This is (yet another) long post, but I figured that I’d include as much detail as I could for people who might be interested in doing a trail trial – there are two more coming up in July and August. One of them is at Round Valley, which is the back side of Mt. Diablo, and the other is in Walnut Creek. Check the Trail Trials website for details.
On Saturday, 26 June, Sunny and I did the 2nd Annual Banana Slug Trail Trial, put on by the Santa Cruz County Horseman’s Association. We did the inaugural event last year (and blogged about it here ), but that was Sunny’s first time out in a large group of horses, so we mostly just survived. This time I was hoping we could do most of the obstacles in an organized fashion.
For those who don’t know, according to the CSHA Trail Trials (TT) group:
A “TT” consists of a ride with approximately 10-12 judged natural obstacles that appear along a trail of several miles in parks or private property. This is not an arena event!
It’s not timed, and people go out in groups on trails, in this case, in Henry Cowell State Park. The obstacles, usually ones that you might be expected to meet on a trail ride, are set up on the trail. As you approach them, you’re given a scenario description and specific instructions as to what to do. You’re judged not only on your ability to execute the task, but on your how well you support your horse through the obstacle. There are novice, intermediate and advanced groups, so you don’t have to compete with the Pros from Dover. Anyhow, I enjoyed it last year, even though we were really nervous, and we were looking forward to doing it this year.
Jim and Jennifer, whom we met by doing the ride with them last year, agreed that we should get the band back together, so Sunny and I were ready to go. We were assigned a start time 10:30 at the SCCHA Showgrounds. The first three obstacles were on the Showgrounds, then the route went out on the trails of Henry Cowell State Park.
Sunny and I got there about 9:40, about perfect timing: enough time to forget where I put everything, then remember where it was, and still get tacked up in time – but not enough time to wander around and get *really* nervous. So, about 10:20, we located Jim and Jennifer and their horses, Montana and Expression, and moseyed down to the large arena, the site of the first obstacle.
I think the best way to describe the ride is to just talk about the obstacles and what happene, so here goes.
Imagine our surprise when we were the third group scheduled to hit Obstacle 1 at 10:30. I know that the organizers scheduled groups at 15 minute intervals, and that no more than 4 horse/rider teams could leave the Showgrounds in any 5 minute period – so I think that they scheduled 12 riders per 15 minute period and the idea was that the riders would sort out the order in real time. It was the right thing to do – we ran into several groups of 6 or 7 people riding together, and this method allowed that – but it caused us some initial confusion.
It also doomed Sunny and I: among the mounts waiting to do the obstacle, there was a mule, and Sunny, who is usually not too interested in other horses, was riveted by her. I’ve heard that many horses are frightened by mules, but Sunny wasn’t frightened, she was love struck. I was on the ground when she saw the mule, and she went into high alert mode, pulling me toward her (the mule was a Molly). When she got close she lowered her head and sort of aimed it for the mule’s shoulder. The mule was tolerant, but clearly not as into it as Sunny was. I pulled Sunny away, but as soon as I would get distracted, she’d start sort of sidling back to the mule. Sunny just couldn’t take her eyes off the mule.
Anyhow, the mule completed the obstacle stylishly, then while her group was organizing to leave, Jennifer and Jim did the obstacle, which was opening the gate into the arena while mounted. When it was Sunny and my turn, the mule finally left. Sunny couldn’t stand it, she *had* to watch her go – there was no way I was going to get her to stand along side the gate and move *away* from her new found sister. After a short stretch of battling from the saddle, I got off and took her through the gate in hand.
I think it was the right thing to do for a couple of reasons: (1) Sunny was really distracted and it was a stupid place to have a battle and (2) I discovered that I did, in fact, have expectations of doing well, and they instantly disappeared since we had totally failed on an obstacle, so we could just ride.
Obstacle 2 was on a really narrow little singletrack at the back of the Showgrounds. We waited there for over 20 minutes – we couldn’t figure out what was taking so long. I killed the time talking to the people waiting behind us, who had come all the way from Marin. One of them had her horse in a rope halter, she said she only used a bit when she was doing “serious jumping”!
When it was finally our turn, the instructions were “There is a 300 foot drop to the left and stinging nettles to the right. Keep your horse between them and walk to the judge.” We did pretty well at staying on the trail, I think, which was only the first part of the task.
When we got to the judge, she instructed us to walk forward to the bottom of a little hill, then do a u-turn and go up this little zig zag chute defined by ribbons. It was about 4 feet wide, and about 15 feet long, with one bend in it. We had to walk to the end of the chute, then back out, staying within the ribbons in both directions. We did pretty well, but we got off track a little when we were backing up – I could tell because we ripped the ribbon out of its pins, which was what was taking so long: they had to reflag the course after almost every rider!
