August 2006 horsenews

Irritated burrowing owls in Brentwood.

Cascade Trail in the Oakland HIlls. Regrettably, it only goes like this for a mile.

A weird track through the Cache Creek Sink in the Yolo Bypass.

Herons gathering in the Bypass.

Down where the trees seem to cut us off is where we stopped for lunch.

Queen Anne's Lace not for horses.

Alongside Cache Creek.

A rest stop.

Muddy Hollow at Pt. Reyes — the first time I've seen it when it wasn't ankle deep in water. Those are Traveller's tracks.


            At the beginning of the month, Granada put her weight on her left rear and cocks her right leg for the first time. I started riding her; got her up to about 15 minutes of gaiting in the arena. Then she hurt her leg again. Faw!

            Margaretta has spreading fungal hair loss on her back. Jean had to quit riding her. Anti-fungal salve wasn’t getting it, so now we used a systemic. She was almost fully recovered, then had a sudden relapse. We correlated it with a feed change from orchard grass to oat hay. She’s back on the orchard grass and after three days looks a lot better. We’ll see.

            Riding up Marsh Creek in eastern Contra Costa county, I tied Traveller up alongside the trail where it and the creek emerged from under some huge umpty-ump lane suburban intersection, so I could walk around to various corners to consider access to the trail on the other side of the creek. This took me so long and so far from Traveller that when a Brentwood cop came cruising by he pulled over to consider this apparently unattended animal. Fortunately he did not issue us a parking ticket.

            Later on this trail we came upon a freestone peach tree with fruit so ripe it was more like drinking than eating. The fact that just being on a horse means you’re dirty meant that the pleasure of slurping up a few of these peaches could be enjoyed with a lack of inhibition not felt since childhood.

            Took Traveller to the All-Gaited Junior Benefit Horseshow in Vallejo and covered myself in ignominy. We came in dead last in all three events we tried. In the trail class, Traveller wouldn’t approach the yellow slicker; reared rather than cross the water; and didn’t sidepass up to the mailbox at all. In the open gaited breed 3-gait equitation competition we were beaten by, among others, a 9-year-old on some kind of midgety pony. But in the Mae West race we did get a little of our own back.

            The idea was to race to the far end of the arena, put on a DD bra, put two water balloons in it and race back without breaking them. I think we got down there before the other guy and the three women contestants, but they sure slipped into their bras a lot faster than I could. And  being flat-chested, once I got on the horse both balloons fell out and broke.

            The second-place finisher was a blank-faced lady trainer of about 30, on a big black Tennessee Walker. While I had been disqualified in the trail class by the judge for my numerous shortcomings, this woman had won the blue, moving imperturbably through the obstacles with what might have been, annoyingly, studied nonchalance, or perhaps simply mechanical methodicalness. When I arrived baloonless at the finish where all the other contestants were awaiting me, she regarded me with an expression I took, perhaps over-sensitively, as smug. Being empty-handed, or empty-brassiered, I impulsively grabbed her right balloon – given the relative size of our horses it was at about my eye level – and popped it, soaking her shirt front, and quickly dodged off. After a double-take, or maybe triple-take, and some yells and hoots from the crowd, she took out her left balloon and drew a bead on me. Traveller and I took off like a shot down the arena as she chased us right around the judging tent. In all modesty, I could see that she wasn’t keeping up, so rather than going round and round like Sambo and the lion, or worse yet have her abandon the chase herself as a gesture of contempt, I turned around and, I thought, chivalrously, let her take her shot. She only got me in the leg, but I think Traveller must have been terminally shocked at having something come flying at him from another horse and strike him, because he started backing and backing and backing. But after some twists and turns I got him turned and walking forward, and then he would let me stop him.

            This was the closest I’ve ever come to that Afghan horseback game, the precursor to polo, where a sheep carcass is thrown onto the field and everyone tries to grab it and carry it to their team’s goal posts while the members of the other team hit at the person with the carcass with crops and try to grab it from him. It was fun, if brief.

            Well, this was the last class I had wanted to watch or partake in, so after to my surprise actually being awarded a 5th place ribbon we went back to the trailer and got ready to go. But the damp lady trainer came out with the woman who had organized the show and said she felt like I had “violated her personal space,” and so did her “partner”. I apologized and excused myself, listening closely for a pronoun or anything else that would identify the partner’s gender. When my anxieties were confirmed and my stereotypical suspicions dispelled, I tried to make a joke about hoping he wouldn’t be coming after me. In all seriousness she said no, she was settling it right then, so I told her I had enjoyed the chase quite a bit and asked the show organizer to unpin my competitor’s number from the back of my shirt where I couldn’t reach it.

            This show made me reconsider Traveller’s capabilities and how I ride him and how I try to ride him, not only because we were judged to be so bad but because of another thing that happened a couple of times. By part way through the second day, Traveller became attached to the scene around the arena. When we rode away, either back to the trailer, which since we drove in both days was parked about as far from the arena as anyone, or out around the fairgrounds for some sightseeing, he became slow and ready to spook at any little thing, and when we headed back, he quickly built up terrific speed, gaiting like a steam locomotive hitting top speed downhill – a way of going that I normally enjoy enormously and indulge to the greatest extent I possibly can. However I’m sure from the ground this is frightening to the mommies with their children near the arena. And to the knowledgeable, such as a group of chalons standing in a circle speaking in Spanish several of whom suddenly look up in unison at the sound of rapid, pounding hooves, it probably looks somewhat out of control – which with Traveller it might be, in that when he suddenly sees a certain kind of spook, most likely a dark patch on the ground, he is liable to shy so badly that if I hadn’t gotten used to it I’d likely be unseated. So between the trainer accusing me of “inappropriate” behavior, the official disapproval, even condemnation, of our rankings, and what might have been raised eyebrows among the cognoscenti, it looked like it was my judgement against the world’s.

