JUST a trail horse….

Scene 1;
A bright spring Saturday, on a clear trail, sitting on horseback. A number is pinned to your back, as well as to the backs of your companions, all also on horseback. Everyone is walking calmly down the trail; everyone, except that is, the horse you are sitting on. His ears pin intermittently and he darts black eyes back towards the one horse following behind, another young gelding that is taking the brunt of your horse’s resentment at the entire day’s endeavor; to ride a competitive trail ride. The moments when your horse is not scowling backwards, he is calmly eyeing the green fields to the right, just beyond a thin row of trees and a thick tangle of barbed wire, and he is gauging how easily it will be to dump you, clear the fence and get to that field. You feel this plotting through the saddle just as clearly as you can feel those powerful muscles underneath you, muscles that you have nurtured, fed, and cared for, for three years. Doesn’t that earn you some respect, some consideration, some KINDNESS from your mount? This is not the moment to realize that it does not. As the situation quickly escalates, or degrades, or disintegrates (whatever word you choose it was not good), the crystal clear awareness that you are out-horsed, and there is no sympathy from the creature beneath you, is not the feeling that you had looked forward to in the months of preparation prior to this day.
Perhaps I should step back.

It was about 3am earlier on said morning that I awakened from a few hours slumber with a start, realizing in a panic that I had not yet printed the health papers for the five horses I was taking to the trail ride in just a few hours. As my exhausted brain outlined the least amount of movements to get to computer, find the documents and send to the printer, there was a nagging memory of someone driving around the countryside in vain, just a few hours earlier that evening, looking for printer cartridges. IN the country at night. We were out of ink, completely overwhelmed by the amount of paperwork that needed printing. You see, we were not just attending the ride with five horses, we were also HOSTING the ride. Hosting our first ever charity ride and not having ever been on one. As I lay in bed at 3am trying to recall why I ever thought this was a good idea, and whether we were even going to be able to print this paperwork or the horses just get disqualified, I did what any exhausted, overwhelmed person would do; I fell back asleep.

6am, and I am awake again, not rested but motivated with that feeling of being behind already in a long day of responsibilities. Long gone were the fantasies of highlighting my hair to match my horse’s mane (yes friends, sadly I did imagine this, just as I imagined getting the parlor painted before guests arrived), as I realized that even a shower was out of my realm of potential this morning. Good thing I like the smell of horse. I look around and the house is nearly empty, as almost everyone else was already gone to the venue, putting up signs, setting up tents, getting coffee, and now I realize, too late, that I hadn’t thought of a ‘crew’ for the horses. The five horses that all need to get caught, haltered, brushed out, and loaded onto a trailer. My bleary eyes cast down to the big green field where said horses are waiting….and one is missing. This wakes me up. My eyes scan the field, the other field, and the other other field for her shape. I follow the gaze of her herd-mates and I spy her, in the neighbors field, somehow magically having stepped through three lines of live electric fence to go and graze where the grass was greener. The first and only time she has pulled this stunt. I grab a halter and head down, the dog following me. The special clean white jods I had purchased and set aside for this special day are splattered immediately by the mud that I splash through to get to the mare, across a stream and through the fence. At least she is sweet and happy to see me, and we get haltered, fence comes down and she is lead back safely through. However. The lead gelding (and subject of the first paragraph) is waiting, ready to charge through the fence opening to that big forbidden field. I pre-empt him, sending the rope in a coil out in his direction and turning him away forcefully; he wheels lightly, insolently even, off the forehand, and in payback for my gesture, he goes after my dog. Never happened before. Within two strides he has caught her and put his entire mouth around her big shepherd body and she cowers in shock and just as quickly, he rolls her, with me shouting and coming up behind, as he knew I would. This horse is too smart. Off he bounces with his retrieved mare, while I am left to check over the frightened hound, who is shaken but intact. Together, muddy, we head back up the hill to find leads and halters for the wild creatures that seem less and less likely a good idea to ride.

8am; still no trailer arrival to take us to the venue. Horses are haltered and acting like civilized beasts for the time being, and my confused riders have returned to the farm to find and hold their horses while we wait. One of the riders is very into essential oils and has brought along a mix that is supposed to be ‘calming’. ‘Here’, she holds it out, ‘put some under your nose’. I dab some on and continue prep. I have managed to print the health papers, and it’s occurred to me that maybe there are some SUPPLIES that I should be bringing along with five horses going out on a trail ride. The car is packed with every saddle, bridle and girth that I think we might need. But what about….water buckets? A mounting block maybe? Hmmm….Not only was I not checking things off the list, I didn’t even have a list. Clearly my organization needs work. In the meantime, I change to black jods, the better to hide the mud that I feel I will continue to see all day.

