New Views and a New Look!

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As promised a couple of weeks ago, Urban Equestrian now has a new look! The blog just turned four years old this November (which also marks four years back in the saddle for me), and I thought it was about time for an updated design.

Last weekend, Dunnie and I also got a new look at the world as we went on our first trail ride together. My trainer brought us, along with six other girls that I ride with and their horses, out to 7IL Ranch to practice riding on trail and see if we’re interested in doing some competitive trail riding.

A new view between the ears as Dunnie and I head out to the trails at 7IL Ranch.
A new view between the ears as Dunnie and I head out to the trails at 7IL Ranch.

Dunnie and I did a trail class at the SHOT show we went to in September, but that was different; it was trail obstacles laid out in a ring. Back in college, I did one competitive trail ride that was actually on outdoor trails on a lark (in an English saddle) and really enjoyed it, so I’m interested in doing it again.

Competitive trail riding is a set of obstacles spread out along trails, maybe about a mile apart. They can include elements such as riding over a bridge or through a stream; opening, going through, and closing a gate; riding up to a mailbox and taking something out or putting something in; or riding up a hill without letting your horse break into a faster gait than a walk. The competitors ride through the trails and are judged at each obstacle; there are three levels of difficulty available at each stop, with more points awarded for the higher difficulty skills.

This weekend on the ride, we didn’t encounter any man-made obstacles, but we did find some of the ones that crop up naturally on trails: fallen trees to jump over, ditches that make the trail narrow and steep, branches to avoid (or to barrel through, oblivious to the fact that you have a rider on top of you, whichever).

I was interested to see how Dunnie would react to being out in the open. During the SHOT show, he had reacted poorly to the trail class and the ranch pleasure class being outside near a wooded area, but I had to chalk some of his being so keyed up to all the excitement of being at a show as well as my own contribution in the form of performance anxiety. I predicted that he would be excited to be out on the trails and might be a bit alert, but I also knew that since I had no goals other than to relax and enjoy the ride, I was confident I could keep him calm enough for that.

Right off the bat when we got the horses out of the trailer on the open field in the picture above, he was super alert — but that was because next to that field was a pasture full of his favorite thing in the world, cows. As I trotted him around trying to get a feel of how the open space would affect him, he kept craning his head back around to look at them like a dog that wants to chase a squirrel. He cracks me up.

Once we got away from the cows and out onto the trails, he was able to focus a bit more. At first, all the tall grass along the side of the trail was a potential threat that required his complete vigilance. Aware that when he does shy away from scary things, it’s a lightening-fast move where he drops his shoulder — the speed and the sudden imbalance being a tricky combination to stick with as a rider — I had to consciously work to remove anticipatory tension from my body. Once we left the more open trails for the narrower, wooded ones, he relaxed a bit of that vigilance. I think that was mostly because there he had something to think about, being forced to negotiate the footing more attentively.

treecrossing

His main concern for the rest of the ride was whether the lead horses in front of us were getting too far ahead for his liking. My tendency in a trail ride is to want to be in either the front or the back. If my horse isn’t a leader, I like to ride all the way at the back so I can keep track of everyone (this is probably a holdover from hiking with a bunch of kids in my camp counselor days). Dunnie would certainly have enjoyed being the leader, but would have quickly gotten out of hand had I let him. He would not tolerate being towards the back, and even when he was comfortable in the middle of the pack, we had to be cognizant of train getting too spread out or he’d start to get charged up.

Overall, we spent pretty much the whole six-mile ride in an energized, but contained, trot. At first I kept trying to bring him down to a walk, but I quickly realized that this small release of energy would keep him happy, whereas trying to tamp it down completely might result in an explosion later on. Luckily, his trot is very easy to sit. And even more luckily, he was willing to communicate with me.

Often when we start our ride in the ring, I have to take a few minutes to get his attention. He’s excited or distracted by other horses, by the wind, or some birds, and I need to say, “Hey, listen to me now. We’re gonna do stuff.” Since we’re in a ring and in familiar surroundings, the distracting things quickly recede and after a few minutes, he’s ready to give me his attention and get to work.

The big question for me in taking him out on this trail ride was whether I’d be able to get his attention in a more chaotic, more interesting, potentially scary out-in-the-open situation. I remembered the helplessness I felt at the SHOT show when it seemed that I just couldn’t get through to him. Ultimately, he came back to me for the afternoon classes, but those had been back inside the arena, not outdoors like the morning ones. But since then I’ve continued to develop as a rider and every day I feel more confidence. And so much of the detailed work we’ve been doing — especially on flexion — has focused and refined our communication. I was extremely pleased to see that even though he clearly just wanted to run amok through those trails — to charge ahead of everyone else, freak out about figmentary predators in the grass, and probably charge back to the trailhead as quickly as possible to bite some cows on his way out — that he was willing to listen to me when I said that we weren’t going to do any of those things.

I was excited to go on that trail ride because being out in nature is restorative and calming for me. I love hiking and it can only be made better by being on horseback. I didn’t exactly get the relaxing ramble I was hoping for, but what I got was much, much better. I got to see that Dunnie trusts me and that I can trust him.

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The Old Stomping Grounds

While researching dream jobs recently, I came across Nancy D. Brown. She’s a travel writer who decided to combine her love of travel with her passion for horses and now runs a website, Writing Horseback, that gives tips and reviews for creating the ideal horseback vacation.

