“I love that fucking horse” … the tempest … the rub … a proper amblynge little nagg

In February we rode a lot on the north side of Sacramento, mainly along the American River.
            You can get four good days of riding here with little overlap. Heading east from Discovery Park, where the American runs into the Sacramento, the American River Parkway has tens of miles of mostly flat and gaitable trails. Some of it is alongside paved bicycle trails, which have shoulders of packed yellow sand a couple of feet wide, good for gaiting and pretty near perfect when softened by winter wet. For many miles there is a specifically horse trail that more or less parallels the bicycle trail, mostly out of sight of it, generally an excellent dirt single track winding through the riverbottoms and along the bank, overhung with trees and crowded by bushes. Rollercoasting through at a good clip, a twig took a contact lens.
            (Going the other way from Discovery Park you can lead your horse over a bridge across the American River and lead on and ride alongside a paved bike trail right into Old Sacramento, where there are stolid draft horses hitched to tourist carriages and grass for slender, nervous Peruvians to crop. The bum demographic is prominent here, many old white men, many of them on bicycles. On Super Bowl Sunday it was cold, damp and quiet as we came back across the bridge, and a ragged greybeard peddling the other way flashed Traveller and me the V sign. Either an old hippie hoping for as much peace as he could get, or in recognition of the short-lived victory of flesh and blood over asphalt and steel.)
            There are also two good trails running north from the American. The old electric railroad right-of-way offers miles of level turf gaiting, far more than anywhere I’m aware of. And through an interesting social landscape: brown and black prole and lumpen: drunks hailing us from the park benches, children running and variously yelling “horse” or “caballo”, lots of dressy, voluble comings and goings at the churches on the Sundays we often ride. Where the trail goes by a Thrift Town and taqueria, a black Cadillac Escalade with tinted windows rolled through the intersection behind us. The rear window went down and one of the dreadlocked young black men yelled out at us, “I love that fucking horse.” Conveniently, their street diverged from the bridle path.
            If you go far enough up, this trail eventually it takes you to Rio Linda – shouldn’t it be Rio Lindo? Along the way it crosses the broad undeveloped drainage of Dry Creek. Last summer T and I went downstream from the trail a little ways and came upon a swimming hole, deeply-tanned zero-body-fat boys in cutoffs doing somersaults off the bank into the water. This time we followed a beaten path that wound upstream beside the creek, screened by trees from the mommy sentinals of the community playgrounds on the opposite bank. A white cement traffic barricade lay across the path, at right angles to the low afternoon sun coming over our shoulders. Propped against it snoozed a man, head on backpack, sweatshirt pulled up over his generous belly to get the most from the thin winter sunlight. Beside him a bicycle and fishing pole were leaned against the barricade, and a half empty whiskey bottle was at his elbow. I turned on my camera for what would have been the shot of the winter. But without seeming to open his eyes he raised a hand in greeting, so instead I touched my hat and rode on.
            The other northerly ride is up East Levee along a quiet little canal – Steelhead Creek – with lovely grass ledges below the levees on both sides of the waterway, and many birds. The first time we came here was towards the end of a rainy spell, the water was high and there was nowhere below the gravelled levee tops to ride. But a few weeks later the flow was down and the stream, backwaters, ponds, puddles and trees and snags in and out of the water were alive with birds of all trades: slow-stalking spear-beaked herons with their spring-loaded necks, ducks trailing chains of ducklings they were showing how to bob, geese lifting off honking warnings, flights of little flycatchers swooping and weaving. It was a clear blue Sunday; we rode into a stiff north wind. I would say that a tumbleweed bounding around the corner of a thicket towards you comes as close to a terrifying horse archetype as anything yours will ever see.

