"Trail ride" is such a pleasant sounding term. The way it rolls off your tongue with no menacing consonants like "k" or spooky letters like "x" or "q". The two words sort of blend together – trailride – offering a mixture of agreeable associations: sunshine, fresh air, tall trees and the best companionship known to humankind.
Trailride. Such a nice word…
Unless, of course, it's your first time on a horse in 30 years and you've spent the last 52 minutes at the edge of mortal danger and your riding instructor is using it in a sentence that you did not want to hear: "Why don't we finish your lesson with a little trail ride?" In that case, it sounds more like: "Let's go out into the woods and finish you off."
The horse Karin put me on was a Perchon-Thoroughbred mix about the size of Godzilla, but much nicer. He was definitely a good boy, who did not seem to mind the white-knuckled death grip I had on his mane for the last hour.
"Good boy, Caspian. Good boy."
The death grip was actually the result of an attempt to pat the horse's neck. But my hand didn't make it all the way and on its own accord, seized the nearest object offering any measure of comfort and security. Once there, I couldn't convince it to leave.
I should have been less afraid. Caspian, an experienced vaulting horse, was exceptionally calm and well mannered, as any creature employed as a mobile jungle gym would have to be. Besides, since this was my first lesson, Karin chose a vaulting saddle for me use. These are great big saddles with actual handles. There is nothing you can put on a horse that could make a new rider feel any more secure than a vaulting saddle. But that wasn't enough.
Foundation for a Phobia
Highlighting my apprehension was a well-founded Low Hanging Branch Phobia. When my kids were young, we went on a group ride with their cousins at a local riding stable. You know, the kind staffed and managed by horse-crazed teenaged girls. Everything was fine for the first 30 feet of the ride. And then everything wasn't. I don't know exactly how it started. Something about a disagreement between the two lead horses. Maybe it was an election year, I don't remember.
Anyway, all hell broke lose. Two of the horses took off down the road, while another split into the woods, perhaps in an attempt to cut 'em off on the other side of the trees. It's hard to say what goes on in a horse's brain during these situations. Probably nothing.
The horse that took off into the woods was carrying my nephew. I could see the little guy ducking branches as his freaked-out mount carried him deeper into the woods. Lucky for everyone, except my sister's attorney, the kid was athletically inclined and able to hang on without further incident or injury. I remember thinking at the time that the boy was fortunate to still have a head.
Ever since the incident, I've associated trail riding with decapitation. Although, my daughter likes to point out that a low hanging branch is more likely to break your neck or crack your head open than to take it clean off.
Yeah, that's better.
Into the Hole We Go
It's not just the trees and branches that scare me. It's the things hiding behind the trees. The things that both Caspian and I know are there. It's about how the horse will react when those things jump out at us. Horses are unpredictable! People aren't much better!
Despite my fears, we head toward the trees. As Caspian and I follow Karin on her little pony into the woods, he behaves as if nothing is wrong. His gait is steady and calm, nonchalantly swaying with a steady rhythm. I can almost see the thought bubble above his big Baby Huey head:
Doh-de-doh, doh-de-doh, into the woods we go-de-doh, go-de-doh…
I should take heart in his courage, but I am unable. If the branches and things behind the trees aren't enough, we are approaching the Dreaded Mudhole, the lowest part of the trail. Karin warns: "You'll feel him pick up a little speed. He knows he needs to do that to make it through the mud."
Speed? I do not want speed. Not at all. It's unpredictable! No, no, NO!
The horse's cadence quickens and his gait becomes irregular. Into the Mudhole we go! The mighty horse powers his way through it without stumbling and we surge up the hill. And the top, we emerge from the woods and back into the open! The orchestra in my head strikes up Strauss' Thus Spake Zarathurstra (2001 Space Odyssey music) and we are in the clear.
Caspian's steady gait returns.
Do-de-doh, do-de-doh, out of the woods we go-de-doh.
That was actually… fun.
As we return to the barn, Karin says, "Next time, lets try a little trot."
Trot, such a fun word.