My last goal for the season for Sunny and I was to ride in a large scale horse event, where we’d have to ride with lots of horses we didn’t know and demonstrate patience, tolerance, and good trail manners. I was also looking for a venue where the other horse owners had a stake in keeping their horses in line, too, just so we’d have a lessened chance of having to deal with the “Yaaaahoo!” sorts of riders. I had considered a NATRC ride for this, but I decided Sunny and I weren’t in physical shape for one of those, particularly a late season ride. So, when the Santa Cruz County Horsemen’s Association decided to put on their very first Trail Trial, I was all over it. It was to be Sunny’s Debut Ride.
A trail trial is a ride where there is a route with a number of obstacles on it, 12 on this ride, and you are judged on if and how you and your horse deal with them. The obstacles range from exotic animals to “suburban obstacles”, such as birthday parties, and trail obstacles, like logs and bridges. The obstacles can also be tasks, such as dragging an object. Unlike NATRC, you are only judged at the obstacles, and there is no set pace for the ride.
Your performance is judged at each obstacle. There are some “general horsemanship” rules to follow: check your girth before attempting an obstacle, never loop a rope around your hand, etc, which are described in Trail Trials rule book. At each obstacle, the judge tells you the specific rules for that obstacle: “keeping the white flags on your right, follow the flags around, stepping over all logs in the path, stopping at the intersection with the trail” or “walk to the first paint bucket, then trot to the second bucket and stop. Count out loud to 5, then walk off.” The judge then evaluates your performance based on the general horsemanship rules and the extent to which you followed the directions for that obstacle.
After talking with experienced NATRC riders (thanks Susan, Jamie and Diane!), I decided not to try to rope one of our riding partners into coming along with us – it was time for us to do something alone. Also, I signed up for the last time slot of the day. My thinking was that (a) we might take a lot of time going through the obstacles, so it was the polite thing to do, (b) it would be easier on Sunny if we didn’t have horses on our tails and (c) if it all got to be too much, we could just turn around and go back without having to pass a bunch of riders on the singletrack trails in Cowell. My intent was to compete only in the sense that I hoped we’d complete the whole ride and we’d try as many obstacles as we could, but my concerns were behavioral, not technical.
So. The day came. The event started at the SCCHA Showgrounds then went over to Henry Cowell State Park. As I said, I had signed us up for the last group. Jim and Jennifer, friends of friends, had also, unbeknowst to me, signed up for that group. Jennifer is an experienced horsewoman, riding a delightful mare, Expression. Jim is a relatively new rider and rides Montana, an Arab gelding on the remarkably exuberant end of the energy scale, and on the Drama King end of the emotional scale. Jim and Montana really enjoy one another, but I’d heard enough Montana stories to be concerned. So I pulled up my socks, reconciled myself to a little bit of madness, promised Sunny that we’d turn around if it got too crazy, and met Jim and Jennifer at the first obstacle.
Sheesh! The very first fookin’ obstacle was to walk by, within 6 feet, of a pen with two alpacas in it! Montana and Expression both got by the alpacas stylishly, but the first time Sunny noticed them, she went rigid as an I-beam. We fooled around for about 30 seconds to get within 10 yards of the pen, when I figured it wasn’t going to get better soon, so I hopped off and we handwalked (after several tries) by. You’re supposed to do all the obstacles mounted unless instructed otherwise, but it seemed stupid to stay aboard and start out badly. Fortunately, there was about a 20 minute wait before the next obstacle, which was about 20 yards away, so we got to practice, and by the time we went on, we could do the obstacle mounted. Ha!
Note: the judges at all but one of the obstacles were wonderfully supportive. When there was time, they let us practice, and were always positive about our efforts.
The next obstacle was a gate, which you are supposed to open and close, keeping hold of it with your right hand throughout. We didn’t. We got the gate opened and closed, but it wasn’t pretty. That said, I was pleased – I didn’t fall off and we got the job done.
This obstacle set the pattern for how we did all the obstacles. Jennifer led and was the first one to try the obstacles, followed by Montana, then Sunny and I. Jennifer would wait for Jim, and they’d both wait for Sunny and me. Most of the trail obstacles were on little side trails, so while one horse was executing, the other horses lost sight of him/her. Montana is really buddied up with Expression, so this really bothered him, and the pressure built up over time. By the third obstacle he was jigging, by the 8th one he was bouncing, striking and bucking. Sunny seemed unfazed by it. Precious horse.
The third obstacle was to step over some logs, a no-brainer, except this was the first time Montana lost sight of Expression and we got a hint of things to come.
It was about a half mile to the next obstacle. The “group” in front of us were two beautiful and large dressage horses. They were in superb shape and the young women riding them looked really competent, but it was the *first* time the horses had ever been on a trail. We had watched them do the alpacas and gate and it was pretty wild, so were were not surprised when they were pulled off the trail to let us pass. The erosion had made a half-pipe, like the skateboarders use, in the trail, which the horses had to walk through, then step over a place where the entire trail was eroded out. And the trail was on a sidehill, so there was a wall to the right and a drop to the left. This part of the ride leads me to conclude that an obstacle *does* exist, even if it’s unjudged. Anyway.
Jennifer led the way. None of our horses had a problem with the half-pipe, but Expression took a mightly leap over the hole in the trail, and bolted for aobut three strides. When Jennifer got her stopped, Montana sort of hopped over the hole and hunkered in by Expression. Sunny thought it through and stepped over the hole and walked up to Montana and stopped.
