I really wanted to ride my horse yesterday. The thermometer read 98 degrees Fahrenheit, so we certainly could not "work", but we could still enjoy each other's company. Sometimes, I just need to be in the saddle.
As I walked past the riding ring, the sand was glowing white from the intense sun. The ring was a desert that I was not interested in crossing, and when I found my horse resting in the shade of the shed and trees, I decided that it would be foolish of me to make him walk in the sun, when he had enough sense to stay out of it on his own.
The forest was calling us, so we headed for the wooded trail. We stopped to open a gate, before leaving the farm. I love that my horse can work gates. Long before I had access to trails, I used to practice opening the gate to the arena from horseback. Horses seem to get a feeling for when something is practical rather that just practice. Working gates teaches patience and obedience. Harley knows his job around a gate. I can reposition him with very tiny nudges and he is usually pretty good about standing as I lean over to slide the latch or raise the rope. He is obliged to push the gate open with his nose.
We see our first group of deer almost as soon as we pass through the gate. They are always hanging around, so Harley barely flicks an ear as they make a half-hearted dash away from us. Our pace is very leisurely as we leave the woods and walk onto the sandy trail which parallels the power lines. Harley kicks up some sand as he walks, and the sediments create a rustling in the foliage neighboring our path. Birds fly up from the sand, ending their dust baths prematurely. I notice several indentations in the trail. A few weeks ago, the indentations were puddles teaming with tadpoles, but now they are dry sockets of cracked earth. I wonder if any of the tadpoles completed their metamorphosis before the sun baked their home.
As we continue, I think how nice it is to have a horse that will just walk, if that is all I want. My reins are loose, and Harley's head and neck telescope from side-to-side, like he is sending out radar and receiving signals. We do not usually go out alone, so I get the impression that he being extra vigilant. Another group of deer rise from their resting place and hop threw the woods. This time we cannot see them clearly through the brush, so Harley stops and targets them with his ears.
"Just deer, Boy. Come on."
He moves off and I hear the rustling of the sand against the foliage again. We reenter the woods on the right side of the trail. The air beneath the trees is much cooler, so Harley marches with more energy. We are surrounded by ferns, scrub oak and pine. I notice deep grooves in the trail ahead. Harley walks in the space between the four-wheeler tread marks and I silently despair. I wish we had these woods to ourselves.
After a short distance, the black flies find us, so we turn around and return to the sandy trail. This time we take the turn to the left, and, for whatever reason, the flies are not as noticeable. The trail is clear and level enough to trot. Harley is happy to move up a gear, so we explore an intersecting trail for a short distance, turn around and canter back. My sense of adventure awakens, so we walk deeper into the woods. No houses or fences are visible from our vantage point. We could have been in a book or movie, set in a time period when horses were the main source of transportation. I think to myself that we should do this more often, when I hear a distant rumble.
I am not sure the source of the sound, but I remember the tire tracks dug into the previous trail. Harley turns on his haunches, in what now seems to be a very narrow passage.
"Let's head home. Maybe we have had enough adventure."
My heart sinks when I realize that the rumble is getting louder and now includes a rattling whine. I urge Harley to walk faster, until the rumble is a roar so unsettling that I turn him perpendicular to the path and kick him off the trail. He steps up the small bank and we stand in the trees. I cannot tell where the sound is coming from until I see a cloud of dust and exhaust speeding up the intersecting trail we had been trotting along only minutes earlier. The dust cloud is moving too quickly for a four-wheeler and the whine of the gear shifts is too high pitched. I try to send calm down my legs, as I tell Harley that we are safe off the trail. To my relief, the dirt bike turns away from us and tears down the path in the direction of the power lines.
My immediate instinct is that we need to get out of the woods. Harley backs onto the trail, but I stop him, because the bike has turned our trail into a dark tunnel with a haze of sand and fumes so thick that I cannot see down the path. What if the biker comes back the same way? We will be invisible and if he is traveling as fast as he was before, there will not be time to get out of the way. I feel fear creeping in, but I choke it back.
"Come on, Harley".
He starts to prance, sensing my urgency, but I coax him to walk. I want him as quiet as possible, so that I can hear and so that I can steer him off the trail at a moment's notice. The haze clears and so we walk faster. Then, there is the sound again. It is so difficult to tell where the sound is coming from. Is a second biker behind us?
We march on until the resonating whine returns and I kick him back off the trail. I am suddenly taken by how thick the woods are. I do most of my trail riding in the fall and winter, when the foliage is dwindling or gone, so you can see for quite a distance, but now I feel almost trapped. If my horse darts forward there is little space between the trees to guide him, without knocking a knee or risking a branch in the face. Of course, either of these is preferred to meeting a motor bike head on. It is amazing how quickly one can weigh the options, when danger approaches.
Fortunately, it is the same bike returning down the power lines, but he passes our trail and continues straight ahead, away from our home and away from us. I see our chance, so we back up again and hurry to the clearing. Once in the sunlight, I breathe a sigh of relief. At least we are visible now, and the sandy path is much wider than the wooded trail. Harley walks on a loose rein. With both reins together, I rest my hand down on his withers, like a western rider resting on the horn of the saddle. I hear him blow through his nose and the familiar rustle of the sand in the foliage returns. A toad casually hops away from Harley's feet. The foreboding rumble is gone.
When we make it back to the farm, I again find myself appreciating my horse. He is sensitive and responsive, but also sensible. Despite the apprehension that he must have been feeling from me, he hopped on and off the trail at my request, and stood motionless in the trees, with his ears rotated back to me, while we waited for the monster. He felt so steady, that I do not think that he would have jumped forward, even if the bike had passed behind us. I patted his neck, more to reassure myself than him.
"I am lucky to have you, Boy."
Whispers in the leaves greeted us as we marched towards the gate.
Two deer were curled up on the ground, less than ten feet away. I did not see the shining, black eyes and raised ears until we were right next to them. Harley ignored their hissing. His ears were on the gate. But the deer knew that I had seen them, and I did not smell like a fellow herbivore. The deer leaped from their resting place, and for a moment, Harley felt their excitement. He bounded into the trot, as I slid up the reins and stroked his neck.
"Just deer, Boy. It's okay."