Saturday, September 5, 2009

Timber Wolves

Perhaps you'll indulge me for another horse story.

Before I was a barn manager, I rode at the same barn I later managed, under the same exceptional coach who was later my boss. She had some excellent school horses - and some less excellent - but nearly every one of them had a story.

One of the great pleasures of that barn was that every so often K would organize a long trail ride for the intermediate and advanced riders. These would last for 3 to 4 hours, often include a snack, and would cover areas of the preserve normally not seen by anyone except, occasionally, the park ranger (or other equestrians, typically those who owned the horses they boarded at that barn and had the time to go exploring.)

On one such ride I was mounted on Sam, a horse I'd never ridden before. Sam had a long, deep, puckered scar on the left side of his neck; though the overlying skin was fully haired and the scar was clearly a long-ago injury, the resulting trench in his otherwise-smoothly muscled neck was almost an inch deep. It was at the juncture of neck and shoulder, deepest at the front and growing more shallow as it proceeded toward the rear.

"Wow, that's quite a scar," I said to Kate. "What happened to him?

"Oh, Sam is an old timber wolf," she said. "He got it over a jump."

I raised an eyebrow at her. "What do you mean by 'a timber wolf''?" I asked.

"I mean he was a cross-country jump racer. Not steeplechase; those fences are usually a brush of birch twigs or something like that over a frame. I mean he did the big cross-country courses like for three-day eventing. Some of those jumps are solid, and he ran himself into one one time and lacerated himself pretty good."

"I'll say," I said. "Doesn't seem to bother him, though," I added, as Sam had not even twitched while I brushed him up.

K laughed. "That was probably twenty years ago. I think he's over it by now."

"Twenty years ago?" I said. "How old IS this horse?"

"Thirty-five," she said.

"Thirty-five?" I asked her askance, wondering if he was going to drop dead underneath me on a three-hour ride in the heat of activity and the humidity of an Eastern spring. K smiled, correctly divining that I was wondering why Sam wasn't retired, out whiling away lazy days in the pasture with K's retired eventer.

"He's already been retired twice, once in his late 20's and once at 33, but he just can't take to it. He runs the fence screaming all day long, every time he sees someone else going out. He just can't stand it. He quits eating and starts picking on the other horses until you put him back to work."

Okay, then. At least I know if Sam drops dead under me, he'll die happy.

As it happens, Sam does not drop dead under me. He's a fun ride, with a big reaching stride and a willing attitude; he seems even more eager for the trail than I am. At about 16 hands and with a big scopey shoulder, he has a nice long suspension between strides, and while he might not be absolutely the smoothest horse I've ever been on, he's got a comfortable gait. As an added bonus, the long pause between strides as he canters along makes me feel like I'm flying.

In the middle of his fourth decade, Sam has done and seen it all, it seems. He has a level head on him, knows how to collect himself and keep a pace with the other horses without crowding them or rushing them, and is not phased by the small wildlife that might pop out of the bushes at inopportune moments: the swift red flash of fox darting along a hedge, the startling whirl of wings as a pheasant takes to the air. If I allow him to flank up next to another horse I can feel him wanting to race a little, but if I check him even the slightest bit he relaxes, laying in alongside, as if he's actually IN a race and being asked to lay back, lay back just a little now, saving himself for a stretch run.

Sam is also wise to the ways of balance, a horse that you can ride downhill at a canter without him rushing or pulling you forward of your balance point. He shifts his weight back on his powerful haunches and paces himself down the slope, feeling for his rider's balance and setting himself underneath it. This is a lovely thing; at the time (in my estimation) an intermediate rider, I'd have enjoyed my ride less if I was having to bring a racy horse back to my seat and my center of gravity on the downhill lopes. Sam did not have to be asked; he just handed it over as if knowing that this was what I wanted.

