They say a picture is worth a thousand words... well if that is true for your average picture it definitely is for this one! This was taken on our way back to camp after our first trail excursion from Heavens Gate Horse Camp in Muse, Oklahoma. Oh boy did we have an adventurous first day!
Rule number one of venturing off on a trail ride in a new location: understand the scope and terrain of the trail system. When we arrived, our hostess D'Anna, gave us a very well put together map of the trails. We found the trail system to be well marked (THANK GOD) while we were riding and finding our way on our own. We camped three days and experienced all sorts of terrain. But honestly, it wasn't until I got home later that week that I realized just how much trail is there. D'Anna cut 70 miles of trails through the Ouachita National Forest from her place. AND THEN from Horse Thief Springs (13 miles from Heaven's Gate) there is ANOTHER 70 miles of trails to ride. All of these trails are even connected. Coming from Miami County, KS this was mind boggling for both Sue and I as we tried to decide which rides we wanted to attempt... what our horses could do... what we could do etc...
So now that I have laid out the lesson we learned, let me tell you the story behind it. First of all, did you realize there are mountains in Oklahoma?! Like 2,700 foot mountains! I discovered this fact during a misguided GPS journey from (not to be completely confusing) a different DeAnna's house in Marshall, TX back to my house last fall. I'm just blindly following my GPS (don't do that when you are driving a horse trailer by the way) and I end up on these windy mountain roads in an extreme fog wondering how on earth I ended up in Arkansas on my way home to Kansas only to realize I was in OKLAHOMA! What on earth? I also saw all kinds of signs for horse trails and camping and with it just being six hours from home, I knew this was going to be a place I would return to ride. When I got home, I immediately shared the news with everyone in sight and only a couple people weren't totally surprised by all this.
The season for riding in Oklahoma is really spring and fall but Sue and I decided to take a last-minute trip in the middle of July, because let's face it, it was unseasonably cool. Her horse Dillon desperately needed some real trail experience and I was conditioning Jake for Colorado so it just seemed the perfect opportunity. Let me tell you we got both the experience and the conditioning. We left Hopo (Bob and Susan's Ranch in Louisburg) about 7:00 am which put us at Heaven's Gate just after lunch. This would leave us plenty of time to get settled in and take a nice easy afternoon ride to acclimate. Such a great plan.
As with most great first-time plans, as you can imagine, things didn't go quite as expected. Firstly, don't ever pull off into Ft. Smith with a trailer. Especially not onto the main drag during lunch hour. The most stressful stop with a horse trailer EVER. That aside, the drive was smooth. We arrived just after 1 pm. Heaven's Gate was easy to find and very easy to get into with an awesome layout and set up. We get all settled into our campsites, meet with D'Anna and go over the trail map. She recommended the red trail for an afternoon ride. This is her least complicated and shortest trail.
I rode Dillon and Sue rode Jake. This gave me a chance to sort out any behavioral issues we might encounter on Dillon before Sue had to deal with him herself. Dillon was definitely "feeling his oats" as we started out. He felt like he wasn't touching the ground. I'm trying to read the map and find the trail because after all, I can't ask for extra help or anything, that would be too easy. Five minutes into the ride we lost the red trail. I admittedly lacked patience on re-orientating myself so we blasted off on the blue trail instead. I was able to pick that up on the map and all was good...for about ten more minutes. Then while pondering the best execution for a tricky hill, Sue and Jake end up in a hornet's nest. The were COVERED. Totally swarmed. So we doubled back quickly and were chased by said hornets. Finally we get rid of them. We get Sue doctored up (Thank you first Aid Kit... which even has more sting remedies now) and we plow on. Game plan change #2. The horses are a bit frantic at this point and we aren't super excited about sticking around for more hornets so while we are walking down the trail and managing our steeds, I'm reading the map again. I find a smallish loop of a couple of different color trails combined and decide to go for it. The one crucial thing I missed was the contour lines of said trail loop. Are you familiar with contour lines? They are those little lines on a map that show you the shape and grades of the hills and mountain slopes. They are pretty important if you are aiming for a nice casual, leisurely warmup ride through the woods of Oklahoma or anywhere with mountain topography.
So here we are, heading down the first major descent. I made Susan and Jake go first because there was no way in Hades that Dillon was brave enough to be the leader. Words are coming out of my mouth like "It's fine", "you can do this", "there can't be too many of these". Well let's just say, I was right on one out of three of those predictions. She could do it. It really wasn't fine and there were two straight hours of 500 ft descents and ascents ahead of us. Even following Jake, Dillon (who is no chicken by the way) was SHAKING head to toe as we did these hills. All of the playing around and yanking my chain and levitating that had been going on before we got to the hills vanished as he realized this was no game. If we were going to make it out alive he was going to have to quit jacking around, focus and use every muscle in his possession to balance. Not only were the hills steep, they were coated in round river rocks that you would slide over from time to time on your descents. The trails were so narrow and what we had just accomplished was so terrifying, turning around didn't seem like a viable option. I kept up my words of encouragement: "It's gonna get better soon." "You did so great on that last one." "If this doesn't make a trail horse out of Dillon I don't know what will" (NO SH*T!) Susan responded with basically dead silence, which if you have ever been on a trail with her you would know is super unusual. She normally has a running commentary of what is going on. I had her speechless. Completely speechless.
We eventually wound our way back to camp and found some semi-flat ground to start decompressing and realizing what we had just done. I'm proud to say that although both horses were drenched in sweat, we had excellent saddle fit and pre-trip conditioning in place and neither horse got sore from the adventure. We on the other hand had to slowly peel ourselves out of the saddle before sliding off and assessing whether our leg cramps would be short or long-term. We bathed the horses, put them in their pens, fed them, fed ourselves and stumbled off to bed. Both of us wondering how the two additional days of riding that were ahead of us would go.