Saturday, April 21st, 2012
Sometimes I worry that riding the same trail over and over can get too familiar to a horse. Something akin to never riding outside your own pasture. I didn't have that problem today. I was planning a simple conditioning ride for Cherokee, the Kentucky mountain horse. I wanted to reinforce his water crossing, and put in some distance to strengthen his endurance. Instead, it turned into a Halloween fun house, full of one spooky thing after another.
I hadn't realized that there was a major mountain bike and foot race scheduled for Sunday. We arrived at the trail head to find the park service preparing the trail for the race. The route was marked with blue and white signs. Strings of fluttering flags blocked every trail not being used for the race. All along the route, there were obstacles built alongside the trail. There were climbing walls, ladders, mud pits, rope nets, and swinging and climbing ropes. Cherokee managed the distractions as he's handled most of the other, more normal ones he's encountered. He gives a little start, tries to avoid it, then allows himself to be urged past it. We went through this little routine the entire length of the trail. To his great credit, he settles right back into his usual willing, trusting, attitude immediately after passing each situation.
In the middle of all this, we still had to cross the creek. A week ago, this horse was trembling in fear when stopped in the middle of the stream. This day, I gave him his head as we approached. He put his head down and entered the water. Halfway across, he stopped of his own accord, investigated the footing, and picked his way across. Other than a little snorting, you'd never know he'd had a problem with it.
With that victory, we continued through all the spooky sights to a place called the Equine Center. Here, the park service has built a riding ring, rest room facilities, and a large trailer parking area. The race organizers were using this as their start and finish lines. The area was being set up to suit the festive occasion. There were more flags and banners, bright colored tents and sponsors booths, rows of port-a-johns, and every description of truck and tractor moving things around. I stopped Cherokee at a respectful distance to allow him to take it all in. To my surprise, he was curious instead of nervous. He casually stepped up to a fluttering flag barricade to get a better view. Standing calmly, he drank in the entire scene. He even wanted to go around the barricade to get into the midst of all the activity. Instead, we pushed on down the trail.
The last challenge of the day was the quarter mile stretch of paved public road between the park and the farm. Cherokee has gradually learned to calmly stand his ground in traffic. This time, however, there was a large delivery truck among the oncoming vehicles. The truck was larger and louder than than anything he's faced so far. The driver showed no indication that he would slow down as most other traffic on this road does for horses. Cherokee was obviously agitated, but I spoke to him, and kept him from dancing around in the road. He held on until the truck was right beside us. Then he set back on his hocks, pivoted right, and jumped the ditch to "safety". The whole movement was so smooth and fluid, that I couldn't get mad at him. Once the truck was gone, he settled right down. You'd never know that he'd been afraid for his life a moment before.
The smooth ditch jumping showed me, that if he can approach the water-ditch calmly, an intermediate rider should be able to stay with him. His other issues will require more miles on the trail, and a rider who can stay calm while approaching spooky situations.