A Ride to Remember
Beautiful sunshine, two good horses, several hours to spare before the Ireland/England rugby match… Saturday was a perfect opportunity for a long hack with my friend MC. She has wanted to find a new trail to the river Largue for ages – one which would not bring us too close to the convent as, strictly speaking, we’re not meant to ride through their land at all.
Aero and I had a lovely, quiet relaxed ride down towards Reillanne on Friday, braving sheep and their clanging bells, new fencing and some very fancy electric fence batteries along the way. I was so proud of how he’s come on – he was a bit tense when he heard the bells but when we finally met the sheep, he just looked at them a little and then carried on. The big fancy electric fence batteries further on were actually scarier than the sheep and warranted a sideways scuttle!
Anyway, Saturday was definitely Flurry’s turn for a trek and I was really looking forward to it as I drove up to the farm. I dithered for a moment as I tacked up. Will I leave the bit on or not? Last time I rode him in the woods, I ended up removing his bit half way and finished the ride bitless. I’ll leave it on until I see how he’s going, I decided, I can always take it off after a while.
About ten minutes into our trek, I thought about stopping and removing his bit, but hey, he was strolling along on the buckle end of the reins; removing his bit wasn’t going to change anything. And mostly, I was enjoying the ride and I couldn’t be bothered stopping.
We found our way along the new trail really easily. In fact, it was the perfect Spring ride as we rode steadily downhill, with snowy mountains in the distance, little crocuses peeping through the leaf mulch on the forest floor, two happy horses, Doug the dog trotting along with us, birds singing in the trees, even a newly awakened butterfly fluttering past us. Yeah, one of those days when I ride along, relaxed, content and with an inane grin on my face, thinking This is why I’m in Provence.
After about an hour, we were near bottom of the hill. I vaguely remembered this stretch from the one time I rode there last year. We had to go through a farm, wind around along the road a bit and then we’d reach the river. We could hear dogs barking as we approached the farm and, as we entered the farmyard, both MC and I noticed loads of maize spread out on the ground to our left. What was that for, we wondered. Chickens? Pigeons? Sangliers?
We rode on, past the maize, alongside a hunting dog in a pen who was barking loudly. Both horses ignored him as they strode along. And then it happened.
Fifty ravenous sheep came around the corner at speed, intent on reaching their maize, no matter what stood in their path. Faced with these fearsome beasts, our horses did the sensible thing – they whipped around lightning-fast and bolted for home. Caught off guard, I tried to shorten up my reins and completely lost the left rein, so I put both hands on the right one and tried to haul Flurry around in a circle in an attempt to stop him. Then I became aware of Quieto barrelling towards me from the right, so I eased up, to avoid a collision, and found myself heading straight towards a big plastic water tank and a tree with very low branches. Shit, I‘m going to hit the deck, I thought, but Flurry came to a halt beside the tank and I stayed in the saddle. MC just about had Quieto under control, but those damned sheep kept coming straight at us, intent on reaching their feed, and it was too much for him. He took off again, ducking between the tree and an old shed and disappearing up the hill. MC tried to hold him, but she rides in a rope halter and, this time, it wasn’t enough to restrain him.
Flurry danced and jigged, desperate to follow his friend and escape from the sheep, which were swarming around, trying to get to their food. I turned him to follow Quieto – sedately, I hoped – and just about managed to restrain him as he power-trotted up the hill.
Quieto had, quite sensibly, run a safe distance away from the sheep and then turned to see what was going on. They were about 200 metres away, MC in the process of dismounting, Doug standing beside them protectively. I stopped Flurry when I saw that they were coming back down to me, told him was a super-brave little horse and gave him a piece of carrot. Then I dismounted too and MC and I congratulated each other on surviving.
We were both quite shaken, MC more than me, I think. Quieto has never behaved like that before and I think she was very taken aback at his explosive reaction.
