Monday, July 21, 2014

Two Day Backcountry Ride

Every year the local riding club I am a member of does a 3-day backcountry ride. The ride traverses through one of the most remote areas of the state, a beautiful portion of the Monongahela (Mon) Nat'l Forest. The ride primarily follows along an old railroad grade as it follows first the Cheat River and then the Greenbrier River. This part of West Virginia hasn't been so remote forever, in fact, back in the 1800s and early to mid-1900s it was quite the booming place! The railroad was active then, and the towns that are merely dots on a map with no buildings now, were huge establishments once upon a time.

The way this ride works is that we meet up in Bowden, leave the rigs with folks who will shuttle them to that night's campsite, and then we ride to the day's destination. Day one: Bowden to Glady. Day two: Glady to May Bottom. Day three: May Bottom to Durbin. Bowden, Durbin, and Glady all have POs, though each place is very small!

Once in Durbin on Saturday,  the plan each year is to ride through the parade taking place as the town celebrates its birthday. Post-parade, everyone rendezvouses in another campground for one more night. This final campground is near the carnival and food vendors, which everyone enjoys.

Mike had to work on Saturday, so we would only get to ride for the first two days, but that was fine as it would take us through what I considered to be the prettiest part of the ride. And heaven knows, I didn't really need to indulge in carnie food!

Winding along above the Cheat River
We departed Elkins, meeting just east of town on the edge of the Mon on Thursday morning. Mike had the brake controller installed on his truck earlier that week, so we were able to haul the little trailer with his truck - a much better situation as my car is maxed out with one horse in that trailer, putting two horses in it and then adding mountains is a no-go. Mike's truck with its V8 engine had no problems though.

For day one, Mike would be riding Q and I would be riding Griffin.

We were a titch late getting to our rendezvous point, so we set about tacking up the horses all rapid-fire like. Griffin decided this day would be a great day to remind me that he is indeed still capable of being the babiest of babies, making a royal attempt to lie down every. single. time. that I requested he lift a front foot. -_- He wasn't dramatic about it, he just slowly buckled his front knees and lay his front end down with his ass in the air every time I tried to lift a front leg to pick out a hoof. Royal pain in my ass.

I whipped the lead line off the trailer and sent his feet a'movin' much to his dismay as I threw curses at him for being a dick. Fortunately, he decided after this moment that he'd had enough of being difficult and he complied with my requests from then on out.

Skeptical poneh is skeptical
The first day's ride would be the hardest elevation-wise. We followed the Cheat River for most of the day, rising and falling in elevation as we navigated a logging road along the valley that the river created.

The footing was far rockier than I'd anticipated for this day, which bothered Q none as she has killer feet, but the going was harder for Griffin. I can't quite figure this horse out with his tender feet. Structurally, his feet are incredible, but he still periodically minces his way over gravel - he will even do this when he is booted up. However, he is remarkably cured of all ailments of the hoof when he gets to do as he chooses/as he thinks he chooses, you see, Griffin is Highly Opinionated.

If I choose to have him travel in a certain direction on tough footing, he's all, "Ow, ow, owwwwwwwwww, ow ow ow!"

If Griffin chooses to navigate a certain direction on tough footing, say to, oh, bully another gelding, he's all, "La dee daaaahh, dee dum dee daaahh!" And he plods along as if nothing is the matter.

Liz makes decisions, Griffin says, "Ow." Griffin "makes" decision*, Griffin exhibits zero ouchy responses.

*Its not so much him making a decision as my permitting him to navigate where he will in an attempt to troubleshoot some of his silly behaviors.

Looking down to the river
So, while I am certainly considerate of his feet and whether they hurt or not**, I'm skeptical at the same time of How Bad they truly are because he is so Highly Opinionated and he is Smart and being both Highly Opinionated and Smart translates into a horse who will put out all the stops to try to get His Way (see: lying down attempts mentioned above).

**I did boot his fronts for the brunt of our ride after he exhibited Issues.

Griffin being Highly Opinionated aside,  the first day's ride went well. We traveled 12.23 miles in about 4 hours, which left plenty of time to relax once we'd reached the day's camp in a recently mowed hay field.