Obstacle 3 consisted of pens with with llamas and miniature horses in them. That caused Sunny consternation last year, but this year, after Cowgirl Camp and The Gauntlet, it was no problem.
After Obstacle 3, we left the Showgrounds and got onto the trails in Henry Cowell. Jim’s horse Montana and Jennifer’s mare, Expression, were both in a hurry, so Sunny and I volunteered to bring up the rear. This had the disadvantage of making Sunny always have to watch her buds leave just before we did the obstacle.
Actually, by the end of the ride, she had (a) seriously buddied up with Montana and Expression and (b) thought the obstacles were A Good Thing, since Expression and Montana consistently left her behind on the trail, but when they stopped to do an obstacle, she could catch up with them. This is not my imagination, I watched it happen: by the last half mile of the ride, when we were walking at 3.8 mph, very gradually losing ground on the other horses, Sunny’s heart rate got up to 197. When we got to the last obstacle and she caught up, it went down to 78 almost immediately
Back to the ride. We left on Emma’s Trail, which is a narrow singletrack that drops down, then switchbacks up a pretty steep hill, complete with a water crossing and handrails that you have to thread through.
Obstacle 4 was right at the top; all the horses were stopped on the singletrack well before the actual obstacle, so you couldn’t see what was being asked. When it was our turn, we were told to ride down the singletrack and the judge would tell us what to do next. At the end of the singletrack, where the judge was, there was a picnic table with two large coolers on it. The judge’s instructions were to ride to the table, side over and open the blue cooler, take a fortune cookie from it, read the fortune aloud, close the cooler and ride off.
We marched boldly up to the table, which was a good first step, but Sunny appeared to have lost all notion of lateral movement (and this stayed true throughout the day! Dang!), so in response to my efforts to get her to side to the table, she kept her nose pointed at the cooler and rotated around it – to the left when I put on right leg and to the right when I put on left leg.
I finally got her to pause for long enough to it to make a dive for the lid (yet another advantage of having a tiny horse), which I opened. We then rotated several more times until I saw my chance, and repeated the maneuver to pick up a cookie, which had no fortune in it. However, there was a sign on the inside of the cooler lid which said, “If your cookie doesn’t have a fortune in it, say ‘I’m riding the best horse in the world.’” So that’s what I did. Then we did our fly-by one more time and I closed the lid.
The judge was very kind; she said that Sunny had the makings of a great competitive horse, that she *never* refused anything I asked, and that she kept trying to figure out what I was trying to do.
Obstacle 5 was called Yellow Jackets. You had to park your horse between two cones. When the obstacle assistant yelled “Yellow Jackets!”, you had to put your horse into a trot as quickly as you could, then bring her to a stop between two more cones about 3o yards down the path. The scoring was based not only on how quickly you got going and stopped, but how easily you accomplished it, that is, using your seat to go and whoa. We did all right on this one. I think.
Obstacle 6 was after we hit the top of the hill and were on our way down. It was a “continuous downhill motion” obstacle. The trail is very sandy and really got hammered by the winter rains, which exposed a zillion roots running across and above the trail. Also, the park has installed 18″ high boards across it to act as mini-retaining walls. The instructions were to descend to the judge without stopping, then stop at the judge. The path was about 30 yards long and *ugly* – some of the drops were about 18″ straight down and Sunny’s just not that big, so she had to pick her path carefully to not lose her balance. We made it, though, although I don’t know how I rated on balance, and I think Sunny may have actually come to a stop a couple of times. In any case, we didn’t hurt ourselves, so we moved on to Obstacle 7.
Actually, we moved to the waiting area for Obstacle 7, where we caught up with Sunny’s love-mule again. The one-sided lovefest continued, with Sunny subtly jockeying to be close to her, and she was heartbroken when the mule left.
On this obstacle, you had to step over a log that had fallen during the winter, so it was sort of surrounded by, and buried in branches and duff, then walk your horse to the narrow end of a picnic table, which you had to dismount onto, then lead your horse around to the other end of the table and remount, again from the table.
I believe I mentioned before that Sunny had forgotten how to move laterally? Well, she still forgot. Also, I never dismount using the stirrup, I always do the emergency dismount (I figure I’ll never remember to do it when I’m scared unless it’s the only thing I do), so as she was sort of drifting by the table in the best position I thought she was going to get to, I tried to step off, but I forgot that I needed a foot in the stirrup, missed the table, and fell on the ground! Sheesh, how embarrassing! Anyhow, Sunny didn’t seem upset by it, and I *had* managed to get off her, so I got back on the table, led her around it, and remounted.
