Monday, October 30, 2006

Galloping Through The Groves

Nothing says "Florida" more than an orange grove; unfortunately, they are an endangered species in the Disney World area. I never saw one in all my trips to the Sunshine State until I started looking for a home for my horse, Figment, and I must say they caught me by surprise! I knew that they existed, but in this tourist mecca they're just about as elusive to spot as Bigfoot. It was only when I ventured beyond the 192 Tourist Hell and into the hills of Clermont that I finally got a taste of what Florida farmland looks like.

The barn where I board Figment is next door to an orange grove, and the owners have several orange trees on their property, too. Before I started taking Figment out to the woods, I gave him refresher lessons under saddle while riding among the ramrod-straight tree rows. Once he was reliable, we shifted over to Lake Louisa State Park. Most of the terrain there on the Bronson Trail (the main equestrian loop) is pine forest and Florida scrub land. It's shady and relaxing, and I often spot deer or other wildlife as we transverse miles of trails. But all summer I've had a hankering to head over to the South Trail, a much longer and farther riding path.

Now that the weather has cooled down, I finally decided to tackle the South Trail...not all of it at once, but an offshoot loop called Rangers Pass. I knew nothing of the trail other than the thick black line on the printed map. Little did I know that it winds around the periphery of endless acres of orange groves!

When I first saw the trail, I had visions of galloping Figment along the long, flat stretches of grass with me clinging to his back, enjoying the breeze in my hair and the sun on my face. It was the perfect spot to give him his head and let him race the wind a bit. Unfortunately, it didn't go quite as planned; I urged Figgie to pick up the pace, but he has a touch of Attention Deficit Disorder whenever I take him to a brand-new place. He could run because he was much too busy gaping at anything and everything around him. His head bobbed from side to side and his eyes widened, taking in the rows and rows of trees. Now mind you, these trees look identical to the ones right next door to the barn. If you've seen one orange grove, you've pretty much seen them all. But Figgie didn't see it that way! He trotted along on high alert, making an occasional snort to indicate that he was well aware that the trees could come to life at any given moment ala the apples trees in "The Wizard of Oz." If that happened, he was fully prepared to whirl around and flee madly to safety.

Eventually Figment realized that the trees in the state park are as harmless as the ones at the barn. Now that he was familiar with the area, I decided to head there again the next day.

Our next ride aligned more closely with my equestrian fantasies. Figgie was feeling his oats, and he willingly broke into a canter as soon as I touched my heels to his sides and clucked encouragingly in his ear. I could hear his hooves pounding in the grass and feel the sheer strength as his muscles flexed rhythmically beneath me (hmmmm, that sounds like a line from a racy romance novel!). Humans are certainly optimistic creatures to presume to harness 1200 pounds of raw power and bend it to their will.

The South Trail terrain is very much different than the Bronson Loop. The orange groves stretch as far as the eye can see, and we also passed a scenic little lake that sparkles just off the trail. If I ever do an all-day ride, it looked like the perfect spot to stop for lunch.

Cantering is fun for Figment since its his nature as a horse; for me, it's very therapeutic. I am a doctor of psychology, so I spend my days helping people sort out their stress and mental anguish. But what does the doctor do to escape from her own stress? She turns to her equine therapist! I am highly trained in cognitive techniques, and I practice what I preach in my everyday life. But that only goes so far; sometimes you simply need to be. Once you've processed your issues and feelings, you need a way to release them. As I gallop Figgie through the groves, I can feel my problems, worries, and fears flying out behind me and getting left behind in the dust.

All too soon the ride was over. I was shocked to discover that I had spent almost four hours in the saddle! Figment had worked up a good sweat, but he still had enough spring in his step to spook on the way home and nearly deposit me in the dirt (he spotted the same neighboring horses that he sees every day on the road to the park, but for some reason today they were apparently flesh-eating zombie horses hell bent on bursting through their fence to destroy him, or so he believed).

I'm so glad that fall is here now. Even though it means that water park season is over (for thin-blooded Floridians like me anyway) and that I'll soon be shivering and donning a jacket along with the natives, it also means that I can do longer sessions of "equine therapy." I can hardly wait to go galloping in the groves again tomorrow.

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