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Bud­dy, the over-​the-​hill horse, has had chron­ic lame­ness for over a year (more infor­ma­tion in an upcom­ing post), and I’ve rid­den him on trail very lit­tle, and in com­pet­i­tive trail rides not at all, which has been deeply dis­ap­point­ing.

But I was able to ride in the NATRC com­pe­ti­tion in Peñas­qui­tos Canyon (north of San Diego) last Octo­ber on a bor­rowed horse named Mila­gro. He is a Span­ish mus­tang belong­ing to the author Audrey Pavia; she has rid­den him in a num­ber of com­pet­i­tive trail rides. Audrey has a younger Span­ish mus­tang, Rio, that she is bring­ing along as a trail horse, and she want­ed to start him out in the com­pa­ny of his pad­dock pal. I was pleased and hon­ored that she asked me to ride Mila­gro.

Mila­gro and Bud­dy have sim­i­lar builds, in that they are both short and stocky, with short mas­sive necks set high. Bud­dy clear­ly has some mus­tang her­itage, but his draft her­itage makes him more mas­sive than Mila­gro. Buddy’s feet are larg­er, but Milagro’s are nar­row and tougher. When Bud­dy gets con­cerned on the trail, he usu­al­ly goes faster. When Mila­gro gets con­cerned, he often stops.

Mila­gro is an expe­ri­enced trail horse, and I am an expe­ri­enced trail rid­er, and on the rocky up-​and-​down single-​track trails of our con­di­tion­ing rides he was a champ—less impul­sion than Bud­dy, but more sure-​footed. But on street trails, he slowed to a crawl, even when he was head­ed back to the barn (at one point I almost jumped off to lead him, think­ing my walk would be faster than his). I agree with Audrey that he finds lit­tle of inter­est on the street trails except plants to munch on, and those require slow­ing down any­way. I was con­cerned by his speed, because NATRC rides have a set time that requires a pace of 3–4 miles per hour (for the Novice and Com­pet­i­tive Plea­sure class­es), and nei­ther he nor Rio were even com­ing close at the walk.

Horse standing by horse trailer and defecating
Mila­gro per­forms diag­nos­tics on his hindgut before the ride. I ditched the mechan­i­cal hack­amore at lunch (I wasn’t using it) and went with the rein attached to the hal­ter.

But it turns out Mila­gro is also an expe­ri­enced dres­sage horse. I took him to a pub­lic are­na and remind­ed him that he knows the work­ing walk and the work­ing trot, and then took him back on a street trail and remind­ed him that they are the same there as on the sand.

Ride day dawned chilly, but it heat­ed up fast, with highs in the upper 90s. Audrey and I were both rid­ing Novice, I because I’m a novice rid­er, and she because Rio is a novice horse. For­tu­nate­ly she was in the light­weight divi­sion and I was in the heavy­weight, so we weren’t com­pet­ing against each oth­er. The Novice course was just over 18 miles. Before lunch, it went upstream in the canyon (east), to a hill which was the first judged obsta­cle, and at the top of which would be a check of the hors­es’ pulse, res­pi­ra­tion, hydra­tion, and sound­ness (P&R). There were a cou­ple of water cross­ings, some wood­land, some chap­ar­ral and dry grass, and a fair num­ber of bicy­clists and dogs. Toward the end, the trail passed below a hous­ing tract—Peñasquitos Canyon is an oasis of old Cal­i­for­nia cut­ting through plateaus cov­ered by sub­ur­bia.

Less than a mile from the turn-​around hill, a cou­ple of rid­ers came back our way to tell us the trail was blocked by fenc­ing. It turns out a water main had burst since the last time the ride man­agers walked the trail, wash­ing it out, the gul­ly was fenced off, and there was no way to pro­ceed. We informed the ride man­agers by cell phone and they told us to meet them under a high­way bridge where the trail ran along the creek.

Shade and water are a spe­cial delight on a hot ride. Mila­gro drank, and then decid­ed to check out the edi­ble veg­e­ta­tion along the shore. He likes to take every oppor­tu­ni­ty to eat. Many horse peo­ple say you should nev­er let a horse eat along the trail, but they aren’t dis­tance rid­ers. The goal is to get the horse to eat when you allow it, and to allow it often enough that it’s not a bat­tle. It has been a train­ing chal­lenge for both Bud­dy and Mila­gro, Bud­dy because he was ini­tial­ly sure it was nev­er okay to eat, and Mila­gro because he ini­tial­ly didn’t see the point in not eat­ing.

