Ever since our trail adventure with Viki, I have not been able to stop thinking about how calm Little Love was in the forest. Obviously she had been thinking about it too, since every time we passed the mailboxes (which is where the trail starts) this week she asked me if we could go back into the forest. The second time it came up, I decided to humor her and we walked to the bridge where she slipped. I didn't want to go over it again, so we turned back, but I could feel Little Love's silent resistance.
I have been deliberately avoiding the forest paths, because it has always been extremely hard for Little Love to stay calm in the forest (if she isn't on a road). We have worked on walking through the forest in front of the barn to the pasture on the other side, and Little Love is completely comfortable with it. But this is merely 150 yards. It wasn't until we ventured a bit further with Viki that I realized how much Little Love had changed in this respect as well. She was no longer panicky and anxious, not even when the branches of the fir trees brushed against her sides. In fact, that time with Viki, most of the time she had been so calm that I had been able to walk ahead of her on the narrow path, something completely unheard of when we lived in Switzerland.
Encouraged by this new development (or rather, this new discovery), I wanted to see if Little Love would be able to maintain the same level of calmness in a strange forest. Long time ago Manta's owner had told me about a forest route to the lake near by. Exploring this route was something I had wanted to do for quite a while so I asked the barn owner's 19 yr old daughter to go with us with Kira.
We set off early Saturday morning. I tacked Lilo up with the saddle, so I could get on her if the going got tough in the forest. We walked down the road to the trail head. Once we were in the forest, I climbed on top of Lilo, because I knew the beginning of the trail was fairly tight and I wasn't sure how she would react. I had barely gotten into the saddle, when we saw an old bathtub tipped over laying on the side of the trail. It looked like someone had used the area for a sheep pasture this summer and the tub had acted as a water source. Little Love stopped in her tracks, her neck erect and her nostrils flaring.
"Do you want me to get off?" I asked her out loud.
Not yet, she replied silently. Kira and her rider stood behind us, waiting to see what would happen. I sat still, waiting as well. Thirty seconds later Little Love walked on. She kept her eye on the bathtub as we passed it on the right.
"Brave girl," I said and stroked her neck.
The trail continued up a hill and dove deeper into the fir trees. Kira snorted nervously behind us and jigged for a few steps, I could hear the young girl talk to her in a calming voice. For a split second I could feel myself tense up, wondering if going into the strange forest had been a bad idea, but soon I was filled with a calmness that could only be emanating from my steady horse.
Don't worry, I have this under control, she seemed to say. And boy was she right. I had somehow misunderstood Manta's owner and had thought it was a relatively short trail. It turned out to be a thirty minute ride. We had rocks and mud and bush and trees. It went up and it went down. Twice the trail split and we had to make a gut decision to which path to take. I got off a few times, then got back on when the vegetation was thick. Little Love was a pro. It was as if she had always walked on those trails, as if she had been born in the forest. My horse, previously known to be claustrophobic, walked calmly, with her eyes scanning the area and her ears forward in a curious manner. She was literally enjoying the scenery.
Needless to say, I was speechless.
Once we chose the wrong path and got stuck in a bush. We had to back up down the uneven trail. Kira panicked and turned around in the small space, which in turn got Little Love rattled up. She tried to flip around but got herself stuck on a bush and a tree. I was left behind, a bush between me and my horse.
"Woah," I said, firmly. This is a word we have practiced over and over again with and without the clicker. And for a reason. I knew it would come handy in situations like this one. Little Love stopped. She had a large twig between her legs, she was standing on a small fir tree and the reins were hanging over her ears. But she stopped and looked at me as if she was saying: Can you get me out of this predicament? We worked it out together and soon we were heading down the correct trail like nothing had happened.
Eventually we found our way to the road on the other side. When our feet hit the dirt road, I could not believe we had managed to complete such a "jungle adventure" without ever loosing our cool, without ever getting anxious. I realized at that moment that this is what trust felt like; to never have to be afraid in the company of the other.
We took the long road home and were back to the barn one and a half hours later. Phew. Little Love was exhausted! I decided to take it easy today, which was good since I had a very busy day and didn't make it to the barn until after dark. I had my family with me and I can tell you, they are not the most patient bunch when it comes to hanging out at the barn. I truly just wanted to know that Little Love was alright after our long walk the day before, so once I had hosed her legs off and all that, I decided to take her down the road just to see how she was walking. Was she stiff? Was she sore on her feet? That sort of thing.
"Is she going to be alright in the dark?" my husband asked when I was attaching reflectors to Lilo's legs (just in case a car came by). A completely valid question, mind you.
"I think so," I replied even though I knew that in Switzerland Little Love had been afraid of the dark. I remembered a ride I took at dusk about a year ago, and how nervous she had been, spooking at the shadows of the forest. We had managed her anxiety that time by trotting energetically through the darkening forest. But to go walking in pitch dark? Had she really changed that much? The only way to find out was to do it.
She stopped five times in the yard. Are you absolutely, positively sure we need to go walk down that dark road? she asked. Yep. I was sure.
"Got to see how your feet are doing," I said out loud.
Alright, she said and sighed. If you insist. We walked up the road and past the mailboxes towards our old grazing spot. The forest around us was so still, as if it was holding its breath, just for us. My husband walked ahead with the dogs for a while, but then stopped and waited at the mailboxes while we went down the hill. Little Love touched my arm a few times and I gave her a carrot. She was completely relaxed and so was I. In fact, walking in the dark was somehow calming, almost hypnotizing. It's funny how your eyes adjust to the absence of light and you can suddenly recognize familiar shapes emerge from the night. Dark is not the same as black, but rather a whole spectrum of different shades of grey. When we came back up the hill, I could see the stars in the sky, and I thought they had never looked so bright.
PS. Her feet were fine :-)