"And, when you want something, the entire Universe conspires in helping you to achieve it." -The Alchemist, by Paulo Coehlo

Monday, June 9, 2014

Another One Off the Bucket List!

Ever since the first time I laid eyes on the C&O Canal's trail last summer, I've been wanting to ride it! Not on a bike like others do. On a horse!

My photo of the C&O Canal trail aka towpath, Georgetown section, from when we went for the first time last year.
For those of you who are not from this area and don't know what the C&O Canal is (I had no idea until we moved here!):

The canal is 184.5 miles long, spanning from Georgetown in Washington, D.C, to Cumberland, MD, running alongside the Potomac River.

Map of the C&O
Go here to see it in better detail.

There is a trail or towpath that runs parallel to it for that entire distance, that used to be the means by which boats were pulled along the canal using mules.

Awesome photo of the way the canal was used in its heyday. Photo from here.
Modern reenactment. People can ride on the boat to enjoy the experience. Photo from here.

Close-up of mules ready to work. My photo. Taken at Great Falls last summer.
The Chesapeake and Ohio Canal was first envisioned by George Washington in the late 1700's as a system of river and canal navigation along the Potomac River to reach the Ohio Valley. The canal was created as a means to bypass the dangerous falls and rapids sections of the Potomac.

Like Great Falls, one of the most beautiful areas of the Potomac.
Yup, wouldn't want to take a boat through there...
The C&O Canal's construction provided jobs for the people in the 19th century that built it, and later on, it became a source of economic prosperity along the banks of the Potomac, as it provided an increased flow of people, traffic, and commerce to the area. The towpath became a National Historical Park in 1970. If you want to read more about it, go here.

Not only can you bike/hike/walk the entire 184.5 miles of the path nowadays, there are also what are called lockhouses spread out along the length of the towpath. There used to be 74 of them; some of them are still preserved in their original condition. The lockhouses were homes for the people that manned the locks, who would have to sometimes get up in the middle of the night to assist a boat through. You can actually stay at some of the lockhouses by renting them through Canal Quarters.
Lockhouse 6. Photo from here.
So, now that you know how cool and unusual this very long park is :), here's the story on the latest adventure:

TROT was hosting a ride on the C&O this weekend but, if you've been to the C&O on a weekend, you will know that chaos is sure to be found. 
Photo from here.
Lots of bikers, hikers, runners, people with dogs, strollers, tandem bikes, bikes with saddle bags, fishermen, kayaks, canoes abound on the C&O on the weekend. The canal itself, with its still waters, is popular for kayakers and canoeing, but the Potomac, which can often be found on the other side of the trail, is frequented by whitewater kayakers.
Add horses to this mix (which are allowed on 164 of the 184.5 miles of towpath) and you have a potential disaster on your hands.
I talked to Jane last weekend, our barn's former resident TROT member, and she said that it is definitely much better to go on a weekday, no matter what section you want to ride. Makes sense, especially after discovering that it takes 15 minutes just to find a parking space for a regular car on a weekend at the C&O...ask me how I know. Ugh.

Carol was with me when I was talking to Jane, however, and her face lit up just like mine had when I first heard you could ride horses on the towpath. We were both off on Friday so we made plans.

We met at the barn at 11:00 am. I had suggested going to Great Falls, since it's about a 30 minute drive from the barn and I'm familiar with its ins and outs. I had looked up information on trailer parking and found this. Note that it doesn't say anywhere that Great Falls doesn't allow horses, right? It actually tells you where to park your trailer and which trails allow horses. One of the reasons why I love Great Falls so much is because you can have both the option of using the towpath OR going into the woods to explore the many trails when you get tired of running on the flat straight line of the C&O.

We got our tack and the girls loaded up. I chose Gracie for this adventure, and she loaded up with barely any issue. She was on the trailer in less than 5 minutes. 

It took us a surprisingly long time to get to the Great Falls area, and then when we finally got there, the ranger told us that we couldn't ride in the Great Falls section at all. What?! She was really nice, though, and gave us detailed directions on how to get to Pennyfield Lock, which does allow horseback riding and was only about 5 miles away.

Carol turned the rig around and off we went. Leaving Great Falls, we made a left onto Falls Road and then another left onto River Road, then drove for 4 miles. And Pennyfield Lock would have signs off of River Road and it would be on....the left or right? Next to a Tobytown sign.

I've told you guys before about the greatest bane of being Puerto Rican: we are dyslexic for both giving and receiving directions. SPECIFICALLY for giving and receiving directions. I have to use my hands when doing either to make sure I'm getting my lefts and rights correct in my head. Yes, it's quite funny to watch. :P

I had done this for the road directions and when the ranger said, "There will be a sign" I didn't even register what side of the road she said it would be on. Carol had actually done the same thing. We were both, "Oh, there will be a sign! We'll be fine!"

