November horsenews – peace and quiet

(For pictures, go to November 2007 slideshow (best with F11 fullscreen))

            I’ve been pushing about two and a half hours’ trailering out, which is about the limit of what I can stand. To the north, this puts me on either side of the Colusa Basin drainage canal, around the border between Yolo and Colusa counties.
            The west side of the levee and canal is gratifyingly isolated from population centers. Its rice paddies, fallow now with fall and winter, and duck ponds (sometimes one and the same), are accessible by badly-maintained roads and exude only muted hostility to trespassers. I’ve had some rides here that are as good as it gets – following a heavily-racked stag down a grassy track between ponds and tree-lined waterway, watching a doe bound away through flooded rice paddies in a train of expanding circles in the water, as if a giant had a skipped a stone as wide as my outstretched arms.
           
The east side of the canal, the Colusa Basin itself, is monotonously flat, cultivated in uniform rectangles delimited with ditches, some given over to hunters this time of year. Within half an hour of setting out on a foggy morning, the peace and quiet stopped me in my tracks. I dismounted and just stood around while Traveller cropped the new green grass.
           
That day I miscalculated sunset by an hour. When my error finally dawned on me it was mid-afternoon, and to complete my loop inside of the 30-45 min. margin of error I allow myself when I start my arc back, I had to push the pace. We were crossing the flooded ponds of the basin as the sun was setting. Birds were little silhouettes on the sheets of blues, purples and scarlets, darker and more metallic transmutations of the colors of the twilight sky. We hit the truck one minute before official sunset.
           
A few hundred yards from the truck, gaiting at a purposeful clip, a hoof broke through the track where a gopher tunnel had channeled water between the pond on the left and the ditch on the right, and Traveller clapped right down on his side, my lower leg underneath. A horse’s side is pretty soft, actually, and I was able to get the feel of it, his weight, his ribs, while he gathered his wits. When he clambered back to his feet, my calf and ankle were sore, but nothing worse.
           
I like the horse injuries I’ve had. The very first one was a cut on my palm from slicing an apple to divide between two horses – stupid, but I was surprised by the little thrill I got when I realized I could at least technically describe it to the doctor as a horse injury. Bruises and sprains are nice horse injuries. In the most anti-horse places – office hallways, supermarkets – they remind you of your riding. When you are surprised to feel the ache or pull, getting out of a chair or stepping into the shower, you feel for a moment the horse and the movement again. You become again for that moment a whole organism, a body defined in relation to air, earth and living flesh, before you fade back into a consciousness among symbols.

+   +   +

            The second best horse book I have ever read is Tschiffely’s Ride: Ten Thousand Miles in the Saddle from Southern Cross to Pole Star (Buenos Aires to New York, actually). Tschiffely, a Scottsman, set out in 1929, and took two and a half years to make the trip. (At 20 miles per day, this would be 500 days of riding, and he did lay up frequently). The book is dedicated to his two horses, Mancha and Gato, whose portrait is the frontispiece; he rode one and packed on one and alternated daily. Tschiffely brags that neither horse got was sored from their saddles throughout the entire journey – actually he frequently uses the word “journey” in its French sense, as a day’s travel. He explains the gaucho word “amadrinado”, the strong bond of friendship between horse and rider that comes from living together in the open for some time; when he had reached this relationship with them, early in the ride, he never tied them at night, turning them loose outside of some lonely hut, and they would nicker a greeting when he emerged in the morning. Mancha, the one with more brio, was not rideable by anyone else, and Tschiffely rather proudly recounts how Mancha flailed a hoof at an overfamiliar Will Rogers later on in the US.
           
I once asked the RideCamp endurance list how they steered their horses while tailing, and nobody really had an answer; basically there would only be one way to go and they counted on the horse to follow it. Tschiffely got a lot of practice with steep climbs in a thousand miles of the Andes, and his method was to steer by pulling the tail left or right as desired.
           
Latin America before the war was another world. He describes being cured by a medicine man; and his accounts of the brutality of officials towards Indians and that imposed on horses in bullrings is hard to take. Crossing 100 waterless miles of Peruvian desert was a touch-and-go proposition, but his strategy worked. He barely survived quicksand, gaps in trails along mountain ledges, and swimming across quite a few rivers. Thinking back over his book, it seems like the odds were really against him coming through alive – despite a 12-gauge and a Winchester .44 strapped to the top of the packsaddle for ready access, a .45 revolver at his waist and a .44 revolver in the pack in case he ran out of ammo for the .45.
           
To my mind the best of the ride was the first part, through Bolivia, Peru, Ecuador and Colombia, a part of the world not too well known to Americans and Europeans at the time and fascinatingly exotic to us now. A ride like this would be the seminal event of a lifetime, and I think it was for Tschiffely.

+   +   +

            Jean finally recovered enough from her smashed ankle and Margareta recovered enough from her skin infections to start riding. Jean’s mood improved measureably.

+   +   +

            My DEET bottle leaked and dissolved the nylon stitching at the bottom of the new saddlebag.

+   +   +

            At Point Reyes the new loop trail from Muddy Hollow to Estero is complete and rideable, although certain barricades require temporary adjustment. It is pretty much contour, maybe 60% gaitable, and will make a very nice day club ride when it is officially opened, late summer 08. It takes you through a pretty isolated section of the coast, one direction along the lower hills and in the other direction right along where the land and water meet, the shores of several esteros and the tops of bluffs. You can see the Farralones when it’s not foggy.

+   +   +

            Equus had a piece about some Danish researchers who were bemoaning the asymmetric stress mounting and dismounting put on one side of horse, so I decided to try to mount and dismount half the time from the right. It’s amazing how long it takes to make it as unconsciously graceful as mounting from the other side. I’ve actually fallen on my back twice now. No bruises to relish, though.

(For pictures, go to November 2007 slideshow (best with F11 fullscreen))