Wednesday, October 5, 2011

Trail Ride Drama

by Laura Crum

Trail rides have the inevitable potential for drama. The “outside” world is full of unexpected surprises. I always hope to be spared any excitement; I make the best choices I can to guide us on pleasant strolls through the hills and woods. And-the truth is we’ve had some very peaceful, uneventful trail rides lately. That’s what I shoot for—adventureless trail rides. I love riding through the autumn woods—unworried and relaxed, enjoying the sights and sounds and the smile on my child’s face. But I have to admit, recounting these rides doesn’t make for a very exciting post, as opposed to telling of adventures, disasters and tragedies.

(My son on Henry—sorry for the blurry photo—I have a hard time taking clear pictures from the back of my own horse.)

This last weekend we went on a lovely ride through the hills, and had lunch at the top of the ridge. Every step of the way our horses were perfect gentlemen, despite having had at least a week off. Their calm, relaxed frame of mind kept them from cracking much of a sweat, though the day was warm and they are getting their winter coats. Just a little damp behind the ears after our two hour ride up the ridge. Another wonderful expedition on our good horses, for which I am so grateful. Memorable only for how very nice it all was. No drama. Lousy blog post.

(Here we are on a peaceful autumn trail ride—this photo was taken by my husband, who was hiking along with our dogs.)

Am I the only one who scans those lists of recently posted blogs that some folks kindly provide and look for a title that suggests something dramatic? I’ll bet not. As much as we may wish others well, it appears (by the number of comments on dramatic/tragic posts) that we are all riveted by disaster.

I’ve thought about this a lot. Its a common device used by novelists. Just describe some graphic, horrible scene and you can be absolutely sure to hook your audience. It’s the premise behind all horror books/films. It’s what’s responsible for the popularity of “thrillers”. It’s the same thing that virtually forces us to crane for a glance of a traffic accident. Some sort of primal need that rivets us to tragedy, even as we may feel/grieve for the participants. Somewhere inside we are acknowledging our own mortality and the relief that at least this isn’t me…this time.

I responded to a comment on my last blog post that referenced the book, “The Horse Whisperer”, by saying I hated that book. Which I did—for a variety of reasons. But one of them was the use of gripping horror in the first scene to hook the audience. I’m not saying it didn’t work. Folks, that trick ALWAYS works. But it leaves a really bad taste in my mouth.

I don’t want to be riveted to the edge of my seat by either book or movie due to the horror factor. I totally acknowledge what a basic human emotion it is, and yet I never feel good about myself when I allow myself to be led by it, in either writing or life. And I am just as human as the next person. You put up a blog post titled “Tragedy”—well, I’m gonna read that first. What can I say?

But…I wince when I catch myself peering at traffic accidents, and I would never consider following a fire truck, or stopping at the scene of a disaster out of nosy curiosity. There is something in our human curiosity about horror that actively repulses me, even as I am drawn in just like the next guy. So every time I am gripped by some horrifying scene in book or movie (or blog), I find myself feeling slightly sick afterward. My main emotion is: I wish I hadn’t read/seen that.

As an author, I actively avoid this device in my books, even though I am well aware how powerful it is. Unlike many bestselling novels, you will not find graphic descriptions of violent tragedies in my stories. Yes, I know they are mysteries, so someone has to die (I once tried to write one without a corpse and was sharply rebuked by the editor—“There’s no body; there should be a body by chapter three at the latest.”), but I don’t focus on careful descriptions of blood and gore. Same for graphic descriptions of sex—that other guaranteed seller. I simply refuse to write that stuff. And no, its not to my monetary advantage.

But what about real life? I know that I am gripped with both horror and sympathy when I read about others and their trail ride dramas. I have a strong “need to know”, which I tend to justify under the label of learning what I can from the incident so I don’t make the same mistake, whatever that mistake was. (A lot of the time no real mistake was made—bad luck just happens.)

Ok, then, what have I learned from other’s trail ride dramas? And perhaps from my own lack of drama, while riding outside. Here’s my list—perhaps it will/may help someone else in pursuit of relaxing trail rides.

