NATRC 101 at Point Reyes, April 16-17, 2011

by Laura Harvey, Region 1, proprietor of - Jewelry for your horse!

NATRC 101 at Point Reyes

To see more of Laura's Pt. Reyes photos, go to the NATRC 101 photo album.

I'm an addict. I admit it. If there's an opportunity to camp with my horse and ride in the great outdoors, I take it. Of the many places I love to ride, Point Reyes National Seashore is my favorite. So when Kay Lieberknecht decided to organize an informal, "introduction to NATRC" camp at Point Reyes, how could I refuse?

More importantly, why would I want to?

When I first started attending NATRC rides, I was little more than an eager, well-meaning, painfully ignorant horse-lover. Luckily for my horse, NATRCs population of experienced riders who appear out of nowhere to offer help and advice put us on the right path in short order. The attitude of good humor and graciousness that accompanies such advice never makes me feel criticized, only offered suggestions when what I was doing clearly wasn't working. My mental list of "Things-I Didn't-Know-that-I-Didn't-Know" continues to expand exponentially, and while I privately wonder what idiot trusted me with the well-being of a horse prior to all this, I will forever be grateful for good advice, good trails, and good company.

And so, attending a NATRC 101 aimed at enticing and easing new riders into the sport seemed like a great way to begin paying forward my experience.

Plus, I did mention it was being held at Point Reyes, right?

My super-human one-man Ride Crew (aka "Dad") and I loaded up the goods, horses, charged cell phones and headed for Steward Camp, just south of Olema. We arrived Friday afternoon to blazing sunshine and a meadow full of knee-high grass. While tromping around to find a good campsite, we discovered uber-experienced NATRCers Gene and Vicki Boicelli ensconced near the main trail head. We pulled in next to them, off-loaded the horses, and consulted about how to situate the equines.

At NATRC rides in our region, the horses in competition are almost always stationary tied to the trailers. However, Stewart Horse Camp features tall posts driven into the ground to support tie lines. This is the way my family had camped prior to our NATRC days, and we decided to take advantage of it.

Tying the rope to one pole is easy; tying it to the second, and cinching it tight enough to withstand the pull of the horse, is less so. Using the rope-cinching device we own for this very purpose would have been more useful if either of us had used it more than a handful of times in the last ten years. I finally cannibalized a tie-down strap from the inside of the trailer and got the line secured. The end result held up to rope, but I don't recommend it.

By the time we had the horses fed, watered, and tied in ways their nimble lips couldn't un-do, we still had time for a ride before dinner. We aimed for something mild and short in deference to our out of shape, former drill team, un-trail-savvy Paint gelding, Bo.

So, off we went. The chosen trail meandered through a forest thick with redwoods, laurels, pines, ferns, and trickling streams. New growth stippled the shadows with exuberant explosions of greens, punctuated by wild irises. We crossed wooden bridges and passed under several fallen trees.

More NATRCers had arrived and set up camp by the time we returned, including Kay and the new riders she'd brought with her. People introduced themselves and greeted each other as we settled the horses for the night.

The habitual marine layer had rolled in with the evening, so I dug out blankets for the horses while Dad fixed dinner. It'd gotten dark enough by the time I was trying to fasten the front of Bo's blanket that Dad brought over a lantern so I could see. Not ten seconds after he stepped away from the table we heard a crash and looked up to see dishes tumble to the ground and something dart into the bushes.

We'd been robbed by a raccoon. It made off with an entire loaf of bread. Dad seemed fairly laissez-faire about the theft; I, thinking of the many sandwiches I'd planned to make over the weekend, was not.

In the morning, news of further raccoon thefts came to light. They'd unzipped coolers, opened un-locked truck windows, and generally made off with enough to make any raccoon sick. I hoped somebody out there had a belly ache.

Lee Cannon volunteered to act as the judge for our morning practice vet-in. A couple of horses lined up to be "vetted-in" and went through the process of allowing Lee to open their mouths and run his hands all over them, just like a vet would at a real ride. Handlers then trotted their horses out to check for lameness, while Kay and Lee explained to the new riders what they were doing and why.

Afterward, everyone saddled up and divided into two groups. Dad and I chose to ride with the group taking the shorter (10-15 mile) trail. As we waited at the trail head, I heard a commotion and several voices call out behind me. I turned to see one of Kay's horses, Valentyne, struggle to her feet. Her rider, Kyle, crouched awkwardly beside her, and when the mare walked off, I realized Kyle's foot was caught in the stirrup. A chorus of "whoas" erupted around him as Kyle hopped on one foot after the mare. Luckily, I barely had time to think Oh, Jesus before Valentyne stopped and Kyle extricated himself.

If all the possibilities of what could have happened flashed through Kyle's mind in a rush of terror, as it had in mine, he didn't show it. He spoke soothingly to the mare, readjusted her saddle, and rode the rest of the day without so much as a flinch.

Apparently Kyle's saddle had slipped, causing his mare to start and lose her footing. The list of things that could have gone wrong and resulted in serious injury is too long to enumerate, but I am profoundly grateful that none of them did.

As we rode I finally had a chance to talk with Ellen, one of the new riders Kay had brought. Ellen rode a young, energetic thoroughbred and seemed to be enjoying herself. However, about halfway through the morning I heard another commotion behind me and heard my dad apologize.

Dad's horse, Bo, is a former drill-team performer. As such, he's been trained to not only tolerate, but to expect to ride very close to other horses. In addition, Bo wanted to catch up to my horse, who was several lengths ahead, and so crowded too closely behind Ellen's mare and narrowly avoided being seriously kicked. Dad apologized for following too closely and trotted Bo past me.

We met a number of cyclists, hikers, and equestrians during the ride, including a string of trail horses hired out by a local stable. To my relief, such encounters turned out to be non-events, thanks to the courtesy and graciousness employed by all parties.

Our group split roughly halfway through the ride. Lee's and Dad's horses were getting tired, so Ellen and I decided to ride with them most of the way back to camp via the route Dad and I had taken the day before. About a half mile short of camp, Ellen and I turned off on another trail to get a few more miles in on our horses.

We wound up the mountainside on a narrow single track through a damp greenness that tempted our horses with mouthfuls of dew-laden ferns. Our horses powered up the trail in full stride, snorting with every step. I answered questions as we rode, and found ourselves back at camp all too soon.

That night dinner took place around a central campfire in true NATRC pot-luck fashion. Picnic tables groaned beneath an array of hot, tempting food while people relaxed in camp chairs and balanced paper plates on their laps.

I kept an eye out for marauding raccoons.

I also kept a contended eye on the firelight reflecting off the horses' coats as they dozed near our trailer, and a partial ear tuned to the soothing munch of hay. Just at that moment there might have been a better place to be in the world, but I couldn't imagine one.