Sometimes, our horse Hado pretends there is a bear in the woods, and he looks into the bushes with one eye and tosses his head and bounces around but doesn’t really spook. Mars, on the other hand, is six, and he does spook.
At our last show, there was a sizable pile of jumps and artificial flowers stacked in the corner of the ring where we were showing. I had Mars address it as we trotted around, after the horse before us finished and just ahead of the judge ringing the bell for us to begin. But walking past the very scary pile of artificial flowers and turning near it to get a good look was not enough to make it ok, or maybe it was just enough to fuel Mars’ imagination, so after the initial halt and salute, Mars trotted a few steps, snorted, threw his head up, went extravagantly sideways, and, then, tucked his butt under him, spun around, and tried to run out of the ring. I stopped him, put him back on the centerline, and made him do the whole test. The pictures tell the story. I look like I didn’t exhale for the full 6 minutes. My shoulders are elevated, my face getting pinker and pinker as the photos progress, and I’m sort of astonished we didn’t get a terrible score. With an entrance like that you’re in the judge’s hands. It could have been marked as an error. As it was, we were penalized for the movement, but not much else.
Mars, spooking in the show ring

I have seen different horses spook at lots of different things, like a particular pole on the ground (when there are lots of poles on the ground), or the depression in the dirt where a pole had been. Or a sunbeam. Or, a bird that appeared suddenly, or, a bird that had been sitting nearby for a while. Or, a sleeping dog that stood up. Or, a cat that leapt into the ring. Or, a jacket draped over a fence, or, an empty pallet in an unexpected place, or, a broken tree limb, or, some turkeys, or, no turkeys, or, another horse where he didn’t expect to see one. Or, a horse where he sees one all the time. Or, a flapping tarp, or, a motionless tarp, or, the jump pile, or, the bushes, or, and perhaps, most especially, that special end of the riding arena known as “the spooky end of the ring.”
Mars, moments later, with his mind on his work again

My first horse was named Della. She was a liver-chestnut, with a big, long head, big, long ears, white diamond on her forehead (called a star in horse parlance), and a short white stripe on the end of her nose (called a snip). She had sturdy, powerful legs with short white socks behind and extra-big feet. She was a warmblood, with the Dutch seal of the prancing lion in silhouette branded on her left hip; you could really only see it in the brightest sunlight. She liked sour apple flavored lollipops and orange rinds and sometimes would have a self-indulgent roll in her poo on a Saturday night.
Mares are different from geldings. Mares have their hormones, for one thing, and they have far more opinions about the world for another. Good mares can be exceptional, opinions or no. When I think about the imaginary dream horse, the one that I buy next year or the year after, that has secret talent and takes me to the highest level of competition, it’s always a mare.
One of the many joys of owning your own horse is being able to get out on trails. Lessons are important, of course, even if you have no goal to compete. You need to work on the basics, and you need regular feedback from experienced eyes on the ground. But there is nothing like time out on the trails. You see things differently from horseback. Turkeys don’t run away as fast from a person on a horse as they will from a person on foot. Deer sometimes look a horse straight in the eye. Yes, sometimes, if you are the first person on a trail in the morning you can end up with a spider web wrapped around your helmet and face like a veil. Or you can take a low hanging branch to the face if you don’t watch where you’re going.
Like many mares, my first horse, Della, had a good spook in her. The word I think of is “vigilant.” She’d not miss a new banner or suspicious traffic cone, giving it a thorough examination with one eye, head cocked, body tense, ready to run. They call this the “parrot eye.” I now know that horses are more confident with a confident rider sitting on them; but beginning riders have to start somewhere, and time in the saddle is the only way to learn to ride a spooking, bucking, or shying horse. 
I liked to take her in the woods alone. Though it never seemed like I was alone, even though this was before everyone carried mobile phones all the time. Anyway, when you’re on a horse you’re not alone. But still. We used to go try to get lost in Bridle Trails State Park, wandering the square mile of densely wooded trails. We learned to ride in the early 2000s, at a barn adjacent to the park, and being about 15 minutes from Seattle it was a real equestrian treasure: miles of groomed trails, set aside for riding. If Della felt like snorting on a particular day, I would sing her the songs my kids sang at pre-school:
Where’s Della? Where, where? 
Where’s Della? Where, where? 
Is she up on the mountain? No, no.
Is she down at the fountain? No, no!
Has she gone out to play? No, no.
I see that Della is here today.
I have a young horse now, Mars, another chestnut, and sometimes when he’s spooky I sing him this song. I sing it with Della’s name because it sounds better.
There were folks who’d walk their dogs or run in Bridle Trails Park, certainly, and because Della was a little spooky I’d always try to engage the person in conversation. A talking person is not nearly as scary as a silent one, to a horse. Some runners had so little horse sense that they’d duck behind a bush to let my giant horse pass. Della would snort and prance the whole way. Do you blame her?
Cutting through the middle of the park is a set of giant, towering power lines, strung taught between the massive mech robot monsters we’ve covered our planet with, still and silent guardians of the electricity, their fighting stances broad, their shoulders connected by drooping cables, one to the next. With a broad gravel trail beneath, I always felt the power line trail hummed with electricity. Certainly the light was different through this clear-cut swath, and it smelled dry and industrial, exactly like the smell of dormant guardian fighting robots. The footing was large chunks of sharp gravel, so it felt different underfoot and sounded quite different from the worn, quiet earth of the forest trails. Della always entered the power line cut with a slow gasp of alarm, holding her breath for the wolf she always seemed to feel was lurking just behind the corner.
This being the east side suburbs of Seattle, there were coyotes in these woods, and sometimes we would see one trotting ahead of us, up the trail. They were small, pale and scrawny, with poor coats and visible ribs. The coyotes were known stealers of pet rabbits, barn cat killers and even said to be eaters of small fluffy dogs, though the ones I always saw didn’t seem to have eaten much ever. 
One day, on a trail ride alone, Della stepped from the dark, cool, quiet woods onto the power line trail, peering nervously around the corner and there, just past the great tangle of blackberry bushes stood a man and a young German Shepherd. There it was! Della’s wolf, just as she’d always feared. The man and I both gave out a quick exclamation of surprise, but we never spoke, because Della sat back, spun on her haunches and took off at a gallop for home.
I had been taught an emergency maneuver, called a pulley rein, where you set one rein in the horse’s neck, knuckles down and holding mane if possible. With the other hand, you yank as hard as you can, and then let go. It’s not nice, and it’s only for emergencies. If you’ve got a wall or a fence to stop them in front of, it will bring them to a stop. Or it should anyway. I had only the bushes of the wild woods to stop her, and it turned out that a single spindly holly bush, with only a half dozen leaves was enough to bring Della to a halt.
And, then, we walked quietly home.