So we drove and drove and drove on River Road. And then we started stressing, "Did we miss it?" "Has it been 4 miles?" "This is all mansions on both sides of the road." I started looking on my phone for an address for Pennyfield Lock, but there was none to be had! This was the best I could find, and there is no address anywhere.

And then we saw these 2 huge signs on both sides of the road at an intersection: "C&O Canal Historic Trail." "YESSS!" we exclaimed. Carol, fairly certain that the ranger had said left, turned left. And we drove and drove...past one mansion after another. "I don't think this is it," we said. We both started worrying about not being able to turn the trailer around, but thankfully, the road ended at this nice little cul-de-sac where Carol was able to simply do a U-turn. Back we went up this street and turned left again at River Road.

Guess what? Immediately after we turned left on River Road, we saw a big orange sign that said "Pennyfield Lock". Next to a "Tobytown" sign. On the left hand side of River Road. We both burst out laughing as Carol turned down the road to Pennyfield. We agreed that one of us had to write about our experience on the internet so no one else would have so much difficulty taking their horses to ride at Pennyfield Lock. So here it is guys!

We drove down this long one-lane road with a one-lane bridge, hoping that we wouldn't come across another car driving in the opposite direction.

The ranger had said that we would see 2 parking lots, one where horse trailers were allowed and another one where they weren't. She said it would be obvious which one was which. We drove past a medium-sized parking lot on our right and turned left to go to the parking lot at the very end of the street.

Turns out that the second parking lot was even smaller. And there was no room to turn around. And no, it was not obvious at a glance which parking lot was the right one. (Of everything the ranger told us, this was the only thing that was incorrect; everything else had been just like she'd said.) So Carol had to back the rig aaaaallllll the way back to the first parking lot. Carol is great at driving a truck and trailer, let me tell you. She made all that backing up look easy.

We ended up parking near the first parking lot, next to a huge kayak rental van that was closed for the day. We had left the barn at 12:30 pm. We parked at Pennyfield at 2:00 pm. That's how long it took us to get there. And then it took us about another hour to tack up. I had just gotten in Gracie's breastplate (she'd been borrowing Lily's all this time) and Charles's saddle bags and I was adjusting everything on her. I had also brought my biothane halter bridle, which also needed to be adjusted to fit her. It all worked out because Carol also took her time getting ready.

Gracie ready to go.
Her biothane tack is black and baby blue. Only The Distance Depot seems to carry the baby blue beta.

"Wait, let me have some more hay!"
The halter bridle with the GORGEOUS browband made by Karen.
I thought it was appropriate that the Rocky Mountain horse should wear the browband with the Rocky Mountains that I love so much.
And yes, Karen, it fits the halter bridle perfectly too! :)

We each had to dismount about 3 times once we were finally ready because we kept forgetting things. Finally we were good to go! Initially we rode through the first parking lot onto a trail that led through the woods. It was monumentally buggy back there, with pools of stagnant water and mosquitoes. The trail was quite overgrown and we ended up turning around in frustration.

We rode back through the first parking lot and continued onto the second one. I had a feeling the access onto the towpath was through there. Voila! It was. We crossed a wide sturdy wooden bridge (the mules use these for the demonstrations; you will find this type of bridge by every preserved lockhouse) and trotted off up the path, heading north.

It was a gorgeous day for riding, especially riding on the C&O. The path was dry and hard, and we alternately trotted and walked, and even cantered for short stretches when we could see that there was no one in front of nor behind us. We took turns leading and discovered that Katie's competitiveness with Gracie was simply that she wanted to ride next to her. So we'd ride side by side for the most part.

You can barely see it through the trees, but you could certainly hear it: this was one of the rapids sections of the Potomac. Charles and I need to take a day to go tubing again. There are two places in Harper's Ferry where you can safely go tubing on the rapids!
Katie was in heat and she was quite forward, sometimes even looking around for things to spook at, which was something I would have never expected from her! She's such a solid trail horse. Her spooks involved a small startle and giving the offending object the one eye-one ear look, so nothing bad, but it was frequent enough to irritate Carol. Thus, we trotted more than we walked to keep Katie's mind off of Other Things.

7mph trot. Gracie was trotting in this video.

I played with Gracie's many, many gears when Katie was trotting. I'd have her do her medium gait for a few strides (we'd fall behind when we gaited), rack for a few strides to catch up, trot for a few strides to stay next to Katie. I grinned from ear to ear when I was able to get her to maintain her fastest rack for several strides. She has it, but it is hard for her to sustain at the moment. Fast gaiting like a speed rack, done in a correct frame and with the correct footfalls, is a huge hindquarter workout for gaited horses. Thus after racking I'd let her stretch out into a trot in a more relaxed frame so she could take a break.