“It was just bad timing. We’ll laugh about it tomorrow,” I said, and she agreed.
We had a bit more drama with the farm dogs and Doug, but we finally left the farm and rejoined the road, leading our horses. Quieto had pulled a boot off and we stopped at the side of the road while MC refitted it. Then we remounted and continued our way. All we had to do now was take a different trail that leads back up towards the farm, one that we have used a few times.
Normally I’m good at finding my bearings, but I had no idea where we were. Flurry ‘suggested’ that we take a trail which led off to the right, but MC said no, the correct trail was a little further on. As it turned out, Flurry was right… we should have listened to him!
We crossed over a little ford, then we took a turn to the right on a fairly wide trail, Flurry in front and quite enthusiastic. We trotted for a bit and then walked, with Quieto taking the lead again. Nothing looked familiar to me. There was the shell of an old car, sitting on blocks and a shack a little further on. At this point, MC realised we were on the wrong trail and started to lead the way back to the road, off the trail, through the thick scrub oak.
And then it happened. Quieto, still on edge after the sheep incident, spooked violently once again – we have no idea what startled him – and turned 180° on a sixpence. I’m not sure if Flurry saw something too or if he was taking Quieto’s lead, but he too spun on the spot and bolted back down the hill. I had time to see MC perched on Quieto’s neck before Flurry whipped around and I assumed that she fell off at that point. Then I had to focus on Flurry as I gathered up my reins and tried to slow him. In a runaway situation, I would normally pull a horse around in a circle but there were trees and rocks everywhere. I saw one gap on my left and tried to pull him around but chickened out at the last minute as we headed straight for a tree. Flurry jinked to the right…
SMACK! A branch hit my face. I saw stars and tasted blood…
…I blinked and regripped the reins and realised that we were hurtling towards a big heap of stones at the speed of light-coloured cob. It’s a while since I jumped. Flurry took it in his stride, like the good hunting cob he is, and I stayed on board. I tried to haul on the reins again, to no avail, and the thought crossed my mind that maybe I should jump off. No, I thought, I’ll really get hurt if I jump off…
SMACK! A second branch hit me, followed by a few smaller twigs, whipping at my face…
…I could feel blood running down my chin, and again I thought about jumping off, but then I realised that we were nearly back on the road. Within seconds, we hit the road at a gallop and splashed through the pretty ford we had passed minutes earlier. I made another valiant attempt to slow Flurry, talking to him, hauling on the reins, sitting back in the saddle, and I finally got him from flat-out gallop down to a brisk canter. Another couple of strides and we would have been back to a trot… except Quieto zoomed past us, causing Flurry to increase speed once again. We were heading back towards the scary sheep farm now, Quieto slightly ahead. One of his boots came off as he tore along, quickly followed by another.
I talked to Flurry, “Steady, my little man, easy now, whooooo now,” that sort of thing. He didn’t stop, but he seemed to settle into a hunting gallop, less panicked. For my part, I sat into the saddle and tried to think rationally for a moment. I knew my mouth was bleeding and I could see blood on the side of my nose, but other than that, I was physically ok. I figured that the horses would probably balk at going back into the sheep farm and most likely would grind to a halt at the entrance, where we had allowed them to graze. I would be ok… probably. I just hoped MC was ok, too.
The strange thing was, as soon as I’d had that thought process, Flurry slowed down a tad. I talked to him some more and he slowed another bit. There was a sturdy chain link fence at the side of the ride and I turned his head towards it. The hunting gallop became a canter, then a trot and a walk, as Quieto disappeared around a bend in front of us.
I had survived. I patted Flurry and quickly dismounted, to see Quieto trotting back towards us, distressed and panicky.
“Easy pet, easy boy.” He has a reputation to be difficult to catch, but he was desperate for reassurance and came straight up to me. I caught his reins and patted both horses.
MC! I pulled out my phone and rang her. To my relief, she answered.
“Tu est ok?” I asked.
