Spring arrived early this year, with unusually warm weather and it’s customary high winds. We had just enough snow on the ground all winter to render riding unsafe, so like everyone else who is infected with horse and spring fever, I’ve been looking forward to riding.
Wind has never been a good combo with any of my Arabs. As my previous Arabs grew older they were able to manage it, but when they were young they’d get too fired up to take them out riding alone. Especially in the spring, when gusty winds prevail. It’s no different with Dharla, so my ability to ride has been pick and choose this spring, based on the wind conditions and the general weather. We had one rather high energy ride with some friends a few weeks ago, but then the weather worked against us and we had to wait for the wind to die down again. Then last week we had a very nice, quiet ride. Dharla seemed very responsive and mellow …for an Arab in early spring … and I found myself wondering if now that she’s almost ten, are the wild and woolly novice years finally behind us? I returned home that day very pleased and so looking forward to moving our training along a bit.
Wishful thinking? I’d say not. I’ve put lots of time into Dharla. I’ve been more patient than I’ve ever been known for being and I’ve used the gentlest, kindest approach possible in my training methods. I mention that because I come from roots that didn’t always have the animal’s best interest at heart. But many years of reading and riding Arabs has taught me there’s a better way. I’ve been more determined than ever to take the right path with this horse, give her all the time she needs to grow up gently, knowing the rewards will pay off somewhere down the line in spades.
Teaching a young horse how to handle herself out on a trail ride takes hours and hours of calm, safe repetition. One wouldn’t think it would be so hard just to “walk down a trail,” but depending upon where you live it can actually take considerable time to desensitize a horse to the plethora of things they’ll meet outside their normal home environment. And while Dharla has a propensity toward spookiness, she’s steadily improved and grown to trust my judgement and hers out on the trail. There are many things we see out out there that she handles better than most horses with far greater experience, and I know I can credit that to patient persistence and hours and hours of riding time together. In my heart of hearts I believe I’ve done (at least) this part of the job right. Dharla has progressed from an green, skiddish spook-monger into a smart, thinking trail mount. That’s not to say I’d trust her 100% or call her bomb-proof, but we’re a pretty solid working team together. Some days it’s still two steps back and not enough steps forward, but for the most part I feel like we’re moving steadily in the right direction.
Unfortunately, last week our progress met the “perfect storm” of tests, and while we did our very best to hold things together, I ended up with an injury. The test involved two elements. Both, we could have handled individually, but together they were simply too much. While riding on a narrow path between two very steep rocky ledges we encountered (first) a partially-visible trail jogger some 2 stories overhead, followed almost immediately by a mountain biker who rode up (unheard, unannounced) on our tail. Just when I had Dharla almost convinced that the jogger overhead wasn’t a mountain lion about to pounce, the biker decided he could pass us while moving at a high rate of speed. Unannounced. On a four foot wide trail with steep ledges on both sides and nowhere to go to get a safe buffer space between us. Since we were currently preoccupied with the scary jogger overhead, neither the horse nor I knew the biker was coming up on us so fast until it was too late. Once Dharla heard the (almost) silent biker who was nearly upon us, I’m fairly certain she thought the “mountain lion” had come down off the rock ledge to hamstring her. I know how her mind works and her reaction was perfectly normal.
Dharla immediately shot forward, then spun quickly to face the adversary who was (at the moment) still advancing. It all happened so quickly. I was able to stay with Dharla until she spun around, at which point I started to become unseated. Normally I’m very hard to unseat, but my focus had been on the problem overhead when this happened, and part of my method for tackling that issue was to stay very physically relaxed and calm. And because Dharla seemed to be responding (momentarily) quite well, when she suddenly bolted it caught me off guard. Realizing I was going to slip off, I kicked my feet out of the stirrups and jumped off. Unfortunately, this also frightened Dharla and she quickly started to back up, which threw me further off balance. As I fell, my right knee collapsed inward and I hit the ground on my right hip. I still had a grip on the reins and Dharla was still backing up … fast. She pulled me about 20 yards up the trail as I gently and calmly asked her to whoa. I think once she realized she was dragging me (and not a mountain lion) she stopped and stood there trembling. As soon as I got on my feet I knew I had a problem. I had shooting and stabbing pain in my right knee and I wasn’t able to put much weight on that leg.
The biker did eventually stop. I suppose it could have been much worse: my horse could have kicked out at him as he tried to pass or even run into him in her attempt to escape, but she didn’t. She just wanted to get away from the threat as fast as she could and that’s pretty normal. He felt bad. He tired to help me, but the damage was done. I tried to walk the pain out, but that didn’t help. I stood still for a few minutes and spoke gently to Dharla, stroking her neck and trying to reassure her. She calmed down almost immediately. At that point I figured I wasn’t going to be able to walk her home, so I may as well try to get back on her and ride. Once I was up in the saddle my right knee/leg was supported by the stirrup and I decided I should try to ride Dharla a bit before going home. Yanno, to end things on a good note. 😉
We actually had a very nice ride from then on. All told, we rode for another hour and a half. Dharla was quiet, calm and her usual self. Several bikers passed us going both ways and she was fine. In fact, the same biker passed us again on his way back. He stopped and was very apologetic. No harm, no foul, what’s done is done. I knew at the very least I’d probably sprained something, but I just wanted to finish our ride in a good frame of mind. Both of us.
