|Four gaiteds and three walk-trots make a happy bunch. I love this picture.|
Harley and I started out at the back of the group. Initially, he wants to flatten and rush off from his early days. He does not trot off without the "okay" from me, but he does have temporary, selective amnesia for balance and softness at first. We had the newest rider in front of us, and I did not want to give her horse any reason to run off without notice, so I kept Harley at a distance. The barn owner behind me was happy with this, as he values keeping a horse soft and not letting them speed up just because the horse ahead speeds up. A good trail horse should always wait for his rider's cue!
After a couple yucky trot starts, Harley remembered that he is a dressage horse now. He started engaging his tummy and lifting the front of the saddle in trot. Thank goodness. I watch the front of the saddle (probably too much) and when he flattens and rushes, the pommel drops down toward his withers. This drives me crazy, as I am very sensitive to saddle issues since our long journey to find a well-fitting saddle. (That is a memoir in the making!) When he moves properly, the saddle sits up more and actually fits him better. My teacher taught me to look for these things. She is always finding ways to encourage him to move in a level frame, since he is built somewhat downhill, and has a freight train of a hind end. We want him to use that power to lift himself up, not drive his front end into the ground, which is not a fun way to ride!
It is always a little unnerving to navigate at speed around trees. You only have to brush your knee against a tree once to appreciate that they are stationary objects. Trees do not move out of the way! Several of the horses on the trail ride were gaited, so they can flat walk or move at a faster ambling gait. They can glide between the trees with ease. "Walk-trot" horses, like Harley, must adopt a ridiculously huge walking stride or trot to keep up. Usually we trot, but this presents its own problems. Harley's trot covers much more ground than the fox trot, single-foot, pace, or running walk that the gaiters might adopt. So we have a couple options:
1) Walk until there is a large gap, then trot up with a nice tempo and speed. Please carry yourself!
2) Trot slowly behind the gaiters. Still carry yourself!
We usually alternate between the two, as I find that he gets upset if he has to collect his trot for long periods of time. That is tiring! He will not do a western-type job, despite his breeding, so instead he must coil his muscles and move in a lovely little collected trot. It feels amazing and is very easy to sit. Sometimes he leans in the bridle, but not always. He seems to know that we have to go slow right now and since engaging his muscles is in his tool box, he uses it. Owners of well-bred dressage horses can make smug faces at me here if they want to (I cannot see you at your computer, anyway!), but I swear Harley has a piaffe in there. He just balls himself up and his back feels very supported. If the horse in front of us stops or slows, Harley can make his trot even smaller, reluctant to switch down a gear as that would be boring. I sit very lightly and in the middle, absorbing the motion by letting my hips swing. His neck comes up a lot and it is arched beautifully. On occasion he has been inspired into this position by fleeing deer. He really lifts his shoulders and dances in place. I can keep the dance going by making my seat lighter and telling him how awesome he is. Call it a glorified jig, if you want to, but I will take it just the same. That powerful hind end can pay in spades when he decides to use it in a positive way and he does not possess the large, heavy shoulders typical of quarter horses. I think a piaffe is possible. Especially if he gets the idea going himself.
Half way through, I was given the option to lead. Sweet! I gave the word that we were going to trot, which meant the other horses would be cantering, and off we went. Harley's stride felt huge! He was ready after all that little trot and being patient. The barn owner behind me cantered his horse up next to us. It was so neat to see another horse exactly next to us and even neater that Harley's trot was powerful enough to match the canter. Harley felt a determination in him,
"This horse is not passing me. I can push in my trot!"
A hawk flew up from the brush beside us, but I missed it. I just heard the rustle and wind and "ooh and ahh" from the riders behind us. Harley was unimpressed as he concentrated on his own wings. Good Boy. We also crossed paths with dirt bikes and four-wheelers twice. None of the horses seemed to mind the surprises, natural or gas-powered. We have an exceptional group of trail horses!
We did canter for a tiny bit, but if I let him canter like he wants to on the trail, we will leave the group behind and that would be foolhardy; I do not want to be responsible for creating a stampede. The other horses were certainly in control, I just feel that it is bad etiquette to let your horse zoom along unless it has been agreed upon ahead of time and we did have one somewhat beginner with us. I have let Harley move out in canter before and there is usually at least one horse that runs himself ragged trying to keep up. The quarter horse is built for speed. A woman who knew Harley with his former owner told me that she raced her thoroughbred against him once (What was Harley up to in those days???). She did not say who won, which kind of makes me think it was Harley. ;)
When we got back to the barn, there were grills heating up and covered dishes brought to share. What a great end of summer celebration!
I took Harley in the ring and let him do his boldest trot and canter to flush any lactic acid from his muscles. Ironically, I find that a trail ride often leaves him feeling a little bottled up even though it is supposed to be a chance to free the horses' legs and minds. Unfortunately, there are not too many long, clear areas where we can really move out. The dirt bikes have dug too many channels in the ground and the brush is so low that we have to duck below branches and such very often. I am not about to gallop down a trail of low brush! Last year, we went to the Turkey Trot at the Horse Park of New Jersey and they had some of the cross country fields incorporated in the ride. I saw the open space and gave Harley the "go ahead". He laid down some effortless, ground-eating canter. My horse felt smooth as glass as I leaned over his mane like Alec and The Black. Free at last!