Wednesday, December 23, 2009


Roman was a tall red horse, 16 hands if he was an inch, not a discernable ounce of draft in him, with a big Roman nose, hence the name. I had the chance to work with Roman for two seasons running, though at two different liveries. The first season Roman was around, I had my own wrangler horse, Meeker, that I was leading rides from, so one of the other wranglers snagged Roman as his lead horse.

Now this kid was a ranch kid, but not much of a horseman, though he liked to tout himself as such. He and Roman had some amazing go-rounds, which Roman most always won. The poor kid spent a lot of time sailing through the air and landing hard on the ground. Guess it’s a good thing that he was only in his early twenties. On occasion, a different wrangler would take Roman out without any problems. He’d be a perfect gentleman. Twice that season, I lead out on Roman for one reason or another and didn’t have any problems with him. He was sweet and even-tempered, though you’d never know it from the stories.

My problem with Roman wasn’t so much a problem as a preference. I loved, loved, riding tall horses. Must be because I’m so short, so I always chose the tallest horse in the herd to lead from. I loved them. Until I met Miss Estes and realized that, really, a lot comes in a small package. Miss Meeker, Estes’ daughter, wasn’t so tall either, but they were both agile. They could spin on a dime and leave you floating in the air like the coyote in the cartoons. They were quick. If you weren’t with them when they took off, you’d again be floating in the air like the coyote. After a couple of seasons of riding small horses, I’d kind of forgotten what lugs big horses could be. Roman reminded me of that rather quickly. He really was a big lug.

The last time I rode Roman that first season, he colicked on me when we got back from the ride. Lord knows he must have been in pain during the ride, but never showed any indication. It wasn’t until we got back into the yard and I went to dismount that he indicated something was wrong. He and I spent a lot of time walking around that day, waiting for the vet to arrive, and hoping for the best. Unfortunately, the reality is that when livery horses colic, they usually don’t make it. Liveries lose a fair amount of horses to colic and I was afraid for Roman. The vet came, did his thing, and Roman pulled through, for which I was very thankful. He was a good horse with a big heart.

The next season, at a different livery, I again got to work with Roman, as his wrangler had requested him when he switched liveries. Roman threw his notorious fits with his wrangler and the kid again spent a lot of time sailing through the air and landing hard on the ground. By the end of the first month, no one else would go near Roman and shortly thereafter the wrangler was dismissed. Now, the livery had a problem. We had a horse with a monumental temper, who we couldn’t put dudes on, and who the other wranglers were afraid to ride. In a livery string, every horse has to earn his/her way. Since I’d ridden Roman successfully – twice – the year before, the Barn Boss must have figured that qualified me for riding him again.

It took me all of about thirty seconds to realize what Roman’s problem was. Being an auction horse, we didn’t know too much about him, so we didn’t know about his training at all. The buyers just assumed that because he was sold as a western horse that he knew all about neck reining. The buyers were wrong. So was the kid. It was painfully obvious to me, once I mounted up, that poor Roman had no idea whatsoever what was being asked of him with the reins. I switched to direct reining and got an immediate response. I hadn’t noticed it the season before because it was late in the season when I rode him and by then he’d learned the trails the hard way, with the kid on his back and spurs in his sides. Well, hell, no wonder he’d developed such a temper. His wrangler was speaking to him in a foreign language and then punishing him with the sharp, jabby things in his sides when he didn’t understand.

The problem showed itself at a new livery, with new trails, that Roman didn’t know. The trails at the second livery weren’t the nice one-way-out-one-way-back trails that the first livery had. These trails were tough, there were always choices to be made, and rarely was a trail ever ridden the same way twice. Poor Roman was lost, didn’t understand the language, and was damn sick of being stuck in the ribs with the spurs.

As soon as I realized what his issue was, I adjusted my riding. I turned back his training and took him back to where he should have been taught neck reining. In addition to giving him a direct rein signal, I laid the opposite rein across his neck. In the span of one one-hour ride, he’d gotten it – without a single temper tantrum. I think he was just so grateful that someone finally figured out that he didn’t speak the language that he tried extra hard that day. I took him out a few more times and found him to be absolutely unflappable. Nothing bothered that horse, and I mean nothing. Hikers, plastic bags, traffic. He turned out to be the most bomb-proof horse I’ve ever ridden. Within just a couple of weeks, I pronounced him dude-worthy, and my Barn Boss took my word for it. I secretly think that the Barn Boss was afraid to get up on him, having witnessed some of Roman’s more colossal blow ups.

Roman turned into the best, hardest working, biggest hearted horse in the string. He was strong, even tempered and sweet. We could put small children or oversized adults on him and he never blinked. We never saw another temper tantrum out of him. He quickly became the livery’s biggest asset; he gave and gave and gave.

Toward the end of the season, though, tragedy struck. Roman got kicked one night while out in the pen with the other horses and developed a bone abscess. We doctored and doctored him, but couldn’t get him well. We finally had to make the decision to put him down. It was absolutely heart-wrenching, as he’d become one of my favorites. I am thankful, that they took him down to the farm first, I don’t think I could have handled him being put down at the livery.

Sunday, November 15, 2009

The Worst Ride Ever

Sometimes, the guests with the most horse experience turn out to be a wrangler’s worst nightmare. Perhaps the worst ride I’ve ever taken out consisted of just two fourteen year-old girls, best friends. One of the girls lived in Colorado and the other had moved away the year before and had just returned for vacation. The father of the Colorado girl thought it would be fun for the girls to go out on a four-hour ride, since Visiting Girl was a competitive hunter/jumper and they both loved horses.

The ride started out okay; there wasn’t a whole heap of whimpering from either girl as we ascended the steep switchback to reach the trail. Visiting Girl asked once or twice if we could trot. I told her that there just weren’t a lot of places in the mountains that are safe to trot, but that we might be able to once we reached the meadow. Colorado Girl and Visiting Girl were chatting, getting caught up on their lives since Visiting Girl had moved away the year before. Their mutual gossip kept them entertained for the first hour of the ride.

Going into the second hour, they were starting to wind down and Visiting Girl began to pay attention to her surroundings. She started asking questions about what would happen if she fell off and weren’t the horses scared being in the mountains? I assured her that the horses would take care of her and that, no, the horses weren’t scared being in the mountains.

At the end of hour two, going into hour three, we began to ascend the Olive Ridge route, which parallels some fairly steep drop-offs, but is a good, safe trail. I had taken literally hundreds of guests on that exact trail without a problem. In fact, the less horse experience my guests had, the more adventurous they seemed and the more they enjoyed the trail.

Colorado Girl was having a great time, enjoying the scenery and just being on top of a horse. Visiting Girl, however, the one with the most horse experience began to lose her mind. I don’t mean she was a little nervous, but that she went into a full-blown crying panic attack when she looked down off the side of the mountain. Now, the trail did run along the edge of a drop-off, but was nice and wide; there was no reason to worry that the horse would lose its footing and fall, but that’s exactly what Visiting Girl had envisioned.

There was no calming her down – she was absolutely, one hundred percent certain that her horse was going to fall off the side of the mountain and plunge her to her death.

As quickly as I could, I moved the ride off the trail and onto a nice, wide, graded fire access road, but there was still no calming her. Colorado Girl did her best, trying to talk Visiting Girl down, all to no avail. The return trip was spent assuring Visiting Girl that we were headed back to the livery and that there weren’t any places on the trail that she could fall off the mountain. We returned to the livery yard silent except for the sniffy, drippy tears of Visiting Girl and I swore I would never take out an arena rider again. Of course, I couldn’t get away with it, but that one ride distilled a deep distrust of “experienced” horse people who have never ridden outside an arena.

Thursday, November 5, 2009

Traffic Stopper

Estes is a sweet little Morgan/Quarter Horse mare. She stands 14.2 hands tall, has a white crescent between two amazingly soft eyes. When brushed out, her black mane and tail have lots of volume (that’s the nice way of saying out-of-control fluffy). It’s very difficult to tell her from her daughter, Meeker, who has a white star and three socks, rather than Estes’ two. Estes isn’t very affectionate, in fact, she’s rather stand-offish until she decides she likes you, at which time she becomes a regular snuggle bug. Well, maybe that’s not accurate. If she likes you, she might give you the time of day and not turn her back to you when you approach.

Estes is also a handful under saddle. Being a Morgan, she’s very forward motion oriented. And she’s quick. Truth be told, I was terrified of her and didn’t want to ride her. Once I was forced to ride her I learned two things very quickly: first, master the running mount or she’ll leave you behind; second, stay out of her mouth! She does not respond to mouth pressure well at all, which is what got her original wrangler in trouble.

As Estes and I got to know each other, besides falling absolutely, completely, unconditionally in love with her, I learned that she LOVED to stop traffic. There’s not a car, truck, or motorcycle that failed to stop for Estes when we were assigned traffic duty.