            The next Saturday we went with our friends the Rismans to ride at Anthony Chabot Park in the Oakland hills. Along the bottom of the canyon there are trails on both sides of the stream that are generally flat, pretty good dirt footing, very peaceful, quiet, shady and green. There is one section of trail, called Cascade Trail, that is one mile of the most enjoyable gaiting I can think of. It is 95% level, on a contour cut into the canyon slope, with a soft dirt surface. It is about three feet wide, with trees or the canyon wall on one side and the creek below on the other. It follows the curves of the hillside like a snake. On it Traveller and I practiced fast gaiting, him with a will and me with all thoughts unrelated to the horse and trail out my mind.

            And on Sunday T and I went out in the Yolo Bypass north of I-5 by Sacramento, an expanse of fields and seasonal wetlands that in the course of winter are usually flooded by overflow from the Sacramento River, and in summer offer miles and miles of nearly uninhabited, flat, superb gaiting. There we practiced maintaining a comfortable gait for ten of fifteen miles, at whichever speed he preferred as long as it wasn’t absolutely too slow, in sightseeing mode – i.e., requiring minimal attention on my part while I took in the scenery, which this day included huge flocks of white herons convening in broad, shallow lakes, ranks and banks of trees across impassible fields of stickery weeds, a blizzard of white butterflies flitting over meadows of white horse-poisonous blossoming Queen Anne’s Lace, and inviting diversions leading to shady nooks among the trees on the banks of the canals and streams. Then did a turn of having the horse stand unobtrusively with the lead rope looped around the master’s arm while he rested on his back in the shade by the stream, eating cashews and macadamias for lunch and reading Greenlander sagas until he fell asleep; and we also practiced having the horse hang about with the lead rope dangling unattached and not running off while the master scrambled up an embankment to see if what was on the other side was worth making the horse scramble up too. We perfected having the horse jump over ditches after the master, and drink out of ditches. We practiced having the horse stumble at the gait and recover without losing speed or either horse or rider suffering an adrenalin surge. And we practiced having the horse led sedately on levee-tops with gravel too sharp to be ridden over, and, in order to complete a loop, across a field of large, hard, dried, unpleasant ploughed-up clods without stepping on the master’s heels to express dissatisfaction. We refined the horse’s skill at eating a flake or two in the trailer during the two-hour drive each way. I gave us at least a yellow in all these classes, and we even got two or three blues.

            The next weekend it was in the high 90s in the Valley so we went to the coast. There are only four trails at Pt. Reyes that have little enough steep up-and-down that I would happily take a Peruvian on them: Rift Trail, Coast Trail, Tomales Point Trail, and the Muddy Hollow-Estero Trail loop. The first two I’ve been on so many hundred times that I’d rather not, and the road to Tomales Point trailhead is a real pain. So it was to Estero, even though there’s enough grades that I lead about a quarter of the way and only gait a third or so.

            To give myself some variety, I started down the road through the ranch at the Estero trailhead – Home Ranch, I think it’s called. Since I’ve never been sure passing through this ranch was legal, the dozen or so times I’d previously made this circuit I had always left it to last on the theory that right at the end of a long loop my desperation to avoid backtracking would fuel the determination necessary to bull, beg or sweet-talk my way through if I were challenged. Naturally, this time we were caught.

            When we hit the flat stretch running between the house, stalls and other buildings, we took off at our usual gait. We blew by a couple of women tending the stabled horses, who, surprised, greeted us reflexively. But there was a big white horse completely loose eating a flake of alfalfa alongside the way, and the gate out the back of the place was open. I paused, afraid it might come with us, and while I hesitated the women gathered their wits and came up to me.

            The owner, Ann, seemed to be in her 30s, thin, wearing filthy, stained brown corduroys. She had slightly crazy eyes, not exactly wall-eyed but not aiming at the same point, but she smiled a lot and spoke fluently and alertly. When I guessed they might keep quarter horses and thoroughbreds, she said they kept Arabs, too.

            This pinned her down for me. Any physically and mentally fit female so utterly lacking, and uninterested in, visual appeal who rode Arabs was obviously devoted body and soul to riding. She asked if Traveller were a Peruvian Paso or a Paso Fino, and said she’d seen us “zipping through” too fast to talk to a few times before. “Zipping.” It is very pleasing to hear yourself, riding your Peruvian at the gait, described with this word, and nice to hear unexpectedly from someone outside the breed. She asked his name, and when I told her my wife had named him after Robert E. Lee’s horse, she said she knew that that horse had carried the general everywhere and that she had a picture in her mind of a big strong horse. She mentioned that the ranch was private and that it was ok to go through if someone had permission, so I asked for it and she granted it. By way of apology or explanation, I told her that I had always taken the place for a horse world, and she said yes, it was a horse world, and if any of the dogs started to go with us, would I be sure to not let them.