Wednesday, January 8, 2014

Trail Ride Adventure

                                               by Laura Crum

            The other day my son and I found a new bit of trail across the road from our place—a trail that linked our favorite starting spot to a trail that we hadn’t used in a year or so—we call it the ridge trail. We used to have to access the ridge trail by basically sneaking through someone’s backyard, which didn’t ever feel very good, so we quit going that way. But now we had found some trail that led us to the ridge trail through the forest, skirting around the dubious backyard route—a new trail that was obviously created by riders from the local boarding stable. Yay!
            We decided to make a big loop—riding up the ridge trail to the Lookout and coming back by our usual trail. Our friend Wally went with us. We headed up the ridge trail in good spirits, eager to see its particular views again. We had sort of forgotten exactly what this trail was like.
            There are no photos—I never have photos of tough bits of trail because I’m just too busy riding. Maybe you endurance riders would scoff at me calling this tough—though in the endurance blogs I read, I have never seen any photos of trail that is more technical than this—except, of course, for things like Cougar Rock. Let me describe and see what you think.
            The ridge trail is quite steep and runs unrelentingly upward for maybe a quarter of a mile. It is narrow singletrack and follows the spine of a ridge, so there are impressive dropoffs (50-100 feet) on both sides. In some places the trail runs right on the edge—the sort of place where a misstep or a spook could be, uhmm, bad. The brush is dense, and between the dropoffs and the thick brush, there is no possible deviation from the trail. All of this, by itself, is a bit unnerving, but quite doable. The footing is good—sandy ground. The real problem is the step-ups.
            Because there are numerous (like maybe fifteen or twenty) places on this climb where tree roots and erosion have created big “step-ups.” When I was thinking about writing this blog post I asked my husband if I would be exaggerating to say that most of the step-ups were two and a half feet or so. He said they were more like three feet. Now this is really worth mentioning because my husband usually thinks that I exaggerate. So picture two and a half to three foot vertical step-ups all along this very steep trail. It’s daunting. It’s actually very hard to hike on foot (I’ve done this many times).
            Our horses are not trail horse athletes by any means, but they are steady and reliable and they have climbed the ridge trail maybe a hundred times—but not in the last year. The trick is to take the sections with the step-ups at a brisk trot so that the horses can use their momentum to leap up the big “steps.” It is, well, a bit exhilarating.
            Anyway, we headed up the ridge trail, and I will admit that I sort of sucked in my breath when faced with the first very steep section of step-ups. I’d just forgotten how hairy they were. My son said, “This looks pretty scary.” But we kicked our horses and up they scrambled like the good little trail horses they are.
            On and on, up and up, leaping up the step-ups. We stopped halfway to let them breathe and I stared at the next steep section with even bigger step-ups, thinking that this might have been a bad choice of trail. But I didn’t exactly want to go back down. Going down the ridge trail is pure torture. It hurts my back and the horses really don’t like doing it.
            Wally echoed my thoughts. “Have we ever ridden down this steep son of a bitch?” he asked me.
            “Yep. Lots of times. But we quit doing it because we hated it.”
            Wally shook his head. “I don’t ever want to ride down this trail again. Up is tolerable—barely.”
            So on we went. By the time we reached the top of the climb the horses needed another long breather. But we made it, unscathed. I’m not sure whether any of us are game to ride the ridge trail again any time soon, though. I dunno—does this sound like fun to you other trail riders? I have to say that any trail that daunts Wally is a pretty tough trail.
            The rest of the ridge trail beyond the big climb is gentle and uneventful, following the ridge along, until it meets up with the trail that we usually take (and then leads up to the spot at the very highest point of the ridge—what we call “the Lookout.”) Nice views from here.

            We take another trail on the way back, also gentle and pleasant, following a very old road bed, and then, to get home, must take a narrow little singletrack for half a mile, once again on the spine of a ridge, through some dense woods. This trail has no step-ups and is not steep overall (just in a couple of short bits). But the trees are quite tricky.
            The trail weaves in and out between various very solid tree trunks and branches that lean into and over the trail. Narrow and snaky, the singletrack must be adhered to—the slopes on each side are steep and dense with brush. Over and over again I have whacked my knee or shoulder on the oak trees that turn this trail into a pole bending course—with poles that won’t yield. I have learned the technique that works best—send the horse straight forward past the obstacle and then let him turn once your body is past—trying to bend the horse or sidepass away from the tree often backfires.
            Anyway, we make our careful way along this trail until we reached the “headbonker tree.” The headbonker tree (and all of these trails that I am describing) is featured in my 11th and 12th novels, “Going Gone” and “Barnstorming.” This is a very solid branch that hangs over the trail. One must go under; there is no workable way around.
            We have ridden under the headbonker tree literally hundreds of times, but every year it gets harder to do. It is amazing how much an oak grows in girth in just a few years. So after six straight years of riding this trail, this tree is far more challenging to duck under than it was when we started.
            Wally and I may have grown in girth, too, and my son has gotten taller. The horses haven’t shrunk. And so today, for the first time ever, we stopped and dismounted and led our horses under the headbonker tree. There was a mere four inches or so between the top of my saddle horn and this tree branch. And I do have a photo of the headbonker tree—I took it just before I dismounted.

