A Ride in the Woods

Jenny and I recently spent some time in Florida visiting daughter Jamie and son-in-law Kyle. I didn’t get a chance to ride any horses and I’m not sure they would have let me anyway. But we did get a peek at some interesting creatures that you rarely see at home.

There was this iguana guarding the middle of the street.

20150222_132219

In what is sure to be an award winning nature photograph, you can see the fin of a dolphin if you look closely.

20150222_141638

I wasn’t too upset that this big guy/girl was on the other side of the creek.

20150223_152815

And a big ol’ manatee hanging near the legged creatures.

20150224_125929

In any case, no lessons for me in the second half of last month. So I thought I’d share this article I wrote for The Trail Rider magazine that appeared in their Mar/April issue of 2013. It’s about my first ride on one of Karin’s horses.

A Ride in the Woods

“Trail ride” is such a pleasant sounding term. The way it rolls off your tongue with no menacing consonants like “k” or spooky letters like “x” or “q”. The two words sort of blend together – trailride – offering a mixture of agreeable associations: sunshine, fresh air, tall trees and the best companionship known to humankind.

Trailride. Such a nice word…

Unless, of course, it’s your first time on a horse in thirty years and you’ve spent the last fifty-two minutes at the edge of mortal danger and your riding instructor is using it in a sentence that you did not want to hear: “Why don’t we finish your lesson with a little trail ride?” In that case, it sounds more like: “Let’s go out into the woods and finish you off.” 

The horse Karin put me on was a Perchon-Thoroughbred mix about the size of Godzilla, but much nicer. He was definitely a good boy, who did not seem to mind the white-knuckled death grip I had on his mane for the last hour.

“Good boy, Caspian. Good boy.” 

The death grip was actually the result of an attempt to pat the horse’s neck. But my hand didn’t make it all the way and on its own accord, seized the nearest object offering any measure of comfort and security. Once there, I couldn’t convince it to leave.

I should have been less afraid. Caspian, an experienced vaulting horse, was exceptionally calm and well mannered, as any creature employed as a mobile jungle gym would have to be. Besides, since this was my first lesson, Karin chose a vaulting saddle for me use. These are saddles that come with actual handles, like they all should. There is nothing you can put on a horse that could make a new rider feel any more secure than a vaulting saddle. But that wasn’t enough. 

Foundation for a Phobia

Highlighting my apprehension was a well-founded Low Hanging Branch Phobia. When my kids were young, we went on a group ride with their cousins at a local riding stable. You know, the kind staffed and managed by horse-crazed teenaged girls. Everything was fine for the first thirty feet of the ride. And then everything wasn’t. I don’t know exactly how it started. Something about a disagreement between the two lead horses. Maybe it was an election year, I don’t remember.

Anyway, all hell broke lose. Two of the horses took off down the road, while another split into the woods, perhaps in an attempt to cut ‘em off on the other side of the trees. It’s hard to say what goes on in a horse’s brain during these situations. Probably nothing.

The horse that took off into the woods was carrying my nephew. I could see the little guy ducking branches as his freaked-out mount carried him deeper into the woods. Lucky for everyone, except my sister’s attorney, the kid was athletically inclined and able to hang on without further incident or injury. I remember thinking at the time that the boy was fortunate to still have a head.

Ever since the incident, I’ve associated trail riding with decapitation. Although, my daughter likes to point out that a low hanging branch is more likely to break your neck or crack your head open than to take it clean off.

Yeah, that’s better.

Into the Hole We Go

It’s not just the trees and branches that scare me. It’s the things hiding behind the trees. The things that both Caspian and I know are there. It’s about how the horse will react when those things jump out at us. Horses are unpredictable! People aren’t much better! 

