Wednesday, April 10, 2013

Rite of Passage

Sherm went through his equine bar mitzvah yesterday, at least the one we mark here on the farm-- he took his first journey "up the hill to the power line." A horse who willingly and safely makes the journey to the power lines is considered by our standards to have passed his first real trailworthiness test.  Sherm, of course, not only passed, but re-wrote some of the test standards.

The farm here consists of about 25 acres of flat pastureland and hay meadows, bordered at the rear by the old railbed.  Beyond that rails-to-trails segment, there is one more flat field at the bottom of the hill. This two-acre field is the last section of flat, cleared land on the property.  The rest of the 90 acres goes up, up, uphill through the woods to the top of the hill out back.  About 1/3rd of the way up, the hill is bisected by a set of power lines, where the foliage is kept cut and/or chemically defoliated by the two state power authorities that share the lines.  The way up is pretty steep, and the main trail, an old logging road, has been in a state of disrepair since the last time the acreage was logged in 2007.  The loggers dragged trees down the steep hill, wiping out the water diversion channels, and did not replace them, which has allowed several successive spring runoff seasons to carve out a pretty deep gully in one half of the road, leaving a narrow and treacherous path to the top.  With other priorities absorbing our time and finances, we haven't had much of a chance to get the road repaired, so the road surface has gone unmended and lack of use has allowed the undergrowth to begin reducing the clearing to a less-passable width.  Dear hubby worked at the lower end of the road last fall, but is really just beginning that process.  There are myriad other trails to the top, but over the same number of years, the number of riders and horses who are ready for trail work has diminished, in the cyclical way these things do, and so those other, smaller trails are in similarly narrow and deadfall-clogged condition.

Beginning the clearing at the bottom
 With Sherm's new-found love of work outside the ring, I've been thinking that we need to get safe trails to the top re-established, so hubby and I took advantage of a warm, but way-too-windy-to-work horses kind of day on Sunday to have a hike up and scout our options.  Finding a lovely trail right on the property line, we set to work widening and clearing.  Two hours of hacking and sawing, stacking and dragging deadfall, and we felt we'd made good headway.  I wandered farther on up the hill to see how long it would take for this trail to connect to one through a stand of hemlock and pines, which is clear and lovely riding.  When I discovered it was a much longer trek than I'd planned, I generously called our trail-clearing to an end for the day because it was obvious we wouldn't get to the stopping point we'd been seeking any time soon, so as far as we got would have to be good enough for Sunday.  Two more days of similar sessions would see us to the connector trail.

On Monday, I took Sherm to the bottom of this new trail to show it to him and see what he thought.  He thought we should go up.  This was our first real experience with hills, with slippery oak-leaf-covered terrain, with exposed roots and other footing hazards, but he was game.  So I let him have as much of his head as seemed prudent, and he delightedly marched right up through the section we'd cleared.  When we got to some tighter undergrowth, I turned him around and had him stand for a moment to see where we were and catch his breath, and then we headed downhill.  Downhill in such conditions was enough challenge to occupy his mind for a minute, and we made it halfway down before he realized we were going back the way we'd already come, and he said no, let's go back up; I haven't been there before.


Cleared about 1/3rd of the way to the hemlock trail
It took a little firmness to convince him that we really were going to go back where we'd come from, but he acquiesced the way he always does when I really do insist.  He came down out of the woods clearly happy to have been there, but obviously wanting more.  He had lots to think about for the rest of our ride and through his day.

So yesterday morning when we headed out, he made a beeline for the same trail opening at the corner of the far field.  Up, up, and up he went, and when we got to the end of the cleared section, I said hey, why not, and guided him through the narrower portions, then off-trail into some piney turf, which (though full of dead limbs at rider-height) was clear of undergrowth at his feet.  Sherm was fine with the claustrophobic territory, not at all bothered to be pinned in by the close branches.  He also very quickly demonstrated that the breaking of these dead limbs, the snapping, popping sounds they made as I pushed them out of our way was not a problem to him, nor was the whomping sound they made as they fell behind us.  Accidentally, I discovered that he didn't even care if these branches snapped off and fell across his neck in front of me on the saddle, nor did he pay much attention to me dragging them off and dropping them next to him as he pushed forward through the dense forest.  So surprised was I that I found myself struggling to keep up with him as he squished and bent, wriggled and pushed, and generally billy-goated his way up and through, up and through.

