Saturday, I went on an eleven hour horseback ride with friends.
Yes, my butt hurts.
These friends often trailer the horses out to areas of national park or local mountain regions to go trail riding through the forest. Fall is prime time for riding because the horses love the crisp weather and the foliage is breathtaking. So far, I’ve been unavailable to go with them because of other family commitments, but this weekend all we had on the agenda was Kent marching in the Veteran’s day parade. The only thing worse than dance on Mark’s arthritic hips is riding- he can’t even sit astride a horse now, but he understands my love for such things, so he promised he would cheer loud enough for us both, and he urged me to go. Didn’t take much for me to say, “OK!”
Its deer season, so I was told I had to wear an orange vest. I complained that considering I’d be on a white horse, I shouldn’t need a vest. They said that with my deer colored hair poking through the brush as I emerge over a hill, I’d probably be a prime target for some beer drinking, over-excited, under experienced, weekend hunter from Atlanta. OK, give me a vest.
They said we’d be going out on Saturday morning, so I figured I should be ready at about 9. Usually they go on Sundays after church. But since this was a Saturday, I figured they’d go earlier. Little did I know they’d show up at 6am to load my horse! I was standing at the door in my jammies thinking, are you kidding me? But I quickly dressed and went to make coffee while they loaded my two horses. I have my priorities straight, ya know.
The friends going on this trip included Mark’s best friend, Ronnie (the preacher fellow who built our house and likes to play tricks on unsuspecting country-girl wannabes), his two young adult sons, the seventeen year old wife of one of those boys, Shane ( 30 – the fellow who sold me my new Pinto and is currently training her) and his wife, Amanda. Then, there was me, the oldest of the bunch (although Ronnie is coming up the rear in that category).
We decided to take both my horses. Pepe came as my mount and Shane would ride Joy to give her more trail riding experience. Off we head for Aska Mountain. I figured we’d be out for a few hours. I never dreamed we’d be astride these animals, charging through the forest, for some 8 hours straight. Ouch.
I have never ridden like this before. I grew up with horses, but I rode over well established trails and along farm land. I went to horseback riding camps and took lessons too, but in those cases I was working in a ring, going over baby jumps in a controlled environment. Nowadays, I ride on our land, but only along the roads and in the pasture or around the ring. This ride was entirely different. They took me along barely cut paths through the forest, along rocky roads, on pavement, and through thick underbrush. It was everything except a controlled environment.
They would say, “Wonder what is over that mountain . . . let’s check it out.” Then, grinning, they’d charge straight up the hill without a path to speak of, weaving through trees and underbrush, dodging killer tree branches, hoping up snake wouldn’t land in anyone’s laps or that we wouldn’t disturb a wild boar. The horses would slip and slide, snorting and sweating from the effort. I just held on for dear life.
I said, “Do you think horses are allowed in this area of a national forest?”
“Don’t’ rightly know,” “Shane would say. An hour later we would pass a sign that had a big X through a picture of a four wheeler, a truck, and a motorcycle.
“Doesn’t have horses blocked out so we must be A-OK,” Shane would say.
“Doesn’t say you can bring a boat in here either, but I doubt they are allowed.” Then, I’d hear myself, and cringe because I sound so much like my mother.
“Ye-haw,” I’d say, urging Pepe to dance because I rather not be that careful, goodie two shoes sort of person that age seems pushing me towards becoming.
At the top of the steep mountain, we would come to an open trail. Every time they came upon unfettered spaces they would open the horses up wide and go charging along at a full speed run. You see, I trot and gallop, but honestly, I haven’t opened up my horse like that since I was a kid. I confess, I’m a tentative, middle aged rider now. But I’m not about to be the person holding a group of friends back, (nor would my horses let me) so in the end, I just thought, whatchagonnado?, and so I played “cowgirl on a mighty steed” for the day. I have to admit, once I re-familiarized myself with speed and daring, I had a blast.
