Tuesday, November 20, 2007

Sand in my Stirrups

After missing the last two Tuesday trail rides for work, I arrived at the barn, a.k.a. Center of the Universe (COU) just as snow began falling in earnest. As so often happens when the weather is wintry lately, I began to ponder the dangers of going out on woodland trails that, already muddy and partly frozen, would now be covered with a slick layer of melting ice crystals. And, predictably, I began to hope that the ride would be called off. This trail riding mind you, being the thing to which I so look forward, the thing that frees me from the quotidian, and makes me feel thrilled to call my breathing body home. Allow this moment to serve as your welcome to my world, the swirl of contradictory impulses which twirl though my life as a novice horsewoman on the north side of 40.

Hopping out of my car (eeek! it's cold!), I hurry in to grab my tack and encounter L, my most honorable trainer (MHT). L says matter-of-factly, "The ground's frozen out there, we're going to the beach." She might as well have inserted a lightning bolt into my left ventricle.

"The beach" is
Crane Beach, one of the most beautiful places in the world, let alone the North Shore of Boston where I happen to live. Riding on The Beach has been the Holy Grail of my return to horses in the last two years. This was not a checkbox item on my list, this was the raison de monter. Now I was being told by my MHT, not only as she had previously indicated, that she thought me ready for this, but that we were going IN TWENTY MINUTES!

How thrilled was I? Not one tiny bit! I was too busy filling up with dread. Dread is a like a very strong shot of coffee, and it comes with a foam of images on top: Hunter scared of the water, Hunter freaking out at the dunes, Hunter taking off, some other horse taking off and all the horses going after it, Nicie falling off, Nicie falling off the wrong way and into the (shallows of) the icy Atlantic and so forth. Faced with this inner revolt, I had two options: (1) try to back out of doing the thing I'd been working towards for two years, or (2) pretend this was a perfectly fine plan which I would accomplish with grace and style, or at least, no audible whimpering. I went for Door #2, and walked out out to the big field with my halter, leadline, pocketful of peppermints, and dorky, but warm, striped winter hat.

Hunter was at the far end of the big field. As I approached, I could see that he was soaking wet and his grey coat had many large spots and streaks: grass stains, poop stains, mud stains, you name it. He's a nice horse, though, and seemed reasonably pleased to see me. As you may have gathered by now, Hunter is my horse. He's seven years old: a grey gelding bred and raised on a trail riding operation in Vermont. I bought him three months ago, have been riding him regularly for two months, and to be frank, both of us are still quite unsure of the whole setup, although we like each other hugely. He nosed into his halter and we went back to tack up.

Our group was all women, three students and three instructors. We loaded up the horses into the van, and made the five minute drive to the beach. For the first time I can ever remember there was not a single car in the parking lot. Snow fell softfly and the whole world was shades of white, grey and soft brown. Hunter got off the van and looked around with a mixture of friskiness and alarm. I could relate. I managed with L's help, to get on him using a half-rotten post at the edge of the lot.

Hunter is a born wing-man. As soon as I maneuvered him to a spot 45 degrees off the lead horse, Windsor's, fanny he felt better. As we headed over the dunes I put out a call for last minute advice. "Just do what we always do. Don't pass the leader, and use your half-halts when you need them." Roger that. I was amazed at how well the horses all did in the deep soft sand they had to push through on their way to the hardened beach by the water's edge.

And there we all were, on the broad strand at the edge of our world. The sea was gray and calm, the wind low and cold, the snow falling in tiny flakes. Hunter kept swivelling his head to the side to peek at the little waves as we headed south toward Gloucester. He seemed to take a little comfort from my murmured reassurances, but a lot more from Windsor moseying steadily in front of him, Jill and Summer alongside.

One of the nicest things about this ride was the way Hunter stayed with Jill. Jill used to live on the farm in VT where Hunter was born and raised, so I am pretty sure they know each other from way back. As we trotted off down the beach, Hunter seemed to really enjoy going with her. Jill can be overly strong cross-country, and her rider, Erin, did a great job with her half-halts. The footing is so perfect on that beach that the horses have total freedom to move out. So a fast trot is almost like the canter you are used to the ring in terms of its speed and fluidity, although the footfalls are different.

At one point, Hunter bent his nose down to scratch his ankle (something of a habit for him), and my MHT cautioned me not to let him roll. "If he starts to go down, you gotta boot him hard with both legs to stay up and get moving." Duly noted!

And that was it. A totally thrilling walk and flying trot down the beach and back in the snow. As wet as we were, we weren't cold at all in our grand, grey world, and we had the wind at our backs on the way home. For all three students it was our first ride on The Beach, and in Yankee fashion, we had a very quiet glow all the way back to the barn. As Erin said, "Lord, you can take me now."

sea in the nose

sea in the hair

sea in the marrow, in the eyes

and yes, there in the chest.

will we miss

the love of a woman or music or food

orthe gambol of the great mad


horse, kicking clods and destinies

high and away

in just one moment of the sun coming


~Charles Bukowski