SUBURBAN COWBOY: Chapter Three, A Ride in Winter

In Virginia, winter is only occasionally a matter of snow.  Most of the time it is a matter of wet – rain and mud (lots of mud).  There are different kinds of rain, of course:  hard rain, drizzle, light rain, soft rain, freezing rain, sleet and rain, and cold, wind-whipped   rain, but frequent and copious rain.  Because of the wet conditions, we go horseback   riding less frequently   in the winter.  The temperatures    are typically   moderate, in the 40’s   and up.  But we don’t   ride in the   rain for enjoyment — although   horse trainers and others whose livelihood depend on their riding don’t let a little rain stop them.  It takes a lot of rain.

Thus, it was with more than usual enthusiasm that I set out that winter Sunday afternoon for what turned out to be an almost idyllic experience.  The weather had cleared, and a drying breeze was blowing.  I had promised Anya, a young woman from Germany who was visiting us that we could go on a trail ride if the weather permitted.  She was very excited and very determined, since they do not have trails in Germany like we have in Virginia. 

I had tested her riding ability on an older and very safe horse a few days before (in a “light” rain).  She proved to be a competent   rider in the ring, her dressage training showing in her poise.  She was, however, a bit too demanding   for the gentle senior citizen she was riding, so I decided to let her ride Sir Prize, a six-year old black bay gelding, whose   sire is a Thoroughbred    racehorse, and who has a long trot which   is uncomfortable    for all but the most accomplished   Western   riders.  Since Anya   was used to posting, however, they seemed a good match.  I rode my usual Arabian “war-mare”, Maia, a ten­-year-old gray.

The horses were so covered with mud that grooming them turned out to be a major task.  It did, however, allow Anya and Sir Prize to get acquainted (and me to observe surreptitiously her comfort level with the strange horse.) So, we proceeded   to saddle up.

This was when I discovered that Anya wanted to “go Western” – she wanted to use a Western saddle which she had never seen before and which absolutely fascinated her.

We led the horses up to the OK Corral (our ring), and I tightened the cinches.  Sir Prize is a calm young horse, whose main defense against doing something boring (for example, all work in the ring) is to act lazy. One trainer who didn’t understand him very well said, “His favorite two commands are ‘Walk’ and ‘Whoa’.”   I was therefore not very apprehensive about Anya riding him around the ring for a little while.  I was, however, concerned about Maia.  I had had her out on the trail about three weeks before, and she was a little “twitchy” which is her way of telling me that we haven’t been riding enough lately.  I wanted to longe her for about 10-15 minutes per side, both to remind her who is in charge now, and to gauge her mood.

So, I proceeded to longe Maia, much to the amazement of Anya, as I discovered when she asked if the horse really stopped when I said “Whoa” or was it just a coincidence? She didn’t think so, because she had noticed it several times. I found this quite amusing, because my daughter has been the one who has kept up Maia’s early training on the longe line. Basically, I only use longeing for occasions like this. I think my daughter would find it humorous to hear that I was so good at longeing a horse. Also, I always hear from our German-trained dressage instructor that Germany is the home of all things precise and proper in horse behavior. Myself, I’m just an old cowboy.

I got Anya’s stirrups adjusted, determined that she was in control of the horse, even though he was acting a bit sluggish, and put on Maia’s bridle. Then I taught Anya how to fall from a horse (if, God forbid, it was necessary) to protect her head and neck, an instruction made the more important because we didn’t have a helmet that fit her. Then I asked my long-suffering wife, Theresa, stand in front of Maia while I mounted, because I still didn’t know whether she would forget her very fine manners. Absolutely no problem.

Thus, began a ride in which Maia showed the entire day her best, midsummer form. At her best, Maia is simply the best trail horse I have ever ridden. At her rarely experienced worst, she can be too “Arabian” – too skittish and a little inclined to forget who is in charge. She does not have a mean bone in her body, but she does get enthusiastic sometimes. So, I routinely follow the exercises shown me by Red Revelle, our local “Horse Whisperer”, which consist of several turns into the rail, stops, starts, and stands.

As we started around the ring, Anya and Sir Prize started following us, and Anya discovered that her horse might not be as lazy as she had thought. Why? Because he loves to follow Maia. Why does he like to follow Maia? Because she usually leads him out of the ring and onto the trail, which is not at all boring like the ring. Besides, he really likes Maia.

Maia did her part by leading Sir Prize out of the ring and off to the trail. Suddenly, Sir Prize perked up and started prancing a little. Anya was amazed. She said, “He is very smart; he reminds me of Christian (my cousin and her boyfriend).” To which I replied that she must know how to handle him then. She said, “Yes. Yes.”

Clifton, Virginia is a tiny, 125-year old town at the very southern tip of Fairfax County, about twenty miles or so as the crow flies from Washington, D.C.  Surrounding the town in all directions are woods, hills, and pastures dotted with homes and occasional barns. Honeycombed through the land are bridle paths which go on for miles and miles. Sometimes the woods are so dense that the summer sun can hardly penetrate. Deer, foxes, squirrels, beavers, geese, and wild ducks are among the abundant wildlife which inhabit the woods. It seems almost impossible to believe that such an area is so close to the national capital. Yet here it is, as Anya was discovering.

The scenery in the winter is, of course, very different than in the other seasons. The dominant impression is of the black tree trunks and branches reaching like black fingers to touch the brilliant blue of the sky. The wind had died down, and the silence was so complete that the horses’ hoofbeats on the wet leaves could be heard at every step, and the bubbling brook sounded almost distracting.

