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Life After Racing: Vanessa's Trail
Wednesday, October 26, 2016 - by Charlotte Gelston

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Standardbreds are consistently showing their versatility, whether it’s riding or driving, for show or for pleasure. Hoof Beats is happy to share stories from readers about their favorite Standardbreds. This month, Charlotte Gelston concludes her “Respect Your Horse’s Judgment” series from the June and August issues.

 
Photo by the author
This stone wall in the woods near the author's home played a part in tying two seemingly dead-end trails into one continuous loop.

“It’s a shame the trail dead-ends here at the swamp,” Margie said as she slowed her horse. “It would be great to be able to make a loop instead of backtracking.”
 
“Yes, it would, I agreed. “My husband said that when he was a kid, this was only a brook running under the power lines and you could easily cross it to continue to the road. But the beavers changed all that with their dam. Amazing little hydro-engineers, aren’t they?”

That conversation proved to be an inspiration. A few days later, I was riding with another friend, and as we approached the steep downhill slope before the trail turned right toward that swamp, I saw an opening in the stone wall. “Maybe we could circumvent that swampy stretch by keeping to the top of the ridge, and reconnect to the other trails that were on the other side of the swamp,” I thought.

“Want to have an adventure?” I asked Beth. 

“Sure!” was her reply.

There is nothing that my alpha mare, “Vanessa,” liked better than bushwhacking. I turned Vanessa in at the opening of the wall and proceeded ahead, keeping to the right of the edge of the ridge.

The direction I was taking was conveniently toward home, so I dropped my reins and said, “Let’s go home, Vanessa.”  She knew what that meant, as I had a habit of saying that phrase when we headed home on a ride. I was hoping that she would use her skills to find a way on her own, rather than relying on my questionable sense of direction. 

She immediately took charge, just as she did with her herd mates. She kept moving in the direction I had chosen, but picked out the best route where there were fewer trees or rocks. I had my pruning shears in hand, clipping what small branches I could reach to make it easier for Beth to follow, and to mark where we had been. We kept on going until we hit a high stone wall that made a right angle.

Not being able to cross it, Vanessa wove her way down the side of the hill to the left.  At the bottom, there was a break in the high wall, and she headed sharply right once again.  By that time I was confused as to what direction we were taking, but she was confident.

After 10 more minutes of bushwhacking our way through the woods, I recognized where we were. Vanessa had brought us to the rear of a friend’s house on the main road, directly in line with our house on the adjoining road. I scratched her neck and praised her extravagantly. She was quite proud of herself, too. 

I was actually hoping to connect to a certain trail that was further down the main road from where we were, but she had taken me in a direct line toward home as I had requested.  I picked up the reins again and directed her down the road, entering the existing trail on the left. We continued on that trail until we came to the top of a hill, where I tied a bright orange plastic tape to a branch. My plan was to try to spot that ribbon from the other direction on my next attempt. We turned around and went home.

The very next day I was eager to try my plan again. This time one of my other boarders was riding with me. Not wanting to worry her, as she was more timid than my last companion on the experiment, I just said, “We have a new trail to explore,” and off we rode.

I turned Vanessa in at the same opening in the stone wall and let her take over once again.  She confidently strode along, remembering exactly where she had traveled the day before. I knew it was the same route, as I spotted the cut branches that I had left to mark our way.

This time, however, when we got to the bottom of the hill where she had turned sharp right to get to my friend Pat’s house, I picked up my reins and said, “It’s my turn!” That was a phrase that I often used when she wanted her own way and I was determined to have mine. She had learned it meant that I would not give up until she cooperated and went the way I had chosen. Since I gave her plenty of opportunities to choose the way, she acquiesced to the fairness of the deal and headed left, but not without letting me know that she disagreed. She walked as slowly as she possibly could in that direction, with her head lowered and her lips smacking together as if she were muttering, ”This is not the correct way home!”

We proceeded slowly for the next 10 minutes, with Vanessa shaking her head side to side, complaining the whole way. Suddenly she lifted up her head, looking off in the distance. She stopped her muttering and moved ahead more quickly, as if she finally realized what I was trying to do.

I dropped the reins once again, and let her decide how to proceed. She wove her way through the woods, crossing the brook that led into the swamp further down, and started to change direction to the right.

Within 50 feet of where we crossed the brook, we were on a visible trail.  She cantered up the next hill, and stopped under the same tree where I had placed the orange ribbon the day before. Needless to say, I praised her even more extravagantly than I had the first time. I gave her the alfalfa cubes I had stowed in the pocket of my saddle pad, sharing some with my friend’s horse, too.

“I thought you knew where we were going,” Sue said, “but you didn’t, did you?”

“I knew where I wanted to go, just not how to get there,” I confessed. “I needed Vanessa to figure that out for me, and she did.” 

I explained how I had tried to find a way past the swamp to connect to this trail the day before, but had ended up at Pat’s house instead. I told her about coming in from the other direction and tying the orange ribbon to the tree, hoping to spot it on today’s attempt. But I never saw it until Vanessa was cantering up the hill, and what a pretty sight that was! 

We named this particular trail “Vanessa’s Trail,” in honor of the horse who blazed it through the woods. It transformed two dead-end trails into a lovely long loop trail, and we didn’t get stuck in the swamp.


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