8:45 am; still no trailer, but one experienced rider informs me that all of my riders (now standing in the field with our horses) need to be at the venue to watch a video in 15 minutes; myself included. What video? I ask, completely befuddled by this, and she insists that all riders need to watch this safety video online or they will hold up the entire ride. I panic. Rush inside and online and am searching the site for this video. I even call the emergency hotline for the official overseeing organization, but they are closed on Saturdays. HOW CAN THEY BE CLOSED ON SATURDAYS WHEN RIDES ARE???? I find no video and dread facing all of the riders waiting, dread telling them that we are canceling the ride. I cannot download and show it if I cannot even find it! Now long gone is the image of tacking up my horse at leisure, the horse that I had been practicing on all week, the horse that I was determined to be a great trail partner with…Now I am just hoping that someone might toss a saddle on him so I can get on in time, assuming the entire ride isn’t cancelled because I haven’t watched some video!!!! The phone rings; never mind. There is in fact, no video.

8:55 am; the trailer arrives. I am ready to go back to bed.

On hour later, we have managed to load, drive and unload all five horses, with the help of an experienced friend who has the knack of laughing at me in a way that feels that it’s ‘with’ me. Situation is feeling back on track. We are trying to get the horses all tacked up and yes, I have forgotten one saddle. And the grill for lunch. Friends are sent back with detailed descriptions of the location of the saddle and the grill, because while I cannot remember to print documents in a timely manner, I do remember the location of eight billion objects throughout three barns and a six bedroom house. We all listen to the rider safety discussion, with my friend Deb serving as the calm Master of Ceremonies, and it’s looking like a real, official, trail ride. We have numbers pinned to our backs! For RF it’s turning into a success. All of the practice rides for the six weeks before seem to be resulting in nice horses and excited riders. Maybe me and my horse can do this after all.

11:00 am; the riders leave on the trail in staggered groups, and we are the last group out. This has given us a chance to get caught up on details, get our cute ‘adopt me’ saddle pads on our horses, and enjoy the beautiful sunny morning. I am riding with four friends who have been at RF every week for over a month as we have worked to get ready; they include our trainer and our vet, both highly skilled riders, I am so glad to have them as we get ready to ride. The busy event site, with trailers and other horses, has been a lot for all of us to absorb…so many elements that just need to be experienced in order to learn. It’s time for us to move out; we all climb into the saddle and turn towards the trail and the ‘start’. I am handed the ‘calming oil’ again, put on my nose and my horses as well. Do I look tense? My first official trail competition! Maybe I won’t die after all!

11:05 am; it doesn’t take long for me to realize that this ride, with this horse, is going to be different then our previous ones. Friends have since observed that I was nervous and think this was part of the cause of what happened, but I was nervous on nearly every ride on that horse, so he was used to that!
Perhaps I should step back…

Remy came out of the kill pens three years prior to this ride, a last minute addition to a load of four horses that the sanctuary was pulling to safety. He nearly shipped to slaughter. He was not one of the four, at first, that we were saving. A very pregnant feral mare was, a mare who foaled out a stillborn babe two days before we were scheduled to pick her up, and then who died herself a day later. She is the subject of another story. We had the trailer pre-arranged for four horses and quite suddenly, we had only three. Remy’s ‘kill buyer’ video showed a quiet, mousy, sad palomino dutifully being kicked into gaits, going up and down a road. He looked so forlorn, so without hope, and there was this spot on our trailer, that we added him. I named him after the famous western painter Frederick Remington because he seemed to possess those classic western looks, and yes, we imagined ourselves riding this horse with ease. Ha.

Remy arrived a few days later, thin and sick. He got sicker as time passed, with the worst case of strangles I had seen, bursting on the side of his skull and taking more then a month to resolve. He looked like someone had shot him in the head. But his spirits continued a steady upward climb and his infectious personality quickly made him a barn favorite. Remy was late teens, with some dropping already to his back, clearly a seasoned, trained western horse, but one that had soured. Too much work? Back pain? Hard to say. Remy recovered his health and was given time to be a horse, make friends, become at home, and learn to interact safely on the ground. He was consistently a delight. Then we began exploring his riding skills.