A Ride Out in Early Spring

For weeks it felt like spring’s start was delayed, because the snow had been so plentiful and long-lasting, but now all is thawed and the grass coming green and the trees are slowly starting to set buds. The cardinals are busy again, and the blue jays noisy, and the irritated robins call, “Yeep! Cuck, cuck, cuck! Yeep!”
“Let’s go down the road and up and over and see how the trail through the woods looks,” said W—-, and I agreed to it. X— didn’t know what any of that meant, but was willing enough to join us. X— has been preoccupied lately, having unexpectedly lost his job. He has admitted to folks in the barn that he’s still having nightmares, and though he’s still smarting from the indignity of losing his job without cause, he seems relieved to be done with it.
W—- led on Jenny, a semi-retired show-jumper, a big, dark bay with big, dark ears, and the oldest mare in the barn. I followed on Mars, chestnut in color and temperament, and, at 6, the youngest horse in the barn. X— rode his gray mare, a steady, sensible horse that knows her job and rarely gives anyone any trouble.
The road was quiet. There is little shoulder to ride on, but not much in the way of traffic. The last time we went this way we turned off the road and a flock of unexpected birds had flown out of a building, startling Mars. Now, he walked calmly but carefully past the spot of prior alarm. There is plenty for a young horse to look at on this route, crossing two bridges over the Shekomeko Creek, winding around old buildings, cornfields, and small piles of decrepit farm debris, down several residential streets. We’d done the ride recently enough so it wasn’t completely new to Mars. The only new part was going to be the trail through the woods.
When we reached the woods, the beginning of the trail looked like it had been cleared quite recently. It is wide enough to ride abreast. But once we were in, we encountered a fallen limb of the kind that we couldn’t just step over (too many sharp and pointy bits sticking out). W—- hopped off Jenny to clear the branch, and having done it, stayed on foot in case there were more.
And, there were more.
Every fifty yards or so there was a tangle of fallen branches. Some were easier to clear than others. The woods here are a mix of deciduous trees, mostly, with a few long-needle pines, and many thorny bushes and climbing vines. By the third obstacle, W—- needed both hands to try to budge the mess, and she had to hand me Jenny’s reins which I held while I sat on Mars. I was focused on watching her, keeping Jenny and Mars a safe distance apart, and staying relaxed.
At the deepest point of the trail the ground falls away to the left, revealing that we were riding atop a steep, wooded hill. There was barely room to hold Jenny and keep an increasingly uneasy Mars out of the sticker bushes. I don’t think X— was feeling entirely ok about the terrain, and before I got a chance to look, I heard X— behind me make a noise.  I turned to see him standing on the ground next to the gray mare, running up his stirrups.
W—- called out to ask if he was ok.
X— said he was fine, but he said his horse wasn’t having it.
Horses can read your mind, of course, which is why people who are terrified of horses rarely learn to ride. Horses can feel your anxiety through your seat and hands, and, as prey animals, they take it seriously. Maybe you know something they don’t about lions or bears.
At this point, Mars checked the mare ahead of him and the mare behind and surmised that he was the only horse with a rider still mounted. Mars gave a pugnacious buck, popping into the air and kicking both hind feet out. This was my cue to get off as well.
W—- asked it I was ok.
I said I was fine.
She said, “Next time, when we get to a fallen tree at the beginning of the trail through the woods, remind me that there will be more and we should just turn around.”
We were not far from the end of the wooded section. The trail leaves off at a spot with a nice view, from the top of the hill to the south. Winter’s straw-colored hills are now washed with pale green, though the trees are still as bare as bones. We found a large rotten log for remounting. We all got back on, including X— who picked himself up and mounted his horse from the ground. Descending the hill, Mars finally let out a breath.
And then we rode home.

