By the pause on the other end of the phone line, I figured Julie Goodnight was trying to think of a polite way to ask me if I was crazy.
I had called the clinician and horse trainer to discuss how I could cover her May clinic in Granby, Colo., in the most unobtrusive way possible, and she had asked if I was going to bring a horse, because she knew I had been forced to take most of the last year off from riding while undergoing treatment for breast cancer.
“Oh, yes,” I told her, all bubbly with enthusiasm, “I was cleared to start riding again last month, so I’m going to bring Freddie. Matter of fact, he and I are going to a trail riding competition this weekend!”
“Has Freddie ever been on a trail ride?” Julie then gently asked.
“Um….yes,” I said, wondering if the handful of trips we had made last year down the road to the nearby dairy and back counted as a trail ride.
And then I hung up the phone and thought, “Your horse is a 4-year-old, and you’ve been in the saddle a total of about five times this year. What are you doing?!”
I blamed Keith.
Keith Jacobson is a horseman, writer and farrier who generally has really good ideas, so when he calls or emails, I pay attention. And when Keith emailed me a link three days before an upcoming trail-riding competition hosted by members of the American Competitive Trail Horse Association, or ACTHA, and said, “I’ve never done one of these, but my clients say they’re a hoot. Wanna go?” I forwarded it to my husband and said, “Let’s do it!” because I figure why have horses if you’re not willing to have a hoot with them?
I had heard great things about these competitive trail rides–that they are really well organized (it was) and that everyone is very friendly and encouraging (they were). There are different divisions with varying degrees of difficulty, so we signed up for the one called “Scout” because we didn’t see a “Scout Jr.” or “First-Time-and-Clueless” category.
What better way to break in that new saddle and new resolve, I thought, than put them through a three-hour trail ride with some fun obstacles along the way?
I didn’t take into account the obstacles in my head, which resulted in me shoulding myself:
#1: “I shoulda gotten up earlier and ridden Freddie to take the edge off,” I thought while eyeing the dozens of horses, owners and accompanying cheerful chaos as Keith, hubby and I and our three geldings pulled into the parking lot of the event, held at Parelli instructor Teri Sprague‘s ranch in Berthoud, Colo.
At Keith’s suggestion, we wisely left “the boys” in the trailer for safety’s sake while we checked in, which led to:
#2: “I shoulda brushed up on the ‘how to open a gate’ section of Goodnight’s Guide to Great Trail Riding yesterday,” I thought after I saw the description for obstacle #6, “Rickety Gate.” And,
#3: “I shoulda worked on our sidepassing yesterday instead of spending most of my horse time grooming the two pregnant mares,” I thought after realizing that obstacle #1, “Pony Express,” called for that skill.
After hearing Teri tell the crowd, “Riders who fall off their horse will be disqualified,” I wondered if that would be me. Then I wondered if I should have passed on this competition and tried one later, like next year. And suddenly there was no more time for second thoughts because we needed to mount up and head to the start, our obstacle lists tucked into our pockets and my stomach full of butterflies.
“So has Larry (Fleming, our trainer) been riding Fred and Yukon a lot lately?” Keith asked as we waited to leave at our designated time, 10:15 a.m. “Because they sure are standing still nicely.”
“Actually, no, they haven’t really been ridden all winter,” I said, and the geldings soon both reinforced that statement by starting to jig and keeping it up for pretty much the rest of the trail.
Obstacle #1: Pony Express
For our “scout” division (a nice way of saying “newbie”) we learned they would hand us a “letter” as we left the trail, and then we had 45 seconds to trot to a nearby cone and then sidepass over to a mailbox, put our letter inside and raise or lower the mailbox flag.
At the briefing, Teri Sprague told everyone that we would be judged on the following:
- Balanced ride
- Proper use of aids
- Proper use of hands. Snaffle (bit) –2 hands O.K., shank (bit)–ONE HAND
- Within timeframe
- For the horse, looking for
After watching the rider ahead of me flunk the Pony Express obstacle because she ran out of time, I gave Freddie a little more cue to trot than I meant to when it was our turn. As a result we didn’t so much finesse it as ZOOM to the cone and ZOOM sideways to the mailbox, which he overshot but I was still able to reach because I have really long arms. I popped the letter in and we zoomed away before they called “time.” First one done!
