It was a wonderful day to enjoy Wilder Ranch State Park with our Equestrian and equine friends. We were high up on the Horse Camp marine terrace with great views of the ocean and the back country. It was sunny, warm and clear. Perfect spring weather on the central coast.
Rebeckah from SCCHA and Sebastien from MBOSC discussed the basics of horse-bike interaction on the trails and hosted an open discussion of experiences and lessons learned when encountering the other user group on the trail. Then we broke into a clinic to help desensitize horses to mountain bikes.
We started the clinic by having the bikers ride in large circles and let the horses follow them. The objective is to make the horse feel like the predator rather than the prey animal so that the horses could get used to the sounds and sights of a mountain bike. Then we placed ourselves in the position of coming up from behind and passing the horse. I was really impressed with the control and confidence of Claudia's bay mare Silhouette around bikes. I was pedaling right beside her so closely that I would turn my head and glance into the horse's eye.
The most transformational moment was with an Arab mare Soleil and Geoff Smith (a mountain biker). Soleil is a 12 year old horse who was never frightened of mountain bikes when Claudia first got her at 7. Claudia didn't think that Soliel had a specific negative experience with a mountain bike but something recently made her fear the mechanical steeds that we choose to ride. She said it was analogous to a young child who suddenly gains a realization of his own mortality. But she says that it's a mystery and demonstrates that horses have personality which may change over time.
We were experimenting and trying to find the boundaries of Soleil's fear of bikes. She wasn't afraid of the cyclists (we could walk up to Soleil with no problems). She wasn't afraid of bikes, since a bike lying on the ground wouldn't spook her. However, if the bike was moving she would tense up. Geoffrey spent most of his time working with Soleil to get her comfortable around bikes.
Geoff would pet, talk to and feed Soleil without his bike to make Soleil feel comfortable with him. Then Geoff picked up his bike - Soleil would immediately tense - but he would hold the bike behind him and go over the same exercises. Then Geoff would move his bike back and forth - again Soleil would tense up - but after a while she would get comfortable with the moving bike. Then Geoff would put the bike between himself and Soleil so that she would have to lean across the bike to get the carrot. Soleil still wasn't completely comfortable with bikes at this stage. She would stay as far from the bike as possible and crane her neck in order to get at the carrot. Geoff would continue working with Soleil on these exercises and after a while Soleil would accept that bikes are not a threat.
After the clinic all the riders headed into the Wilder back country to enjoy the rest of the day on the trails. Bikers Geoff, Sebastien and I rode with equestrians Kristin, Katelyn and Rebeckah up the fence line dump trail towards Enchanted Loop. The bikers had a bit of a lead on the moderate slope up the trail but when it got steep the horses passed us quite easily. At Enchanted Loop the two user groups split up and the bikers rode clockwise while the equestrians rode counter-clockwise. We met up at the bottom of Enchanted to practice bike/horse interaction.
Silhouette, Soleil and their riders showed up a bit later on Enchanted Loop while we were at the bottom, she had improved considerably. Soleil's rider mentioned that a bike had passed her from behind but she stayed still. Previously, Soleil would attempt to run away. Soleil was not fully comfortable with bikes but she had made incredible progress in the clinic. That alone was a great justification for this event. Geoff has a new friend.
I treasure the great relationship that exists between mountain bikers and equestrians in Santa Cruz county. Many of the carrot fest participants will take the knowledge that was learned about the other user group and spread it out among the people they ride with. There is a still a lot of work that could be done at the State and Federal level to facilitate communication between user groups. Equestrians and mountain bikers can look at what we have done in Santa Cruz county as an example of how to get along and share the trails. We have a lot of common ground and we are trail users who have a passion to enjoy the open space with our favorite steeds.
More words and pictures here: http://picasaweb.google.com/lick.the.toad/CarrotFest2007