The one thing that I’ve learned is to always trust my horse. There are some horses that can’t be trusted, just like there are some humans who can’t be trusted, and I’ve been on a few of those. They are very uncomfortable to ride; I really don’t enjoy riding a horse I don’t trust. I’m sure that horses don’t enjoy riders they don’t trust as well. Estes and I bonded pretty darn well. Let’s be realistic – I fell head over heels in love with that little mare – and she more than tolerated me. It was a good foundation.
During one of the brief dry spells during the Summer of Rain, Estes and I took a fairly large ride of eight out. The sky was overcast and it was cold, but it looked like the rain would hold off long enough for us to get our one-hour ride in. There’s only so much hanging out around the barn I can do before I start getting cranky and she was feeling the same way. We loaded up and headed out. Estes was her usual, jiggy self, but by that time, I had quit stressing out about it and started enjoying it. She was feeling good about having a job to do, and so was I.
We were moving along at a pretty good clip, all of the horses had been cooped up for too long and it felt good for them to stretch their legs. We had safely run the gauntlet, crossed the street and parking lot (always an adventure), and were making good time along the trail toward our next road crossing. I had turned back to the guests to tell them about the upcoming stairs and explain how we would go down them (don’t stop, keep your horse moving) when I felt Estes stop cold. One moment we were cruising along, making good time and the next, we just…stopped. I did a lousy job of concealing my surprise. Estes never just stops. Ever. It’s just not in her.
I turned back from the guests and gave her a little kick in the side. I never had to put my heels to her to get her to move – in order to mount up, I had to master the running mount – so the sudden stop was completely out of character. She had magically transformed into a life-sized Breyer horse, as had all of the horses in line behind us. My ride looked like live people had been arranged on a whole herd of beautiful life-sized Breyer horses - they were all absolutely frozen in place.
I gave her another kick and nothing happened. She was obviously focused on something other than me and no amount of kicking was going to get her to move. I was initially irritated, then frustrated, and then concerned. Estes wouldn’t even flick an ear no matter how hard I kicked her. I had ceased to exist in Estes' world.
I was speechless and just helplessly shrugged at my guests. This was a whole new situation for me and I was at a loss as how to handle it. I made the decision to dismount, take a hold Estes’ bridle and lead her down the trail. Just as I shifted my weight to dismount, Estes gave a sigh and un-froze. Before we began moving down the trail, she flicked her ear at me and gave me a look that very clearly said, "you wanna try and put your heels to me again lady?" The horses in line behind me also came out of their mannequin state and followed along as if nothing had happened. It was crazy and I had no idea what the heck had just happened.
We made it down the stairs, negotiated the second road crossing without any problems and left the weird Breyer horse moment behind us. The guests and I picked up our conversation and we were chatting as we rode along, mostly about what could have caused the all of the horses to behave the way they did.
The rain didn’t quite hold off as long as I wanted it to and it started spitting. We were already wearing our rain gear (better to be safe than sorry!), so I wasn’t worried about having to stop and get them geared up. I checked on them, then glanced down at the trail ahead of me and my heart jumped into my throat.
Right there, running up the middle of the trail, were mountain lion tracks. The spitting rain had turned into raining in earnest, but there was no rain in the tracks, that’s how fresh they were. They were freaking HUGE and deep. The mountain lion that had just used the trail was no little kitty, it was a large, well-fed adult and it had to be nearby.
Crap, now what? I didn’t want to tip my hand to the guests that there was a lion in the immediate vicinity, but I couldn’t believe my eyes. I’m sure I looked pretty funny, leaning down as far as I could from the saddle to get as close a look as I could at the tracks. Nope, they hadn’t changed. They were still from a mountain lion. They were still not full of water. They were still HUGE and deep. Which meant that there was still a lion close to us.
I did the first thing I could think of, I guided Estes right down the middle of the trail and prayed that her hoof prints would obliterate the lion tracks and that the guests wouldn’t notice. I kept up the chatter as much as I could and kept an eye on the trees that seemed a whole heck of a lot closer than they should have been.
Initially, I wanted to turn the ride back to the livery, but then I had an epiphany about what had happened during the Breyer horse moment…Estes had sensed the lion and stopped until it was safe for us to continue. Since she was not at all concerned once we reached the lion tracks, I felt comfortable continuing the ride, if she wasn’t worried about the mountain lion, then I guess I didn’t need to be either.
I never said a word to my guests about the tracks or why the ride had come to an abrupt halt and I’m pretty sure that they don’t know about it (or didn’t until now).
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