It’s spring break week for all the local schools, which means that the barn next door is swarming with children from sun up to sun down. Yesterday, in an effort to occupy them, my neighbor asked if I wanted to go on a trail ride with her and four of her students. (And haul a horse in my trailer, ha!) I rarely turn down a trail ride, so I loaded up Candy and hit the road.
We headed west to Lake Carl Blackwell and met up with a Stillwater-based dressage trainer and two of her students. I can’t say enough good things about this recreation area; the trails are very well marked, cleared, and have enough terrain to stay interesting. My only complaint is that the map is sort of confusing because there are many sections of trail that overlap, and it’s sometimes unclear where you’re going (or where you are).
Candy started off a little nervous, but quickly relaxed and seemed very interested in her new surroundings. She was steady and surefooted through rocky and uneven sections of trail, and handled going up and down a couple of moderate inclines well. She was also much better than she’s ever been in a large group. I warned the kids to keep their horses away from her hindquarters because she will kick, but even when one of the girls trotted her pony right up Candy’s backside, Candy did no more than swish her tail angrily and pin her ears. She was equally happy to walk at the back of the group as she was to lead it, and she was fairly quiet when the group was stopped. I was especially proud of her when she stayed calm as a horse in front of her was refusing to go down a steep section of trail; she stood mostly still as the horse balked, backed up, and spun away from the hill.
There were a few times she got anxious and jigged, but those usually happened when a child zoomed up beside her on a trotting horse. She always returned to walking within a few strides, though, so I wasn’t too concerned about her behavior. I’m confident she’ll relaxed as she gets more miles on the trail in a group.
After about an hour and a half of riding, we found our way back to the trailhead. The dressage trainer from Stillwater offered to lead a group at a trot back up a long, wide section of trail. All of the kids wanted to go, and I figured there was no time like the present to see how Candy would handle trotting in a big group. My neighbor offered to return to the trailers with me if she got out of hand.
Candy has done a bit of trotting with a group last summer on a ride with Harvard Fox Hounds. She was okay about it- she got a little antsy and speedy, but came back quickly without a lot of fuss. She was much the same with this group. We started out near the back, but Candy’s stride is longer and her rhythm quicker than the horses who were accompanying us on the ride. She broke into a canter, and I let her go for a bit. I haven’t done a lot of cantering on her, but I’m glad I let her cruise along yesterday- she has a lovely, uphill gait that will be very nice as she learns how to carry herself and develops more muscle.
When we reached the end of the trail, we turned back. The group planned to continue trotting until the intersection marker of two trails (about halfway back to the trailhead), then walk the rest of the way back. I thought I’d attempt a little two-point; around the time I settled into a half-seat, the pony on Candy’s left broke into a canter. The combination of a forward seat, a cantering neighbor, and a touch of slack in the reins was apparently enough to make Candy think it was time to be a racehorse again. I felt her haunches drop as she dug into the dirt, and she sprang forward at a dead run.
I spent a lot of time as a kid riding horses who bolted. I’m generally not afraid of a horse who’s running; galloping Moe flat-out through a fallow soybean field was one of my favorite pastimes in college. But as Candy took off, I felt a fleeting moment of genuine terror. I thought, “If she trips on a rock and falls, we’ll both die.” My next thought was for the two children up on the trail ahead of us; I stood up in my stirrups and yelled, “HEADS UP! HEADS UP! GET OUT OF THE WAY!” at the top of my lungs. Candy increased her speed and flew right in between their ponies. I gave her increasingly strong half-halts and told her, “Whoa, whoa, whoa” in what I hoped was soothing tone of voice. She began to slow down and eventually stopped calmly to wait for her opponents to reach us.
None of the kids were worse for wear- their ponies had picked up a canter as Candy blew by, but came back to a walk easily. Candy was surprisingly calm after her gallop and walked back to the trailer with the group breathing easily and walking confidently.
Despite her bolt (which I genuinely think wasn’t naughtiness or nervousness- I think she thought that’s what I wanted her to do), I’m calling yesterday’s ride a success. Candy was brave, calm, and well mannered in a group. She walked, trotted, and cantered in a mostly quiet way. I’m eager to take her out again, and someday I’d love to let her gallop at top speed on purpose!