from a bicyclist's viewpoint
by Roger S Nelson
This is me in May of 2003, on Dixie, my sister in law's horse. Being a bicyclist, I'm not much of a horseman, but the picture makes me look pretty good, just standing there.
The trip was across the State of Michigan, for two weeks starting in the middle of June, from Oscoda on Lake Huron, to Empire on Lake Michigan, across the northern thumb area. I knew it wasn't going to be easy, and I knew I needed some training. I managed to squeeze in four training rides before the trip, two on Dixie, and two on Ruth's, my sister's, horses. I also managed to get a small hernia doing this, but I didn't realize it until I was actually doing the trip.
Since I don't have my own horse, (I'm a bicyclist, but everyone else in my family, Mom, two brothers, and my sister, are all horse people.) I borrowed one of my sister's horses, Maggie, a paint/quarterhorse and even tempered mare. Ruth, my sister, and I rode together the whole way, and Ruth was on Windsong, a white, part Arab, horse. I took pictures for the two weeks, and had some beauties, but alas, my hard drive crashed and I lost them. I'm sure I backed them up somewhere, but I sure can't find them. It was this trip that served as background for my second novel, The Purple Boot. Below are some of my thoughts on the trip.
The green stars are where we camped except for the start, Oscoda, (on Lake Huron) and the finish, Empire (on Lake Michigan). You can get a pretty good idea of the route. Click on picture to see it enlarged.
This trip was one of the most physically demanding things I have ever done, even more then the bike marathons I've been in. It's not that I'm out of shape, all that biking has kept me fit. And my butt didn't get sore, a saddle is downright comfortable after being used to a bicycle seat. In fact, they both require sitting on the same bones. But horseback riding is the only sport I know where a person has to use the inner thigh muscles to keep one's balance and stay on the horse. We rode 20-30 miles a day for two days, and then rested a day. It's all the jostling around while in the saddle that's tiring. For the first three or four days ibuprofen became my favorite snack, but by the end of the first week I wasn't taking it anymore, I had a adapted. However, I was physically tired the whole trip. On my rest days, I would sleep in, have a late breakfast, go sleep some more, have a late lunch, take an afternoon nap, maybe go for a swim when it was hot out, and after supper, go to bed early. I'm not exaggerating to say that I never got caught up on my rest, and that I really appreciated the rest days. It made me have a lot of respect for some of my ancestors who crossed the US in a covered wagon at twelve miles a day.
As a biker, my bike weighs about 20 pounds, maybe a little more. All loaded down for a two week trip it probably only weighed 50 or 60 pounds, and I never had to actually lift it. I have taken two trips across the State on my bike, camping out along the way, in a teeny tent, by myself. But with a horse, I was always lifting something. The saddle weighs about 40 pounds. Every bucket of water weights about 40 pounds, and I've seen a horse drink a whole bucket all at once, and usually several during the day. My sister was having problems with her back, so I was carrying water for her horse also, and lifting her saddle for her, too. A small bale of hay weighs another 40 pounds, and I had to hang up probably 4 bales a day. It felt like every time I turned around, I was lifting something. I bet cowboys are tough, strong, people.
As a biker, when I get done on a long ride I lay my bike in the grass and go take a nap. On a horse, when I get done with a ride, the work just beings, I have to carry water, lift hay, and then brush/clean the horse, and brushing is hard work when you're already tired to begin with.
As a biker, when I want to go somewhere, I just hop on the bike a pedal. No problem. With a horse, after you get it saddled and bridled, (and I'm not going to tell you I'm good at that, but before the trip was over, I had actually done it myself a couple of times with Ruth checking it afterwards) you just can't hop on it and go. Once when I was putting the saddle on, Maggie nipped me on the shoulder, as if to say, "Don't tighten that cinch too much." A horse has a mind of its own, and it really helps to have an experienced horseman along to explain things. First of all, a horse just wants to eat. For Maggie, in particular, food was all she cared about. Her heart was not in going from point A to point B, it was to go from point A to the best grass. Second, there are two kinds of animals in the world, predators, and prey. Horses are prey. It's a good thing, too, because if they weren't, not very many people would be riding them. But an untrained and inexperienced horse will spook at anything, a rock, a tree stump, deer, even waves in a lake, or the sound of a brook. And Third, a horse is a herd animal, and they generally hate to go riding off alone, despite what you see in the movies. If you try to separate a couple of horses used to being together, the one left behind will often have a hissy fit, and the horse doing the leaving may not go very willingly. It seems that to be a successful horseman, one must be somewhat of a psychologist to deal with these things.