I was grateful, because without these friends pushing me along, I seriously doubt I’d ever get down, rough and wild, to ride like that. Furthermore, I could never go exploring in such wilderness alone or even with a friend, because I’d get lost. I kept saying, how do you all know where we are?” And they’d explain that they’ve hunted this mountain for years. They grew up playing in these woods, coon hunting, exploring, look for their lost dogs. They know every path and trail, or if they don’t, they just have to go a few minutes until the recognize something and they figure out where they are. Remarkable.
I learned not only a great deal about my friends, thanks to quiet conversation as we weaved slowly through some of the more difficult paths – but I learned a different side of my horses too. Pepe (my white horse – well, technically he is considered grey, but only because he has a light shadow of freckles along his neck in the summer) is a very well trained, ex-show horse. I love this animal with the passion of a fifteen year old with a crush. There is something in his eyes and character I just took to from the very beginning. Funny, I have a drop dead, gorgeous, expensive, top of the line pinto, (Joy) and she is fantastic, but in the end, it’s the little quarter horse gelding I’m most devoted to. What can I say, I’ve always been drawn to character and personality before looks or an impressive résumé. Why should it be any different with horses?
Anyway, I’m used to Pepe being calm, sweet, and easy to control. But then, I’ve never taken him out to the wilderness in frisky weather with other horses before.. He was out of his mind with excitement. While the other horses moseyed along, he’d prance, picking his feet up high like he was in the show ring. He simply wanted to dance or run the entire time, and if I held him back, he did this strange thing – sort of like galloping in place. We used to teach kids how to cartwheel in place by undercutting their feet and this horse’s movement reminded me of that. He could gallop, yet not go anywhere. It was like some funky dance step designed to give the illusion of moving, yet not actually propelling you forward .
The horse trainers stared and said, “What the heck is that horse doing? I think we’ve seen some really strong competition horses do that in the ring, but Lord, we can’t imagine how you could teach an animal to do that. Where did you get this horse, the circus?” They all started kidding me, stating that only a dancer would end up with a horse that dances too. He was doing the watoosee all day long. And like it or not, I had to dance along with him.
“I retired from dance. Your turn to do the same,” I’d nag at the horse. It didn’t help. His soul was filled with rhythm and spunk all day.
I didn’t really mind his antics because I trust and adore this animal, and actually, it was sort of funny. Well, it was funny for the first three hours. Then, I got tired of bouncing up and down, having to remain attentive to control him so I wouldn’t get knocked off. I was getting really annoyed, but nothing I did would stop him. Everyone else was walking along calmly, and there I was on Pepe, bouncing along on this tireless, moon walking horse. I wanted to kill him. My butt hurt.
He also insisted on being at the head of the pack. It didn’t help that Shane and the seventeen year old were constantly taking off to explore non-established riding areas. They kept riding ahead full speed to do wild, boyish things on their horses. After trying and not succeeding to keep my horse back with the mature adults, I gave up and let Pepe charge ahead with the wild ones. Ee-gad. What else could I do? One good thing was that it allowed me to watch Joy in action under the control of a fearless rider. Man, she is pretty. And this gave me a quick refresher course in carefree riding. After a few hours, I switched horses with Shane and had my first experience riding my new horse. You can feel the power underneath you when astride a horse like that. Previously, I’d been somewhat intimidated by her, but she is magnificent. It didn’t take long to be assured I’d picked the perfect horse.
I groom my horses regularly and I bath them occasionally, as is common. But Pepe is a really dirty horse. He is forever upside down. Figures– the light colored horse would be the one who likes to roll. Anyway, as he started sweating, layers and layers of dirt embedded next to his skin started oozing out. And before you know it, my white horse was caked in mud. It was dripping off of him in huge fistful clumps. I was mortified! I had no idea he was that dirty.
Everyone was kidding me, saying, “When did you say you bathe that horse last – ahem, might that be never? Gee Ginny, we thought you liked that horse.”
(After I wiped him down with leaves for ten minutes and pulled off clumps of dirt. Eesh.)
