For a five-year old the Mops-horse (his pasture name) is going through a real ugly duckling phase as muscles and ligaments shape shift and more circle work comes onto the agenda. Odd, but true and perhaps not helped by a pot belly that’s suddenly exploded from nowhere, the product of his never-ending enthusiasm for food, any food –finally he’s reached capacity! – a full six months after arriving in the century-old corrals after Alberta’s 2013 vicious long winter.
After withdrawing from the Challenge, Mops had a week of easy time before going back into ground and long-lining work with the idea of heading towards Combined Driving disciplines. Yep, I like adrenaline challenges (have you ever watched FEI competition videos for this sport?)!
This is one tough minded horse, never aggressive in your face, a virtue to harness (sorry, bad pun) later on in his training. Yet, he was determined to keep his ‘no bend’ philosophy – particularly on the left rein, where if I’d yielded to the temptation to pull on that inside rein to get that bend (I admit, I tried once or twice in exasperation and it was akin to towing an ocean liner with the anchor out) was an exercise in the human learning about futility, patience and guile (molassed oats in a pocket, heaven!).
We increased stretch exercises, and I splashed out on Arnica gel and much to very wary initial suspicion, massaged into still-tight neck tendons. From experience – can someone tell me what’s the mind-body release reason here? – rib rubs have been miraculous, long sweeps of lateral rib-cage where his ears go floppy, fluttery diaphragm releases, major jaw chews, huge yawns too. And onto more circular butterfly-light rubs along the first three vertebrae behind the poll.
Then one-line and driving-surcingle work, going straight on a circle (sounds mad, but it’s true. It’s show jumping legend George Morris’s absolute mantra, the straight thing). Then aiming my jeans’ belt-buckle energy line straight to just above directly behind his tail and ask for the butt to horsepower his front end around to me, then move again and keep that movement going sideways (lateral) a step or two, straighten up for half a circle and start again. We’re onto roll-backs now (reining terminology, people!), pretty darned good from left to right and, er, not so fluent by a country mile from right to left.
In the meantime, one of his four-legged acquaintances – Mops never seems particularly interested, in fact, in the home herd – is the big rough-boned leopard-spotted Appaloosa. The 13-year old gelding’s original full title was ‘Thinks-Like-A-Fox,’ a title he regrettably morphed into all too readily with cunning cosmic humour. His name was swiftly shortened to ‘The Fox’ and his behavior upgraded, and he’s pretty much the go-to horse if you want a dynamite ride. Confidence isn’t a problem with this boy these days (thousands of hours of foundation flatwork schooling) and his idea of heaven is a snap decision to load up, an hour’s drive to favourite backcountry trails around Dawson trailhead or Sibbald Flats.
Together we’ve seen lynx in faraway muskeg meadows, wolves peering down from a safe cliff-face, a most unexpected gift of a wolverine in old growth forest and, three years back, a cougar loping, what, 20 yards in front of us, from left to right, noiseless atop thick lodgepole pine needles. Magical. Seconds and it was gone, leaving a ghost-walker memory of its angled front paw setting down, the velvet brown tail black tipped at its long elegant length.
Rocky Mountain Books published my backcountry equestrian guidebook late in 2007, most agreeably still selling well. I recently re-read the front one-third of the book’s general advice and safety factors and thought, not bad, Asheton, not bad at all……!
A noted horsewoman asked me recently if I rode alone and I said, yes, often I do. It’s something that happened during the guidebook’s research when everyone said they wanted to ride with me and where weather forecasts meant I had to decide pretty much the day before – and very often the short notice was just that, too short for most friends. I learned about satellite phones (forget irregular pick-up areas for cellphone reception that are pretty much useless in remote areas), and emergency beacons stuffed into pockets you can activate for immediate location finding, who to leave your route and latest return times, and who they needed to telephone if you don’t.
I found out carrying a spare pair of spectacles was A Very Good Idea (a near catastrophic bad experience), and carrying sharp knives (saddlebag, back cinch and my own jeans’ belt) a must. Plus understanding first aid, human and horse, and saddlebags packed with emergency gear and clothing layers in case weather situations changed. I learned that the horses would tell me about the landscape and wildlife around if I paid attention. Research books gathered in force on bear behaviour, sandstone and sea shells fossils high above treeline, and botanical explanations of why wild yarrow and certain mosses were highly useful in emergencies too.
The photographs throughout this post are from a recent day, just before Alberta’s blazing almost orange yellow leaves scattered like confetti into the forest floor below. I’d left The Fox’s bridle home by mistake in the barn (we’d been trying it out on a new horse), slid on another one with a jointed snaffle. By the end of the first meadow he indicated his displeasure at this decision, I sighed, backtracked to the trailer and slid on The Best’s straight-bar curb bit from her runaway days. The Fox prefers poll pressure. It went on, I swung on again, he thoughtfully mouthed the replacement, the equivalent of a horse-nod and we were on our way again for a peach of a ride in Indian summer sunshine. Backcountry it does to be flexible.