My circumstances through life have confined my riding to arenas. The only times that I have ever been able to escape arena riding are the occasional guided trail rides. I’ve been on one in Philadelphia, Hawaii, and at a dude ranch in the Adirondacks. On these trail rides there’s no room for much….stay in line, don’t pass, and just be a passenger. I’ve never shown in competition, and until a couple years ago I never had a horse of my own to have fun with. Even when I got my horse I lack a truck and trailer; plus my horse is not mentally or physically equipped to do a while lot.
What’s a girl to do?
This weekend I was given an opportunity I never could have imagined. A few weeks ago my trainer had mentioned in passing that I should do a hunter pace with her. Not thinking (but hoping) she was serious I asked her what I need to do to make it happen. A few days later she brought it up again. This time I knew she was for real.
What’s a Hunter Pace, you ask?
A hunter pace is a sort of competitive trail ride, but the main objective is to have fun. These events are less focused on competition and the ride itself can span 5-12 miles containing a number of jumps. Most jumps are natural objects…stone walls, logs, etc. On the morning of the pace, a rider is sent to complete the trail as fast and safely as possible. This establishes a pace time and also ensures the trail is safe and clear. Later on teams of 2-4 riders embark on the trail.
The pace time is withheld until all competitors have completed the course. Once finished, the team closest to the pace time wins. Most paces will have two or three divisions each with a different optimal pace time. “Hilltopper” typically refers to a more laid-back pleasure/western-like pace.
Many organizers do things differently so it’s important to check with each pace. Some set the pace time differently, have different requirements, and have different divisions. Not all paces will have go-arounds for jumps and some are more formal than others. Before you attend, do your homework.
I’m not in the shape I used to be in, but I began eating even more healthy, getting extra workouts in, and really busting my butt. I was trying so hard not to get my hopes up in case we got rained out or something happened preventing us to go.
And then, this weekend came.
The weather reports forecast warm weather and clear skies. The hunter pace was a go!
The day of I woke up at 4am, did a quick workout and had a small breakfast. After writing a brief article for Fighting The Fat Kid Within (a personal blog focused on health fitness and nutrition) I met the girls at the barn by 6:45. We were on the road by 7:15, on our way to the LKTA Hunter Pace in Rhinebeck, NY (Landsmankill Trail Association).
We arrived, registered, and unloaded our horses. (It’s really happening!)
I was entrusted with my trainer’s wonderful quarter horse mare, Chance. Our group was registered in the hilltopper division in two separate teams and included three green horses plus me, the green rider.
Once we were groomed and tacked up we mounted our equines and made toward the starting line. I felt odd at this moment. I was nervous because I didn’t really know what to expect but I felt a blanket of calm sweep over me.
The five of us began our ride nice and easy to allow the horses to warm up and settle in. We didn’t have high expectations since we had a few horses who had just began jumping a month or two prior. Sticking to walk/trot mostly we wound our way through the woods, down some streets, and across some neighbor’s backyards. We climbed hills traversed a stony creek, and slopped through the mud.
Then we encountered our first jump. It was a small wooden obstacle about a foot high. All five of us pointed our horses toward it and all five horses happily and willingly sailed over it. As we continued we encountered some combinations, coops, stone walls, and uphill jumps. The horses were all game for what we rode them to with the exception of one or two here and there. Some of the jumps rose to 24-30″ Having arrived with low expectations the green horses really stepped up to the challenge. It was clear the horses were enjoying the pace as much as we were.
Halfway through we stopped at the checkpoint where the horses got a quick break and we took sips of water or apple cider. We took off again a few moments later and continued to enjoy the beautiful day. The colors on the trees are peak around this time and the scenery was absolutely stunning. With the warm sun and bright blue sky I don’t believe we could have asked for a better day.
Shortly after the checkpoint we came to a field where the photo jump was set up. Staged beautifully amidst the lush green field was a wooden lattice jump, straw bales on either side. The jump was skirted with pumpkins, flowers, and Halloween cat decorations. Some of the horses were very confused by it and nervous about the presentation. After some patience, coaxing, and allowing the horses to observe the jump up close, most of the horses gave in and cleared it. I cantered Chance up to the jump and the seasoned pro she is sailed over the jump flawlessly. I got caught slightly behind with my timing but we got over it together.
The resulting photo took my breath away, I am so beyond pleased. Photographs were taken by Brian Wilcox of Connecticut Photo. I highly recommend him if you’re looking for professional photos, and he even uses a drone for some shoots.
At this point we are nearly 3/4 finished with the event. Chance has been phenomenal to ride, a little forward and heavy, but never worrisome. My equitation had most certainly improved and I felt my weight sink into my heels better than ever.
The next jump was another stone wall with we took with ease. The trail turned to the right past a few trees and went up a hill into the woods.
Did I mention there were a few trees?
Up until this moment I had planned every step we took. At times Chance rushed more than I planned, but I always knew where we were going. This time my attention had waned and I hesitated.
Chance wanted to pass a tree to the left, I wanted to go right. We were three canter strides away.
Two strides away, still cantering. Chance Still wants to go left, and I want to go right, but begin to hesitate.
One stride away.
I commit to going Chance’s direction, Chance decides to listen to my original cues. We are a stride away from a head on collision with a tree. The world momentarily stops.
People die from hitting trees while riding.
I’m not ready to die.
I’m not willing to let this horse run into the tree.
This tree is now in Chance’s blind spot.
I am going to hit this tree, there’s no way to avoid it.
I can tell you that it all happened so fast and it would be true; and at the same time I can describe every thought I had, every decision I made, and I can see the grains of bark on that tree. The tree was a good age, about 18″ diameter…a solid tree.
I remember when I trained in martial arts we were taught to “ragdoll.” This concept inspired by Bruce Lee is what I contribute to my current well-being and why I can sit here typing this article for you.
“You must be shapeless, formless, like water. When you pour water in a cup, it becomes the cup. When you pour water in a bottle, it becomes the bottle. When you pour water in a teapot, it becomes the teapot. Water can drip and it can crash. Become like water my friend.”
In order to make sure Chance cleared the tree I pulled the reins to the right, but I stayed in the same path toward the tree. There was nothing I could do to avoid it and I really can’t tell you much about the moment I made impact. I knew my hip was bruised and my neck was a little stiff, but I truly didn’t know what exactly hit the tree. Did I hit my head? At a canter I know I would have felt it, heard it, and had marks from any impact of my helmet on the trunk of that tree. I called out to my group to hold back but they were already up the hill, preparing for another jump. Had Chance not ran up without me they wouldn’t have realized I’d fallen. I was already up and walking up the hill when they saw Chance.
Somebody was looking out for me from above that day because I was very lucky to be able to get back on Chance and finish the pace, jumps included. It was a clear wake-up call reminding me to stay focused and decisive at all times; no complacency, no hesitation.
Once we finished the race we bathed the horses, gave them a lot of love and some apples. We applied liniment, poultice, and wrapped their legs. After they were cooled down and safely loaded up we enjoyed a delicious lunch of ziti and chicken marsala. It was a wonderful finish to an extraordinary day.
…and just like that we took off for home. The horses were placed back in their paddocks and we all went home to our loved ones.
The next day my next was very stiff, and still no bruise on my hip.
Two days later, I already have increased movement in my neck and the bruise is appearing on my hip much smaller than originally expected.
Despite my accident the experience of this hunter pace was out of this world. I am still smiling ear to ear thinking of that day and I hope that someday I will be able to complete another.