Remy under saddle made me want to cry. I was not on him for his first official ride, but under saddle, moving out as told, his body spoke of the pain and stress he had endured. He hated riding, he dreaded the pain he anticipated. My first reaction was to not ride him ever again. Where would I be now, dear reader, without the rich inspiration that Remy has provided me for this tale? We chose a different path. Instead of instantly retiring Remy, we decided to continue with very short, 5-10 minute rides, to start to show him that we were not going to abuse him, that gentle rides could be something we could all enjoy. And in the ring, moving cautiously around, Remy seemed to relax.

He was a natural leader with the other horses, a flirt with females of any species and a good buddy to the boys. He filled out, muscling into an impressive example of his quarter-horse heritage. He was at home.

When a new adopter was having challenges with their pair of new young horses, I volunteered Remy to step in and be the guardian ‘uncle’ of the situation. I knew I would miss him but also expected the family would fall in love, and that Remy was wise enough to know when he had a good thing. All of that happened, and there may have been the end to this tale, except stories can take turns of their own. This wonderful family experienced their own tragedy, which is not the subject of this story, but the three horses came back safely to Rosemary Farm. Remy was set up in a different area and put in charge of a new group of mares. Happy Remy.

Summer came and Remy enjoyed his space by the house and the extra privilege that it entitled, including, but not limited to, participating in family picnics, sticking his nose in my coleslaw, and other delights. He explored stepping onto the porch and breaking into every barn on the property. He loudly called when he wanted something. He delighted everyone.

We are now up to the summer of 2012; A new family came along and Remy was a strong candidate for adoption. He had ridden lightly at the previous home and seemed to relax. The new family’s kids rode him, bitless and quiet with his main mare, and seemed a good match. I cautioned that the bit was ‘fightin’ words’ to this horse and that he needed to stay with his mare on rides. Alas, my words were not heard. The first ride at his new home was with a bit and ridden solo and by all accounts, it was not pretty. Rodeo show is how it was described. Remy came back to RF soon after, bearing some grudges.
I took him off the active riding list and let him be a horse.

Summer to fall to winter, and Remy gets a few new mares for his herd. The more ridable, adoptable mares are with him. They winter quietly, with lots of attention, as conversation turns to promoting our best riding horses for adoption. What about Remy? We know he has skill, is he in pain or is he feeling better now? One of the best riders I know agrees to take him for a spin.

Bitless, spurless, crop-less, with a rare combination of skill and kindness, Deb rides Remy. Historic ride. He runs through an impressive roster of skills designed to unseat, undermine, or otherwise deposit her on the ground; he won’t go forward, she circles him, he goes up, she gets his hind in gear, he bolts, she changes direction….for every attempt she provides a solution and a direction, and when he finally moves forward, she loves on him with such conviction that he was practically purring. I nearly cried with joy. He moved so beautifully, so freely, no pain and such lightness and skill! I did not realize the level of skill and experience that Remy possessed, waiting to be partnered and unleashed. Alas the woman writing this is not named Deb, or the trail ride would have likely concluded without incident. Not many have Deb’s skill. But on that day, she was assigned Remy as her mount for the ride.

You can guess by now that I would not be telling this tale if that plan has stayed in place. Deb was already signed up to be in charge of the Trail Ride and legally could not ride as well. So she had to choose. I think I can go out on a limb here and say that she would have rather been in the saddle that day, but being the only one of us who had even BEEN on a competitive ride, it really made the most sense for her to stay in charge of that, and we would work out the rider roster without her. And in this tale, I forgot to mention that the day before her historic ride on Remy, I had actually come off of another horse, which is another tale for another time. I clung on long enough to come off the side, but then tumbled hard down a hill and into another horse. My wrist was not broken but unusable. Most of the month before our official ride it was braced and wrapped, elevated and iced throughout each day. I never said I had good timing, and altho’ I was determined to ride, I was not on a horse for most of that month.

Have you heard the one about ‘setting up for success’?

