The Sweaty Equestrian
by Tamara Baysinger
So. I decided to ride Acey on Day 1. Gotta get it overwith sometime, right? Besides, out vet checks and two holds looked like the way to go for a first-timer with a buddy in camp. Laurel and Buffy offered to let us join them, along with Linda and Ted, for a slow ride at the back of the pack. Perfect.
The night before split itself between wind and rain. I slept little enough to observe the passing storms, a victim of new-horse nerves, though I must say I wasn't nearly as restless as I used to get. I was confident that Acey was mentally ready for the trail itself, and that she'd eat and drink well throughout the ride. But how would her fiery, emotional side affect her at the start? What would happen when we reached the creek, only a mile out? Acey is a heart-on-her-sleeve kind of horse, and she doesn't always react calmly to new and intense experiences.
Near morning, the rain stopped. I let myself hope for a dry start. Alas, before my alarm went off at 5:30, the rat-a-tat tapping on the camper roof started up again. And increased in volume. And so, we tacked up in the rain.
I applied several wraps of duct tape to Acey's Backcountry boot gaiters, cursing the dampness that already threatened the likelihood of them staying on through mud and miles. Acey alternately shivered and danced in place, but at least she continued grabbing mouthfuls of hay. The chill and nerves were getting to her, and I was glad when the starters sent the bulk of the horses on down the trail.
Acey seemed fairly calm there by the trailer, so I mounted up...and quickly got off again as a glimpse of the departing herd sent her emotions skyward. Right. We'd start out in hand.
Along with Laurel and Linda, we headed down the road, Acey dancing and fretting at my side. She didn't resist leaving camp, but she was a nervous wreck and spooked dramatically when a couple other, late starters crested a small hill behind us. We walked on and the moment she was reasonably settled, I stepped aboard and asked her immediately to trot. All that energy needed to go somewhere, and a rational, forward pace made the most sense.
We reached the creek still jumping with nerves, but comfortably under control. I moved Acey close behind her new friends Buffy and Ted, and (glory hallelujah!) she walked right through the knee-deep stream without batting an eyelash. Soaked from above by falling rain, soaked from below by our saturated seat covers, but triumphant to have survived the toughest part of the ride -- the start -- we climbed out of the canyon and struck up a merry trot along the ridge.
Acey travelled with her ears up and eyes bright. She managed the early climbs and descents handily, and my only worry was the frequent clopping of her boots against one another. She doesn't forge badly barefoot, but the too-large boots affect her breakover and I feared she would lose them, particularly in the muddy conditions.
Sure enough, we weren't 5 miles out before we had to backtrack in search of a boot -- the left front. Or maybe it was the right front. Either way, it constituted an inauspicious beginning -- and believe you me, it was only the beginning.
We now had one boot with no tape. I tried re-taping with a roll of duct tape from my saddle bag, but Acey was in no frame of mind to stand still. The gaiter was hopelessly damp and sandy anyway. I strapped it on, sans tape, and crossed my fingers. [Note: finger-crossing is no guarantee of success.]
Somewhere around mile 7, I gave up on keeping that errant boot on Acey's foot. Having no room in my saddle bags because I'd filled them with water bottles, I managed to tied it to the back of my saddle, which wasn't easy because Backcountries don't really offer anything to tie around. It rode there for a while until the footing got rockier and I tried putting it on again.
A few minutes later, I found myself carrying the boot. It simply refused to stay put. I wasn't thrilled about sharing my hands between hoof boots and reins, but the vet check wasn't too much farther and the footing was soft. We'd make it. [Ha! Cue ominous music.]
Somewhere along the line, Linda's horse lost one of his Gloves.
And then, as we trotted briskly across another flat stretch, the real adventure began. Acey's head went up and her ears went back. Her hindquarters came up beneath me and I just had time to say "Guys, something's really bothering her" before she bolted.
Zoom! Up the trail we flew!
I chucked the hoof boot I was carrying and tried to rein her in. Not a good move, apparently. All that energy went up instead of out. I'm told we made a rodeo spectacular as we bucked through the sagebrush, circling back toward our companions.
I stayed on...stayed on...stayed on...aaaaaand came off.
I was on my feet again before I registered that I'd hit the ground. Acey waited nearby, watching wide-eyed and bare on yet another foot. I concluded that the boot had come off but the ring of duct tape had clung to her fetlock, causing her to spook in the first place.
We searched briefly for the missing boot, but gave up before long. The loop was taking forever and we had a good 40 miles to go! Now Laurel and I each carried a boot, Acey wore one, and the fourth was never to be seen again.
As we trotted on, I pondered the fact that I seemed to have landed right on the top of my head. Neck stiffness would surely ensue. Chiropractor, anyone? But first, we had to get through today. And tomorrow. And maybe the next day as well. All this assuming that I wasn't forced to pull due to equipment problems.
Sure enough, the second, 25-mile loop went off without a hitch. Halfway around, black clouds rolled over to drench us with rain and pelt us with hail, but the storm passed on a rush of wind and we arrived at the next hold with reasonably dry clothes and happy horses. Acey again vetted with all A's except a B for gut sounds, which I knew would rekindle as soon as she had a chance to dig into some much-desired feed. Indeed, she ate and drank well and continued to look content and eager to move on.
Only 12.5 miles to go. Home free, right?
Sure...until we mounted up and started walking out of the vet check, just as someone lifted a big water tub directly behind Acey. It wasn't too close behind her -- the person didn't do anything stupid -- but Acey's ranch-raised brain isn't used to all that human activity.
A replay ensued. Bolt, attempt to pull up, buck. Stay on...stay on...stay on...come off.
This time, I landed on my back. Again, I hopped up and back astride before Acey seemed to realize what had happened. She was still shaking and water tubs were still being loaded, though, so I got back off and led her a short way down the trail before mounting up again.
I'm pleased to report that the rest of the last loop went fine. No more lost boots, no more spooks, no more unscheduled dismounts.
Linda kindly kept Ted an extra distance back, since Acey was a bit shaken, and we'd picked up a junior at the hold because her sponsor was pulled. As we rode, I had time to ponder the connections between Acey's spooks -- always something from behind, always a bolt followed by major bucks when reined in. I formed my theory about the bucking be a panic reaction to being constrained. I began planning to teach her a single-rein stop (duh), and decided that if she bolted again, I would let her run a bit if possible and pull her up with pulsing instead of firm reins.
We all returned to camp in good spirits. Acey's energy remained high and she earned all A's again, though I could tell by a hint of unevenness in her gait that she was finally getting tired. I couldn't blame her! It was after 6:00 and she'd never travelled anywhere near that far before.
All things considered, I was downright proud her. All day long, she was nothing if not game. She covered almost the entire ride, including the rocky 2nd loop, barefoot in back, and never took a bad step.
Best of all, she had fun.
So we have a couple issues to work through -- hoof protection, behavior when spooked, excessive nervous energy in camp -- but, all things considered, my hopes for the wee little firecracker are higher than ever.
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The Sweaty Equestrian