It didn’t matter which livery we were working with, there was always at least one road that the dude string needed to cross and Estes thrived at stopping traffic. All I would have to do was point her at a car and she did an excellent puffer fish imitation. I could feel her grow from 14.2 hands to 14.2 feet. There was not a car that was going to get past her. We’d step out into traffic and face the on-coming car. If the car didn’t begin to slow down, we’d play chicken with it. I’d put a little heel to her and hold up my right hand in the universal “stop” gesture as we would bear down on the car.

Usually, by that time the driver would be slowing to a stop. If the driver wasn’t slowing down enough, I’d pull Estes to a stop and plant her right in the driver’s way. She had an attitude about her that just said, “Try it, Buster!” I found out later that she would pull back her lips and snarl at the car.

If, even after her snarling and planting herself in the middle of the road, she didn’t bring the car to a complete stop, I’d inch her forward a touch and give a little tug on the reins. She’d go into her half-rearing War Horse prance, letting the car know that she wouldn’t think twice about planting those cute little double-ought front hooves of hers right smack-dab in the middle of their hood.

Worked like a charm.

Thursday, October 29, 2009

Critter in the Willows

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.

Sunday, October 25, 2009

I Need Barn Names!

NaNoWriMo starts in exactly one week and I'm having a hard time with character names. The absolute hardest part of any writing for me is the character names. I have the main character's name, her childrens' names, and half of her best friend's name (first only). My problem: I don't have a name for her potential love interests (the guys she meets speed dating or online) nor do I have names for the horses in the barn. I need barn names! Okay, honestly, I need guy names too, but I'm really stressed out about not having barn names because the horses make an appearance long before the boys do.

Sunday, October 18, 2009


Rat was another horse that we had in our dude string that wormed his way into my heart. He was, by all accounts, well into his 30s. The years had not been good to Rat, but he was still a sweet horse. The cartilage in his ears had deteriorated to the point that he could no longer hold them upright all the way, so they just kind of flopped. His tail had thinned so much that it was wispy in every sense of the word. I wanted so much to put a pink bow in his tail and call him “Eeyore”, for that’s exactly who he looked like. He even moped around the pen like Eeyore. Well, until feeding time. In a wild herd, he would have been run out and left on his own to die at his age. However, domestic herds are a little different and Rat had learned a thing or two in his thirty-some years on this planet. There wasn’t a horse in the pen that could run Rat from his food, nor were there any horses that were dumb enough to try more than once. He could be as mean as a snake and every bit as quick when he wanted to be.

Because of his age, we only used him once or twice a week for kids’ camps, and never for more than an hour at a time. However, each morning we went to fetch horses from the pen, Rat was the first one begging to be caught. He knew that on days that he got to work, he got grain for breakfast, which in his little mind was a whole heap better than just hay.

Rat, when he was used for kids’ camps, always had to be ponied because he just was not going to listen to the driving directions from some snot-nosed little kid. The only way he’d go where we wanted him to go was for the wrangler leading the ride to drag him along. Now, Rat wasn’t a big horse, he may have actually been just a tall pony and sometimes his temperament suggested that he was a pony, but ponying Rat was always an adventure.

During one of the very few kids’ camps that I worked, I had the pleasure of ponying Rat with a little three or four year-old girl on his back. Rat actually behaved like quite a gentleman during the majority of the ride until he decided that it was time to go home at which point he dug all four hooves into the ground without warning and darn nearly pulled me out of my saddle. I was on Black Rufus, who on a good day, ran close to 1,100 pounds and Rat, with the little girl on his back couldn’t have weighed more than 750 pounds, so I half-looped Rat’s lead rope around Black Rufus’ saddle horn and put a little heel to Black Rufus. Rat dug in even more, shifting his weight to his backside. He was not going one step farther, no ma’am, unless that one step took him toward the livery. Black Rufus leaned into the lead rope and Rat pulled back. We had ourselves one heck of a tug-o-war going on. At one point, it occurred to me to back off on the forward pressure, but by that time, Rat had so much of his weight shifted to the rear that I was afraid if I did, he’d fall right on his butt.

I was stuck; Black Rufus, despite his size, could not budge Rat and I couldn’t back off for fear of Rat falling over backward. So I compromised, I kept the forward pressure so that Rat wouldn’t fall, but shifted Black Rufus in the direction of home, using Rat as a fulcrum point to just swing three steps to our right while keeping the pressure constant. But I had forgotten one very important thing: Rat had learned a thing or two in his thirty-some years. As soon as he realized that I was moving Black Rufus in what he considered the right direction, he relented and took a step forward, effectively releasing all of the pressure and almost causing Black Rufus and me to fall on our faces. From that point on, as long as we were headed back home, Rat behaved himself, but if we so much as thought about a different direction he put the brakes on.

Creative Nonfiction Entry - Introducing the Herd

Thank you all for helping me choose which of my stories to submit to Creative Nonfiction.  I've polished up "Introducing the Herd" a little bit and thought I'd share the finalized, hopefully contest-ready, version with you.

Late in the spring of 2004, my parents were approached by a local lodge to run its livery. My parents and I had been working as part-time wranglers for a nearby livery for a few years and my parents had always harbored a hope that they’d get to run their own, so they jumped at the opportunity. The problem was that they only had three personal horses, one of which was far too young to be used, so they contacted the supply ranch that the other liveries lease their horses from, looking to rent just a handful of horses for the summer. The ranch couldn’t accommodate us, as they didn’t have enough horses of their own to fulfill their existing contracts. Well, now what? We had a shiny, new-to-us livery and only two horses. That wouldn’t do at all.

Hall Ranch, where we bought our hay, became our saviors. When they heard about our predicament, they offered to lease us some of their ranch horses for the summer. It was perfect! In May, nine shiny, new-to-us horses were delivered to our shiny, new-to-us livery and our herd count rose to eleven. Bill, my step-father, also contacted an old friend and former Barn Boss of ours to see about leasing a couple more horses. Bucky obliged, shipping us four horses from southern Arizona.

The herd had settled into their hierarchy – for the most part – by the time the Arizona horses were delivered, bringing our current herd total to fifteen. The perfect amount to run a small livery. The trailer arrived just after feeding time and Bill and I unloaded the newcomers into the pen, and then climbed up atop the cross-buck for our favorite pastime – watching the horses.

It was beautiful; the sun was just beginning to set, casting a soft light across the backs of the horses who had their heads down in the feeders. It was quiet and peaceful; we sat on the fence just drinking it all in and feeling all was right with the world. What could be better than sitting on the fence at our shiny, new-to-us livery on a perfect late spring evening watching our shiny, new-to-us herd? Sigh. Life was perfect.

Bill’s mustang, Ranger, suddenly realized that there were four new mouths he had to share his food with. Without warning, Ranger’s head popped up out of the feeder, his neck arched and nostrils flared as he took in the new arrivals. In his little mustang brain, he took stock of the food supply and the new horses and decided that there wasn’t enough to share with the interlopers. Born and raised a wild mustang, he had a firm grasp on the concept of limited resources. My breath caught in my throat as Bill’s mild-mannered mustang transformed into a snorting, nasal-flaring, four-legged monster. He pinned his ears back, lowered his head and charged. I had never seen anything so horrifying in my life, then or since.

Our perfect, peaceful evening quickly turned into a nightmare as Ranger attacked the new horses, trying to run them from the herd. The new horses scattered, trying to get away from raging mustang. Their terror was impossible to miss in the whites of their eyes and they were in full panic flight mode. The problem was that there was no place for the new horses to run away to; all of the horses were in the same pen.

At first we thought we’d just let them work it out themselves, but the attack continued to escalate to the point that it was getting out of control and dangerous. The main herd had congregated in the center of the pen, trying to stay out of the way of the monster mustang and the four interlopers as they raced around the perimeter of the pen. It seemed that when Ranger realized he couldn’t run them off because they were all trapped, he changed his tactic. Rather than just getting them away from his herd, he became determined to eliminate the threats.

Ranger was snorting and attacking, snaking, as it’s called when a stallion lowers his head and moves it side-to-side; a very aggressive and terrifying posture. I was appalled and frightened for the new horses. He’d take on one, then another, of the new horses, driving them as far away from the main herd as possible. He was so determined to kill the new horses that one of them tried to escape by climbing the cross-buck fence. The horse got one foreleg on the lower rail of the fence and stepped up, but missed the second rail with its other foreleg, slipping his leg between the poles and essentially trapping himself. As he thrashed in a panic, trying to get away from Ranger and break free of the fence, Bill decided to intervene. I was frozen on the fence, horrified, watching the whole thing unravel in front of my eyes.

And then the whole situation got a whole lot more dangerous. Bill and Ranger have a very good, trusting relationship, but Ranger was beyond reason and Bill’s attempts to get his attention were completely ignored. During one of Ranger’s rushing attacks, Bill actually stepped in front of Ranger and started yelling and waving his hat. Ranger swerved around Bill, but continued his attack on the horse. I was absolutely more terrified than I ever had been in my life; I just knew I was going to watch Bill’s own horse kill him. In my mind, I could already see Bill’s broken and bloody body being trampled by his own loving horse and the panicked newcomers. The new horses were running and screaming, knowing that they needed to get away from the mustang monster, but they literally had no escape. Bill repeatedly put himself between Ranger and whichever horse he was currently attacking; each time, Ranger would swerve to avoid Bill, but continue his attack. I have no idea how long it went on, but eventually Bill was able to turn Ranger away from his attacks. He turned Ranger away over and over again, allowing the new horses to huddle together as far away from the monster as possible.

