So I started decorating for Halloween on September 1st. Mainly because Halloween is my FAVORITE holiday. While I like Christmas, I hold to a strict no Christmas decorations before Black Friday policy. I don’t like to rush past Thanksgiving. However, when an opportunity to trail ride through the Belton Lake Outdoor Recreation Area (BLORA) Christmas display presented itself this past weekend, I could not turn it down. BLORA is a big thing in our area. It is hosted on Army property at Fort Hood, and is an approximately 5 mile drive through, I’m estimating, 100 different Christmas light displays. I know people that drive through it multiple times over the holiday season.
Last year the BLORA Ranch and Hoofbeats for Heroes hosted the trail ride in January after the Christmas light display had closed to the public. I first learned about Hoofbeats for Heroes at a horse show this spring. They showed up with (and again I’m estimating) like ten horses and forty riders to compete at the Capital Area Quarter Horse Association show in the Bell County Expo Arena. I was extremely impressed with the instructors for managing the chaos of that many horses, riders, and tack changes.
Hoofbeats for Heroes has a wonderful mission of teaching/supporting military families and children along with a host of veterans programs for our military personnel that may struggle with the aftermath of their service through equine assisted programs. They have therapy programs for servicemen suffering from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), depression and anxiety. Children of active military have a place to interact with horses, build confidence, and just check out from the stress of growing up military. Whether they placed in their respective classes at the horse show, the riders, horses, and trainers were all winners in my book that day. I was super excited when they showed up at Bell County Expo again this fall for the Mid-Tex Quarter Horse Association Show.
An ad for the Christmas Light trail ride popped up on Facebook, and despite my “No Christmas before Thanksgiving” rule, I knew we had to participate. That decision was followed by several tougher decisions. First only two of our full size horses were trail ride sound/safe. Only one of them, Odessa, was safe enough for Darling Husband to ride. She also happens to be the only horse safe enough to ride double with Offspring. Darling Husband can’t handle Comanche’s fiery personality, and he doesn’t feel comfortable riding double with Offspring regardless of the horse. While I have kid safe riding ponies, Odessa doesn’t pony other equine very well, and Offspring isn’t really a fan of riding astride the little guys for some reason (probably because he knows better than his parents). This trail ride was the sort of magical/memorable activity I couldn’t imagine not sharing with the entire family. I wanted all three of us to enjoy it, leaving Offspring with a sitter seemed selfish.
If you have read any of my previous blog posts, you know I affectionately and sometimes accurately refer to my ponies as devils, demon spawn, minions of hell etc., but transporting the most precious cargo quickly became a job that only a demonic pony could do. I had one specific pony in mind, the bombproof, you can’t rattle, sometimes referred to as Lucifer, Beau Pony. I called Hoofbeats for Heroes to find out if carts with a sleigh bell harnessed pony were allowed on the ride. Let’s face it, if you are on a Christmas trail ride, with one-horse open sleigh (ie cart), sleigh bells are virtually a requirement. I was ecstatic to hear that carts were allowed, but that statement was followed up with “The only rule is no studs.” Cue sound effects…Da Da Dum. This rule has been the bane of my cart driving aspirations this year, but at least Hoofbeats for Heroes was upfront about it. I did ask halfheartedly if they would consider an exception for a seventeen year old, thirty five inch mini, but Army property rules prevailed.
Not to be deterred, I went ahead and booked the ride. I had two untested pony mares in training, but this ride was worth the risk. I also had a month to throw everything I could think of at both of them. Apple Jack by all accounts was the most sensible choice. For one she has a real aversion to going anywhere or doing anything fast. She easily trained to a cart in thirty days. Nothing bothers her. However, she is a smaller mini, and I wasn’t sure if she was conditioned for a five mile trail with possible inclines pulling my heaviest cart, with me plus Offspring.
Dixieland Delight aka Moonshine was my last resort option. She’s flighty and spooky. She took quite a while to desensitize to the cart, and she needs frequent refreshers on desensitizing work. If I go longer than seven days without using fly spray on her, she will literally attempt to flip over backwards the next time I attempt to spray her. Moonshine likes to go everywhere fast, maintaining a walk with her takes skillful driving, lots of half halts and an elastic rein, because she prefers a brisk trot. However, Moonshine has a few traits that made her a better choice than either Beau Pony or Apple Jack. First, she’s a mare. Secondly she’s around forty two to forty four inches tall, almost a foot taller than the other two with bigger strides that can keep up with full size horses with less difficulty. Third, Moonshine outweighs the other two by at least a hundred pounds. This becomes an important factor when considering steep downhill grades in a cart. The last thing I want to do is over-face my pony.
