Friday, January 22, 2016

So Proud of Us!!!

Last night, Shar and I planned to finally do another night ride.  Only our second this winter, and probably only number 5-10 or so for me and Arya.  In the past, I've only grudgingly gone along with them, at least after the one where Arya spooked on a VERY dark night and really freaked me out.  I'll play along when Shar suggests it, but privately hope that other things come up or the weather sucks and we end up canceling.  And often we do, and I secretly rejoice.  But lately, something has shifted, and I'm actually feeling a bit more confident, and this time I was actually genuinely looking forward to doing a night ride again.

Shar and I both work till five, but in an odd twist, she works in the town I live in, and I work in the town between there and where SHE lives.  So when 5:00 comes, I'm actually closer to her house than she is, and I would beat her there by about 20 minutes.  However, yesterday she messaged me that she was getting off work 20 minutes late or so, so I was going to end up having quite a head start.  THEN, due to a couple oddities too boring to go into here, I ended up getting off work about 20 minutes early, and had about an hour head start on her now.

Remember this past summer, when Arya got HORRIBLY barn/buddy sour?  She was horrible solo, and even a bit obnoxious when riding with a buddy, about trying to go back to the barn, hollering at her buddies, etc.  I paid Celena both lesson time AND drive time for her to come all the way out to Shar's place to work with us on that, and I do think that lesson helped a TON, both with her showing Arya that her snit fits were not going to work and her installing some confidence in me.  Then we had that clinic out at Celena's place in the fall, which added a bit more confidence, plus we've had a bunch of good experiences and hardly any bad for the past few months, so even more confidence.  Arya's put in a few half-hearted tries to go home as we leave on rides with other horses (including new-to-her horses like when I rode with someone new when Shar wasn't around on Christmas day), but nothing major in a while.  So it's been in the back of my mind that I'm probably ready to try a solo ride out from home now.

Well, I decided that with the head start I had, I'd rather go ahead and try that solo ride and leave while it was still a bit light out rather than kill time waiting for Shar and leaving in the full dark.  Possibly not the brightest idea I've ever had, but I figured if she was obnoxious but I wasn't fearing for my life, we'd just ride a whole bunch of very small circles right near home.  If I feared for my life, I'd get off, make her work, and we'd STILL ride out when Shar got home, so she would still end up learning that throwing a fit didn't keep her from having to leave home.  So I decided to go for it.

I still, to this day, always get butterflies as I'm getting dressed in my riding clothes and as I'm driving to Shar's.  The usually dissipate with the distraction of tacking up, and usually by the time I mount up, I'm not ACTUALLY nervous, so they go away.  Just something about the anticipation of it, even after so many happy successful months of not hitting the ground.  ;-)  Yesterday, it was awful.  So many butterflies.  But I tried to keep my actual thoughts positive.  While tacking up, I tried some visualization.  I'm not sure if I actually believe in that sort of thing or not, but figured it couldn't hurt.  I imagined what was likely to happen.  She'd try to turn for home, I'd straighten her out, she'd try again, I'd straighten her out, and eventually it would stop and we'd just proceed along.  I imagined a worst-case-but-still-quite-possible scenario.  She got so opinionated about heading home that she started tossing her head and rooting to try to get the control of the reins away from me, she spun quickly, maybe even did a tiny little buck of protest.  That'd likely be the worst behavior she'd try.  I pictured myself handling it successfully.  If she rooted, spun, AND bucked all at once, I'd be screwed, but I could probably handle one of those things at a time, so I stuck with that.  I tried to visualize it going perfectly, but knew that wasn't likely.  :-)

Soon enough, she was tacked up, even with the extra reflective gear we wear for night rides (four bands around her four legs, plus a band in her tail and one on her chest, and I wear a vest).  I mounted up, took a deep breath, started my Endomondo tracker, and messaged Shar to let her know we were heading out.

Before we even got to the narrow part of the driveway, Arya tried to dive right (where there's "grazing" of dead tumbleweeds to be had), but it wasn't hard to get her on track.  She even seemed kind of eager to go, and broke into a tiny bit of a trot right there in the driveway.  THEN the small, dim solar lights flanking the driveway came into view (they're hidden behind posts at first, until you get far enough out the driveway) and she spooked a bit, but soon realized they were harmless.  Then we turned the corner.