1) Ride a steady, seasoned, trail horse in the double digits. This is huge. I’ve talked about it before, many times, so won’t belabor this point, and those of you who are younger, better riders and/or want to do ambitious/competitive rides, well, you know this advice isn’t for you. Those of you who, like me, want quiet, peaceful rides sans “excitement” would do well to heed this point.

2) Hike your proposed ride before you ride it. This may not always be possible, but if it is, it helps immensely. With no risk to yourself and your horse (other than you get tired) you can determine just what sort of trail and trail obstacles you’re likely to meet and make a good decision about the proposed ride.

3) Ride with one or two equally seasoned horses bearing riders you know well and trust. If they are inexperienced horsemen, they must be the sort who will listen to you and do what you say. If they are experienced, their standards for acceptable risk must be similar to yours. If you take a rider on a green horse, put that horse behind a steady horse. If you have a beginning rider, put that rider in the middle with an experienced rider ahead and behind him/her. Solo rides are lovely, but they aren’t the safest or the most relaxing way to go. I like to ride solo, but I am aware that I am much more alert, as is my horse. I don’t like to ride in a big group (more than four). I find it creates a more difficult dynamic, and almost inevitably the horses are not as relaxed.

4) OK—helmets are good. I still don’t wear one (you can scold me if you want), but my son does. I know it’s a good idea—I couldn’t find one—I did try—that fit me and was comfortable. (I actually tried on every “large” helmet at the biggest tack store in our area—not one fit my larger-than-large head The tack store owner, who really wanted to sell me a helmet, told me that none of them fit correctly and I shouldn’t buy any of them. And they were all totally uncomfortable. I really do believe that I should get and wear a helmet, but it is proving even more difficult than I had supposed. Not only do hats of any sort give me a headache, but helmets do not appear to exist in a size that fits me. I plan to keep trying to find one, though, because I owe it to my husband and son.) I will still stand on my belief that riding a solid horse and making good choices is more important for safety—but I think I ought to get a helmet.

5) Riding good trails (not slippery, not too much exposure, not too steep, not too many obstacles) goes a long way to staying safe.

6) Riding at a relaxed pace goes a long way towards staying safe. We mostly walk, trot a little, occasionally lope when we’re all in the mood. We do not gallop madly along. Yes, its fun, and when I was younger I loped and galloped a lot more often. And the last time I was bucked off on the trail I was galloping up a long grade (many years ago). You really do see the countryside much more when you walk. I know, it sounds boring, and maybe to some it is. For me its peaceful and enjoyable.

7) I bring a cell phone. When my husband hikes with us, he brings a pistol. I do not carry a pistol on my horse because I don’t think I could fire it off my horse safely. I also think that a mounted rider can dominate most situations—with either people or animals—if they are thinking. Our only potentially threatening animals here are cougars, and I don’t believe I have ever heard of one jumping a mounted horseman. Most people who don’t know horses are easily intimidated—swing the horse’s butt at them, yelling, “Watch out, he kicks!” I HAVE had someone pull a gun on me when I was out riding—this was many years ago, and I had unknowingly ridden into an area where this someone was growing pot (I figured this out later). I was able to retreat reasonably gracefully—no harm done, and I realized then that it would have done me zero good to have been “carrying” myself. Galloping away is going to be your best defense.

8) I try to keep my rides well within the capacity of both horses and riders. Tired horses and people leads to trouble. For me, this means shorter rides (three/four hours is a long ride for us) and for me, that’s OK. My knees get sore if the ride is too long. In the same sense, riding a sore horse leads to stumbling and potential trouble. All horses on the ride should be sound enough and fit enough that they are comfortable—not miserable. A horse that has a noticeable head bob while trotting in a straight line is not sound enough for a trail ride—there can be exceptions to this, but it’s a good rule of thumb.