We came upon a long narrow wooden bridge. There were no signs indicating that horses were not allowed on it, so we dismounted and led the girls across. (Riders of both horses and bikes are to dismount on the narrow bridges of the towpath.) I was really glad we had. The guardrail was only slightly higher than my waist and the drop to the water below was huge.

View of the bridge after we had walked across it.
Just like on any other multi-use trail, horses have the right of way over everyone else. I was surprised that most of the bikers on this trail were actually aware of this and either slowed down or stopped for us. I don't care what other people say about the Northeast, I continue to be impressed with the people of the DC/MD/VA area. If you read Karen's blog, you will be aware of the nightmares that can happen when cyclers are either ignorant about horses entirely or simply choose to ignore this fact.

In this situation on this long flat trail with enough room for two lanes and having one mare in heat and another with less experience, it was just easier for us to stop and stand to the side on the grass so the bikers could pass us. I had a personal interest in letting Gracie see that bikes going past us were not a bad thing. By stopping and letting her look at them as they went by, she could indeed see and think about how they were doing her no harm. Most of the bikers were very courteous, slowing down as they went by and even asking if the horses would be fine with them passing, and each smiled when we told them they could go first. Only one idiot went flying past us, right behind Katie and Gracie, without ever slowing down. We heard him whizzing up behind us and stopped, trying to get the horses out of the way but there really wasn't enough room on this section of trail. Gracie tried very hard to block him as he was getting closer, which is her way of preventing things that upset her from coming up behind her! The dude is lucky I was able to keep her from doing as she wished, or he would have boinged off of Gracie's butt and gone flying through the brush on the side of the path and into the Potomac...(would have served him right...) This is the only time that she got nervous about a cyclist. Can't blame her!

Stunning view of the Potomac, one of its quieter sections. You could hear gentle waves lapping on the shore.
C&O Canal path
A baby turtle!
We rode on and on down that straight line until we actually started to get bored with going in a straight line. I found a side path and we decided to follow it.

What appeared to be a trail leading into the woods turned out to be a trail leading into open fields. The trail turned into a downright gravel track. It was pretty large gravel and Gracie, who is barefoot, chose to move along on the grass next to it.

We rode along for about a mile or so before we realized we were just going in a straight line in a different direction. A veritable cloud of mosquitoes was following us regardless of whether we were walking or trotting, so we decided to turn around.

Headed back.
The largest "hole" in the tree line up ahead is where the trail leading onto the towpath is located.

We rode for one more mile on the towpath and turned around. We had gone for 9 miles by then including our deviation, so we figured we'd be getting in about 17 miles or so for this ride.

We let the mares walk for a good long stretch after turning around.

Green heron hunting
About half of the way on our return trip, Gracie's feet started to get sore on the fine gravel of the path. She was not lame by any means and she wasn't even obviously ouchy if she walked on the path, but she was very clear about her sudden preference for walking on the edge of grass on the sides of the towpath. I understood why she wanted to do this but was bothered by this for awhile, as there are portions of this particular section we rode where there was a 20' drop into the Potomac on the other side of that 4" strip of grass, or there was a 4' drop on the opposite side of the path through prickly, thick brush into stagnant water, also after a 4" strip of grass. Have I told you guys I'm afraid of heights? Yeah. And that I get skeeved out over the idea of falling into stagnant water that I don't know how deep it is? Yeah.  

Gorgeous. But you can get an idea of the kind of drop that was on the other side of that tiny strip of grass!
I let Gracie keep her feet on the grass but turned her head and shoulder into the path in a shoulder-fore because it made me feel better. It was a compromise. We worked in this manner first on one side of the path, then the other (to work her evenly, but also depending on which side had the smaller drop!) This was doing a number on my body. We finally arrived at the narrow aqueduct bridge and dismounted to cross it again. My body was grateful for getting off and walking. We walked over to a grassy area by the towpath on the other side of the bridge, that took us down to the banks of the Potomac. There was a small narrow "beach" there, but it involved going down an almost 3' drop to get to the water. Some trail horses would be able to do that, and I probably could have sent Lily down into it, but not Gracie. I knew there would be better sections later on down the trail. Carol tried taking Katie down, and Katie actually did oblige by stepping down and giving one look at the water, but she did not like the tiny waves at the water's edge and she immediately leaped back up onto the bank!

Beautiful, isn't it? You can kind of see the drop down to the "beach". And the tiny waves that Katie didn't like!
Gracie says, "This here picnic table looks like a nice mounting block."
No, not really. I stood up on that picnic table to hop on and Gracie said, "I think I'd rather stand over here as far away from you as possible and eat all of this grass thankyouverymuch." In the end, I convinced Gracie that getting on from a picnic table is much better for all parties involved than mounting up from the ground. 
After this, I gave up on holding Gracie bent on the edges of the path and decided to trust her. I figured it was probably harder for her to balance if I was interfering in this manner. Derp. Gracie is an awesome horse and she is not stupid. So I just gave her head, holding the reins on the buckle, and let her do as she pleased. She walked straight as an arrow and surefooted as a mountain goat along that thin edge of grass and I just kept my mind off of the drop on the other side of us by turning MY head and talking to Carol. 

