Sunday, April 23, 2017

Riding Cunningham

I think my first trip around Cunningham Lake had to be circa 1995. Probably with Alan Sheppard and his then wife, Marilyn. Jimmy Johnson may have been with us, as may have been Walt Werre. It was a long time ago. I have shared those trails with many a dear friend and great horses. My kids, too, when they were riding we mostly rode there.

Today, I pull in the familiar drive and it's already a win. I've got Royal back there in the trailer. All by himself. We have the entire day to sort things out. I've never hauled him anywhere just for us to ride, alone. All by ourselves.

Cunningham Lake is a commitment ride. There's anywhere from 8 to over 10 miles of trails reaching all the way around. If you get started and suddenly realize you are not up for the whole deal there are certain mile markers (you have to have them in your head) and you can turn around, no harm no foul. Then, there's a time when you realize you have passed the point of no return. Further back the way you came then to press on the rest of the way. Might as well sit back, relax and ride your own ride.

The trails are multi use. Back when I fancied myself a horse trainer, I used to say a colt was good to go home if I could get it all the way around without serious incident. That meant confronting dogs, hikers, hidden fisher people that would spring up suddenly from the weeds, roller bladers (not so many of those these days) and the occasional skate board dude, passels of horsey horsey! screaming kids.  

The terrain is nice. It's a gem sitting on the northern edge of the Omaha Metro. You can follow close to the lake for the shortest trip or meander wooded trails that take you further afield. There are hills, some a little challenging for a green or out of condition horse (or rider.)

Unloading Royal, he was trembling as he edged his way determinedly out. I sigh. "Stay with me, buddy," I ask him. "Come on, you can do this."

He pauses, unsure. Do I blow out backwards freeing myself from this steel trap or do I steady up, hang with mom?

The habits of the past few years stayed with us. He hung steady. I stepped him forward a few steps, stopped him, rubbed his neck. He backed out soft and relaxed.

Wind ruffled the nearby lake into tiny whitecaps lapping against the rocks. Royal's eyes widened and I swear a jet of fire blasted from each wide velvet nostril. Oh boy.

My plan was to get us to the lake. Then, to take my time getting him cleaned up, saddled, do whatever groundwork I felt necessary before I stepped aboard. That's the beauty of going somewhere on your own. No people sitting around on their horses, waiting for you to quit dinking around with yours. I can't tell you how many times I've held my breath and climbed on just because I didn't want to inconvenience the ride. 

Swishy tail lashes from side to side. He swings his ass this way and that, trying to take in everything at once. He ignores my presence like he used to do on the daily. I scowl, smack him smartly on the offending ribcage. He barely notices.

"Dammit Royal!" I get him by the halter knot, giraffe head six feet in the air above. I ask him to step back, tuck his chin down and in. Come forward. Catch the foot . . . uh no, come on, pay attention!

It took a long time. Saddling him was like the old days when he was an eternally moving target.

I am thinking, who would ride this horse? Why on earth do I keep him, put up with all this nonsense!

The groundwork begins a disaster. He won't settle, won't circle around me. Gawks madly in all directions because he's never seen people before, apparently. Or vehicles or the lake. I snap the halter rope up under his chin. Back up. Look at me. Both ears, both eyes. This is an old fight and we both know it.

I do some other dumb stuff. Finally, and I mean, eventually, I think Oh. Get the feet. Oh yeah. Who cares what the ribcage is doing as long as I am not wearing it like a hat. 

I pay attention to the outside front foot keeping it on track, nice round circle. That's it. I won't let him cave in the middle, I ignore his antics. That foot. 

Now he's paying attention and softer. Holy cow, is it even the same day?

The time is right to mount. I know it is and my courage fails me. I miss the moment. I lead him up an down the grassy area we've been working in. Do I even really want to ride? Is this a good idea? I can't afford to get hurt.

He's as quiet as he's going to get. As I get him squared up and ready to mount, I see some riders across the way. They'll be at the trailhead in a few minutes . . . do I wait . . . 

It's time to get on. Foot in stirrup, I'm up. He's dancing. He's seen the other horses too and once again it's lightning from under his tail and fire in his eyes. 

I don't have my right stirrup. It's not scary though, not really. His angst is mostly stomp and blow as opposed to winding into real trouble. It could get that way if I let it but I don't. I bend him, wait til he can stop his feet. Stirrup. Tuck my mecate in my belt.

We do short serpentines as the riders get to their trailer. He's so freaked. Omigod, there are other HORSES in the WORLD. The same WORLD we are in. Who would BELIEVE such a thing.

I don't match his drama. I do realize he won't go forward if I don't allow it. It's tricky getting one step between the Christmas candy exercise and we are all over the place. I realize he's pretty straight and we head for the trail.

Somewhere between that active five minutes and the next, my saddle horse shows up. 

I hear Colleen, from a different ride. "What happens if you give him some rein?"

I die I say. She laughed, I don't think you will and I didn't. Big lesson learned that day.

I keep pushing him rein. Thou shalt not clutch is my mantra. You will not grab him by the mouth. Rub his neck. Let him know you are with him, not dropping him off a cliff on his own.