9) Pay attention. Even while you enjoy your relaxed stroll through the woods, you MUST pay attention. If your horse tosses his head at a bug, your alert recognition that it is a wasp, and that, whoa, there are several more right here, could save your life. This happened to me many years ago, riding a green three-year-old I didn’t know at all solo through the mountains (I was younger and tougher back then). I had disturbed a ground wasp nest and the wasps were attacking. Fortunately I noticed the very first pass by the buzzing critter and realized what was happening. The young horse was stung once and leaped forward, I regained control and kicked him up to a brisk trot. We were able to get out of range before he was stung again and we did fine. Contrast this to a friend of mine who failed to note what was happening until his steady Eddy horse had been stung several times and proceeded to buck him off, whereupon the poor guy was stung repeatedly after he hit the ground. Not fun. So pay attention. If your horse looks at something, you look to see what it is. If his foot slips, you look down and check the footing. Just pay attention. Don’t assume anything.

10) Listen to your intuition. This sounds silly, maybe, but for me it works. If I feel too apprehensive about something, I don’t do it. I do not allow a bolder companion to talk me into something that feels “wrong” to me on a trail ride. At the beginning of every ride, I “feel” into myself, asking if this will be fine. Usually, I “get,” yep, this will be just fine. If I don’t, I think hard about what choice I want to make. This doesn’t mean I don’t sometimes push past my nerves, it just means that I try to pay attention to whatever inner wisdom I have.

OK—there’s some ideas. Any other good trail ride tips? I’m all for avoiding drama.


Dreaming said...

Great post with super ideas for safety. (And yes...I'm gonna chastise you for not wearing a helmet! Do find one that fits cause you are right, it won't work if it slips and it will make you grumpy if it is too tight!)
I'd suggest one other thing to carry with you....a pocket knife, or better yet, a multi-tool. You can get a case for the tool that you can clip on your saddle.
I also recently read that you should braid some sort of identification and contact information in your horse's mane. That way, should you become disconnected and should tack get stripped off, someone would know who to call.

Laura Crum said...

Dreaming--those are terrific ideas. My husband (who often hikes with us) does carry both a pocket knife and a multi-tool, as does our friend Wally, and I should remember to take at least a knife when I ride without the guys. And the ID braided into the horse's mane is a good idea, too. And yes, I know I need to get a helmet. Since I come from a background where no one I ride with wears one and none of their kids wear one either (my kid has been the ONLY person wearing a helmet in an arena with hundreds of riders, many of them children--and he got lots of funny looks), it is harder for me to force myself to do it--but I do believe it is the right choice.

Francesca Prescott said...

Lots of good advice, Laura. And I like Dreaming's suggestion about having contact details on your horse's mane. Another possibility might be to have a little medal engraved with your name and phone number and attach it to the bridle, or the saddle maybe, like a dog's medal on its collar. Of course, if the horse loses its tack that's not going to help...

Anonymous said...

Very good post. I routinely violate #s 1 and 3, and know that that increases the risk. I think riding with a companion or companion is a mixed bag - it's easier to get distracted and not pay attention to your horse and surroundings - I find talking to fellow riders on the trail very distracting. It is easier for an inexperienced horse, though. Also, finding good people to ride with - by which I mean people who are interested in riding at a mutually agreeable pace and who won't do stupid stuff - is harder than it should be. Pie's still a greenie and it's frustrating when all other people want to do is go fast (we don't, yet) or leave us behind - this happens sometimes even at the walk since Pie's sorta slow.

I've found hand walking a horse on an unfamiliar trail can be very helpful - this of course assumes that you have a horse that leads well. Ground driving can also be very useful to introduce a horse to trails - Drifter and I will probably do some of this (once I get around to teaching him to ground drive which shouldn't be hard since he lunges well).

I would agree with Dreaming's ideas, and also would say that anything that needs to stay with you if you fall off - like a cell phone - should be on your body and not on your horse.

And, yes, you do need to get a helmet . . . remember what would have happened to me if I hadn't been wearing one . . .

Laura Crum said...

Francesca--I always ride with the halter on under the bridle on the trail--very important if you have to tie a horse up-- and halters are pretty reliable about staying on. I think I ought to get little plagues for the halters with my name, address and phone number.

Laura Crum said...