Hubby Matt and Keith accomplished theirs with aplomb, and we all cheered each other on.
Obstacle #2: Rock Scramble
We had 30 seconds to descend a very rocky section of trail. Again, slowing Fred down was a challenge, and in one very scary part he slid. Thankfully, 30 seconds goes by quickly. I don’t remember watching Matt or Keith on that one because I was busy fishing my heart out of my mouth afterward.
Obstacle #3: Slither
We had 60 seconds to ride at a walk over a scattering of fallen trees from Point C to Point D (which was a diagonal). I watched Keith and Cody calmly pick their way and made a mental note to follow their path. Which we didn’t. Freddie did really well until we came to a very thick log, where he hesitated, asking, “Really?” and my legs said, “Yes,” so in the next moment Freddie simply leaped over the log from a standstill, which I’m pretty sure violated the criteria of “walk.”
He then made up for it by bravely marching all the way to the scary-looking “D” on a round, white plate that was in the opposite direction of his horse friends.
Obstacle #4: Topsy Turvy
This one gave Scout riders 30 seconds to trot to a stump (avoiding a short log) and stop so that the belly of the horse was next to the stump, and then rotate your horse’s hindquarters over the stump. Uh huh.
Freddie actually did this perfectly in the parking lot just before the we started, but at this point in the ride, he decided he wanted nothing to do with rotating around that stump, No Way, especially since Yukon was already done and waiting. So Freddie threw a small tantrum here, and I decided to bag this one, all the while making a mental note that we would be doing some schooling on this later! Yes, we would! Just not with 30 seconds on the clock and other riders waiting for us to move on.
Obstacle #5: Meeker View
You had 45 seconds to ride into a box, stop, drop the reins, turn left and then right as if taking a picture, dismount and then walk your horse out of the box.
Keith actually pulled his iPhone out of his pocket on this one and took real pictures instead of just pretending, like the rest of us did, for which we all good-naturedly heckled him for showboating.
Freddie did fine when I dropped the reins and twisted in each direction, but when I faced front again he decided it was time to leave the box. I stopped him and dismounted, and I think I actually said the word “criminy!” as I did so, because my last surgery was three months ago and there are places that still hurt.
I don’t think they give you points for saying “criminy” as you dismount. Afterward, Freddie and I rode to the edge of the cliff where we enjoyed a breathtaking view of Longs Peak and Mount Meeker.
And then we were on the last, and toughest, obstacle.
Obstacle #6: Rickety Gate
Here we encountered a pole laying across two barrels. We were to pick up the pole by its attached rope and push it outward, simulating a gate, and ride our horse through, then rotate the hindquarters and replace the “gate” (pole) by sidepassing.
In a demonstration of how solid Yukon is, Matt accidentally dropped the pole during his “run,” yet somehow managed to catch it with his other hand–right next to Yukon’s face. The brave gelding didn’t flinch. We all shouted and laughed, Matt was able to replace the pole and the two finished their round to much applause.
Then it was my turn, and this was the one I had been dreading the most.
Freddie and I moved forward and the clock started. I grabbed the pole and nudged him between the two barrels, and we ended up on the other side with the pole waaaay up in the air and both of us far away from the barrel with time running out. Somehow I backed him and then nudged him in the side, thinking, “Please sidepass?” and lo, he did. I managed to drop the pole on the barrel and we rode away under deadline. So happy!
The entire trail ride took 2 1/2 hours (although riders are not timed for the overall ride, just each of the obstacles). I met lots of other riders of various ages and stages of training, from the calm, 69-year-old veteran (who had won 4th place before!) to the exasperated 30-something-year-old who kept muttering, “Gonna slap a for-sale sign on you!” to her horse every time he was naughty, which was often.
To top off the day, Matt and Yukon took 5th place in our “Scout” division, and Keith got 6th.
As for me and Freddie, I was happy we made it through with no major mishaps; while he eyed a few things suspiciously, he didn’t spook once, despite a litany of new sights and sounds. We learned to trust each other a little more, which built up confidence in both of us. I realized I had been holding my breath about whether I would be able to ride again, really ride, not just within the safely of the arena but out on the rugged mountain trails that my husband and I love. This ride helped me exhale in a mixture of relief and gratitude.
I’m already planning the next one.