His not being afraid of these sensations of sight (narrow passages, surrounded by shadowy hazards), sound (stomping, swooshing, snapping, popping), and touch (the tangles of deadfall and undergrowth around his feet, the branches dropping on him in front and behind me, and the snagging of his mane and tail in the shrubbery) impressed me.  But more than that cool-character level-headedness, his demonstration of utter partnership on this journey knocked my socks off.  When it was clear where the best path was, he and I chose it together.  When I hesitated and asked him if he thought he could get through that skinny spot, he stepped up and did it.  When he got to a spot where he wasn't sure he could negotiate the complicated footing, he answered when I asked him to try here or go over there.
Who needs cleared trail? Sherm at the power line opening.
Never before in my riding have I shared such an experience of trust and mutual responsibility for the other half of the partnership flowing back and forth.  Such organic give and take was pretty freakin' amazing.

We soon found the cleared path in the hemlock grove and made our way to the power line clearing, where we had a nice jaunt through the (comparatively) easy going field.  The entire area up there is fed by natural streams, and we'd had rain the night before, so that field, all this way up a hillside, was a bit boggy, but Sherm has really mastered boggy terrain already, so it wasn't too bad, and he was quiet and happy enough for me to pull out my phone and take a couple of pictures to mark our accomplishment.

So great was my confidence in the BBW that on our return journey back down the hill, I allowed him to pick his way along the narrow side of the washed-out logging road.  Going out in the morning, I'd never have thought that's where we'd end up-- just an hour before I would have been full of fear and anxiety about his ability to navigate such difficult terrain.  But he'd demonstrated his skill, his cooperation and willingness to listen and work with me, and his innate natural abilities, so we did it.  He got a teeny bit too close with one foot, and the footing gave way on him, but he hadn't shifted weight to that foot, so he pulled back and found better purchase.  That was the only mis-step of the entire ride.

When we got back to the field at the bottom of the hill, he trotted out with the happiest, proudest Morgan trot he could muster, and I rode it, patting him on the neck and praising him all along.  We were tickled with our work.

Once we left the wooded area of the railbed and got back into the hay meadows, the 25mph winds that had almost caused me to abort my morning ride entirely, winds which were nowhere to be found on the hill, kicked up and were whipping us like mad.  Fortunately the winds were warm and pleasant, but still a force to be reckoned with.  Down the long side of the far hay meadow, Sherm gave a big, whooping spook and crow-hop as we passed something in the hedgerow.  I'm pretty sure he didn't see anything at all, but was just gleefully showing off his youthful exuberance and delight at his morning's accomplishments.

Just to top off his death-defying, super-brave ride, we had to ride down the driveway next to the clothesline, where our partner (not knowing we were coming back down this way) had hung out all her sheets and bedding to dry in the lovely spring wind.  Flapping wildly straight across the driveway, the sheets and blankets were a fanciful, popping display of horse-eating linens.  Still hanging things, my partner stopped and called out to let us know she was there, and suggested to me that he might be a little spooked by them... I said well, considering where we've been and how he did, I think he's going to be okay.  We walked right on by without a second glance at the dramatic green and white circus of flapping fabric.  The boy probably thought it was a ticker tape parade in his honor.

When we got back to the barn, he seemed genuinely disappointed that I got off.  I think he'd have turned around and gone again.

So the BBW has passed his trail test, and in more difficult conditions than probably any horse here in 15 years.  He knows his stuff.  He trusts himself and his rider.  I am so, so pleased with him.

Of course, this morning it's pouring, so I think he gets a day off to think about his accomplishments, but that's okay.  We'd have to figure out something harder for him to do, anyway, and I'm not sure I'm up to that today.

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