In time, Ranger calmed down enough that we were able to move the new horses into the enclosed staging area, where they stayed for the next few days until the herd got acquainted with them and Ranger was satisfied that there would be enough food to go around.

I am not easily traumatized, nor am I overly emotional, but I learned a very big lesson that day – a lesson I have no desire to repeat. My family wasn’t new to the trail riding business; we’d merged herds before without any problems. But the big difference was that in all of the other herds we had merged, the horses were domestic and they were just vying for pecking order. What we did to poor Ranger, who had lived wild on the Nevada lava flats for the first nine years of his life, was threaten his existence, at least in his mind. He trusted that the humans would provide food – to an extent – but his instinct and experience told him that there were too many horses for the precious food that was available.

Friday, October 9, 2009

Black Rufus

I had a Barn Boss who had a thing for paint horses. It got so that I began to have a hard time telling them apart. My daughter easily solved the problem for me; she began to call them all “Rufus”. We had a “Black Rufus”, a couple of “Brown Rufuses” (or would that be “Rufi”?), and “Black and Brown Rufus”. Irritated my Barn Boss a bit, but I didn’t have such a hard time remembering their names after that – all of the paints were some form of Rufus.

Black Rufus was a prime example of a backyard pet turned livery horse. His first few days at the livery were pretty darn scary for him, but he got settled into the herd without too much of a problem. One of Black Rufus’ problems was that he was kind of a bugger to mount. He danced around and tried to spin away every time Boss tried to mount up. Since I had a little bit of experience with that – thanks to little Miss Estes – I was asked to work with Black Rufus. Time to “work” horses is limited at a livery, so I went to the quickest solution I could think of…I began to mount up from the off-side. There’s really no such thing as the correct side to mount a horse; by convention we typically mount from the left, but the horses don’t know there’s a “right” or “wrong” side to mount up on. He had no bad memories or experiences from the off-side, so he was a perfect gentleman when I mounted from the right. He never even twitched an ear when I began mounting from the right, though he still threw a fit when I tried to mount from the left. I just flat-out didn’t have the time to work him through it, so from the right it was.

He had a lot more issues than just being a bugger to mount; the poor guy had never been on a trail. Every little thing terrified him and we had rodeos pretty much each time we lead out a trail ride. We got paired up over and over again, partly, I think, because he was a big, intimidating horse and the newer wranglers were afraid of him. Over time, he began to trust me and calm down. It took weeks of trail time before we started to build a relationship, but I never completely relaxed on or around him.

For one ride, we took out a big muckity-muck from the Wyoming government and her nephew. She felt that her nephew from the East was too pampered and wanted to give him the full “Wild West” experience. They had been white water rafting, shooting, and hiking. Horseback riding in the mountains was just a part of the experience, so she signed up for a four hour ride. Black Rufus had settled down a lot and was a brave horse leading out the ride; a hundred eighty degrees from the ‘fraidy cat he’d been when I first started working with him.

We spent the first two hours just exploring the trails – I had a route in mind, but there are a lot of ways to complete the route, so I was letting them choose right or left. By this time, I’d been a wrangler on those trails for many years and wasn’t afraid of getting lost like I did my first couple of years. Black Rufus was still being a big, brave horse and behaving himself, so I began to relax a little bit.

As we came down out of an aspen grove, something spooked Black Rufus and we had a little rodeo, but it didn’t take much more than a calm word and a pat on the neck to calm him down. I was feeling pretty good that he was so easy to get back under control – just two weeks earlier I would have been riding for the buzzer and hoping for a good score. By that time, most of the horses in the string were used to his antics and no longer reacted to his little fits, they just stood by and waited for him to be done.

We continued along the lower side of the meadow, enjoying the perfect riding weather and talking about the rest of their plans. There was another ride heading back to the livery on the far west end of the meadow that we exchanged hollered hellos and waves with. I turned in my saddle to tell my guests about the other ride and where they had come from; we were going to be heading out the way the other ride had been.

I had just settled back into the saddle when Black Rufus reared straight up in the air. This was no little I-don’t-want-to-do-this temper tantrum. He was truly terrified and knew he couldn’t take off, so he went the only direction he could – straight up. His front hooves barely hit the ground before he went straight up again. All I could think of was to throw my weight forward to keep him from toppling over backward and crushing me. I went from neck reining, with both reins in one hand, to direct reining, one rein in each hand, and pulled the reins straight down toward the ground, hoping to literally pull him back down. He came down from his rear, but I kept my weight forward and downward pressure on the reins, so his next rear was only about half the height of his first two.

Once I was able to keep all four hooves on the ground, he calmed down as though nothing had happened. As he calmed down, I became aware of the fact that I’d kicked both feet out of the stirrups and had ridden through his little rear fest as though I was bareback. Because of all of our recent rodeos, I’d gotten pretty good at reading him and knowing when to get ready for the ride. In both instances I had been completely blindsided. To say I was perplexed would be an understatement.

I realized that the ride on the west end of the meadow had come to a complete standstill and they were watching our little rodeo. I got the thumbs-up from the other wrangler and assured him that we were fine. His ride continued toward the livery and I started our ride along again. For another half mile, Black Rufus was a perfect gentleman; no one would have ever believed that he’d been a wild-eyed, rearing monster just a few minutes before. I mulled it over again and again, trying to figure out what the heck had happened. While each ride on him was always an adventure, I’d always had warning that he was going to act up. Twice during that ride he’d caught me unaware. It was like there was something in the wind that was freaking him out.

Wait…there was something in the wind that was freaking him out. There had to be. It was the only reason that I could think of for his on-again, off-again behavior. I tried to remember if I’d noticed the wind shift before his rodeos, but I for the life of me, I couldn’t remember. As I was contemplating my new hypothesis, I did feel the wind shift and the rodeo commenced again. I managed to come back to myself just in time to dodge a rapidly approaching tree branch. Well, I would consider that hypothesis proven. There was some scent that reduced my big, brave Black Rufus back to the ‘fraidy cat he’d been when I started working with him. Black Rufus would completely calm down as soon as the wind shifted away from us; it was like riding a horse with a split personality.

The muckity-muck from Wyoming suggested we head back, but I was pretty determined to try to cross the hill using one of the many trails there were. When I protested about going back and shortening her nephew’s “Wild West” experience, she laughed and told me that he got a whole lot more “real” cowboy experience than she had planned on. I felt bad about heading back, but I was really getting beat up with the rodeos which were increasing in violence.

Of course, Boss wasn’t happy about us showing up at the livery an hour early, but the generous tip more than made up for being a little bit in trouble. Within twenty minutes of our return, another ride returned early with news of why we were unable to cross the hill. They had found fresh mountain lion tracks, which had significantly scared the guests, who insisted on an immediate return to the livery. Boss shut down the livery for the day, hopped on one of his horses and took off with his son to see what they could see.

Wednesday, September 30, 2009

A Chance Dunking

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!

Saturday, September 26, 2009

The Return

The next morning, bright and early, we were up and had the few horses left saddled up. We had a big ride scheduled for ten a.m., so we had no choice but to find and return the whole herd. The hope was that they had stayed herded up and were hanging out in the meadow, grazing. Four of us headed out toward the meadow. Just before the trail headed down, we split up. Two of the wranglers circled to the east of the meadow and the Barn Boss and I stayed up top in hopes of being able to keep the herd from splitting up. The plan was that the wranglers moving toward the herd would quietly work their way in, catch one or two, halter them up and lead them out. It would have worked like a dream if one particular wrangler hadn’t taken it upon herself to change it.

Barn Boss and I tied up our horses on a side trail and had intended to creep through the trees to a better vantage point when we heard a whoop followed closely by the sound of stampeding horses. We hurried back to our horses, mounted up, and headed in the direction of the herd. Obviously, someone had gotten too excited about playing cowboy to actually follow the plan. Instead, we had another disaster in the works. Rather than leading the horses back in a calm manner, we now had thirty head stampeding toward the highway. Crossing the highway the night before in the middle of the night was worrisome enough, but at eight-thirty on a summer morning during the height of tourist season was downright dangerous.

Boss and I moved out as quickly as we could without spurring on the horses too much. The last thing we wanted to do was run up behind a stampeding herd and ignite even more panic. Boss’s son, one of the wranglers that had gone into the meadow, met up with us on the trail, cussing up a storm. We were too far behind to head them off – they didn’t follow the trail back up, they just crashed through the trees straight up the mountain, the same way they headed down the night before. We followed as quickly as we dared, but couldn’t get them in sight. The best I hoped for was that they’d head for home, and from the sounds of it, that’s exactly where they were headed.

