Monday, September 8, 2008

Happy Trails #2

This weekend I've been reading quite a bit about trail riding. As a matter of fact, I've started reading Laura Crum's Slickrock (1999). After the first chapter I was thinking to myself-Gail is doing "real" trail riding. I love it! I'm really enjoying Gail McCarthy too! My Happy Trails #1 would be considered, um.....tame, to Gail and seasoned trail riders everywhere. I view it as a gentle introduction.

The horses at the year-round riding facility where I worked were not the nose-to-tail kind, Boss-lady had always made it a practice that her facility was where real riding was learned. So, when these horses went out on a trail, they were used to being ridden, not just following, although you can argue they did that to an extent too.

The trails were not always cleared logging trails like my #1 experience and our rugged, often rocky hills in Southern Ohio aren't called The Foothills to the Smokies for nothing! But, for a beginner, disguising herself as a little more than that, I was hooked on trail riding after that first gentle experience. Being one with nature, traveling the landscape by horseback, is something I hadn't experienced in the past. Not like this. Enjoying the view of the gorgeous valleys and blue-green hilltops while riding a horse, was definitley something I could get used to.

The staff and I got into a routine of teaching our 6-8 classes per day, each lasting 45 minutes. These were very basic riding lessons to girls who were from 8 to 13 years old. As the week progressed we would add some games and by Thursday they could handle a short mini-trail ride around the outside of the usual arena riding areas. The girls were always excited about Thursday. They were able to steer their horses and feel like they were genuine horseback riders, which they were. Friday's were for the 2 hour advanced trail ride around the hillside logging loop which consisted of the campers who were over 12 and had been through the entire program over previous summers.

By mid-summer, it was time to take some of the "issue" horses out for a little extra attention. We had about 6 horses, out of the 20 leased horses brought in for summer camp, who had issues that became a little more than our beginners could handle. Why they ended up at a summer camp is beyond me but they did. The horse I ended up riding is one I'll always remember because to this day, I am still in disbelief that I didn't come off her during the ride that day. I had never dealt with a decidedly green horse. Looking back, and knowing more now than I did then, that is what she probably was.

I ended up with her as the luck of the draw because everyone else had skipped over her. Being the kind of person I can be sometimes (gullible?) I didn't see too many problems with Abby other than she wouldn't stand still to tack, didn't like to be bridled, wasn't very good at stopping but sure liked to GO! Sure! I could handle her! HA!!! That's what happens when people expect more of you, you start expecting more of yourself. I guess that can be a good thing.

Abby was a small framed, wiry, thin, strawberry roan Appy. She was sort of a mess. Very thin, short, reddish mane and tail. She didn't have a very pretty face which of course made me feel sorry for her. Her eyes didn't seem hard to me but kind of like there really wasn't much in there. I had no idea how old she was, but I was guessing not too old, somewhere between 4 and 6. She just wasn't nice to look at, but that doesn't really matter if you're a school horse. She wasn't mean or moody. She didn't try to bite or kick. I really think she just didn't know much so she tended to react in the wrong ways, for our novice riders anyway. When you don't know what's expected of you, you will sometimes act out. At least that's what some horses do.

I tacked and bridled Abby without much of a problem. Mounted up. She danced a little, but then stood quietly. Everyone else was warming their horses up around the arena and having some problems of their own so I walked Abby to the outside of the arena. Boss-lady spoke up and said we were taking the Brush Creek Trail. I heard someone ask if she was sure she wanted to do that with these particular horses. She said it would be good for them. Naturally, I had no idea what the others had gotten excited about when they heard where we were heading. Sometimes, ignorance IS bliss.

It was early afternoon and warming up. The sun was nice and bright, but we'd be riding in wooded areas. We headed out, away from the arena. To get to the trail head we had to cross a rather busy two lane road. My first indication that Abby was going to be a handful was by the time we got about 100 yards from the barn, walking up the gravel, tree lined drive to cross the road. Abby immediately turned to go back toward the barn area when she realized she was heading in the wrong direction, or so she concluded. Caught me a little off guard. I brought her back around. She started hopping sideways. I had her stop. By this time I had fallen behind the group. Abby kept wanting to go back to the barn, but I kept turning her, then stopping her. Boss-lady rode back and told me to circle Abby then get her going forward. Easier said than done, but it worked after about 3 circlings. Boss-lady told me Abby seemed a little barn sour and this trail ride would do her good. Well, OK. In my head I was thinking Boss-lady had more confidence in me at that point than I did in myself. Which, probably didn't help Abby's cause that day either!

