Sunday, October 21, 2007

The Trail We Blaze

One year ago this weekend, my horse Figment had only been in Florida for four months and my hopes of riding in the Lake Louisa Trail Obstacle Challenge were dashed when he suffered a bout of colic.

Since that time, we managed to ride in the spring challenge (it's held in both October and May), and now the fall version had rolled around again. As my inner alarm clock woke me at 7 a.m. this morning, I feared that once again I wouldn't be riding in the October challenge. This time it wasn't because of a problem with Figment, but rather the fickle whim of Mother Nature. I could see a thick layer of clouds clotting the pre-dawn sky, and when I brought up the radar online I saw that Clermont (where the challenge is held) was under an ugly patch of green that signified a current rainstorm.

According to the radar, the giant rain blob was moving rapidly so there was a chance that it might blow over by the beginning of the competition. My innate hatred of mornings and desire for additional sleep was at war with my desire to ride as I tried to figure out what to do. It's a 90 minute roundtrip to the barn, so I didn't want to waste all that time for a washout. But if I crawled back into bed and woke up later to find sunny skies, I knew I would deeply regret staying home.

I called the barn owner to get a real-time weather report. She said that it was raining but that she was optimistic it would blow over in time for us to ride. You check in at the trail challenge and are assigned a start time that is usually at least an hour away. If the rain continued to move rapidly, we would be high and dry when our start time rolled around.

The television weather report seemed to bear this out. It looked like the soggy morning was well on its way to morphing into something more pleasant. I hopped into Canyonero and headed out to Clermont, telling myself that the downpour currently deluging my windshield was going to stop at any moment.

It rained for 40 minutes of my 45 minute drive, but when I got to the barn it had mercifully stopped and blue sky was just barely visible in the distance. The barn owner and two other boarders were already busily preparing their horses.

I had bathed Figment the day before, but he had promptly rolled in the dirt the minute I turned him loose in the pasture. Thus, rather than having a squeaky clean horse my efforts were aimed more at damage control.

Figgie munched the last of his breakfast as I groomed him and strapped on the saddle. He peered eagerly over his stall door, knowing that something special was up. I had ridden him in the woods the day before, and he had seen some of the obstacles that were already set up. They're wrapped in caution tape so no one can cheat and ride through them early, but just passing by them alerted Figment to the fact that something was different.

The barn owner had already signed us all in and secured a 10:15 start time. We rode over a little early to give the horses a chance to check out the flurry of activity. There are 100 participants, most of whom arrive with horse trailers and many of whom camp in the state park. There are signs and banners flapping, tables with all manner of activity, and dozens and dozens of equines and their owners all milling around. It's an excellent opportunity to desensitize a horse and get it used to crowd scenes.

Figment gave the whole scenario a cautious eye, but he didn't balk. I could see his spotty little Appaloosa brain working overtime: "Hmmmmm, I seem to remember something like this before. And we passed all that weird stuff has to be another one of those strange human events where they ask us to do illogical things like walk over a mattress when there is plenty of room to walk around it or go backwards between cones when going forward would get us to the end much more quickly."

Shortly before our start time I paid a quick visit to the outhouse. I didn't want a repeat of my adventure in the springtime peeing in the palmettos at the side of the trail! With nature's call answered, I swung up into the saddle and joined my group so that we could embark on the day's adventure.

The barn owner and one of the other boarders were riding in the competition with me, and the boarder's husband was tagging along although he wasn't officially entered. He is a beginning rider and his horse is only three years old, so it was more of a learning experience for them. A woman on a cute little paint had also been added to our group.

We set out right on the dot of 10:15 and headed for Obstacle #1. It was a rather easy one, meant asa confidence builder for the horses. You simply had to walk between two halfway-buried tractor tires. Figgie still gave them a suspicious stare, since he knew they didn't belong in this environment, but he sauntered through.

The rest of the obstacles offered a variety of challenges: weaving through poles without knocking tennis balls off the tops, walking across a teeter totter (with the added challenge of slickness from the earlier rain), walking over a path of logs, backing up along a prescribed path, walking across a mattress, opening/walking through/closing a rope gate and a regular gate, pushing a giant ball, riding through a water puddle, and walking up and down wooden “stairs.”

The only one that worried me was the rope gate; last year, Figment had refused to go anywhere near it, since it was orange and looked a lot like electric tape. I don't care what scientists say...I believe that horses can see color. Sure enough, this year it was a non-threatening blue and while blend, and Figment got close enough to let me unlatch it. We still didn't complete the obstacle due to my awkwardness in figuring out how to close it, but I was very pleased that he didn't think I was trying to electrocute him again this year.

The only other obstacle where we had an “incident” was the water crossing. Figment has no fear of water. We've crossed chest deep areas without any trouble, so the little ankle-deep puddle should have posed no problem. The barn owner went across first, and suddenly Figment decided that he needed to bolt across and follow her. The rest of the group was with us, but he still got it into his head that he would be abandoned if he didn't cross NOW.

I tried to hold him in, but he was dancing and prancing like a madman. Finally I resorted to my “emergency technique.” As a failsafe, I taught him to stop when I do a half-dismount. When he's spooking, backing, prancing, or doing something where he's lost all horsey logic and attention, that will usually settle him down. When he feels my leg swing over his back and I freeze in that position, he knows that it means to stop whatever he is doing. It's sort of like pressing control-alt-delete on a computer. It causes him to “reset.”

I think the judge thought I was trying to bail, as he asked if everything was okay. I reassured him that it was fine and that Figgie would settle down shortly. Sure enough, he got his attention off the other horse and back onto me and realized that he had to wait his turn. I swung back up, ready to tackle the water, but the judge was still skeptical. He asked a couple more times if we were okay...maybe he's never seen a horsey reboot before. Figgie went through the water, but he did it in a very sloppy manner so goodness only knows how many points we lost in that fiasco.
Oh well, at least we completed every obstacle but the gate, and he was an angel for most of them. He even nailed the backing-up...he knows how to do it but can get piggy when I try to line him up on a specific path between objects.

He did have another meltdown just past the teeter totter. I'm not sure what caused it; I think it was a Gator cart, but he's seen that cart many, many times before when we've been out trail riding. I guess he was just looking for an excuse to act silly and to burn off a burst of energy.

When we approached the last obstacle (a wooden platform with “stairs” to climb up and down), I swear he knew it was the last one because he couldn't wait to do it. He poised himself at the cones that mark the starting line, and all I had to do was give him his head. Up, over, and down, and we were done.

I bought a hot dog for lunch and waited a while for the pictures to be delivered from the course. They snap photos at the pole bending and log obstacles, and I was anxious to buy them. As you can see below, they turned out quite nice:

Seminole Feed had a scale at the event, so I weighed Figgie. He stepped willingly onto the platform, probably thinking is was just another trail obstacle, although he was a little sloppy and stood with most of hoof protruding over the edge. He was almost 1100 pounds, although some of that is accounted for by his saddle. But it was good to see that he was up from 900-something when I'd had him weighed in the spring. He lost a lot of weight last winter, so it was good to see that he had gained it back.

When we got back to the barn, I lavished Figment with treats for being such a good boy. It had been a long day for him and many hours under saddle.

I'm very fortunate to be able to board Figgie right across the street from a state park with almost 20 miles of equestrian trails. The bi-annual trail challenge is a big bonus on top of that, and I'm already looking forward to the next one in the spring.

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