Meeker is Estes’ first-born daughter and has a lot of Estes’ personality traits, but she’s much more of a cuddle bug than Estes is. One season, when Estes’ owner wanted to breed her, I leased Meeker as my wrangler horse. She is an amazing lead horse; she knows where all of the horses in her string are at all times and is a strong leader, it doesn’t take more than a flick of her ear to keep them in line. In return, the horses in the dude string respected her and followed her lead without any problems. The general rule of thumb is that if the lead horse is calm, the string will be calm as well.
Toward the end of the season, Meeker and I took out a two-hour steak dinner ride. Basically, it’s a ride/dinner combo. The group goes out for a ride and then returns to the livery for a steak dinner around the bonfire. Steak rides are always a lot of fun because they are always the last ride of the day and once the ride returns to the livery and the horses are broken down and turned out, the wranglers get to join the guests for steak. Don’t get me wrong, our cook fed us well. We never had any complaints about our food, but, come on, it’s steak!
Meeks and I got lucky that night; all of the guests could ride well, so I chose to do a more challenging trail than usual. Rather than going the along the Trench trail, across Fox Creek, and up to the pond, I decided to take the ride along Rock Creek on the Willow Tree trail. I love the Willow Tree trail, but didn’t get to take rides on it very often because it traverses some very rough terrain, which includes riding almost blind through willow trees along Rock Creek and picking our way across the face of the mountain. Just getting to the Willow Tree trail is not for the faint of heart. The trail down to the Willow Tree is just that, down. It’s not super steep, but it does induce the pucker-factor in most guests since they can see clean over the top of the rider in front of them during the descent. It’s rather disconcerting for the wrangler, too, since it’s just not natural to have to look up to check on the line.
My favorite part of the Willow Tree trail is riding through the willows; they grow on along Rock Creek, almost right next to the rock face of the mountain. The willows try to reach out and drag you out of your saddle, and if you’re not careful, you’ll come out of the other end with scratch marks all over your arms and face. It’s like breaking trail, even though there’s a trail already there. As a wrangler, it’s nerve wrecking to not be able to see your riders behind you, which is why I so rarely took rides that way.
The guests were chatting away about the view and asking about wildlife as we descended to the Willow Tree trail. I was telling them the story of how Meeker’s mom had saved my life by stopping dead in the trail to prevent my ride from crossing a mountain lion’s path as we approached the entrance to the willows. Coming down, just before entering the willows, there’s a slight left turn, a step down from the trail onto shale rock, and then a series of small boulders that have to be crossed.
Meeker had just completed the left turn and placed her left front hoof on the shale rock when something crashed in the willows. In the blink of an eye, she had spun on her front hoof and had us pointed back up the hill. It happened so fast that I’m still not completely sure if she sensed a critter in the willow and started to turn or heard the crash and turned. One moment we were fixin’ to enter the willows, the next we were facing the wrong way.
The crash from the willows was loud enough that the entire first half of the line heard it, while the back half of the line only got to see Meeker’s athletic turn. There was a whole chorus of “what was that?” and “did you hear that?” My only answer was, “I have no idea.” Nor did I want to speculate. I did know that it probably was not a deer or elk because they would not have fit between the willows and the rock face. It probably wasn’t a mountain lion either, because they’re sneaky, stealthy critters, not crashing through the brush critters. I was hoping that whatever it was – my money was on VW Bear – was going the other way through the willows and wouldn’t magically appear behind me.
I hollered up to the back of the line and had them turn around. I had no choice; I had to lead the ride from the back until we got to the top of the trail. There was just no way for me to get off trail and get up to the new front of the line.
In the end, we had to take the Trench trail across Fox Creek and up to the pond, but, boy, did we have a whole heap to talk about over dinner when we returned.