My new trail-running partner is acting as if he’s in the second half of an ultramarathon and doesn’t want to leave the aid station. Standing at the trailhead, he refuses to budge.
“C’mon, let’s get going,” I say. “You can do it! Just follow me.” He flares his nostrils, sticks out his chin, and takes a giant poop.
My partner is a seven-year-old American Quarter Horse, white with dappled gray on his haunches, named Cobalt.
For the past two months, ever since my teenage son transferred care of the horse to me, I’ve been training Cobalt in an arena to respond to voice and body commands. We’ve bonded as horse and rider. Now I want to bond as trail runners, so I can log training miles myself while exercising him.
Horses are herd animals, however, so Cobalt wants to stay with his equine friends at the barn. He also seems confused by me pulling on the reins from here on the ground.
To restore his confidence and make him move, I decide to ride the first mile, which features tricky, narrow switchbacks downhill. I hope to lead him and run when the trail flattens and widens.
I’m dressed in trail-running shoes and capris, not jeans and boots. My saddle and helmet are back in the tack room. But I have put a bridle on Cobalt’s head and a thin piece of foam, called a bareback pad, on his back just in case.
He’s tall for his breed, with withers 63 inches high, about my eye level. Standing next to his left shoulder, facing his tail, I hold the reins in my left hand along with a fistful of his mane.
Is this a good idea?
Then I will myself to execute a movement that I effortlessly performed as a teen. In one swift motion, I swing my right leg skyward and land it across Cobalt’s spine, shoe hooked over his hip. Gripping and scootching with my knees, I shimmy up his side until my butt rests astride his back.
Cobalt relaxes, and so do I. I gather the reins and squeeze my legs to nudge him forward. He agreeably walks, but his arched neck and pricked ears indicate high alert.
“Never judge a run by the first mile,” I tell Cobalt, sharing one of my favorite adages. “You’ll feel better once we get down to the meadow. Then we can pick up the pace.”
His ears act as antennae, the right one flicking back to listen to me, the left one staying forward to pick up sounds of birds and critters in this forest of oak, bay and eucalyptus on the southern edge of Oakland, California.
He stops and tenses, and my heart pounds in anticipation of a mountain bike speeding around the corner. Then I spot what he sees, and burst out laughing. It’s a flock of five wild turkeys pecking the ground. “They won’t hurt you.” I reach down to stroke his neck, and he prances ahead.
Riding bareback is all about balance, and it returns naturally, as if I were still a senior in high school in 1986. During that year, the dean at my boarding school warned me that I was on “a path of self-destruction,” because I smoked cigarettes, sneaked off campus to party and slept through class. I didn’t play sports and hated to run, but I had a horse, and feeding and riding her got me out of bed. I’d swing up onto my bay mare’s bare back, fasten a Walkman to my belt, push “play” on a tape by The Cure and gallop the stresses away.
I lean back on the steep switchbacks, to help Cobalt balance, and loosen the reins so he can lower his head and navigate the technical terrain. I feel vulnerable, at the mercy of his agility, but I also feel a thrill. I can’t recall the last time a familiar five-mile trail loop felt adventurous.
A rabbit scampers across the trail, a hawk alights on a branch. At each sign of life, Cobalt freezes and quivers. I allow him to pause and look—which makes me pause and look, too.
At last we reach the meadow, where a rutted, overgrown dirt road bisects the green grass. I slide off his back and stand by his head, rubbing behind his ears.
“OK, big guy, this is the way we’re going to do it now.” Lifting the reins forward and upward in my right hand, I sing-song, “Walk-ing, walk-ing!”
Cobalt follows me forward, but plods. I lack the cues for enhancing forward propulsion that I would use in riding. If I pull too much on the reins, I’ll trigger a tug-of-war that I’d lose.
Frustration simmers. “This is barely a 20-minute pace,” I tell him critically. “We can do better.”
He exhales with a sigh.
Then I recall the last time I paced a runner in a 100-miler. She plodded stiffly, half asleep, after mile 80. It took empathy, patience and encouragement to get her moving more fluidly in a walk-run pattern.
I take a pacer’s approach. “You’re doing great! It’s not too far, and I’m right here.” I gently tug the reins with my hand while jogging in place next to his shoulder. Then I use the command we have practiced: “trot” as two syllables. “Trrr-ot! Trrr-ot!”
Cobalt perks up like a dog who spies a squirrel. He shifts to a trot, and I immediately slacken the reins as a reward and shower him with, “Good boy!” But I keep my gaze fixed ahead and run straight down the trail so he’ll follow.
I’m running, he’s trotting, and we cover a quarter mile this way. I reach to touch his neck, to reassure him but also to remind him to give me space. When the trail narrows to singletrack and Cobalt tucks in behind me, I feel the risk of his 1000-pound body stumbling and crashing into my back.
We arrive at the connector trail that climbs back to the ridgetop, and I show him how to power hike by lengthening my stride and pumping my arms. He extends his forelegs at the walk to keep up. The reins stay loose between my hand and the bit in his mouth, because he has figured out that his head belongs near my shoulder.
Our partnership fills me with satisfaction and excitement. Having run half my life, since my mid-20s, I find myself fighting age and burnout, but not today. We complete the remaining miles half trotting, half hiking. By the end, we have a spring in our synchronized steps because we can smell and see the barn.
Sarah Lavender Smith is a contributing editor at Trail Runner.
This article originally appeared in the 2018 issue of Dirt.