December 26, 2018

Photo Essay: Griffith Park On Horseback, On Christmas Day

"Keep your toes up, and your heels down," Maria's mom told me. She'd grown up with horses—so, figuring she knew what she was talking about, I said "OK" without really understanding what I was committing to.

"Wear a helmet," Maria said with a sigh of worry. "Oh they make you," I said. "They provide them..."

For my first-ever horseback riding adventureI'd picked the most touristy spot possible, Sunset Ranch in Griffith Park. They host people of all ages from all over the world, so I figured they could handle an adult newbie like me.

Everyone seemed to be trying to scare me off of it. My boss told me about a team-building adventure he'd had during which his coworker's horse had stepped in a bees' nest and reared up on its two hind legs like in  The Lone Ranger, throwing its rider.

"But I'm sure that won't happen to you," he said, not very comfortingly.

I was super-excited and uncharacteristically not worried at all. How hard could it be? And besides, I'm so good with animals, I couldn't imagine anything but a relaxing, laid-back trail ride.

There are two factors, however, that I didn't anticipate.

The first was how hard it would be to get on the actual horse.

Sure, I'm overweight and have short, stubby legs even when I'm skinny...

...but upon trying to mount my first horse, Scarlet, the stirrups were hung too low and the saddle too loose for me to get up before my third or fourth try. And by then, she was agitated enough to want me off her back.

So we switched to Bambino, a shorter, sturdier horse who likes to lead the pack but will follow if he has to. Unlike the other Quarter Horses, he's a Mustang—a former wild horse of Nevada that had been captured, trained, and adopted by Sunset Ranch.

And I immediately felt safe with Bambino, like riding a horse was the most natural thing—even as we climbed the steep exit trail to get from the ranch to Griffith Park, and I leaned forward to help distribute my load better.

We emerged on the Hollyridge Trail, where I'd seen horses like these so many times before while I was hoofing it on foot to Mount Lee and the Hollywood Sign.

I liked it better on a horse.

We were lucky to have crystal-clear weather on Christmas Day, after having been fogged in on Christmas Eve—and once again, I thought to myself, "This was a good idea," as I have more than once before in Griffith Park on a holiday or special occasion.

Although there were only three of us on horseback, plus our guide, the Griffith Park trails were full of hikers...

...not only on the dirt paths but also the paved Mount Hollywood Drive, which sees its fair share of traffic from film crews, in addition to the pedestrians and horses.

I remembered to keep my heels down and toes firmly planted in the stirrups, which my guide had also advised and said that any other guide would tell us the same. I wished I had real cowboy boots with heels rather than flat-soled hiking boots.

At one point, I let Bambino get a little too close to the mare in front of him—and after a few swoops of her tail, she finally started kicking behind her at him, send him reeling and me holding on for dear life.

I don't think I was in any danger, but it was a little unnerving—especially after Bambino had been stopping a lot to scratch his shin with his muzzle.

I actually had to direct him with the reins—and my boots—a lot more than I thought I would, mostly just steering him left or right and slowing him down.

The second thing I hadn't considered before getting on a real, living horse was my fear of heights.

I was thinking only of how tall the horse would be—what? 5 or 6 feet?—and not how closely he'd be straddling the edge of the ridge, high above the canyon floor.

Thankfully, our guide had warned us and assured us that their horses were "very sure-footed" and that they would not fall. We weren't supposed to steer them away from the ledge, and we were not to look down.

I, of course, looked down—just to know what I was dealing with. By that point, one of the other riders asked our guide, "Do you mind if I walk down the rest of the way?"

She was a first-timer like me, and a full two hours on the back of a horse proved too much for her.

I couldn't blame her one bit. By the final 30 minutes, my butt hurt, my thighs were tingling, and my knees were locked.

But I had a huge smile on my face the whole time.

Throughout the trail ride, Bambino continued to show how he had a mind of his own—stopping to much on some shrubbery, galloping too fast when I gave him a little nudge. It felt playful and not rude. And I felt like I understood him, this former wild orphan, tamed but still independent.

By the end of the two hours, I was more than ready to get down—but I was still glad I'd completed the two-hour, six-mile loops instead of the half-as-long, half-as-far out-and-back.

Upon our return to the ranch, my right boot had slipped out of its stirrup and I couldn't get it back in (to be honest, I couldn't feel my feet). That's when I could really feel the horse's flank against my leg, and I felt a greater connection to Bambino.

"He's good!" I'd told our guide on the trail. I'd meant it two ways—that he was doing well despite having been kicked at, and that he was a good horse. He made riding him easy.

He did most of the hard work. I just had to remember which way to lean (forward for uphill, back for downhill) to help him along.

And I had to figure out how to walk on steady ground again, once I was back off the saddle.

Related Posts:
To Have Ridden A Horse, In Wood or Flesh
Photo: Feeding the Wild Horses
Photo Essay: Overlooking Old Hollywoodland from the Letters That Once Spelled It

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