Bicycles in particular, are spooky to horses. While a horse may be used to cars and trucks, off road vehicles, tractors, and other things, a bicycle sneaks up on them, like a predator. If you're out riding and see horses, ring your bell, yell hello, and make all the noise you can so you don't spook the horse. Spooked horses sometimes hurt their rider. Ruth's horse was extremely spooky, especially at deer. One day I was riding a little too close behind Ruth, but we were following another horse who was taking the lead, so we didn't think Ruth's horse would spook so easily. Wrong. Windsong spooked, and because I was so close behind, my horse also spooked, and she literally rolled me off her back by going sideways. While I was on my back looking up at her, she looked down at me and thought, "Oh, he hasn't got the reins, I'm going back to camp where there's food," and away she went. Fortunately, I wasn't hurt, maybe my pride a little is all, but I didn't have a lot of that to begin with, and I only had to walk about halfway back, Ruth caught Maggie for me before Maggie got all the way back, and then brought Maggie back to me.
One of the things I tried to do was keep my hat on. There's always a tree limb or the wind to take it off. The wind never took it off, it stayed on quite nicely. I, rookie that I am, knocked it off myself once, by accident. What a pain, having to climb down off the horse to retrieve it. Actually, I found my hat quite comfortable and useful, keep the sun out of my eyes, the one day it rained a little it kept my head dry, and kept things that fall out of trees out of my hair. One day in the second week, we rode up a big hill by a hat eating tree, and I had a fight with the tree and won (my hat stayed on) but if you compare the nice looking hat in the picture at the beginning of this article, to the one here, you'll see that my hat gained, shall I say, a little character. (Click on hat for larger image)
Once again, I found boots very practical. They protected my legs from mosquitoes and weeds or other scratchy things as I rode, and were comfortable to walk in, nor did sand get in when I had to walk, and there were some pretty sandy areas where I walked.
On my hat you will notice two buttons. The top one is for being the most improved rider of the group. That wasn't hard to do, I was the least experienced rider there, so I needed the most improvement. The second button is one I earned when the horse dumped me (see spooking). Sooner or later, even the most experienced riders get one of those, even my sister got one on this trip, but if I'd been on her horse, I probably would have gotten a dozen of them. Not every one got one this trip, and some people were even riding bareback some. I wasn't brave enough to try that.
My horse collapsed on me one day. It was a hot day and we were going through some deep, soft sand, and my horse kept going slower and slower and all of a sudden collapsed right under me. I was still sitting in the saddle, but my feet were on the ground, so I got up, I thought he'd had a heart attack or something. But the horse seemed to be in good physical condition, and was a fairly young horse, so how could that happen? When I looked around, my sister was laughing, so I knew it wasn't serious. Seemed like the horse just wanted to roll in the sand (they like to do that). Whew!
I did finish the trip. It was a wonderful two week vacation, and if you read all the above, you know I had some wonderful experiences and learned an awful lot, but I'm still a novice horseman. Ruth says I'm ready to move up to the intermediate stage. Do I want to? Will I do it again? Time and opportunity will tell. I have to say that this is one award I truly earned, worked for, deserved, and I'm proud of it. When we started this trip, neither I nor Ruth knew whether we would finish or not, so many things can go wrong. Not everyone who went on this trip rode the whole distance or received an award. Some people don't have the time, some don't have the desire, and some may have had problems. (Click on plaque for larger image)
Do it again?
I might have to do it again, just so I can get some pictures for this article. There was swimming in the Manistee and Au Sable, and a few other places. There were the campfires, the singing, the horse painting, the beautiful trails, scenic outlooks, deep woods, fallen trees where a tornado passed, the wooden bridge through a swampy area, visiting Amish country, the neat restaurants we ate at in the evening sometimes, the pizza at the end of the ride, and Michigan weather at its best. One day we were even the first ones into camp, not that it counts for anything. (We got an early start and didn't make any wrong turns.) Yeah. I'd do it again. But I'm still a bicyclist at heart.