Mort liked to be in front.
He really, really liked to be in front. If he didn't get to lead on the trail he would jig, tossing his head hard enough to break my nose if I didn't pay attention. When that didn't work he would begin to canter, almost in place, an angry, rumbling growl rattling deep in his chest.
Here I was, riding with a group of women who rode these 50 milers "for fun" on a regular basis. Their horses were fit and shiny, their tack was clean and worn and they rode with an ease I hadn't seen in an adult rider before.
They were kind and friendly and tried to put me at ease, asking about my horse, my experience on the trail, if I showed at all or if I just rode, just about anything they could come up with to get me talking.
Fat chance.The best I could offer were grim, one word replies, made up for the most part of, "Yup," and "Nope," with a few "Maybes," thrown in for comic relief. I was embarrassed beyond belief. There was no way I could let him go in front. I was a guest of this group and they had actually read the map the night before the ride. I needed to ride alongside them in the open and behind them on the narrow trails that climbed high into the pines.
Mort decided to up the ante and added some foam slinging, head shaking to the mix. I hung on for dear life.When he started to show his heels every other stride Jenny decided it was time to step in.
"Gotta lotta horse there," she said.
"Is he always like this?"
"What happens if you let him go?"
"Does that scare you?"
I just snorted. I was way too cool to bother answering that one.
"Then let him go."
Now she had my attention. Eyes bugged, mouth open, maybe a little drool in the corners, attention.
"I mean it, he'll really go." Maybe the sun was getting to her. Maybe she couldn't hear so good. Probably she was like every other adult in my life and just didn't believe me.
"I'm sure he will," she paused and waited while Mort bucked in a little circle. "If you can, just sit there. Don't try to stop him or steer him. See how far he takes you."
"OK," I said. I was wondering if she had bets with her buddies on how many tries it would take before she killed me, but I wasn't going to let her think I was chicken.
I let him go.
Mort hesitated for just a second before he shot ahead and down the trail. He was as surprised by the turn of events as I was. He blasted down a rocky incline, his ears flicking back and forth between me and the trail. I didn't lean forward and ask him to go, I didn't try to stop, hold or steer him. It made for a wild, unsettling ride.
Without our usual tension my balance was off. He popped over a log when the trail leveled off and I almost biffed it. I didn't know what to do with my hands, my legs were so tight I had two inches of air between me and my saddle. My stirrups slipped away from me, first one, then the other.
Mort was weaving and wobbling across the ground, his head was high and his feet unsure.What the crap was going on?
I never felt out of balance, even bareback I always had a seat like glue. It seemed like I was going to have plenty of time to figure it out though, my rowdy dun was showing no sign of slowing down. Mort launched off the trail and through the trees, I was suddenly getting slapped in the face by branches and ducking heavy limbs. This was getting nuts, I was going to have to pull him in before I got my head knocked off.
My seat suddenly showed up. One second I was stiff kneed and lurching from side to side and the next I was where I belonged. My shoulders loosened, my back relaxed and my legs let go so I could find my stirrups. As my seat deepened and steadied Mort began to find a rhythm. He curved back through the woods and found the trail.
He began to slow, still moving at a good clip, but easy and relaxed. This was getting fun. Finally he broke down to a trot. His breath was labored, his neck was lathered, but he trotted along the trail with his ears pricked and his tail waving a cheerful beat.
We heard a faint whinny far behind us. Mort stopped and spun around. He, like me, was too cool to answer. I stayed with him like I should and we both looked up the trail. We waited, a good fifteen or twenty minutes, before the women showed up. I sat on him, letting him graze, listening to his breathing slow and head back to normal.
Jenny broke into a wide smile when she came around the bend. She had been worried, I could tell. I was proud of staying with him and glad she realized I had meant it when I said, "He'll go."
"He really took off," she said.
"He's like that."
We headed out together and Mort didn't walk ten steps before he started to jig. I glanced at Jenny.
"Let him go."
I did and he did, but this time we didn't go nearly as fast or far.
The group caught up, we fell in and Mort stayed at a walk for a good five minutes before he tried to pass. It gave Jenny time to tell me what she was doing.
"All a horse really wants is to stay in his herd," she said. "Sometimes the pulling and jigging comes from not knowing his place and then it turns into a fight with you. If you don't pick a fight with him, maybe he'll quit trying to leave."
"I'm not trying to fight with him."
"I know, but think about it, when your horse puts his head up it's because he's nervous. If he puts his head up and you make your reins tighter, he can't relax. He thinks you're telling him not to."
I looked at the other horses ambling along, heads low, the whole group of women talking and looking around, with their horses on a loose rein.
"But he takes off."
Jenny laughed, a great big belly laugh, but it didn't make me feel embarrassed. "He certainly does."
About then Mort started making his move to the front. I kept my reins loose and looked back at Jenny.
"This time, as soon as he passes Meg bump him with your calves and keep at it until he lopes off, once he gets going, relax again."
I did what I was told and as soon as I quit bumping him, Mort stopped and waited for the group, not twenty feet behind us.
Pretty soon Jenny had me bump him up before he passed Meg, the lead rider.
He barely broke into a trot.
Before we got to the next vet check I was walking with my group, my horse on a loose rein, satisfied with being a horse or two behind. If he sped up, I would squeeze him forward a few steps, relax, and he would drop back to a walk.
I had a lot to think about. Why had I lost my balance when I first let him go?
Why was he slowing down when I asked him to go forward and why did he speed up when I pulled on the reins?
These thoughts were completely crowded out of my head by the biggest question of the day.
Why were the insides of my knees starting to feel so raw?
I looked down at my cords and saw dark, damp dots starting to seep through the fabric. I rubbed my fingers across them and the skin at the bend in my knee immediately began to burn. I looked at my fingertips and saw pale red stains. I had started to bleed right through my corduroys.This couldn't be good.