Dec 19, 2011

After a weekend of not getting out at all, I decided that in spite of bitter cold temps and blustery winds, I’d better ride Dharla. The ground has started to freeze and with the high water content in the soil, the ring is too iffy in places to ride there. I knew this would probably happen … it’s been the wettest year on record here since rainfall records have been recorded. Over 100 years, or so I’ve been told. We broke the crappy weather record during the first year I own a young new horse. Good timing … NOT!

I’m kinda proud of myself for layering on the clothes and getting out there. It was sunny, but nasty. A front was moving in and the wind was really howling …. never a great thing when riding a young Arab, Wind seems to put a lot of energy and spook into them. But I didn’t have a choice, I feel I need to ride every chance I can as long as the footing is safe.

I knew the dripping water on the rock ledges would be frozen, which means icicles. Last time Dharla encountered icicles it was a real test of wills … hers against mine. I won, but I’m by no means convinced that’s going to be the last she’ll have to say about the matter. I had no idea what the icy areas would look like, but we weren’t out on the trail more than five minutes before we approached the first icicles hanging from rock ledge.

Dharla was terrified, to the point where I didn’t even try to urge her forward more than a few steps. My thought is that I want to do everything I can to avoid stressing her to the point where she wants to default to “turn and flee” mode, which is a strong response that comes naturally to her. Instead, I dismounted and slowly coaxed her forward one slow step at a time. She is a formidable creature when she’s terrified, that’s for sure. And her reaction wasn’t just stubbornness or outright refusal, she was literally trembling with fear.

So we took our time. I inched her one slow step forward, then let her stop. It WAS scary … lots of wind whipping up the leaves, and we were standing at the beginning of a rock ledge “tunnel” that has two-story stone walls that feel like they’re closing in from both sides. In this particular spot there are icicles only on one side of the walls, but that doesn’t really help since Dharla isn’t thrilled with the closed-in feeling of the rock walls. So if the icicles fail to set her on edge, the closeness of the rock walls will. Our mantra is “We have to face our fears.” I gently said that to Dharla every time her head whipped up and her nostrils flared. She snorted and blew, but one thing I’ll say for this girl, she tends to hold her ground when she’s scared. I like that about her. I know “Flee! Run!” was coursing through her veins, but she held her ground by my side and trembled.

We slowly made progress. It took about fifteen minutes, but we inched to the end of the rocky ledges, where I turned her around and walked her back. Oh boy, other side of the brain! I followed the same steady routine, slowly inching her forward, gently coaxing, petting, rewarding every step. Finally she relaxed enough to become curious about the thing that was scaring her so badly. I led her closer to the dripping ice and she s-t-r-e-t-c-h-e-d her neck out, keeping her feet and body as far away as possible from the scary monsters. She sniffed. Hm. Not so bad!

All toll, we spent about 30 minutes just traversing the same 25 yards or so. Back and forth, until I thought Dharla was looking more relaxed about this encounter. I knew we’d have another encounter with icicles about .25 miles up the trail, so I decided it was time to remount and move on. When we approached the next trouble spot I could see the sheen of ice on the trail between the two rocky ledges. Deeming the footing unsafe for a potential icicle challenge, I chose to take a detour and we continued on our way. There would be other places where we would encounter and conquer icicles further down the trail.

Our second icicle challenge was even more difficult than the first. The path is more narrow and the alley is dark and damp. All that makes this a scary spot without even having to cope with huge dripping monsters. As we approached, Dharla came to a halt. I just let her stand and look. A few minutes passed and I gently squeezed her sides. To my surprise, she took a few steps forward before stopping again! I let her stand and look as I talked to her quietly. “You have to face your fears, Dharla. We all do.” After a minute or so I squeezed her again, and she moved forward several steps. It went on like this until we were slowly inching through the first few feet of the icy ledge tunnel. Then, she committed and didn’t stop once the rest of the way through!

Holy crap, was I thrilled! Of course, my biggest fear is that we’ll pass through or by something going one way, then not be able to pass through or by on the way back, stranding us far from home. So once we reached the 3/4 mark in the tunnel I turned her and started back the way we came. Obviously, Dharla has been with me long enough to know this doesn’t mean we’re going home, but I do think that knowledge sometimes helps move them forward with a ‘false’ sense of security. (“We’re going HOME! I can do this!) She seemed to have less resistance heading back even though the ice was on her right, which is always her more hesitant side. When we reached the end I turned her around again, and we repeated the whole procedure several times. Not once did she spook or shy or hesitate to move forward when asked. This was HUGE progress and I was delighted!

However, we were not through yet. Although we had passed through the most challenging areas (tight walls, lots of icicles) I decided we would continue to the place where we usually turn and head for home. There were a few other icicle encounters, but they seemed to go pretty well. Once or twice Dharla tried to use a little avoidance tactic only to discover she really did have to face her fears and move on when asked.

The return ride home was mostly uneventful. By that time Dharla was relaxed and we worked on walk/trot transitions. We practiced random stopping and just standing still, which she does so well. At one point we were just walking along and all of a sudden she schooched and bolted forward a few steps. A bicyclist came charging past us from behind. I wanted to ‘effing stomp the living crap out of the guy. WTF? Do people think I have eyes in the back of my head? Normally, Dharla warns me when she hears someone coming up behind us on a bike and she’s pretty darn good about it, but yesterday the wind was literally howling and we couldn’t hear a thing. I guess what pisses me off so much is that this biker had us in his line of vision for at least a good two minutes before he came up on our ass, yet he couldn’t call out to warn us that he was there and going to pass? I had a menopausal moment and pictured us kicking him off his bike and watching his limp body tumble down the steep banks of the trail. How’s that for trail etiquette, buddy?

Dharla walked back through all the icy scary spots with little trouble. She was cautiously alarmed, but not outright fearful or panicky. I was thrilled with her response and progress. Really, I didn’t expect things to go half that well. When we got home I was frozen and she was hungry. Not the best of days to ride, but we got ‘er done!

Ride time: 2.5 hrs.

Distance: 6 miles

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