“Oui, yes, I’m ok. And you?” This is what we do, I speak French, she speaks English, it’s a set pattern with us at this stage – even when we’re stressed, apparently.
“Oui, mon visage est blessé, mais je suis ok et j’ai les deux chevaux.” (My face is injured but I’m ok and I have both horses)
I made my way back towards her, picking up boots as I went, and we met up just before I reached the ford. She peered at my face.
“It’s ok, not too serious, I think.” She’s a doctor, so I trust her opinion, but I was still reluctant to see how I looked. My lips felt swollen and crusted with blood and my chin was throbbing.
We agreed that we needed a rest, so we stopped and let the horses graze while we swapped stories. It turned out that she hadn’t fallen off when I saw her perched on Quieto’s neck, he had pretty much pushed her back into the saddle. Quite an achievement when you consider she rides western and had that big horn to get over! The first branch that hit my face had rebounded and whacked her on the shoulder – she and Quieto are both taller than me & Flurry, so it hit her lower down. After that, they were hot on our heels as Flurry jumped over the heap of stones. The jump was a bridge to far for her – she had lost her stirrups, after all – and she fell, landing on her left side.
She lay there for a moment, thinking first of all “I’m still alive.” Then she moved, bit by bit, and figured out that everything was in working order. She started to follow us and then I had phoned her. Her hip (replaced last summer) was ok, but her ribs and shoulder were sore. Nothing broken, she thought, but bruised.
I realised that I was in better shape than she was.
“Will we ride home?” she asked. “Or will I ask Georges (her husband) to come and collect us?”
I figured I would be ok riding home. My face was sore, but I didn’t feel concussed, shaky or dizzy. A lift home would be a lot easier, though… and I was a little worried about MC.
“Let’s get Georges to collect us,” I said. “It’s probably better.”
She rang him and told our sorry tale, while I pulled out my iPhone and turned the camera on so I could look at my face.
“Oh, it’s not too bad…” I said.
Actually, it was bad enough. The bright sunlight made it hard to see at the time.
We sat on a rock while we waited for Georges, the horse beside us. Flurry was unusually attentive. He had no interest in picking at the grass or looking for carrots, which is not normal Flurry behaviour at all! He nibbled at my hat and whiffled at my sleeves, licked my hands and sniffed and poked at his saddle, which lay in front of us. Quieto had little interest in grazing, too, and stood on the other side of MC, head lowered. I think they were both badly shaken, to be honest, and in need of reassurance.
By the time Georges and the truck arrived, MC was stiffening up badly. I was still ok; it wasn’t until I got out of the truck to unload Quieto that I felt the first twang in my back. I guess one of Flurrys 180° spins wrenched it somewhat. Once we had looked after the horses, we inspected our wounds. Mine look the most dramatic, but MC’s are worse. She has a huge bruise on her shoulder, sore ribs, back and ankle. I have a lesser bruise on the same shoulder, a sore back and I won’t be smiling, laughing, talking or eating a whole lot for a while.
It could have been a lot worse.
I could have been on Aero – it would have shattered my confidence and his. As it is, I know and trust Flurry so well that I have no qualms at the thought of riding him down to the river again.
I could have opted to ride bitless. I think I’d still be galloping if I had!
I could have lost a couple of teeth or broken my jaw or my nose. My gums are sore and one tooth is a bit achey, but I think I’ll be fine.
I could have fallen or jumped off. I think I’d be a lot worse off if I had, as I would probably have ended up falling under Quieto’s galloping hooves. Not a good scenario.
So I have no regrets and no “If only’s” running around my brain. Shit happens. Horses will be horses. Our two normally steady neddies were still on high alert after the sheep incident and whatever they saw in the woods was just too much for their little brains to handle. MC and I coped with a difficult situation well, and we came out battered and bruised but not beaten.
Unlike the Irish rugby team, who I won’t mention. Oops. I just did.