By guest writer Kathy Christiansen about her first trail riding experience……
Horses and girls. It is a mysterious attraction. My sisters had horses for a time and I always enjoyed being around those alfalfa-breath beasts. I even convinced a cowboy at the State Fair to let me ride his quarter horse in the arena. The highly trained horse took off running towards the tractor that was smoothing the arena floor, my hair flying out behind me, my arms and legs waving in all directions and then stopped abruptly just before a doomsday collision with the sharp machinery. I couldn’t get out of there fast enough; the cowboy’s face was a mixture of fear and anger and I was totally embarrassed by the incident. It was a flirty female fiasco!
I had occasional opportunities to pet horses’ noses at other fairs and ranches, but never really wanted to get on one again until I met some ladies in Salem who were deeply into the equestrian lifestyle. I was happy to watch, pet and even clean stalls while the friends were around to supervise. No sense taking any chances with my safety again. I learned much from these talented women and began to feel more comfortable around the beautiful animals.
The subject of horse camping came up one year and I was invited to come along, just for laughs, I think. I knew all about camping from years of experience, so how different could this be? The preparation and paraphernalia that went into transporting not only humans but horses was astounding to me. The trucks, trailers, feed, tack, water jugs, and first aid kits were much more than a quick backpack and a pair of hiking boots! But once we were settled in camp, the horses safely corralled, the fresh air took its relaxing toll and everyone settled down to a temporary new routine. I did more petting and cooing and learned some do’s and don’ts of horse ownership. One friend even encouraged me to mount and walk around the parking lot on her Friesian, safety helmet firmly in place, emergency rein-pulling instructions given and watchful equestrians nearby. What a thrilling experience to be up so high on a calm animal with more sense in my head!
A few years later, the same invitation for horse camping was issued. No hesitation there! I knew more about what to expect, but this time it was going to be more challenging. One of my friends arranged for me to actually have a horse to ride! It was promised that he would be mellow and experienced with untrained riders, being in that role at a local barn. What could I say? Here was a chance to advance a bit into the world of trail riding.
My friends made sure that I didn’t feel obligated to ride with them yet made every preparation for my comfort and safety. Louie, a twelve year old quarter horse, eyed me with experienced dispassion. “Oh boy! Another greenhorn! Okay. Let’s get this over with. “ Carrie, my encouraging comrade, made sure that Louie was properly tacked up and ready to ride. No sense risking life and limb with loose girth straps and bridles on backwards. The other horse campers mounted, circled the newcomer and offered tips on mounting from an old tree stump.
The squeak of leather, the smell of horsehide, the change in perspective from ground to animal seemed strangely familiar yet tinged with apprehension. What was I thinking in agreeing to do this? What if this horse decided to take off with me on his back? Oh yes. The emergency instructions: grab one rein down low, pull up the length of your leg and hold on to the saddle horn. That should do the trick. Ready or not, here I come!
Louie’s ears were a bit askew, no doubt thinking about this obviously green rider on his back. With his herd around him, he quickly fell into line and we began my first official trail ride. Having been penned with a little filly for the night, he was anxious to be near her, so she and her rider followed us with Louie checking on her whereabouts regularly. The rocking motion of a horse walking is so rhythmic that it quickly becomes natural to follow suit. No sense in fighting the strength that is so obviously there.
With gravel crunching underfoot we leisurely meandered along the road to the trailhead, everyone checking on my comfort and happiness. Louie and I worked on our steering relationship, he moving along with practiced ease, me trying my “whoa”, “ho” and rein-pulling for turns. Together we managed to stay with the group and I began to look around at the forest scenes and enter into the trail chatter with the other riders. Yeah. I could do this more often. It’s not so hard.
The trail wandered through a forest of pine and piles of underbrush cleared for fire reduction. The rocks along the way clattered on the horses’ shoed hooves and caused them to slip and slide from time to time. There were moments when I wondered what I would do if Louie started to stumble, fall or decide to take an alternate route, but I trusted my instincts and the experience of my companions to see me through any difficult moments. The downhill parts of the trail taught me about saddle position, and the dead end trails requiring turnarounds were instructional in rein management. Louie was probably smirking inside, amused that his rider thought she had anything to do with the ride. Nonetheless, he kept his thoughts to himself and let me think I was supervising him.
At one rest stop, my friend came over to check on me as Louie was getting a bit antsy. She tried to hold the bridle to settle him while I kept pulling back on the reins. Louie kept backing up. My friend kept pulling him forward. Finally, she noticed what I was doing and commanded, “drop the reins!” That surely did the trick as Louie was getting mixed messages. Oh. The backup technique. Another lesson learned.
After a couple of rides, Louie and I settled into a watchful relationship, he patiently tolerating my inexperience and I becoming more warily comfortable on this handsome four-legged animal. Just to ensure that I didn’t get too comfortable or complacent and take any horse for granted, several of the other horses on the trip engaged in fits and spats with each other, requiring the owners to deal with them in a battle for control. I saw the beauty and intelligence of these magnificent creatures along with the power, will and potential danger that they possess. I came away from my trail ride experience with a sense of accomplishment in beginning horsemanship, gratitude for loving friends and a deeper understanding of the equine mind. Tack up girls! Let’s go!