At one point Carol realized what was happening and laughed. By then, Gracie had covered a good mile going over that strip of grass without missing a beat. Since I had the reins on the buckle, she had also started occasionally snacking on the tall grass while we moved along, also without missing a beat. So we just kept on going in this fashion.

Trot set on our way back. You can see that Gracie is moving along on that edge of grass without any kind of issue. Isn't she awesome? And Katie has such a lovely trot! You can see how pretty she looked working in a frame with happy ears.  During some sections of the trail she was doing a full-blown dressagey extended trot. Who said Quarter Horses can't do dressage?

Rapids section of the Potomac on the way back
The Potomac

We eventually did find a better beach to let the horses drink from. Gracie was hilarious: she went right up to the water's edge but was disconcerted by the gentle waves. She looked down at them and snorted loudly. When they didn't eat her, she finally relented and drank. And drank and drank. Silly horse. Katie was even funnier: she danced along the edge of the water, then also finally gave up when she saw Gracie drinking and she drank in huge, slurping gulps. She stuck her tongue between her teeth and just sucked that water right up. Carol was laughing was laughing in relief: Katie has not been a good drinker prior to this and I had told her that some horses need to go over 15 miles before they'll drink. That's exactly the distance we had covered by this point!

We made it back to the trailer uneventfully and proceeded to untack while letting the mares dig into their haynets. We had covered 16.4 miles in 3 hours. Gracie loaded up within 5 minutes despite the long ride. We somehow avoided all the rush hour traffic and made it back to the barn in 30 minutes! Both mares received their dinners and well-deserved baths.

It was a fantastic day! And next time we do a long ride on this kind of footing, Gracie will be wearing her hoof boots.

Gracie had Saturday off and on Sunday we went on a short 3 mile ride that was supposed to be at a walk but someone was all jazzed up again after her day off so we just worked on gaiting as slowly as possible. She was a superstar. :)


  1. Ok, I want to ride that trail from end to end, even if it was in a straight line.

    That's just me.

    There is also a 100 mile rail-trail in Washington, from Seattle to almost Idaho that I want to ride.

    Yeah, it's a stay on the horse as long as possible thing. Are you going to get boots for the Grace-monster?

    1. I'd love to ride the whole thing from end to end, regardless of it being in a straight line! :) We just set out on this day without a particular plan except go until we felt like stopping. It would be better with a plan.

      I actually have Gloves that fit the Grace-monster (I laughed with that new nickname!); I just overestimated the power of her bare feet and I honestly wasn't sure how long we were going to be riding when we set out. Otherwise I would have brought them. She has mustang feet with 3/4" thick walls, tight white lines and concavity. Now I know to boot her for next time. :) The plan is to ultimately get her Renegades but that'll happen later on. Her feet are gorgeous but they are changing: when I first started riding her she had long toes and high, contracted heels like what you would see on a shod horse, from a combination of inactivity and long feet. I had the barn farrier trim her right after signing the bill of sale (I was afraid of messing her up by taking off too much if I did them myself) and he did a nice job: backing up her toes moderately and lowering her heels. Riding over varying terrain has done the rest. She'll self-trim and I'll just even her out. She has continued to lower her heels all by herself as needed and her frogs are expanding and improving. It's been fascinating to watch. Need to post pics!

  2. Wow! You have some of the best places to trail ride! Sounds like so much fun.
    I also have a hard time telling right from left in my head. . . :)

    1. Hahaha! Glad I'm not the only one! :D

    2. I always get them mixed up. J always asks me, "The other left?"

  3. Replies
    1. It went right up there on the list of "Favorite Rides So Far". :)

  4. That looks like so much fun! And I can totally relate to being directionally challenged... I can't even navigate places when I have the iPhone maps directions right in front of me... :D

    1. Haha yup! I need to know in advance what direction Google Maps is going to tell me to go, so I can think about it and be on that side of the road before it verbally tells me when to turn! I've been known to turn in the opposite direction otherwise!

  5. We have a similar canal up here (the D&R) and riding it is on my bucket list as well.

    1. Do it! And take photos so we can see it. :D

  6. Muuulllleeeeee! That canal looks awesome to ride by

    1. Aren't they adorable? The most bombproof equines I've seen in a while too! The canal is as awesome to ride as it appears to be! :)

  7. That last photo of you two needs to be a new default. ..or at least one of two for your new header since you have two girls now!!

    1. I REALLY need to get around to updating the sidebar and header to include G-Mare. I've been waiting to have a good pic of her looking more svelte. :)