As they headed down the switchback, still out of our sight, I cringed inwardly, already hearing the sounds of squealing tires and screaming horses. Okay, so maybe I have an over-active imagination, but I could also see in my mind’s eye the car, horse, and people carnage just waiting to happen when the horses stampeded across the highway. What I actually heard was a whole lot of shod horses skittering across the asphalt. The skittering sound brought a whole new batch of images to my mind of one horse losing his traction and taking out the rest of the herd, and then there would be squealing tires and screaming horses and carnage.

Luckily, my imagination was just that – imagination – and the herd got across the highway without anything bad happening. Boss and I arrived in the yard just as the one most useless wrangler I’ve ever had the displeasure of working with was shutting the gate to the pen. While I was glad that the horses had all been returned, I was livid with her. She’s actually very lucky that the Boss’s son got to her before I did. She really, truly had no idea that what she had done was endanger not only herself, but the whole herd and anyone on the highway by racing them back in stampede fashion. Actually, I wouldn’t have minded if she’d been trampled in the stampede, but I really was worried about the horses and the general public. In her mind, she had single-handedly brought the horses back and proven that my plan to do it in a calm manner wasn’t the way to do it.

Yes, we got the horses back, and yes, she single-handedly whipped them into a panicked frenzy to do so. As a consequence, we had hot, sweaty horses that we had to calm down before we could even consider pulling them and getting them ready for our big ride. We had them in the pen, but they were so full of adrenaline that they were picking fights with each other and staying whipped up. We had less than an hour to get them calm, pulled, and ready for the big ride at ten.

They slowly calmed down once they realized they were back home and that no one was chasing them, yelling. Eventually, we were able to enter the pen – minus the useless wrangler – and start pulling the horses we needed to the day’s ride, which went off without a hitch.

The useless wrangler? She got to stay behind and scoop poop while the Boss’s son and I took out the ride. To this day, she has no idea what she did or why she was punished.

***Please, I'm begging, help me choose which story to submit. So far, there's a four-way tie, which is no help at all. Vote in the survey located in the left side-bar.***

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

The Great Escape

My bed at the bunkhouse – seriously – was the most comfortable bed I’d ever laid my weary body on. It could have been just because of the extreme exhaustion that plagued my body from day after day of fourteen-hour workdays. Or it could have been because the pen was located just twenty yards from my window and I could hear the soft shuffling of the horses at night – they were every bit as tired as the wranglers, so there were very few scuffles in the pen at night.

One night, though, I woke up to a different type of shuffling and snuffling. I immediately chalked the new sound up to VW Bear, who had been checking in on our dumpster ever since his first successful break-in. I lay in bed, thanking my lucky stars that he was on the backside of the bunkhouse and didn’t seem at all interested in the dumpster, which was located far on the other side of the building. I had a tense moment when I swore VW snuffled right at my window, a mere eighteen inches away from my head on the pillow, and cracked open just enough to let a breeze in.

I breathed a sigh of relief when VW moved away from the window, toward the pen, but I knew that he wouldn’t bother to attack the horses – bears are lazy by nature and a pen full of forty horses would be just too much darn trouble, especially with all of the full dumpsters in the neighborhood.

Unfortunately, someone forgot to tell one of the horses that VW wouldn’t bother with them. Whichever horse got stuck with sentry duty sounded the alarm when VW got too close to the pen and it was instant chaos. The pen went from quiet shuffling to stampede in about half a second flat. Normally, the horses would have just made a few panicked laps around the pen and settled down once they realized that VW was outside the pen, uninterested, just passing by, and they were safe inside the pen. Normally.

I don’t know what caused the horses to try the gate, but they did. Or at least one did and the gate gave way. Suddenly, the night got a whole lot more interesting. By that time, I was up and in my boots. I had intended to just go out to the pen fence to try to calm them down, but – damn – now they were loose in the yard. If I acted quickly enough, I might be able to keep them in the yard and off the mountain.

I stepped out of the bunkhouse and into the yard, right in front of the leading horses. “Hey, hey, it’s okay,” I called, trying to keep my voice calm. “Just chill out, you’re okay. Sshhh.” I’d gotten the lead horses to pause in their escape. They looked at me, like I know you, you’re the boss. I had every intention of just blocking their way to the road until I could get some reinforcements to help herd them back into the pen. Things were going according to my plan right up until somebody came slamming out of the other end of the bunkhouse, yelling. I have no idea what they were yelling, but it was enough to startle the horses and start up the panic again. Since I was blocking the way to the road, the smart ones in the back whirled and took off out of the yard and up the mountain. Four or five managed to squeeze by me and head down the road. The night, at that point, officially became a disaster.

I heard my parent’s van start up and realized that they were coming to help, despite the fact that they didn’t work for the livery and had been sound asleep in their own bed at the B&B when the manure hit the fan. My mom appeared at my side with a couple of halters and Bill was in the van, swinging around the block, hoping to head off the horses on the road and herd them back to the yard. The Barn Boss hopped in the truck and tried blocking the other exit from the yard, but it was far, far too late. I could already hear the horses scrambling up the switchback on the mountain.

Bill managed to herd the escapees from the road back into the yard, but they heard their buddies up on the mountain and skirted the truck to go join the rest of them. Damn. Well past the witching hour and we had horses loose on the mountain. Not much to do but go get them.

Mom and I started hiking up the switchback, each with a couple of halters. We knew that if we could get our hands on just one or two and lead them back, the rest would follow. Bill took off in the van to make sure that there weren’t any horses running up and down the highway. In all honesty, I was so focused on getting up the mountain I don’t remember what the Barn Boss was doing. Mom, Bill and I worked so well together, that we kind of shut out the “real” boss.

The moon wasn’t too terribly bright, but bright enough that we could see the trail without the use of a flashlight. We had decided against taking a flashlight because the horses hadn’t been desensitized to them and we didn’t want to drive them deeper into the forest. Once we got into the trees, we stepped off the trail and just listened for them in the darkness.

We could hear them headed toward the meadow, so we split up to circle around behind them. Mom moved out ahead of me to go toward the east end of the meadow and I headed straight down into it. After a few minutes of travel in the trees, I could hardly see my hand in front of my face and knew that I was flirting with disaster so I just stopped. I could hear the horses shuffling around, very close to my position, and hoped that they would get curious and come up to me. They knew my smell and I knew that they would be able to scent me out if they were interested. There were moments when I would have sworn that they were within just a couple of feet of me – I could feel them circling up around, but I didn’t want to move because I didn’t want to set them off again. I decided to let them make the first move. I kept murmuring that it was okay, that I’d take them home if they’d come see me.

I heard the Barn Boss’ and one of the wrangler’s voices on the trail and saw the bobbing flashlights as they rode up on two of the Boss’ personal horses. Unfortunately, the horses also heard and saw them coming and took off in a frenzy again.

Mom came back up from the trail to the meadow muttering under her breath about the horses being scared off a second time. She, too, had a small herd surrounding her in the trees and we both felt that if we’d had just another ten minutes before being interrupted, we’d’ve been able to bring them back home.

We met up with the Boss and another wrangler on the main trail and gave them an approximate location of the horses. Boss decided to push on to see if they could round them up and herd them back to the livery. Mom and I headed back; she and Bill went back to the B&B to see if they could salvage a little bit of the night before they had to get up and cook for thirty guests. I stayed up until Boss returned an hour later empty handed, at which point he decided to leave the horses on the mountain until the next morning.

Thursday, September 17, 2009

Baling Twine - A Wrangler's Best Friend

There are a few necessities that each horn bag or saddle bag must have: a first aid kit, water, food of some sort, duct tape and baling twine. A map of the trails, if you are unfamiliar with them, is also a very good idea.
The first aid kit doesn’t have to be anything fancy, just something with gloves, gauze, ointment, bandaids, an insta-cold snap pack, and a space blanket. Pretty much, anything that can be used on a human can also be used on a horse. You can “fancy” up your first aid kit with all sorts of expensive things, but, really, you just need a way to stop bleeding, splint, and treat for shock in either horse or human.

Water and food are fairly self-explanatory, but a word to the wise…be careful which type of water bottle you choose to pack. The wide-mouth Nalgene-type bottles are awfully tricky to drink from when on the back of a horse. I’ve yet to master the skill – all I get is a bath. I even tried using the insert to try to keep from getting a face full of water every time the horse took a step. That resulted in my shirt staying dry, but water shot up my nose instead. As far as food goes, I always keep something like pre-packaged trail mix or a granola bar in my bag. It may not be my food of choice, but it will keep me alive if the need arises (and the horses think that they are always a good treat!).

I’m sure some of you are scratching your heads about the duct tape. Have you not seen McGyver? No, seriously, duct tape can be used to hold dressings on if your horse gets injured. It can also be used in place of an EZ-Boot, if your horse happens to throw a shoe (if your horses are shod). Just cover the bottom of the hoof with duct tape, take a wrap around the hoof to keep the ends from flapping and away you go. It’s not an ideal fix, but it works.