Despite my fears, we head toward the trees. As Caspian and I follow Karin on her little pony into the woods, he behaves as if nothing is wrong. His gait is steady and calm, nonchalantly swaying with a steady rhythm. I can almost see the thought bubble above his big Baby Huey head: 

Doh-de-doh, doh-de-doh, into the woods we go-de-doh, go-de-doh… 

I should take heart in his courage, but I am unable. If the branches and things behind the trees aren’t enough, we are approaching the Dreaded Mudhole, the lowest part of the trail. Karin warns: “You’ll feel him pick up a little speed. He knows he needs to do that to make it through the mud.” 

Speed? I do not want speed. Not at all. It’s unpredictable! No, no, NO! 

The horse’s cadence quickens and his gait becomes irregular. Into the Mudhole we go! The mighty horse powers his way through it without stumbling and we surge up the hill. And the top, we emerge from the woods and back into the open! The orchestra in my head strikes up Strauss’ Thus Spake Zarathurstra (2001 Space Odyssey music) and we are in the clear. 

Caspian’s steady gait returns. 

Do-de-doh, do-de-doh, out of the woods we go-de-doh. 

That was actually… fun. 

As we return to the barn, Karin says, “Next time, lets try a little trot.” 

Trot, such a fun word.

DSC03570

Whose Vault is this?

I am going to devote the next few posts to the sport and art of vaulting. If my becoming an equestrian has been a little surprising, my participation in vaulting borders on the bizarre. I can say, however, that I am still alive, unharmed, and it was a lot of fun.

Before coming to Karin’s Horse Connection, I knew a little bit about vaulting from an article I did on the sport a few years ago. The American Vaulting Association actually put it in their newsletter, so I guess it was okay with them. I thought the article might serve as a good introduction to the vaulting related posts that will follow next week.

Here it is:

Who’s Vault is this?

While browsing the web recently, I came across a remarkable photograph. It showed three children dressed in tights, riding triple on a horse. Not only were they riding triple, they were every which-way. One youngster sat backwards and another was standing up. The third kid – the crazy one – was upside down and on top of the one sitting backwards. She wasn’t even bothering to hang on with both hands.

Where were these kids’ parents? This is the kind of show-off monkey business I forbid my daughters to do when they were still under my roof. It was tough enough watching them jump cross poles. Doing a handstand on top of a moving horse was completely out of the question.

According to the caption, the insane children were engaged in sport/art called vaulting. I’ve heard of vaulting before. At least the word. But I assumed it involved jumping over things. As in “pole” vaulting.

Webster supports me in this. “To bound vigorously,” he says. Oxford agrees. Both dictionaries mention a “burial chamber” and that could be relevant. But there is nothing about doing back flips off a real horse.

I called my now-grown daughter, Hiliary, to see if she could offer some insight to this madness. And to make sure she wasn’t doing anything unsafe.

“It’s a sport, Dad. Like gymnastics on a horse.”

“Gymnastics on a horse? Who the hell thought that was a good idea?”

“I think it first came from Germany. But we’ve been doing it here for a long time. It’s kinda cool to watch.”

Ah, the Germans. Nietzsche, Wagner and vaulting. Now I get it.

“You haven’t done this sort of thing, have you Hiliary?”

“No – never. It’s not something you can just go out in the backyard and start doing. You have to go to a trainer or join club or something. I know that there’s a national organization. Try going to www.americanvaulting.org

I went to www.americanvaulting.org.  Hiliary and I surveyed the website together over the phone. A father-daughter conversation utilizing 21st Century technology. Oh, brave new world.

I clicked on the photo album page link.

“Hiliary, check out the photos.  Don’t you think some of them are kinda young?”

“Yeah, they’re young. It’s the same for regular gymnastics.”

“Okay, now click on the awards link.  Do you see where most of the kids are from?”

“Yeah… looks like California.”

“That’s right. Young people from California.”

Now things were really starting to make sense. This is not the sort of thing we do in Michigan. Performing fancy tricks on top of a moving horse just wouldn’t go well with huntin’, fishin’ and cursing at professional sports teams. But in California, well…

“Actually, Dad, they have chapters all over the country. There’s one about twenty miles from here.”

