Take Three

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Yesterday’s attempt to do a trial ride on the second alternate route to the barn didn’t quite work out as planned. It was another beautiful, albeit warm fall day. The leaves were gently dropping from the trees and the woods were just cool enough to be a welcome reprieve from the sun. I got a slightly later start than I’d planned and I didn’t actually leave my barn until shortly after 10:30. Not that it really mattered, but I usually like to get an early start if possible. Less people out and about.

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I hadn’t ridden five minutes when I came upon a vehicle parked on the Rails-To-Trails, better known in this neck of the woods as the Airline Trail. The SUV had a Department of Environmental Protection insignia on the door and there were three men and a woman milling around the car. (Technically, the DEP is in charge of managing the Airline trail since the land it uses is under their jurisdiction.. However, the word “manage” is probably a gross overstatement, but that’s a story for another time.) Since Dharla has only one speed when she’s alarmed, we approached with caution. Turns out, they had a bunch of video equipment set up and were shooting a promo video of the trail.

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The DEP folks asked if I’d be willing to be in their video and my response to them was only if they were willing to listen to my list of complaints about the problems equestrians encounter on the trail. They agreed. I put Dharla into “park” and spent the next few minutes telling them how rude bikers are and how dangerous the trail has become for most horse users. After we talked I consented to them filming Dharla and I as we walked on down the trial.

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This set my departure back another half hour or more, but I finally got underway. The route I planned to follow involved riding through the woods until the trail opened up into two large expansive fields that once upon a time, used to be a tree nursery. This large tract of land is affectionately called the Peach Orchards, though the tree business has long since been abandoned. A local sportsman’s club has been leasing this parcel for the last two decades and it’s used for field trials and training bird dogs. The sportsman’s club posted the land years ago, but we’ve more or less been given a  verbal OK to ride our horses across the fields during off-season. Bird hunting officially kicks off the third Saturday in October, so there was a 50% chance that my riding through the fields was still going to be OK.

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I listened carefully for gun shots as we rode along the brush-hogged lane that led to the first field. I didn’t hear any indication of other inhabitants, so we continued according to the plan. Years ago we dubbed the first field the “landing strip” because it was formally used for that by someone who owned a small private airplane. Twenty years ago when we first started riding up in the orchards the only thing that remained of the airport was a few wind socks and the long, smooth strip that ran down the center of the entire length of field. It was a great place for racing our horses, which we did with abandon. Well, mostly the guys raced and I loped along after them. This landing strip still remains and the club keeps the waist-high weeds cut back, but it’s surrounded by an expanse of fields that have become choked with small invasive trees and weeds. In other words, visibility is fairly limited to the landing strip and yet you have the feeling of being out in the wide open spaces. Except you’re surrounded by four foot tall golden rod and an assortment of long grasses and weeds.

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I knew Dharla would be somewhat spooky up in the Peach Orchard. We’ve ridden up there several times, but always with another horse and rider. It’s an intimidating place to be when you’re all alone. I’m not the least bit worried or bothered about being up there, but I sensed Dharla’s nervousness; she was wound up tighter than a bottle rocket. With hunting season coming up in a few weeks I had to assume the sportsman’s club had stocked the fields with pheasants and I fully expected that at some point we’d flush a pheasant up from the nearby brush. I also knew that might cause Dharla to totally lose her cool, but I didn’t dwell on it. I figured we’d deal with it if/when it happened. (It never did.)

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As we continued to walk down the center of the landing strip I listened carefully, straining to hear if there was any hint of anyone hunting or working their dogs up ahead. At the end of the strip the path bends sharply to the right and winds around a large stand of fully mature maple trees. I’ve been riding up in the Peach Orchard for so long that I can remember when the nursery planted those maple trees. They were barely knee-high sticks then. Now those trees are several stories tall. At the end of the strip I stopped and let Dharla munch some nice green grass; a reward for keeping her cool as we rode down the landing strip. She was still quite nervous and spooky, but in a controlled sort of way.

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We moved on and headed toward the part of the path that would lead us around a road barrier, then dump us out onto the dead-end of a paved road. From there we would need to ride along the shoulder of this back road for about ten or fifteen minutes. I didn’t expect much (if any) car traffic and we wouldn’t have to pass any cow farms, but I still wasn’t sure if there might come upon any issues that I hadn’t seen when I drove the route a few days before. Unfortunately, I never found out. As we approached the dead-end I saw two trucks parked there. My heart sunk. Seconds later I saw two men dressed in full cammo. They waved. I waved back, dismounted and walked toward them. We exchanged greetings and moments later I found out they were there to work their hunting dogs.

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We chat for awhile. Both men were friendly and not upset in the least that I had crossed their hunting fields, but when they heard my hopes to repeat this ride in a few days they were concerned for my safety. With hunting season about to go into full swing, there was no guarantee that I might not run into other club members working their dogs. That could prove to be disastrous as the dogs are not necessarily trained to ignore horses. (Some do, but the young ones? Not so much) I agreed and after a couple of minutes I remounted and returned home the way I’d come. Had I continued on toward the barn then I’d have to wait until these guys were done training their dogs  before I could return and cross the fields for home. That wasn’t a good plan.

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So back we went. Funny, how a horse can be so nervous on the ride out, but not the least bit concerned when going home! I was feeling pretty down. It’s starting to look like the only option left is to try to get my horse past the cow farm. It’s not the best route, but it’s the quickest. Perhaps with a halter and lead rope I’ll be able to get off and lead her past the cow pasture? From what I can tell, the fence-line is very overgrown and for all I know, we won’t even see any cows. But you can smell them, and that’s a foreign (read as: scary!) thing to Dharla.