Baling twine is a wrangler’s best friend. Sounds like kind of a crazy thing to keep in your horn bag, but it is the most versatile item you can carry. Just a few of the things you can do with baling twine:

• Repair tack: when the leather laces fail or rot and fall away, just thread some baling twine through the lace holes and away you go! I’ve repaired broken reins and bridles and used twine re-attach stirrups and cinches – who needs those fancy leather laces when you’ve got bright orange and blue baling twine?

• Build a “custom water bottle carrier”: my guests used to love this little trick, tie the baling twine around the neck of the water bottle, make a loop just big enough to fit over the saddle horn and viola! a custom water bottle carrier.

• Tie goodies to the back of the saddle: my last on-trail use of baling twine was to tie a section of elk vertebrae to the cantle.

• Tie a string of horses together when ponying a pack trip: by using a length of twine to tie the horses together, you’re all but guaranteed an effective break-away if something bad happens. Using lead ropes or leather reins is just asking for trouble, as they don’t break as easily. Baling twine is tough enough that it will keep a string of horses together, but will still break in an emergency.

• Make a rope halter: A couple of lengths of baling twine can be use in a pinch as a halter to lead an errant horse home or, in the case of my step-dad, just take a loop around the nose and use the ends as reins for bareback riding. I’m not that brave.

• Keep bored kids from whining: I know what y’all are thinking – I’m not talking about using the twine to hold a gag in place. If you tie the ends together to form a loop, the bored kids stuck riding double with a parent can play string games with it. Mostly they just twist around their little wrists, but as long as they quit their whining and belly-achin’, I’m a happy camper.

• I’ve even used baling twine to keep my britches up on occasion when I’ve forgotten my belt. Heck, maybe if I’d had a baling twine belt on the day I got hung up by my belt buckle, I wouldn’t have been dangling above the ground.

And, oh, the endless things you can do with BOTH duct tape and baling twine. Just the thought sets my heart all aflutter! The sky’s the limit when you’ve got both. Heck, I think you could completely tack up your horse with just duct tape and baling twine, but that’s a post for another time.

Does anyone else have ideas for baling twine use while on the trail? How 'bout duct tape?

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Breyer Horses

The one thing that I’ve learned is to always trust my horse. There are some horses that can’t be trusted, just like there are some humans who can’t be trusted, and I’ve been on a few of those. They are very uncomfortable to ride; I really don’t enjoy riding a horse I don’t trust. I’m sure that horses don’t enjoy riders they don’t trust as well. Estes and I bonded pretty darn well. Let’s be realistic – I fell head over heels in love with that little mare – and she more than tolerated me. It was a good foundation.

During one of the brief dry spells during the Summer of Rain, Estes and I took a fairly large ride of eight out. The sky was overcast and it was cold, but it looked like the rain would hold off long enough for us to get our one-hour ride in. There’s only so much hanging out around the barn I can do before I start getting cranky and she was feeling the same way. We loaded up and headed out. Estes was her usual, jiggy self, but by that time, I had quit stressing out about it and started enjoying it. She was feeling good about having a job to do, and so was I.

We were moving along at a pretty good clip, all of the horses had been cooped up for too long and it felt good for them to stretch their legs. We had safely run the gauntlet, crossed the street and parking lot (always an adventure), and were making good time along the trail toward our next road crossing. I had turned back to the guests to tell them about the upcoming stairs and explain how we would go down them (don’t stop, keep your horse moving) when I felt Estes stop cold. One moment we were cruising along, making good time and the next, we just…stopped. I did a lousy job of concealing my surprise. Estes never just stops. Ever. It’s just not in her.

I turned back from the guests and gave her a little kick in the side. I never had to put my heels to her to get her to move – in order to mount up, I had to master the running mount – so the sudden stop was completely out of character. She had magically transformed into a life-sized Breyer horse, as had all of the horses in line behind us. My ride looked like live people had been arranged on a whole herd of beautiful life-sized Breyer horses - they were all absolutely frozen in place. 

I gave her another kick and nothing happened. She was obviously focused on something other than me and no amount of kicking was going to get her to move. I was initially irritated, then frustrated, and then concerned. Estes wouldn’t even flick an ear no matter how hard I kicked her.  I had ceased to exist in Estes' world.

I was speechless and just helplessly shrugged at my guests. This was a whole new situation for me and I was at a loss as how to handle it. I made the decision to dismount, take a hold Estes’ bridle and lead her down the trail. Just as I shifted my weight to dismount, Estes gave a sigh and un-froze.  Before we began moving down the trail, she flicked her ear at me and gave me a look that very clearly said, "you wanna try and put your heels to me again lady?" The horses in line behind me also came out of their mannequin state and followed along as if nothing had happened. It was crazy and I had no idea what the heck had just happened.

We made it down the stairs, negotiated the second road crossing without any problems and left the weird Breyer horse moment behind us. The guests and I picked up our conversation and we were chatting as we rode along, mostly about what could have caused the all of the horses to behave the way they did.

The rain didn’t quite hold off as long as I wanted it to and it started spitting. We were already wearing our rain gear (better to be safe than sorry!), so I wasn’t worried about having to stop and get them geared up. I checked on them, then glanced down at the trail ahead of me and my heart jumped into my throat.

Right there, running up the middle of the trail, were mountain lion tracks. The spitting rain had turned into raining in earnest, but there was no rain in the tracks, that’s how fresh they were. They were freaking HUGE and deep. The mountain lion that had just used the trail was no little kitty, it was a large, well-fed adult and it had to be nearby.

Crap, now what? I didn’t want to tip my hand to the guests that there was a lion in the immediate vicinity, but I couldn’t believe my eyes. I’m sure I looked pretty funny, leaning down as far as I could from the saddle to get as close a look as I could at the tracks. Nope, they hadn’t changed. They were still from a mountain lion. They were still not full of water. They were still HUGE and deep. Which meant that there was still a lion close to us.

I did the first thing I could think of, I guided Estes right down the middle of the trail and prayed that her hoof prints would obliterate the lion tracks and that the guests wouldn’t notice. I kept up the chatter as much as I could and kept an eye on the trees that seemed a whole heck of a lot closer than they should have been.

Initially, I wanted to turn the ride back to the livery, but then I had an epiphany about what had happened during the Breyer horse moment…Estes had sensed the lion and stopped until it was safe for us to continue. Since she was not at all concerned once we reached the lion tracks, I felt comfortable continuing the ride, if she wasn’t worried about the mountain lion, then I guess I didn’t need to be either.

I never said a word to my guests about the tracks or why the ride had come to an abrupt halt and I’m pretty sure that they don’t know about it (or didn’t until now).

***Don't forget to vote - right now it's a 3-way tie, which is no help at all!***

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Keystone Wrangler

It rained for six weeks straight one summer; the pen was a swamp and I began to fear that my toes would begin to form webs. I spent more time in muck boots than cowboy boots. It sucked. But I gotta tell you, I was ripped. When the pen’s a quagmire, you can’t cheat and load hay bales into the wheel barrow to take to the feeder. No, you have to carry all of the hay, bale by bale, out to the feeders in ankle-deep mud that threatens to pull the muck boots right off your feet.


I’m five foot nothing (well, on a good day, five feet one-half inch) and in order to get the bales into the feeder I had to essentially execute a clean-and-jerk up over my head. The tops of the round feeders are eye level for me, so imagine trying to lift a light fifty pound bale from knee level up over your head and then push it forward over the feeder and wiggle your gloved hands out of the twine before your fingers get popped off. Now imagine doing it with sixteen hungry horses trying to help and standing in mud that completely covers your feet and ankles.


Only once did I make the mistake of trying to set the bale down to get a better grip for my clean-and-jerk. Dumb move. Seemed like a good idea at the time. I gently set the bale down on the mud, hoping that the large surface area would keep it from sinking into the mud too far. You know, like laying supine when caught in quicksand.  Increasing the surface area decreases the sinking speed.

I repositioned my hands, got a better grip, bent my knees so that I could lift with my legs and not my back. One, two, three, lift. Nothing. I tried again. One, two, three, lift. Nothing. The stupid bale wouldn’t budge. Then I realized my mistake – I hadn’t taken into account the suction-cup factor involved in pulling a fifty pound bale of hay up out of the mud before I sat it down. I should have nominated myself for a Darwin award for that move.

In the end, I had to forgo proper lifting technique in favor of using the toes of one foot to prop the hay bale up out of the mud. I planted my heel in the mud, pulled my toes up to the sky and attempted to balance the bale on my toes up out of the mud. It was beautiful. Kind of like the Keystone Kops, but not. I was the Keystone Wrangler.


But…I learned my lesson and earned some pretty sculpted arms during that summer of rain. And I never again sat a bale of hay down in the mud.

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Saturday, September 12, 2009

Racing The Storm

Afternoon storms and rapidly changing weather are just facts of life in the mountains of Colorado. My bunkhouse roommate only made fun of me one time when she saw me putting my silk long-johns on under my Wranglers for an all day ride. The very next day she was sent out on an all day and did not head my warning to “layer up”. She and her ride got snowed on. In July. She never laughed about it again.

