Wednesday, May 19, 2010

A Tale of Two Trails

Wednesday April 29th
It's mid-afternoon. Outside, it's cold, damp and windy. Inside, part of me just wants to cozy-up with a warm blanket and take a nap, but the other part of me wants to ride. I decide to take it easy on myself and the horses. I'll ride, but today will be "trail-ride" day-- just a relaxing 40 minute jaunt up and down the road.

If I thought that would take less energy than schooling them in the ring, I was wrong.

Maggie's easiest to catch, so I ride her first. I've only ridden her a couple of times since her accident and she's a bit fidgety. She's tacked up and ready to go, but she's moving around so much, and tugging at the reins so much that it takes a few minutes for me to mount. I start to wonder whether there's any pent-up energy that I should be worried about. But, once I'm on, she easily settles into her non-hurried, meandering pace.

We start our ride with the usual muscle-building jaunt down and up the hill. All is well. At the top of the hill, as we pass by our driveway, I have a great view of the road ahead as it curls back upon itself like a snake. About five hundred metres ahead, I notice what looks like a large sheet of white plastic entwined in the brush on the side of the road. I wonder briefly whether Maggie will spook at it once we get close. I push the thought out of my head so she doesn't pick up any nervous vibes.

I shouldn't have worried. She plodded by without even glancing at it. On the way back, I halt her beside it so I can lean over and have a closer look. I see that it's not plastic, it's paper. It's about 3 feet high and 4 feet long. It appears to be a blueprint of some sort. As we stand there, it flutters a bit in the breeze. Maggie stretches her neck to grasp at the long grass growing beside it. She seems completely oblivious to its existence. I nudge her sides with my calves and we continue home at a snail's pace. It's a relaxing, enjoyable ride.

Now it's Murray's turn. Even as I bring him in from the paddock I can tell that he's feeling more than a bit fresh. On our way into the barn, he skitters sideways and snorts at a white bucket I've placed under the eaves to collect rain (he's been by this at least a dozen times now). On the cross-ties, he pushes his hindquarters toward the wall and swings his head around to look, wide-eyed over his shoulder. He's like a schizophrenic in the midst of a particularly disturbing paranoid delusion.

It crosses my mind that in his wired, anxious state, Murray may not be a good candidate for a relaxing ride down the road. I'm stubborn though, so I figure I'll give it a shot anyway.

We don't get off to a very good start. Murray is normally quite mannerly when I mount. Not today. Today, in his vigilant state of high-alertness, Murray seems entirely oblivious to my attempts to hoist my body onto his back. His shifting gaze flits back and forth between the red-breasted robins hopping about on the lawn, and the branches of the spruce trees waving in the wind. He jumps at every sound, and simply will not stand still. Eventually, in a not-so-graceful move, I haul myself into the saddle and manage to gather the reins as he lurches sideways out of the grasp of some unseen monster. We prance down the driveway, his head swinging from side-to-side in paranoid angst.

Like with Maggie, we start off down the hill. We do the usual walk-down, trot up routine, and by the time we reach the top, he's lost much of his nervous attitude, or so I think.

As we pass by our driveway, Murray's head shoots up, his ears flick forward, and his eyes widen. He's just caught sight of the slightly twitching, white blueprint about half a kilometre ahead. He pauses mid-stride. His focus on the out-of-place, bright-white object is intense. I push him forward into a trot, then a canter, and figure that if we stay on the opposite side of the road, he should pass by it with little more than a sideways glance. I was wrong.

Murray and I canter up the road, but his eyes never leave the blueprint. We're still a good 25 to 30 feet away when he skids to a halt. I give an encouraging cluck, and a tap with my whip and Murray wheels himself around in a 180 degree pirouette. I turn him back around. He spins again. We enter into a strange, lurching dance, one where we're both fighting to take the lead. He darts sideways, kicking and rearing, and when that doesn't work, he brings out his signature move. He starts running backward toward the shoulder of the road with the steepest incline. In this case, the shoulder drops off quickly into a beautiful, but steep grassy field.

When Murray gets this frantic, he goes into what I call his "self-destruct" mode. Most horses might try to ditch their rider, but they'll do what they can to keep themselves safe. Not Murray, when he's like this, it seems like he'd rather throw himself off a cliff than give-in. He's one of two horses I've ever ridden who can get like this (both thoroughbreds), and it's the only time I ever get nervous.

