I recently read a Julie Goodnight/Heidi Nyland article about how to pony a horse properly and it reminded me of a pack trip that I helped out on. Ponying a horse just means to lead it from horseback. It’s not usually a big deal, but it is a pain in the rear end.
Bill and I were asked by another wrangler, Chance, to help take some horses into the park to pick up an Outfitter's drop camp. A drop camp is when a livery or Outfitter takes a group into the forest or National Park and literally “drops” them off for a few days. The problem with drop camps is that when you take them in, each of the guests is riding a horse and the wrangler has one or two pack horses that he or she has to pony in. Once you drop the guests off, you then have to tie the horses together in a “string” and pony them back. At the end of a drop camp, the wrangler has to pony all of the horses back into the camp to pick up the guests.
Picking up a drop camp is not at all my idea of a good time: it always involves a long, beautiful ride, which is great, but it also involves ponying a string of horses. Ponying one horse for an hour is not a ton of fun, but is a fact of life. Ponying a string is a whole lot less than fun. It’s important to keep moving once you get started and keep a steady pace. Stopping and starting is not a good idea, something that Chance, who was experienced at ponying strings, obviously forgot on our way up to the drop camp.
Bill and I each had four saddle horses to pony up and Chance had the four pack horses, for a total of twelve horses being hauled up the mountain. The trip started out beautifully and the first hour went pretty quickly, even though we were sharing the trail with hikers. Then we started getting tired. It doesn’t sound like hard work holding onto a lead rope with one hand and riding with the other, but after an hour of holding your arm at an awkward angle and giving corrections through the lead rope, your shoulder and forearm get pretty darn tired. That’s when the mistakes start happening.
We were an hour in and things were going well. The horses were moving out and we didn’t have any problems crossing the bridges that spanned the falls or getting around the hikers. It was looking like a good time and smooth sailing until Chance had to stop for some reason or another. Crap. Never a good idea to stop a string making good time. He mounted up and started out. The first horse followed with no problem, the second horse followed with no problem, but the third horse was tired and didn’t want to go. Chance tugged the lead rope, pulling the first and second horse along and putting pressure on the third horse, who dug his heels in and pulled back. And promptly popped the baling twine that connected him to the second horse. Chance dismounted, reconnected the horses and headed out again. This time it was the fourth horse who decided it was still break time and refused to move out.
Finally, we got on our way again and it went well again for a while. By the second hour my shoulder felt like a wet noodle and my forearm was in a constant cramp. I could tell by Chance and Bill shaking out their shoulders and flexing their fingers that they were feeling the same way.
Once more Chance had to stop for some reason, tack adjustment or something, and again we had problems getting re-started. But, we did get re-started and were still on schedule.
Hour three came along and my shoulder was toast; I couldn’t feel my fingers anymore and had to keep looking down to make sure I hadn’t dropped the lead rope. My mid-back was beginning to cramp and even my butt started to hurt. I know the butt hurting is a common complaint, but I had LOTS of saddle time and was well beyond the calloused butt stage – or so I thought.
We were in the home stretch, literally less than half a mile from the camp, when Chance made a mistake that, being an experienced Wrangler, he should not have made. I wasn’t the only one whose shoulder and forearm were tired. In order to give his arm a break, he took a full dally around the saddle horn – that is, he wrapped the lead rope completely around his saddle horn, which meant that he couldn’t quickly disengage himself from the string if he needed to.
I didn’t realize that he’d taken a dally until we had to make a left turn to cross a small creek. Chance made the turn and got his horse started, but by that time the second horse was DONE and didn’t want to cross the water. The horse dug in and pulled back, putting pressure on the lead rope that was tied to Chance’s saddle horn, pulling his horse to a stop in the middle of the creek. The horse continued to balk and began to back up, putting more and more pressure on the lead rope. If he’d taken a dally from the left side, he probably would have been okay, but he took his dally on the right side, which meant that the ever tightening rope was pulling across his body. There was too much pressure on the rope for him to untie it and by then the damage was done.
Chance's saddle began to slip to the left and though attempted to throw his weight against it, it was a lost cause. We all knew what was going to happen and got to watch it all happen in slow motion. Once Chance realized he was going for a swim, he gave up and started laughing right along with us. He managed to get his left foot out of the stirrup, but not his right, so he ended up mostly on the left side of his back in a fairly shallow creek with his right foot still in the stirrup and the saddle hanging off the horse's side.
Bill and I laughed our ever-lasting butts off at the sight and were thankful that nothing worse had happened. Suddenly, our shoulders and forearms quit hurting and it wasn't such a big deal to be ponying a whole string - at least we didn't have to finish up our day in wet jeans!