With the OD Fort Valley ride looming in our future, I figured we'd better get down to business. Last week, we rode out at Andy Guest State Park and while we did get some trotting in on more difficult terrain, we definitely still have work to do. (Part of my plans to trot over rolling hills were sabotaged by the fact that they were haying the fields next to the trail. And Nimo was convinced the hay machines were going to eat him...even though I think the workers were on a lunch break, so the machines weren't even ON.) So my plan this past Sunday was to take Nimo out to the Phelps Wildlife Management Area. I had ridden there the previous Sunday with a couple of ladies and I had forgotten how versatile the terrain is there. Last week's ride convinced me that Phelps might be just what we need. The terrain varies from level to steep rolling hills, with both forest and road trails. It's also super close to Nimo's barn (about 25 minutes). The biggest problem is that none of the trails are marked, so it's a sort of sink or swim deal to learn your way around. And a friend and I definitely sunk over the winter when we rode there and got totally lost. Luckily my friend's horse has some kind of super GPS in his brain, and actually found his way back to the trailers (albeit a different way then we had come). The more I ride there, though, the more I'm getting the hang of the trails, so I figured we'd try for 12-ish miles on Sunday.
Here's the thing, I absolutely had a perfectly good route already figured out. I knew the mileage and I knew the trail. My plan was to do that route (about 6 miles) and then add on another section that I'm less familiar with, but with the caveat to Pay Attention to where I was going. But at our ride there last weekend, I overheard someone saying he usually took the trail through the woods instead of the road that leaves from the parking lot we were at. I found myself irresistibly drawn to the trail in the woods. I hadn't even known it was there until last weekend. I was desperate to know where it went. And the woods seemed like more fun that the more out-in-the-open ride I had planned. The temperature was in the low- to mid- 80s and the humidity was hovering in the mid- to upper-50 percent, making the day a treasured gift for August. (Also, it's probably fair to warn any readers who aren't in Virginia and don't already know. We've been having remarkably, perhaps even miraculously, cool weather for weeks. I can only assume this is a sign of the impending Apocalypse. Consider yourselves warned...)
So, I sent Nimo down the trail in the woods. It was fairly easy to keep my bearings, but the trail was pretty dense in some places and full of Things To Be Scared Of. Like boulders, and logs, and An Electrical Box Out In The Middle Of Nowhere. I watched my plan to ride at a faster pace dwindling before my eyes as Nimo sucked back at the novelty of everything and at his fastest, managed to eeek out a 7 mph trot. Because I know he can do 10 mph without that much difficulty and I have witnessed it many times on more challenging trails, I found myself becoming increasingly frustrated by his overly cautious behavior.
And then there were the Tiniest Water Crossings Ever. Nimo is great at crossing large streams and once led the way through a 3-4 foot deep, extremely fast flowing Rock Creek in Rock Creek Park in DC, but God help us if we encounter a small, steep ditch with 1-2 inches of water at the bottom. Nimo views these "water crossings" just as if they were the gates to Hell itself. I have had to rely on a buddy horse or have had to get off and lead him through these crossings so many times that it is truly embarrassing. And I feel like his reluctance has been getting worse, which does not make me happy. So, when I ended up having to get off at our second water crossing because the approach was just too steep and there were too many rocks and trees to make a continued argument with Nimo safe, I realized that it was time for me to do something about this problem.
As luck would have it, the perfect training location made itself available in short order. I'm sorry that I don't have a picture of it (you'll understand why in a minute), but trust me when I say that the descent was 6-8 inches, that there was less than 2 inches of water at the bottom, and that the footing was slightly muddy, but nothing boggy or treacherous. For what seemed like forever, I alternately cajoled and beat Nimo with a whip to get him to go through. I have vowed to be a more patient rider with him because getting worked up absolutely never does any good, but I admit that I lost it at this point. There was nothing unreasonable about my request (and I tried very hard to see it from Nimo's point of view). So I got pretty angry with Nimo. There was some swearing, some excessive use of the whip, and most definitely some name calling and yelling. Nimo got pretty freaked out and I think both of us realized things got out of control when he ran us into a tree, nearly ripping my leg off, and then stumbled and slid backwards down a muddy bank.