After a lovely long canter through a meadow and some walk-trot-canter through the woods, we made our way down the declivity in which the river ran. We walked a while and cooled our mounts on the approach to the stream. Here we paused, letting our horses drink if they wished. Sam did not wish; he did, however, want a bit of a shower - or perhaps he felt I needed one - because he walked into the shallow edge of the stream til the water was about mid-cannon on him, and then proceeded on to stretching out his right fore and striking repeatedly at the water, splashing himself and me and everyone else within 6 feet of us.

This having garnered either laughter or exasperation from our companions, we continued on - slightly more damply. Me, I had this little smile on my face. Sam was showing me a really good time, and I was pretty happy if I was showing him one back.

There is a closeness sometimes about the woods in the humid east; even though it was relatively cool for an east coast day (due to the season), the humidity still hung that morning in the air, making it seem slightly muffled, wrapped close about us, the forest somehow more intimate than it would have been on a crisp, dry day. It wasn't quite misty, but not far from it, lending the quiet woods a sense of impendingness; a fey sort of morning, where you almost expect to see small wood sprites peeking out from behind the lush bracken ferns. The woods were full of the small quiet sounds that are almost like silence, though it is a silence composed of noise; the voice of the forest, muted and confiding.

After a time we came to the uphill slope that would take us back up out of the river bottom. Unlike our downhill trail, which had had a wide, smooth path, the uphill had a narrow winding one. No wider than one horse could manage abreast, we proceeded up it single file. Two or three horses head of me, out of my direct line of sight, K picked up the pace and we went up the hill at a slow canter. Apart from the hours I rode Happy - because any moment on Happy was an exercise in a kind of Nirvana - this might have been the most fun I ever had on horseback; more fun even than sprinting Georgie Girl down the straightaway, more fun than the most perfect jump course I've ever run, more fun than romantic morning rides with my boyfriend. I don't know why; maybe it was because Sam was in his element, maybe it was because I was in mine, in some way I'd never been before. Maybe it was because it was a perfect balance of thought and thoughtlessness, of physical and mental.

Whatever it was, the uphill ride was a rush. There were a lot of trees down across the trail - some not more than 6 inches in diameter, some over a foot, and all fallen at varying heights and angles from the ground and across the trail. The trees grew close to the trail, and some places the trail veered tight around one and then turned the opposite way to snake around another, equally close. There were places where branches hung low overhead, and others where a knobby boll might want to catch your knee or your stirrup, kicking your foot back and trying to pitch you over the shoulder of your mount. Some places a jump lay between two trees so close together that if you aimed off by six inches you'd unhorse yourself by ramming one leg or the other into a tree. The entire upward trail was a constant adjustment - jump this, duck under that, toe in tight here to keep off that boll, rein sharp to the other side to keep your knee from slamming into that tree, duck your head under that branch while your mount jumps that log, keep your forward seat for three downed trees in a row - and most places you could see no more than a horse length ahead of you, so you had no idea what came next. There was no preparing in advance, no planning: you just had to do the right thing when it came at you, and it came at you NOW.

Ahead of me I could see here and there the flash of color between the trees that was K's shirt, or that of another rider, generally seen off at an angle as the trail zigged and wove up the slope. But still you could not anticipate the trail; you knew only that eventually you would end up in that spot, but not how you might get there nor what hazards might lay across your path.

Sam, old hand that he was, cantered up this obstacle course with his ears pricked forward, taking my leg and my rein almost before I thought of them, as if he could read my mind, as if my thoughts somehow transmitted themselves instantly to his mind. He felt when I needed him to put in an extra stride before that big tree, and when I wanted him to stand back a little and take a longer jump. Despite his broad and well-sprung ribs, he threaded me through the serpentine trail without once knocking my knees or my toes, supple as water, graceful as a deer - and yet possessed of the springing muscular power of a jumper, driving us uphill and over jumps as if I weighed no more than sunlight on his back.

We came to the top of the slope at last, the trees opening out onto a meadow. K, reined around to make sure everyone made it out of the woods safely, gave me a grin as I drew up beside the other horses.

"Liked that, did you?" she asked.

