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Imagine the feel of the wind blowing against your face in a beautiful wooded area. The sun shining down as your heart beats faster. The sound of the birds whistling in the trees. Then all of a sudden, you hear it. The hoofbeats of horses coming up behind you. Faster and faster. Louder and louder. You look forward. You give your horse a little squeeze. You feel his heart beating faster as you race across an open field. You feel free. Your heart beating so fast your chest almost hurts. You look around and you are in the herd. Racing against the wind. All the horses in unison, flying with wings. What a feeling it is! A feeling I’m not used to. 

You see, I grew up showing Quarter Horses - and if you know anything about the quarter horse circuit, all the horses are very well trained. Specific to their class. If you showed western, your lope was very slow, collected and on a loose rein. If you showed English, your horse was still collected, moving a bit faster and still on a collected but looser rein. I felt safe riding in the quarter horse circuit. I was always in an arena or an enclosed environment. My horse knew his job, we knew our patterns, we knew our gaits. I knew how fast or how slow he was going to go. There was no guessing. I always knew so this was my comfort zone. I dabbled in some jumping growing up but it never really appealed to me. Honestly, it was because I was afraid. I did place 10th at the World Show one year in Hunter Hack but I give all the credit to my super horse who had experience in that event. Jumping and going fast was never my thing. I liked it slow and I liked it collected and I liked being in control. 

This past Sunday I had the opportunity to go on a Hunter Pace at beautiful Boarshead Ranch in Dade City. I had seen pictures of the pace online and on other social media posts and it looked like fun! There were always lots of people and horses riding and enjoying their time together. What could be better than that! I knew there were jumps on the trail but you had the option of going around them if you like. Thank goodness because the word “jump” makes me nervous. I heard people talk about the pace and how much they enjoyed it. I thought this would be a good opportunity for my horse to be around other horses and also for me to make new friends and get out of my comfort zone. But little did I know how much FUN I would have and how FAST my horse could really go. I was not prepared for how not in control I was going to be. It was amazing and scary all at the same time. 

Saddling up my horse early in the morning, he’s calm as he’s munching on some hay. More trailers begin to pull in and more riders start mounting. My team was scheduled to ride out at 8 am. I hop on my horse about 30 minutes before we ride out just to walk him around and feel him out. His eyes are wide. His breathing gets faster. His head raised and ears forward, I could tell he was a bit nervous. He’s watching the other horses and he feels the excitement in the air. I feel the excitement in the air. It’s a hot humid morning and I ask him to trot a bit. He moves off my leg too quickly. I panic a little knowing he’s fresh and ready to go. My heart races a little. I’m getting nervous.

Will he buck and take off? Will I be able to keep up with the other riders? I hope I don’t fall off and get hurt. Is my horse conditioned enough for this? It’s just over 7 miles. This will be the longest distance we have ridden.  Will he be ok? So many thoughts go through my mind.

I take deep breaths and pat him on the neck. Talking to him softly. His ears are forward. I shorten my reins and wait. Waiting for our team to head out into the woods. Into the unknown.  

We start at a walk but this walk is brisk. I feel my horses muscles tense up and before I know it we are trotting.  But not a nice extended trot. A quick trot with his head high. I’m posting so fast I decide to just two-point the trot. We get behind the group a bit and my horse doesn’t like it.  He pulls at the bit wanting to go faster.  I’m too scared to let him go. He shakes his head and gets jumpy. My heart is racing. We are getting behind. The other horses and riders are way ahead. I want to catch up to them but I feel we are going too fast even though we are only trotting.  I feel panicked and thinking I am not liking this feeling. I take deeper breaths. I loosen the reins a bit. He steps into a canter, well actually a gallop. I panic. Wait, hey this feels good.

I loosen my reins a bit more. He stretches out more. Longing to be with the other horses - the herd. I’m catching up to them. Wow. His gallop feels great. A bit too fast for me but smooth. I feel my legs burn from being in a two-point position. Thank goodness I’m in my western saddle which gives me comfort and security. I can’t imagine doing this in an English saddle! The group comes to a trot then a walk. Whew! We made it. My horse stops right away as we approach the group.

I sit back in the saddle. My legs feel like jello. We are both breathing rapidly. What just happened? That felt way out of control but in a good way. I try not to let the other riders see how nervous I was. I put on a smile and pretend to be ok, but inside I’m scared. Scared and happy at the same time. I’m confused. Will we gallop again on this trail? Of course we will. My horse keeps his head up waiting for the next move. He seems excited.

We trot along for a while. I figured out it’s best to let my horse just move along with the others instead of holding him back. He doesn’t get as nervous plus I think he likes running with them. As the riders go over the jumps on the course, we walk and watch. I’m secretly wishing we could jump too but I know we are not conditioned enough yet and I don’t want to injure my horse or myself! The jumps are small, some natural and some man made. They don’t look scary at all. In fact, they look fun.

Everyone’s laughing and taking pictures. I’m walking my horse around thinking of the next gallop. I look forward to it but still nervous. We trot along the trail again then I see an open field. The horses pick up the pace. I let my horse go with them. He picks up a canter and then a gallop. I’m In my two-point position again feeling my legs burning and my heart race. I feel free. His gallop so smooth. We are so in rhythm. We are in front of the herd riding next to another horse. I’ve never galloped so fast before. I love it. Gliding across the grass the reins moving through my hands. I hold on to his mane as he goes faster.

No wonder riders love doing this. This is freedom. No worries if your horse is collected. No worries if you are on the right lead. No worries if your seat is in the right position. We are just riding. Don’t get me wrong, I miss showing in an arena for judges. But this was exciting. This was scary. This was living! 

As we near the end of the trail, I see the finish line. I’m sweating. My horse is drenched in sweat breathing heavily but still full of spirit and go. We walk the last part of the trail to cool them off and catch our breath. I see my boyfriend in the distance and I wave to him. Letting him know I’m ok and I made it. He waves back at me thanking God I didn’t chicken out. I’m smiling ear to ear. Amazed that I actually stayed on and made it through the woods. My heartbeat starts to slow down. I’m taking it all in. The last hour and a half going through my mind. I pat my horse telling him how good he was and thanking him for taking care of me. 

As we cross the finish line I’m so relieved to get back but at the same time thinking of the next pace. I want to get off and cool my horse off but could we have gone another few miles. He’s tired but still full of energy! These horses are amazing creatures! So strong and brilliant. Next time I’ll be more prepared. Next time I’ll let my horse stay with the herd the whole time. Next time maybe I’ll try an English saddle. Next time can’t come soon enough! There’s nothing quite like riding with the herd.

Jennifer Hazelwood
Published on 2019-07-12