A Spring Hedonist: Part 2
I'd been riding Merlin less during the winter, a lot less while snow and ice covered the ground. When we did go on a ride it was usually just on the road, walking to visit friends on the mountain or just to feel the saddle under me. We'd plod along for an hour while my head wound down. We had not been out on the mountain trails in weeks, and that's a totally different kind of riding. Tucker's mountain has streams to cross, big open fields, steep mountain trails, winding ATV roads, big open grassy hillsides, and steep paths overlooking drop-offs below. It's no mindless road trip. This would be our first time exploring the wild mountain in weeks, the terrain changed after the melt of the recent snows. I was hungry for it.
After our amazing cart ride the day before (when Merlin was an equine saint) I was expecting a pleasant jaunt around the mushy winter woods on a sunny day. The kind of ride you could have your earbuds in and listen to audiobooks while cardinals dashed around you and squirrels scamper about. You know what I mean, right? The kind of trail ride that birds dress you for in the morning. Pretty, mindless, sunny.
I was not like that. It was so much better!
Merlin and I were saddled up fairly quickly. The mud was dry on his long coat and brushed off without fuss. I checked his feet, checked for any sore spots, and lifted our old saddle into place. When all was correct in Tackland, I walked him over to the driveway to mount up. I lead the horse complete with wool plaid saddle pad, saddle, chest strap, and bridle. It was not long ago that I didn't even know what these things were outside of movies and television. Now I can take a horse from a field, halter, groom and prepare him to ride with everything fitting correct. A small, victory.
Here's another small victory I'd like to share. I no longer need a mounting block. Merlin is a good size horse for my own height and weight, so getting on his 14-hand back isn't a mighty feet, but to do it on solid ground feels good. Each jump into the saddle is a bullseye of its own, I suppose. So, I step my left foot up into the stirrup and used it for leverage to rise into the saddle. It's a skill I had to be taught. You need to keep your weight even and correct so you don't bother the animal or put too much pressure on anything. (Cathy Daughton's daughter Jacey showed me when she was here this summer, and I am very grateful!) I did my little gymnastic bit in my stretchy jeans and I was ready to ride. I gave Merlin a little heel and he walked right outside the driveway.
This isn't normal. Merlin usually needs to be coaxed to get started, like an engine that needs to be warmed up before it turns over. I thought this was a great sign, though. He was being biddable. We walked the short distance of road to the wooden gate that lead to the trails. I gave a little more heel and he trotted. With that little bit of speed under me, I got a little cocky. We cantered a little, and practiced going from a walk right into a full run. Merlin was a pocket rocket on four bare feet. I was hooting and hollering and having a blast, just being a passenger on this great thing we call horse.
So now both of us were full of of piss and cider vinegar. I asked him to head up a slight rise that headed into the woods. I wanted to run up it, but he just stood there, and then started to turn around. He realized this wasn't a sprinted sugar high but an actual workout and wanted nothing to do with it. I was firm, and spun him around in enough gentle circles that he got the point that I was the one in charge. I faced him back in the direction I wanted. I gave him some heel and Merlin flattened his ears and lowered his head towards my destination. I could feel his muscles bunch. Shit. This is where Merlin's aggression loses its passivity.
Once he loses an argument he gives in, but he does it with attitude. He took off! Stretching his stubby self into long lopes before he lifted his back feet into a high kick. I felt my body lift out of the saddle! Without thinking, as if the reflex was always inside me, my right hand slowly tightened on both reins and my left hand reached down and gripped the horn as I let my entire body sink into the saddle, heels down as far as they could go in the stirrups. Merlin then transitioned from his angry canter into a trot and flicked his ears at me, almost saying "You're still here?" and then scoffed and softened into a walk.
We kept weaving cross the streams, the birch timbers, and the open fields. He was a little amped, but controllable. Then things started getting interesting. When we headed down a slope of mud, we both learned it was just a top layer over ice. It would make him slide a few feet and it felt exactly like it does in a car when it is hydroplaning. Part of me wondered if I should have attempted a full-out trail adventure in the slush and mud, but then I stopped all that silly doubt. What is the point of only riding a trail horse in perfect conditions? The type of riding I partake in is the kind of riding people barely do anymore. Merlin and I are not training for some kind of arena sport or race. It's a lot humbler, a lot more basic. I want to know him as a vehicle in the world. The way people used to know how to ride. The kind of riding where discomfort isn't a deterrent, but an asset. Knowledge you need to know, in body and rein to get across roads, landscapes, and do it in all weathers and seasons. We both need to learn how to deal with mud, rain, snow, fallen trees and shocking surprises. And we got our lesson in that, next...
After a particularly steep slide down a path, both Merlin and I were not paying attention to anything but the ground under his feet. He didn't want to slip, and I didn't either. So neither of us saw the trio of does shoot out of the underbrush just fifteen feet to our left. Merlin exploded up into the air! There was no warning of any if it. Again, I let my body do what it knew to do. I pressed my chest forward, balancing so as to not slide off the back. After his four feet were back on the ground he wanted to bolt, wanted to panic, and with an effort of will I laughed and let out a long breath of air. I pulled his reins back, steady and strong but not in any way that would saw into his mouth. I let my whole body relax and in three strides he started walking again. He blew out air and shook his mane. He seemed confused, caught in a prank. He didn't understand why I wasn't freaking out, too? I made him stop and watch the deer, so he knew both what happened and that it was over. I counted to ten before I asked him to walk home. He was fine. Epona had our back that day, which I knew all along. She got us this far after all. It took some serious mojo to bring me and him together, and it would take something bigger than a deer, a kick, or a pile of steep mud to tear us apart now.
So much of riding seems to be a combination of confidence and gut-instinct body contact. You need to know when to sit deep, hold on, let go, and trust each other. Merlin and I had a hairy ride, for sure, but that doesn't mean it was a bad one. We had text-book goofs and some scares but after that little adventure I felt the same sparks of competence I felt when three arrows struck the bullseye in a row. For me, competence builds confidence. I sat tall walking home to the farm. These were skills I didn't know (never dreamed I would know) just a year ago.
That day I was an archer and a rider. Not the best, but not the worst. Sometimes I think it is more about sticking with a thing than it is getting good at it. Give your body time to wrap itself around a thing like a bow or a saddle and it will see you through. It has for me, anyway. And I untacked that horse with a feeling no argument or late bill could stomp out. We get better as we get older, at least if we're working towards something we do.
Jenna 17 Jillion
Luceo Non Uro.