I had no words to say how much. All I could say was, "Yes." But I said it emphatically, could feel my eyes shining and my face flushed with delight and excitement - and it must have been enough, because she laughed a little, a quiet little laugh at the back of her throat, but one that says: I could not have told you this, but now you know how it is.

I don't now recall much about the rest of the ride home - that it was a pretty morning, yes, and that the sun was starting to burn off the haze, sure - but that will stand forever as the Enchanted Forest Ride in my mind. I had many a wonderful ride on many a fine horse in those days, but that one was something special. There were so many delights in it that I cannot for the life of me say was it this thing or that that made it so perfect; but if I had to pick one thing, it would be that uphill ride, dancing over jumps and pirouetting through trees, feeling beneath my leg the powerful, joyous beat of the mighty heart of an old timber wolf.


MaskedMan said...

It's a Zen kind of thing; Being fully in the moement, at the leading edge of your skills, but not quite pushing into that scary place where you're no longer fully in charge. There is something about finding your self in that place - fully alert to the possibilities, responding more by instinct than plan, fully integrated with your environment... It's a kind of magic that happens all too rarely, and leaves indelible marks on your soul.

And yeah, it can be described, but never understood until you've experienced it for you self - without the frame of reference, you can believe in it, but never understand it. Once you've the frame of reference, you never need it explained again.

Holly said...

This would have been a different ride on a lesser horse. I also would bet that this is .why. Sam never wanted to retire. Who would want to miss this? It was probably as much of a rush for him as for you.

Timber Wolf indeed.

Dragon43 said...

MaskedMan said it all for me.

You painted a wonderful picture of your special moment.

Della said...

You do quite a job of capturing the uncaptureable. Apparently uncaptureable is not a real word, but I like it anyway. I love the splashing part. Thor loves doing that and it always makes me laugh the entire time and not want to leave the water. It tends to be entirely desirable to get soaked riding in the summer in SC.

My uncle had a mare (fastest horse in the valley) who lived and continued to be ridden to a ripe old age. She never seemed to want to quit. When she finally couldn't get up again at 38yrs, I think it half broke my stoic old uncle's heart.

AKDD said...

MM, true on the Zen thing. It's thinking without thought, in a way... complete integration of all your faculties without thinking about it; being fully aware you're doing it without watching yourself at it. Or something like that.

Holly, true - on another horse that might have been fun, but not THAT kind of fun. Not the Enchanted Forest Ride. Just another ride, maybe. And you're probably right about why Sam didn't want to retire. He was just that kind of a horse: bold, full of heart, and that heart full of grace and courage and trust. I've wondered, from time to time: After that time where he crashed into the jump and lacerated himself - and I've seen (and sutured) injuries like that in person, cut inches deep into the muscle, huge gaping, bleeding wounds, and the horse trembling from pain and shock - after an injury like that, how did that horse still love - LOVE - to jump? To run cross-country through hill and dale, over and under and between obstacles, and trust a rider enough to go over whatever he was pointed at? I only wish I had courage and grace like that.

Dragon, I know you've done some of your riding on steel horses and some on real horses.... but either way, you have the heart of a horseman. Glad you could come along on this one, if only in the telling of it.

Della - I think "uncaptureable" is a fine word. According to my spell-checker, I make up words all the time, so have at it, I say!

38 years is a long, long time to have the kind of relationship you have with a good horse - and it must have been very hard to lose that. I feel for your uncle. It'd have broken my heart, too.

Holly said...

"how did that horse still love - LOVE - to jump?"

because they are good at it, because there is an adrenalin rush for them too. Think about the bull riders who can't quit, and the jockeys who ride again after incredible injuries.

I am a .firm. believer that animals know when they are good at something just like people do. It's not just the breeding or the training....there also has to be a personal wellspring that makes them want to do this.

I need orange said...

Wow. Another wonder-ful ride.

Thank you.

You know you can book these up and sell them, right?

I'm in line for one, just tell me where.

Teri and the cats of Furrydance said...

this gave me goose-bumps...thanks!