Mike's truck was parked away from the other rigs at this camp as the drivers had made an effort to park near shade for Kenai who was crated in the back of Mike's truck. The weather was cool - in the upper 60s - and I'd requested they try to find Kenai a shady place. They'd done just that, placing his crate out of the truck in an area of lush grass that was shaded by an old barn.

I let Kenai out to romp while Mike and I tended to the horses.

Looking uphill at boulders and trees
Fair footing, a little rocky but not bad
Looking out over the Cheat
Camp at sunset; hobbled horses out to pasture
Far hayfield
The wagon team
One night home
My happy ponehs
Being a good boy and staying close when the other dogs ran off
Watching the draft horses
Nickering at me for grain/mash
He's far more careful about eating than Q
She digs in and gets seriously messy QUICK

Mike and I make a great team setting up camp (and breaking it down) for horse events. In under 15 minutes, we had both horses untacked and my electric corral up and on, horses inside happily munching grass. Bahdah bing, bahdah boom. Within the hour, we'd hauled water from the stream across the field for them and given them both a big sloppy mash of beet pulp and grain (they would be the only horses to receive mashes much to the dismay of the other horses in camp who stared enviously at them).

The rest of the day was spent sitting around chatting and drinking and eating. The Daiquiri Whacker even made an appearance.

I went to sleep at 8:16p and fell asleep to the chink-chink-chink of the chains on the hobbled horses (of which there were many) as they grazed around our tent. I proceeded to sleep like the dead for a solid 12 hours.

: : : : :

Day two dawned slowly in camp. We woke, had a communal breakfast, and rode out of camp around 10:30a. This day's ride, and the following day, would follow along the West Fork of the Greenbrier rail trail,  a cousin to the rail trail I have access to from my barn.

For day two, I rode Q and Mike rode Griffin as I'd not ridden my girl for nigh on two weeks and was missing riding her. (Mike has been riding and conditioning her.)

Changes for day two of riding: an additional 8 riders joined us and a wagon pulled by a team of two spotted Belgians driven by a grandfather and his grandson.

Danger! Alert! Alert! Crazy wagon horses! DANGER!

Something you need to note right now about this wagon's driver - he's in his 80s, he knows his shit, and he's a fucking badass. Remember that for later.

Q and I started out behind the wagon for the first part of the ride, but by mile 3, we'd joined the group of folks riding out front of the wagon, which was a load of fun.

The beginning of this rail trail was just like the one near the barn, pea gravel tire ruts with a grassy swath down the middle and a large grass berm to each side. By mile 5 or 6 though, the trail made the transition to grass the whole way. The Forest Service mows and maintains the rail trail right-of-way, so the footing was akin to what you'd see on a grass racetrack. So perfect.

About 8 miles into the ride, there were a series of gates that needed to be opened and then closed as soon as the wagon had traveled through them. Mike and I were designated as the official gate closers for this task. The front riders had the key and opened them, and Mike and I set about waiting for the wagon and other horses/riders before we closed them.

Once our task was complete, we were then presented with the tricky game of catching up with the front riders. This entailed a lot of trotting, cantering, galloping, and strategic leap frogging at the walk and trot to navigate around all of the riders without upsetting anyone's horses. The task took a little time, but we got 'er done rather safely, passing the wagon last and cantering off to try to catch the front riders who were a good mile or so ahead!

Leaving Glady
The old Post Office! So tiny.
Danger! Alert!
My junior endurance rider friend
The motley crew of front riders
Red spruce trees and my little girl, nothing is better
Red spruce <3
I was using that branch to wave away insects
Cheesin' real hard
Horseback selfie!

During our catch up sprint, Griffin and Q traded the lead. Griffin would lead for the canter bits until we got to a wooden bridge where he would balk and spin in terror despite Mike's urging him forward. Ultimately, for each of these, Q would throw up her hooves (and I my hands) in frustration and impatience and trot across the bridge like it ain't no thang while Griffin would mince his way over in mock-terror.

