Friday, January 6, 2012
45 degrees. January 6. Duluth, MN. Yep, you did read that right! (And actually yesterday was even warmer... what a strange winter!)
It will come as no surprise to anyone that I found a convenient hole in my schedule this afternoon, and took myself directly out to the barn. This is my first ride of 2012! The wind was really blowing when I was saddling up, but I didn't much care as it didn't have the usual icy bite to it and I needed to RIDE! Rhio and I set off solo, winding our way around the pasture and the neighbor's pastures to the cut-through in the woods which dumps us out on the dead-end gravel road just to the north of the farm. I figured the footing might still be too icy on the road, since it is heavily shaded and gravel roads compacted by vehicle traffic don't melt easily in my experience. Luckily we've had so little snow that the plows have left bare scrapes along the edges of the road and that gave us some non-slip surface. And, actually, day two of balmy temperatures did have even the center of the road pretty soft and therefore not icy at all.
Rhio objected mildly to leaving alone, and offered to turn around and head home pretty regularly for the first mile or so. I was prepared for this, and had a stash of treats in my saddle pack so that I could reward him when he was going forward and relaxed. He remembered this lesson immediately, and anytime I moved from using both hands on the reins to having one hand relaxed at my side, he'd turn his head watching for a treat. Silly! And very food motivated.
We headed up the steep hill and emerged onto another portion of the same gravel road, which also had some dirt showing along the shoulders. The footing was good enough to trot much of this portion, and we stopped briefly to chat with a lady and her small dog out enjoying the day as well. She admired my horse, and that always feels nice! She was curious about his blaze orange rump rug, but quickly agreed that it was great for visibility when I mentioned that as its primary use.
My goal, if it was doable, was to ride all the way to our favorite local snowmobile trail, which I had scoped out by car on my way to the barn to make sure it was rideable. Not only was it rideable, the footing was perfect! It had been packed by a handful of snowmobiles, so the snow was firm enough to support a horse with enough softness of the top to give us grip. YeeHaw!
In order to get to the trail, we had to ride about 1/4 mile along a very busy county road; Jean Duluth Road is a major local route for getting to and from town and is very well travelled by not only passenger vehicles, but county road work vehicles (including plows and sanding trucks - not much call for those today!), school buses, semi's, and the like. It does have pretty wide shoulders and is very popular with the road biking crowd, so drivers are somewhat used to sharing the roadway - but of course bikes don't spook at random or unexpected things. Rhio is (now) really traffic safe, and I felt comfortable heading down the shoulder against traffic. The footing continued to be excellent, and for much of the distance we could actually get down into the ditch. At about 3:00 pm, the traffic was fairly light and I'd say about a half dozen vehicles passed us. Rhio didn't flinch once, and as soon as we hit the last section of gravel road to get to the trail, he seemed to know where he was and launched into his smooth and ground covering big trot. We turned onto the trail, and headed up the big hill, both of us working hard enough by the top to be puffing and sweating a bit. We continued along, trotting and cantering and even a little galloping, enjoying the silence and solitude of the winter woods without frozen cheeks or frosty breath. The late afternoon sun and gathering clouds accentuated the naked trees, and I lost myself in the moment with my horse.
My GPS battery conked out just shy of 5 miles, so we went a little farther and then turned for home...and the lessons began. Rhio started channeling his anxious, rush-rush-rush self (last seen at the Kentucky Diehards endurance ride in November... I don't like this Rhio very much!) and head tossing violently while cantering/galloping on the edge of control. Well, this was PERFECT! What a training opportunity. I spent the trail portion of the return trip insisting that he relax, and trot. And, guess what? It worked. Without the added emotional craziness of a ride, and other horses, he was able to listen to me and although he continued to attempt to start cantering, pressure-and-release on the reins and verbal "No" resulted in good behavior. He wasn't perfect by any means, but I was encouraged by his response.
He even seemed to realize that the time for antics was past when we hit Jean Duluth Road again on the return trip, and he walked along obeying my leg and rein cues to move over as I micro-managed our position relative to the road to deal with footing and traffic. Now, closer to 5:00 pm, the traffic was heavy in both directions. Horse-eating monsters were in the mix, including a propane-delivery truck with air brakes (really? did you have to?), a truck pulling an ATV trailer, and a obnoxious pickup without a muffler, and Rhio kept walking along calming, just an ear and an eye on them clueing me in to his slight worry. I would (will) ride this section of road again, but only on a really road safe horse and preferably in the middle of the day.
We walked most of the three miles home, for safety reasons as well as to get him cooled out well since his winter coat was soaked with sweat and evening was nearly upon us. It might be crazy warm out, but not warm enough to put a wet horse out to pasture at night! And, I didn't want him to have to stay in the barn unless absolutely necessary.
Two hours, and ten miles, later, we rode in the way we'd left. I was admiring sunset, and he was grabbing at grass (!). Both of us were pleasantly tired and utterly content. It was a good ride, a really good ride.