A Letter to the County Executive of Dutchess County, New York

The event I described happened in mid-July, and on that day I told the people I was with that I would write the sheriff and the county executive. They laughed. On a different day on that same stretch of road, my young horse spooked at a speeding garbage truck, dumped one of the barn’s professionals on the ground, and took off galloping back to the barn. He stopped and we were able to catch him.
Recent events all across the United States involving police remind me to encourage you, dear readers, to write letters to your local law enforcement and their bosses if you have an opinion about what you see them do. 

Out Hacking
Marcus J. Molinaro
County Executive
County of Dutchess
22 Market Street
Poughkeepsie, NY 12601
Dear Mr. Molinaro:
Thank you for your kind letter welcoming me as a newly registered voter in Dutchess County. I look forward to participating in elections in my new rural community.
Recently, on a July weekday in the mid-afternoon on State Route XX in XXXXXX, I was out riding my horse on the road’s shoulder along with two other younger staff members of the barn where I ride. We were each wearing a helmet and riding a calm, older horse belonging to a private owner. An unmarked police vehicle approached and turned on its brightly colored lights and passed us, at an alarming speed. Because we are all experienced riders, we were able to calm our horses and continue; however, almost immediately the unmarked black police vehicle was joined by a marked Dutchess County Deputy Sheriff’s car, and passed us from the other direction at even greater speed.  Once again, we had to calm our horses and continue, which we did without further incident.
I have mulled over the encounter during the last couple of months and taken the time to confirm for myself that under Article 26 of the New York Vehicle and Traffic Law, Section 1146 a., “Every driver of a vehicle shall approach a horse being ridden or led along a public highway at a reasonable and prudent speed so as to avoid frightening such horse and shall pass the horse at a reasonable distance.”
I believe that the drivers of both police vehicles, though they may have been responding to an emergency, failed to obey this law, endangering the lives of three people and three horses.
Should any staff members of the Dutchess County Sheriff’s office be interested in learning about basic horse safety, the barn where I ride is a British Horse Society Certified facility, with highly educated and experienced instructors who would be able to provide basic lessons in horsemanship. I would think these skills would be useful throughout much of Dutchess County.
Thank you for taking the time to read this.


Despite the mounted NYPD officers who house their horses at a facility in Chelsea and the carriage horses in Central Park, there are no horses in Manhattan. As a horse owner, this meant that moving to New York City was a compromise for me. I drive a long way upstate to ride these days, so I ride less, and this is yet another reason to add to my growing list of things I hate about New York.
No doubt the first humans to ride horses did so without much tack, if any at all. I envision a clever tribe of hunter-gatherers realizing that the nearby horse herd had a few slightly more docile individuals, and though delicious to eat, those slightly more docile individuals made suitable mounts, opening up wondrous new hunting possibilities for the primitive people. Once enlisted to carry home huge carcasses, the domesticated horse made the great leap forward from food to engine. Today, modern America has few true working horses, but not none. Most American horses are kept (at great expense) for the pleasure of their owners.
To ride even casually requires an initial investment in a helmet and boots, so many new riders, like me, go to a tack store before they even take their first horseback riding lesson. What this means is that before even going to the barn the new rider goes shopping. In rural areas, you can find a helmet and riding boots at a feed store. But in a fancy suburb, you can go to a real, fancy tack store.
Back in Seattle, this was Olson’s. You walk in and are immersed in the whole horsey lifestyle. They have all the stuff for horse care (from hoof picks and vet-wrap to pitchforks), but also everything for the rider (attire, boots, and saddles).
Olson’s sold us our first helmets and boots.    Within a few weeks we had also bought breeches (riding pants) and half chaps there.   Even before we were known regulars we were greeted enthusiastically. Eventually we found ourselves treated like very important customers.   Everyone knew our names.
When I bought my first horse, I went with my trainer to Olson’s and she showed me everything I needed to buy; it was a long list.  Later, I would go there for a bottle of hoof oil and leave with a bottle of hoof oil and new clogs.  When a store cultivates a relationship with the customer, you go back for little things, and you order special things from them when you could just as easily go online.
One of the surprising things about moving to North Dreadful last year was discovering a large fancy tack store there. Today, on my way back from the barn, I stopped in for a couple of things. I have been to this tack store a few times; I have made major purchases there. I am never greeted by name.  I don’t think they even notice when I walk in; I always have to ask for help. I usually leave without everything I was looking for, and I never, ever buy anything on impulse.  This store makes me very sad, because it isn’t Olson’s. I miss Olson’s.
Because I had stopped at the tack store, I hit rush hour traffic coming into Manhattan and added another hour to my commute. Next time, I’ll buy whatever I need online.