Q and I would lead at a big trot for a ways after each bridge. My girl was looky and a little tense, but she was quite good overall. I had her in her kimberwicke with running martingale and was able to get her to collect and pay me a little more mind than she tends to want to do when she is in High Alert Mode. She had some balking spooks, but nothing dirty at all. They were highly frustrating moments to deal with, but they were rare and easy to ride through (whereas her previous spooks were dirty and would likely have unseated most riders it seems after hearing Saiph's account of how they appeared second-hand). Overall, I was thrilled with her behavior; I praised her and talked to her almost constantly, too.

After a few hundred yards of leading, Q and I would allow Griffin and Mike to pass us again and lead us along at the canter for a time as I still don't trust Q to not spook like a banshee at the canter (her spooks are harder and more intense the faster she goes; imagine riding your horse at a canter only to have them pull a cutting horse maneuver out of nowhere, slamming on the brakes, ducking their head, and throwing their front end hard to one direction or the other in a dodging-blocking kind of move....that's Q's spook). Mike and Griffin would lead until we'd encounter a bridge where Q and I would give Mike time to try to work Griffin through his issues with crossing, and then, ultimately, Q and I would lead the way, Mike and Griffin leapfrogging us again after a few hundred yards.

In time, we caught the front riders.

Walking Griffin for a short bit while he finished a drink
Rhododendron in bloom and hay scented ferns along the river bank
The rear group of riders
Danger! Alert!
Orange = lilies in bloom
Skeptical ears
Shale patio, anyone?
Goldenrod. It'll be golden by mid-August.

We rode with those folks for awhile, listening as two of the older men gave the youngest rider (13; a junior I ride endurance with), a hard time. This was her first time riding with our group; I started riding with them at about this age and can remember those same two men teasing me just like that. It's completely and totally good-natured teasing; they just get a thrill out of it because teenage girls are so quick to rise to their heckling. On this day, Hoot was talkin' big about how he was going to race the junior rider as soon as he finished his beer. She was so on edge waiting for him to make good on his words; she'd look over her shoulder, grinning, and push her horse (one of Hoot's, not her Arab) into a trot. He and the other gentleman would heckle her for being too eager and threaten to throw her in the river. She'd giggle and face forward again, slowing her horse back to a walk while Hoot picked up his heckling anew. Back and forth and back and forth. The three of us left out of the direct heckling would even jump in to add some banter of our own just to stir the pot from time to time.

Finally, Hoot did push his horse toward her at speed and she raced off! Hoot pulled back quickly though, and we heckled him hard for being all talk and no race. I laughed, and urged Mike to race after the junior and race her for a time. He kicked Griffin forward, passing Hoot at a canter, where Hoot had just enough time to tag Mike's outstretched hand to "tag him in" in his stead.

And like that, Mike and Griffin and the junior and her horse were gone from sight.

We were close to the day's camp by this point. The remaining front riders gave me a heads up for what to look for, and Q and I rode ahead. We spent probably about 3/4 of a mile riding on our own. Q was in High Alert Mode, but I kept her to her big trot and talked to her and praised her. She had one big spook, but it wasn't too bad. She quickly slowed to a stutter-stepping walk due to a Horrible Awful Large Leaf, but she didn't duck her head or slam the breaks. I snapped, "Heaven forbid!" at her before kicking her back into her big trot and continuing down the trail, and then quickly praised her for trying to be braver about the situation.

I spied the trailers off to the left and Q and I picked our way off the rail trail, through some tall grass and forbs, before crossing the river into camp.

Q was calling for Griffin at this point, who she'd heard, but hadn't seen. She Quit Listening to me, and remained upset about Griffin being gone for the next many minutes. I led her over to the trailer, let Kenai out, and set to untacking her, despite her manic calls for her suddenly favorite little grey gelding that she Couldn't Live Without.

I then took her down to the river to sponge her off, and tailed her back up the bank and to the trailer. I'd never tailed on Q before, but her huge motivation to find Griffin provided the perfect moment for me to tail without having to encourage her forward. After a minute, she realized that something was amiss with the situation and turned to look at me, but I just clucked her forward and slapped the leadline lazily against her side and she continued forward like it was the most normal thing in the world.

I stopped tailing her at the trailer and tied her up, and saw Griffin and Mike appearing right at that moment. Mike had wandered down the road trying to find a good place for the wagon to cross over the river into camp. He'd talked to some folks about a supposed bridge further down, but didn't go that far to investigate.