She DID start dodging toward home, so I kept my hands wide and kept her on as straight a path as possible.  I did get a tiny bit frustrated, until I reminded myself how she was before the lesson with Celena.  This was NOTHING, and I could handle it.  She really wasn't bad.  We just did a drunken-sailor walk for a quarter mile or so.  Every once in a while, she slowed down so much she started to feel like she was slogging through molasses (and we'd never get anywhere), and I'd pop her with the whip to remind her that "squeeze meant go."  The first time or two I did that, she broke into a trot, but I just calmly sat it and waited for her to walk again.  No biggie.  She could trot if she wanted to, but it wasn't me asking her to.  She soon realized I just wanted a faster walk.  By the time we got about a quarter mile down the road, she realized this wasn't really working out for her, and she calmed down.  Oddly, this was the part of the road where there are mini donkey and/or dogs she could pretend to spook at, but she didn't bother.  She motored right around the corner.  A car came up behind us, and she didn't mind the bright lights or the weird shadows, until they actually passed us and it got suddenly dark and there was a car with red tail lights in front of her where a car with white headlights had been behind her.  Or something.  We actually had cars pass us a couple times throughout the night, and it seemed to weird her out every time, though she's not bothered by them in daylight.  But we survived.  And the dogs.  And a bush or two "jumped out" at her and she shied sideways.  But overall, she did great.  I remember her being spookier on our solo rides, even before she started getting barn sour, than she was with other horses around, so it was hard to sort out how much was just due to being solo, how much was due to dusk, and how much was due to my nerves putting her on edge.  But she seemed to be genuinely but only gently spooking, not trying to pull one over on me, and not completely freaking out, so I'd rub her withers and we'd go on.

We got to the second corner, and one of the two she used to really act up at when being bratty about wanting to go home.  As we were about halfway through the process of turning the corner, she made one dodge for home, ducking her head as if to dart that direction, but I don't think her feet ever really left the track we were on.  I corrected her, and we finished the corner and headed onto the straightaway.  She made one more try, by pretending she had an itch and putting her head down to scratch on her foreleg (her favorite tactic for both evasion AND snatching a bite on the trail!).  I bopped her with the whip (non-horse-people probably think I'm cruel by this point, with so many mentions of whip-popping, but I promise it is not cruel and she gets worse from her fellow horses out in the pasture), and she got back down to business and we had no further attempts at heading home.

Between the fact that I wasn't in my usual riding bra and it was getting ever darker, and she was spooking at something at least once a minute (usually just a small shy of swerving around a sketchy bush or puddle, nothing big), I wasn't brave enough to trot.  But I was pleasantly surprised at how forward she was walking, at least.  She is the type that even with other horses, she walks much more slowly away from home, then much more quickly toward home.  But she was moving out pretty well for being solo, heading away, AND it getting dark.  What a good girl!  I was so proud of her!

We got to a property that has horses.  They sometimes come running up to the fenceline.  They didn't today, but Arya clearly remembered them, and knew that they MIGHT, and she actually stopped dead in her tracks.  She didn't try turning for home, so I'm pretty sure it wasn't a barn-sour move, just a "what if they charge the fence" or "hmmm...wonder how those horses are doing today and if Mom will let me go talk to them" thing.  Who knows.  But I'd squeeze her forward, and she'd take a step, so I'd bop her with the whip.  She'd walk forward normally for a couple steps, then sllooooowwww down and stop.  Repeat a couple times, and we were past them and got moving normally again.  She didn't bat an eye at the weird rock pillars (wire "cages" filled with lava rock, often used as fence posts around here) like she used to back when we rode solo more often.  Whatever.  I paused at a corner to update Shar on our whereabouts, and she waited patiently.  Boy, it's hard to operate a cell phone to sent a message, with its bright screen (even on the dimmest setting still visible), then put it away and go back to the dark world again.  Arya didn't seem to mind the flashing light and weird shadows it must've cast, though.  We set off down the road again, no biggie.  We got to where the road (now down to a single lane, but still a wide swath of nice firm dirt) ended and we had to take a single-track trail through a bit of juniper trees.  I debated a bit, and decided I'd rather have the light I'd brought to better see the trail, so I attempted to turn it on while it was still in my pocket so I could bring it out slowly and not blind Arya with it.  Hm.  Didn't turn on.  Pulled it out, and the batteries had all fallen out.  Ugh.  I wasn't going to attempt to get them aligned correctly and inserted in the dark. so I guess we were navigating the trail in the dark after all.

I'm pretty sure I successfully located the beginning of the trail, but it was so dark I could only tell clearings between trees (and luckily made out a couple of tree branches before they hit me in the face), but not discern an actual trail.  Arya started kind of veering right, and I assumed she was making an attempt at heading home, so I steered her left, through clear-ish swaths.  We came out to the road, and we were not where I expected to be.  In hindsight, I suspect she was actually following the trail, not attempting to head home, and I led her astray.  Oops.

