Wednesday, June 1, 2011

Older and Wiser, Or?

by Laura Crum

The other day we went for a trail ride and had an interesting experience. I thought it was interesting on many levels and wanted to talk about it here and see if anyone had any thoughts. Because at times I think I’m learning to be smarter and other times I think I’m just becoming a huge chicken.

So we’re riding down a trail that we haven’t ridden since the big winter storms-- myself, my son, and our friend Wally, all on our very reliable trail horses. There are muddy places, which we cross no problem, and downed trees, which we are able to get around. We’re doing fine. Neither horses nor people are the least bit worried. It’s a pretty, sunny day—we’re having a blast.

And then we come to another downed tree. This one is big—a redwood tree. I’m in the lead and I approach the tree at its lowest point, where the trunk is about two and a half feet in diameter. On one side of this spot is a steep bank going downhill. On the other side of the trail is an equally steep bank going uphill. We will not be able to detour around this tree. Its climb over it here, or turn back.

I study the tree. Its not undoable. All of our horses could step/scramble over or pop over it like a small jump. I have done such things with Sunny before and he’s fine with it (the only thing Sunny has ever balked at on the trail is small, weird looking bridges). He doesn’t mind popping over downed trees. But the times I’ve done this in the past, the trunk was smooth and it was clear horses went over it regularly. This trunk is not smooth. There are several short, sticking up branches right where we must cross. Its unclear to me if any horse has ever been over this. I see no hoofprints, just hiker’s bootprints.

Sunny stares at the tree trunk calmly; I’m pretty sure he’ll try it if I ask him to. But I’m not sure if I should ask. I don’t like the look of the short, sharp, upward thrusting branch stubs, which seem pretty solid. I ask Wally to come have a look and say what he thinks.

I get out of the way and Wally rides up and surveys the tree. We can get over it, he tells me. Twister is brave; he’ll do it.

I still feel doubtful, but I tell Wally to go ahead and try it if he wants.

Twister is looking at the tree calmly, just like Sunny did. Wally clucks to him and asks him to go forward. Twister continues to be calm; he looks more closely at the tree, but he does not go forward. Wally asks again, same result.

Wally looks at me. “He doesn’t want to,” he says in a surprised tone.

I know why Wally is surprised. Twister IS a brave horse. If ever Sunny balks, like at the small, weird bridges, Twister will unhesitatingly give a lead. Both Sunny and Twister will cross mud, deep water, breaking surf, busy roads, steep spots…etc without a flinch. They are both willing to jump over things. They are not drama queens. They are smart, steady, reliable trail horses.

I have the sense that Twister will go over the tree if its demanded of him. But he doesn’t want to.

I look back at Wally. “Maybe we ought to let his decision stand,” I say. “It wouldn’t be worth it if any of us got hurt.”

And to my surprise, Wally agrees. “You’re right,” he says. And turns Twister back from the tree.

We retrace our steps, take another trail, and have a pleasant ride, though shorter than the one we intended. And I wonder if we have become wiser in our old age, or just more chicken hearted.

Before I took a ten year break to have and raise a child, I was a pretty intrepid rider. I would have sent my horse right over that tree. Wally has been all his life one of the boldest riders I know. He never turned back from anything. I insist on leading on trail rides because I have so often had the experience of Wally leading me into some steep, tricky spot where I don’t at all want to be as he calls back to me happily, “Come on, its fine.”

And yet neither one of us were willing to try the tree.

Perhaps we are just realistic. Wally is 77 years old. The last two times he came off he got pretty badly hurt. I am stout and middle-aged, not the good rider I used to be. My son is confident, with a good seat, but he is a gentle, sensitive kid, and not an aggressive rider. He could easily be intimidated for life if he had a bad wreck. Our little horses are steady and reliable but they are all middle aged or older. We value them highly and would be very sad if we had to lay them up due to injury. It truly isn’t worth it to us as a group to take unnecessary risks.