Later that night (because I didn’t think the injury was that bad until then) I went to the ER. Turns out I have two, possibly three tibial plateau fractures. Fortunately, the ACL and meniscus were not harmed. (About 50% of the time one or both are damaged and require surgical repair) I’m not going to have to wear a cast because that would interfere with knee function as I heal. Unfortunately, I’m not supposed to bear any weight on that leg for 4-6 weeks. *Sigh*
Like Roseanne Rosanna-Danna would say, “It’s always somethin’!”
I’ve been riding a lot. When you stop to consider we’ve had 17 days over 90 since June, it’s nice to finally have some weather that doesn’t leave me sweating and bitching as I drag myself back inside the house. However, it’s rained only five times since April and the landscape is crunchy and dead or rapidly dying. It’s unlikely we’ll have a “pretty” New England fall. A couple of recent rides through the woods made me realize just how severe this drought has been. Not that I didn’t already know; I’ve been watering my own gardens with a frightening regularity that makes me question my sanity and praise the good fortunate of a deep well. They say rain is coming, but they’ve been saying that all summer. I’m not holding my breath.
My goals for the next few months are beginning to come together. I’ve started taking English lessons and in a few weeks I’ll move Dharla back to the boarding barn where we’ll both start working with my trainer again. We took last winter off and while that worked out fine, the heavy snowfall and bitter cold meant no riding. The entire winter. Ugh. So despite the fact that the Farmer’s Almanac is calling for another snowy and bitter cold winter, I think I’ve got a better chance of riding in an indoor arena than if I keep Dharla here at home. Or so I’d like to think. Cold weather tends to turn me into a weenie PDQ, so while it’s easy to say I’ll ride, only time will tell. On the up side, I happen to be one of those people who hates wasting money, so If I pay to keep my horse someplace where I can ride, odds are pretty good I’ll do it.
Riding English has been an adventure. It’s been about five years since I took a handful of English lessons and I’ve forgotten most of what I learned. For now it seems like there are as many pluses as there are minuses to starting from scratch with a new discipline, but that doesn’t surprise me. Nothing new comes easily at this age and stage. Not that I was looking for an easy out. I’m not. But after a year of very little ring work it’s been a bit of a shock. There are times when I worry that being limited to riding in an arena will bore me stiff, but then I remind myself that it’s only for a couple of months and ring work is better than not riding at all. Kinda. I’ll adapt. Besides, I can always trail ride Rascal at home. When I remember that I feel a little less limited. Thank goodness for Rascal!
I won’t move Dharla for maybe another month or so. I’m playing it week by week. If the bugs stay bad she’ll stay home, but if it cools down and the flies diminish then I’ll get her settled in. I’m not in any rush. And if this winter turns out to be too cold to even ride in the indoor then I’ll bring her back home. No point in paying to keep her somewhere if I can’t or don’t fully utilize the facility. I often day-dream about living in a place where riding 7-8 months out of the year is a reality. As much as I love the four seasons we’re lucky if we get 3 months of solid riding a year. I’m not getting any younger and I want as much time in the saddle as I can get.
It’s hard to watch your animals grow old. I suppose it’s no different than watching anything else age; parents, children, friends. But so many of my memories are connected to my animals that it’s tough to face the fact that they’re past their prime.
Tia and I have traveled many miles together, mostly alone. We usually venture into Salmon River State Forest because it’s literally in my back yard. I never tire of the beauty and serenity of the woods. Tia is as sure-footed as a mule and I’m always confident that she’ll carry me anywhere I ask with ease. We’ve ridden steep, rock-strewn trails under the light of a full moon, yet she’s never missed a step. Though she’s now considered a senior, Tia has retained the heart and enthusiasm of her youth. Her Arabian genes give her plenty of spirit and she’ll still give you a run for your money if you ask.
I’ve ridden the Bean a little less because he’s really my husband’s horse. His first. And he loves that horse like no other. But Beanie suffered a serious leg injury as a four year-old and was semi retired a few years later. We joke that Beanie says it’s not in his “contract” to be ridden more than once a month. That said he’s fully functional, albeit not the most comfortable horse to ride. Unless of course you ride him wide open. Beanie was bred from racing stock and speed runs thick in his veins. He was born to run like the wind and he’s happiest when he’s moving flat out. That’s the most incredible feeling, to open him up and feel him flatten out and fly. Aldo says Beanie has wings on his feet. Based on my experiences riding him, I have to agree!
Beanie also has a very unique personality. Picture a precocious, five or six year-old boy wearing overalls and a baseball cap. That’s the Bean. A bit of a punk, but lovable. Our farm vet says he’s the kind of horse that every time he has to give him a shot he bleeds a little just to make him feel bad. But Beanie is a softy who loves being around people. His manners are impeccable and he’s trustworthy with everyone, including children. If the weather is bad we joke that Beanie should come inside and be with us. He would love to do that!
Tia also has an excellent personality. I don’t know much about her background, but I’ve often said that I think she was used as a lesson horse somewhere in her youth. I got her when she was just five, but the first time I put a child on her she automatically became a perfect bomb-proof babysitter. She has such a sweet, gentle way of going when a beginner rides her, which is funny given that I know what a pistol she can be. But I think Tia senses when a rider is nervous or inexperienced and she does her best to act appropriately and behave. Sometimes she can seem a bit aloof, but that’s only because Beanie is such a people-magnet that he gets all the attention from visitors.
Above, Beanie and Tia share the hay rack at dusk. The picture was converted to black and white.