Abby was fine as we crossed the road and started up the trail. She seemed calm enough. Ears flicking back and forth. I was in the middle of the group by then. As we rode up the first dirt trail I heard the conversation about this particular trail. One of the girls asked if we were going on the Snowy River side. Boss-lady smiled and said "Sure, if you all want to..." which by my count of checking faces looked to be about half and half. My mind was starting to get a picture. The Man From Snowy River is one of my favorite movies. I could only guess what it meant.

We get to a point where the trail can go one of two ways. We end up climbing down into a ravine and then climbing back up on the other side. Lots of large rocks to avoid, logs to walk or hop over, and small tree limbs to navigate through. Abby was fine, for a while, then I think it all just became too much for her. She basically started freaking out. From that moment on I had a jiggy, whirly-gig on my hands! All I could do was hang on. I didn't feel I was riding. I didn't even have that much knowledge of riding under my belt so I really didn't know what I was doing, I simply let my instinct take over. At one point, when we'd stopped to rest the horses in a clearing, though Abby didn't realize this and decided not to stand still, I asked the others if anyone would like to trade horses. I was ready to confess my true inexperience. But for the most part, even with the problems they were having with their horses, they didn't want Abby!

Most of the rest of the trail ride is a blur. I remember scraping trees with my legs and arms. Smacking my head on tree limbs (yes, I was wearing a helmet!). Losing my stirrups at times. But not once completely losing my seat! Still wonder how I managed that! I do remember going down the so-called "Snowy River" side of a steep hill. Maybe it wasn't quite as steep as the one seen in the movie, but by golly, it was STEEP! And, with Abby unsure and not really knowing what to do, all I did was the best I could do, hang on and try to keep her going forward.

I remember we climbed up another steep incline, practically sideways. The horse in front of me suddenly lost his saddle and rider. The girth had broken. Bob and his rider were sliding backwards toward me and Abby, all I could do was let her do what she thought best and in that moment I feel she saved both of us by stepping sideways out of the way. Bob was a big horse! He would have surely plowed us over. Fortunately, no one was hurt. Bob's rider had hit ground feet first, he was ok. He settled Bob down on the steep side of the hill, they managed to fix the girth on Bob's saddle temporarily. A side note, the token fella on our staff was riding Bob at the time and seems to me his pride was hurt more than anything! At that point, my thoughts were, when will this be over? We ended up turning around and heading back down the hill toward the main trail head. We found the main trail and were back to the barn within thirty minutes. No more extreme hill climbing for Bob and his rider. I was relieved to be going back.

On the way back to the barn, still on the trail head, three of the young women (I hate to call them girls!) decide to race their horses down the trail. I was thinking............not a good idea to race when we're so close to the barn the horses can smell it. At least I was right about that one. Boss-lady reprimanded them and told them to walk back. By this time Abby was worn out. I was worn out. My shoulders and arms hurt. My legs shakey.

This whole event could have soured me on horses and trail riding, but it didn't. I didn't even realize that the others had taken note of how hard Abby had been for me that day. Later, a couple of them told me I did a good job with her. They still thought I was an experienced rider! I thought the whole episode would have shown otherwise, but evidently it didn't. Boss-lady was the only one who knew my secret, and she also told me I'd done a good job with Abby, considering.

Sometimes we're too hard on ourselves! Even though I didn't know what to do with Abby then, I have learned a great deal in the past four years. If I were to handle Abby again, I would do some things differently, because now I know what should be done.

Sadly, I found out the next spring, when the leased horses were to return for summer camp, Abby had broken a leg and been put down. She wouldn't be returning to summer camp.

We used Abby off and on, in the arena lessons, through that summer but she was never used for our novice riders on the trail rides. She really needed more work than we had time to give her at camp. I made extra efforts to give her some extra loving attention on the days we did use her.

To me, Abby seemed like a little lost soul. I wish she'd had a better, longer life. Abby is one who may have been unknown, probably most of her life unloved, but she has a special place in my heart!

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