And is part of the equation the fact that we have learned to trust our horses more? As I said, they are not drama queens. They are good horses. Neither Twister nor Sunny danced around or made a fuss about the downed tree. They did not back away from it. They just quietly indicated that they didn’t want to try to clamber over it. In my youth I would have been sure I knew more than the horse. I would have insisted that he listen to me and do what I told him. Now I am more willing to respect my solid horse’s judgment. I am willing to listen to him.

And yet…I look at Francesca on her prancing black stallion, and I read the accounts of more ambitious/adventurous others in the comments and on your blogs, and I sometimes wonder at myself. I used to be a pretty good rider and trainer. And here I am, meandering down the trail on my gentle horse, afraid to pop over a downed tree.

I’m having fun, I love my horses and my life with them, I don’t feel the need to do more. I really, really don’t want to get hurt or get my kid hurt. Or get any of our horses hurt. But in a way I’m kind of embarrassed.

And then I read a blog post by someone who has been badly hurt and/or scared in a horsewreck, and I see how deeply this impacts their whole life and how it takes away the joy, not only in horses, but everywhere—because they are in both physical and emotional pain. Not only can they not ride—they sometimes are having a hard time walking and doing the basic stuff of everyday life. And when I read this I not only feel deeply sad for the person, I feel incredibly grateful that I am not in their shoes. And I tell myself I’m making the right choices. And that my number one priority is not to get any of us hurt or scared—horses or people.

Do others of you struggle with this conundrum? I do my best not to get sucked into guilt or envy, as I’ve written about before, but there are moments when I question my own choice to have become such a sedate rider—as I said, I’m having fun meandering down the trail on my gentle horse. And that about covers it. Sometimes I think I’m really getting older and wiser, and sometimes I think I’ve just become a big chicken. Any insights on this?

PS—I wrote this post last week. Over the weekend we took another trail ride. Its been raining a lot here and the ground is much wetter than it usually is this time of year. The trail we chose has a steep climb halfway along and when we got there it was much muddier than I expected—and very slippery. We started up the lower slope and all three horses were slipping and sliding. I pulled Sunny up and said, “I don’t want to do this.”

This time Wally pushed a little to keep going, but I held firm. “Its not worth it if one of them slips and goes down.” And, in fact, Twister had already scrambled enough to have stepped on a front shoe and bent it.

So we went back, and once again had a shorter ride, and I got teased about being overly cautious.

And then yesterday it was raining again, and I was sitting at my desk supposedly working on my copy-edited manuscript, but in reality taking plenty of breaks to read horse blogs. And I stumbled upon two photos—a woman more or less my age and a little girl more or less my son’s age—both had been very recently killed in horse wrecks. The photos were beautiful—two happy smiling faces, posing with their obviously much loved horses. The two stories were completely unrelated, and there was little information, but both seemed to have been competent horse people who simply had misfortune. The woman was riding a new horse, the little girl was on her way from the barn to the arena at a rodeo when her horse slipped and fell with her, landing on her in just the wrong way.

I thought of those people and the people who loved them and my heart just ached. I woke up in the middle of the night thinking about them. I thanked God I had been scared to ride up the slick hill. I thought of how my husband, who doesn’t care much for horses, would feel if my son or I were badly hurt or killed in a horse wreck. I thought how I would feel if something happened to my son. Am I just being selfish, pursuing this obviously very dangerous activity with my kid?

So there you have the flip side of the coin. One moment I think I’m not doing enough and I’ve become a big chicken, the next moment I’m wondering if we ought to ride at all. These horse blogs make feel connected to so many people, and their triumphs and tragedies, for better or worse.

It’s a tangle. Any thoughts?


Jill W. said...

To me, there's no question. You did right -- why leap an obstacle no one wants to leap, that puts your horses at risk when no one wants to put them at risk, just for the sake of being intrepid?

If you're feeling intrepid, go find an obstacle you feel good about, that doesn't have sharp things or a steep incline involved.

Anonymous said...

I don't think you are a chicken at all.. You've learned to listen to your instincts. I think if more people did that, there might be less accidents.

Also, you shouldn't care if you think others think you might be chicken.. you & your son are safe to ride another day. If you had ignored your instincts, that might not be the case.