Woman riding horse across water
Audrey Pavia cross­ing Peñas­qui­tos Creek on Rio. Milagro’s ear tips just enter the bot­tom of the frame.

Lunch was back at camp, and the rid­ers and hors­es could both eat and drink freely. After lunch, the course went down­stream, to the west. It was laid out as much as pos­si­ble to stick to sin­gle tracks, to avoid bicy­cle traf­fic. About a third of it was through ripar­i­an wood­land, with sev­er­al water cross­ings (one was a judged obsta­cle). The rest was through scrub and grass­land.

As we pro­gressed, Rio showed signs of lame­ness, espe­cial­ly at the trot, so that we weren’t able to make up time from the slow walk. Because of the lost hill climb plus P&R in the morn­ing, we were asked to trot the last quar­ter mile before the after­noon P&R. The vet checked Rio, and he and Audrey decid­ed to pull him from the com­pe­ti­tion (he was trail­ered back to camp). I con­tin­ued with Mila­gro.

This was a chal­lenge for both hors­es. Either is fine with rid­ing out alone, but they were not hap­py about being sep­a­rat­ed, because that wasn’t part of the plan. As we rode away, Rio would whin­ny, and Mila­gro would stop and whin­ny back, so loud that his sides would shake and I could feel the bass notes up my spine. I would reas­sure him, and we’d ride on until the next whin­ny. The inter­changes stopped after Rio was trail­ered away.

Mila­gro decid­ed he need­ed to be back at camp. I had told him that Rio would be there when we got back—I don’t know whether he was lis­ten­ing to me or fig­ured it out on his own, but he was ready to go. I didn’t want him to trot through the wood­land, because there were low-​hanging branch­es and areas of uneven foot­ing, so I rat­ed him back and a lit­tle bit of mag­ic hap­pened.

Rider's view of horse's neck and head, dirt trail, scrubby vegetation
Rid­ing through the scrub north of Peñas­qui­tos creek

Many mus­tangs have an ambling gait between the walk and trot, tech­ni­cal­ly a step­ping pace, that is some­times called the “Indi­an shuf­fle” because it was observed in the ponies of First Nations rid­ers. It’s a genet­ic lega­cy of the ambling hors­es of Iberia that were the main­stay of the con­quis­ta­dores. Bud­dy has it, and once I fig­ured out what it was and learned to ask for it, I used it a lot on trail—it’s about three and a half to four miles an hour, per­fect for the Novice NATRC rides. Audrey had told me that both Mila­gro and Rio had orig­i­nal­ly shown this faster gait, but that it had evi­dent­ly been trained out of them. But when I rat­ed Mila­gro back from a trot, he dropped into an amble, and I broke into a big smile. Mila­gro ambles at about three miles an hour, but it’s still faster than his walk. He was sat­is­fied with his progress, and we ambled back into camp.

Once we had our time, I rode him straight over to where Rio was tied to the trail­er. They snuffed noses, and if I was under­stand­ing them cor­rect­ly, Rio said “Where have you been?” and Mila­gro said “I’m glad to be back. You got any hay?”

As best Audrey and I can fig­ure, Rio had a small peb­ble in his hoof boot press­ing against a heel bulb, because when she removed the boots in camp, he was basi­cal­ly sound. Ride and learn.

Each horse you ride teach­es you some­thing new, and that makes you a bet­ter rid­er for every horse you ride

Old man and horse facing camera
A self­ie with Mila­gro at ride’s end

Even before I real­ly under­stood why, I knew it was impor­tant to ride mul­ti­ple hors­es. Hors­es are as dif­fer­ent as peo­ple, but until you’ve worked with a lot of hors­es, that state­ment is just words. There’s noth­ing to com­pare to the deep bond that can form over years between a rid­er and a horse, but each horse you ride teach­es you some­thing new, and that makes you a bet­ter rid­er for every horse you ride. When you approach each new horse with the atti­tude “What can this horse teach me,” you can only improve as a rid­er, and the hors­es whose lives you touch will be bet­ter for it as well.

I’m a bet­ter rid­er for hav­ing rid­den Mila­gro, and he says he was okay with it, too.