Considering these factors, I decided I would throw all of my preparation energy at Moonshine. If she wasn’t ready by the ride, I would switch out with Apple Jack, and plan to walk the grades rather than drive them. Thus began the Christmas trail ride boot camp. Moonshine was only exposed to sleigh bells briefly last spring in an effort to get her used to constant noise from behind. To say she needed a refresher course would be an understatement. Also, unlike my other ponies, Moonshine is easily spooked by shadows. This confuses me because all of my equine receive more training at night than they do in the day time. Also, Moonshine lives out of doors 24/7, with an “at will” pony shelter to stay in if she chooses. It’s not like shadows are something new in her world, but put tack on her and suddenly shadows become pony eating monsters.
I harnessed Moonshine, and attached the sleigh bells first. I left her bare faced with just a halter and lead, and we practiced leading around the yard at various gaits with the bells. Once she no longer bolted when asked to trot with the bells, we moved into the round pen that was wrapped in 750 ft of twinkling Christmas lights. Once she seemed settled with all of these activities, I put her bridle on and ground drove her at night through my back pasture. Passing cars on the road provided opportunities for more shadows. It was during the ground driving that I began to question Moonshine’s suitability to haul Offspring around. She bolted constantly at random shadows/invisible monsters. I persisted however, and took her through the neighborhood behind our house in full sleigh harness a few times each week leading up to the trail ride.
If you are wondering why I devoted so much effort to the sleigh bells with only a month prior to the ride, mainly it is because I love the jingle sound they make. Secondly, my sleigh bells are family heirlooms, and I take a lot of pride in them. I literally spent hours polishing them to gleaming perfection pre-ride. Flashback twenty plus years, I’m barely a teenager, and my dad started collecting antique farm pieces, Cracker Barrel style. Horses hold a special place in our family, and he either purchased, was given, or somehow inherited a set of antique sleigh bells from my great uncle. Then another relative gave us a second full set of sleigh bells that had been handed down through a few generations. So my sleigh bells are the real deal, heavy solid brass, one hundred plus year old bells that graced the backs of Evans’ family horses for at least 3 if not more generations back.
Moonshine’s final drive one week before the trail ride went spectacularly well, until the last fifteen minutes when she spooked at leaves blowing in the wind across the road. Again, this confuses me as these are things she sees every freaking day, but whatever. At this point Apple Jack hadn’t been driven in a month between Moonshine’s prep and the new mustangs that are sucking up my available equine working hours like a Dyson. This trail ride would be Moonshine and Odessa or just wouldn’t happen.
Maybe I’m an over protective parent. I know that my father wouldn’t have invested a quarter of the time in prepping a horse for a short trail ride that I did. I can name several occasions where more prep would have been desirable, but I lived/learned and like I said Offspring is precious cargo. The day before the trail ride, Darling Husband and I drove out to BLORA and convinced the staff to let us drive through the park. It had been three years since we drove the BLORA Christmas lights, and I knew there may be slight grades, but couldn’t remember.
That first quarter mile into the park had me questioning my sanity. We were barely through the gates when I spotted the yellow “steep grade” caution sign for trucks. The hill we went down was easily two times steeper than any grade Moonshine had climbed or descended with a cart. A quarter of a mile in, and there is a switchback turn that was four times steeper than she has ever walked. All of this is on paved road, Moonshine is barefoot, and I did not have time to purchase/desensitize her to road boots for more traction prior to the ride. There were a few other uphill grades she would need to pull, but if we survived the first quarter mile of the ride, I wasn’t too concerned about the rest. There was a portion of the trail we were unable to preview which in hindsight was a good thing, as it combined with the first quarter mile may have convinced me to back out of the ride.
As much as I would have loved one more practice drives prior to the trail ride, alas the weather did not cooperate. Our property was a mud pit on Thursday and Friday. On Saturday, I waited for the weather to warm up and gave Moonshine a much needed bath. She had spent the past two days wallowing like a pig in the mud. I decorated the cart with evergreen, poinsettias, Christmas lights and installed a foot rest for Offspring. There were a few times he had slipped off the seat during a parade earlier this year. I knew he would need something to brace against when we hit the inclines. Also, I needed to focus on keeping the pony calm, and not trying to hold Offspring in his seat.
