Last week, my husband and I ventured into the Great Smoky National Park to hike. It was a beautiful clear fall day, cool but not cold, crunchy leaves underfoot, a crystal blue sky and on the mountaintop, a view of 75 miles to distant peaks.
But while hiking…. I missed my horse.
Those of you who don’t ride horses probably think that this is because I didn’t want to work that hard to hike on my own two legs. But it wasn’t that — I am pretty fit and my legs are in good shape from riding, so I was able to cover some distance without getting tired.
I still missed my horse. It is hard to explain.
When I am riding my horse, the partnership between us creates a different experience than walking. Underneath me is this 1,000 lb. animal, whose rhythm of the four footed walk creates a gentle lullaby. I hear the footfalls through the dry leaves, 1-2-3-4, a gentle music of movement. The heat of the horse’s body comes up through my seat and legs. If I close my eyes, I feel like we are one being. My body sways to the movement of his feet.
The views of the forest from 8 feet off the ground provide a panoramic sight. I can see further and higher than when on foot.
The horse experiences the ride differently than I do, and his perspective adds to my human outlook. His ears are pricked forward, looking left and right. He is alert to possible dangers, or searches for others of his kind. His sense of smell and sight are much more acute than mine, so when he looks intently in one direction, I also look that way, trying to see what he sees. Sometimes I do, but most often I don’t.
If he gets tense and skitters a bit, with nothing obvious to skitter about, I know it is a smell he is reacting to. There is something close by which is “not-horse, not-human”. He doesn’t skitter for deer, but he does for cows and pigs. And I suppose bears, but we have not encountered them.
His experience joins with my experience of the forest, and together it is greater than either of the two. I depend on him, and he on me. He warns me of possible danger, and I reassure him when it is something we do not need to be concerned with. He strides boldly through creeks and gullies, keeping me safe and dry on his back. We go further than I could go on my own two legs, but it does not tire him.
Hiking is enjoyable, but riding in the forest is so much more so. When friends ask about my riding, I say “I just trail ride” as if it were an apology. But if they knew what I knew, and experienced what I experience while on the trail, there would be no apology.