First Solo Ride
The moon was bright, and I have pretty good night vision. These will be relevant to the story.
I cut out of work about five minutes early, having ordered and scarfed pizza while technically still on the clock (the benefits of work-from-home). As I headed out I was faced with roughly equal amounts of trepidation regarding the drive out there and actually riding. The weather had dropped firmly into Ďcoldí and we had our first light snow of the season that actually stuck. I was worried the twisting roads in the dark would be slick and possibly treacherous.
When I got there everything was dark - the stable, the arena. The only light on was a single floodlight which glared onto the walkway between the two and unfortunately wrecked night-vision if it was in line of sight. Heading over into the barn I realized somewhat to my dismay that there were no horses in there. Heading out to the normal paddocks which act as the mare pen I realized those too were empty.
So by this point I was flat-out-confused.
Now, I mentioned in a prior post that the internal paddock areas are divided up with electric wire rather than full fencing. The first thing I realized is that this is not the easiest thing to see in the dark when cast against a dark background of paddock. I could see the posts, but ended up moving incredibly carefully and slowly to be sure there were no T-intersections coming up. I have no desire to figure out what electric wire feels like, and to be honest this felt more than a little treacherous.
I spent 15 minutes wandering around in the bitter cold like an idiot before I headed back to the barn, grabbed my cell-phone, and texted Jill and ask her if she happens to know where Dragon has gotten to. She responds promptly that she should either be inside or out with the mares/ponies and tells me I can contact the barn owner if I get totally lost. By this point I take my cell phone back out to the paddocks with me, and discover that its flashlight feature provides just enough light to allow me to see the wire fencing pretty clearly even with my floodlight-wrecked vision, and proceed to continue wandering back a bit farther afield.
About three minutes later I see my first horse - who I recognize as Bronze due to his incredibly flashy (zebra-striped) blanket. Heís off in one of the really large paddock areas that I had never seen used before (I might even call it Ďpastureí) and the only reason I spot him is because he and a friend are heading over to the water closer to his gate. With a renewed confidence that there must be horses out here somewhere I begin carefully and slowly navigating through the unknown paddock structure, cursing myself for not having thought to scope the layout one of the times I was here during the day. Eventually as I get farther out from the night-vision-ruining floodlight realize I actually can see moderately well, even sans cell phone - though my color vision still isnít great.
Eventually, I find the mare herd in an unfamiliar but larger paddock. I donít see Dragon in there, but Iím reasonably confident Iíve found the right herd. It takes me another five minutes to find the actual gate (itís all the way back at the other end - this is a large paddock and theyíre all clustered on the opposite side of it).
I debate for a minute if I seriously am going to try to herd catch a horse in the dark, alone in the freezing cold, out of a group of horses I donít know much about other than that they pick on my horse, while surrounded by an electric fence. I take couple minutes to really analyze and make a judgement call regarding the risk I am considering taking before deciding to go forward with this plan.
The one thing I do have on my side here is time - and I take full advantage of it. I walk around the paddock area twice until Iím very confident where all the electric wire is, where the gates are, and Iíve memorized the internal layout - the shelter, the water-bins, etc. I let my eyes fully adjust to the darkness, since I wonít be able to play with my phone while Iím out there (though I do bring it for safetyís sake to call for help if need be). I also think (but am not certain) that I spot Dragon in this process - hanging out at the far edge of the herd. While I feel a little bad for her exile, this is super convenient for me.
The horses here were turned out with halters, which isnít Jillís usual practice but seems to happen at this barn, so I just make sure I have a lead rope and I carefully make my way out, staying well away from the fence line. The ground is sort of miserable - uneven and just starting to really freeze - but after about thirty feet I figure out how to walk on it without too much trouble. Thereís a lot of paddock here and I get quite a bit of time to accumulate to my surroundings.
Dragon, bless her amazing heart, sees me a little ways out and takes several steps towards me - making herself easy to spot. I am about 90% confident I have identified the right horse at this point, mostly based on personality. Understand, Dragon is one of several chestnut horses here, and I know from conversation that there are 3 horses with the exact same blanket she has. Jill actually complimented me Saturday on having been able to distinguish her on sight in broad daylight. Worst case I figure I grab the wrong (very friendly) horse, realize my mistake once I get back to the light in the barn, give the horse a treat or two and then release her back into the herd.
Another pony - who I recognize as one of the horses chasing off Dragon on Sunday - also heads over. Honestly, Iím possibly a little more assertive/aggressive than I need to be in keeping her back. She doesnít respond to verbal commands, rope twirling, or gently hitting her with the rope, so I thwack her fairly firmly and make her backup several steps, then make her back up again for good measure. I might have just hit a pony genuinely trying to be friendly, but I just had no interest/patience in arguing with a horse I donít know in the dark. I was also getting a bit of stink-eye from the horse I believe is lead-mare (though she didnít come over) and I wasnít wanting to give anyone an inch. If I was going to be taking a risk being out here I was going to do it in the safest way possible - even if not optimal in other fashions.
