstacles we were facing, and I know also that I would relax too when I knew we were in a comfort zone.

He does sound like an amazing horse and one truly worth his weight in oats!!!
Thanks for sharing another great story Laura and a thought provoking question!
Cheers, Lynn

Anonymous said...

Sorry that first sentence should say "he" not "her". I really have to start editing my comments for grammar, sheeesh!!!!

Laura Crum said...

Lynn--Its funny--I always assumed that horses would respond to my tension/anxiety by getting tense themselves. This is not the case with Sunny, who always feels very calm when I get tense/worried about something--like the fallen tree in the trail. Of course, I do my best not to tense up physically (I don't tighten the reins or my legs), but I'm sure I can't really fool the horse. So, as you say, he is responding to my relaxed feel (because we've had a good ride and we're near home) by acting up. This seems contradictory to me. But it does appear to be the case.

Alison said...

Wait, you have green grass and green trees AND a view to die for! No fair!

Laura Crum said...

Alison--After I wrote the post I wondered if everyone who is currently covered in snow and ice would just gnash their teeth when they saw it and think I was evil for torturing them. Thus the apology. It is very nice here right now. But we are supposed to get rain next week, and I will be back to muddy, mucky corrals and no trail riding. So we don't always have lovely conditions in the winter. I've got to admit, though, I wouldn't trade coastal California for a colder climate. I love it here.