Thursday, December 21, 2006

December Horse Play

Although I'm feeling pretty Christmasy, it's hard to go whole hog when the temperatures are flirting with the 80s. That's what I love about living in Florida; today, December 21, just three days away from Christmas Eve, I just returned home from a five hour horseback ride. Back in Chicago, I'd probably be bundled up and shivering.

Actually, I didn't originally plan to ride that long today. I went out in Lake Louisa State Park with the barn owner, who had a rare day off. Usually her riding time is very limited, but for once the work was under control so we could take a long, relaxing ride. We ended up going out to the South Trail, which is as far as you can possibly go...literally from one end of the state park to the other.

The weather was perfect for riding. It was warm, but not blisteringly hot, and the bugs were blissfully absent. The day was beautiful, the horses were energetic, and our butts were ready for the abuse of some long hours in the saddle.

Figment was happy to have a buddy along, since we usually ride by ourselves. But even though he is very brave when I ride him alone, he turns into a thousand-pound wimp when he's in a herd. He insists on staying behind the other horse(s), and if the other equine balks, he has to do the same. He'll do it even when the other horse is balking at something that Figgie has seen a dozen times. Thankfully, he usually won't spook too badly (i.e. bolt or jump to the side) even if another horse is spooking, unless there really is something terrifying (like a horse-eating deer or a homicidal flock of birds).

Boudreaux, the barn owner's horse, is very calm and well behaved 95 percent of the time, but he likes to make up for it during the other five percent, tossing in a major spook every now and then. Poor Boudreaux attracts deer like his manure attracts flies. Granted, there are a lot out in the state park, but we always see a disproportinate number when Boo is along. They like to surprise him by popping up suddenly out of the brush, so of course he has to leap wildly to the side. The barn owner is quite good at riding out his silliness, but it's always quite a surprise to be plodding along calmly and then, suddenly...EEEEKKKK!!! A DEADLY DEER!

Figment is no angel himself. Like Boo, he's good most of the time, but then his Evil Figgie personality takes over. He tosses in a spook every now and then and gets an attitude problem if I try to force him to walk in the front of the pack.

But for the most part the horses were very good, especially considering that we probably covered over 15 miles today. We had neglected to pack any human snacks (I always bring a handful of horse cookies); all we had was water, and our stomaches started rumbling three hours into the ride. Fortunately, a long stretch of the trail runs through an orange grove. We stopped for a sweet citrus snack and allowed the horses to have some grazing time.

The ride was great fun, but by the time we had reached Hour Four, our butts were ready for a break. As we stretched into Hour Five and turned onto the trail home, I could almost hear my rump rejoicing. On the way, we stopped at the water trough at the trail head, and both Boo and Figgie drank like dehydrated camels.

When we got back to the barn, we hosed the boys down and turned them out in the round pen, which was supplied with several stacks of peanut hay. Back in Illinois, Figment ate a timothy/alfalfa mix hay, and the first time he was served the peanut variety, he gave it an evil look. Eventually he started eating it grudgingly. Then suddenly he realized that it's actually a taste treat, and now he would rather eat peanut hay than fresh grass, carrots, and even apple cookies!

As I watched Figgie blissfully rolling in the dirt before he buried his nose in a hay feast, I reminded myself that Christmas Eve was less than 72 hours away. What a wonderment to be basking in the sunshine, wearing a t-shirt, and enjoying the warmth.

It reminded me of a long ago Christmas Eve when there was a strange anomaly in Chicago. At the time, I had owned my first horse, Cochise, for maybe two or three years, so it was over 20 years ago. We'd had the usual snowfall, but on this particular December 24th, the temperature went up into the 70s!! All of the snow melted, flooding the wide, open fields where we used to ride. The water was not quite up to a horse's knees, so 'Chise and I cantered through the flooded grass, sending up a stream of water, delighting in the fact that we were doing this the day before Christmas!! It's quite a standout memory to be wearing a t-shirt and playing in water at that time of year in Chicago.

That night, the weather was stranger still. I went to a barn down the road to meet up with some friends, and we were all gathered around the fireplace in the game room, listening to the thunderstorm outside. Yes, a thunderstorm! I can't even describe how odd it was to hear the rumbling ruckus outside at a time of the year when a blizzard would have been the norm.

Now, sunshine, water play, and rainstorms in December are the norm for me. Yes, it's a little hard to equate with Christmas, but that's just fine with me. It's just one of the many pleasures of living in the Sunshine State...a Christmas "present" that I can enjoy all winter long.

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