            Ok, we got off, we went under, we got back on, and we descended the rest of the trail, which has one steep little 50 foot chute in loose dirt that the horses sort of slither and slide down, but is otherwise pretty easy. At the bottom of the trail we ride through a little meadow to wait by the side of the busy road that we must cross to get home.
            This is actually the most dangerous part of the ride. The road is very busy—cars zip along at 50 miles an hour or so, with few gaps in the traffic. We have to stand right on the shoulder in order to see. There are city busses and logging trucks, bicycles and motorcycles…you name it, whizzing by not three feet from the horses’ noses. A spook in the wrong direction would be literally fatal. A helmet is not going to be of any help in this situation.
            So we wait and wait by the side of the road, looking for a big gap in the traffic. The horses are flawless--patient, quiet as statues, waiting—even though they are perfectly aware that once across the road they are home again. It is as if they know the need for caution here as well as we do. I’m not sure this is the case, but I am sure that none of them have ever flinched or pranced, or balked in all the hundreds of times we have crossed this road. Either on the way out or the way back. But I still find it nerve-wracking.
            Eventually we cross the road and head back up the hill to my front gate. I pat Sunny on the shoulder and tell him what a good horse he is. My son says,” Well we had a good trail ride adventure today.” And I think he is right.
            So here’s my question to you more intrepid trail riders and endurance folk. Does this sound like a fun little ride to you? Or would you find the obstacles I’m describing to be a negative? I’m curious if maybe I’m just a total wimp.


GunDiva said...

We have a trail like that, too. I ride it once and then forget about it for a year or so and when Mom or Bill asks if I want to ride it again, I'm game. Then we get actually on the trail and I wonder if I've lost my mind. So if you ever come to visit and they ask if you want to just 'take the Allenspark trail' over to Wild Basin, think twice. :)

Alison said...

Laura, I think only someone (like you, Wally and your son)with a terrific, quiet and experienced trail horse could have managed your ride. Each area you described has situations that would be super dangerous to a beginning rider and/or nervous horse! But it made for a great post. (If you are a wimp, I am a super-wimp based on that ride!)

AareneX said...

I would say that it depends on the horse, depends on the rider, and in our region it also depends on the RAIN. A trail like that with wet tread could be really scary, even by my standards.

Remember that I trained as a Trailmaster. The trail you describe is basically a "fall line trail" (which means that if you dropped a rolling object that wouldn't get caught on tree roots, it would fall straight down the trail instead of meandering off the side somehow). Fall line trails are the most subject to erosion damage, because there's nowhere for water to go except down the middle of your trail, which erodes them further and causes further erosion.

Trails with root "step ups" are even worse, because the water (I know you don't get much, but feet can erode trails just like water) will eventually knock out from under the root, and make a place for a horse's foot to catch. That's really bad. An exposed tree root is also bad for the tree--and on a ridge trail like you describe, that tree is probably holding part of the trail in place!

Bottom line: I'd be scouting a way to re-route that sucker before it falls completely apart.

AareneX said...

*erodes them further and causes further damage.

Laura Crum said...

GunDiva--Yep, this trail is just like that. After a year of not riding it I simply forget how tough it is.

Alison--Well, my horses are not great trail horse athletes, but they are steady and experienced and calm. I was just wondering if maybe other riders would think this stuff was no big deal?

Aarene--You have some mighty good points there. The best thing about the ridge trail is that it is very sandy ground and is virtually never slippery, even after plenty of rain. But I do think the step ups have places where a horse could catch a foot--and though I try to take the best line, I really wonder if it's wise to ride up that trail. As I said, I hadn't done it in a year, and it may be a year before I do it again (if ever). There are other routes that go to the same place, so no need to ride the ridge trail (though it does have very pretty views).