Meanwhile, their mud colored, copper horses looked fresh as a daisy. A so did they. My horse happens to love me so much he has to rub up against me at every opportunity, and it wasn’t long until my yellow jacket was as muddy as he was. I looked like Pig Pen shuffling along with the clean crew of Charlie Brown. It was as if I’d gone on a different ride than everyone else, one that involved a mud pit. Good thing I love that horse so much, because for a while, I almost considered shooting him. I don’t think I’ve been that dirty since I was ten. But hey, a little dirt never hurt anyone.
(Shane on my Joy, and his wife, Amanda on a kicking, biting, horse named Rebel. Guess the name fits.)
The day truly lifted my soul. I saw miles of fall leaves coloring the landscape like an artist’s palate. I listened to the rustle of hooves shuffling through a foot-deep trench of crackling leaves followed by the clip clop of hooves on hard dirt, with birds singing from above and the constant hot breath of a hard working animal below. I felt cool breezes and the hot muscle of my mount at the same time, sparking thoughts of how diverse and remarkable life can be. I couldn’t help but think of how I spent my Saturdays only a few short years ago, holed up in a studio without seeing the Florida sun for entire weekends, people complaining and questioning every decision despite how hard we worked to please them or how successful the dancers or dances we continually produced were. As I rode along, at peace and filled with gratitude for my life, I marveled that I could be in this place, doing this wonderful thing with people who knew me better in one afternoon than my previous friends bothered to get to know me after years of acquaintance. No one is single dimensional. I’m glad I rediscovered that about myself as well.
I waved to a few walkers on the Appalachian Trail (who actually shouted that the Pinto was the prettiest horse they’ve ever seen … ah, that’s my girl.) And I had funny conversations with my no-frills friends – they are the best kind of people who gather together in a casual way just to enjoy the sweet, simple pleasures of nature and camaraderie. No one in this group cares who makes more money than the other, or what you do for a living, or your level of education or whether or not you are ambitious or talented or came from the “right” kind of family. They don’t steer the conversation to work or dance or their kids, or even horses just because it is something they already know we have in common. Conversation just rolls along naturally, touching upon interesting subjects as we discover what makes each other tick. There is simply lots of laughter, respect, and good natured curiosity and acceptance about each other’s past, future hopes, and interests. Amazing how, when people don’t want anything from you, you grow comfortable in your own skin.
Anyway, it was a perfect day filled with inspirational sights, sounds and thoughts.
We came upon a huge water tower and the boys asked me if I wanted to go up to the top to see the view. Of course, I said yes. Then, they got off the horses and started shimmying up the metal grids. I was like, “Um… where are the stairs?” They explained that it was a service tower to check for fires, so people are not supposed to come up. I just have to climb up the first three flights, then there are stairs so the next eighteen floors are gravy. I was like, “Have you forgotten how old I am?’
“Only as old as you feel,” they called over their shoulders as I watched their butts head for the sky. “Don’t be a pooper.”
I shouted that Mark would forgive me for falling off a horse, or even a mountain, but I’d get in big trouble if I killed myself by falling off a tower when I didn’t have to be up there. Considering I was already so sore I could barely walk, I decided to be the old fart and skip the view (yet deep down I wished I was 18 again). I stayed below with Ronnie. This gave my horse further opportunity to get me even dirtier, an equine’s idea of a good time. I opened my thermos of coffee, wondering if these people ever eat anything other than beef jerky and candy. I guess food isn’t important when you are having fun. Ronnie and I ate a sandwich we had slipped into the saddle bags this morning, and while smiling and waving the young ones upward, we talked about how sore we would be the next day.
The days are growing short this time of year, so by the time we returned at 6:00 it was pitch dark out. I hobbled around the barn, putting my tack away, dreaming of the steaming tub calling to me from the house.
Mark took one look at me and chuckled. I guess I looked as beat as I felt.
“Did you have fun?” he asked, wondering if my dirty exterior meant I’d fallen or something. “You OK?”
“I had time of my life,” I said.
I didn’t have to tell him I was OK. Some things go without saying.