After a minute or two in frenzied battle, we're both exhausted, but both two stubborn to give in. I somehow manage to get Murray to stop his backward spirals long enough to agree to a momentary truce. We're halted, facing toward home, away from the evil white paper. Despite the cold air, his neck is soaked with sweat, and his whole body is shaking, vibrating like a just-plucked guitar string. I decide on a partial retreat. I've fought these battles with him before--sometimes for hours-- and I know he won't give up, besides we're on a road. It doesn't get a lot of traffic, but it does get some, and I don't trust him to get out of the way of on-coming vehicles.

I figure I'll ride him home, get him settled, then come back down the road and make another attempt at passing-by this terrifying white paper. I relax the reins and urge Murray forward toward home. Murray doesn't accept my peace treatise. He throws himself sideways and launches another barrage of half-rears and backward spins. I kick, I scold, I pull, and I sit-tight, but after a few more minutes, I change tactics. I decide to bail.

During one of his less frenzied moments, I hop off. I stand beside him, grasp the reins and in frustration lead him purposefully down the road, past the object of his terror. He snorts and dances sideways, but with some firm coaxing, he allows me to take lead him by. We circle past the paper again and again and again. He never relaxes, but after a few minutes, he makes less of an effort to dodge sideways each time he passes it. I decide it's time to get back on.

I lead Murray off the main road onto a gravel path which provides access to the local cellphone tower. I try to get on. He rears. I try to get on again. He rears. I try several times, and each time he rears higher and twists more violently away-- now he's intent on heading home. Finally, my very tall horse rears so high that I'm forced to let go of the reins. As Murray hits the ground again, he spins away from me and starts to bolt toward home. I lunge forward and just manage to wrap my fingers around the sweat-stained leather reins before he can get more than a few feet away. My arm is yanked forward as he tries to dart-off anyway.

I decide I have no choice but to lead him home. I hate giving in, but I can't risk having him loose on the road, I just can't. By this time, I've had enough. I try to be patient, but I'm fuming. He's 22 years old. I mean really, there are times when it would be nice if he would actually act his age.

As I turn to lead him home, a light drizzle starts up. On the road, a car passes by. The driver gives me a funny look, and I do my best to smile. I can't imagine how I must look, decked out in my helmet and half-chaps, but instead of sitting astride of my noble steed, I'm walking, humiliated at his side. To make matters worse, he's still riled-up, and gives a little jump sideways as the car goes by. It's all I can do to keep myself from taking my anger out on my horse. Admittedly, I probably give him a few sharper-than-necessary tugs on the reins when he tries to trot out ahead of me, but other than that, I leave him alone.

Back at the house, I get on again. Then, I try to get him down the driveway, but he's having no part of this at all. He runs backward until he hits the telephone pole and scares himself. He runs backward until he hits the outside wall of the barn and scares himself. He tries gamely to turn and run into the barn, but I'm ready for that and I yank him the other way.

Just when I begin to worry that I really might lose this battle, he pauses in his assault. I take advantage, and throw every weapon I have into use. I kick, flail, cluck and flap my arms, and Murray moves forward into a reticent trot. We reach the end of the driveway and I can feel him starting to throw his shoulder to turn around. I dig my heels in as hard as I can and tell him to gallop. I think he's surprised by my determination. He's lost the element of surprise and has no choice but to gallop forward down the road. I don't let him ease up, I keep him galloping, galloping, galloping. We're not stopping until we're past that fluttering paper. It works. This time he barely even has time to look at the paper as we fly by. Once we make it, I pat his neck and I let him slow to a trot, then a walk.

Murray's winded, his nostrils are flared, and his C.O.P.D. lungs are gulping for air. Part of me feels bad, but mostly I'm relieved that I won...if I hadn't, he would remember his victory every time we're out on the road, and he'd be the one in charge. He walks pretty calmly back to the barn. He's still leery of the paper as we pass by it on our return trip. Unlike with Maggie, I certainly won't try and stop him beside it, but at least he'll walk by.

By mid-afternoon on the next day, the villainous blueprint has disappeared. I don't know whether it's blown off into the woods somewhere, or whether someone has picked it up and taken it away. Either way, I'm kind of glad I won't have to pass by it again.

Can someone please remind me why it is that I'm such a fan of thoroughbreds?

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