So, as we got close to the road and there were only a couple trees left between us and the road, there was a guy who had just arrived home.  Truck running, he was out messing with the gate, which was clanging, and the 4-5 dogs were all excited and running the fenceline and barking.  Can't blame Arya for startling a bit and wanting to just stop and wait it out.  So we did wait for a half a minute or so, then I urged her forward to the clearing.  Then another car came by, so we waited that one out, too.  Finally, we stepped onto the edge of the road.  I could tell (and remembered from past times we've ridden there) that there's a bit of a ditch along the road, but Arya clearly didn't remember.  I had her parallel to the road and had her gradually go diagonally, but she wanted to get to the road NOW, and ended up kinda bobbling a bit when the footing disappeared then reappeared under her feet.  Heh.  We paused to re-combobulate ourselves now that we were back on wide open solid footing again, then proceeded down the road.  There wasn't much road left before we hit a paved road that again has a ditch, then a single-track trail alongside it.  Trail is a much better option than paved road, especially when said road is curvy right there.  Arya did great.  Didn't balk at the speed limit sign we passed very close to, and actually didn't trip at all on any of the singletrack (and non-trail) stuff we'd done, surprisingly.  She always seems to be tripping, but I guess either being solo and not having a butt in front of us to watch instead of the trail, or being in the dark, had her paying better attention.  We crossed the paved road and headed down another nice wide dirt road.  Arya saw a real estate for sale sign that concerned her and gave it a wide berth, but by this point she was feeling pretty confident, and I guess I was too.  We just moseyed on down the trail.  I still wasn't ready to just give her a loose rein, just in case, and kept both hands on the reins, without much slack (though I tried not to be hanging onto her face the whole time, either).

By this point, I was starting to weigh my options.  Shar had just barely gotten started on her ride (we'd been touching base with each other), and while they'd be doing some trotting and would catch up with us eventually, if we kept moving forward, it would take a while.  And the way we were heading, we had two realistic options for making a loop--one would take us past some alpacas we hadn't ridden by in a while.  We HAVE ridden past them solo, but only in the daylight, headed the other direction, and months and months ago.  She was getting pretty good about only getting "sticky" and not actually stopping or spooking at them, but still...didn't really feel like taking my chances.  The other option would be a slightly longer loop, so there was a chance Shar would catch up to us by then, but there's a property where they have a Great Dane that likes to charge the fence, which Arya doesn't LOVE in the daytime, but handles with relative aplomb.  And there are multiple properties with horses along that way, which is always a crapshoot as to whether they'll start running and spook Arya or whatever.  And she did spook last time, even with another horse along and in the daylight.  Though of course that doesn't mean it would happen this time, and Shar would have been VERY likely to have caught up to us by the time we got there.  You can tell I way overthink things, but that was my thought process.  So I decided I'd rather just turn around and retrace our steps on the safer route (no dogs OR horses on the equivalent stretch of road), and meet Shar when she got out of the singletrack (so we didn't have to repeat it solo) and take it from there, either going BACK to do one of those loops, or just heading home from there.  So.  Then I had to guesstimate when to turn around.  I kept trying to stop so I could message Shar, but Arya was starting to get more antsy about the potential to turn around for home.  Prior to this, she'd been patient whenever I would stop, get out my phone, read the latest from Shar, and update her on our location.  But by now, Arya was done with all of that, and kept trying to turn from home while I was trying to operate the phone.  Boy, talk about disorienting!  When looking at the screen, not only was the rest of the world now out of focus on the periphery as it normally would be, but the rest of the world, including the horse RIGHT under me, was literally blackness because the screen was blinding me.  So when she'd move, I'd get really...dizzy isn't quite the right word, but vertigo-y isn't really a word at all...but something like that.  It was just disorienting and weird.  So I'd put the phone away, move a little further down the road (AWAY from home, not letting her get away with that!), and try again.  She'd start wiggling, I'd put the phone away, make a few circles, and head away from home again.  FINALLY I was able to convey the plans to Shar and put the phone away for good (for a few more minutes anyway).  I walked Arya a little further down the road (away from home still) before making that final turn that screamed "yes, we're heading home!" to her.  :-)

So now, of course my overactive brain worried about the fact that we were now headed toward home, on a horse that LOVES to head toward home, on a stretch of road we often do a fast trot and I let her break into a canter if she wants.  But what my brain forgot is that she is, over all, a lazy horse.  :-)  She plodded up that hill like she was on a mission to get home as fast as possible while not breaking out of a walk.  :-)  What a good girl.  My brain really needs to catch up to reality!

I still didn't totally relax, though, and noticed that I was so on edge, that the fabric of my jacket was starting to annoy my bare arms inside the jacket.  I was pretty much over this whole riding solo in the dark thing by now, but luckily we'd at least be back with Shar and Flash soon...