We waited for the dressage horses after Jennifer suggested that they might need a backstop. Actually, they were quite reasonable about it, but as they came into sight, Montana decided he wanted to head for home. His first move was to try to climb the wall to the right. He kept slipping down, so he gave that up and started one of those “speed backing” maneuvers, right into Sunny and me. I yelled at the dressage riders and started backing, too, to get out of the way. Jim got Montana settled l just as we were going to find out if Sunny and I could push 2000 pounds of sissy dressage horse uphill. We coulda done it.
Then we went on. The trail was good, but the dressage horses were puffing like steam engines behind us. And Expression and Montana walk faster than Sunny, so she had to trot maybe 100 yards out of every 400 yards – probably good for her, but it was hot. Also, it couldn’t have been calming for Montana to have some horse trotting up on him every couple of minutes – but they couldn’t slow down and the dressage horses woudn’t pass us, so we made the best of a bad situation.
There was (no kidding) a 35 minute wait at the next obstacle, which actually worked to our advantage, I think. The dressage people announced they were done with obtacles and they went around us, removing pressure from the rear. There was a little bit of green growth left on the trail edge and we eventually got to stand in the shade, so Sunny got to put her head down and at least look for food, so it was a good rest.
The obstacle was hard: you had to back your horse between two trees, then do a turn on the haunches and back out. This was off-trail, so there were branches and other debris around their feet. I figured Sunny had had enough learning for this hour, so I just rode her forward between the trees, stopped and backed her out, and we went on our way.
I think the next obstacle was walking into a redwood grove, picking up a *huge* stuffed animal from a stump, carrying it around the grove and replacing it on the stump. There was a woman in the group in front of us who knew EVERYTHING – we had a chance to listen to her during the long wait at the last obstacle – she was an endurance rider who didn’t really *need* to do this ride, but her husband’s horse needed the training, which she could do *easily* but HE should take responsibility . . . .
Anyhow, she got de-horsed trying to get the stuffed animal. Sunny and I did it no problem, as did Jennifer and Expression. And we moved on. As a side note, if I could have called down a helicopter to pick us up, I would have – I was SO pleased with how Sunny had done, I felt like we couldn’t stop at a better point. But I was wrong.
The next obstacles were pretty straightforward, except for the waiting. The main problem was that the obstacles were mostly on narrow offshoots from the main trail, so you had to go out-and-back. There would be 7 horses stopped on the singletrack, and you’d have to figure out how to let the horses by as they finished the obstacle. Montana was such an issue by about obstacle 8 that he really had no responsbilities – everyone just did their best to stay out of his way. Except for Jennifer, who was trying to do the right thing: she kept Expression across his line, at his head. One time when he struck, he got her stirrup. She was okay, but it was scary. Also, at this point, a group of 6, consisting of 2 adults, 2 teens, and 2 kids caught up with us and they were actively unpleasant. One of the adults and one of the kids shrieked at each other at least once at each obstacle until the end. They were lucky they survived. Actually, I could hear them yelling at the Showgrounds while I was loading Sunny to go home!
Anyhow, the obstacles I remember were (1) ride downhill safely, (2) trot between two points, stop, count to five and then proceed at a walk, (3) cross a bridge and stop on it, (4) dismount to a log, lead your horse around the log, remount, (5) lead your horse to a tie rack, and tie and test your quick release knot. Hmm. I’m missing several of them and it seems like there was another backing-up one. Maybe the rest of them will come to me.
The final one was Deb Cooper’s, a local trainer. She had a cowhide tied around a small pillow or something, so it looked like an octopus with a skirt instead of tentacles, connected to a lariat and the goal was to pull the hide between two markers. Sunny was completely calm watching the other horses do it, and we had practiced pulling a feed bag, so I was really confident – Ha! It’s the closest she’s come to dumping me in over a year, the hide totally freaked her out. I tried again and we were able to do it, but only by backing, and she was very concerned. Pride goeth before the fall.
Then we headed for the parking lot. Sunny knew where we were and was in a hurry to get to lunch, so she wanted badly to trot down the hill, so we had our first serious “rider chooses gait” battle. I won, sort of, I think.
The correct moment to be picked up by the helicopter came as we entered the Showgrounds. A woman was standing on the deck of the clubhouse, working the BBQ, and she started staring at us, then went into the clubhouse and came out holding another woman by the arm. She pointed at Sunny (I’m sure it was Sunny; I looked around and there were no other horses) and said, “Look at that gorgeous little sorrel mare!” It’s not just me that thinks that!
Oh yeah, when I took Sunny to the water tank, I met the endurance rider who’d been dumped. She couldn’t shut up about how Montana’s energy had wrecked her ride. Sheesh. I’ve been accurate about Montana’s behavior, but I have to say that Jim did a great job of working with what he had, staying aboard, keeping calm, and keeping his worries to himself. Jennifer did a good job of leading, too: she took responsibility for Jim and Montana, and I could see her looking back to make sure we were still hooked on and waited for us when we were too far off the back. This endurance rider should take equal responsibility for her performance. Although I must admit that I’d be kinder if she hadn’t been such a know-it-all! Note to self: act humble, even if you don’t feel it.
Anyhow, I was SO pleased with Sunny’s behavior: at all the obstacles, she just sort of stood and watched, then did what she could. If teaching her patience wasn’t high on my agenda at the moment, it would have been pretty frustrating, but, as it is, it was perfect. I am really looking forward to NATRC next Spring.
“To infinity and beyond!”