Pie in the Cart

Giddy-up! Julia’s pony Pie stepping out nicely in her harness. Today was our first day taking her out for a spin on the road. Normally, I would like to drive with a looser rein but Pie had a head of steam on and I had my hands full keeping her from breaking in to a canter. You go girl!

Just too nice a day to sit inside today so we hooked Pie to the cart and took her for a spin. Pie is my wife Julia’s new pony. It looks like she’s going to be an ace road horse.

5 seconds of Pie carting action

Trail Riding Versus Road Riding

There’s trail riding and there’s road riding. Trail riding is relaxing: giant trees leaning over the path, a blue heron waiting to spear a fish from the riverbank and all that fresh air. You just keep your eyes on the dirt trail ahead, roving back and forth for rocks and roots and whatever you might have to navigate around.

Trail riding: okay, rain and a slippery trail don’t make for relaxing riding. Here Julia and I riding the Iron Mountain Trail in Virginia.

Road riding isn’t as relaxing. Road riding is just what it sounds like – riding your horse or mule up the side of the road. In road riding, the biggest hazards aren’t tripping over a rock or having a heron spook your mount. In road riding the biggest hazard is your mount spooking in front of a car, truck or tractor. Road riding calls for an animal with a certain kind of bravery.

Road riding: semi on one side, chain link fence on the other. Not relaxing. My view of riding my mule Cracker up the side of State Highway 32 toward Tazwell, Tennessee on my way to Idaho.

In addition to being a good trail horse, a road horse has to be unafraid of a bunch of stuff it wouldn’t normally encounter out in the woods. Things like logging trucks, motorcycles, bicycles, school buses, tractors, tractor trailer, mail boxes, sacks of garbage tossed on the side of the road. Not to mention barking dogs, RVs, four wheelers, screaming kids that run up for a look (cool!), blowing white plastic bags, trains, busy intersections, ambulances, sirens, road signs and pedestrians.

Then there are bridges, like this one I crossed with my mule Cracker, the mule I rode – with another mule Brick – 2,400 miles from North Carolina to Idaho.

A road animal is a special animal indeed.

Enter Pie

While Julia and I mostly trail ride, we have taken some long distance saddle trips right from our farm. A while back, we spent 6 weeks riding from where we live outside Lenoir, North Carolina to Grayson Highlands, Virginia and back. There’s not one trail we could have followed there and back so we rode alongside a lot of mountain roads with a few trails thrown in.

The first two weeks in broken stuff and road kill
The whole route

The mule Julia rode on our trip from the farm to Virginia was a great trail mule. His name was Dusty. We’d borrowed him from a friend because we were one animal short. If it weren’t for Dusty, we couldn’t have taken our trip. But good as Dusty was on the trails, he sucked for road riding.

Here is what Julia wrote about riding him along the western North Carolina back roads: “(T)errifying. Dusty is still not too good in traffic. He reared up on the Blue Ridge Parkway when he was pinned between a rock guardrail and a gigantic RV towing a car that was passing us.” (You can read the whole episode – along with a humorous encounter with mountain man Eustace Conway – here on Julia’s blog ConsideringAnimals.com.)

Heading to Virginia: Julia is riding Dusty

Julia gamely stuck out the adventure. We brought Dusty home to our friend. If we wanted to do any more long distance road trips, which we do, we needed a road safe horse. Enter Pie.

After months of looking, Julia finally found a mount to fit the bill. Her name is Pie. She is a five year old Haflinger mare started by Debbie and Daniel Yoder of Rock Valley Farm in Strassburg, Ohio. The Yoders are Amish and used Pie mostly for pulling a cart to town and pulling machinery: mowers, hay rakes and manure spreaders. Occasionally they rode her.

When we went to try her out, we rode her under saddle and she did fine. But there are lots of horses that are nice under tack. What we wanted to see was how she behaved in traffic. Could she be the road horse we were looking for?

Debbie hooked her to a cart and off we went. After a dump truck roared by from behind and Pie didn’t flinch, we knew we’d found our mount. We bought her.