I hope you don't take riding away from your son because of something that might happen.. Life is full of hazards. Someone slips getting out of the tub.. trips crossing a street.. you never know. If you let fear stop you from doing things you enjoy, is it really living?

Anyways, just my thoughts!

Love your writing,


Minus Pride said...

I think it was smart of you to skip it. There's a difference between a young horse who has limited trail experience not wanting to conquer a trail obstacle and a seasoned horse & rider deciding not to take an uncertain risk.
The old owner of my first horse took a ride down the road one day, her horse spooked and bucked her off. She had a helmet on but hit the pavement in such a way that her neck was immediately broken. Freak things happen all the time with warnings but many of us are not receptive enough to see the warnings...perhaps you and your horse are!!

Laura Crum said...

Jillybean, Anon, and Minus Pride--Thanks for the comments. I do feel I am learning to listen to my instincts. And I know--there are so many ways we can die--and none of us gets out of this alive. It doesn't make sense to give up riding only to be killed in a car crash. Its just the two photos were so heartbreaking.

And yes, Minus Pride, I didn't feel our horses were refusing the obstacle and we gave in. Rather that they were letting us know they didn't like the look of it. I very clearly believed they would have tried it if we'd insisted. And that is a very different thing (as you point out) from letting a young horse chicken out of crossing an obstacle that his rider knows is safe (like a small stream). Endorsing that sort of refusal can lead to a horse that is a total pain about crossing water for the rest of his life.

Laura Crum said...

Jamie--Thanks especially for your kind thoughts. And no, I won't take riding away from my kid. But I am going to remain pretty cautious about what we do.

Anonymous said...

It wasn't chicken, and who cares what anyone else thinks anyway? If you or your horse don't feel like doing something (and it's not a training issue that needs to be worked through for the sake of the horse), then just don't do it - no need to feel bad about it or feel like you have to justify your decision.

I'd like to think that getting older has some benefits - as long as you're not paralyzed by a general lack of confidence (which is something else altogether), taking a more conservative route or option is perfectly sensible. I was riding Pie today on the trail, and we were confronted by large numbers of school children on bicycles - apparently a school outing. He's pretty good with bikes now - when I got him he was scared of them - don't think he'd ever seen them on his ranch - but I elected to dismount and hold him by the side of the trail, both to increase his confidence and to make sure nothing happened both for my safety and that of the kids. He might have been fine if I'd stayed aboard, but who knows?

And besides, I've got nothing to prove and neither do you.

Laura Crum said...

Very true, Kate. I often ride with Wally, who is apt to tease me (in a good hearted way) for my caution--he knew me when I trained horses and competed regularly at cutting and roping, so knew me when I was bolder. But I'm not really very bothered by his teasing, nor do I stress much about my greater caution these days. No, I don't have anything to prove. I do stress about the safety issue--when I read about someone else's bad wreck.

Anonymous said...

You did the right thing. I'm with you, most of the time we need to listen to our horses more, especially when faced with the unknown.

Shanster said...

Yeah, it's a tangle allright. Any more I error on the side of caution... and I also never know if I'm just a yeller bellied chicken or being sensible. Sigh.

horsegenes said...

So basically what you are saying is that you were thinking that you might be a big chicken because you made an educated choice to not put anyone, horse or rider, at risk? I know what you mean but you really have to look at it logically. You are the only mom that your boy has. He is your only son. Wally sounds like he has been a tried and true friend to you for years. I look at it like it takes a bold hearted person to stand their ground and take care of the ones they love. You go girl!

I had a little trail incident this weekend that I turned around and headed for home too. We were about 8 miles out on a trail ride at the lake, trying to find the end of a new trail the state has been working on. We heard rumbling in the brush and then a BEAR appeared out into a clearing. Thankfully it was a ways away but it was too close for my comfort level. To continue on we would have had to go right past where it was and I wasn't going there. So we turned around and headed home. I think I was a pretty smart chicken! :)

Laura Crum said...

kel--A bear! Now that we don't have around here. I would have turned back, too. And thanks for your always practical insights. And yeah, I so flip flop between thinking I'm a chicken and thinking this whole horse thing is way dangerous. I DO want to take good care of my kid. Our horses have given us much joy--but would it be worth it if we had a bad wreck?

redhorse and shanster--I'm in your camp. But I do ponder the subject. My attitude has sure changed a lot over the years.

