Wednesday, June 6, 2012

What Do You Do?

                                               by Laura Crum

            We went on a lovely trail ride a little while ago. That is, until the unexpected happened. We survived it just fine, but it made me think about what the bottom line of trail riding really is. And it reminded me of why I ride a solid horse.
The thing about trail riding is the thing you don’t expect. You can ride a particular trail hundreds of times and know it like a book, and then one day something totally unexpected happens and you have a wreck. This can happen in an arena, too, particularly if you’re working cattle, which is what I have spent my life doing. But in my experience, you are much more likely to meet the unexpected drama “outside”.
            This is the reason so many folks are scared of trail riding. It sounds good, until they are actually outside the safe confines of an arena and are suddenly aware that anything could be around the next corner. Bicycles, barking dogs, wild animals, hikers with flapping ponchos and scary backpacks, tipped over trees blocking the trail in a tricky spot…you name it. A whole lot of people don’t like the uncertainty of the trail.
            The flip side of this coin is that trail riding is endlessly interesting. I will admit that at this stage of my riding career I find the arena boring. I do know there are various “interesting” things I could do there, but to be frank, I’ve done most of them in the past and I’m just not engaged by them any more. Working cattle is the only thing I find interesting in an arena; cattle are just as fascinating and unpredictable as the trail.
            Anyway, despite the fact that I find trail riding fascinating and delightful, I am not unaware of the dangers. When I chose to take my young son out on the trails (he was seven then), I bought two solid, bombproof trail horses for us to ride. And we’ve covered many, many miles on the trails since then—without being hurt, or even seriously alarmed (knocking on wood—quite literally). But still, stuff happens. And even though my son and I have done many rides with just the two of us, I have to admit that I’m more comfortable when our friend/boarder, Wally, comes along. It’s just a little more support/security. And I was REALLY glad that Wally was with us the other day.
            We’d headed out on our little local trail loop, which we can ride to from my front gate. I’ve written about these trails quite extensively in my last two books (“Going, Gone” and “Barnstorming”), so if you’ve read these books, you can probably picture the trails accurately. In any case, we hadn’t been on these trails in a couple of months, due to riding mostly on the beach and at the local park, as well as working cattle up at my uncle’s place. No one maintains the local trails other than other equestrians and hikers—solely at their own discretion-- so when I haven’t been up there in awhile, I’m never sure what I will meet. Anyway, I was glad that Wally wanted to come with us.
            We rode out our front gate on a lovely, sunny, 70 degree morning, and, of course, the first thing we had to do was get safely across the busy country road I live on, where the traffic zips along at 50 miles an hour. I hate crossing this road. We do it in a very safe way, but I still hate it. I would absolutely not be willing to ride along the shoulder of the road, as I see other horsemen do. But we make a straight crossing, and I can handle that. Barely.
            Anyway, we ride across my neighbor’s field until we are on the shoulder of the road. There’s lots of open field behind us, so if anything should spook the horses, there’s somewhere safe to go. But we must stand right on the shoulder, in order to see, while the traffic whizzes by not three feet from our horses’ noses. Whoosh, there goes a bus. Logging trucks are very big and noisy at 50 miles an hour. I particularly hate trucks with flapping tarps. And bicycles make an odd hissing noise going fast. A guy on a Harley revs his engine as he passes the horses. Very funny.
            Our horses stand rock solid through all of this, not moving at all. They always do. They wait patiently (and it can take several minutes) for us to find an opening in the traffic. When no cars are visible in either direction, we cross. To my son’s annoyance, I still insist that he be on the pony rope for this road crossing. Its just one extra bit of security. If a horse spooked into the traffic, it would be lethal. I do everything I can to keep us safe.
            Once across the road I heave a sigh of relief and we take the narrow single track trail into the woods. We always go in the same order. I lead, on Sunny, next my son, on Henry, and finally Wally, on Twister. Twister is every bit as good a lead horse as Sunny, and we have done it that way, but he walks too fast in the lead and the other two horses can’t keep up. We found that Twister doesn’t at all mind walking slow in the rear, and Sunny is a solid leader and sets a nice medium pace. We like to keep my son in the middle, as that is the safest place. So this is our order.
            The first thing I notice is the trail is REALLY overgrown. It doesn’t look like very many folks have been through here during the couple of months we were absent. If you didn’t know where the trail was, you’d have a hard time finding it. And a lot of the luxuriant growth that masks the trail and drapes itself from the tree branches is poison oak. Lovely.
            Its not that I didn’t know that there was plenty of poison oak here. Of course I did. And none of the three of us is very prone to getting the rash. But today we are literally pushing our way through it. Not the best.
            The first part of this narrow trail is pretty technical at the best of times. It runs along a little sidehill (fairly steep) and winds between trees. There are places where you can easily whack your knee caps, and there are low, very solid branches that must be ducked under. I barely make it on 14.3 Sunny. Wally must hang off the side of 15.2 Twister. When you add in the fact that we are pushing through the tangle of overgrown vines—well, its not the easiest ride in the world. I never have any photos of this part—I’m too busy to take pictures.
            But we push through the poison oak and scramble up and down the steep bits, and duck under the head bonker tree and weave our way between the leaning trunks like some very solid (and crooked) pole bending course and eventually we get over the ridge and onto some trails that are a little more used. Again, I sigh in relief. This part is usually easy.
            I take a photo as we start down the easy trail.