The curled neck stretches out, reaches. The footsteps are quick but it's a happy going somewhere cadence not clipped anxiety. I breathe. This might work out.

We take the first little path off into the woods. We find a jacket on the ground. OMIGOSH WHAT IS THAT??

Nothing you need to concern yourself with, buddy. 


There's a tarp thing. Yeah, who was it that says you will never need to cross a tarp on the trail? That's at least the second one I've encountered out and about. It's early in our ride and I just ask him to walk by calmly.

There's a clearing to the left and something in the grass . . . what the? Oh freaking cool! It's a walk through made of big landscape logs, a leftover trail obstacle. Sweet.

Forward first, no problem. Then, we reverse gears. The angles are sharp and that's trickier. We manage it just fine. I'm glowing My pony has his reins attached to his feet. His brain is attached in there, too. 

We wind through the trees. The tangled vines and old deadfalls are stark, old against the new green of returning life.

I have it in my head we might get to the bridge and turn around and come back. It's over halfway but at the end of the ride you have to cross the highway. I am not fond of that part. Lots of reasons.

We encounter about 90 dogs. They all had people but most were without leashes. That's deeply against park law and I have to hold up my ride while a girl circles around her young Lab who has zero recall. Why . . . ??

I smile. I am representing good neighborly use of the trails. Everyone is friendly. Royal is a great ambassador. He gets admired widely and one young guy asks nicely if he can take Royal's picture. Sure!

We chat for a minute. They are people of the frisbee and let me get on ahead of them as I think flying frisbees are more than we want to encounter on this adventurous day.

We run into a fisherman in the woods. He's coming though the dense trees at an angle to us carrying buckets, poles, nets. He does not look human. Royal doesn't think so either. I call out a cheery hello (please answer back, don't be a wraith of fisherman past). He calls back and Royal and I smile at him. Then we pick a different path.

We pick up a spanking trot. I let him extend. Lengthen buddy, not faster strides. I don't fuss with his face, I just want him to reach out. I remember to post.

Those canter transitions we've been practicing at dressage lessons? Pretty sweet to just sit, put your leg back and in a whisper you have a canter.

During some twisty parts, I abandon dressage and go full on CTR. I get up off his back and we fly through the trees, this way, that! I duck just in time and then not. I am swatted by Mother Nature and I giggle unrepentedly.

We meet so many challenges, it would be a book if I describe them all. Royal, throughout it all is for the most part game, cheerful and willing.

Then, we get to the bridge. Once our nemesis. I think it will probably be no big deal. I am wrong. Steps slow, nostrils flare. I ask him a few times. There's deep holes on either side that I do not like one bit.

I do it in the way that's right for me. I dismount, lead him over it. And back. And forth. A few times. At one point he heaves what seems a disgusted sigh. 

I said, hey! This is how this goes. This is what happens if you refuse a bridge. You get to walk over it about a hundred times until it's non issue.

I think that happened the time before last, he huffs, offended.

Well okay, says me. I mount up, and yep, we cross it back and forth. No sweat, no drama, kicking, spurring whipping any of that bullshit. Just a calm, happy horse who needed a little help.

Now I am thinking the unknown ahead of me is preferable to running back into what we've left behind. The frisbee kids will be in full swing. The dogs. The latest, a big pretty German Shepherd that got her leash off again as soon as I was just a few feet ahead. . . no, we'll take what's ahead.

So much pretty country. I thought I didn't care for that side of the lake. I was wrong again. 

A heavy bodied owl flaps into the woods. I watch her go, Royal doesn't.

We come to the place where you used to have to go up on a road, cross a bridge and come in through a entrance that has a dicey reputation for unsavory goings on.  There's an option now. Just a little stream coursing merrily through the bottom of is.

It will require a little jump but not a mighty leap. Uh, Royal? Do you know the difference? 

I ready myself in case he doesn't. Of course I do, as he sanely jumps just enough to get us over the ditch and clear the mud.

Should I mention now how much I love this horse, that can go from fire breathing dragon to magical Pegasus in the course of a couple hoofbeats?

So many memories. That's the place Sarah jumped their pony out from under her brother who was on back. I didn't find out right away as I was up ahead. Then we had to go back for the little guy who got to ride in front after that.

There's where that same pony dragged Sarah on a different day. He's jumped sideways at something and she was clinging for dear life to his side as he sped off. She lost her grip but her foot stuck in the stirrup. I get queasy just thinking about it. She was so lucky. Shook up, a little bruised. I sold that pony.

We are at the highway and I glare at it. I force myself to breathe normally so I don't upset Royal. 

A friend of mine got killed there back in the mid 90's. She was riding the horse I'd sold her. It was a fluke accident. She'd come off, hung on to the reins so her beloved mare wouldn't get loose on the nearby fast moving road.

The mare took a bad step, crushed her chest. My friend didn't survive.  

Nothing will ever make me okay with that spot. It wasn't anybody's fault but I hate the place anyway. 

We get past it. I point Royal at the highway in a long break between traffic. He trots across, brave and bold.

That's my boy.