Fortunately, we leave without any trouble, Dragon seeming quite happy to be led out (though she does request a bit more rope to deal with the footing - but I feel thatís kind of fair, since this footing is probably even worse for a horse than it is for me).
As soon as we step foot outside the paddock things start going exactly as planned. Grooming her up I can tell her nerves are somewhere between Sunday and Tuesday - a little more sensitive than her truly calm self, but generally happy to see me and be in the grooming stall. Sheís overreacting a touch in the cross-ties, but not that wild swinging I saw before. I take Jillís advice and donít let her overstep, showing her exactly where I want her to stand - really trying to play leader, which Jill tells me is reassuring. She seems content with that and settles down. I take my sweet time in grooming her, but sheís remarkably clean all considered - at this point Iím mostly just doing things for the routine of them. We tack up and I double-check everything since I am alone out here, and we head out.
Once in the arena I basically run an even easier version of Tuesdayís lesson minus the leg yeilds. I skip those simply because thereís no good line to do them on with the current jump-setup and I want lots of space to work with. Internally, I am mostly focusing on trying to find my real balance in each gait. In Western Jog Iím focused on letting my weight sway with the seat, not bouncing at all, and trying to keep even pressure on her back. In Posting Trot I have gotten to the point where I can really feel when I am either ahead of or behind Dragonís motion while posting - but I still frequently fall subtly in either direction. Iím not sure how visible this is from the ground - but I can really feel it. Usually weíre too busy focusing on my legs and steering for me to take the time to work on it, but once I get out on my own I let myself really pay attention to that shifting and try to find the sweet spot. We take frequent walk and Western Jog breaks. I do make her halt a few times just to make sure Iím solidly in control.
Dragon decides one of the lines through the jumps is the tiniest bit spooky - so we ride it a bunch of times. But for the most part, sheís a good girl. Not the sort of Ďworryingly goodí she was when sheís extremely sensitive - but just good. Itís a pleasant and uneventful ride lasting about 45 minutes - so almost exactly a normal lesson worth of riding - though I only realize that when I check my phone after I get back. (Thereís no clock in the arena. Note to self: buy a watch).
I take her back, untack, groom her until sheís completely dry (though to be honest, she barely broke a sweat during all this - this was a very light workout for her), put her blanket back on, spoil her a little with treats, and go to take her back.
My only problem? She is not happy to go back outside to the paddock. She goes outside just fine, but at the paddock gate I end up having to be assertive to get her to follow me in. Objectively I realize itís probably the footing she doesnít like (sheís always a bit particular about it) but itís hard not to project and think about how Iím leading her out into the cold and a herd that picks on her. When I walk her in a ways and let her go, she just stands there, not heading back towards the herd. I feel guilty.
I head back into the arena, clean up some droppings (not from Dragon, but from someone else who didnít do it), sweep out the grooming area, turn off all the lights, and head back towards my car. Dragon is still standing there on the other end of the paddock from the herd and I feel even a little guiltier, but donít see a good way to rectify my guilt so I head home.
So, I survived my first solo-ride. Honestly, the ride itself was the least concerning part of the whole experience. If I need to do that night-catching again I suspect it will go much easier now that I know the layout and where the horses will be, but I probably should do some more prep while itís actually light out so I understand what Iím doing a bit better.
Dragonís hesitation out in the paddock had me worried - Iím leaving her out there in the dark and cold. So I end up doing a bit of research on things like how horses tolerate weather.
So, for the record, it was in the low/mid twenties last night with fairly calm winds and occasional snow flurries. Dragon is unclipped (her winter coat is so ridiculously softÖ) and not at all underweight (in fact, for a Thoroughbred sport-horse, sheís gotten a little heavier than the ideal - Jill says she could lose a few pounds). Thereís a shelter out in paddock area that the horses werenít bothering to use. She wasnít shivering, and she was in a very nice and fairly heavy-weight blanket for the night. Sheís taken in to be groomed and exercised literally every single day, as well as brought in twice a day for individual concentrate meals (which also includes some privately-fed hay for her right now - I actually saw a meal was waiting out pre-measured in her stall when I went to find her. Iím not sure if itís for a late meal tonight or tomorrowís breakfast).
So basically, given that even blanketing shouldnít be anywhere near necessary under these conditions, and she has a really nice and warm blanket... I am totally fussing for no good reason. That helped me feel a lot better as I went to bed.