California Riding Magazine • June, 2013

Horsey Humor:
On Obstacles

by Bob Goddard

Jenny and I spend a great deal of time on one kind of trail or another. Usually we're biking or hiking or snowshoeing. Maybe, someday we'll go on horses. And as soon as I figure what spelunking is - and if it's legal to do outside - we just might do that too.

Like any other trail users, we sometimes encounter obstacles. The most common is the Classic Log Across the Path. We ran into several of these on a recent hike. Most of them were no big deal, just a quick step over and we were on our way. But the experience did get me thinking about the nature of obstacles and what they mean to horses and people.

What constitutes an obstacle depends a lot on the context of the situation. For example, when our girls showed horses in their "trail classes," the obstacles consisted of items such as plastic tarps, olds sheets, small gates, vinyl raincoats, pool toys, poles, mailboxes and scary bikes. These items did not look much like obstacles you would see on a real trail – unless that trail happened to pass through a garage sale. But to be fair, you just never know when a man in a raincoat will pop out at you from behind a tree.

To me, an obstacle is something solid that impedes or halts my progress. Like a log. However, I have recently discovered that this definition actually flies in the face of modern science. According to modern science, a solid object should not be considered an obstacle, because theoretically, there is no such thing as an absolutely solid object. As we all know, matter is made of little things called atoms. Now, if the core of an atom were the size of a basketball, then the electrons orbiting them would be something like a mile away. The bottom line is that all objects are made up of mostly space and theoretically two objects shouldn't have any trouble passing through each other. That's the story, anyway.

Let's Think About This

I attempt to share these facts with Jenny as she is stepping over a log, even though with this new information, it is no longer necessary for her to do so. But by the time I get to the second "theoretically," she's cleared a Classic Log Across the Path and is well down the trail and out of earshot.

This does not impede or halt my thinking about obstacles and how they relate to the trail riding experience. I don't need an audience to think and it's actually never helped before. So, I take a seat on the log, daring the ants to come out and begin to think. At some point Jenny will realize that, like a mosquito gone quiet, I'm not there and she'll wait for me to catch up.

So, how would a horse and rider deal with this log if they didn't know they could pass straight through it? The Great Book of Horse Knowledge says that the horse's safest bet is to simply step over the log, as opposed to jumping it, even though most horses would prefer to jump it. The experts who wrote The Great Book must not know the same horses I know. The horses I know make an art form out of refusal and would much prefer to stand there and wait for the log to make the first move.

Now Let's Get Physical

To really understand the horse's perspective regarding obstacles, we have to approach it from a physical standpoint. So, I trot over to the log, pause for a moment – survey the woods for men in raincoats – and then step over it. Of course, I'm on two legs, so I'm not getting the proper sense of it. I get down on all fours and crawl over the log, one limb at a time. I can see why good horses prefer to jump, this is crap. So, I back up and then come at the log at a frantic crawl. However, I am unable to get enough lift from my hind legs, the anatomy just isn't right here, and I end up slamming my knees into the top of the log. I know some modern scientists who owe me an explanation.

It occurs to me that the only way I can begin to comprehend this from the horse's point of view is to get into the spirit of the jumping experience and not worry so much about technical accuracy. If you have ever watched the way an eventing horse leaps over obstacles, you can't help but get the impression that he is having a blast. So, I stand up, get a good running start and hurtle the log in one glorious bound. Now, that's more like it.

I do this several more times, going back and forth… until… I catch something out of the corner of my eye that is more disturbing than even the scariest of scary bikes: it's Jenny. She's standing there with her arms folded, her head slightly tilted in the "What the Hell are You Doing" pose I've been seeing so often lately. She's been there a while, I think.

Some obstacles are completely impassable.