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            On a later Sunday it was storming, so we headed over towards the coast to see if the Willow Creek Road jumping-off point to Islands in the Sky was still accessible. The adjacent rural residents, selfish pigs that they are, try every way they know how to keep people from using this entrance, starting with subterfuge in the form of signs designed to appear more authoratative and all-encompassing than they have the right to be, and reaching all the way to outright vandalism – I had the air let out of a trailer tire here once. I haven’t tried it in a year or more. It’s beautiful, but only a two hour ride. The drive is tortuous, and if the locals trolls had figured out how to keep you from turning around at the trailhead the next place you can reverse a rig is 15 narrow, slow, steep, rattly, unpaved, switchbacking miles later, at the ocean. But this day’s wild, windy, unpredictable storm made any ride iffy, so I figured I might as well take a flyer on this one.
            The signs and fencing were even more vociferous than before, but it was all still bullshit. There was still a place to pull off the road, and between two trees separating the fence from the gate a V gap through which Traveller could be led, so we disappeared into the redwoods as quickly as possible. The wind roared above us through the dripping treetops, but they sheltered the abandoned logging road as it dipped and rose along the ridgetop heading west. The colors were mostly red and green: the red from the bare dirt of the road, redwood trunks standing and fallen, reddish-brown fir and redwood needles under the trees and alongside the road; the green from the needles alive on the treelimbs. Everything was cleaner and clearer with the fresh rainwater on it all.
            After most of an hour, the forest ended at the edge of the meadows that roll along the ridgetop for another half mile to the “islands”. These are two knobs emerging one after the other from this open meadow. Each is crowned with its own little patch of trees, the second being at the end of the ridge we had been following. Beyond it the hillsides drop away for hundreds of feet, descending to the ocean only a few miles further on, which would be plainly visible on any clear day.
            But not today. When we started across the meadow for the islands, the storm was reaching a peak. Now the colors were the white of the sheets and clouds of rain stampeding across the green of the soaked grass pushed by the wind in rushing waves like seaweed in the surf. The radio had reported southerly gusts to 60, and on the unprotected ridgetop the rain stung my left cheek and ear like shot. Traveller turned right and wouldn’t go forwards, something I’ve never seen him do, and I’ve had him in hailstorms more than once. Even when I got off and led him he angled his body to the right and moved crabways.
            In the lee of the huge, tortured old redwood at the top of the further island he was glad to turn his butt to the gale and tear the rich spring grass as vigorously as he knows how. The wind was so high it was making me dizzy. Despite GoreTex from chin to toe I felt cold and damp, but going back across the meadow the wind was from slightly behind us and not so punishing. Below, on the upwind side of the ridge, a hunting bird tipped and slid, evidently able to maintain enough control to justify the effort.
            Back inside the forest, we recrossed a downed tree that lay across the way. This time as we stepped over the log, here more than a foot in diameter, I glanced towards the big end looking for the root clump and hole, but there were only other trees. I went on, gradually realizing that there was a puzzle here, and stopped and looked back, then up, 30 feet up – and saw, at the top of a limbless, crownless treetrunk standing beside the road, two yards of  white, naked, jagged wood.

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            In my first years on horseback I once went on a ride with the local Tennessee Walker club. They each carried a fencing tool like a Sikh carries a dagger, ritually, but I thought the reason behind it was probably pretty good so I went out and got one myself. But now I find it just won’t work with my new saddlebags. No matter how I arrange it, it rubs bare a spot in Traveller’s coat. So I tested a Leatherman tool, one with gears on the pliers/cutter jaws, and it works fine on the big strand that runs along top and bottom of square wire fencing. It won’t work on chain link, which the fencing tool will, but it’s about a quarter the weight and a fifth the size, and doesn’t rub a patch off his flank, so I’ll have to take it as it comes. That fencing tool has gotten me into a number of places and out of a few, and let me clear some downed fence wire I wanted my horse to cross. But when I’ve wanted to get through chain link fences bad enough to spend ten or 15 finger-blistering minutes at it, it’s been because I planned to use the route again, so I guess I can make a special trip to bring a tougher cutter to the task.

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            Glenn Vernam, in Man on Horseback, quotes from The Regulations and Establishment of the Houshold of Algernon Percy, Fifth Earl of Northumberland, 1512, an accounting of his stables:

            This is the ordre of the chequir roul of the nombre of all the horsys of my lordis and my ladys, that are apoynted to be in the charge of the hors yerely, as to say: gentill hors, palfreys, hobys, naggis, cloth-sek hors, male-hors. First, gentill hors to stand in my lordis stable, six. Palfreys of my ladys, to wit, one for my lady and two for her gentill-women, and oone for her chamberer. Four hobys and naggis for my lordis oone saddle, viz, oone for my lordis to ride, oone to lede for my lorde, and oone to stay at home for my lorde. Item, chariott hors to stand in my lordis stable yerely. Seven great trottynge hors to draw in the chariott, and a nag for the chariott man to ride, eight. Hors for Lord Percy to travel in winter. A great doble trottynge hors, called a curtal, for his lordship to ride on out of townes. Another trottynge gambaldynge hors for his lordship to ride upon when he comes into townes. An amblynge hors for his lordship to journey on dayly. A proper amblynge little nagg for his lordship when he gaeth on hunting or hawking. A great amblynge gelding, or trotting gelding, to carry his male.

            Vernam defines these types as follows: “Gentill, a superior, better-bred animal. Palfrey, an easy-gaited, gentle and pleasant-mannered horse. Hobys and naggs, small, strong, active descendants of native wild Irish ponies. Cloth-sek, a male horse that carried the rider’s cloth-bag or personal baggage. Great double trottynge, a big, awkward beast too unwieldy to gallop. Gambaldynge, a showy parade animal. Curtal, a horse whose tail had been docked.”
            In my case his lordship journeys several times a week (if not dayly as he would wish) on his amblynge hors Traveller, a proper amblynge little nagg indeed.

A few pictures at February 2008 slideshow.