Wednesday, July 11, 2012

my first trail ride on the mountain

Cold Antler Farm is not a riding stable. There are no stalls, no cross ties, arenas or mounting blocks. But there is the tailgate of a dented Dodge Dakota, a lamppost, and a milk crate. And that was all the infrastructure I needed to head out on my first mountain trail ride with Merlin this morning. It was sublime.

I was scared. I paced about it all morning - with excitement and nerves. Yes, I've been riding him for months, but always with instructors or other riders around. Having other people around made me feel safe, even if it was just emotional insurance. I liked knowing if I got hurt or the horse took off I had someone else to double mount with and ride home. Someone else to help me get my horse back, share in the trouble...

This morning there would just be me and Merlin. There would be no one there to double check his girth or hand me a crop. No one to help me get up if I broke an arm. No one to help me find my lost horse. But if I thought about everything that could go wrong out there I'd go crazy. Who gets into their truck in the morning expecting to get into a head-on collision? No one who functions as a normal person, at least. I didn't want to worry. I wanted to jump on my horse, turn the engine on, and drive.

And that was what I wanted Merlin for: a means of getting across the landscape. By saddle or cart, I wanted alternative, animal-powered locomotion. I wanted to explore with him. Feel leaves brushing against my shoulders on a forest trail. Look up and see birds, watch deer romp ahead of us, take in a deep breath and squeeze in my heels so I could see the world at the pace of a trot. Today was going to be that day, by god.

I loved my time in lessons and in the arena, but this was where my heart was. I wanted to be out where I could just do my own thing, sing to my horse, feel like it was just us out there. It's an escape as much as healing. A way to think things through and think of nothing at all. I feel strong on a horse, confident. He lifts me up, that old boy. I kiss him right on the salt-and-pepper mane and ask him if he is getting all the love he needs? It's the same thing I ask Gibson when he wakes up next to me in the morning. Gibson nuzzles, and so does Merlin. They mean the world to me, those two.

Part of me wanted to wait a few days to ride him, but it was all excuses and I knew it. I had put so much energy, time, and money into learning how to do all this, how to ride. I had been through lessons, trail rides with friends, horse shows even...and now there was just me and my boy. I slid a cell phone in my pocket, strapped on my helmet, and went to the gate to get the lug.

I put on his halter and left the paddock. Jasper was already in another fenced paddock and was not able to handcuff his front legs to the metal gate in protest. Which, based on his wails, was exactly what he wished he could have done. "He'll be back, you big baby!" I said, throwing a hand in the air in dismissal as I walked away towards the front of the house, the only level spot on my property.

I tied a lead rope to the lamppost, loose. He stood nicely while I groomed and checked his feet. Saddling up was a bit, shall we say, interesting? I bought a new girth to use with our old saddle and its new hardware made a jingling sound that, under his belly, made him dance and rear up a bit. It took a while to calm him, but I did, and finished tacking up a few moments later. I had flashbacks to the day I was chucked off his back into a fence due to a loose girth and how scared and freaked out he became at the monster saddle under his belly. I knew what he was thinking, and did my best to calm him. He did calm down.

Once we were saddled up I lead him to my driveway, facing the road. I set the milkcrate by his left side and slid the reins over his neck. I jumped up onto his back and found my irons. And there I was. On my own horse in my own driveway. I listened for cars and when I heard none, I gave him a little heel and we started off on our adventure. I let out a long sigh as we slowly walked into the road. I said a prayer of blessing for whatever was about to happen next, but my Epona charm gleamed in the sunlight around my neck and I had a feeling this first ride was going to be just fine.

The hardest part is getting on. Isn't that always the case?

We walked down the road a short distance, and then crossed at the dirt road that lead to Sheriff Tucker's property. A few weeks ago I walked over and asked permission to ride Merlin on his land, only in the mornings and never when I hear him out there cutting wood or enjoying his won land. He agreed, and I felt rich as a baroness. Not only did I have my horse right in my own backyard, I had a place to ride him that was wild and secret.

The Sheriff has (I think) 130 acres of field and forest and he loves his ATVs. He carved out trails all over his land for them and before 8AM on a weekday we aren't liable to meet anything motorized on a forest path. And we didn't. It was just Merlin and I, walking through the woods together. We crossed open pasture and stream, heard grouse in the woods, and walked and trotted as we explored our mountain together. It was as new to me as it was to him and on that quiet morning it felt like all of America was new and unexplored, and it was up to us to draw up a new, mental cartography. It was exhilarating out there. I felt the way I did when I snuck into the woods at Girl Scout camp as a little girl. I drove my leaders crazy, but I had a blast finding salamanders in creeks while they shouted my name...

