Because of our very delayed start, we did not have enough daylight to do the entire Orange Trail Loop. That was the trail that featured a long and steep climb from the Etowah River up to the crest of the highest elevation in the preserve. I wanted to see how Mandy would do on this climb after completing our first 50 mile endurance ride a weekend earlier. And I wanted to see how Shadow would do, now that his two ‘first’ ribs were realigned. We decided to take the Orange Trail to connect with the Lime Trail where we would then go to the river at the base of a wonderful waterfall. From there, the gradual climb back to the Orange Trail would offer a good workout and enable us to get back to the parking lot before dark.
During our gradual descent down to the river, I felt Mandy to be slightly off as we cantered. As she stood in the cold waters at the base of the falls, I realized that her feet were slightly inflamed from eating the new spring grass that had finally emerged in her pasture. Her left hind was also quivering. I noticed that it stopped quivering every time she fully loaded that leg with her weight. That was the same leg muscle that had cramped painfully during our first attempt at completing a 50 mile ride in February. We got pulled from that ride at mile 42 because of that cramp. I asked Mandy and she answered that she preferred that I remain mounted, and that when we climb that long grade back up to the Orange Trail, that we do it at a canter so that she can avoid overworking the muscles she uses when trotting. Besides, cantering uphill can often be less strenuous than trotting uphill.
I told Jeanine of our plan and suggested that this could be a real test of Shadow’s ability to charge up a long ascent with his newly balanced body. I wanted to make sure she was game. I felt that Shadow would try to follow Mandy at whatever speed we went. Something told me that this was just the tactic required to test Shadow. Jeanine said “Let’s go!”
Mandy jumped ahead of Shadow and flew into a canter, her bare feet rattling among the stones scattered along the washed out trail basin. She acted as if on adrenaline, no longer noticing the discomfort in her feet as she charged up the rocky old gold miners’ trail. She was stretching her hindquarters as she surged up the twisting road bed. Behind me I could hear Shadow panting. What was different now was that Shadow was not fading. He stayed right behind Mandy. And now I could hear Jeanine whooping and hollering. All this commotion on Mandy’s heels encouraged her to drive harder up the trail. We soon were beyond the stretch where big slabs of exposed bedrock paved the slope. Then we bounded up the section that was an eroded wash, like a huge clay half pipe in the forest. Next we flew along a subtle roller coaster over softer, more forgiving footing strewn with leaf litter. And then we made the zigzag turn around the big oak where the trail opened up to our final ascent up another washed out clay based roadbed. All along Shadow was right behind. He stayed with us throughout the ¾ mile climb.
When we topped out along the ridge where the Orange Trail ran, it occurred to me that Shadow was breathing deep for the first time in a long time. He was panting, but his breathing did not sound labored . Once we reached the Orange Trail, I walked Mandy briefly till I was sure Shadow had recovered. Jeanine was ready to continue so we cantered and trotted along the winding ridge trail till we reached the sections of scattered mud holes across the trail. The quick transitions of walking/trotting/cantering did not seem to bother Shadow. Jeanine and I both sensed that his recoveries were getting better and better.
I then realized Shadow was now able to breathe deeply without the pain caused by those misaligned ribs. He was literally learning how to breathe deep again as we were riding together. And I could tell that he was enjoying it. His eyes were bright. His jaw was relaxed.
We continued on together this way till we eventually reached the pond near the trail head. As we turn a final corner we follow the old roadbed that runs along the earthen dam containing the pond. Here is where Jeanine typically cues Shadow for a last charge along this straightaway. And so she does. Shadow takes off at a trot that looks like a sprint. Mandy responds but her feet are too tender for her to tolerate the extended trot footfalls required to catch Shadow. We ease over to the softer shoulder of the old hard-packed dirt road and canter alongside Shadow who is now offering a huge extended trot. It’s so huge that Jeanine is now squealing. She hasn’t felt that movement while riding him in years.
As we slow to a walk to let them cool down during our return to the trail head, Jeanine tells me about a psychic friend she knows. She had recently received a phone call from her from out of the blue to tell her something. She told Jeanine to breathe deep. She said she needed to give her breathing more attention because she was breathing too shallow. She felt some urgency about this and wanted to alert Jeanine. This message was now haunting Jeanine as I had kept telling her that Shadow’s issue was that he couldn’t breathe deep before…and today he was learning how to breathe deep again.
When we return to our parked horse trailers, Jeanine tells me about her first horse, Zipcode. She got him when she was 12…42 years ago. She still misses him. She briefly describes a terrible accident they had that knocked all her front teeth out. She doesn’t blame him and still misses him. There was something powerful I felt as she was telling me this. I turned and looked over at Shadow, who was tied to his trailer and facing away from me. But I could clearly see his eye watching me intently. I turned and looked at Jeanine again. The look in her eyes told me she was still missing Zipcode. I couldn’t stand the tension any more. I walked over to Shadow and quietly asked him if he was the reincarnated spirit of Jeanine’s long ago Zipcode. He nodded “Yes.”
In that moment I understood so much about Shadow. The reason he was so slow whenever he and Jeanine began their rides…was because he was taking care of her. The reason he was so tolerant of her nagging him to move faster was because he loved her so and was stubbornly being her protector. The reason he was so slow at the beginning of every ride was because Jeanine taught him to start slow when she first got him. Back then, she was still recovering from a severe traumatic adult injury that had threatened to end her riding forever. When she got Shadow and started riding again, she was tentative and afraid to go very fast. She had trained him to go slow back then and he was still trying to protect her now. I don’t believe Shadow remembers the details of his life as Zipcode, and the serious accident he had with Jeanine the teenager. I do believe he feels very strongly about protecting her today and keeping her safe.
I walked back over to Jeanine and re-introduced her to her long lost Zipcode.