For weeks it felt like spring’s start was delayed, because the snow had been so plentiful and long-lasting, but now all is thawed and the grass coming green and the trees are slowly starting to set buds. The cardinals are busy again, and the blue jays noisy, and the irritated robins call, “Yeep! Cuck, cuck, cuck! Yeep!”
“Let’s go down the road and up and over and see how the trail through the woods looks,” said W----, and I agreed to it. X--- didn’t know what any of that meant, but was willing enough to join us. X--- has been preoccupied lately, having unexpectedly lost his job. He has admitted to folks in the barn that he’s still having nightmares, and though he’s still smarting from the indignity of losing his job without cause, he seems relieved to be done with it.
W---- led on Jenny, a semi-retired show-jumper, a big, dark bay with big, dark ears, and the oldest mare in the barn. I followed on Mars, chestnut in color and temperament, and, at 6, the youngest horse in the barn. X--- rode his gray mare, a steady, sensible horse that knows her job and rarely gives anyone any trouble.
The road was quiet. There is little shoulder to ride on, but not much in the way of traffic. The last time we went this way we turned off the road and a flock of unexpected birds had flown out of a building, startling Mars. Now, he walked calmly but carefully past the spot of prior alarm. There is plenty for a young horse to look at on this route, crossing two bridges over the Shekomeko Creek, winding around old buildings, cornfields, and small piles of decrepit farm debris, down several residential streets. We’d done the ride recently enough so it wasn’t completely new to Mars. The only new part was going to be the trail through the woods.
When we reached the woods, the beginning of the trail looked like it had been cleared quite recently. It is wide enough to ride abreast. But once we were in, we encountered a fallen limb of the kind that we couldn’t just step over (too many sharp and pointy bits sticking out). W---- hopped off Jenny to clear the branch, and having done it, stayed on foot in case there were more.
And, there were more.
Every fifty yards or so there was a tangle of fallen branches. Some were easier to clear than others. The woods here are a mix of deciduous trees, mostly, with a few long-needle pines, and many thorny bushes and climbing vines. By the third obstacle, W---- needed both hands to try to budge the mess, and she had to hand me Jenny’s reins which I held while I sat on Mars. I was focused on watching her, keeping Jenny and Mars a safe distance apart, and staying relaxed.
At the deepest point of the trail the ground falls away to the left, revealing that we were riding atop a steep, wooded hill. There was barely room to hold Jenny and keep an increasingly uneasy Mars out of the sticker bushes. I don’t think X--- was feeling entirely ok about the terrain, and before I got a chance to look, I heard X--- behind me make a noise. I turned to see him standing on the ground next to the gray mare, running up his stirrups.
W---- called out to ask if he was ok.
X--- said he was fine, but he said his horse wasn’t having it.
Horses can read your mind, of course, which is why people who are terrified of horses rarely learn to ride. Horses can feel your anxiety through your seat and hands, and, as prey animals, they take it seriously. Maybe you know something they don't about lions or bears.
At this point, Mars checked the mare ahead of him and the mare behind and surmised that he was the only horse with a rider still mounted. Mars gave a pugnacious buck, popping into the air and kicking both hind feet out. This was my cue to get off as well.
W---- asked it I was ok.
I said I was fine.
She said, “Next time, when we get to a fallen tree at the beginning of the trail through the woods, remind me that there will be more and we should just turn around.”
We were not far from the end of the wooded section. The trail leaves off at a spot with a nice view, from the top of the hill to the south. Winter's straw-colored hills are now washed with pale green, though the trees are still as bare as bones. We found a large rotten log for remounting. We all got back on, including X--- who picked himself up and mounted his horse from the ground. Descending the hill, Mars finally let out a breath.
And then we rode home.
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