            Soon enough we are going uphill and the trail gets very overgrown again. Its pretty, in a jungle-y way, so I take another photo.

            And just around the next bend from where I took that photo, the hill gets much steeper and the way is blocked by a recently tipped over tree. I check Sunny, or rather, Sunny and I check together, as we both look at the tree, which is just the “wrong” height. Wither high—too low to go under, too high to go over. I had been discussing wither high snags with Funder just that morning, and what a problem they were—now I wished I’d never mentioned the subject. I seem to have jinxed myself.
            The undergrowth is so thick, that Wally, in the rear, can’t even see why I’ve stopped. “What’s the matter?” he yells.
            “There’s a tree. And I don’t think we can get by it.” I’m looking as I talk. The hill is steep and brushy on both sides of the trail, very hard to get around. The trunk is about eight inches thick—not huge, but too heavy to shift, or so I think. Wally hollers that he’s coming up to see.
            We’ve done this routine before, for similar reasons, so we know the drill. Wally climbs off Twister and hands the reins to my son. My son and I hold perfectly still on the narrow trail as Wally slithers past our horses to take a look at the tree. He tries to move it, and it’s obvious that won’t work. But the tree does shift a little.
            Wally, ever creative, begins bouncing up and down on the tree and gradually beats it down so that at the low (and branchless) end, it is now only knee high rather than wither high. Our three horses stand quietly while Wally wrestles with the tree, despite the wildly waving, snapping, crashing branches in the brush beside them, though Henry does take the opportunity to snatch at the nearby and abundant vegetation (his worst vice). When Wally has beaten the tree down as far as he is able he gives it a long look. “We can get over that,” he says.
            Yep, we can. And it will be much easier than trying to turn around here. We wait until Wally has climbed back on Twister and then we all pop over the tree and get on with our ride. We meet another (big) downed tree a little further on, but fortunately we can easily detour around it. In a little while we’re at the Lookout.
            The fog is in over the bay so the view isn’t much, but here I am in my riding helmet, thanks to all you horse bloggers who encouraged me to buy and wear one.

            The ride home is uneventful, though full of brushy tangles to push through. Here is a photo my husband took of this stretch of the trail when he hiked with us last year at about this time. It looks just about the same this year, and as you can see, it is pretty jungle-like.

  As I ride along I think to myself how glad I am that my son and I didn’t attempt this ride without Wally. I probably never would have thought of jumping up and down on the tipped over tree; it would have been hard to do while I was holding Sunny. And I would have been very worried that I wasn’t able to keep my focus on my son and his safety, while trying to clear the tree. And it would have been a real problem to try and turn around there.
            So this is the downside of trail riding—especially with a young child that you must protect. Our horses are great and do anything we ask, but there are limits to what they can do for us. If I had been solo and met that tree, I probably would have backed Sunny up until I found a wide spot in the trail and then turned him around and gone another way. What would you do?


How Sam Sees It said...

By myself? I would have tackled the tree. If I was riding with my usual group, who are a mix of experiences in both riders and horses, we would have turned around.

LOL - on a side note - you and streets sound exactly like me!


Joyce Reynolds-Ward said...

I wouldn't have gone that far because of the poison oak. Allergic and all that. The sad thing for me and trail riding as I get older is that more allergies (such as bee stings) appear and they're worse than they were when I was younger. I'd just started a new routine with Mocha this spring when I heard bees in one of the, no, no more going THAT way. Even if I have my EpiPen with me.

horsegenes said...

I guess it would have depended on who I was with or what horse I was riding.

Not being one to give up easy...If I was by myself on a seasoned horse I would have figured out a way around. Probably gotten off and scoped the situation out a little more closely. On a young horse - probably not. First they would have not been willing to be left alone - tied anywhere and then me thrashing around looking for a way through would put them over the edge.