She was huffing and puffing a little bit, and had slowed down a bit, by the time we got to the end of the steepest section of hill (NOT a long hill--maybe a few hundred yards?  I'm terrible at guesstimating distances), but charged on without asking to stop.  We re-crossed the paved road, re-rode the trail that parallels the paved road, and made the turn onto the dirt road.  When we got to the spot where the singletrack would be popping out onto the road, I attempted to contact Shar to find out where she was.  Arya did NOT want to stop.  After a few failed attempts, we did some earnest circling to remind her that being antsy would just mean working harder, NOT getting home faster.  I finally got her to stand still enough I could navigate to actually just call Shar instead of text messaging.  She was just getting to the singletrack, so I decided we'd wait for her.  I'd rather have the "oh dear, there's other critters out there!" situation in the wide open than where there were trees (and branches Arya could get under but I couldn't!) to dodge.  So we did circles.  Circle, circle, circle, head away from home.  I was actually surprised that Arya moved out pretty well when I asked her to head away from home.  Of course, it's where we'd JUST come from, and she knows as well as I do that we'd be able to loop around and still head home even if we went that direction now, but still.  She was pretty good, while making it VERY clear to me what her preferences were.  Heh.  Circle, circle, circle, head toward home a bit.  Circle, circle, circle, then I thought I started to hear Shar.  So we just stood still, and I talked VERY LOUDLY so she and Flash would hear me, and I knew she'd do the same for me if and when she was close enough.  And sure enough, I soon heard her for sure, and we exchanged a few loud "hello"s and hoots and hollers.  Arya was on HIGH alert, equivalent to only when we saw the guy getting home and wrestling with his gate while the dogs barked.  Shar said Flash was the same.  We had the added bonus of a white dog popping out of the bushes, but Arya seemed to quickly recognize all of the critters approaching us, and relaxed.

And I relaxed SO MUCH.  My mouth was going a mile a minute, but my body physically relaxed SO much.  And you know what?  For the first time all night, I loosened the reins right up, and just held onto the middle with one hand.

And you know what really impressed me?  Even though we finally hooked up with another horse and Arya could have relaxed and fallen in behind him, she was on a mission to get home, and she charged into the lead and kept it most of the night.  She DID tuck in behind him a couple times, but most of the time, she was confidently in the lead or just trucking along beside Flash (which he did NOT enjoy, and gave her pissy mare years (yes, he's a gelding, but whatever) every time one of them passed the other.  Weird.).  So proud of my girl!

The rest of the ride was pretty uneventful.  Arya tried to eat the couple times we crossed desert instead of being on the road, and I tried to prevent it.  One time toward the end, she thought she was so sneaky--she moseyed past a prime bush, and I was kind of surprised she didn't try to take a bit, but then at the LAST second, as it was passing by her shoulder, she tucked her chin back and to the side and tried to grab a bite.  Ha!  Good try, though!  She stopped dead for a second when some horses in their pasture came charging up.  But basically, it was uneventful.

When we first met up with Shar I told her that between the lack of riding bra and the fact I had to pee, not to mention my jangled nerves, I wasn't really feeling up to trotting tonight.  She said that was fine.  However, as we were getting close to home, and Arya was being SO good, I decided to give her one more test.  Flash was out in front, so we trotted a bit, and she didn't try to speed up faster than a slow jog, and just motored along on a loose rein happily.  So we did a bit of leap-frogging with Flash, even on the final stretch toward home, without incident.  SUCH a good girl!  My bladder and boobs both survived as well.  :-)

We got back home, I'd like to say I hopped off, but it was not nearly so graceful, and I had some definite wobbly-leg going on, and I untacked Arya.  Then she got a nice big reward of carrots for her EXCELLENT behavior all evening.  Seriously, I took her through dusk into the dark, past scary things, made her stop when she was sure she was heading home, etc., and she did it all with relative aplomb.  Sure, she stopped and balked occasionally.  She spooked once or twice.  She shied more than a few times.  And she was antsy when we stopped.  But considering she's not even six, and she hasn't been on many night rides OR solo rides, and neither in quite a while, and this was the first time combining the two, she did AWESOME.  And I'm proud of me, too.  I could've chickened out at so many different stages of planning and executing, and I not only rode my plan, I exceeded the original plan by riding solo for FOUR miles (and therefore well over an hour, because our average was less than that).  So I'm proud of myself too.  So proud of both of us.

Now I just hope I can keep on riding this "high" for a while longer, and while I know there WILL be setbacks of some kind or another, I hope they don't come for a while so I can enjoy this.  I really feel like my "bond" with her (as cheesy as it sounds, it's a real thing) and her with me was strengthened by last night's ride.

Tomorrow, Nathan and I are going to help a friend desensitize her horse to bikes, and Arya may or may not get a little bike-desensitizing-action herself, we'll see.  Then Sunday it's off for lessons for hopefully Shar, Nathan, AND me, but again, we'll see.  If that many people at that many different abilities of riding are too much for Celena to deal with at once, either Shar or I will step aside.  We'll see.  But yeah.  Looking forward to spending both weekend days with my girlie.