Merlin was wonderful out there in the morning woods. He walked calmly and was relaxed enough for the both of us. After a mile or so of trails and exploration, we turned back the way we came and ended up back on my paved road. I decided to walk him down along that for a bit, just a bit. The road was wide and I had not so much as heard a slice of traffic. We walked along the grassy shoulder for about a quarter mile and then he smelled the strong whiff of a dead doe a bit farther down and I couldn't blame him for wanting to balk. For training's sake I made him go a bit more but then turned him around and we headed home, even picking up to a trot as we made the sharp curve that made Cold Antler appear from the trees and back into view.

When we got back to the driveway I had him halt, and dismounted. It takes a lot less time to take tack off a horse than put it on, so it wasn't long before he was brushed out and sent back to his boyfriend. Jasper was thrilled to see him come back. Merlin isn't that into him, but tolerates him.

Tomorrow, we'll ride again. I'm still a bit nervous, but it will get easier. It's worth it soon as you start moving forward in that saddle. Worth all of it.

25 Comments:

Blogger doglady said...

Now that sounds like a fabulous morning.

July 11, 2012 at 9:35 PM  
Blogger Lisa said...

Hi Jenna.
I got a new horse shortly after you got Merlin. We are both still in the "getting to know you" phase with our horses. For me, I feel that once I make it through the first "spook" or "freak out" by the horse then I know what to expect the next time around and gain loads of confidence. I did survive the sudden ambush by the compost bin when out riding the other day...!
Lisa in Maine

PS-
If you are concerned about no one knowing where you are should you be "parted" from Merlin, give someone (maybe Patty?) a call before you head out so someone knows your plans. I suspect that as you are riding on the land of a law enforcement official, he is likely keeping an eye on you and will come to find you if Merlin goes by without you! :)

July 11, 2012 at 9:55 PM  
Blogger J.D. said...

Congrats! Well deserved reward.

July 11, 2012 at 9:57 PM  
Blogger Alison said...

Congratulations on a successful first solo outing. Now you know you can do it! You seem so calm in your writing, for finally reaching that dream.

A couple of things I wondered about...wouldn't it be safer to face Merlin away from the road when mounting, in case he bolts? And does he wear shoes? I was curious about trotting him on pavement if he's barefoot. I don't know much about horse feet.

Jasper is hilarious--Merlin suddenly makes him seem high-strung. I think watching their relationship evolve will be at least as interesting as your own with the new guy. So glad they get along, though!

July 11, 2012 at 10:01 PM  
Blogger Katou said...

So glad everything wen't well on your first ride at home with Merlin. You will gain conficence as time goes by. Wishing you many many more beautiful rides with your adorable Merlin.

July 11, 2012 at 10:09 PM  
Blogger Brenda London said...

Congratulations on your first solo ride. That's the only way I ride (husband cannot physically ride in a saddle, but in he does a great job training our harness race horses)and it is so nice having quiet, personal time with one of my horses. The one safety thing I do use (along with a helmet of course) is safety stirrups. I have a set of peacocks, but the rubber bands tend to dry out and break easily so I now use a set of bulky bright color plastic safety stirrups, cannot remember the name, but if I go off the stirrup center will snap off and go with me. Like you I do worry a bit, not about being tossed(I stay relaxed enough that I bounce pretty well for an old lady) but my fear is being dragged, so I try to cover my bases and then relax and have fun. Enjoy your boys.

July 11, 2012 at 10:52 PM  
Blogger kristen said...

So glad it was a great morning! Not much can be a trail ride on a good horse. May I offer a suggestion, and you can take it or leave it? If you are going to trot on your rides, it is best to do it away from home or at least heading away from home. Walking the last bit home is a general good rule to help keep Merlin from deciding to be barn-sour. (You don't want him trying to take the last bit of the ride faster than you like - so don't make the suggestion.)

So glad he is home and you are soaking up the horseness. Enjoy!

July 11, 2012 at 11:01 PM  
Blogger Noël said...

We all know, the first time is always the hardest. It gets easier with practice. The more you ride, the more you'll bond, and the more enjoyable it becomes. I am a little jealous at this moment, but I have to wait on horses for a while. Guess I have to 'ride' via reading your posts! ;)

July 11, 2012 at 11:58 PM  
Blogger Jenna said...

Brenda, I will look into those stirrups, they already saved me once!

July 12, 2012 at 6:19 AM  
Blogger Jenna said...

Kristen, that is good advice. I don't want Merlin figuring out the faster he gets home the faster he gets to eat!

July 12, 2012 at 6:20 AM  
Blogger Jenna said...

Ali, I face him in the direction I am going, but that is something to consider. He can only run about 10 yards before my road ends and a steep rock wall/stream starts so he'd have to run left or right!

Merlin and Jasper are both unshod, he's never worn shoes. If I do a lot of road riding or driving he will need them but since he spends 99% of his time in pasture and paddock, or out in the woods his feet actually grow super fast and the farrier comes every 6-10 weeks depending on the season.

July 12, 2012 at 6:22 AM  
Blogger Jenna said...

And lisa, I will let someone know, good advice!

I like these questions!

July 12, 2012 at 6:23 AM  
Blogger Bovey Belle said...