One of the most spectacular rides in all of the Wild Basin area is the ride to Ouzel Lake and is not for the faint of heart. The ride takes hours and covers 9.9 miles from the trailhead, gaining over 1,500 feet in elevation. I took a family of four to Ouzel Lake one day and we were having a fabulous time. Despite the fact that they’d been in the saddle almost three hours, they were still in good spirits and absolutely enthralled with the view. Most guests relax quite a bit after we leave the human herds behind at Ouzel Falls, and these were no exception.

The weather was perfect. We had blue sky as far as we could see, which on a mountain ridge above 9,000 feet, is pretty far. We rode through the burn area, an area that was completely scorched by a lightning-strike fire in 1978, commenting on the amount of recovery that had occurred in almost thirty years. From a distance, the burn area looks barren, completely void of life. Within the burn area, though, it’s a totally different story. It has taken decades for the forest to recover, but there are now saplings that run six to seven feet tall and it’s teeming with life.

Coming up out of the burn area is my favorite part of the ride to Ouzel Lake – the ridge that runs above Ouzel Creek. For the better part of a mile, the trail makes you feel like you’re on top of the world; the mountain falls sharply away on both sides of the trail. My guests and I came up out of the burn area and started along the ridge. Out of habit, I looked up at the sky to gauge the weather. Yes, it was perfectly clear and sunny, but it was also nearing the mountain’s witching hour – two p.m.

I was only slightly surprised to see clouds building behind us, far to the east. I paid them no attention, as they appeared to be well out over the plains and in my part of Colorado storms move east, not west. They were already well east of us, so that storm wasn’t worth my attention.

I swung my attention to Long’s Peak, not at all surprised to see the clouds building, gathering for the upcoming onslaught. I sent up a quick prayer that anyone who had summitted Long’s was well on their way back to camp. Many people die each year on Long’s Peak after getting caught in an afternoon storm and the storm building that day looked like it could pack a wallop. In no time at all the gentle, fluffy white clouds had coalesced into heavy, gray storm clouds. Now this was the storm I had to keep my eye on. The last place we wanted to be was on a bunch of four-legged lightning rods while riding a trail at the top of the world. It was not a good time to be the tallest object around.

The sun was still shining and the birds chirping, we could hear the little critters rustling in the underbrush. All was still right in our little area of the world, but I worried that it wouldn’t last long. I knew it wouldn’t last long. In fact, I stepped up the pace along the ridge a little bit, praying that we would hit the tree cover before the storm caught us. I mentioned to my guests that we needed to hurry along, but they didn’t quite understand the severity of the situation developing around us. How could they? It was still sunny and warm and they were not from Colorado.

It was a fine line to walk; trying to get them to understand we needed to get to shelter now without panicking them. In their minds, the storm building behind Long’s was hours away. From experience, I knew we had ten – fifteen – minutes, tops before we were in a very bad situation and we were more than fifteen minutes away from the tree cover at the pace we were going.

I looked back – again – to hurry them along and my breath caught in my throat. There was no way I was seeing what I was seeing, but the storm to the east was moving toward us. Rapidly. It still looked like it was a ways off, but knowing that storms move east, not west, hadn’t done us any good, so I couldn’t count on my time estimate on that storm, it wasn’t acting at all the way it was supposed to.

I told the guests that I knew how much they appreciated the beauty surrounding them and that I knew they and their horses were getting tired, but we really, really needed to step up the pace. By that time, the storm had broken over Long’s and had zeroed in on us. Though the sun was still shining brightly, the horses caught their first whiff of the coming storm and stepped it up on their own. I desperately tried to keep an eye on both storms bearing down on us, and in short order, it was much easier to do. With a theatrical crash, the two storms collided.

Now the trick became keeping the horses from bolting. Eerily, the sun was still shining brightly, but the forest around us had gone dead silent. The birds and little critters had disappeared. We were all now in a controlled trot, pivoted backwards in our saddles, watching the two storms battle it out. Halfway to the trees now, and we began to see lightning arcing between the two storms and hear the rumbling thunder as one storm grumbled at the other.

Three-quarters of the way to the trees and we lost the sun. The force of the storm moving from the east had pushed back against the storm from Long’s and it scurried along behind us. Not wanting to allow the horses to bolt out of control, but needing to get off the ridge, I allowed the ride to speed up to a slow lope, keeping a close eye on my riders to make sure they didn’t fall off. Either they had suddenly morphed into excellent riders, or the pucker-factor the storm induced kept them glued to their saddles. Didn’t matter as long as they stayed on their horses as we raced the storm.

The few drops of rain that splashed down just as we made the trees were a welcome relief from the tension of waiting for the storm to catch us. I slowed the pace back to a brisk walk as soon as we were all in the trees, but kept the ride moving until we got to the hitching rail. I hastily tied up the horses, helped the guests dismount, untied their rain slickers from behind their saddles and passed them out so that we had some measure of protection from the impending rain. I led the guests away from the horses into some better shelter. We were all pretty quiet, still waiting for the storms to decide who was going to win.

Though we couldn’t see the battle ensuing between the two storms because of the heavy tree cover, we could certainly hear it and it sounded bad. Then suddenly, it was over. The Long’s Peak storm succeeded in pushing the storm from the east back toward the east. We were lucky to be on the periphery of the storm, as it never really broke over us, and in ten minutes the sky was blue, the sun was shining, and the birds were back out.

It’s sobering to think that if we’d left the livery just ten minutes later, or had run into trouble crossing the bridges at the falls, we could have been caught in a tremendous storm. As it was, that ride went down in my books as one of the scariest I’d ever led out.

Friday, September 11, 2009

A Forest Blessing

More often than you might think, parents will drop their kids off for rides and go off and do their own thing. At first, I was surprised, because there’s no way on earth I would deliver my child to a perfect stranger, put her on an animal that could potentially kill her, and leave for four hours or so. And then I realized, the parents aren’t horse people and they are just trying to make their child happy without the discomfort or pain of climbing on a horse themselves. Once I realized that, I grew to look forward to being a “babysitter” to a horse-loving tween or teen – at least we had something in common and didn’t have to spend the entire ride listening to the parent complain.

I took a young horse-lover on a six-hour ride to Thunder Lake in the Wild Basin area. The beginning of the ride is usually rather congested with hikers, since the two-leggeds and the four-leggeds have to share the same trail the whole way up and back. At least once per trip into the Park, I would hear a hiker complain about the “messes” horses leave on the trail. Got news for the complaining two-leggeds: horse manure is completely biodegradable and natural, unlike the granola bar wrapper you just left alongside the trail.

Usually, the human pack thins out at Ouzel Falls and from then on to Thunder Lake is smooth sailing; the only humans you run into are serious outdoorsmen, who look longingly at the horses as we pass. That day, my young guest and I pretty much had the trail to ourselves without a human in sight. We rode along, enjoying the perfect weather and amazing views, talking quietly about horses and her experiences with them. We hadn’t seen anyone else in well over an hour and had fallen silent, just being. That kind of riding is Zen-like; you feel not only one with the horse, but with the peaceful world around you.

I was completely centered and lost in the views; I knew my young guest was feeling the same way, but I glanced back to check on her anyway as we rounded a boulder that protruded into the path of the ledge-running trail. I smiled at the look of contentment on her face and turned back around. Before our very eyes, a woodland faerie appeared in the shape of a middle aged woman wearing a dark blue rain poncho. We were both stricken by the sight – not a moment before, the woman wasn’t there. She just appeared on the trail. It was so quiet, we would have heard her come up through the trees and I know that she wasn’t on the trail before I turned back to check on my guest, and by the look on her face, my guest hadn’t seen her on the trail either.

We watched her in awe-struck silence as we walked toward each other; serenity surrounded her like a palpable aura. She walked at a peaceful, unhurried pace, looking for all the world like the faerie she had to be; I imagined that the rain poncho hid her wings and that she chose to walk to make us more comfortable. After all, it wasn’t raining – the sun was out in all its glory – there was no need for a rain poncho. She made no noise as we approached each other; her footfalls were silent and the quiet rustle of her poncho blended melodically with the whispers through the trees. I found myself unable to speak, nodding at her bemused expression as we passed her. We rode past her silently, a bit shaken at her unexpected appearance, still unable to speak. The horses never batted an eye at the rain poncho and allowed her to slowly, delicately, run her right hand along their sides as she passed.

We rode on another few feet before we turned in our saddles to watch her progress along the trail. When we looked behind us, she wasn’t there. My logical brain tried to tell me that she had just turned behind the boulder and was out of our line of sight, my sense, though, was that she was gone. It was as if the faerie had appeared, bestowed her blessing upon us to enter her forest, and disappeared, assured that we would bring no harm.

We rode on, unsettled, for another few minutes, each of us lost in our thoughts about our unexpected surprise. And then of course, the flood gates opened and we couldn’t stop talking about what we had seen, albeit in hushed, reverent tones. We both decided that we had, indeed, been blessed with the presence of a woodland faerie – there was no other explanation.