We loaded up and headed to BLORA. Since Darling Husband has only ridden Odessa twice, and I spent all summer installing some new “buttons” on her, I gave him some quick tips on how not to die while riding my horse. Unlike Moonshine, I had complete faith in Odessa’s ability to carry my husband safely through the end of the ride. I just didn’t want him inadvertently triggering one of her “Go” spots and then frustrating her by trying to hold her back. I wasn’t sure how Darling Husband would handle her frustrated crow hops. Odessa is a mare with opinions and is not afraid to express them.
Hoofbeats for Heroes put on a wonderful event. They served BBQ before the ride, and there was a safety briefing on what to expect. There were a few things I hadn’t planned on. It never occurred to (although it should have) that I would be hitching up totally in the dark. Note to self bring lights for the side of the trailer next time. Once we were hitched, Offspring was installed in his seat, and the three of us, Offspring, Moonshine, and I staged ourselves by the riding arena while Darling Husband tacked up Odessa. I wanted Moonshine to see the activity of forty horses warming up in the arena and down the road. I also wanted those horses and riders to see us. Horses that have never seen a pony, let alone one hitched to a cart with sleigh bells, have a tendency to freak out at the sight. More than a few horses spooked as they rode by us. We planned to ride dead last on the trail. I didn’t want to cause trouble for my fellow riders, and I wanted space in case everything went to hell.
I needn’t have worried. Never in my life have I been as proud of a horse/pony as I was of Moonshine that night. Despite being green (literally she’s been driving less than six months), despite her nervous nature, despite the fact I’m fairly certain she hates sleigh bells, that little pony held it together. Moonshine took the first steep downhill grade like a champ. When we hit the even steeper switchback, she bobbled, recovered, squatted into her breeching, and went down better than half of the mounted horses. When other horses spooked at lights, Moonshine kept chugging along with those wonderful little sleigh bells jingling. Offspring was squealing with delight and yelling at me to look at the lights the entire drive. Moonshine didn’t spook at a single one of his outbursts. She was responsive, slowing perfectly at the speed bumps, and took charge on the uphill grade without the slightest hesitation.
The last quarter mile of the ride, the part we did not have an opportunity to preview ended up being the most challenging. It was on the back side of the park with zero light. We were navigating up a steep grade gravel road by moonlight and the little light coming off the Christmas lights strung on the back of my cart. I was a little worried that we may be asking too much of a little pony to climb that long/steep of a grade with the cart, but Moonshine didn’t seem to show signs of wearing out. Once we topped the hill, we crossed a cattle guard with a narrow piece of plywood laying across it, and entered a cattle field. It was a little nerve wracking taking the cart through the field with no visibility of the terrain in front, yet my steady little pony chugged onward.
In the end it was a great way for the family to kick off our holidays. Darling Husband said Offspring had a huge smile on his face the entire time, and I know from all of the chatter and squealing that he thoroughly enjoyed himself. Odessa took care of Darling Husband. Dixieland Delight aka Moonshine was truly a delight to drive. She handled herself wonderfully, and I’d like to think our sleigh bells added a little something to the ride for the other participants. My only regret is that I was so focused on Offspring’s safety that I failed to get any really good family pictures. I forgot our SLR camera when I loaded the truck and trailer. Once we got to the event, I was so focused on getting Moonshine used to her surroundings that it didn’t occur to me to snap a few quick photos. I thought we would have more of an opportunity after the ride, but alas no. I truly hope Hoofbeats for Heroes hosts a follow-up ride in January because we are totally ready for that ride. I know I have some great memories of Christmas wagon/sleigh drives as a child, and I’m glad I get to share the experience with Offspring!
As a post script…I want to give a huge thank you to Marcia Cross. Not only did she provide me with the only family photo I have of the night, but I credit the parade prep clinics she hosted this year with this successful drive. Moonshine’s exposure to flashing lights and sirens during that clinic gave me confidence that she wouldn’t entirely freak out on this ride. When the truck parked directly behind us unexpectedly went into alarm mode before the ride began, my pony didn’t even flinch at the sound.