We call horses green when they haven’t been ridden very much. A nine year old horse is still young, and a green one is a virtual baby when compared to others. Once I got over my concussion, I was pretty determined to get back in the saddle as soon as possible and get some miles logged on the Junior horse, hopefully without further incidents with landing on my head.
He had a habit of freezing in position when first hitting the trail. When he turned his head, he could get a good look at me sitting up on his back. He would stop, and turn his head to the left and then the right, looking at me out of one eye and then the other.
It was a funny habit, but what he was really hoping for was that I might slip him a treat. I had begun his saddle training that way, praising him for standing still when I got on, fixed my stirrups, adjusted the girth, whatever. If he stood there quietly, he got a treat. This, of course, quickly escalated out of control. He would stop every few feet and stand there, expecting to be rewarded for it.
This was all early stuff, as he was new to trail riding and I understood that this begging would eventually go away. But in the meantime, I carried along my Smackety Smacker. The Smackety was a whip about the length of a yardstick, with a paddle on the end. It wasn’t too scary. In fact I even taught him to pick it up for me if I dropped it.
But it delivered a firm whack at appropriate times. After a few such incidents, the mere sight of the Smackety would cause the Junior horse to keep moving.
My friend Stacey was making time to take little rides with me, while the days were still long and the weather cooled, and the horse fly population in the woods was finally thinning. We were treated to some beautiful weather, the aging summer sun poking shards of light through the still-green, hushed branches while the birds whistled of the bounty of an Indian summer. The horses’ feet thumped quietly on the trail of dirt. But even though Stacey’s mount Otis kept on ambling his way along the dappled path, the Junior horse decided it must be time for a treat. He came to a sharp halt and turned his head, rolling his brown eye up at me expectantly.
I had forgotten the Smacker. And he knew it.
“Confound it!” I growled. “Hang on a second, Stace.”
Since we were surrounded by trees, of course, there was no shortage of substitute Smackers. I was able to snap off a dead branch, crooked and with a fork at the end. I held it up and showed it to Junior. “Get moving.”
His head swung back around and he marched forward.
We enjoyed our ride, moving through the stillness, the soft sound of the woods, the sudden burst of creatures in the grass. Otis and Junior walked quietly for an hour and as we circled back down to the sandy path that led toward the stable, I flung the stick into the brush.
The downside of riding in a state recreation area is that the DNR can be picky about loose dogs. Even though my dogs were reliable off-leash, I always tried to comply with the rules during the busy hours of the season. But I would let them out to run if there were no other humans around. I opted to take the dogs out later, as the day waned long, and the goldenrod was blooming along the side of the dirt road. We wandered through the horseman’s campground, seeing no one, and the dogs sniffed deeply in the grass. I unhooked them and let them scurry along ahead of me as I headed into the canopy that covered the equine path. Walking along the trail that curved back toward the stable, my border collie Til stepped in front of me, hopefully flinging a stick at my feet.
He backed up and looked at me. I did a double take.
I knew the stick’s crooked shape, its forked end.
It was my replacement Smacker.