Thursday, March 27, 2014

A Winter's Walk

It’s been a long, cold, icy winter, and there have been many days when I’ve dreamt of tunnelling into a cave to hibernate. 

Instead, on “nicer” days, I force myself to get out for a walk.  I’d like to take Muscade with me, but at 15, she can’t handle walking for more than a few minutes at a time.  So, for company, I decided that this winter, I’d bring the horses with me on my walks.  That way, we’d all get some exercise, and I could work on the horses’ ground manners at the same time.

The first time I took Maggie out for a walk was a beautiful sunny afternoon sometime in December.  There was lots of fresh, fluffy snow on the ground, so I free-lunged her for awhile in Murray’s paddock first (which, as it turns out, is a great stand-in for a round-pen).  She trotted and cantered happily through the snow, and managed to work up a bit of a sweat.  I planned on a nice walk together to cool her down.

Across the road from our place, a path had been plowed through our neighbour’s hayfield.  It leads to the woods, to an area where logs are cut and trees harvested.  The packed snow made for perfect footing, and I was curious to see how far into the woods the path went.  So, I secured a wool cooler to Maggie’s back, tied the rope halter around her head, shoved a handful of treats into my pocket, and off we went.  While we walked, I worked with Maggie, practicing getting her to halt or walk on command, with very little pressure from me.  I praised her for her efforts with treat after treat.  We were relaxed, and enjoying ourselves. 

Once we crossed the field to the tree-line, the path narrowed a bit.  De-limbed trees were stacked in neat piles on either side of what was left of the path.  I wondered for a minute whether it was a familiar scene for Maggie—who I was told had been used to haul logs out of the woods before we got her.  We walked on for another 30 feet or so, and came to the end of the plowed path.  The road itself continued through the trees and around a turn, but it hadn’t been cleared recently.  I could see sunlight streaming in through the trees where the path started to curve, and I wondered whether there was a clearing ahead.  It was such a beautiful day that I didn’t feel ready to turn back.  So, I urged Maggie forward into the un-packed snow.    

I didn’t realize just how deep that snow would be.  After a few steps, I tripped on what I assume was a log, invisible to me under the snow.  Maggie and I both stumbled blindly over it and onto the other side.   Suddenly, we had dropped down into snow that was up to my waist, and Maggie’s belly.  We staggered on for another 20 or 30 feet, trying to find more stable footing, but the ground was uneven, and the snow too deep.  We wiggled and waded on the narrow path, and managed to turn around to face back toward the field.  That’s when Maggie’s homing instinct kicked in and she showed me what 1300 pounds of pulling power can do.  She dropped her head, threw her shoulders forward, and with a squeal, she lurched ahead in a leaping motion.  She built up momentum and started hauling herself out through the snow like that in a very efficient fashion.  The only problem was that I couldn’t keep up.  I felt her lean into the rope halter as I grabbed the nylon lead with both hands, but I lost my grip as I stumbled clumsily through the snow. The lead slipped through my hands and I had visions of Maggie running free through the field, careening across the road, and then falling on our icy driveway. 

Luckily, there was a knot in the end of the lead, and I grabbed for it as I turned my head to avoid the snowballs flying through the air in Maggie’s wake.  My arm was yanked forward as Maggie bounded ahead of me. I yelled “whoa,” and hung on with all my strength.  She kept going, towing me through the deep snow as she went.  Finally she reached the buried log.  She gave one last leap, and landed on solid footing, dragging me with her.  But my feet got tangled in the log and I fell onto my knees.  I expected Maggie to pull the rope from my hand at any moment.  But she didn’t.  She just stood there with swirls of steam rising from her sweaty body, her sides heaving from her efforts. She waited while I got to my feet and caught my breath.  Then she turned her head toward me with a look that clearly said “don’t I get a reward for hauling your useless two-legged body out of the snow?”  So, I reached into my pocket and fished out several tiny treats for her.  Then, with jelly-like legs (at least on my part), we walked calmly back to the barn. 

Wednesday, March 26, 2014

Winter Riding

Technically, spring arrived almost a week ago, but tell that to the blizzard raging outside. 
Since we moved here, I’ve been doing less and less winter riding.  I don’t have an indoor riding ring, so there are valid reasons for not hopping on the horses’ backs:  too much ice, too much snow, too much cold, too much wind.   But if I’m completely honest with myself, those are just excuses.  The real reason I’m not riding as much in the winter is that I’ve lost my nerve. 

When we first moved here, I jumped on a barely-broke Maggie, bareback, in the middle of the winter, with just a halter and leadline, and we hacked pleasantly up and down the road.  Despite the fact that she’d only been ridden 5 or 6 times, I didn’t think twice about it. 