Ms. Brown invited me to write a guest post on where to ride in Brooklyn. I gladly accepted and mentally returned to my old stomping grounds to review the barns where I used to ride. You can read the post here: Horseback Riding in Brooklyn, NY

Big Sur

I took a trip out to California for vacation and started it off with three days in one of my favorite places on Earth: Big Sur. I’ve never been anyplace else quite like it. It’s one of a few places in this country where the natural landscape is largely untouched, a place where there is only one road that winds its way through the mountains and forests along the rocky, severe cliffs of the coast. That road offers incredible views of the Pacific Ocean as it crashes into the rocks several hundred feet below the highway, as it stretches out to eternity in striations of myriad blues, but these views are guarded jealously. The mists can seep in at anytime, bleaching the world of sunlight, obscuring the views of ocean, mountain and tree and even the winding road itself. To drive up and down Highway 1 on those 90 miles of coastline is to remember that you are small and that nature is big, and to know that no matter what we do on this planet, nature will remain untamed before us.

I don’t often travel without trying to ride wherever I’m visiting. I’ve ridden a horse through the fields on a farm in eastern Australia, through the jungle and onto the beach in Mexico for a gallop and then a bareback dip in the Caribbean,  raced at full clip up a mountain in the Dominican Republic, ambled through the woods in Lake Placid, and have taken to the trails in Big Sur once before as well. The place to ride there is in Andrew Molera State Park, an almost 5,000-acre area situated at the mouth of the Big Sur river. There are miles and miles of trails that take you inland, through meadows and hilltops within sight of the Santa Lucia mountains, and finally out onto the beach.

What a great, relaxing ride. My horse was, Roy, a 16-or-so-hand bay gelding that suited me perfectly. He was a very chill guy, yet awake and present and energetic–not a brain-dead, overworked trail nag like you can find at a lot of places that cater to tourists. All the horses at this place were remarkably well-trained, perhaps better than any other place I’ve ridden. Roy and I happily clipclopped along behind our guide, Sarah, who was a cool chick that I loved chatting with.

We rode through some forest and then waded our horses across the ankle-deep Big Sur River into a wonderland of meadows with gnarled old redwoods and coastal pines, including one old man that is over a thousand years old. We happened upon a wandering deer that nearly startled Roy, but she disappeared and we walked on, spotting a pair of quail hopping around in a bush. The park is home to the condors that have been banded and released for monitoring. We think we saw one, but it is really difficult to tell the scale of something even so large when it is flying so high, so it’s possible it was an eagle. We finally came out onto the beach and stood watching the misty coastline with our manes flying in the salty wind. The guide took this picture before we headed back to the stable.

Riding in a Western saddle always feels like a vacation to me. It’s nice to get nestled into the deep seat, stretch out my legs in longer stirrups, and only worry about my position in regard to how it will help my horse, like sitting back going downhill. When I first started Western trail riding in college, spending one lesson out of every few at the trail barn riding through 500 acres of Virginia woodlands, I use to try to steer my horse past every obstacle. I would try to move her around exposed roots, prevent her from tripping over small rocks in our path, or avoid the more rutted part of the trail. Then somewhere along the line I realized that such micromanagement was not necessary and allowed her to choose the best path for her while I just enjoyed the ride. I was able to do this with Roy, forgetting for once about being a rider and simply riding.

Dreams and Fantasies

Today’s was another more physical than mental lesson. It was a good ride. In this cold and windy weather, the horses were in a frisky-but-not-yet-basketcase mood that made them fun and forward. I rode Lieutenant again and it was a relief, in my still slightly run-down state after having a cold all week, to not have to squeeze on every step to move him along. I shared my lesson with another girl I’ve ridden with before; she is the closest to my level of anyone else I’ve ridden with and it makes for less stress in the ring knowing we can both hold our own and don’t have to worry about being in each other’s way. She rode a small gelding named Aladdin and it was refreshing to have a mare-free atmosphere for a change.

Quiet and relaxed on our walk back to the barn, my mind was allowed to wander. Sometimes on these rides, I daydream about being in my favorite fantasy novels, the Memory, Sorrow, and Thorn trilogy by Tad Williams. I’ve just finished re-reading the series after some years so it’s prominent in my thoughts right now, but it’s always in my heart. I mean, my cat is named after the main character. In the books, there is a lot of traveling. The characters must all at various times cover a lot of terrain on horseback. In one section, the main character, Simon, travels with a few other companions first through the deepest, richest forest and then across a white waste to the furthest northern reaches of the world. These parts of the books have always been my favorites. Reading about their daily routine of caring for the horses, camping out, and then exploring new, wild territory has always been comforting to me. Of course other, more exciting things happen in the books than just these mundane things. But when I imagine myself in them, this is what I imagine.

The ride back through the park is scenic and is similar, on a smaller scale, to the forest terrain in the books: we ride through a muddy-tracked and leaf-strewn copse of trees that leads us out to the main trail that loops around the interior of Prospect Park and takes us past the lake. Today was slightly grey and gusty, with swaths of sunlight brightening the ground and warming the air, only to disappear a moment later while the wind blew in the clouds and small flurries of snow.

I watch these images go by as we ride silently in single file, the rhythm of my horse’s walk carrying up through my body to sway me slightly in the saddle. I daydream about a fantasy world that seems set far in our past and also of a future where a daily ride is simply a part of the rhythm of my life.