With the group that I usually ride with we would have found a way through. With the more seasoned horses and riders going first and then coaching the others through. Pretty much exactly what you did.

AareneX said...

I'd probably tackle the tree. When I go out on trails that I know haven't been maintained, I routinely carry a little pruning saw and a set of hand clippers on my saddle, b/c in the Swampland we get blocking obstacles pretty often. We're also pretty adept at bushwacking around stuff.

Fee is completely unconcerned about me bouncing on trees, hacking branches down, or clipping brambles so they fall down onto her neck, because it happens a lot. If the task is going to take more than a minute or requires both of my hands, I tie her (her headstall is a halter/bridle for this very reason) to a nearby tree and proceed.

Your pictures are beautiful. I'm glad we don't have poison oak here. Nettles are bad enough!

Laura Crum said...

Sam--Yes, I hate cars--I almost had a bad wreck once, riding on a street, and I never forgot. Thanks for the comment.

Joyce--I am most afraid of the ground wasps we have around here. They are bad in the summer and fall. I know many people who have gotten bucked off when their horse stepped in a nest. Even a good horse is unpredictable when stung by wasps.

kel--I am braver either by myself or with other seasoned riders than I am when riding with my kid. I get pretty protective.

Aarene--I keep a halter on our horses and carry a leadrope so I can tie one up. Solo, I could easily have tied Sunny up and dinked around on the ground--Sunny ties very well. But, as I mentioned earlier, even though my son's horse is very good, I still feel I need to keep my attention on the pair of them on the trail (not so much in the arena any more) and would feel concerned to leave them standing there while I prospected my way through the brush. And we have nettles and poison oak--and thistles, too(!)

Val said...

The poison oak would have stopped me!

We have squeezed through some tight brush before, but I never liked that part of trail riding. Something about losing an eye worries me. ;)

Laura Crum said...

Val--I have to admit, I prefer the opener, less tricky bits of trail. I don't like getting stabbed by the sharp sticks, either.

Alison said...


I am not quite so jealous of your trails now! Just kidding (the beach rides still make me salivate.)

I have to admit to always walking trails in the spring to avoid just those situations. But as you said anything can happen . . .today after riding Relish, I loosened his girth a notch when I got off. As I was leading him through the gate, DOG chased the neighbor's cat. I am hollering at dog, oblivious to the saddle which is slowly sliding down Relish's fat, slick side. When I turned back, it was halfway to his belly. Thank goodness, he didn't pay any attention. Another horse, might have freaked due to my stupidity!

Laura Crum said...

Alison--I used to walk the trails every spring, too. But I am lazier now (!) And, I, too, have loosened a cinch and almost had a wreck. The worst one was back when I was still team roping. Cinches must be very tight for this--tighter than for regular riding. I had loosened the cinch when I tied my horse up and then forgot to tighten it when I got back on. It almost went under his belly when I turned the next steer (!)

whitehorsepilgrim said...

Curious that you mention this. I've been ducking under fallen trees on several occasions lately - usually huge trees that don't move when pushed. Several times that has meant leading a horse through a tangle of branches, having pulled apart what I can. I was surprised how nervous this made another rider, though she made it through without anything bad happening. What concerns me most is avoiding getting poked in the eye.

In the past I've jumped a horse loose (i.e. I was holding him on a rope, not riding) over a lower fallen tree trunk. There was no run up so he had to cat leap - best not to be on board. I've also tied up reins and stirrups to send horses loose down a very steep slippery trail, to be caught by someone else at the bottom. This depends on taking a horse down first for the others to run to - not really recommended unless one's animals are a known quantity.

One time we ducked under a fallen pine tree. A rider collected a shower of pine needles down the neck of her shirt, which migrated down. A little later she had to dismount and go behind a bush to drop her trousers and remove those annoying needles.

It's good to have a horse that ties up quietly. Then one can figure out what to do.

A few years ago I rode with a flamboyant Italian who carried a machete and maintained each trail as he rode, slashing to left and right. It was effective.

Laura Crum said...

whp--You've had a lot of experience riding outside, I know. I am actually a bit afraid to take others on the trail I describe in this post--I worry about the road crossing and the head bonking trees and the poison oak--though I somewhat take this stuff for granted myself, as I have ridden the trail so often.

Grey Horse Matters said...

Like the others have commented it really depends on who you're riding with and what horse you're on. If it was Dusty or Blue I'd have no problem trying to move the tree. Any other horse in the barn...not so much. In your situation I most likely would have found a way to turn around safely with your son. Glad you had Wally along.