- Cory and Jade, View from the Observation Deck
One of the goals I listed for Sunny and I was horse camping – and, with the help of Cory and Jade, we did it. Last Wednesday, 3 Sept, we all headed out for the Santa Cruz County Horseman’s Association Showgrounds, better known as “The Showgrounds”. The Showgrounds has great camping facilities: paddocks in groups of 4 for the horses, and human campsites tucked under thick oak trees, as well as a shower and bathrooms. Most important, there is access to the trails at Henry Cowell State Park.
Note: The Showgrounds have been seriously refurbed over the last couple of years and now have a large arena, a dressage court, a round pen, an eventing course (forlorn, but on the to-do list), paddocks for 46 horses, human campsites, and a clubhouse with a shower and bathrooms (for members). As well as facilities, the SCCHA either sponsors or participates in a lot of horse-related activities. I think yearly dues are about $120, which entitles you to use the facilities without paying a daily fee – including overnight camping. The current edition of the newsletter, with upcoming events on it can be found at http://www2.cruzio.com/~candg/Sep09.pdf
We got there about noon and were literally the only ones in the ~7 acre grounds – sort of eerie. We got The Girls settled, and since both of us had been sort of running for awhile, we got out our deck chairs and had a pre-ride beer. I don’t think the beer will become a part of our ride ritual, but it sure felt good to be settled in with our horses, with no items on the agenda but taking a ride in the afternoon, and, in the meantime, sipping a very, very cold IPA with a friend.
We finally hit the trail around 3:30, just as the bugs began to stir. Sheesh! It was hotter than blue blazes and the bugs were still energetic – it would be easier to deal with them if only they had good sense. Anyhow, we took off. Getting out of the Showgrounds, you have to parallel Graham Hill Road for about 200 yards, which is normally not a big deal, but there’s construction being done now which restricts part of the road to one-way, so there is constant traffic. I handwalked Sunny through the gate and to the beginning of the “civilized” part of the trail.
It was beautiful. Henry Cowell is a redwood park, and the trail we took started off in a heavy grove, and turned into singletrack as it descended steeply to a small creek. The trail down had a substantial dropoff on one side, a wall on the other, and featured several switchbacks and little wooden bridges across drainage culverts. Jade was a little concerned about the noise she made on the bridges, but Sunny figured if they’d hold Jade up (Jade being a size XL quarter horse), she was safe, so she just marched right over them.
Then we got to the creek, which was about 18 inches wide, with mud on either side. I don’t think Jade even noticed it. Sunny, however, was undone. I made a mistake and let her pick her own line, since she crosses a creek in her pasture every day, I figured she deserved to have her own opinion – not true. She just walked down the creekside, avoiding getting her feet muddy until the walls of the little canyon closed in and there was no place to go. I elected to turn her around, rather than try to back her out, and she cooperated. We returned to where Jade crossed, did about 5 back and forths, and finally took a mighty, 24 leap across the water and relaxed behind Jade and Cory, who had been waiting for us patiently, and we headed up out of the canyon. Again, it was very narrow singletrack with a dropoff on one side, and switchbacks – some so tight that I had some doubt that Jade would be able to stay on the trail and turn through them, but she did.
When we got to the top, Sunny and I took the lead, and Sunny suddenly got a lot more interested in our route. As long as she was trailing Jade, her ears were active, and her head was down – when she was leading, she took her responsibilities seriously; she was totally tuned into making sure she wasn’t responsible for us dying. The only thing that came close to that was a maintenance site where they were repairing an underground drain pipe – it featured a big hole in the ground, and that yellow and black striped construction tape all around it. Sunny was *really* worried, but we stopped, looked at it, walked away from it, approached again, and finally slunk around the edge of it, keeping our noses pointed at it at all times. Jade followed sedately, shaking her head at the drama.
Jade drinking at the Observation Deck - note stairs in front of her
At this point, the trail continued to be a constant climb and turned really sandy, like 2 inches deep beach sand. I would hav hated to have to walk in it, and I could feel that it was heavy going for Sunny. We continued up the trail for about a mile and topped out at the Observation Deck, where you can look out over Monterey Bay. Again, we were the only ones there, which was great because the horses monopolized the water. Our husbands were joining us for dinner at 6 PM, so we decided to turn around there.
We took the same path down for about a half mile, then we found a sign that seemed to imply that it was a more straightforward way to get back to camp. Ha! First, it went through Central Bugville. Jade and Cory were *both* shaking their heads constantly, although Sunny didn’t seem as affected. Second, we went up and down through a medium-sized whoop-de-doo, and then we parallelled Graham Hill Road for about 2 miles! In addition to the aforementioned cars, we got to ride by the construction site itself, with jack hammers, concrete and asphalt trucks, etc.
It turns out that it was really good that the horses had to climb through all that sand because it was spooky for us – you couldn’t see the road, and all of a sudden a motorcycle would come accellerating through, or a truck would drop a load of gravel, or a jack hammer would erupt. The girls did great, and we just grunted it out. We made it back to camp about 5:30, fed the girls and got ready for company, i.e. washed our faces.