One month before the ride; Each week we are meeting here with a group of riders, switching mounts and sorting out assignments as we extend the rides and the challenges bit by bit. Mostly I am on the ground. A few horses are eliminated, riders come and go, the ride is taking form. It’s becoming clear that there is no one else that I trust on Remy and that it’s up to me. I have a clear image of Remy in a Trigger-type rear, with Deb on his back, surrounded by pines trees, over a cliff edge, with the blue mountains in the background. As impressive as it was, I didn’t want that to be me (I don’t think Deb would care to repeat that either). As our last big group preparation, we organized a trailer ride to the event site the weekend before, and altho’ I haven’t ridden Remy since…? I ride him out on the trail. The same five horses and nearly the same rider line-up as we were going to have on the ‘Big Day’. Remy and I ride in the front, beside the big standie Hazy riding with Deb. Remy is disappointed that I don’t want to really move out, but he sighs and rolls with it. I am nervous but we have a good ride, walking and trotting and turning and stopping, basic things that one likes to be able to count on. It was shaping up.

Six days before; I ride Remy every other day. First western, then with a brilliant stroke of inspiration (courtesy of Deb) I switch to an english saddle, which was my childhood training. The last ride, the day before the competition, I found my mojo; softness and willingness in both me and the horse, everything one could want. The Ride was on!

Now for those who aren’t familiar with competitive trail riding, it is more of a skilled based, obstacle event rather then a race. Riders finish at their own pace, while competing for points gained when they come across each obstacle. Things like picking up a coat from a tree, or stepping around logs, or through water, are some of the types of things that are considered obstacles and riders get up to 10 points at each one. There are LOTS of other things that can challenge one on a trail ride however, things that don’t get ‘points’ but seem awfully important in the moment! Scary things, like guiding your horse past a mini horse that periodically pops out of it’s house like a surprise pinball machine, or the loose goat wandering the trail to interfere with your progress, or having to strip the tack off your horse and re-saddle another in the middle of the trail, mounting a new horse from the off-side while balanced on a crumbling log (using only one hand because the other is in a brace), or fighting through tree branches and brambles that your horse has run you into …that stuff doesn’t get points. But that’s all of the fun stuff I got to experience on my ride that day with Remy.

Which brings us back to Scene 1; and I am sitting on a horse that has become protective of his mares, annoyed at the less then competent rider on his back, and basically over this entire ride. He stops; he pulls to the right; I pull him back to the left; he backs, he pivots, he pops up, he turns into the brush towards that field on the other side of the barbed wire, and he gets very very angry as I try badly to correct these actions. I knew enough to thwart him but not enough to offer solutions, and in truth, I forgot most of my recent training. At one point as I am fighting and squeal for help, we were perched over an embankment and very near disaster. Somehow, we backed out and I asked for just one last thing; stand for two seconds and I am OFF your back. Remy gave me the two seconds and shaking and scared, I dismounted. “Here, have some calming oil”, and I poured it over my hands.

My wonderful friend Liz, a much more skilled rider, immediately offered to switch horses, and so both horses were stripped down on the trail, gear was swapped, and we both re-mounted. By then, Remy was in such a state that he was unmanageable, and after a short minute she too, got off. I rode her mount, Hazy, for a short while; she is a green but willing standardbred mare on her first public trail ride. We bopped along until, in the distance, we see a paint horse trotting in our direction. She stops. I ask gently for forward. Her eyes widen and she says loudly, “there’s a horse coming at us!” “Don’t worry Hazy, they will pass”…I try and communicate to her. Hazy is bunching underneath me for flight, “YOU DON”T UNDERSTAND!” she seemed to say, “HE IS RUNNING THE WRONG WAY!”…and then it occurs to me that a racehorse has never experienced a horse running past in the opposite direction. That thought was quickly followed by, ‘Helluva time to recognize this problem’. It was all I could do to keep her from not tearing off in the other direction.

It was clear that the better rider needed to offer this green mare a more supportive ride, and that rider was walking my errant mount. So we switched again, saddles off, riders swap places, and I am in charge again of Remy. “Just try it, Remy”, I warned him, and on the ground my skills are seasoned. Remy took heed and walked calmly with me, while we escorted our friends to a few more obstacles and then turned and walked all the way back. Oil smears covering my hands and nose.

So we did complete our first official trail ride. We were disqualified for walking, but I don’t care. Personally I think we were shorted points for all of the amazing things that we did accomplish. Liz commented, as we were nearly done, that most of the show horses that she knows could not have handled all of the surprises that ours experienced that day. There really is no such thing as JUST a trail horse. It combines all the skills of communication, partnership and ability to work through challenges that any horse/rider team could wish for, and some one would rather not wish for! My next ride will be on one of the easier horses. But mark my words, I will become the rider that Remy needs me to be. He did not fail, he was fabulous as ever. It’s never the horses fault.