May & June horsenews … too ugly for keep off signs … horsewomen of Santa Cruz … a pointless obstacle

            We took Traveller down with us to pick up Jean’s new horse, Cleopatra. Jorge Catenada met us to hand her off at Joy Redmond’s opulent spread west of Buellton (complete with regulation-length racetrack), in the fire zone east of Santa Barbara. Riding off the ranch consisted of smushing down a river bed of gravel like railroad ballast, so instead we loaded up and wound our way through the little mountains east into the Central Valley to do some gaiting.
            Bakersfield is like Arizona with a little more rain – they trash the landscape like they hate it, and the developers run wild. The subdivisions are gargantuan. I saw some that I believe were a mile square, stonework entrances midway on one side with embedded names embodying the misbegotten fantasies of jumped-up contractors: Hillcrest, Rivendell, Windsor Estates. Two miles away, along Taft highway just before it crosses the freeway, we rode along the fields behind the closest thing to a shanty town I’ve ever seen in the US, plywood and corrugated tin shacks crammed together with with tarp-roofed trailers. The little brown face in the picture is blurry because my middle-class inhibitions wouldn’t let me pull up Traveller to steady the camera.
            The landscape outside of town is not attractive enough to require keep off signs. Although there are plenty of paddocked horses to be seen, in a 25-mile loop we crossed only one line of hoofprints. The soil is very fine silt. For the horseman, it exists in three phases. If it has dried undisturbed since the rains, it packs like sandstone, as dense and hard as any pavement, too hard to gait on if you worry about your horse’s joints and tendons. If it has been plowed or otherwise chewed up, it turns into a deep, powdery, nearly liquid dust, the going too heavy to be much fun. If however a hard surface has gained a layer of powder, by having been ridden, tractored, scuffed or drifted over, it is perfect footing for gaiting, although very dusty. My biggest complaint is that in the city the canals are shut off with maintained chain link fences and gates.
            The Kern River Parkway in Bakersfield does offer a miles-long set of trails with good enough footing. The overall impression given is of dust, thistles, chain link, overcrossings, equipment yards and oil wells.

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            Jean and I, with Margareta and Traveller, went down to the Santa Cruz County Horsemen’s Association show. These people are some enthusiastic riders. There’s one group consisting of women of a certain age who have been riding, mostly trail, for many years and who are very good. Their experience also shows up in their dress, unobtrusively functional and subtly coordinated. It is only because I live with a horsewoman that a man such as I is aware at all of the calculation. The one who ribboned in the barrel race bareback with a rope halter proved the excellence of their horsewomanship.
            The other class of enthusiasts were the girls, pre- or barely-pubescent, riding horses ranging from well-bred, good-looking and ill-behaved to a midgety Shetland that when pointed in the right direction ran like hell and a misshapen albino that performed quite properly bareback; all fervently cheered by excited moms.
            The showgrounds connect to Henry Cowell park, and after scoring a couple of last places Traveller and I took a long loop down to the San Lorenzo river. The trail crosses the water in a couple of places. We were way past the last hikers I had seen, and at the second ford the trail was getting vague. I had a hell of a time picking it up on the other side, and ended up tying Traveller on the bank and wading up and down the rocky riverbed until I found it again. Around the bend at the next beach I apologized to the young couple in case my swearing had disturbed them.

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            One of our last places was in the trail class. Trail classes at shows and trail trials always include activities that are not of much use when actually trying to get around the countryside, maneuvers like sidepassing up to a mailbox, picking yellow rubber raincoats out of trees and putting them on, sidepassing along cavelettis and, my least favorite but nearly universal obstacle, going through a gate (in real life I just get off to open gates, not that it happens very often – most of the world’s gates open into cul-de-sacs). The Santa Cruz trail class was even less realistic, offering primarly cavelettis to walk, gait, canter or back over, kind of blue collar dressage.
            So here’s an obstacle for you. Towards the end of a long ride, on a warm day still getting warmer, going down one side of a canal, half a mile beyond the last place you could cross to the other side, the canal hits a road. The track on the other side of the canal opens freely onto the road. But the track on your side is blocked by a cable strung between two steel posts, one on each edge of the track, high enough off the ground to make stepping or jumping over a dangerously iffy proposition. The water side post is too close to the steep bank of the canal to get around. On the land side, the cable goes through the other post to the barbed-wire fence of the property adjacent to the canal. This fence runs all the way back beyond the previous crossing.
            Between the post and fence there is a ditch, V- or U-shaped, about three feet deep. If you can stand on the side of the ditch and reach out over the lowest spot in the center of the ditch and hold up the cable, it will give you somewhat more than five feet to get your horse under, once you’ve kicked the debris at the bottom out of the way. The saddle probably won’t snag, assuming you can get him to go right down the bottom of the ditch, and assuming you don’t have a western saddle with a horn.
            But wait – there’s more! From a fir tree on the other side of the barbed-wire fence, a thick, twiggy, needle-covered branch grows out across the ditch at a level lower than the peak of the inverted V the cable will assume when you hold it as high as you can. If the horse lowers its head it can brush under the branch, although the saddle will surely catch on it. Fir limbs, however, are flexible enough that if willing, the horse should be able to forge through.
            You will need one hand to show the horse what you want it to do by drawing on the lead rope while speaking encouragingly, and the other to hold up the cable, so it is up to the horse to go straight down the bottom of the ditch and push under and through the limb. If the two of you have come many a mile over many a year and have cooperated to negotiate many an obstacle, in this way you will both save the irksome one mile round trip to reach the point that here is just a few feet away. You will not, however, get any points whatsoever in any trail class you’ll ever attend.

Pictures: May-June slideshow.