my first trail ride on the mountain
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.