Pie, Brick and Julia on our land

Today, we hitched her to our fore cart (a heavy duty, 2-wheeled cart) and took her for a test spin up the country road that runs by our farm.

Hitched: Pie and Julia in front of our cabin

Making Pie

The Yoders get full credit for starting Pie down the path to becoming a good road horse. They did the hard work gaining her trust. They’re the ones that held their breath the first time a tractor trailer roared by. They’re the ones that sat tight to see whether Pie bolted off the road or proceeded up the road.

So yes, from the second I took the reins and lowered myself in to the cart seat, I already had a good horse in the bridle. Still, she was new to us. She wasn’t used to our voice commands. The way the Yoders say “Step up” sounds different than the way we do. Pie doesn’t know our road. Our cart is a lot louder then the Yoders. That’s a lot for a horse to absorb.
Still, there were three things I wanted to do with Pie today, our first day on the road.

Today I wanted Pie to:

  • stand still when Julia and I climbed in to the cart. Standing still, I like to say, is the most important gait. Too many folks climb in to their wagon and just drive off. Soon the horse learns to walk off as soon as the person is aboard. That can be dangerous.
  • travel straight up the road as she went. Just as though she was a car. Veering right puts you on the shoulder. Veering left puts you in to oncoming traffic.
  • pay attention. No spooking at mailboxes, passing cars or barking dogs. One shy and you’re in the ditch or someone’s grill.

Pie did great. After we harnessed her, we took her on a 5 mile road trip to bring our neighbors some cookies. As soon as we left our front gate and stepped on to the country road that runs by our farm, she perked up. She started trotting so fast, I had to hold her in check with both hands to keep her from cantering off.

A half mile up the road, the hold back, a strap that keeps the cart from bumping in to the horse, came untied. Maybe I should have used a real piece of harness instead of a piece of mule tape. I pulled in to our neighbor Roger’s driveway to retie it. Julia did not look amused. “I’ll just walk home from here,” she said.

Heading up the Road

Okay, so maybe Pie was running up the road a little fast with a few steps of canter thrown in. No matter. At least she was straight and not shying. Hold back retied, Julia climbed back in the cart and we set out anew. She’s a good sport.

Ideally a buggy horse will trot up the road on a loose rein. Pie still wanted to move out and I let her. We’re new to each other and she showed her tension by trotting faster than maybe I would have liked. I’ve learned not to fight an eager horse like that. From time to time, I just asked her to go from a trot back to a walk. And after a bit of walking, say around a curve, I let her trot off again.

After about 2 miles of mostly trot, she dropped her head, relaxed and fell in to a relaxed jog. The tension had bled out of her. A half mile later, we arrived at our neighbors Laura and Craig’s home. We chatted and dropped off our modest gift (4 chocolate chip cookies in a brown paper sack) as Pie caught her breath.

We let Pie walk most of the way home and by the time we got back to the barn she was 100% relaxed. So, all in all, a wonderful first day on the road with Pie. Here are few more photos you might enjoy.

Pie practicing the all important “Whoa”.
The road in front of our farm
Julia at the reins
Day’s end
Heading back to the barn

Back at the farm, Pie got a well deserved romp in the field with pasture mates Polly, Brick and Cracker. Followed, of course, by double rations of feed. In her case, that’s only 2 cups of feed. Haflingers are easy keepers.

The Rest of Pie’s Story

While I was typing up this glowing report of Pie’s first day on the road, Julia wrote a more sombre account of her arrival. It’s the story of three sets of tears shed in love: Julia’s, a young Amish girl’s and mime. It’s One Pony In One Pony Out: A Tale Of Two Ponies and you can read it right here on Julia’s blog.

Pie hanging with mule Polly. Nights, she and the mules live in a pasture I fenced in with locust posts I harvested up our mountain. Days, she gets to graze in the hay field in front of our cabin. The white tape is portable electrical fencing we can move as fresh grass is needed.

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