Funder said...

The ridge trail up sounds horrifying, but yeah, I'd probably ride it. :)

Things that scare me: mountain bikes coming out of nowhere. D isn't very spooky, but some riders go too fast and aren't looking far enough ahead, and they literally can't stop. Traffic scares me, cause I kinda almost died in the road on my very first trail ride on my very first horse, but c'est la vie. Going down scares me, because I have completely unrealistic disasters playing out in my head (you know, that the horse is going to trip and tumble head-over-hooves down with me trapped in the saddle).

So I keep an eye out for bike tracks on no-bikes singletrack, and if the horse is nervous about traffic I'll dismount, and if the descent makes me nervous I'll lead down.

It's nice to have some scary trails to take periodically, to remind you of just how nice the boring everyday trails are. ;)

Laura Crum said...

Aww Funder--You cheer me up. Just saying the ridge trail sounds horrifying sort of makes me feel like less of a wimp. I have ridden down that so-and-so many times (not lately) and I wonder now why I ever thought that was a good thing to do. Going up is hard enough. And bear in mind that Sunny is probably less than half the athlete that Dixie is.

Many people would probably dismount to cross the road I have to cross, but I actually feel safer on the horse. I'm not afraid of him dumping me, and I feel like I have more control, you know? Not to mention I can see better and its easy to break into a trot if a car appears suddenly (which has happened many times) and we need to hurry.

And I totally agree with your last point. Every time I ride a bit of tough trail I am so happy on the next twenty rides on easy trail.

White Horse Pilgrim said...

I've ridden some rough trails out of necessity, and I'm glad not to have to nowadays. I would jump down and lead over the roughest parts, long split reins allowing me to get far enough in front that I wasn't stepped on. Nowadays it's harder to get back on!

There's a lot to be said for intuition. Unconsciously an experienced rider like you is assessing hazards. It's better to avoid trails like that if you can. There isn't much of a margin for error on steep slopes and especially on steps.

Laura Crum said...

WHP--Yes, when we were halfway up that trail, I wondered if I'd made a stupid choice to go that way. It wouldn't seem worth it if a horse got hurt. And honestly, it looked tougher than the last time I rode it--but maybe I just forgot.

I honestly never get off--it just isn't my habit--except on long, multi-day rides when I get too stiff and sore. But we did get off and lead under the headbonker tree on this last ride. I just didn't feel up to the rather extreme "duck"--literally hanging off the side of the horse--that is required.

RiderWriter said...

Dang, Laura, that is some trail! I myself would definitely NOT be interested in attempting it, even on a solid citizen like your Sunny. Leaping up 2-3' "steps" sounds a bit too adventurous, as does following a ridge with serious drop-offs on both sides. The road crossing part would not be my favorite but I have actually done that, and could do it again if necessary. Does raise your heart rate a bit, though!

I wouldn't blame you a bit if that if your and Wally's last trip on THAT particular piece of trail!

I remember the head-bonker tree very well from Going, Gone which is the first book of yours that I read. I definitely cringed, because I was once swept off a runaway pony by a tree branch that caught me across the chest (if it had been neck-height I suspect I wouldn't be here to write about it...). Glad you erred on the side of caution and dismounted this time, rather than doing the limbo!

Laura Crum said...

RiderWriter--Yes, I fear I am just getting too old to duck under the headbonker tree any more (!)

White Horse Pilgrim said...

When I rode more in the woods getting poked in the eye by a branch was far more of a worry than simply falling off. We did have a horse that ended up with a pine needle sticking out of an eye - fortunately he recovered fully with treatment.

I am one for getting off on tricky ground. It seems easier for my horse and it's less far to fall too. I came off once riding a tricky rocky slope. The old gelding just looked down at me with such contempt....

Last summer I visited a hill I hadn't ridden in fifteen years. We visited a really steep trail on crumbly ground that stuck in my mind. One time back in the 90s I came up it and met some bicyclists at the top. They looked down, shook their heads and decided to ride another way. Well, I went up that slope again. It was tricky. Brena hauled me up, slipping and panting and getting over roots and rocks. If she'd been a person, we'd have headed off to regale one-another with tales of our prowess over a beer. Then we'd have found an alternative way home. I won't ride it again. I've got the tales to tell, don't need any new ones.

Laura Crum said...

WHP--That's sort of how I feel about the ridge trail. I've ridden it--many times. Maybe I can just remember it fondly and not push/risk my horse to do it yet again.