It’s a tradition for my sister and me to go on a Thanksgiving trail ride. But this year Jill has to work on the actual holiday, so we decided to head out with our horses this past weekend. As usual, it turned out to be memorable. In fact, I’m beginning to think that there’s a cosmic upheaval that occurs whenever Jill and I make grand plans. Our pairing up on horseback incites some kind of disturbance in The Force. Then chaos ensues. Our latest venture was no exception.
To embellish the back story, my sister’s horse, Topper, served duty as her show hunter for several years. Before that he was a hotsy totsy racehorse. My little Paint gelding, Joey, spent a year on the halter circuit and was then professionally started in the western pleasure division. He’s rather dull and unassuming. But he’s only three. That fact alone means that he is prone to occasional outbursts of unpredictable behavior. Surprise!
So when I say that our horses were a tad fresh on this brisk autumn day, you know what I’m talking about. We were astride powder kegs who merely needed an excuse to light their fuses.
And thus we headed out, away from the trailer. After jogging through the underbrush we came upon a deep, wide water crossing. I nudged Joey and he merrily led the way. Jill and I laughed because our horses seemed to enjoy tromping through the cool, translucent water. They were like a couple of little kids in a wading pool. Back on dry ground, we urged our horses to trot out a little. That’s because I had just said to Jill, “I can feel a little bit of a hump in Joey’s back, so be aware that the first time we canter he’s probably going to crow hop a few strides.”
Again, I’ll repeat: He’s only three.
We slowed down to a walk as the trail narrowed through a grove of arundo, which is a type of gigantic, non-native bamboo. It towered over our heads, creating a canopy of green and tan. When we emerged, we stood on the bank of the river, and debated whether to cross it or not. Because our horses were still a little fresh, and a rainstorm upstream had swollen the water level, I didn’t want to risk either one of us taking an involuntary bath. So we reined our horses to the right and continued down the trail. It narrowed dramatically until we were surrounded on both sides by a hedge of sage and sunflowers. After a few strides we came face to face with a brawny male Rottweiler. He was panting heavily so that his thick pink tongue lolled from his mouth, exposing an impressive set of teeth.
Was he an abandoned stray? Or had he been allowed to run loose—against the posted rules of the nature preserve—far from his horseback riding owner?
Jill and I were at a stand-off with the Rottweiler. I called out several times, “Hello! Is anybody missing a dog?”
No answer. So I picked up the formidable high-pitch whistle I keep snapped to my saddle’s d-ring and blew it. The dog’s ears pricked up and he studied us intently. Yet no human responded in any manner.
Jill and I then decided to ascertain how friendly the black dog was. We cooed and called him, and he trotted forward, wagging his short stump of his tail.
“The poor thing looks like he’s lost,” my sister remarked. “What kind of an idiot allows their nice dog to just wander around down here?”
It was this kind of an idiot: A portly man perched astride a big gray mare bolted into the clearing. “It’s my dog,” the fellow said, yanking back on the reins of his horse. “He got a little ahead of us.”
Things began to feel claustrophobic because we were all in very close quarters: me on squat little Joey, Jill on her 16.2-hand Thoroughbred, the hefty guy on the wide-bodied mare and the panting Rottweiler.
Oh. And then the foal bounded onto the scene.
Yes, I said a foal. It belonged to the mare the man was riding. It was wearing a makeshift knotted halter, but there was no lead rope attached. The foal was simply loose, like the Rottweiler, cavorting at will and darting in and out of the chaparral. I was speechless. Was this guy totally clueless? Did he not understand what kind of mischief a loose foal can create on a public bridle path, particularly on a busy weekend? Did he fail to take into consideration that an unfamiliar horse might waylay the foal with a nasty kick if it got too close? Or did he not even care?
Fortunately, just as fast as he and his menagerie appeared, they left, disappearing into the wall of arundo behind us. Yet this bizarre encounter had already unsettled our horses. I expected Joey to be transfixed by the feral foal (after all, he’s only three), but I didn’t think he’d become so mesmerized as to feel hypnotized. I think he was off in la-la-land, imagining himself playing in some ethereal meadow with the fantasy foal. Topper, on the other hand, reverted back to his days at the race track. You’d have thought he was in the post parade for the eighth race. He was all pumped up, his tail aloft and his neck arched.
“Are you alright?” I asked my sister.
“Yeah,” she replied, gathering up the contact on her reins. “But I need to trot. Let’s not stand here.”
It was at that precise moment that a group of riders galloped into the river. Their enthusiastic whoops combined with the sound of hooves slapping in water, creating a calliope of sound that invigorated the spirits of our fresh equines.
It was simply all too much. Topper bolted forward, slamming into Joey’s butt. That startled my daydreaming youngster—he is only three, you know—who figured that a cougar must’ve leapt onto his backside. He lurched into a bucking frenzy, his nose to the sand and his hind hooves kicking up and out against his imagined foe.
I counted the bucks, which I must admit rivaled any I’d experienced on my family’s warmbloods. One, two, three…
I heard my sister exclaim in a concerned tone, “Oh, Cindy!”
I was amazingly calm. It was as if my body knew what to do: Go with the flow and stay in the saddle.
“I’m staying on,” I stated aloud, rather matter-of-factly.
And then I swear I heard a little voice in my head actually say, “Pull his head up.”
Well, of course! I lifted my right hand to my chest and then kicked and smooched Joey forward. The bucking immediately ceased and we galloped forward for several yards. When I pulled Joey up he turned his head back and looked at me with his big blue eyes as if to say, “That was really scary! I thought I was going to be eaten alive!”
With my problem under control, I turned to look after my sister who was currently aboard the reincarnation of Alydar. I pointed to a large open area of sand that had recently been graded and furrowed. “Go work him out there,” I said. “Don’t stop until I say so.”
She followed my advice and after about ten minutes of an extended trot in a western saddle, Topper settled down enough for Jill to canter him in large circles. As the big red horse made loop after loop in the white sand my sister called out, “I feel like I’m in that scene from Phar Lap.”
That got me laughing. My, what a day we were having on the trail!
When Jill and Topper finished their workout, we continued on our ride. Our horses were no longer frisky and we didn’t spy any stray animals, equine or canine, on the horizon. It was as if we were finally having a pleasurable time. Both Topper and Joey walked and jogged on loose reins. When the footing allowed, we cantered long distances side by side and single file. It was wonderful. If the day should come when I can no longer ride, or that I’m incurably ill or infirmed, I believe I will be able to close my eyes and rekindle that sensation: The November breeze kissing my face, my horse’s canter light and cadenced, the feel of soft leather reins in my hands and the sound of my sister singing the laugh of a young girl. Such are the times I’m most thankful for.
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