Saturday, December 22, 2007

Christmas Ham on the Hoof

Theme park Christmas activities are fun. How can you not love the Osborne light spectacular or get chills at the stirring rendition of the nativity story at the Candlelight Processional? But as much as I enjoy all that, I'm still reveling in the novelty of being able to go horseback riding in December without trekking through a foot of snow with a temperature hovering the 20s.

Today, the owner of the barn where I keep Figment had a pre-Christmas get-together. She invited all the boarders for a ride this morning, followed by a little party. Usually it's against my religion to wake up early on a Saturday, but it sounded like a lot of fun. I had to work in the afternoon, but since we were meeting at 9 a.m. for the ride I figured I'd have enough time.

The morning dawned grey and murky, but the weather said there was no chance of rain. Even tho' it was a bit chilly (for Florida anyway), I donned a t-shirt just because I could. Out at the barn, I discovered that two of the boarders were running late. Since I was on a time schedule, I hurriedly saddled Figgie and planned to meet everyone out in the woods.

Figment has a split personality. Heading away from the barn you would think he was on the verge of collapse because he moves so slow. The gopher tortises whiz by us as Lead Butt drags his lazy carcass towards the state park entrance. It's only half a mile down the road, but sometimes it takes us nearly half an hour. Not only does he move like frozen molasses, but he has to stop and gap at the other horses, cows, and things that exist only in his own imagination as we pass by all the houses and barns.

Finally we made it out, and I could tell that he was going to be spooky. It was a breezy day, which meant lots of rustling that could indicate a predator stalking the poor, innocent Appaloosa. I had to laugh, tho', as he focused his attention on something in front of him and a killer deer suddenly bounded out from behind us, causing my chicken horse to bolt.

Other than being on high alert, he was behaving quite well. The other riders called when we were about halfway out. We headed down the Bear Lake trail, planning to intercept them, when Figment suddenly went into Alert Level Bright Red as we prepared to round a curve. I could tell that he wasn't just being silly so I let him stop as I tried to listen and look ahead. I could hear a strange sound...I couldn't identify it, but something alive was definitely just ahead of us. I dismounted and lead him around the curve...smack dab into a pack (herd?) of wild hogs!

If you're never seen the wild hogs that range throughout Florida, they're little black menacing creatures that don't have much fear of anything. They breed like rabbits and tear up the landscape, so I'm not particularly fond of them. Once or twice a year the state park removes some of them, but the population seems to rebuild and redouble in the blink of an eye.

Thankfully most of them ran off into the underbrush (although not very far), but one held his ground in the middle of the trail. Figment started in awe, probably thinking it was a dog but wondering why it smelled so different. I yelled and managed to shoo it away, and I made sure I put plenty of distance between myself and the hogs before remounting. Too bad I didn't have a gun or I'd have had me a nice, fresh Christmas ham!

Actually, I could never harm a critter, even one as obnoxious and destructive as a wild hog. I'll never forget the day that the armadillo that was tearing up my yard sauntered right in front of my car as if daring me to run it over. Ah, the temptation! But I just couldn't bring myself to do it.

After our hog encounter, we turned on a different trail than I had planned so our path wouldn't intersect theirs again. Eventually we came to the Boy Scout camp, where someone had inexplicably raked many large piles of pine needles. Considering that the needles cover about 80 percent of the trails, it seemed odd to rake up one little area.

In Figment's eyes, the piles much have looked like big, brown porcupines just waiting to impale him. He planted his heels and let me know he was not going anywhere near them. Sigh! Even when I dismounted to lead him up for a sniff, I practically had to drag him. Finally I poked a pile with my toe, and when it didn't dismember me he seemed to accept that it was safe.

Thankfully that was the end of the drama on our ride. I called the others, but they were rather far off so I ended up turned towards home. I was shocked that I had been out for over two hours! But the weather was almost perfect for riding so it was easy to get caught up in the relaxation of trotting along on my horse and to lose track of time.

It had been an interesting pre-holiday adventure. Back in Chicago, I wouldn't be out in the woods marveling at Christmas ham on the hoof, and I probably wouldn't even be at the barn. No doubt I'd be holed up inside, giving thanks for central heating and wishing that springtime would hurry.

But now I can enjoy the Great Outdoors year 'round with my intrepid equine companion. I can't think of a merrier way to spend part of my Christmas season here in the Sunshine State.

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