Oh yeah, and to add insult to injury, before you mount or dismount, go up or down hill, or drag or pull anything, you have to check your cinch to make sure it’s tight. I didn’t check it before I got off or before I got on.
Obstacle 8 was about distractions, I think. It was staged on a doubletrack trail. You had to stop between two cones and wait for the judge to tell you to proceed. Before she did that, two pedestrians started down the path, from a point just in front of you. When the judge called you, you had to pass the pedestrians, who were pushing a baby carriage and carrying a fishing pole and beach ball, and come to a stop between two cones, next to the judge. An assistant asked each of us to give her our maps, then, while she asked us questions about our horses, she waved the map in the air. When she was done with the questions, she passed it back to each of us, with a great flourish. Last year, Sunny would have had a heart attack. This year, no problem! Hmm. It might have helped that the judge was Wendy Killingsworth, who does body work on Sunny and whom Sunny adores.
It was sort of funny that this was called “The Pedestrian” obstacle: the Henry Cowell campground was full and the trails were *busy* – we must have run into 50 pedestrians who weren’t part of the trail trial, they were just “civilians” out for a hike. With their dogs, backpacks, strollers, toddlers, etc – so, except for the part with the map, if you had made it this far, this obstacle was definitely a gimme!
Obstacle 9 was The Big One, although I’m not sure the organizers knew how big it was going to be. It was the river crossing, with complications. Here they are: the Henry Cowell campground was full, so there were lots and lots of kids playing in the river, complete with beach balls and frisbees. Also, their parents figured out early that the horses and riders were going to be fun to watch, so they camped out on the hillside, with beach towels, umbrellas and cameras. Finally, the horses were using the same “single lane” access trail that the people were using, so any time a kid wanted to come up from the water or go down to the water, the horses had to wait, so there was literally a 30 minute wait to attack the river.
So. When it was finally our turn, Sunny did a beautiful job of walking the steep little trail down to the water. She hesitated a little going in, but with low key urging, she continued. The river was about 18″ deep and clear, with a mostly sand bottom. Because it was so clear, you could see that there was one place where the sand had been washed away from the underlying black rock. I let Sunny pick her own way, so even though I was surprised when she chose to leave the sand and walk on the rock, I rolled with it – but she slipped. She didn’t go down, but she thrashed around and moved *lots* of water. When she finally steadied out, the spectators gave her a round of applause, which was way more scary than losing her footing! Anyhow, we got across the river, rode around a path outlined by flags and got back through the river uneventfully.
Obstacle 10 was a vet. We had to ride to a point, stop, dismount, loosen the girth and hand walk our horse to the vet for a respiration check, then remount. No problems there; I may have even remembered the girth check before I dismounted.
Obstacle 11 was also more rider-oriented than horse -oriented. You had to dismount, tie your horse to a tie bar, and clean the left rear hoof. You had to tie with a guaranteed quick release knot and you had to be carrying a hoof pick, to be successful on this one. Fortunately, they tell you what knot they want to see in the Appendix to the Trail Trials rules and I had read the rules, and I always carry a pick in my pack, so we were good. It was also nice to see a couple of friendly faces: Scott and Cristie Thomas were working this obstacle and it’s always great to see them.
Obstacle 12 was the only one that I was concerned about getting dumped on. You had to walk tyour horse to the judge, who handed you a large rain coat, put the rain coat over the front of your saddle, ride around a little path, lift the coat off your saddle and give it to the judge. Sunny was perfect. Again, last year she would have had a heart attack. Whoo hoo!
Obstacle 13, the final one, was pretty funny. We were riding down a nice singletrack, and there was a clipboard hanging in the middle of the trail, about shoulder high on me. The task was to grab the clipboard, take the pen that was clipped to it, write your name, then put the pen back, let the clipboard go and ride on. Montana refused it, with drama, so I was a little concerned about Sunny. When it was her turn, Sunny marched up to the clipboard and started banging it with her nose. Finally, she managed to whack it in my direction, so I grabbed it as it flew by and followed the instructions. No worries, and we bopped along back to the Showgrounds.
The ride was about 8 miles by my gps and it took about 5 hours and 45 minutes – there was a *lot* of waiting. Some people were really put off by the lines, but I think it’s an important part of the discipline – I know that patience is a truly desirable quality in a horse and I really appreciate the chance to practice it in the company of other people who have an investment in keeping things calm. All the volunteers were pleasant and efficient, and the judges were kind and calm. And the trails at Cowell are beautiful (although Wilder rules!) and well worth seeing. So, we had another great adventure.