That was the only time I have ever run into her, but I think of her every time I ride through that stretch of trail and hope that I still carry her blessing.

Tuesday, September 8, 2009

Hoss Rustlin'

“Mom? There’s someone out with the horses,” my daughter told me, peeking out behind the curtain covering the window above her mattress in the bunkhouse.

I immediately jumped out of my bed and peeked out the door. Sure enough, there were two people in the pen moving around with the horses. It was six-thirty in the morning and I was the only one scheduled – who on earth would be out in the pen with the horses? One of the reasons we always had someone stay in the bunkhouse was to keep people out of the pen. The horses didn’t seem alarmed, but without my contacts I couldn’t see who was out mingling with them.

I peeked out the door again to look at the parking area and sure enough, there was a strange car parked there. How on earth had I not heard them drive up and get in the pen? Since they seemed to be moving with purpose, like they knew what they were doing, I picked up the phone and called the main house to see if we were expecting a vet or farrier, though I was pretty sure that either would have checked in at the bunkhouse and it was early – certainly too early for even a vet or farrier.

By the time I got off the phone with the main house, they had moved two horses from the pen through the barn and tied them to the rail. All I could see, sans contacts, was a brown hat moving between the two horses and I could hear the second person rummaging in the barn. Since the answer from the main house had been negative, we were not expecting a vet or farrier, the only answer we could come up with was that someone thought that they could help themselves to our horses. Hoss rustlers!

My daughter was giving me a running commentary of the happenings in the yard as I pulled on my socks and boots and grabbed the Glock .40 cal I slept with. I decided that I could shoot well enough without my contacts that I didn’t bother with them – all I had to do was aim at the big moving things that weren’t the horses and even as blind as I am, I could tell the difference.

Knowing that making a big, loud exit from the bunkhouse could startle them and give me the advantage, I told my daughter to stay put and slammed the door open, jumped out of the doorway to the ground and started yelling, “Who the hell are you and what the hell are you doing with my horses?!?” I must have been a sight; hair piled up on top of my head in a mushroom, gray long-sleeved t-shirt, shiny, blue pajama bottoms and brown cowboy boots. I continued bellowing as I stalked toward the pen, trying to get a look at the people with my horses. I kept my gun down by my side in my left hand, keeping my dominant hand free to grab a lead rope if I needed. I could see one person between the horses and the other stepped out of the barn as I was yelling.

“It’s me,” came the reply from the person between the horses. By this time I’d built up a good head of steam – “it’s me” meant absolutely nothing to me.

“Who?” I bellowed back, knowing full well that I did not know the person exiting the barn.

“Ken” he answered. Ken. My brother-in-law, and a part-time wrangler. “Juanita said I could take a couple of the horses out today.”

About that time, my daughter poked her head out the door of the bunkhouse and hollered, “Mom! Grandpa says not to shoot Ken! Grandma said he could take a friend out today.”

Well, hell, here I was, wide awake now and lookin’ to shoot me some hoss rustlers and it was just my brother-in-law. Couldn’t shoot him. Crap. That’s okay, I s’pose, ‘cause it just wouldn’t have been right to shoot hoss rustlers with a handgun that wasn’t even a six-shooter. For that I’d’ve needed a pump-action 12 gauge.

Sunday, August 30, 2009

Falling In Love

After our first ride together, Estes and I got partnered up, she became “my” wrangler horse. None of the other wranglers would have anything to do with her, except for my parents, but they had their own personal horses to ride. Riding Estes was a lot of fun once I mastered the running mount and learned to relax. I realized that when she was “acting up”, she wasn’t about to hurt me, she just felt good and wanted to go. At fifteen years old, you would think that she would have learned to stand quietly, but that just wasn’t in her. If she couldn’t go, she’d dance in place. Standing still just wasn’t her thing. The first few times I rode her, I’d get stressed out by her jigging, but then I’d set her to a job and she was rock solid. I could tighten cinches from her back, adjust guests, pass things back and forth between guests and nothing would disturb her, she’d just stand quiet as a lamb.

The more we worked together, the more in tune to each other we became. I was slowly falling in love with Estes, but she just tolerated me. Her daughter, Meeker, was also one of our ranch-horses-turned-livery-horses and looked just like Estes. When they would get muddy, we’d have to scrape the mud from their hocks, just above their hooves, to tell them apart. Estes has two socks, Meeker has three. Meeker may have inherited Estes’ looks, but certainly not her temperament. Estes was very stand-offish, she tolerated people, but never showed any affection. Meeker, on the other hand, loved everybody. I don’t know that Meeker’s ever met a stranger. If I ever needed equine therapy, a horse just to cuddle with, it was Meeker, not Estes that I spent time with. Estes could take me or leave me, it seemed.

There was one ride that I was working with my mom. I was riding drag and knew that there was a wedding scheduled. Whenever we had a wedding scheduled, we knew we’d have to be on poop patrol. Brides don’t like having to avoid horse droppings, no matter how quaint it was to have horses riding by outside the tent. We normally did poop patrol in the evenings after the livery closed, but on days with weddings scheduled, we cleaned up almost before the poop hit the ground. Of course, on the return ride, less than a half an hour before the wedding was to begin, one of the horses had to go. Right in the middle of the “Bridal Path”. Knowing that I had to get it cleaned up, Estes and I peeled away from the ride and trotted ahead to the livery. I tied her to the fence, grabbed a manure fork and headed out through the yard to the scene of the crime. I ran past the returning ride, cleaned up the mess, raked the wood chips back into place and ran back to the livery. I pitched the manure fork through the fence toward the barn and went around to the staging area to help unload the ride.

Imagine my surprise when I turned the corner, looked over at Estes and saw that she was standing at attention, ears forward, watching for me. As soon as she saw me, her eyes softened, her body posture relaxed and she nickered at me. That was the most affection she’d ever shown anyone and it about brought me to tears. My heart filled with joy, the Heavens opened up and the Angels sang. At that instant I knew I was head-over-heels in love with that little bay mare…and that she might have a place in her heart for me, too.

Saturday, August 29, 2009


Estes’ eyes were rolling and she was completely lathered, her 14.2 hand body absolutely rigid with tension, making her look twice as big. Dan’s eyes were wide with fear, his grip on the saddle horn so tight that his knuckles were white, his body absolutely rigid with tension. Estes was an experienced ranch horse who’d been there, done that; Dan was a ranch kid who’d been riding almost since before he could walk. Estes, in her little half-rear prance, zeroed in on the wrangler rail and headed toward it with single-minded determinedness. The two of them were not having a good time; the tension between them radiating off in waves. Dan’s riders, behind them, were absolutely silent as they filed into the yard. It was hard to tell who was more relieved that the ride was over, Dan or Estes. I couldn’t fathom what could have happened on the ride to put them both in such a state.

I quickly helped unload the ride and get the guests on their way. Dan finally calmed down enough to say, “I am. Never. Riding. That. Horse. Again.” Estes had come to us listed as an “advanced” horse, so we’d decided to use her as a wrangler horse, which worked out perfectly since she was also the alpha mare of the ranch herd. I’m not an advanced rider. Yes, I’d been on a lot of horses and had a lot of saddle time, but I also knew my limitations. With Dan being a ranch kid and Estes being a ranch horse, we naturally paired them up, thinking all would be right in the livery world.

All I could get out of him was that they’d had quite a rodeo at the entrance to the park. Estes did not like the looks of the tree stumps with the cross-hatching on them. When Dan told her that they’d be going by them, she said no. He said yes, she said no. In short order, her no turned into bucking and snorting. He managed to stick with her and made her go by the stumps. Round one to the wrangler. Unfortunately, that was just the beginning of the ride. They repeated the rodeo at each tree stump. Each time, Dan won and got her past the stump, but the tension between the two of the continued to build until they were completely at odds with each other.

The decision was made to not use Estes for a while. After all, if the ranch kid was terrified of her, who was left to ride her? Certainly not me. I was a chicken; I liked laid-back wrangler horses, not horses that snorted fire like Estes was doing when she returned from her last ride.

Reality set in a couple of weeks later when we realized that we couldn’t afford to feed a horse that wasn’t making us any money. In a small livery, every horse needs to earn his/her keep and Estes was becoming dead weight. There was some talk about sending her back down to the ranch.

Imagine my surprise when I reported to work one weekend only to be told that I’d be wrangling on Estes. Oh, hell no. I’d seen the state of panic she’d induced in Dan, there was no way I was getting on that snorting monster. She looked like a sweet horse, she had soft brown eyes and begged to be caught, but I’d seen her at her worst and there was no way I was getting on her. No way. No how.