There's a lovely old English saying: "Walk the first mile, trot the second, and do what the hell you like after that!" It's to do with loosening up muscles. I always used to walk the last half mile home too, so Fahly had a chance to cool down before I took his tack off and sponged off the sweat marks in summer.

It sounds like you have a lovely area to ride in and I hope you have lots of fun.

Those break-safe stirrups sound like a good idea. I used bent leg irons when I was riding, and they also release the foot.

July 12, 2012 at 7:31 AM  
Blogger Maria said...

That sounds like a perfect morning! I am glad it went will with Merlin!

July 12, 2012 at 7:50 AM  
Anonymous janet said...

The partnership will continue to grow. It is a definite challenge having no enclosed area or 'school' in which to ride and train. I kept a horse in a small city and rode through traffic daily to reach a wooded public park where I could school and ride and despite several mishaps and problems with spooking and headstrong behaviour, I was careful to not put myself in a position where I was likely to come unstuck.
As for shod vs unshod a lot depends on the individual horse and the strength of its hooves.

July 12, 2012 at 8:02 AM  
Blogger redhorse said...

The more you get to know him, the less nervous you'll be, and how far can you fall anyway? Fell ponies are known for their tough feet and soundness, after all the breed was created in the Scottish mountains. I doubt that the Vermont/NY mountains will be a problem.

July 12, 2012 at 11:06 AM  
Blogger kringsrud said...

Aaahhhhh.... your morning with Merlin sounded lovely. Thanks for sharing.

I have a question you've probably already addressed, but either I've missed it or have forgotten. Why don't you ride Jasper? Is he a "cart only" horse?

I loved the video of the two of them together. Will be interested to watch that relationship develop.

Be well.

July 12, 2012 at 11:11 AM  
Blogger Elizabeth said...

I completely know what you mean- it is all worth it when you get into that saddle. I ride Friday afternoons and after a long week in the office, riding is the best thing ever- although I am often tired and a bit cranky, that first mount into the saddle and the first steps of the horse put me into a different world- headaches and problems disappear and it is just you and the horse. The sun shines a bit brighter and I feel as though I can take on the world, me and my steed.

July 12, 2012 at 11:48 AM  
Blogger Jenna said...

What do you ride, Elizabeth?!

July 12, 2012 at 11:57 AM  
Blogger Jennifer Montero said...

A retired vet told me only the other day that when she was little her grandfather taught her to ride by putting her on a pony's back and, putting the reins in her hand, said to her "Fall off or sit up, the choice is yours." and sent her on her way.

Jenna, you always seem to choose to "sit up" in your life. All the best with Merlin, and all the other new endeavours you're facing.

July 12, 2012 at 1:13 PM  
Blogger Elizabeth said...

Hey Jenna! I ride a 19 yr old, 14 hand pinto gelding named Bandit. He is not mine unfortunately, I have been taking western pleasure lessons for the past year and LOVE it! I ride at a small stable in NH: http://hhstables.net/herdpage.html. It is all just for fun but I think I have a new life long love. I can't wait to meet Merlin and Jasper at Antlerstock! I think we are about the skill level so I have laughed and sympathized with your riding posts (blog posts that is :)

July 12, 2012 at 5:53 PM  
Blogger deodar said...

Another thought: I always dismount in a different place so my horse doesn't rush up to where I saddled her. If she's been very good I'll get off in a good grazing spot and let her eat for a bit. Since I ride her in a bitless bridle this doesn't yuk up her bit. I have had at least one horse for the last 41 years and I only trail and none of them have ever had shoes. My husband's horse had a slight bout of laminitis some years back and while her hooves were growing out we put her in Cavallo Simple boots but since then she's been barefoot. At our ages we appreciate the smoothness of our mountain horses and it never ceases to amaze me what one little trail ride can do for my state of mind!

July 12, 2012 at 9:56 PM  
Blogger Loco Lindy said...

Sounds like pure heaven to me- so proud for you both!

July 13, 2012 at 7:07 PM  
Anonymous Linda in Mississippi said...

When I read " I kiss his salt & pepper mane" a memory popped back in my head that I had forgotten years ago. Growing up we always had horses and I started off on a shetland pony, they have a reputation of beening mean and we had a love/hate relationship. Many wonderful rides we had together but on the other hand we had our problems. He was a biter and the memory that I had forgotten is one day when he bit me I turned around and bit him on his neck. I really thought that was going to hurt him but if a horse could laugh I am sure he would have. I continued to love that sweet/mean/biting/loving pony until he passed on to the other side.
Through the years I had several horses that each had their on certain love and hate behavior. In later years of my life my two daughters grew up with their own horses also. There is no better relationship than when you reach the point that your trust in that certain horse can not be broken.

July 14, 2012 at 6:53 PM  
Anonymous Patricia said...

Wow congrats! Must be one of your most memorable experience!

July 18, 2012 at 10:50 AM  

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