The First Time

By Gary Fitts
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Here it is: I'm riding Baydal, Peter Rich's Arabian mare [now mine - GF], in my first equestrian event -- the Hoof Trek NATRC ride on the grounds of the old Fort Ord near Monterey. Almost everyone reading this piece will know more about riding than I do -- I've been in the saddle for barely a year -- so the most I can hope to give you are the impressions of a beginner, and perhaps a recollection of that magical first time that you may have forgotten.

Last night was the first time I camped with a horse. Despite my affection for her, the sound of heavy stomping and chomping outside my tent frequently startled me awake. By morning all is forgiven. The weather is perfect, in the 60's with a thin overcast, and the dew on the grass is evaporating quickly along with my own cobwebs. I've never seen so many horses and riders together at one time, and I'm surprised at how well behaved most of us are. There's little jockeying for position at the line as the open division riders are clocked out at 30 second intervals; I guess I had expected a land-rush stampede.

Then almost before I'm ready, 10 minutes before the official novice start time, I notice another blue-bibbed novice crossing the line. I had expected to have time for contemplation, but I wheel Baydal into line and we're off! Time to get my brain in gear: start my stopwatch, cinch down my camelback, pull out my map and try not to miss the first turn. Even the longest journey starts with a first step and a welter of detail.

I know from experience how competitive these arabians can be in a group, egging each other on. Perhaps most horses are that way, so I'm glad to be starting solo. Baydal seems relaxed, even taking a few half-hearted swipes at passing poison-oak shoots before settling into a focused walk. Shortly we come to our first hill, hardly worth noticing compared to the rocky East Bay hills I'm used to, but the judges are watching. What's new to me here is the fairly deep sand. Baydal's hooves are sinking 4 to 6 inches, and I'm not sure what effect this will have. Halfway up my camera falls out of my pack and I have to dismount to retrieve it. Have I just lost points?

At the top I'm joined by a young woman on a grey arabian mare. I'm intrigued to see that she's riding with a halter even softer than the bosal I'm using on Baydal. I may learn a thing or two from watching her -- she seems to be a skilled rider. One of the real joys of our sport is that men and women compete together. Not only that, but we have another species on the team, and both sexes of both species compete on an equal footing. Something feels right here.

We're soon overtaken by a fellow on a gelding morgan. He's always ridden solo, and this is his first experience riding with others. He's using a western saddle with two pads, a complex set of reins and mouth pieces, and even though he's chatting about natural horsemanship, he's wearing spurs! Long western spurs with pinwheels. He and his horse are in a constant battle, and seem to be exasperated with each other. The poor horse jigs and wheels and the poor guy rides sideways and even backwards for a while. All this is making Baydal very nervous. I'm beginning to look for ways to escape.

We pass the morning in brushy rolling terrain on sandy trails bordered with wildflowers, often passing "Danger - Unexploded Ordinance" signs. The pace we're keeping feels right, and sure enough, we pass the first check point right on time to the nearest minute. (Note that in NATRC, you must keep to a prescribed pace. You lose points by finishing too soon or too late.) But our good pace doesn't last. We're passed by a group in a hurry, and we have to check our horses to keep them from following. This slows us down, and for some reason we pull into the first P&R (pulse & respiration) stop ten minutes late. There's quite a backup here, and by the time we clock out we're at least twenty minutes behind schedule. Unfortunately I've managed to reset my stopwatch, and now I have to calculate my elapsed time in my head. Dang new-fangled watches.

So now we pick up the pace, trotting where we can. My riding companions have no compunctions about cantering, and I have to hold them back, since Peter insists that we never canter his horses. Soon we reach the scenic highlight of the ride. The map just calls it "trail 50", but it's a long savanna of oak trees draped with Spanish moss, carpeted with green grass and waves of blue, purple, white, yellow, and lavender wildflowers. I dearly want to take pictures, but I'm too busy holding on and too caught up in the joy of our movement.

At the second P&R I encounter my first real setback. As each horse clocks out, it is required to move out of view around the next bend. The grey mare goes out first, and since Baydal has "bonded" with her, she's frantic at being left behind. She won't allow the vet to approach with his stethoscope, whirling away despite my best attempts to calm her. Finally the vet says "I'm not going to fight this, get out of here!" I figure that I'm probably disqualified. If not, maybe at least I'll set the record for the lowest score in the history of the event.

I figure that the only thing left for me to do is to come home on time, but despite our trotting, we're still behind schedule. I manage to leave the crazy morgan behind, and soon the grey mare meets some friends and they fall behind too. In an ordinary ride, Baydal would calm down now that she's alone out front, but not so in this competition. I think she's more of a hard-charging endurance horse than a NATRC horse, and every sighting of a rider on the next horizon gives new meaning to her life. Now I know what Peter means when he says that each horse is a different animal in competition. She lives for speed. If I give her the reins she knows no limits -- it's an effort to hold her back. Madeleine Kirsch may ride her in the Tevis this year, and that may be Baydal's chance for a top ten.

Now we leave BLM territory and go charging across a corner of army land. This is scarred and blasted terrain, with scattered wreckage and big white patches of bare soil where nothing grows. At one point the wreck of a VW beetle looms out from behind a tree. I see it just before Baydal, and catch myself barely in time as she leaps sideways.

Finally we reach a clearing with ten or twelve riders milling around, and I realize that we've come to the two mile mark. Once we pass this point we're not allowed to stop -- forward motion required at all times. All these riders are waiting to make sure they don't come in too early. But I'm not in danger of that, and when a calm-looking horse and rider cross the mark I follow along behind. It works, and we cover the last two miles at a good sane walk. I cross the line at 7 hours and 20 minutes, almost in the middle of the prescribed window of 7:03 to 7:33. At least I got something right.

Several of our fellow riders won ribbons! Thirteen-year old Katya D'Andrea was our star, winning first place for horsemanship in the Novice Junior division. Cindy Kleinsasser took 5th in Novice, and Jen Rader took 5th in Open. Among our horses, Tosca took 3rd, Ally (Robert Upton's new mount) 4th, Latif 5th, and Fiora 6th. (Apologies to any horse or rider that I remembered incorrectly here).

A few days later I saw my own score card, and I was pleasantly surprised. I lost a point for a bad mount, and only 3 points for the fiasco at the P&R. Other than that, I got "perfect" scores for the check-in and check-out, for the hill, and for the obstacles. For the first time I'm happy with my beginner-to-novice progress. And grateful for another magical "first time" in my time of grey hair. A special thanks goes to Peter Rich who bred and raised most of our horses, and without whom few of us would have been there.