Funny, though, how when your boss tells you to get on a horse, you do it. Didn’t matter that my boss was my step-dad, Bill; still had to get on the horse. When I balked, I was told, “She’s fine. We’ve been working with her and she did great. You’ll be fine.” I was working with Bill that day because we had a large ride on the books. I reluctantly saddled up and got ready for the ride – and my funeral. I knew I wasn’t half the rider Dan was and I just knew that Estes was going to kill me. On the other hand, Bill wouldn’t lie to me – would he? I knew that they didn’t want to send Estes back to the ranch, that they needed every working horse they had, so they probably did spend some time working her. If they told me I’d be fine on her, I’d have to believe them.

The guests arrived for the ride; we went through the safety speech, got them matched up with their horses and loaded up. Because it was my first time riding Estes, I was going to ride drag, that way if we had any problems Estes and I wouldn’t hold up the ride. Bill led the ride out, his string of riders behind him while I held the gate. I closed and latched the gate and took a deep breath. Finally, the moment of truth. I had to mount up. No ifs, ands, or buts. Had to get on that horse. One more deep breath and my left foot went in the stirrup. And off Estes went. I had two choices: immediately master the running mount or get left behind. I chose to master the running mount. One, two, three hops alongside the horse on my right foot and up I went. And landed in the saddle. Whew. Well, I was on Estes, now I just had to stay on her for the next two hours.

Bill, without even looking back, said, “See? I told you you’d be fine.” Smart ass. Still had a long way to go before I’d be fine, but I was on the horse. I knew we’d be okay running the gauntlet, because that wasn’t the part of the trail that Dan had problems with her – it was the entrance to the park that he and Estes had their first rodeo.

I was right, the gauntlet wasn’t any more of a problem than usual. I started to relax, and as I did, so did Estes. In no time, we were moving together well. She was smart and responsive and I began to enjoy myself. We had a moment at the trail head – when I had to dismount to tighten a guest’s cinch – that I began to get worried again. I tightened the cinch, gathered up Estes’ reins, put my left foot in the stirrup and off she went. This time, the running mount didn’t go so well. One, two, three hops alongside her on my right foot and up I went. Unfortunately, I didn’t land in the saddle quite as gracefully as before. Rather than my rear end ending up in the saddle, I ended up laying across the saddle on my belly. I’m still not sure how it happened, but I managed to swing my right leg over her butt and get upright in the saddle, despite all of the jigging she was doing. The guests got a giggle out of it, as did Bill.

The rest of the ride was uneventful. Estes didn’t even pay any attention to the cross-hatched tree stumps at the entrance to the park, though you can be darn sure I did.

When we got back to the livery in one piece, I mentioned that Estes had been a pleasure to ride, not at all what I had expected. I asked Bill how much work it had taken to calm her down that much. She was absolutely 180ยบ different when we returned from our ride than she had been when she returned from her ride with Dan. His answer, “We went to the bridge and back.”

The bridge and back?! It was only half a mile from the livery to the bridge and back. She had been a fire-breathing, snorting monster, and they had only worked her to the bridge and back?! As far as I was concerned, Bill had lied to me. Working a horse to me means more than “to the bridge and back.” Weren’t parents supposed to love and protect their kids, not put them on horses that could kill them?

Putting me on Estes was the best thing they had ever done for me. I’d been on plenty of scary horses, but had gotten into the habit of riding the “safe” horses; the no-brainers that any beginning wrangler could ride. In riding only safe horses, my riding skills, and therefore, my confidence was slipping. My parents recognized that and forced me to “get back in the saddle” with another horse who would challenge me and get me out of my rut.

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Hung up

An important part of being a wrangler, believe it or not, is looking like a wrangler, which means jeans, boots, button-down shirt, cowboy hat and, of course, the belt buckle. Some wranglers wear spurs, but since I’ve never been properly trained in how to use them, I refuse to wear them. I’ve seen some spectacular “rodeos” caused by inept spur usage.

There was one day when my wrangler get-up almost got me in a whole heap of trouble. I had just lead my ride – of only three guests – into the yard and “parked” my horse at the wrangler rail. I was riding a tall horse. Who am I kidding? All horses are tall next to me; I’m only 15 hands tall (that’s five foot nothing). I was riding a horse taller than my usual wrangler horse, so I cheated a bit on my dismount. That’s where I got into trouble.

Normally, when you dismount, you swing your right leg behind you, over the horse’s rear end and place your foot on the ground, and then remove your left foot from the stirrup. Now, this being a taller horse than usual, if I had put my right foot on the ground, I would have had my left foot at approximately ear level. I was much younger and much thinner then, but I was not nearly that flexible.

So…rather than dismount the normal way, I kind of cheated. I swung my right leg behind me, over the horse’s rear end, kicked my left foot out of the stirrup and slid down the side of the horse. Sort of. I got both feet kicked out of the stirrups and got most of the way down the side of the horse before I came to a rude and painful stop with my feet dangling above the ground. Besides the obvious felt-like-I-just-straddled-a-tight-rope painful sensation, there was a sharp, stabbing pain in my abdomen.

It took me a second of hanging there before I figured out what happened. The bottom edge of my belt buckle had gotten hung up on the stirrup, the top edge of the buckle was digging into my stomach. I was stuck; I tried to touch the ground with my tippy-toes, but no go. I tried just swinging away from the horse in hopes that the buckle and stirrup would part ways; that was also a no go. I finally had to pull myself back up the side of the horse with one hand on the back of the saddle and one on the saddle horn. Thank God I had spent the winter in the gym and had the upper body strength to do it. Once I pulled myself up high enough to unhook my belt buckle from the stirrup, I pushed away and jumped to the ground.

I was so involved in getting myself untangled from the stirrup that I had completely forgotten that I had an audience. Oops. Bad Wrangler. I’d already made a complete fool of myself, so no sense in trying to play it off, I just warned them not to try to dismount the way I did, that it wasn’t graceful and was very painful.

After they left, I untucked my shirt to look at my stomach. Yup, there it was – a perfect outline of the top of my belt buckle. That little beauty stayed for days.

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Lightning in the Yard

For smaller liveries, kids’ camps are a fact of life. It means basically shutting down the livery for a day in order to accommodate the camps, but it’s guaranteed money. The purpose of the kids’ camps is to expose underprivileged kids to the mountains and provide them with an opportunity they might otherwise not have. As a general rule, I made myself scarce on kids’ camp days. I’m not a big fan of other people’s children and do better when I just don’t have to deal with them.

Like clockwork, during the month of July, summer thunder/rain storms hit daily between two and three in the afternoon. Knowing this, the kids’ camp rides are scheduled to be back before the storm. Usually, we’d take one one-hour ride out at noon and the second out at one p.m. and be back just before the storm hit. An exceptionally violent summer storm made the last kids’ camp I worked pretty exciting.

There were three of us wranglers out with twenty kids; one wrangler leading, one riding drag, and I was out-riding, which means I was responsible for keeping the ride in line and watching for equipment failures before they became a problem. The sky was clear when we left on our ride, but that’s typical. The weather at that altitude changes very quickly, so none of us were surprised when the clouds gathered a little earlier than expected. Luckily, I was out with one experience wrangler I’d worked with extensively, Lindsay. Unluckily, we were out with a new wrangler, Newbie, who thought she knew everything there was to know about the job despite only having been on the job for two weeks. I mentioned the weather to Lindsay and we decided to cut the ride short and high-tail it back to the livery. There was some disagreement from Newbie, which we basically ignored and headed the ride back.

Lindsay and I kept a nervous eye on the sky and harried the ride along, much to the displeasure of the third wrangler. The closer we got to the livery, the more nervous I felt about the weather. Having worked with Lindsay as much as I had, I could tell by her body posture that she was feeling the same way. We were used to quickly moving storms, but this was fast.

My daughter and Bear, another wrangler, were waiting for us in the yard, ready and willing to help unload the ride. I breathed a sigh of relief when my horse reached the yard; the storm hadn’t hit yet. We’d beat it! Now we just had to get the kids off the horses and in the bus.

I had no sooner tied my horse to the wrangler rail when the first clap of thunder hit, followed immediately by the crack of lightning. We had to get the kids off the horses, which are nothing more than four-legged lightning rods during a storm. I grabbed the nearest horse, pulled the child off of it, shoved the child toward the bus and pulled the horse to the rail to tie it up. I was just beginning to tie the horse to the metal rail when the next crack of lightning hit and then it dawned on me…I was tying a four-legged lightning rod to a metal rail in a lightning storm…what was I trying to do? Kill myself? I forced the thought to the back of my head and headed for another horse/child combination. I took half a second to look around and saw one of the kids throw herself at my daughter, who barely caught her; Lindsay had two horses’ lead ropes and was shooing the kids to the bus; the Bear had a child in his arms; Newbie was still tying her horse to the wrangler rail. And so it went, screaming kids, nervous horses, and lightning. Lots of lightning.

The yard was a blur of activity; one kid after another, one horse after another, one crack of lightning after another. I’ve moved fast before, but never this fast. Between myself, my daughter, Bear, and Lindsay, we managed to get everyone unloaded and to safety in under three minutes.

Newbie? She got her horse tied to the wrangler rail. But to give her credit, that "Bank robber's knot" is a tricky one.