Deep down in my bones I’m a trail/endurance rider. My heart and soul live in the woods and my peace of mind can be found on a single track, hilly trail.
H’Appy killed any shred of confidence I had when he threw me over his head at a walk in the pasture. Before that I laughed at his shenanigans and shrugged off any behavior I didn’t like. Once I landed in a heap in front of him, all of that changed and fear and mistrust replaced it. I now know that he can pull a nasty buck and rear maneuver and he isn’t above being mean to get his way.
All of this has created a lot of tension in my rides of late and I felt like it was time to turn to my trusty trainer – the trail.
The proper trail can teach a horse a lot of things, but what I love most about it is that the trail itself has a personality and requires respect from both the horse and the rider. I ride better on the trail. My posture is better and I hold my horse more accountable than I do in a lovely, flat and secure arena. I know I shouldn’t be, but I am more lax in the arena often times allowing the horse to not walk immediately or turn after I had wanted or cut a corner because what does it matter? On the trail, a cut corner could mean falling over the cliff and an ignored halt could result in getting run over by a car at a road crossing. As such, when I give an aid I expect it to be listened to immediately without question when on the trail.
In addition, the trail hashes out a lot of things in a way that makes the horse responsible for bad outcomes instead of the rider. If you ignore my request to rebalance and slow down and then face plant over a root, that’s your fault. If you stop paying attention and walk into a tree, again your fault horse. Plus most horses aren’t stupid enough to go charging off through the brush on a whim.
With all that in mind, I reached out to just about anyone I could think of in my area to see if they wanted to ride Gem to babysit H’Appy and me on the trail. Everyone was busy (or claimed to be so as not to have to ride my Gemmie) and so I found myself with my heart in my throat at the trail head of my favorite system, alone.
My biggest fear with him out and about is his herd bound tendencies. Once another horse is around, I no longer exist. Pulling into a busy trail head scared the crap out of me and so I decided it wise to hand walk him along the road, out of sight of the trailers and into the woods before mounting. Once in the woods, I realized this was the first time I’ve ever mounted him from the ground and it took way too long to get him to stand still for me to do so.
Once on him I was very very nervous and forced myself to breathe deeply and exhale relaxing my body and mind. Unfortunately a big part of the start of the 6.5 mile loop had been redone since I was last there and they lost about a mile of woods replacing it with a wide open gravel road. I was planning on using the terrain to keep any bad behavior at bay but now found myself in the open.
H’Appy actually did very well. He didn’t spook at anything we came across: downed logs and piled up branches (Gem’s nemesis), deer bounding away, squirrels rustling in the leaves above and cars racing down roads. Once we hit the woods again after the gravel road, I calmed down a lot and put my faith in the trail.
It did not disappoint. H’Appy learned that by cantering instead of trotting he would miss turns and run into a tree. He stayed a trot or came back with a very small half halt after that. He also learned that when I ask for a walk after trotting and he doesn’t, he will regret that choice as he barrels down a hill and nearly face plants at the bottom. After that he slowed to a walk every time I asked.
The biggest thing I hope he learned was to pay attention at all times. We came across my biggest fear with a mile left to go. As we crossed the road I heard horses up ahead coming towards us. When we got to them, they pulled over and we passed. He didn’t throw a tantrum because there was another horse ahead of us going our direction. We quickly came upon them, the lady pulled over, we passed and then she followed attaching herself behind us. Thankfully H’Appy was happy to lead (something Gem would not have done) and I enjoyed a small bit of company. When we crossed the final road though, the lady peeled off and we went straight. Well, that was too much for Doofus who had spent so many miles alone to finally find a friend. He stopped paying any attention to me, threatened to rear/spin/bolt back to them when he stumbled on a rock and near face planted. I laughed. The rest of the trek back to the trailer he focused on me and the trail although he threw in a few melancholy calls to his long lost new BFF.
All in all it was a good time. Once I got over myself and started trusting him a bit. He ended tired and sweaty which is the exact way a horse should end a technical and hilly trail ride even though we walked 90% of it. I’m actually excited to go back out with him and hope that with time and miles the beginning settles down. I think I may try to do more trails and less arena work for now until I get a better understanding of how he works since I am most comfortable on the trail.