“Hiliary, these people are out of their minds. Why stop at handstands? Why not just go ahead and start a hockey game up there?”

“It’s not that dangerous. They do all kinds of things to make it safe.”

“Such as?”

“Such as a longeur controls the horse, not the performers. And it’s not like the horses are running all over the place while the vaulters are doing this stuff. It’s a very controlled environment.”

“And?”

“And they use a special saddle. I don’t think they even call it a saddle. And they use specially trained horses. This isn’t something you can do on a trail horse with a western saddle.”

“Yeah, Waders would freak out. I can see him looking back at you wondering what the heck you’re doing up there. Still, in some of the pictures they’re fifteen feet up in the air. And they don’t hang on.”

“That’s true. But the people in those pictures have something very important going for them.”

“What’s that?”

“They know what they’re doing.”

“I could see how that might help.”

“They’re FEI level athletes. They’ve been taught by FEI level trainers. At the lower levels it’s almost a lead-line sort of thing. And vaulting at any level teaches things that make regular riding safer.”

“Like what?”

“Like balance and rhythm. And it builds confidence by teaching riders to control their own bodies. A horse will notice that.”

Okay. I give up. Vaulting is safer than softball or bike riding or joy riding in grocery carts. And apparently horses like it too. I can understand that. Anything that gets these crazy kids to control themselves has got to be a good thing.

A Short Ride

“Remember the horse is very sensitive.  If they can feel a fly, they can certainly feel you.”

Toward the end of my first lesson Karin, decided a little time in the saddle might be good for me. Or maybe she thought fifteen minutes of being led around in circles by an awkward greenhorn was enough for Caspian. It’s never a good idea to allow something that big to get too bored. She threw a saddle pad across his back, followed by the vaulting saddle.

“You can use this one today. Don’t worry, I won’t make you do any handstands.”

I wouldn’t even try that trick on flat ground. But I was happy about using the vaulting saddle. I had my eye on that puppy the moment I walked into the barn. I liked the handles.

“Karin, I brought my bike helmet.  Should I use it?”  I was anxious to demonstrate my interest in safety awareness. Teachers like that.

Karin smiled and said the helmet had to be the Standard Regulation Officially Endorsed Sanctioned Licensed Certified kind. My bike helmet did not qualify.

Good advice from Karin's wall

“You can use one of mine. If you can make it fit.”

Ah, yes, the “Dork Helmet”.  I used to tease the girls about how they looked in theirs. Probably shouldn’t have done that. I wasn’t sure if it was my size, but I strapped it on anyway.

The first thing I noticed when I got on Caspian was how darn wide he was. This is why everyone said I was going to be sore.  I thought back to my old cowboy and Indian toys, how bowlegged and absurd the riders looked when they weren’t mounted.  How you had to swing their entire bodies back and forth to simulate walking. It’s hard to take someone seriously when they walk like that.

At first, Karin led us around the arena. They were having Riding Camp at the barn that day and a small knot of kids began to gather to watch the middle aged guy in his dork helmet take his pony ride.  At least I was on the biggest horse in the barn.

After a couple of short loops, Karin released Caspian and we were flying solo. Well, not flying exactly.

“It’s the same as when you led him on the ground.  Shift your body weight and combine it with the inflection in your voice to communicate what you want. The reigns should only account for twenty-five percent of how you cue him.”

I did my best. Caspian responded to my cues like an old pro, no doubt sensing my inexperience and trying to help any way he could. I probably exaggerated my body shifts a bit too much, actually feeling like I might slip off one side or the other.  I think the kids would have enjoyed that.

Riding Camp was about to start so I only had about five minutes in the saddle.  Enough to know that there is an art to this riding thing.

My next lesson is June 30, 8 a.m.  I have no idea what is going to happen.