The ground was varying shades of gold and rust from its carpet of wet leaves, slashed occasionally by black streaks of wet earth.  Black, gold and blue, with splashes of green from evergreens that provide a blissful constancy in the ever-changing woodlands. The sunlight washed the muted colors with a crisp brightness which slowly changed to a burnished golden hue as the afternoon progressed toward evening. We were walking down the road toward the first trail, when Anya sang out, “LARRY!” I whipped around to see what the matter was. She was pointing excitedly at geese in the pond, saying “DUCKS! DUCKS!” I could tell that this might be an interesting ride.

As we moved onto the trail, Maia stepped delicately around the water spots, and we entered the woods. That is, Maia and I entered the woods. “LARRY!” Sir Prize had stopped and was eying the possible water spots. I suggested that she loosen her reins and let him smell his way across. It worked immediately. People don’t realize that horses cannot see directly in front of their noses. They are essentially walking blind. To allow them to sniff their way across a suspicious landscape does not seem to me unreasonable — despite the so-called experts who make up the rules for competitive trial riding. Horses can smell as well as dogs, and I like to have that talent on my side when I am crossing a suspicious patch. Many times, my horse has alerted me to a danger that I did not perceive.

As we headed to higher ground, Maia wanted to jog. She was blowing and snorting and having a ball. With a glance over my shoulder at my following rider whose face was beginning to glow, we moved into a canter for a few hundred feet, up a rise and along a level spot. We slowed, and I asked “Ok?”  “Ok,” came the answer with a little giggle. “Fun?” I asked. “Great fun!” We headed down a long slope and saw through the trees for the first time the rushing waters of the creek, very high from all the recent rain. We heard it before we could really see it. Our first glimpses looked like brilliant moving crystals of sunlight. I pointed to the stream and saw Anya’s eyes widen in astonishment. Down on the bank, we saw the full scene of the water rushing noisily over huge rocks as though it were late for an appointment. Very picturesque.

Coming out of the ravine, we picked up the pace again. Maia is as sure-footed as a mule, and I help her all I can. When we are really in synch, I can understand the sense of a centaur. Even though the ancient image of a man with horse body and legs probably began as a description of what a mounted warrior looked like to those on the ground, I have always thought it also a very good depiction of what a rider feels like on a horse which responds so immediately and effortlessly that it almost seems he and the horse are one being.

Just as my own feet are directed by my eyes, so are the horse’s feet directed by my eyes. Just as my thoughts direct my speed and my direction, so do they direct my horse. The horse feels like my own body in capital letters. With Maia, I have had that feeling more than with any other horse I have ever ridden. It feels as though she is reading my mind, as we weave through the trees, slowing and speeding, watching the footing, adjusting as we go, following a trail that is sometimes buried in leaves, usually I, sometimes she, finding the next step. And the faster we go, the less time there is for thought, for signals. It just seems to happen. It is an exhilaration that almost no one except another rider can understand.

We left the woods and cantered up a long hill in the open. I was maintaining a slower pace to see how Anya and Sir Prize were doing at speed. Apparently, just fine. In fact, I could have sworn that Anya’s grin is replicated by Sir Prize. But how can a horse smile? Maia kept asking if she could go faster, but we maintained a measured canter. When I first got her, she would go from trot to gallop with no in-between. We worked quite a while on a slow, steady canter. As we neared the end of the half-mile or so, I let her out for the last 100 yards. She loved it! So, did I. As we re­ entered the woods, both horses were panting till we walked them down. But they were ready to rock and roll!

A downed tree blocked the trail, and as I went around it, I grabbed a thick tree limb to push it out of the way. Surprise! It wasn’t a tree limb, it was a gray utility wire. I was thrown off balance when it did not give as I expected. Maia felt the shift and literally backed up under me as I started to leave the saddle. I disengaged from the wire instead of the saddle, and she walked delicately around the obstacle, as I marveled again at her responsiveness, not to mention her athletic ability. Oh, that centaur feeling!

We had rounded the outer circle of our trail and were starting homeward. For the last mile or so, we alternated between trot, canter and an occasional gallop through the woods and clearings, over the brooks, around the worst of the mud (Maia watching very carefully), until we reached the same trail we had taken into the woods. There is a steep hill on the other side of a stream at that point, and Maia always wants to gallop up that hill as fast as she can. (I confess, I let her.) She grunted with the effort but made the top of the hill at full stride, only to throttle down immediately as the woods closed in around us. She was snorting and prancing as though she had just won the Tevis. We were feeling good.

From now on, it was a long walk home, allowing the horses to slow their breathing and cool down. On the way, however, I detoured down the road to see a neighbor’s new fence. It happens that the fence encloses two horses, two horses that Maia didn’t know were there. As we walked away from the home direction, she kept asking if we could turn around. Suddenly, she saw the new horses. Ears up. Motionless as a pointer. I laughed and teased her, “What is this? Didn’t you know they were here? Why haven’t you been paying attention?” Maia didn’t answer, but I was amused anyway. I looked at Sir Prize. He could hardly believe his eyes! As we approached, I heard one of the gelding’s snort. Maia twitched while Sir Prize snorted back. So, I saw the fence, our horses saw their neighbors, and Anya was further amazed at this America of ours.

The short winter day was announcing its departure as we turned into the lane. The golden light dramatized the scene, making everything glow like an old Technicolor movie. Maia’s light gray coat looked almost palomino, and the girl’s face showed her pleasure.


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