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Today’s ride will be back to the first route. Oh, I could ride all the way around the Peach Orchard and access the other approach that way, but that’s a LONG ride and I’m just not up for it. No, I need to see if we can get past the cows. If not, then my plans to board Dharla will have to go on hold. I’m saddened and frustrated by this possibility, but that’s all I can do until I can come up with another plan.

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(Tia, above.)

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Getting There

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About a week from now I’ll be moving Dharla to the “new” barn where I’ll board her for a month or so. I’ve chosen this barn based on several criteria, one being that I’m hoping I can ride her there. I actually have two routes to pick from, but both will involve slightly different stretches of riding along a back road.

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I haven’t done a lot of road riding and admittedly, I’m very nervous about it in spite of the fact that the roads on either route will be very low traffic at the time of day I plan to ride them. One route has a road that has more houses along it, which means possibly more cars and …. well, stuff. Like garbage cans, basketball hoop/stands (why people put those things at the end of their driveway I’ll never know. I guess it’s  a testament to how little traffic there really is and how cautious they expect the drivers will be … which is a good thing, right?), and people doing things like mowing lawns and building additions.

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I wouldn’t have to ride along this road very far and most of the things I’ve listed are doable, albeit with patience, great caution and the right timing. However, there is one thing at the very end of this road that gives me reason to pause: a small dairy farm. Yup, cows. I’ve heard from other riders at the barn that some of them have had a tough time getting their horses past the small group of Holsteins that reside on this farm, and that’s when riding in a group. So I tend to have my doubts that Miss Scared of Everything is going to saunter past a herd of cows without having some serious trepidation.

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It was with this potential hurdle in mind that I set out to try to ride this route yesterday. The trip started out with a beautiful ride down an old abandoned dirt road that I haven’t ridden since my days with Tia. Needless to say, I felt a bit nostalgic and teary. There was a light gentle breeze and golden leaves rained down all around us. I could feel Tia’s presence with me and it was peaceful and quiet. Well, except for the occasional loud snort from Dharla’s nostrils. I spoke to Dharla softly, told her stories about Tia and all the times we rode this way together, back when the road was just a footpath through the woods. Dharla listened, held the course and we continued to make good progress.

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The dirt road becomes a long uphill climb that ends at the start of the paved road. At this point there are houses on both side of the street, but it’s still fairly rural and the houses are set farther apart and well back off the road. Unfortunately, I discovered that Tuesday is garbage day and as a result, every driveway had not one, but two cans at the curb. (Garbage and recycling) At the first few houses Dharla was a bit dramatic about passing the cans. Not horribly so, but enough that I was glad I didn’t have to worry about cars or traffic. Apparently someone had a construction project in progress and the noise from that prompted a high alert response too. Throughout all this I tried to keep Dharla moving forward, albeit at times slowly and cautiously.

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The next big eye opener was the basketball stand at the end of a driveway. We got past that with a bit of side-stepping, snorting and wide eyes, only to discover that the next house up the road was a small Christmas tree farm and they had a small potting-type shed near the end of their drive. That too, sparked great fear and trepidation. *Sigh* I suppose now would be a good time to mention that a few days earlier I drove this road myself, checking to see what sort of obstacles we might encounter. Just to be forewarned. But I guess there’s nothing that can really prepare you for the way the equine mind works.

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We got past the driveway with the shed just in time for a car to approach from the rear. They were slow and cautious, but they didn’t really have much of a choice as Dharla and I had certainly claimed more than our fair share of space on our side of the road. I have the sense that the people who live in this neighborhood are fairly horse-savvy and as a result, will give me all the time and space I need. I can only hope.

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We continued on down the road. I could see the corner stop sign looming in the distance, which meant we were almost half done with the road part of the ride. I want to feel relieved, but I knew that the cow farm was coming up on our left. Less than a minute later Dharla suddenly froze and took several deep sniffs of the air. Yup, cows. We couldn’t see them (and in all fairness, they might not have even been turned out to pasture), but we could sure smell them and they smelled ..

S-C-A-R-Y!

I let Dharla think about the strange smell for a few seconds, then tried to urge her forward. No dice. Eyes wide, head up, I could feel her begin to tremble and so I made the executive decision to end the ride there. (I had not kept her halter on or brought a lead rope or I might have dismounted and tried leading her past) We turned around and started to go back in the direction we’d come and immediately encountered two cars. Thankfully, both drivers came to a near halt and gave us plenty of room. As we rode back toward the dirt road all the obstacles we’d passed only moments before seemed a lot less worrisome than the cows!

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The rest of the ride was fairly uneventful. We retraced our steps toward home, taking a slight detour at the end to ride along another nice trail for awhile. It was too nice of a day not to enjoy it to the fullest and I wanted to make sure Dharla didn’t think freezing up on the cows meant she could just turn around and go home. Um, no.

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My plan for our ride today is to test the other route. I’ve driven this route too and it has it’s own challenges. For one, the road section is longer, but it’s more rural and the shoulders are grassy and much wider. That’s a plus. I honestly thought this would probably end up being the chosen route, but I wanted to try the cow route first because it’s the most direct way there.  I will get there, I’m just not 100% certain how yet. If I have to enlist someone to ride with me then I will, but I’d like to try to do it on our own. The barn is only 3 miles from my house by car and probably half that as the crow flies, but right now it kind of feels like the longest ride in the world.

This too, shall pass!