I nodded, but didn't think further on it because I knew that the wagon had come in years past and I figured that the driver knew what he was doing.

However, in seconds there was quite the commotion. The rest of the riders - and the wagon - were arriving. Mike rode toward the river crossing to greet them and see what he could do to help the wagon.

I was focused on Q being a spazz, but I heard a lot of shouting, whinnying, and splashing of water. And then, my BO was riding down the road giggling her head off. And then Mike was right behind her looking amazed. "What happened?" I called. "Dellis took the wagon across the river!" They both responded.

WHAT?! Holy...

For reference, here are photos of the river crossing where the wagon was taken through.

Looking down on the crossing
The bank they descended
The bank they ascended; rail tie at foot of bank
Water depth to my knees ~18"

Remember how I said the driver was a fucking badass? Case in point.

And if that wasn't enough? When Dellis came into view after the crossing his face read as if nothing had happened at all. No big deal. His truck and trailer were parked beside ours, everyone else was on the other side of the road. This left not a lot of space for him to maneuver the wagon, so he asked if my horses would be cool if he pulled forward a bit so he could back into the area in front of his truck. I assured him they'd be fine, and then he backed into that spot with the ease you'd back the vehicle you drive.

Bad. Ass.

The two drafts? Charlie and Frank, 4 and 5 year old geldings. Saints.

Wagon excitement over, Mike took Griffin to the river to sponge him down and we gave both horses a mash to trick them into drinking more than they had in the river. While they consumed these, we headed over to big adieu to the group, deciding to head out sooner rather than later so Mike could have a more leisurely evening before he had to go to work for a 40-hour shift (thank your emergency services employees, folks, they work long and crazy hours to help keep you safe).

Our haul home was uneventful, just the way it should be. Griffin was even calm when we'd arrived home instead of being a sweaty, nervous mess due to the trailer ride! #winning

We unloaded the horses and turned them out, then unloaded the trailer quickly before heading home to feast on leftovers and relax.

: : : : :

It was a great two days. I had a great time talking to and hanging out with that group of folks. I had a blast sharing that much riding time with Mike. I loved getting to ride my horses in yet another area of West Virginia that I had previously only driven and hiked when I worked for the Forest Service. So much fun!

Both horses were absolutely outstanding both days, and I'm so thankful for that and proud of them.

Griffin ended up around 26 miles over two days while Q finished around 25 miles.

Griffin's day with me aboard demonstrated to me how mature he is about things. He lost a boot twice (this pair was a size too big, but I am awaiting replacement parts to the ones that fit him) and he stood like a champ for me to fix the boot each time despite the horses in front leaving him. Finally, when we reached good footing, I completely removed the boots; he stood stock still a third time as all the horses headed away from him. I was so proud. Additionally, when Mike rode Griffin the second day, he took several moments to stop and fiddle around with his saddle bags making Griffin stand alone while the horses left him. These episodes grew longer and longer in length as the day went on. Mike would then set Griffin out at a relaxed, rolling canter to close the distance between us. On top of that, he raced the junior rider, passed her, cantered long alone in the front, and then explored down the road away from everyone. Griffin was stellar and Mike really enjoyed him.

Q exhibited a much better head through this ride. She clearly is still alarmed at things when she is in the lead, but I'm learning ways to coach her through. I'm praising often to help bolster her confidence, which seems to be helping. Additionally, when she goes into her High Alert Mode where she pays little to no mind to her rider, I am learning how to bring her focus back to me by requesting that she move in a far more collected fashion. I'd like to be able to devote time in the next few months to really getting a solid lateral motion button installed on her, so that I can employ that as a further tactic to bring her head back to me when she is on High Alert.

More than anything though, what really *made* these two days for me was getting to share it with Mike and watching how much fun he had. I love how adept a rider he is that he wants to partake in these kinds of adventures with me. We had such a blast together and we're already planning a few more rides with just the two of us through areas of the Mon. We're beyond fortunate that there are few to no trails in our Nat'l Forest that are barred from horse use. I can't wait to get out on more backcountry rides!

This is my mash, human.

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