Sweet, sweet Canaan Valley summertime. Not much is better than this!
Canaan is considered "high elevation" for the east coast and Appalachians. The valley floor rests at ~3,200 feet while the mountain top plateaus surrounding the valley are anywhere from 3,700 to 4,200 feet.
As such, winters are more "wintery" and summers are mild. Our average summer days have highs in the 70s°F and lows in the 50s°F and the humidity is quite bearable in comparison with lower elevations. Overall, it's quite blissful!
With my travel and show budget completely blown (twice over, now) by unexpected vehicle-related purchases, I've been relegated to whatever horse-related fun I can find locally. Which really doesn't suck! Sure, I'm not honing in, tweaking, or vastly improving certain aspects of dressage or jumping like I'd hoped to do. Nor am I testing our eventing prowess against peers. But we sure as shit aren't just sitting around doing nothing!
In fact, with the aid of friends new and old, all three horses are getting out on trail, building fitness a few times a week. It's been pretty fantastic.
The most epic ride so far was this past Sunday. Though it didn't quite go as planned! The beginning was fraught with miscommunication and the end was a mess with some uncertainty finding the correct trail home. Fortunately, everyone and animal made it back in one piece and the whole experience made my heart SO happy.
Two huge and exciting things happened as a part of this ride: (1) I finally got to meet the new endurance family that moved to Canaan after years in Brazil, and (2) Q was a fucking rockstar.
Originally, I was to meet the new family and Dan at 5pm to strike out on our ride. Instead, I left my house at 1pm to get Q ready and then met Chuck around 1:30pm and we rode 4 miles across the valley to the family's new farm.
Upon arrival, I was so delighted to finally meet Chris, Aimee, and Annamaria. They're very into endurance and will quickly become well-known within the region, I expect! For me, it means more opportunities to share travel to rides and company for conditioning rides. Between Dan, this family, and myself, we've got quite the endurance contingent in Canaan again for the first time since the 70s and 80s.
While waiting for our meet with Dan later, Chuck talked us all into seeing a few "shortcuts" within the Timberline development. So Annamaria, Chris, Chuck, and I all headed out for a pretty easy 6 mile meander.
Chuck's horse was increasingly difficult to deal with as the ride went on. Over the course of the day he broke the reins twice and Chuck fell off at least once. As a result, Chuck opted to head home while Chris and Annamaria and I headed back to their barn to await Dan's arrival.
Waiting for Dan coincided perfectly with the only rainfall of the day. While I don't mind rain, I'll admit it was really nice to get to chill under a roof for those 30 minutes!
Dan showed up as the rain slacked off. He'd brought an extra horse along for Annamaria to ride so her mom could have her horse back.
The five of us struck out from their house to the closest trailhead, the same one I'd navigated to a few weeks ago on Q.
Dan, riding Butch, led us to the trailhead and down the first mile or so of trail. Throughout this time, he remarked to me how good Q was being. "Thanks," I replied, "I've really been working with her to build her confidence!"
"Want to get her out front for awhile?" he asked.
"Sure, why not!" I answered.
And like that, Q pushed into the front for several miles of trail. She was alert, but the feeling of sitting on a powder keg ready to blow and spook hard at any moment was absent. She didn't move out quite as fast as Butch does (Dan has an uncanny ability that enables him to put a 12-14 mph trot on every horse he works with), but it was a very respectable pace nonetheless!
Eventually, we reached a junction in the trail. Chris wanted to head to the right which would take us up into Dolly Sods where we could then loop back to Timberline. I've looked at this route on maps but hadn't yet traveled it, so I quickly agreed with his plan.
Q and I took the lead again and headed down a completely new-to-us trail!
As with many trails throughout Canaan and the Sods, we quickly came to a short boardwalk bridge gapping first a wetland and then a small stream. Fortunately, Q has never questioned bridges like this. We tackled the first one with no issue, but the second one was a bit more precarious, so I opted to dismount and lead her over it.
The others dismounted for both and all but Chris on his new horse Beijo crossed with minimal issue. Beijo was NOT okay with the bridges or the water though! Trolls clearly live under them, if you asked him. Chris and I worked in tandem from the ground to get Beijo across. It took several minutes, but he did finally cross.
As we struck out again, Dan and Butch took the lead for a time. But then we came to another bridge where Butch expressed strongly that he agreed with Beijo's view about the potential for trolls. So I leapfrogged Q around him and we struck off in the lead again.
That bridge would be the first of nearly a dozen! Every horse was quite confirmed with crossing by the end, most following Q's lead and trotting across with no hesitation.
Finally, we reached the end of the bridge-riddled trail and climbed up Cabin Mountain into Dolly Sods.
We knew roughly where we were, but weren't 100% certain about the best way to link back to trails we knew. My inner compass screamed to go one way, and Chris agreed, but Dan insisted another. As Dan knows the Sods best, we went with his idea first.
After reaching a certain viewpoint along the trail, Dan changed his mind and we all turned around to head back the way Chris and I thought was right.
Well, it turns out Dan's hunch was correct. If we'd only continued another ½-mile, we'd have confirmed that! As it was, we ended up conquering a new section of trail that horses most likely had never been on before - at least not on purpose!