During our second winter here, a week or so after adding Jaava to our little herd, I did the same thing with her—though in the ring, not on the road.  I even took Murray out a few times (fully saddled and bridled).   During those first few winters, I rode at least once or twice a week, except in the iciest of conditions.  Last winter, I rode less.  This winter, I’ve only ridden Maggie once or twice since November.  I haven’t ridden Murray or Jaava at all.

Now, Mr Florida-born Murray finds it highly distasteful that I would even consider riding him outside in the snow, where the footing is questionable, anyway.  So, I don’t mind giving him the winter off.   As for Jaava, she’s having some hoof problems, and I don’t want to ride her until her feet improve, so I have no guilt about giving her this winter off either.  But, I could be riding Maggie more.  We had lots of snow this year, and much less ice than usual—good conditions for winter riding.  Mind you, it’s also been extremely cold, which has given me a good excuse to huddle indoors, but that wouldn’t have stopped me a few years ago.  I know the real reason I’ve stayed off her back.  It’s because she’s managed to intimidate me. 

In the four years since we got Maggie, her health has really improved, and so has her confidence, and her strength.  Now, when she’s not worked regularly, she gets pretty exuberant.  And, with 1300 pounds of horsepower, exuberance isn’t always a good quality.  

December 2012

This was when I realized that Maggie, in an exuberant mood, might be a tad more than I want to handle.   

It’s early December.  It’s a brisk, but calm fall day. Due to a combination of circumstances, Miss Maggie hasn’t been ridden in several weeks.  I feel bad that I’ve been neglecting her and I decide it's time we go for a ride.  I consider lungeing her, but sometimes, on the lunge line, she tries to make a beeline for the gate, and I worry that someday she’ll yank the line from my hands and run free back to the barn.  I worry she’ll somehow maim herself in the process. I also consider riding her in the ring, but it’s a bit muddy, and I’d rather not ruin the footing. So, I decide we’d both be better off if we just go for a ride down the road.

I use the concrete crock that covers our well as a mounting block, and Maggie and I head peacefully down the driveway.  We have a pleasant outing, until we get to the bottom of the hill, and I turn her around to come home.  As we turn, I feel Maggie gather herself underneath me, then I hear the high-pitched squeal she sends out as a warning that she’s about to explode.  The next thing I know, we’re careening out-of-control up the hill, with her still squealing.  After a few strides, I manage to pull her up, but that only frustrates her.  Angry now, she tosses her head from side to side, and starts rearing and bucking on the spot.  I’ve sat to a lot of horses’ bucks, but hers are definitely among the most violent….and powerful.  I make a few attempts to walk her in circles in the road to settle her, but each time her nose points uphill, she squeals and bucks, then tries to bolt again.

I keep readjusting my seat in the saddle, but I worry that if this onslaught keeps up, I might hit the ground.  I’m even more worried that if I do fall, Maggie will hurt herself on the way back up to the barn (I am not foolish enough to think for a moment that she would stick around and wait for me to get up).  Somewhere between bucks, I intentionally hop off.  Maggie huffs indignantly, and tries to tear the reins from my fingers.  I manage to hold on, but every few steps, she squeals, kicks her hind legs up in teh air, and tugs again at the reins.   About halfway up the hill toward home, I finally feel like I have her tentatively under control.  She’s still practically vibrating with energy, but she grudgingly manages to contain herself.  When we get back home, we’re both a little breathless.  I take her to the riding ring, get on, and mud-be-damned, I trot around on her until I feel that excess energy start to drain away. Then, I ride her back down the driveway and out into the road.  She walks cooperatively down the hill, and with no further shenanigans we turn around and head for home.  

 When it was all over, I laughed at Maggie’s “freshness”.  Our neighbour, who was sitting in his tractor, in the field by the road, and who likely witnessed the whole scene, probably had a few chuckles too.  Since then, Maggie and I have had lots of great, non-eventful rides together, rides where she is her usual, lazy self.  But, there have been a few cold days, riding out on the road, where I’ve felt the fire-breathing dragon begin to emerge again. She’s never acted with quite as much fury as she did during that ride in December, but as much as I hate to admit it, the memories of those out-of-control moments have stayed with me.  I’m genuinely anxious for spring to arrive, so I can start riding regularly again.  But in the meantime, I know I’ve been making excuses to avoid anymore wild, winter rides.  Instead, I’ve taken advantage of the nicer days to hand-walk her up and down the road.  Of course, those walks don’t always work out so well either…but that’s a whole other story.