Linda Benson said...

Laura - I totally understand your conundrum. I was a brave and wild rider in my youth, all the way up until I had my first and only child at age 30. After that, I was a single mother for many years, and whenever I got in a scary situation on a horse, two voices in the back of my head competed with each other. One said, "You are a brave rider, you can get through this, no problem." The second voice said, "If you get hurt on this horse, who will raise your child?" And it changed the way I rode, but for good reason.

Now, my child is grown, but my body is getting old, and two voices still compete. "You know you can ride through this situation," one of them says, and the other mutters, "Yeah, but is it worth it if you get hurt?"

Getting older does mean getting wiser, but it's really hard when you know the obstacles and situations you used to laugh at now give you pause. *Sigh* In my mind, though, you should enjoy riding your horses for as long as you can, and if you have to pick a new path or ride a little differently to stay safe, it's worth it. Thinking of you!

HorsesAndTurbos said...

:) This weekend I went around a little tree that was down..not that it was hard to go over by size, but it had a lot of branches sticking up (it was an old pine that came down) just screaming to grab a leg or poke a belly. Didn't want to chance it.

And on the other hand, I ride my spooky-at-everything-some-days mare without even thinking about it...and now my new gelding who is fast on the trails (his canter is really a gallop) - and they make me brave. But I've also developed a decent seat thanks to my mare, and am more confident. I am now trotting and cantering down slight inclines.

But I still wear a helmet!

I think you do what you feel most comfortable doing.


Laura Crum said...

Linda--I have both those voices. The one that says, "You need to keep both you and your little boy safe--first priority at all times," and the one that says "You are too old and out of shape to come off. You will get seriously hurt." The voice that says "You can get through this"...not so much any more. I do have a lot of faith in our horses and they have gotten us safely through many of the ups and downs of trail obstacles and unexpected encounters. I tend to trust my horse.

Jackie--I think you have said that we "trust our instincts" in a new and interesting way. Because yes, for each of us what we are comfortable with is different. And we need to trust that we can sort this out for ourselves. I'd probably be scared to ride Starlette (!)

Fantastyk Voyager said...

I'm one of those who got hurt recently and I'm still pondering over how I should have stopped riding sooner and maybe it wouldn't have happened. I felt so helpless at the time but I don't think there was anything I did that actually caused him to rear up and go over backwards. Even when I went to the emergency room and later, prepped for surgery, I was in disbelief- this couldn't happen to me- could it? It certainly knocked the wind out of my sails to know that I am so vulnerable...and getting old just depresses me.

But then- who knew I was going to get hurt? What ifs and woulda, coulda, shouldas will drive you crazy. The horses probably sensed your uneasiness and hesitated and that's all it takes. But- why risk it? Once over, you'd all have to come back over it again anyway. There's always another time to take on different challenges. I think you did the right thing and you shouldn't even think twice about it.

Mikey said...

I think you're very smart. If you had doubts, and the horse had doubts, don't push it. Not worth dying for is it? Then don't.
Older=wiser in my book. Freak accidents still happen often enough. No reason to go looking for trouble.
Great post, I thought about this one all day before I got back to comment.

Laura Crum said...

Voyager--You were one of the people I was thinking about when I referenced folks who had been hurt in horse wrecks. I read your account of what happened to you and I, too, don't know what you would have done differently. Stuff like this will/does happen with horses--that's part of my problem here. My husband, whose hobby is playing the bagpipes, often points out to me that you don't often hear of pipers being hurt or killed in pursuit of their avocation. Horses, he says, are like motorcycles. Its not IF you'll get hurt, but when and how badly. I'm afraid he has a point.

Mikey--Thanks for the kind words. I know you know what I mean.

HorseOfCourse said...