After the backwards slide and scramble to recovery, Nimo and I both stopped for a moment to catch our breath, reflect on how lucky we were to be alive, and calm down. After a minute, I asked Nimo to cross the little stream again. This time, he slowly and carefully stepped down into the water, paused for a few seconds and then slowly made his way to the other side and climbed out. No drama. I praised him and we continued on.
It wasn't long before we got to another small stream. Nimo crossed it well, but I hoped we wouldn't have to come back through because if we did, Nimo would have to jump down a 12-15 inch drop to get in the water and I knew that wouldn't happen. Unfortunately, a fallen tree completely blocked the trail not that long after, and we we had to turn around. As we approached the water, I contemplated the options that wouldn't involve me getting off, but it didn't look good. And while I was busy trying to figure out how to get Nimo across the water, he just hopped down into the stream and out again, with zero issues. And he did it again, and again, and again as we made our way back.
I really can't explain why me blowing up at Nimo would have had the effect it did. But I can say the results seem to be lasting. We rode on a little trail at our barn last night that has a ditch with water in it that has caused us endless problems for months. Nimo refuses to cross it in one direction and has extreme difficulty in the other. There are also a couple of boggy, water-logged sections that he really struggles with. Last night, zero problems with any of them. He moved carefully, but with forward motion, leaving me with no complaints.
I had been feeling pretty awful about losing my temper with Nimo, but now I'm not so sure. I've always wanted to channel Mark Rashid. I've done a couple of clinics with him over the years and I always find him to be a lovely person and gifted when it comes to helping horses and riders work through problems. I'm pretty sure beating and yelling at my horse is not really a good "Mark Rashid" technique.
But I'm reminded of a clinic that I did with him when Nimo was a yearling. I'd only had him for two weeks and he had recently been gelded because I didn't have the resources to develop and campaign a Friesian stallion, finding boarding places for stallions is really difficult, and he was a real pistol who I worried would need some "tough love" to become more civilized. At the time, he'd managed to convince the older ladies at the barn I boarded at to give him a treat for every step he took as he was being turned out. (Please don't ask me how he did that, but it didn't take him long.) Anyway, he was a nightmare to lead and I took him to the clinic to see if we could get the situation turned around. Mark's recommendation was that I should just walk forward and expect him to follow; if he didn't, or he stopped, I should immediately turn around and get "Big" and start flapping my arms and yelling and basically acting like a crazy person while coming back at him. It took a few tries for me to get the timing right, but once I did, it was less than 5 minutes to a new and improved horse. Mark's theory was that Nimo believed he was in charge during the leading process, so if I acted like a crazy person when he stopped, Nimo would correlate my unwanted craziness with him stopping. Because he didn't want me to be crazy, he would just not stop. Problem solved. I had to do a few refresher sessions with him over the following months, but once he figured out the behavior, it really hasn't been that big of a deal since.
I'm going to give one more example of Nimo's past behavior, mostly because I'm mentally trying to work through exactly what happened out on the trail on Sunday. Nimo has always loaded well. He likes to take a minute to assess the trailer and then he generally walks right on. Well, about 3 years ago, he all of a sudden just stopped getting on the trailer. No food, no pleading, and no beating had any effect unless it was done by a second person standing behind him and even then, I had to be pretty alert to handle any surprise darts to the side of the trailer. Because I generally do not have a helper to load my horse, nor do I want to feel like I have to have one, I had some problem-solving to do.
I came up with the idea of running my lunge line through the tie ring at the front of the trailer and having one end attached to Nimo and the other in my hand. (Note: Nimo's problem was not that he wouldn't walk up to the trailer, just that he wouldn't load. He'd calmly stand in front of the trailer all day, which is why I felt like I didn't have a fear issue to deal with. Instead, I thought it might be similar to the leading problem he'd had as a yearling.) Anyway, I stood off the trailer and to the side and slightly behind Nimo with a lunge whip in my hand. I would ask him to load into the trailer and as long as there was forward motion, I just made sure I took up the slack on the lunge line. As soon as he stopped, I would start firmly tapping him with the whip and I hung on to the lunge line for dear life. Because Nimo would pull back and try to set his body against going forward, any leniency in the line on my part would give him the opportunity to dart around the side of the trailer. Luckily, he's pretty responsive to whip cues and as soon as he realized pulling back wasn't getting him anywhere, he would walk right on the trailer. I had to load him that way pretty steadily for awhile, and it got so that I never needed the whip. Just me putting the lunge line on was good enough. And these days, if he hesitates, I try to quickly move toward his back end while swinging my lead rope and that is currently all the reminder he needs. Although, he really has gone back to his normal habit of just walking on the trailer.