Kate--Yes, it is hard to find good companions to ride with. I ride with my son, our friend/boarder, Wally, and my hiking husband--we have gone on hundreds of expeditions together. The horses are solid and know each other--we have the same ideas about what is acceptable. I have other friends that might like to join us, but the truth is I don't invite them--for the very reasons you describe. I, too have had the experience of riding a green horse who did not have a fast walk and being repeatedly left behind by an inconsiderate person on a fast walking horse. This was in the mountains, and my four year old got upset at being left behind on steep downhill grades (in the rocks). I was furious at the inconsiderate leader--I had asked him many times to stop and wait for my horse and he ignored this request. I never rode with that guy again--and I've become pretty picky about who I will ride with. Like you, I prefer to ride solo than to deal with less than ideal riding companions. However, none of my regular "group" have the habit of chatting much on the trail. We mostly are quiet, taking in the world around us, though my son will sometimes whistle, hum, or sing softly. I, too, would find it an unpleasant distraction to try to focus on conversation while riding on the trail.

I don't hand walk horses on the trail in any form--but that's just me. I feel safer and more in control on the horse than I do leading him.

I ride in cargo pants and the cell phone and camera are carried in those handy side pockets.

And your accident riding Pie is one of the many reasons I've come to the conclusion I MUST at least buy and try to wear a helmet. Pie is a young horse--and this sort of bears out my point number one--but it is perfectly true that I could come off reliable Sunny and hit my head--if for no other reason that he trips/slips and goes down. I thought I had the whole deal done when I went to the tack store, and I did buy my son a new helmet--his had "expired"--but with the best will in the world I couldn't find one to fit me. Anybody have any suggestions for a rider with a large head who gets headaches from wearing any kind of hat?

Francesca Prescott said...

Laura, you should get a helmet. I bumped my head on a skinny little tree branch the other day; I was wearing my helmet so it didn't hurt, but it made such a loud noise and really rattled me. I'd ducked, but clearly hadn't ducked enough. Oh, and I have a big head too, so have a hard time finding helmets and hats. My helmet has a button at the back that you turn to adjust the fit. It's really comfortable. I know I'm not wearing a helmet in my profile photo here, but it was a mistake (I forgot to get it out the cupboard and it was early days with Qrac so I didn't dare leave him tied up while I went to get it), and I always wear it now. I never wore one with Kwint, but now I feel unsafe without it, kind of like I would if i did't fasten my seatbelt in the car. It's become a habit.

Laura Crum said...

Oops--I guess I should say that I have twice in my life gotten off and led my horse over a bridge that said horse was afraid of--I thought it was safer than trying to force the horse to get on the bridge while I was on him. In both cases (two different horses and bridges) the horse led easily over the bridge, following me, and crossed the bridge while ridden on the way back--with no fuss. So I guess I do lead a horse on the trail once in awhile if it seems it would be helpful. In general, I really do feel safer and more in control of what's happening when I'm on the horse than when I'm on the ground leading him. But this is also because I'm riding steady horses and don't feel that they are going to drop me or misbehave.

Laura Crum said...

Francesca--Others have told me about the head versus branch thing--and the ironic fact is that my favorite trail ride features a very solid, very low, overhanging limb that there is no getting around. We must ride under it, ducking alongside our horses necks. Yes, a helmet would be smart.

All those helmets I tried had buttons at the back to adjust them--they were still too small and would not fit down over my head properly. Its kind of embarrassing, actually. She of the huge head...

Gayle Carline said...

Laura - I typically don't ride the trails with my horses (my mare is too skittish and my gelding is a showhorse), but if I did, I'd get a helmet. I haven't come off too often in the arena, but they don't make a helmet for the end I always land on.

I do, however, second the last tip about your intuition. I have several examples of things that went wrong because I didn't listen to my gut. I got bucked off because I didn't want to take the time to lunge a horse before I rode him, even though my gut told me differently. One day, my mare felt "off", even though my trainer couldn't see anything wrong. My gut was telling me to stop riding, but when no one can see any lameness, you tend to think you're imagining things. I wasn't. She was lame for two weeks. I still think she wouldn't have been THAT sore if I'd just paid attention to my intuition.

