And it all started so well....
Well. Actually, it didn't start entirely well. Commander's former owner, Rick, had come to the farm to go for a ride this morning, bringing along his girlfriend Carol and Carol's mare Lanny. While Carol tacked up and warmed up Lanny, Rick and I got the boys ready. We mounted up and headed out, with me on Ben leading, on a cool, cloudy, breezy day.
We weren't fifty yards from the barn when Ben refused to go forward over the culvert past the pond. We argued for a bit; then Rick went ahead on an eager Commander; Carol and Lanny fell in behind them; Ben and I brought up the rear.
We headed out past the knoll and across the hayfields beyond. Ben felt tense under me, an attitude not helped by Commander's tendency to break into a happy little trot up ahead, especially ascending a gentle slope to a tree-lined ridge. Ben's catchup trot included some nervous headshakes and -- dammit, was that a crowhop? I let Rick know we were edging into dubious territory, Ben-brainfry-wise, and he curbed Commander's enthusiasm to a walk. Ben trudged unhappily at the tail of our little procession, frequent snorts and an occasional headshake or neck snake betraying his unsettled state.
In retrospect, it's all my fault. I should have told Rick to steer Commander rightward, along an open field, instead of letting him ride the bold Morgan down a narrow lane walled by dense underbrush, with trees crowding in, pressing a leafy green ceiling down low upon us, dangling thin whippy branches in our way. Ben was tight with tension by now, but soldiering on obediently, until we had to slide leftward of a sapling half-fallen across the lane, brushing against it as we went by.
Ben was almost past the blockage when something -- a rebounding branch? A smell of deer/fox/coyote in the underbrush? An overwhelming blast of "I've had it I can't take it any more AAARGGGHHHHH"? -- lit his fuse and he exploded. In an instant he was bolting, plunging, fighting to get his head free and down for a fullout buck that would send me flying into the underbrush we were careening into the fringes of.
Yikes! Damn! I'm not quite sure how I stayed on, stayed with him, in the adrenaline-charged blur of the next few seconds. (It sure didn't hurt to be riding in my ultra-secure Australian stock saddle.) Somehow I got his head back up, his headlong flight stemmed, and enough of his panicked brain refocussed on me to halt him before he rammed through the bushes or crashed into Commander (we'd passed a horrified Carol and placid Lanny in a heartbeat).
Phew. Holy guacamole. When we'd all caught our breath Rick and Carol offered to call it a day on the ride, but by golly I wasn't about to let a near-death experience spoil our fun. We decided to put Ben in the lead, figuring his going last, with a strange horse between him and his best buddy Commander, was part of what was freaking him out. With some tactful urging my snorty high-headed Thoroughbred marched dubiously but obediently forward, out of the narrow Lane of Doom (which fortunately was opening up at that point anyway), and away to the fields beyond.
I don't mind telling you, for the rest of the ride I put the reins in my right hand and kept my left hand on the bucking strap that's clipped to the front of the saddle (which I hadn't had time to grab when the balloon went up). Often I spoke soothing and encouraging words to my still suspicious Thoroughbred. Where it was open enough to allow it, Rick brought Commander up beside Ben to offer buddy security. Ben continued feeling tense the farther away from the barn we got (and oh, yes, he knew exactly which direction it was, even in fields I'd never taken him through before) but he listened to me, he behaved, and bit by bit his tautness eased, his walk regained its swinging fluidity, and his head came down from Danger! High Alert! to its usual relaxed level-necked carriage. By the time we got back to the barn you'd never know to look at him that He'd Almost Died!!!
Well! That wasn't what I was expecting when we tacked up, that's for sure. Nevertheless, it was an enjoyable ride, and I've invited Rick and Carol to come back any time they like for another hack out -- hopefully minus the high drama.