Anyway, my reaction at the water crossing on Sunday was not controlled like the other two examples I mentioned, but something about it must have made an impact on him. Or maybe it was his own out-of-control response that made something click. Or maybe the damn horse is just messing with me...:)
Because of all the time spent on water crossings and Nimo's sucked back trot that required more effort from me to maintain than the shoulder-in to haunches-in to shoulder-in transitions I had to do in a lesson a few weeks ago, I gave up on a quick-paced ride and decided to incorporate some climbing instead. There is a gas pipeline running through the park (because a wildlife preserve seems like a perfect place for a giant pipeline, right?), and there are these crazy hills that are super steep.
|Gas pipeline easement|
And then we rode another 7 miles...
What had seemed like a beautiful day now felt oppressively hot, so we headed back into the woods for awhile to cool down. The trails were mostly kind of overgrown 4-wheeler roads for hunting or maintenance, so they looked like this:
Nimo was still acting like there were horse-eating dwarves living in the forest that would leap out and get him, though, so we were back to the shuffle trot, which was annoying me. And the inside of my thighs were sore (stupid wide horse) and the skin on my little toes was being rubbed off my my stirrup (I'll explain why I'm riding with toe-rubbing stirrups in an upcoming post), and I had accidentally worn the breeches that chafe the inside of my knees. And by accidentally, I mean that I deliberately choose them out of a selection of 4 clean pairs of breeches, two of which do not cause any chafing. I think somewhere in the back of my head, a little voice was saying, "chafing, chafing, chafing..." but I ignored it because I'm an idiot sometimes. Also, I was pretty sure that a wayward tree branch had scratched my left eyeball and that I would need some kind of eye amputation.
We entered what I will call the Death Slog phase of the ride. I was really tired of trying to get more movement out of Nimo, and I think he was probably really tired of me trying to encourage him, so we settled into a fairly decent walk and made it to the trail I originally intended to ride on. We passed trails that would lead back to the trailer three times, and each time, Nimo would stop and probably think, "Dude, it's THIS way back!" These beautiful wild sunflowers were at one of the stops and I did feel slightly uplifted and I was really tempted to turn back. But I really wanted to get the mileage in even if I couldn't get the pace.
So we kept on, and finally, I figured we reached the point where we could turn around. Nimo was so thrilled, he didn't buck me off when I asked him to trot for a mile. Then we trudged about another mile and half back to the trailer, for a total of 13 miles.
And when we got back, I was exhausted, hungry, thirsty, sore, missing skin, soon to be missing an eyeball, picking ticks off myself by the dozens and in general, pretty cranky - so pretty much like how I'd be after an actual endurance ride:)
I got Nimo taken care of (eating a mash and sponged off) and obsessed about how absolutely crappy my ride was. (Because I had not yet reflected on how miraculous the whole water crossing thing was.) When I got home, my husband asked me how my ride went and I said, "It was awful. Why, oh why, am I doing this to myself?" He could have said "You know, you don't have to do this to yourself. You could just go back to being a normal horse owner and do occasional, enjoyable trail rides." But then I'd have yelled at him for not being supportive. Or he could have said, "You can do it, honey. I'm sure it wasn't that bad and whatever didn't work well will be better next time." And then I'd have yelled at him for not understanding how awful my ride was because he wasn't there. So, because he has been married to me for many years now, he just said, "Huh. Gemma did the cutest thing at the park today..." And soon I started to feel better. And I got a shower and had steak and potatoes for dinner, and took some ibuprofen, and drank some water. And the skin started to grow back on my toes and chafed knees. Plus, my eyeball is fine now. And several days later, I realized that my ride hadn't been so crappy after all.
The breakthrough on the water crossings (assuming we can keep doing them well) is totally worth all the other stuff and I'm already planning my ride for Saturday at Phelps, so we can tackle the pacing issue again...