If you have a horse that you trust on the trail, I believe it is wise to listen to them.
The trust is toways, isn't it?

I also belive that we (sometimes) are more wiser now than we were in our 20ies, when bad things could happen to other people, but not to yourself.

Laura Crum said...

Horse Of Course--I think you are right. As we get older we are aware that the bad wreck might happen to us--when I was young, I had very little fear. Hard to say which is better.

Anonymous said...

Hey Laura: Your blog really hit home for me. I just sold my 10 year old Arab/QH gelding because he was just too much horse for me. Could we have worked it out? Maybe, but it would have taken a very long time. My kids want to go trail riding now. I couldn't, because I was afraid. I have cried over this decision because I have never "given" up on my ability to ride before. Even if I was afraid I'd ride through it. But every time I got on my boy my legs would turn to jelly and I would desperately want to be anywhere else. Not fun. It's made me even question whether or not I want to even ride any more. So I have gone with my instincts and bought a 10 year old palomino mare named Peaches and she is the total opposite of my gelding, so I will learn to trust her and her me and I pray that we will go forward, like you and Sunny, enjoying your meanderings along the trails.

You know it probably doesn't help that I ride with a 26 year old woman who is alot like I was at her age - FEARLESS!! But she understands my limits and is really very good about helping me get over them.

The bottom line is that getting old sucks, but we can do what we love as safely as we can and our decisions are ours alone and we have to feel good about what we choose. If we can get our pride out of the way that is! :D

Laura Crum said...

Hi Lynn, I know you have been struggling with some of these issues--it sounds to me like you made a good decision. I hope Peaches turns out to be just right for you--as Sunny has been for me.

Francesca Prescott said...

Laura, you're not a chicken, you're just wise. Or maybe you're a wise chicken, because I'd have done exactly the same. I'd probably have been a bit frutrated with myself for not having insisted my horse did as he was bid, but I wouldn't have risked getting myself, my horse, and whoever was accompanying me into an unpleasant or downright dangerous situation.

And as for my prancing stallion(you cracked me up with that!!!), to be perfectly honest he's not all that prancy, really. He's only prancy in certain situation, such as when I take him to the farrier in my van, where there are a gazillion hot sexy mares checking him out. He gets seriously prancy there! But when I'm handling him at home, or even riding him, he's not particularly hot to handle. Nevertheless, just the fact that he gets hot under the halter when I take him places, or even at home in certain situations, has made me come to a "wise" decision. I'll soon have a gorgeous gelding, not a sex-pot stallion, because I don't want to spend my life worrying about whether his sex drive is going to place me or anyone else in difficulty or danger. Never mind if he's an approved stallion; I didn't buy him as a stud. Will he lose value? Probably! But I have no intention of selling him, either, so what does it matter.

Yes, we're older, and have the hindsight of all the crazy things we did in our younger years to draw on. Some of my hindsight gives me spine shivers! Some things were fun and exciting, they're great memories, but not to be repeated.

Wise chickens of the world, unite, and spread your wisdom!

Great post, as always.

Laura Crum said...

Francesca--Well, I do think you're wise to want a gelding rather than a stallion, and I know Qrac will remain just as gorgeous and impressive. Glad I amused you with the "prancing black stallion". I do find Qrac to be somewhat awe inspiring, actually.

In Sunny's defense, he didn't actually refuse to do as he was bid. We walked up to the tree and I halted him to inspect it. I never actually asked him to go over it--I think he would have if I'd asked. But I was too big a chicken (!) Twister did express reluctance to cross it, but again, I think he would have done it if Wally had insisted.

OK--I like your phrase. "Wise chickens of the world"--that's us.

Unknown said...

Good for you to listen to both your instincts and your horse(s). Isn't it better to have a good, enjoyable ride and come back safe? I think you are just wiser and have developed a trusting partnership with your horse.

Due to medical things with me and watching my best friend go through Traumatic Brain Injury from a horse wreck I haven't really ridden in several years and all that time my green brokes/not broke have been pasture ornaments. I dream of the day when I will have the guts to work them and get ON them to ride even if it's just around the pasture.