Good post, even without the drama. LOL

Francesca Prescott said...

You know what they say about huge heads!!!

Laura Crum said...

Gayle--Yes--that is exactly what I mean. Listen to your gut. If that little voice keeps warning you that something isn't right, listen! I, too, have ignored my intuition in the past and I try to pay attention to it these days. Once you get in the habit of it, it seems to happen more easily and freely all the time. I think its a skill you can develop.

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Funder said...

Hey big head buddy! Mine isn't quite as big - I fit in a Tipperary Large - but I totally understand.

The only thing I'd add is: tell someone where you're going and when you are due back. I always email or text my husband where I'll be and when I'll be back.

ID tags - go to the dog tag kiosk at a Petco/Petsmart. I've had one attached to Dixie's rope halter for two years and it looks brand new. You can also consider a RoadID if you have any medical conditions that EMTs need to be aware of.

Laura Crum said...

Funder--The gal at the feedstore has promised to order me a "comfortable" helmet that fits a large, football shaped head (more embarrassment). I don't have to take it if its not comfy. So I'm persisting in the helmet hunt.

I do, always, tell someone where I'm going and when I'll be back if I'm riding solo or with my kid. When I go with my husband I sort of figure we can deal with what comes up.

Great idea about the tags. My little dog wears one--why not my horse?

Mikey said...

Paying attention. I have a hard time with that one. Sometimes I ride Quinn, who pays even less attention to where we're going than I do. I'm always "touristing" (looking around). I have to work on that.
I agree on the drama posts too *grin* I'm so guilty of that. But I hope by having a "You gotta see this" title, more people will come and see funny things, things that make you laugh, like me rolling my eyes bottle feeding those javalina. I try to keep the real drama to a minimum around here, even though that's not always possible.
Great post as always :)

Laura Crum said...

Mikey--The javalinas were totally fun. I showed my kid--we watched the video three times. I tried to post a comment but for some reason it didn't take. But thank you, thank you for the photos and video. I loved it! Everybody should read Mikey's Horseshoing Housewife blog listed on the sidebar as "Postcards from Arizona" --honestly, it is great fun.

Braymere said...

I think that people with normal heads tend to discount helmet fit problems. I rode bareheaded for years and it had nothing to do with vanity. My head isn't large but its narrow from side to side and long from front to back. I literally spent years looking for a helmet that didn't give me a blinding headache. I hope you can find one that works for you, Laura, but I totally understand that sometimes nothing really is better than something that fits that poorly.

Laura Crum said...

Thanks Braymere--my head is both large and shaped as you describe. Lucky me. And anything on my head gives me a headache--even a bandana, or a soft hat adjusted until its quite loose. I don't know what the deal is with that. I never wear hats--even on the brightest of days--so the whole helmet thing is very daunting, completely aside from the fact that no one I ride with wears one (except my son). But I'm persisting.

LA Nickers said...

Good post!

I experienced the bee-sting-turning-quiet-ride-into-buckfest this summer. 12 fractures, and I'm still recovering.

First ride back this week.


Trail riding can be an extreme sport. ;-)

Laura Crum said...

Linda--The wasp's nest/bee sting issue is actually one of my biggest fears when I trail ride with my son. That and a horse slipping and going down. These are things that no amount of care will completely protect us against. I'm so sorry to hear of your accident. Hope your first rides coming back are very calm and pleasant.

Shanster said...

Excellent things to keep in mind! Trail riding isn't as easy as people tend to think in my opinion!

RiderWriter said...

Laura, "somewhere" on the Interwebz I just saw a video of a lady demonstrating the new helmet she found that fit her "huuuuuuge head!" She said she'd never been able to find one that fit before and was delighted with it. I wish to heck I could remember where I saw that! Maybe if you Google "large riding helmet" or go to YouTube you can find it? In the meantime, I'll keep my eyes peeled. It was a brand I'd never heard of before, unfortunately.

The rest of your tips are very solid advice. I've been doing a bit of trail riding lately and will definitely take them to heart. Now, if only my riding buddy would wear HER helmet every time... grrrr.