Billy, Cory’s husband and a wonderful cook, arrived around 6 and made his special margueritas. Juanita and Manny, friends of Cory and Billy, also came bringing more and different margueritas, which I felt honor-bound to try. My husband Wayne and Buzz, our dog, showed up around 6:30 and Billy served his special taco salad, which may have been the most substantial salad I’ve ever eated. We sat around the table until around 9 or so, then the non-horse people left, and Cory and I said goodnight to the girls and headed for the camper.
Jade in the morning
We got up relatively early the next day because we wanted to beat the heat and the bugs to the trail, so we were riding by about 8 AM. Unfortunately, just as the trail headed down to the creek, two guys on horses intersected with us. We told them to go ahead because we had a young horse, so they did. We backtracked for about 5 minutes, then, figuring they would be clear, we turned around and went back. About 100 yards from the creek, at the steepest part of the path, Jade came to a screeching halt. When we looked, we saw that the guys hadn’t been able to get *their* horses through the creek!
There was definitely not enough room at the bottom for 4 horses, so we decided to get back to the barn early. Unfortunately, we were stopped at the steepest and narrowest part of the trail; no way either horse could turn around. So Sunny backed up the hill about 8 feet, to the point of the previous switchback, the did a perfect turn on the haunches, and led the way out of the canyon and back to camp. And Jade must have executed the same sequence.
As Mary Fenton says, “You don’t really get why you need these silly dressage moves until you need them on the trail. When you need them on the trail, you get it.”
We had another celebratory beer, since I had been able to cross off another goal, and we’d gotten out and had a fun ride on new territory. When we got to camp, it was still deserted. As we drank our beer, 3, four-horse-with-living-quarters trailers pulled up and arranged themselves in a U-shape. Within 10 minutes of arrival, their horses were in paddocks, each trailer had their awning, chairs and coolers deployed and they had a BAR set up, featuring Johnny Walker Black, Jack Daniels, some sort of tequila, an insulated ice bucket, fruit and FLOWERS! We noted these details as we trundled our manure to the compost heaps, which required us to pass close to their camps. Just when you think you’ve got it made . . .
Then we went home. But that’s not the end of the story. I was supposed to ride in Wilder Ranch with Susan and her Q-horse, Mister, on Sunday, but there was a log across her access trail, so she couldn’t get out of her barn. So we decided to return to the Showgrounds and take another run at the creek.
There were a lot more people there than when Cory and I camped, but the arena and day parking were both empty, so we parked and unloaded the horses, and took them to the arena, then through the cross-country course for warm up, then hit the trail.
We headed out exactly as Cory and I had on our trip. This time, though, just as we headed down hill we met the first group of hikers on the ride. This set consisted of 2 adults and 5 kids, all of whom were entranced with our horses. I gave them carrots to give Sunny, which caused them to fall in love even harder. We finally were able to leave only after Mom took pictures of the girls kissing Sunny. This is not a joke. And the horses were perfect. We saw probably 20 more hikers on the ride and they were all really polite to the horses, and the horses were perfectly behaved with them.
This time at the creek, I got off and sent Sunny back and forth across it several times, until she decided she could just step across it. And I mounted up and headed up toward the Observation Deck. However, this time we soon met 2 horses, going the opposite way. I was dreading this, because it can be ugly if your horse is nervous and the other horses are heading home, but it was a total non-event. We got to the side of the path, and the other horses marched through. We met 6 more horses on the ride and our horses were equally zen in all cases. Whoo Hoo! That said, we were remarkably lucky because we met them all on places on the trail where there was room to pass – on much of the trail, that would not have been the case.
Susan and Mister heading up to the Obs Deck
We finally made it to the Observation Deck and Sunny headed directly for the water. Just as she put her nose in, about 5 kids started running down the stairs from the roof, right over her head. I think from Sunny’s perspective, they materialized, noisily, in front of her eyes. This resulted in her only major spook, which consisted of three really quick steps back. After that, neither Sunny nor Mister wanted to drink any more, so we continued down the path, into new territory.
We headed toward the San Lorenzo River, but the trail had degenerated since either Susan or I had done it, years ago. It was really, really sandy, with steps built into it and big root networks that the horses had to thread through – I was proud of Sunny, she took it slowly and never put a foot wrong. We didn’t make it to the river; it looked like we’d have to share the access trail with bikes, and we felt that the horses had had sufficient excitement for one day, so we turned around. This time, instead of going home by Graham Hill Road, we just returned the way we came, which was much more pleasant.
So. Both the “big” rides were a little over 6 miles long, and we did about 2000 feet of climbing.
And the other milestone we passed was that several times during each ride, I’d wake up and realize that I hadn’t thought about how stupid I was to ride a young horse in . . . 5 minutes or 10 minutes or 30 minutes. I was just happy to be riding my perfect horse.
Thanks, Cory! Thanks, Jade! Thanks, Susan! Thanks, Mister!