It was always going to be a long day……
As you may know, Diane and I are learning how to work with horses. We take lessons and volunteer at Graham Equestrian Ctr (GEC), a non-profit Facility dedicated to teaching people about horses. The facility is located in part of the Maryland State Park, on the North East side of Baltimore and has a diverse mix of people of all ages, abilities and disciplines. Being a non-profit (i.e. a charity), GEC tends to rely a lot on volunteers and so many of us get involved in the running of the place and its activities. This can involve anything from the usual mucking out and feeding of the horses, to repairing fences, writing policy documents, fund-raising, awareness, etc. Most of us have many different roles!
Much of what we do involves outreach activities. This can take many forms, but all have the common theme of making horse riding and the ability to work with horses available to anyone and everyone, not just the privileged or the uber-rich. One of the things we do is to give under-privileged children the chance to get up close and personal with horses by participating in working sessions with them. Normally these sessions are lead by Jim McDonald, one of the lead instructors, but this past Saturday, Jim was unavailable first thing so I drew the assignment.
So it was, I headed out to the barn about 7 am. Since my regular car was in for repairs to a slow leak in one of the tires and Diane wasn’t feeling great and decided to sleep in, I took Libby instead. As a result, I probably woke all the neighbors since Libby isn’t exactly quiet or subtle, especially at 7am!. Normally, if I take Libby to the barn, I go via the slower back-roads rather than the beltway, due to Libby being rather asthmatic and there being some pretty steep hills on the route. But at 7am on a Saturday, the roads were clear and we
blasted chugged round the beltway with no risk of causing traffic delays.
The kids experience session went well and I think that they all had a good time. Unfortunately, I have no photo’s as I was talking for most of it! We generally start things off by explaining how a horse thinks and behaves, explain how to be around horses safely (“Quiet, Calm and put your cell phone away!”), and then get the participants to come in to the ring and clean up and groom one of the horses under supervision. Generally, we use our Canyon for this, since I know that he is used to it, likes children and is pretty calm. After the kids have finished grooming, we then we explain about saddles, bridles and bits and how to communicate with the horse. I usually get one of the kids to try and pick up both an English saddle and a Western saddle to show them the big difference in weight. This often involves questions as to “why are they are so different?”, why the western saddle is so much heavier and what they are used for. (A Western saddle is a working saddle for roping animals and needs to be much stronger to take the forces exerted on it). Finally, we spring the surprise on them – we put the saddle and bridle on and they get a Pony Ride! Some of these kids are from Inner City Baltimore and have never seen a large animal, much less a horse, so to actually ride a horse is a new and exciting experience for them. Often at the end, we get the request “Can I have another go?” All in all, whilst it’s very tiring leading the session (making sure everyone is safe and interested), we hope that it is an experience that they will take away with them.
Canyon and I took a bit of a break after this. By now it was 10:30 and we’d been going since before 8am, so we were both pretty tired and a little dried out. We were supposed to participate in a clinic with Jim to work on some issues. However, we both needed a break and whilst I lounged under a tree listening into the clinic instruction, Canyon had a drink and mowed the lawn (“Grass! My favorite food!”).
After a quick break for lunch (a doughnut), we then started work on the afternoons session, which was where the Land Rover came in.
GEC is the home base for the State Park Mounted Patrol. These are Rangers on horseback that patrol the various areas of the State Park, assisting and aiding visitors, keeping an eye on things (no bootlegging allowed!) and helping prevent problems. Along with mountain bikes (there is also a State Park Bike Patrol), horses can get into places in the back-country that motorized vehicles cannot and so provide a valuable tool for patrolling the park. Most mounted rangers are volunteers, rather like PCSO’s in the UK. They have much of the authority of regular rangers, but are not paid. New Rangers and their horses have to go through several training sessions and an assessment to demonstrate that they are proficient on horseback, and that their horses have the correct temperament for the job. Today was final assessment day and involved dealing with various distractions. To do this, we had set up an obstacle course consisting of various things such as flags, flares, floating balloons, a flapping tarp, a bridge, a moving bike, a pushchair (actually we used a wheel barrow as we didn’t have a pushchair!), mechanized machinery (the tractor got used for that one), a fallen log blocking the path and a car. Indeed the car had to fulfill two roles. In one part of the test, we had to mimic being stopped by the ranger and handing over our drivers license. In the second part, the vehicle had to mimic a police car with sirens and lights. Originally, the intention was to use Diane’s Prius (by now Diane had somewhat recovered and was also over at the barn), but the consensus was that it wasn’t imposing enough. Lets face it, whilst I love our Prius, it’s not very imposing!. So Libby got pressed into service. Which was how I found myself sitting in Libby handing over my drivers license to each ranger in turn as they did the course. Of course, Libby is RHD, so after confusing the first participant as they went through, who approached on the passenger side (this IS North America), I moved over to the passenger side for the rest of the exercise. None of the horses seemed bothered by the land Rover, despite having the diesel engine on high tick-over.
The final part of the test involved the horses encountering a police car. For this, I was given a siren and a light bar and told to use them. How cool was that? It’s a long time since a Series Landy has acted as a police vehicle. (When I lived in Hong Kong back in the ‘80’s, all the police cars were S3 LWB station wagons painted dark blue). Of course, as with everything Land Rover, nothing is as easy as expected. The light bar was designed to be held to the car by magnets, which of just doesn’t work with an aluminium body. Still, we weren’t going anywhere so it just sat on the top. Making it work was harder, as it had a standard cigarette lighter connector, something Libby does not have. Still, I was able to jury rig something up from the 12 V connections on the dash. The test involved having the rangers circle the vehicle whilst blasting the siren, the horn and with the lights flashing!
Great fun! Fortunately, none of the horses spooked or were upset and all passed the test. However, as I sat their being circled by the horses, the thought went through my head was that this was a bit like being on a carousel! All it needed was fairground music!
So Libby got to be intimidating for once, all in a good cause. All participants passed and are now qualified Rangers. They will continue their training and have periodic refresher courses and assessments, which will be conducted at GEC, so I fully expect to do this again! Libby got to be useful and I had a productive, if long, day. What more does anyone really need?