If you've followed this blog for any length of time, you've seen the kind of terrain I often ride. It's riddled with rocks and often resembles a creekbed more than a trail. As a result, I don't often complain about rugged trails or balk at much of anything. It is what it is, and it's what I'm used to and my horses are adept at dealing with it.
So it may come as a bit of a surprise when I tell you that the pieces of trail we crossed in error to get home amidst a quickly darkening sky on this ride were FUCKING RUGGED AS HELL. Like, I would NOT have done them without Dan present, and if I find myself in that situation again I will quickly turn tail and retrace my path no matter how long it may take.
You see, we found ourselves amidst one of the several boulder fields that make up this area of the Sods. These areas aren't hard for hikers who can adeptly hop the gaps between the boulder tops, which are anywhere from 5 to 30+ feet high. But with a horse? Yeahhhhhhhhh... Not so much!
|My husband for scale...definitely not horse-friendly terrain!|
On the day of our ride, we unfortunately found ourselves on a trail that led to the tops of boulders that had drop offs like these
Dan in the lead on Butch quickly dismounted upon reaching the first tricky section. He handed me Butch's reins and scouted ahead, calling back to us, "This is a no go. I'm going to try to find a work around." *cue rustling of shrubs, trees, and other vegetation as Dan scuffled through the very dense understory*
With a few broken branches to provide passage, Dan found us a workaround for the boulder field. He had each rider lead their horse to him to lead down in turn. With Chris et al. in the clear, Q and I queued up.
I stepped off the trail toward the workaround and squatted down to pick some blueberries while I waited for Dan to walk back up. Q, interested in following the other horses even though Butch was still behind with us, followed me and sidestepped me as I was picking blueberries. I cautioned her with my voice and she stopped, but not before her right hind broke through the thin humus layer atop the rocks that make up the Sods, sinking down to her hock into a very rocky void.
For context: Dolly Sods and the surrounding areas (and most of West Virginia) were heavily timbered in the early 1900s. In order to get the timber to surrounding cities, it was floated downstream on the Blackwater River where it was loaded into waiting trains in Davis. The steam engines that powered the trains often flung still-burning coals from their chimneys as they traveled through the mountains; these coals often started forest fires that would smolder in the rich, organic humus layer for months and years on end. The only thing that would truly put them out was a long, hard winter of heavy snow. The present day result of those long-smoldering fires is a lot of exposed rock and a thin layer of humus and soil with hardy trees that cling to rocks under the shallow layer of humus/soil.
|Questioning my life choices.|
Stirrups tossed up on the saddle to avoid getting caught in spruce branches
You get an idea from this photo how narrow the areas we passed were - and this is a GOOD section!
My eyes bugged out of my head as I watched Q's hind leg sink down to the hock in that void. In a matter of milliseconds, my brain conjured up images of Q breaking the leg and the resulting tussle as she thrashed in pain as I inevitably screamed for Dan to come help calm her and then put her down (how?!) right then and there in the backcountry.
As my shocked brain took all of 1 second to process and another second to fire the synapses required to reach out to Q and open my mouth to talk to her, my Very Smart Mare carefully extracted her hind leg from the void and set it down in a safe place.
I quickly led her away from the area back onto the trail where she then took weight off of the right hind as I watched blood bubble to the surface along numerous scrapes. In no time at all, I was sitting underneath her in the tight quarters assessing every inch of her leg from the hock down. The skin was broken, certainly, but only the upper layer(s) of epidermis. Nothing had punctured below that, there was no swelling, and the bleeding was minimal and roughly the equivalent of turf burn.
Confident that Q was okay, Dan led her down through the workaround and we all continued handwalking the horses down the trail.
We had two more boulderfield workarounds - neither as tricky as the first! - before finding a trail Dan and I knew. We all remounted on this trail and were once again able to intermittently trot as we picked our way through the typical rugged mess we knew.
Finally, we came to the section of trail we travel every time we visit the Sods on horseback and were able to really pick up the pace.
The sun was setting in earnest by this point!
It sucked to have dealt with the tricky section of trail, but damn if the sunset didn't make it all okay in the end.
After riding along the ridgeline edge, we opted to dip down into the Timberline development roads to head back to Chris' place instead of doing another 2 miles of Sods trails to the ski slope. As it was, we still didn't reach Chris' place until ~9:15pm!
I was SO proud of Q in those final dark miles on the gravel road after we parted ways with Dan. Despite fleeing deer and one field of very excited strange horses, she led the way alert, but confident and trusting in my guidance, floating along in her biggest of trots.
Back at Chris', I praised Q immensely and hand fed her some hay while I waited for Chris to take care of his horses before trailering us back across the valley. I could have ridden Q, but knowing we had at least 1½ miles of paved road travel in the dark AND the fact that she'd already tackled nearly 30 miles that day, I had nothing to prove and was so grateful for the ride.
All in all, while not to plan the whole time, it was a really fantastic day. Q not only proved she's got the ability post-injury to go the distance, but that she's also come SO FAR with her confidence under saddle on trails. I honestly cannot put into words how absolutely over-the-moon I am with her! I had so much fun. I can't wait to get back on trail with this little mare and my new friends.